The earliest movies were glimpses of real life. Workers leaving a factory, a train arriving, a blacksmith hammering. Shot in 1895, these first short films — each less than a minute — were called actualités by their creators, French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière. Nobody thought to make up a story on film until “The Great Train Robbery” in 1903. Just seeing pictures move was thrill enough.
The next year, Lumière cameraman Alexandre Promio came to Chicago and, of all the scenes that could have represented the city, the stockyards or riverfront or the Ferris wheel left over from the World’s Columbian Exposition, Promio chose police officers solemnly marching down Michigan Avenue, four abreast, in their Keystone cop helmets, nightsticks at the ready. “Chicago Police Parade,” filmed in September 1896, is considered the first moving image shot in Chicago. You can watch it on YouTube.
Was that reality? The parade was staged for the filmmaker, the police showing off their order and discipline. Not exactly in step with their reputation. “Weak discipline was probably most evident in the inability of police administration to control excessive violence,” the Encyclopedia of Chicago notes of police at that time. The more things change...
Film technology evolved, Chicago police violence worsened, and eventually the two collided, further back in history than you might imagine. In 1937, striking workers marched on the Republic Steel plant at 117th and Burley, intending to set up a picket line. They found 200 policemen waiting. Ten marchers were killed. Police claimed they were attacked by an armed mob, whipped up by outside communist agitators, and the press believed them. “RIOT BLAMED ON RED CHIEFS” blared the Tribune headline.
But Paramount had set up a newsreel camera at the Republic plant gates. It shows the strikers carrying flags and signs. You see the waiting police, tapping their batons. The cops attack, the strikers flee. Police shoot 40, most in the back. The city responded by banning the newsreel. That became Chicago’s go-to move for documentary evidence of police brutality. If you don’t see it, it’s not there.
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