Rocking the Land

By Ed Staskus

   Most cities have a nickname. Detroit is “Motor City.” Las Vegas is “Sin City.” New York City is “The Big Apple.” Atlantic City is known as “Always Turned On” although it has been turning itself off for years. Even suckers lose their taste for losing to the dealer sooner or later. Cleveland was once known as “Forest City” and “Sixth City.” In the 1960s it was the “Mistake on the Lake” and in the 1970s it became the “Rock and Roll Capital of the World.” Nowadays it is known as “The Land.”

   It has never been known as a hotbed of anarchy, although at the beginning of the 20th century that is what it was. It was where the anarchist Emma Goldman struck a match. After the match sparked and flared to life the run-up to the end of the life of the 25th President of the United States started.

   When Emma Goldman gave a blistering speech at Cleveland’s Franklin Club in December 1900 she knew she was throwing gasoline on fire. She didn’t know the White House was where the flames were going to spread. Leon Czolgosz was in the audience. He was born in Detroit but lived in Cleveland the rest of his life after his immigrant family moved there. As soon as the speech was over he started putting spare change aside to buy a handgun. He hadn’t held down a job for three years. Money was hard to come by but he made sure to come by it, by hook or by crook. 

   In the meantime, he tried joining Cleveland’s Liberty Club, a local anarchist group, but they said no. They said he was mad as a hatter and couldn’t join their club. All Leon could do was roll his eyes. “I don’t need to belong to no damn club,” he muttered. He probably would have refused to join any club that would have him. The lone wolf hoped his aim would be true when the time came.

   Anarchism is a philosophy that believes the state is unnecessary and undesirable. It advocates the end of hierarchical government. “Anarchism is founded on the observation that since few men are wise enough to rule themselves, even fewer are wise enough to rule others,” Edward Abbey said. What is desirable is a stateless society. Anarchists believe in organizing society on a voluntary basis without recourse to compulsion. They refuse to rely on authority. They have always believed in defunding the police. It is the farthest left of anything on the political spectrum. Anarchism is not for or against anything but it stands for liberty. “I say, liberate yourself as far as you can,” is what Max Stirner said. 

   Capitalists and Communists hate anarchists as much as they hate each other. The police everywhere in the world put them in jail. Most people don’t understand them and don’t want to understand them. Some others believe the worst thing in the world, next to government, is anarchy.

   Not long before Emma Goldman, who was billed as the “High Priestess of Anarchy,” lit up Cleveland, New York’s Supreme Court ruled that the act of identifying oneself as an anarchist in public was a breach of the peace and liable to prosecution. The state later passed the Criminal Anarchy Law, which said nothing prevents the government from punishing political speech that advocates its violent overthrow. Theodore Roosevelt, after taking over from William McKinley, proclaimed that anarchists were criminals and malefactors. “Their perverted instincts lead them to prefer confusion and chaos to the most beneficent form of social order.” Before he was president, Teddy Roosevelt was the police chief of New York City. In 1903 Congress passed a law that said no immigrants who were anarchists with “foreign-sounding” names were welcome. Go back to Germany. Go back to Russia. Go back to where you came from.

   Emma Goldman wasn’t a windshield wiper kind of anarchist, mincing her words to suit her listeners. She said the same thing to bomb throwers and the judges who put bomb throwers away. What she said in Cleveland was, “Anarchism stands for liberation from the dominion of property and liberation from the shackles of government. The political arena leaves one no alternative. One must either be a dunce or a rogue. Politicians promise you heaven before election and give you hell after. There’s never been a good government. A man has as much liberty as he is willing to take.” 

   She brought the house down at the Franklin Club. “My head nearly split with the pain,” Leon Czolgolsz said after the speech. “She set me on fire.” He made up his mind to take down the top dog at the top of bad government. He circled the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo in September on his calendar.

   The Franklin Club was the Union Labor Club at first. It was organized to promote the “brotherhood of humanity.” By 1896 the club was meeting at Forester’s Hall near downtown Cleveland and had changed its name to the Franklin Club. They had two motto’s. The first one was “error is harmless if truth is free to combat it.” The second one was “labor produces all wealth.” When they met their lectures and discussions revolved around ethics, economics, religion, free love, and anarchy. After Leon Czolgolsz got done doing what he was planning on doing, the club’s records were seized by the Cleveland Police and the group disbanded.

   Anarchists had been busy in the years leading up to the new millennium. They believed that since the state was an instrument of violence it was appropriate to employ violence against the state. In Chicago in 1886 an anarchist threw a bomb at a group of policemen, killing seven of them. Four anarchists were hanged. In 1893 an anarchist tossed two bombs into a theater in Barcelona, Spain, killing 20 people. That same year an anarchist detonated a nail bomb in the French Parliament. He went to his death by guillotine shouting, “Death to bourgeois society! Long live anarchy!” Over the years they assassinated more and more European monarchs, including the Tsar of Russia, the Kings of Italy, Portugal, and Greece, and the Empress of Austria.

   Not all anarchists advocated violence, but nobody paid much attention to those who didn’t. There will be blood is what the front page is all about. When Luigi Galleani, who was the leader of an anarchist group dedicated to terrorism, published a manual for bomb-making, which included a do-it-yourself guide to nitroglycerin, everybody paid attention. He wasn’t hiding his hopes and dreams. His rants about class warfare and tips about bomb-making were published in his magazine “Chronicle of Subversion.” After one of his followers blew up a Milwaukee police station, he was deported back to Italy, even though the Italians didn’t want him back. Who wants to be re-gifted a bomb-making bomb-thrower? In retaliation his followers mailed letter bombs to 36 mayors, governors, congressmen, and the U. S. Attorney General. The Attorney General was A. Mitchell Palmer. Before he was done retaliating, ten thousand foreign-born radicals had been arrested and more than five hundred deported.

   When Leon Czolgosz took a train from Cleveland to Buffalo in late August 1901 he had just enough money to rent a room for a few days, buy a handgun, and wait for his chance. He got his chance on September 6thwhen President William McKinley was at the Temple of Music at the Pan-American Exposition. He hid his handgun by wrapping a handkerchief around his hand. The president was shaking hands with well-wishers. When the anarchist stepped up to shake the president’s hand, he fired two shots instead. The first bullet hit a button over the president’s sternum and bounced away. The second bullet hit William McKinley in the abdomen. He went down gutshot and died eight days later. His last words were, “It is God’s will. Goodbye to all.” 

   The gunman was arrested on the spot. He told the Secret Service men dragging him away his name was “Fredrich Nieman.” It meant “Fred Nobody” in German. “You’re somebody now, you son-of-a-bitch,” one of the Secret Service men said. It didn’t take long for the State of New York to deal with the assassin. He was tried by the Supreme Court in Albany and found guilty in two days. He was electrocuted on October 29th. His last words were, “I killed President McKinley because I done my duty. He was the enemy of the good people, the good working people. I am not sorry for my crime.” His body was tossed into a lead casket and disintegrated when sulfuric acid was poured into the coffin. He was buried in an unmarked grave. All his personal possessions were burned. Everybody in Cleveland said, “Good riddance.”

   Emma Goldman was arrested on suspicion of being involved, but later released. There was insufficient evidence she had helped plan or execute the murder. She couldn’t help herself, though,  and published “The Tragedy at Buffalo.” She compared Leon Czolgosz to Marcus Brutus, the assassin of Julius Caesar. She said tyrants had to go, one way or the other. She called William McKinley the “president of the money kings and trust magnates.” She was later deported for shooting off her mouth.

   Anarchism didn’t go away after William McKinley’s death and all the crackdowns that followed. The Los Angeles Times Building was bombed in 1910 during a bitter labor dispute. A series of bombings targeted anti-immigration politicians and businessmen in 1919. Judges who had sentenced anarchists to prison were singled out. An anarchist parked a horse-drawn cart at noontime in front of the J. P. Morgan building in the heart of Wall Street on a mid-September day in 1920. He walked away. A minute later at 12:01 PM 100 pounds of dynamite in the cart exploded, spraying 500 pounds of metal ball bearings in all directions. The horse pulling the cart was killed instantly. More than 30 people died and more than 300 were injured.

   The anti-anarchist lockups and interdictions of the 1920s were the effective end of them. It wasn’t the end of terrorism, though. In the 1930s terrorism became the preferred tool of Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin. Both were fascists in their own way. They hated almost everything except themselves and their cronies. After World War Two terrorism was the preferred tool of nationalist anti-colonial forces. In the 1960s the Red Brigade and the Weather Underground employed old methods in new ways. They kidnaped and killed people who they blamed for economic exploitation and political repression. Towelheads took up the sword in the 1980s. After 9/11 they discovered they hadn’t thought through the consequences.

   Terrorism means getting more bang for your buck. Northern Ireland suffered more than its fair share of terrorist bombings for decades during “The Troubles.” Even Canadians got in on the action. Quebec separatists robbed armories and set off bombs throughout the 1960s. In 1970 they murdered a Quebec cabinet minister.

  In Cleveland anarchism has largely faded away but hasn’t entirely gone away. Ten years ago, five local anarchists were arrested by the FBI for trying to blow up a four-lane bridge. They knew they wanted to blow something up but at first weren’t sure what. They talked about blowing up a Ku Klux Klan picnic ground in the suburbs. They talked about blowing up the Federal Reserve Bank building downtown. “We wanted to send a message to big business and the government,” 20-year-old Brandon Baxter said. They finally settled on the bridge.

   They planted C-4 explosive charges at the base of the high-level bridge crossing the Cuyahoga Valley National Park south of downtown. They planned to set the explosives off the next day when anti-government protests were planned to happen in Cleveland. They changed their minds and drove to a nearby Applebee’s, where they sat down to beers and tried to set off the bombs by cellphone. The restaurant was on a bluff overlooking the valley and the bridge. Nothing happened. When it did FBI agents rushed them, handcuffed them, and frog marched them to the Justice Center. They had been infiltrated by an informant. The C-4 was fake. The plot was a bust.

   The FBI had been on to the anarchists for almost a year. The informant met the five suspects at a Wall Street Occupy Cleveland rally. He told lawmen about their plans. The lawmen paid him $5,000 to get the goods on them. Supporters of the “Cleveland Five” gathered outside the Justice Center after the arrests carrying signs calling for the arrest of the man who was the informant. The FBI ignored them. The informant laughed all the way to the bank.

   Four of the anarchists pled guilty and were sentenced to long prison terms and lifetime probation. The fifth anarchist pled ignorance and innocence. He testified he was only along for the ride and that he thought his friends wanted to tag the bridge with paint.

   “All I really wanted to do was help my friends,” 24-year-old Joshua Stafford said.

   Lying turned out to be a mistake. He was found guilty as charged after a three-day trial. “The defendant’s callous disregard for our community, all in the name of making his ideological views known, reinforces the need to work diligently to stop terrorists from committing violent acts,” said Stephen Anthony, the FBI Special Agent in Charge. Joshua Stafford squirmed and bit his tongue. He was facing life in prison, never mind probation.

   The root of the word anarchy is archos, which means no leaders. It’s not about chaos and confusion. It is about taking personal responsibility for yourself. When it comes to leaders, it’s buyer beware. The world’s poohbahs have beyond any doubt proven that and continue to prove it. Back in the day Bob Dylan warned, “Don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters.”

Ed Staskus posts on 147 Stanley Street and Made in Cleveland To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”


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