It became a civic center for the city’s left, as well its working class and immigrants. Union Sq. was home to the Communist Party’s national headquarters, the radical Yiddish newspaper Freiheit and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union. . . .
For decades before, however, Union Sq. had already been known as the city’s “Speaker’s Corner.” On Sept. 5, 1882, 25,000 marchers gathered in support of an eight-hour workday and a ban on child labor in what became America’s first Labor Day parade. Through the first half of the 20th century, Union Sq. continued to be the scene of myriad demonstrations — and frequent clashes with police.
One of the most significant riots was on March 6, 1930, when a demonstration against unemployment turned into a free-for-all after the police prevented protestors from marching down to City Hall. The melee, which was immortalized in a famous 1947 painting by Peter Hopkins, resulted in 100 injuries, 13 arrests and pressure on city officials to allow freedom of assembly in the square. . . .
“The square was the one spot where people could talk about anarchism or communism and not go to jail. Every society needs at least one spot like that,” said Alfred Pommer, owner of New York City Cultural Walking Tours and a student of U.S. labor history. “What started as a union of roadways became, symbolically, a good place for people to unite.”
In one memorable incident, Emma Goldman was arrested for a speech she gave there and charged with inciting to riot:
When the Panic of 1893 struck in the following year, the United States suffered one of its worst economic crises ever. By year’s end, the unemployment rate was higher than twenty percent, and “hunger demonstrations” sometimes gave way to riots. Goldman began speaking to crowds of frustrated men and women in New York. On August 21, she spoke to a crowd of nearly 3,000 people in Union Square, where she encouraged unemployed workers to take immediate action. Her exact words are unclear: undercover agents insist she ordered the crowd to “take everything … by force”, while Goldman later recounted this message: “Well then, demonstrate before the palaces of the rich; demand work. If they do not give you work, demand bread. If they deny you both, take bread.” . . .
A week later she was arrested in Philadelphia and returned to New York City for trial, charged with “inciting to riot”. During the train ride, Jacobs offered to drop the charges against her if she would inform on other radicals in the area. She responded by throwing a glass of ice water in his face. . . .
The assistant District Attorney questioned Goldman about her anarchism, as well as her atheism; the judge spoke of her as “a dangerous woman”. She was sentenced to one year in the Blackwell’s Island Penitentiary. . . . When she was released after ten months, a raucous crowd of nearly three thousand people greeted her at the Thalia Theater in New York City. She soon became swamped with requests for interviews and lectures.]]>