May 18, 2009
The Given Day, by Dennis Lehane, is a novel set in working-class Boston during the Boston police strike of September 1919. When World War I ended, 1200 police officers formed a union and went out on strike – leaving Boston streets without a police force, at the very time when the capitalists had been trying to use them for strike-breaking duties.
This created a big problem for the capitalist class – they had no armed force to maintain capitalist order in a major city! And, the capitalists worried, the police might become more sympathetic to the workers' problems – at the very time the workers' movement was breaking out.
In 1919, the U.S. economy had fallen into crisis. Returning war veterans were jobless, homeless. Unemployment soared as the war industries shut down. Inflation ate up what small paychecks there were.
In November 1917, workers in Russia had succeeded in overthrowing the old czarist state and establishing their own state, dethroning the rich and powerful. So workers in Boston, as everywhere, saw a ray of hope in the first successful workers' revolution, a hope for improving their own beaten-down condition.
In 1919, there were over 2000 strikes across the U.S. In Seattle, 65,000 workers organized a general strike of the whole city. Bosses everywhere took extraordinary precautions to keep this "infection" from spreading.
They tried to create hate and division among the workers. The usual targets were provided by the authorities: immigrants, socialists, black people. Hysteria against recent immigrants, like Italians, was whipped up. Union organizers and political dissidents were persecuted. In 1919, there were white riots against black communities in 26 cities across the U.S.; there were at least 51 documented lynchings. In some places, like Chicago, black army veterans organized armed defense.
The Given Day puts two central characters into this intense setting. The first is Danny Coughlin, an Irish cop on the Boston force, a police captain's son whose family pushes and pulls him toward "moving up the ladder." But Danny is conflicted by loyalty to his fellows in their ever worsening conditions.
It's a world of massive political corruption, ward bosses, politicians who play off the needs of the population.
It's a clear irony that while Danny is involved in organizing the police union, he and his fellow cops are sent to break strike after strike.
The book's second central character is Luther Laurence, a talented black baseball player who is kept out of the all-white major league. Luther is also a skilled worker who is laid off from his wartime job to make room for returning white veterans. As Luther's story intertwines bit by bit with Danny's story, many of the dimensions of life in the black community can be seen.
A police commissioner guns down an innocent black youth in cold blood in front of Luther, to force Luther to cooperate in setting up a raid on NAACP headquarters. Danny's father receives a satchel of cash from local manufacturers, in exchange for police files on workers.
At the end, the novel veers off toward Hollywood. Luther and Danny are shown withdrawing from events to focus on a happy home life. As if events would go on and leave them and their families alone!
Nevertheless, this is a rare novel that shows much about working-class life in a turbulent period.