Woody Guthrie and the Cambodian Thanksgiving Massacre

I did a double take when I first read about the victims of the Cambodian stampede being taken to Calmette Hospital in Phnom Penh. For the past several years I’ve been working on a documentary film about another human stampede, which took place in 1913, in a town on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula called Calumet. This weird echo — Calmette, Calumet — wasn’t the only thing that made the grim news out of Cambodia resonate eerily with a tragic event from our own past.

Both stampedes took place during holiday celebrations: in Cambodia, it was during Bon Om Tuk, an annual water festival; in Calumet, it was Christmas Eve. There are all sorts of parallels in the accounts of eyewitnesses and all sorts of ways in which the pictures out of Cambodia and Calumet illuminate one another. The photograph the New York Times ran on its front page yesterday offers a horrifying glimpse into what it must have been like for those who died in the chaos in Calumet. A photograph of the bridge the day after the stampede, with its shoes and holiday favors, reminds me of the pictures I’ve seen of the day after the 1913 stampede. And then there are the pictures of the dead. We have all seen photographs of mass executions, bodies thrown into ditches and body parts strewn around battlefields; but only this kind of panic – people trampling and crushing the very people with whom they were just celebrating, a whole tangle of limbs and bodies, twisting and writhing, people suffocating and having the life squeezed out of them — produces a gruesome stack of corpses. Stacked “like cordwood” is how they put it in Calumet.

And as powerful as these images are, they still don’t tell us much about what really happened. It’s up to us to put together a story. And that is where things start to get a little more complicated.

We know the trouble in Calumet took place during a strike that virtually shut down Michigan’s copper range from the summer of 1913 through the winter of 1914. On December 24th, the striking miners had gathered with their wives and children for a holiday party in a building called the Italian Hall.

The party was on the second floor, in a big room the Ladies Auxiliary had decorated for the occasion. There were about 500 people in the Hall. As the children were lining up to get their presents from Santa, someone – to this day, nobody knows who – yelled fire! Panic took hold of the crowd, and in the ensuing chaos, 74 people were crushed to death on the stairway of the Italian Hall. 59 of the dead were children.

Woody Guthrie, whose song about the trouble in the Italian Hall inspired our film, has it that the mining company hired “thugs” and “scabs” to enter the hall, raise the cry of fire, and then hold the doors of the Italian Hall shut. Most historians and many people in Calumet nowadays take issue with his account of the “massacre” at the Hall, especially with that last detail about the doors; and the provenance of the story reveals its undeniable bias: Woody learned the story from labor organizer Ella Reeve “Mother” Bloor, who was in Calumet during the strike, working with the Western Federation of Miners.

But the power of Woody Guthrie’s song doesn’t lie in its historical accuracy. It’s a heartbreaking story, simply told; and it situates the trouble at the Italian Hall in the strike, in the deep social and political divisions that ran through Calumet in 1913 and still, to a certain extent, have a claim on the telling of Calumet’s story today. Those very divisions – and misguided ideas about how to heal them or erase them – may, in fact, have been behind the town’s razing of the Italian Hall in 1984.

What social and political tensions may have precipitated the disaster in Cambodia, or may now be playing a role in the recounting and representation of that disaster, is not so easily discerned from reports in the Western news media. But they are no doubt there, just beneath the surface. Take the holiday of Bon Om Tuk itself, the occasion of the disaster. It is an agrarian festival, celebrating the reversal of currents from the Tonle Sap to the Mekong at the time of the full moon; but it is also a celebration of padi state power, with demonstrations of naval prowess held in front of the Royal Palace, and official histories dating the festival back to the 12th century and the martial exploits of King Jayavarman VII. On the one hand, farmers are celebrating the harvest and fertility of the land; it is a kind of Thanksgiving. On the other, the state is demonstrating its power and hearkening back to a time when it dominated the Mekong.

The official story of this Bon Om Tuk has not yet been written, but it is already beginning to eclipse other accounts and put an end to dangerous and possibly subversive speculation. For instance, what caused all those people to panic? A Times report simply answered with “unclear.” A day later, the BBC went a little further than that, saying “the cause of the panic was not immediately apparent. Electric shocks from the lights, fights among young people and fears that the structure was about to collapse have all been put forward.” In a CNN report, “the municipal police chief” offers his own “likely” explanation — “a suspension bridge packed with people began to sway, creating panic” – but that same report goes on to quote Steve Finch, a journalist with the Phnom Penh Post:

Finch said police began firing water cannon onto a bridge to an island in the center of a river in an effort to get them to continue moving across the bridge.
“That just caused complete and utter panic,” he told CNN in a telephone interview. He said a number of people lost consciousness and fell into the water; some may have been electrocuted, he said. Finch cited witnesses as saying that the bridge was festooned with electric lights, which may have played a role in the electrocutions.

Finch’s own paper today says that the cause of the panic “remains unclear,” and reports that the government — which now deniesthat anyone was electrocuted — has “established a special ‘investigation subcommittee’ made up of police and officials from the Ministry of Justice to probe the causes of the tragedy.” This is in response to criticisms leveled at the government by the Asian Human Rights Commission. Whether this subcommittee will get any closer to the truth is hard to say. A Congressional inquiry into the Italian Hall disaster in 1914 certainly did not.

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