May Day Riots of 1919

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The May Day Riots of 1919 were a series of violent demonstrations that occurred throughout Cleveland, Ohio on May 1 (May Day), 1919. The riots began when Socialist leader Charles Ruthenberg organized a May Day parade of local trade unionists, socialists, communists, and anarchists to protest the jailing of Eugene V. Debs. The previous year, Debs's Federal Court trial was held in Cleveland. The event was also aimed at helping promote Ruthenberg's own candidacy for mayor of Cleveland. The 32 groups were divided into four units, each holding a Socialist flag and an American flag at its head.

As they marched to Cleveland's Public Square, one of the units was stopped on Superior Avenue by a group of Victory Liberty Loan workers, who demanded that they lower their flags. The marchers refused to do so and mass fighting broke out immediately; chaos quickly spreading throughout the downtown area. Ruthenberg's party headquarters on Prospect Avenue was ransacked by a mob.

Law was finally restored by mounted police, army trucks, and tanks. Casualties amounted to two people killed, forty injured, and 116 arrested (one of them Ruthenberg himself on a charge of "assault with intent to kill"). Local newspapers quickly pointed out that only eight of those arrested were born in the United States. In response to the riots, the city government immediately passed laws to restrict parades and the display of red flags. Overall, the occurrence is seen as the most violent of a series of similar disorders that took place throughout the U.S. as a result of the First Red Scare.

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  • The Encyclopedia Of Cleveland History by Cleveland Bicentennial Commission (Cleveland, Ohio), David D. Van Tassel (Editor), and John J. Grabowski (Editor) ISBN 0-253-33056-4