As unemployment rates soared in the winter of 1873-74, workingmen organized to seek relief. In New York City, mass-meetings were frequent: While their spokesmen met with officials at City Hall, hundreds and sometimes thousands of unemployed workers gathered outside. "Their physical presence," Samuel Gompers remembered, "gave urgency to their needs."

Plans had been made for a parade and a large, outdoor mass-meeting to be held of Jan. 13, 1874, but city officials interfered. Originally, the mayor had agreed to address the meeting, but the Police Commissioner issued a permit that stopped the parade on Canal Street -- blocks away from City Hall.
"Dissenion developed within the ranks of workingmen," Gompers recalled. "The group of radicals, so-called Communists, saw the situation as propaganda material. . . . They made speeches that contained good headline stuff. They painted the skies with "true" revolutionary plans and extravagant ideals. . . . The daily press played up the picturesque and made the city feel that Communists were in control and that they were on the verge of a revolutionary uprising." One day prior to the planned demonstration, city authorities cancelled the gathering, on the basis that it threatened the peace. Although trade unionists warned as many as they could reach not to participate under these new circumstances, many -- including Gompers -- showed up as planned. As they assembled in Tompkins Square park, they were met by armed police force -- mounted and on foot. "It was an orgy of brutality," Gompers wrote. "I was caught in the crowd . . . and barely saved my head from being cracked by jumping down a cellarway." Others were not so lucky.

Gompers did not help organize the meeting; only 24 years old at the time, he participated as "an intensely interested working man, " as he put it. But he learned some valuable lessons from the authorized violence that day and the period of repression that followed. "I saw how the profession of radicalism and sensationalism concentrated all the forces of organized society against a labor movement and nullified . . . normal, necessary activity. . . . I realized that . . . the labor movement is made up of men and women of all sorts of natures and experiences. Their welfare depends on solidarity -- one group cannot sit in judgment on the others or condemn publicly, but all must do what they can for mutual protection."

    Read what the New York Times (report and editorial) and the New York Tribune said about the episode