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Harpers, December 2017:

Dr. Dre didn’t like “Fuck tha Police” when Ice Cube first showed him the lyrics. He wanted to make fun songs that you could play at a party. As Kennedy explains: “Dre’s attitude about the song changed when he and Eazy got busted by some cops for shooting paintballs at people and the officers put guns to their heads.” Rhymes like “police think they have the authority to kill a minority” haven’t aged a day. But as I learned from Jacqueline Jones’s GODDESS OF ANARCHY: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF LUCY PARSONS, AMERICAN RADICAL (Basic Books, $32), “shoot to kill” was once the Chicago Police Department’s policy against whites too. Between 1870 and 1920, homicides by police increased fivefold. Much of this violence was directed against striking or protesting workers. The bullets, however, did not always find their intended targets. An internal investigation into the Haymarket riot of 1886, which left seven officers and four workers dead, found that “the police emptied their revolvers, mainly into each other.”

The events of Haymarket made Lucy Parsons a widow — her husband, Albert, was hanged alongside three other anarchists in a spectacular miscarriage of justice. The two had met in Waco, Texas, shortly after the Civil War. Albert, a white man who as a teenager had served on the Confederate side, was climbing the ranks of the Republican Party by agitating for African-American rights; Lucy was born a slave in Virginia and was brought west in 1863. (During the Civil War, some slaveholders migrated to Texas, thinking that the Lone Stars would never bow to the Union.) They married during a brief period when interracial unions were legal and then moved to Chicago, where they embraced socialism, trade unionism, and anarchism. Both rejected mainstream political parties and the ballot box, refusing to vote even at Socialistic Labor Party meetings. (They thought that groups should talk until achieving consensus.) Lucy was a fierce orator and writer who rejected reform and charity (“hush money to hide the blushes of the labor robbers”) and roused large crowds with revolutionary talk (“Learn the use of explosives!”). She wore a black dress and, around her throat, a gold necklace with a gallows charm.

Goddess of Anarchy is meticulously researched. Yet Parsons, as a character, remains inscrutable. Questions linger. Why did she say so much on behalf of exploited whites and almost nothing about black workers? Why did she tell reporters that she was Mexican and Indian? Why did she have her son, whom she had once paraded before the press, draping him in a red scarf and calling him “my brave little anarchist,” committed to a mental hospital? She claimed that he threatened to stab her with a knife, but she may have been more annoyed that he wanted to enlist in the army. (At the trial, he accused her of wanting to steal his property.) Albert Jr. languished in the Elgin Asylum for twenty years, abused by the guards and by other inmates, until he died of tuberculosis. Parsons criticized Emma Goldman for equating anarchism with sexual liberation, and insisted that “family life, child life” were the “sweetest words,” but her own maternal instincts were straight out of a Grimm fairy tale.
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