Monday, May 6, 2013

May Day

My husband got a call this week about an acting gig taking part in Sunday's re-enactment of the "Bay View Massacre."  Bay View is a Milwaukee neighborhood just south of downtown.  It's gradually changing into a hipster paradise of  trendy restaurants and record shops, but was historically part of the southside industrial corridor of foundries, steel mills and meat packing plants.  It actually started as a company town for workers at a rolling mill called the Milwaukee Iron Company, and became the center of the workers' rights movement in Wisconsin in the late nineteenth century.

In 1886, thousands of striking workers marched from St. Stanislaus Catholic Church to the mill in Bay View, demanding an 8-hour work day. At the governor's orders, state militia fired on the marchers, killing seven. 

A re-enactment of this event has taken place every year since 1986 at a historical marker where the mill used to be.  The theatre piece itself was highly stylized and involved two ten-foot puppets representing the governor and the labor leader.  A small ensemble of actors marched with signs, chanting:  "This is what we want, no matter what our skill:  8 hours to work, 8 hours to rest, 8 hours for what we will!"  Then each actor stepped forward to remember one of the people who died, speaking as a friend or family member, and draped a red scarf over the monument.

I'm not usually one for heavy-handed symbolism, or the over-theatrical, or puppets.  But this seemed like an appropriate use of all three.  It was very much in the tradition of street theatre in the context of social activism, and I felt connected both to local history and to struggles for fair working conditions still taking place worldwide.  It was surprisingly moving, and I am really glad that this event is being remembered.

Of course the afternoon's program then veered into the political, and I started squirming internally, because I know that many of the politicians who now claim to speak on behalf of workers support laws which are the very definition of injustice. Our political environment in the U.S. tries to force us into one of two boxes, and as Catholics we have an even more difficult time than most resisting this, because of what we know to be at stake.  But, knowing what's at stake, it's all the more important for us to maintain our "both/and" identity - we don't have to choose just one thing to fight for.

St. Joseph the Worker, pray for us.

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