People Wasn't Made to Burn

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Joe Allen

In May 1985, 56 people died and 256 were injured when a flash fire raged through the grandstand at Bradford City football ground. A public inquiry castigated the club for its carelessness in ignoring council reports warning of danger, but no individuals were found responsible.

In March 1911 the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York City went up in flames killing 146 people. The factory's two owners had flagrantly ignored the most basic safety precautions. This even included locking workers in the factory. They were indicted, but later acquitted, causing an eruption of anger among working people across the country. A workers' leader, Rose Schneiderman, said at a great protest meeting, "I can't talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working class movement.'"

Fire has been a terrifying feature of working people's lives since the emergence of urban and industrial societies. Usually only in the most grotesque cases of loss of life are people called to account. Hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of victims' stories simply disappear in the flames.

This is especially true of residential fires which hit single families. Joe Allen's new book highlights one such incident in Chicago in 1946. The episode was both a grim indictment of the plight of working class migrants to the city and an uplifting example of the spirit of resistance which Rose Schneiderman called for in 1911.

The title of the book is taken from words whispered by James Hickman to his only surviving son. Hickman, a black worker, had just lost his four youngest children in an arson attack committed by a slum landlord wanting to clear his property.
In an act of overt racism, city authorities fined the landlord the paltry sum of $75, the equivalent of two weeks rent.

Driven to desperation by his loss, Hickman eventually sought out the landlord and shot him. He was charged with murder and could have gone to the electric chair if it were not for a remarkable community campaign vigorously organised by socialists. When a hung jury found him not guilty of murder, the judge ordered a retrial. The city-wide campaign was stepped up and public opinion tilted towards James Hickman, who was eventually freed.

A short review cannot do justice to such a fine book. Joe writes with passion, elegance and sympathy. It has the pace and disguised outcomes of a Raymond Chandler novel and is a useful reminder of the ongoing housing crisis common to even the richest societies. This is a book to be read and appreciated wherever you live.

People Wasn't Made to Burn is published by Haymarket £16.99