PROLETARIAN HISTORY: Cleveland May Day Riot of 1919

By Mike Talavera

This article is the first in a series of articles on notable May Days from history. Also known as International Workers’ Day, May 1 is a holiday of the working class that was first adopted by the Second International and has since been celebrated by Communists, workers, and the masses the world over. This inaugural story reports on a May Day march that occurred 100 years ago in Cleveland, one that many point to as the birthday of the Communist Party of the US.


 

On May 1, 1919, a demonstration of tens of thousands led by the Socialist Party of America (SPA) was ambushed by police and US loyalists, resulting in melees throughout every corner of Cleveland. Army tanks and military trucks were used to break up the sea of marchers waving thousands of red pennants and carrying red flags. C. E. Ruthenburg, then leader of the Cleveland chapter of the SPA, later reported on the day’s events in The Revolutionary Age, writing, “The workers of Cleveland who are striving to throw off the yoke of oppression and exploitation have received their baptism in blood.”

The year had already seen a new wave of labor organizing and violent rebellion against the US state in the wake of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Tens of thousands of workers went on strikes across the country, with the largest example being February’s Seattle General strike where 65,000 workers from various sectors, some in their World War 1 soldier uniforms, went on strike for an entire week.

In the lead up to May Day, the left wing of the Socialist Party had begun to split from the rest of the organization by embracing the ideology and strategy of the Bolsheviks over reformism.

“As set forth in the Left Wing program,” Ruthenburg wrote in April of that year, “political action, revolutionary and emphasizing the implacable character of class struggle, has now overthrown the old idea of attempting to carry out various local reforms such as better housing or municipal ownership of street car lines…it is the mass action that will count in the future warfare against the capitalist state.”

Ruthenburg led a parade from Central and E 9th Street to the Public Square, and for a majority of the march the mood was jubilant. Banners were hoisted demanding the release of imprisoned Socialist candidate Eugene Debs, freedom for all political prisoners, an end to the US Expeditionary Force in Siberia, and work for the unemployed with a dollar per hour minimum wage.

When the demonstrators neared the public square, a soldier dressed in a Red Cross uniform attempted to take a red flag from a soldier in the march, prompting a scuffle. This fight, however, was resolved after a few minutes and the march continued to the square.

Once the marchers had gathered at the Public Square, Ruthenburg had planned to deliver a speech, but before he could do so a contingent of mounted police launched into the march, attacking the crowd indiscriminately. Nationalist reactionary groups like the Black Hundred and the Loyal American League also joined in the police’s assault of the workers. Many of the marchers fought back, and the skirmishes continued into the night. The police shot and killed two workers, hundreds were brutalized, and 150 arrested, including Ruthenburg.

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Under police protection, nationalists raided the Cleveland SPA headquarters and destroyed materials and equipment. Despite these damages, Ruthenburg declared the May Day overall a success. “The workers have had their lesson,” he wrote. “They have learned how ‘democracy’ meets a peaceable protest. They know from the thousands who marched that their power is greater than ever. Another day is coming. They will go on until victory is achieved.”

Cleveland was not the only city to see rebellious May Day protests that year. In New York City, US soldiers harassed immigrants and raided a Russian People’s House, and in Boston Socialists led a march without a permit, leading to brawls between protesters and police. One officer was stabbed to death.

The fearless marches stoked the elements of US reaction, amplified in the print of mainstream media. “Silence the incendiary advocates of force,” one reporter wrote in the Washington Post. “Bring the law’s hand down upon the violent and the inciter of violence.”

As much as these demonstrations sparked terror in the hearts of the ruling class and their allies, they inspired courage among the masses and rallied support for the incipient Communist movement. Ruthenburg would be instrumental in the founding of the Party, and the 1919 May Day riot would serve as a break from the conciliatory stance of previous reformers and herald a new direction of militancy and uncompromising revolutionary will.