Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Police parade goes on and on while we watch

     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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  1. Thanks for mentioning the shooting known as The Memorial Day Massacre. It is still commemorated by many on the South East Side, especially by those families who owe their very existence to the long vanished Steel Industry.

    1. I saw a famous photograph of the massacre, in an illustrated Chicago history book, while still in grammar school. Asked my father about it. He was 17 that day. But at 40, his memories were sketchy. So I went back to the library, and I learned plenty.

      Republic Steel refused to recognize the union, and prepared for a long, bitter, and violent conflict, similar to what had happened for decades in many other steel towns--in Ohio and in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. The company fed and housed three shifts of Chicago cops inside the plant, and supplied them with clubs, guns, and ammo. Machine gun nests were set up around the plant perimeter, and manned by company goons.

      When the strike began, the police attacked and beat the hell out of a number of pickets. Four days later, on Memorial Day, hundreds of sympathizers gathered at union headquarters, a nearby tavern and dance hall, for a family picnic and a peaceful parade to the plant gates. There, they planned to set up another picket line.

      As the crowd marched to the Republic Steel mill (and toward the machine guns), a line of Chicago policemen blocked their path. Several objects were thrown at them, including a large tree branch.The police then fired into the crowd, shooting dozens of marchers, and killing ten people, seven of whom were shot in the back as they fled. Four died at the scene, and six others died from their injuries over the next three weeks. A number of the injured were permanently disabled. Many more had serious head injuries from police clubbing.

      The killings were ruled to be "justifiable homicide". The press, especially the Tribune, called it a "red riot" and blamed Communists for inciting the crowd. The police claimed that "armed labor agitators" had shot at them. The newsreel proved otherwise. None of the cops had bullet wounds, and no evidence of guns in the hands of strikers or sympathizers was ever found.

      Red chiefs? What chiefs? Only "braves"...many of whom were hurt and killed. The "red" was merely the blood they shed that day, in the cause of industrial democracy.

  2. What a wonderful column. In the midst of the countless articles about yesterday's verdict, you found an utterly unique, interesting point of entry to provide context. Bravo.

  3. The part of that 1896 "Chicago Police Parade" film that you don't see is the rows of police marching offscreen to the right, running back around behind the camera and filing past it again...

  4. As noted by Mr. Fisher, this piece offers a resonant historical perspective on the news of the day. Nicely done. Have you thought about writing a book related to Chicago history? ; )

    Gotta concur with several of the YouTube commenters with regard to the Parade video. The mustaches kinda stand out. Evidently back then, before the thin blue line, they went with a bushy black brush.

  5. Great photo of 1896 Chicago cops on parade. The "Keystone Cops" uniforms had evolved from the way the first modern cops, members of the London Metropolitan Police Force established by Sir Robert Peel in 1829, were outfitted. The uniforms were themselves a considerable break from tradition, deliberately unmilitary in aspect. Public disturbances and peaceful demonstrations were formerly handled by calling in a militia or regular troops, who usually arrived on the scene weapons at the ready and unhesitant in their use of lethal force. The lightly armed "Bobbies" (originally "Peelers") were initially looked on with suspicion or as figures of fun, but eventually became respective symbols of civic peace and order. That reputation has taken some hits over the years, as Neil has pointed out, and it will be interesting to see if the recent revelation of abuses in this country cause significant changes in public perceptions about 'Officer friendly.'


  6. No police lines needed in Alabama as attempts at unionization were quashed. Jeff Bezos used his "resources" to scare the heck out of would-be union workers with the loss of jobs.
    Back to ten-hour days, short breaks, peeing in bottles, etc.
    Heaven forbid Bezos treating his indentured servants with dignity.


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