Jerry Martien: The removal of the dead president

At first I didn’t notice he was gone. The hole he left was not as big as advertised. He was mostly the big brass overcoat. And the rolled-up speech he was holding in his hand.

They hurried him out of town in the pre-dawn hours in order to avoid the Republican mob who wanted him to run for office again. It was just the crane operators and a few city officials in the dark.

America needs empire, the speech said. Empires need a navy. Ships made of steel. Steel manufactured in the Ohio mills of McKinley’s chief backer, Mark Hanna. There was something in it for everybody.

Except the workers. Leon Czolgosz had labored in a Cleveland mill that made galvanized steel by a process that routinely poisoned its employees. When he was too sick to work, he was replaced. He knew he was dying.

When the anarchist Emma Goldman came to speak in Cleveland, Leon paid attention to what she was saying. The conditions of the workers are not an accident. He began to make connections.

Ohio steel sank the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay. American farm boys and cowboys went ashore and fought in the jungle for ten years to save the Philippines from the Filipinos. The President’s friends got the canned meat and beer and munitions concessions. There was something in it for everybody.

Except the workers. Czolgosz followed McKinley from Ohio to Upstate New York, where he was to deliver his speech at the Pan-American Exposition. At a Buffalo hardware store Leon bought a .32 Iver Johnson automatic. That afternoon he put two slugs into the big brass overcoat. A couple of weeks later, as they strapped him into Edison’s latest invention, Leon said: I did it for the people.

Then 60-some years pass, and by a strange coincidence some of those people Leon did it for show up on the Arcata Plaza, calling on the President to stop his dirty little war in the jungle. Some of the people were veterans of the war the President had started. Some refused to go. Many had listened to Emma Goldman. We demand the fullest and most complete liberty for each and every person to work out his own salvation upon any line that he pleases. This caused the Plaza to be closed to public gatherings for several years.

Until the people took it back again, and for a time there was music and all sorts of human commerce, which led the investigative journalist and poet John Ross, one rainy night in the 1970s, to discover that the now-buried steps leading up to the President’s pedestal also led down — to the City Beneath The City Of Arcata. 

Once it became news, the people began to find a lot of buried history under the dead President, all the way back to when the Plaza was where they kept livestock and drunks. Eventually, buried even deeper, they found that a well-regulated anarchist society had lived there sustainably for centuries. Even before  tourism and shopping.

Now that the entrance to the City Beneath The City has been opened, the hole in the Plaza will be off-gassing for some time. The town still wants to forget as much as it wants to remember.

The Plaza Improvement Society will no doubt go on forever, but somewhere in its minutes it should be noted that Leon Czolgosz is still down there. He no longer advocates shooting presidents—it just turns them into brass overcoats, he says. 

And Emma Goldman, who sometimes comes up for the North Country Fair, she’s also down there. She doesn’t condone what Leon did, but condemns the conditions that drove him to it. 

And John Ross is still down there, with quite a few poets and painters and musicians. On winter nights, when it’s raining, you can hear them discussing the fate of Earth and the Arcata Plaza.

Now that the President’s gone and his empire is in decline, this little square  may be what it once was: an opening in the forest. A place to stop, see where you are, and begin to organize your anarchist future.





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