Chicago clamps down on dissent
See Illinois (unpublished)
Law enforcement agencies in Chicago have long functioned as a para-military force, empowered by forgiving judges and an anxious public to suppress—violently if necessary—inconvenient opinions of a dozen kinds. In various eras and for various reasons—which usually boiled down to threatening to upset political, social, or economic status quo—Chicago authorities at the federal, state, and local levels targeted anarchists and other subversives (real and imagined), including “foreigners,” labor organizers, and dissidents from every orthodoxy. The story has far more villains than heroes,
These notes were composed for my never-published guide to Illinois history and culture.
The years leading up to and during the Haymarket panic of the 1880s saw the suppression of anarchists and other, mainly working-class leftists. During World War I and into the 1920s, the crackdown fell mainly on German citizens, social clubs, and newspapers dubiously redefined as treasonous. The Cold War era saw official “surveillance” of rumored subversives and political radicals. The 1960s saw police surveillance of the Black Panthers and anti-war protesters. Sandburg’s Chicago might have had big shoulders, but it was as timid as a kitten when faced with uncomfortable ideas.
In no episode was that fear more starkly revealed than during the Haymarket affair. Police violence during an 1886 national strike for the eight-hour day had spurred calls for a rally at Haymarket Square in the west Loop at which a bomb was thrown—no one knows by whom—that killed a policeman and led to an exchange of gunfire. Authorities were eager to make an example of the protestors and calm a frightened public, which included many of the city’s influential industrialists persuaded that Chicago faced an incipient class war. They arrested eight anarchist-organizers and sympathizers, two of whom, not coincidentally, had led tens of thousands of workers in a peaceful parade down Michigan Avenue only days before.
The accused were quickly found guilty after a trial in which the facts of the incident figured hardly at all. “The real threat was in the popular imagination,” concludes Carl Smith in Cataclysm and Cultural Consciousness: Chicago and the Haymarket Trial, “where the accused came to stand for the precariousness of social stability in an age of major dislocations, massive inequities, and unknown prospects.”
Four of the men were hanged and a fifth killed himself to deny the police the pleasure. The remaining three began serving their life sentences but were pardoned six years later by Governor John Peter Altgeld. So fervent was anti-anarchist hysteria even after six years that Altgeld never held elective office again.
The fact that the events of May 1886 are referred to by so many names—the Haymarket Tragedy, the Haymarket Affair, the Haymarket Uprising, the Haymarket Incident, the Haymarket Riot—is a reminder that no one to this day knows for certain what happened, don’t agree about what might have happened, and certainly don’t agree on what it meant. When the Chicago Historical Society and Northwestern University unveiled an online exhibit in 2000 to mark the event’s centennial, they opted for “The Dramas of Haymarket.”
The event inspired a sizable literature, including Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement, and the Bombing That Divided Gilded Age America by James Green (Pantheon, 2006). Historians have been able to come to more sober view of the episode, and the verdict rendered by them against government, judge, jury, public, and press is “guilty.” The trial, writes Smith, was “was one of the most shamefully handled cases in American legal history. It was a travesty that would have been appropriate to Gilbert and Sullivan or the Marx Brothers, were it not played with a real gallows at the end.”
The novelist and august editor of the Atlantic Monthly, William Dean Howells, was one of those outraged at what he called “the civic murder” of the anarchists. Critic Adam Gopnik praises Howells as one of the very few writers to speak against the execution at a time “when the overwhelming majority of Americans thought of the anarchists exactly as they think of terrorists now, as aliens with large-scale massacre on their minds.” Dan Green, author of Death in the Haymarket: A story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America, “I believe the history of the Haymarket tragedy should also be read as a warning to citizens who allow the civil liberties of immigrants to be violated in the name of fighting terrorism.”
Treasonous Dissent During World War I
The Haymarket incident has been described as America’s first Red Scare, but it was not to be the last. During World War I, resistance to the war effort in Chicago was concentrated among the political left including labor radicals, the German community—the first was regarded as dangerous by the larger public, the latter treasonous. If the Haymarket agitators were feared as threats to the rule of law, the anti-war factions were feared, however improbably, as threats to the nation, or at least the “American way of life.” The underlying anxiety was the same—the presence in the U.S of large numbers of people whom the majority felt were alien in every way—their origins, their political notions, their accents.
The flag made a very handy weapon with which to beat such outsiders into submission. During the war and after, public authorities at state and federal levels, often egged on by leading citizens, used (and abused) the powers of government to spy on harass, and imprison “traitors,” as defined by the generous standards.
A city that is a center of labor agitation is also likely to be a center of anti-labor repression. So it proved in Chicago, whose factory owners were worried about disruptions to profitable war production posed by those who would end the war or, at the very least, end the profiteering made possible it. Wealthy Chicago businessman Asa M. Briggs proposed to the local head of the federal Bureau of Investigation creation of a citizen outfit to assist the feds by investigating draft dodgers and deserters and spies. The result was the American Protective League. The idea caught on, and at its height of power the APL had 250,000 members in 600 cities.
The APL operated in a legal gray area; it had no legal authority but was tolerated by federal and state and local governments which shared its ends and were willing to overlook its means. In effect, APL members were vigilantes. In Chicago they illegally detained citizens associated with leftist, union and anti-war movements and raided workers' newspapers.
The APL made a particular target of the International Workers of the World or “Wobblies" whose members were harassed and whose offices were vandalized. More than one hundred IWW leaders were tried in a Chicago federal court before U.S. judge Kenesaw M. Landis on charges of “criminal syndicalism” and sentenced to heavy time in the federal pen. That effectively killed the organization—only one episode in a national crackdown that left the radical workers’ movement in tatters by 1919.
Most detainees were released after being held without trial, although several dozen were deported. Among those convicted were five Socialists indicted under the federal Espionage Act of 1917. Federal lawmakers, pandering to the flag-wavers and the drum-beaters, in 1918 had amended the law to ban all criticism of the government of the U.S.—a breathtaking curb on political dissent at a time when the nearest enemy soldier was several thousand miles away. The Socialist Party was not a criminal organization in any sense when the war began, so the feds made it one. One of its leaders was Victor Berger a Milwaukee socialist politician and former Congressman who was sentenced to 20 years. The conviction was appealed and ultimately overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court on grounds that Judge Landis should have removed himself as prejudiced.
Were not so many careers and reputations wrecked, the events of the era could have been made into an entertaining theatrical farce. Among the threats to the republic targeted by the vigilantes was the Peoples Council of America for Democracy and Peace, whose Chicago chapter included law-abiding socialists, aldermen, ministers, professors, settlement-house workers (including Jane Addams), and a Congressman; even such worthies, however, could not make pacifism respectable in that atmosphere.
A national meeting in Chicago of the Peoples Council was welcomed by the anti-war Mayor William Thompson, who made a fine speech endorsing free speech, although most veteran observers of Big Bill assumed that it was the German vote that motivated him rather than love of the First Amendment. The state’s then-governor, Frank Lowden, had different constituencies to placate. Lowden, in what was a blot on an otherwise exemplary record as governor, ordered the chief of police in Chicago to break up the meeting, even though he lacked the power to do so. Protests about this abrogation of the mayor’s authority by Thompson led Lowden to send four companies of the National Guard to do the job the police chief wouldn’t, but the governor was frustrated in his purpose when the militia—the bureaucracy being no more responsive then than now—had adjourned their meeting by the time Lowden’s troops arrived.
People are all too eager to equate political dissent with treason during wars. “It is in many ways remarkable that, with the army of officials and volunteers bent on detecting treachery, so few German American citizens were convicted of or even charged with acts of treason or disloyalty,” wrote Ernest Bogart in 1920 in an official State of Illinois history—it apparently not occurring to him that it might because there were very few acts of treason or disloyalty to begin with.
It would be reasonable to assume that such official misbehavior ended as the anti-German hysteria faded. Alas, nothing about the Red scare of the Twenties was reasonable. Donald Tingley tells the tale in Structuring of the State.
Most citizens made little distinction between one left-wing group and another, seeing no difference between the IWW the Socialists, the communists of Russia, or the recent enemy, the Germans. Gradually the intolerance born of the war blossomed into a new kind of hatred, commonly called the great red scare. This transition happened so casually that most citizens were probably unaware that the momentum of war patriotism was now redirected at the new fear, the new threat to the well being of the rich and the comfortable.
Northern Illinois was a principal target in the infamous Palmer Raids of 1920, in which Mitchell Palmer, Woodrow Wilson’s attorney general, jailed thousands of alleged anarchists and Communists often on trumped-up charges, an operation Tingley rightly damns as “among the most disgraceful episodes of American history.” In Springfield, as General Assembly eager to demonstrate its patriotism passed the state version of the federal Espionage Act, which prohibited “uttering, printing, writing, or publishing any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language or language intended to cause contempt, scorn, contumely or disrepute as regards the form of government of the United States,” the Constitution, the flag, the uniform of the Army and Navy, or “any language intended to incite resistance to the United States or promote the cause of its enemies.”
Illinoisans by then saw enemies everywhere, although the threat they posed was not to “the American way” or even social stability—they were much too few for that—but to the state’s monied interests, especially the purchasers of labor. the political and labor left which had been a bugbear of the corporate types and their political errand boys since the 1870s, now had a potential potent new ally in the newly Community Soviet Union. Twenty members of the Communist Labor party were indicted in Chicago on charges of violation of the Illinois Sedition Act. The prosecution insisted that mere membership in the party was sufficient evidence of intent to carry out violent overthrow of the government; the prosecuting attorney did not make a closing argument, merely reciting all of the verses of the “Star Spangled Banner.”
Outrage over such spurred in 1920 founding of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Founders and early members included several people living in or otherwise associated with Chicago—Jane Addams, Florence Kelley, united mine workers president Duncan MacDonald, Clarence Darrow, John Dewey, and Upton Sinclair.
Convictions thus obtained were flimsy on their face, and most were overturned or otherwise undone. The 20 convicted Communists were pardoned by Governor Len Small, who decried use of the Illinois Sedition Act to gag persons who held unpopular opinions. The pardon is often the only accomplishment cited in brief summaries of Small, apart from his indict on money-laundering scheme. For the former action he is sometimes likened to John Peter Altgeld, pardoner of the Haymarket anarchists—the only way in which Altgeld and Small are likely to be historians have found them alike.
“Looking for trouble”
“I have lived a life in front trenches,” said Chicago attorney Clarence Darrow in a 1918 speech, “looking for trouble.” Darrow had no trouble finding trouble in an age in which labor was pitted against capital, government against citizen, class against class, and race against race. He was a staunch advocate of the poor and the working man whose concept of civil liberties guaranteed rights to all, not merely the popular and the rich. In a career that spanned the 1890s until the New Deal, Darrow railed in court on behalf of labor unions and against child labor, for free speech and against the death penalty.
Ohio-bred and schooled, Darrow moved to Chicago in 1888, already an experienced lawyer. He showed a leftish bent. In 1894 he resigned his lucrative post as general counsel for the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad to defend Eugene Debs, leader of the American Railway Union, during that organization’s strike against the Pullman Co. in 1894. He also urged amnesty for those sentenced to prison for their alleged part in the Haymarket Riot in 1886; his friend Gov. John Peter Altgeld pardoned the men.
Darrow took part in a astounding number of America’s famous trials. In addition to the Debs case, he for the defense in the trial of radical labor leader Big Bill Haywood in 1907. In the trial for the “thrill killing” of young Bobby Franks. by Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold in Chicago, he made innovative use of newfangled psychiatric testimony to spare his clients—who, being both rich and Jewish, were doubly despised—the death penalty; after a 12-hour summation the judge sentenced them to life. (No Darrow client ever received a death sentence.) In 1925, Darrow appeared for the defense of schoolteacher John Scopes in the “Monkey Trial” in which he made a stirring if futile defense of free thought.
Darrow was a complicated and often contradictory character. He was as eloquent in print as in front of a jury, and a man of mordant wit (“I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with a lot of pleasure”). Acquainted with virtually all the figures later associated with the Chicago Renaissance, his Chicago apartment was a popular salon. He was for a time a law partner of Edgar Lee Masters, and a friend of Altgeld. But unlike so many of his clients, Darrow did not try to change the world, only make that one that already had safer for those living on the fringes of it.
In the more than a century that has passed since the 1870s, the enemies of a stable Chicago have been many—anarchists, labor organizers, foreigners, socialists, communists, atheists, black nationalists, gang bangers, and, most recently, terrorists. The authorities in Chicago have been no better than in other places at drawing fine distinctions between lawful dissent and unlawful subversion. Thus have Chicago civil rights workers, college professors, civil libertarians, pacifists, and in time, student radicals become official targets over the years.
Anyone who called himself a “professional radical” in post-World War II America, for example, was bound to attract unwelcome attention from police. One who did was community organizer Saul Alinsky, and Alinsky became as familiar with local lockups as some of the juvenile delinquents he was then trying to help. During the 1960s and 1970s, the Chicago Police Department amassed files of information culled from informants, illegal wiretaps, even break-ins on nearly a quarter-million Chicagoans and out-of-towners and hundreds of lawful organizations that included even conservative civil rights organizations such as the NAACP.
The work was done by the CPD’s "Red Squad." This unit dates to the Haymarket bombing. (Its origins as part of the effort to suppress radical labor organizing is reflected in one of the several names by which this arm of CPD has been known over the years—the Industrial Unit.) By the World War I era the object of official paranoia sifted from anarchists to communists, who, it was feared, were subverting the American system.
The Red Squad’s indifference to civil liberties, free debate, freedom of association, and other fundamental American precepts of self-government made it a graver threat to the American system than any outfit they spied on. In the 1970s, local civil liberties groups formed a coalition they called the Alliance to End Repression to sue the Chicago Police Department alleging violations of citizens’ Constitutional rights. The suit was frustrated when the Red Squad destroyed evidence in the form of filed on 105,000 individuals and 1,300 organizations. The American Civil Liberties Union joined the legal fight, and in 1982 the City of Chicago agreed to sign a consent decree that proscribed police collection of intelligence on or disrupting any First Amendment activities of political dissenters and their organizations that were unrelated to a criminal investigation.
Over the next fifteen years, the perceived threats to civil order in Chicago morphed again. The new dangers were street gang crime and, later, terrorism, each perpetrated by people regarded in their respective eras as the equivalent of the anarchists of old. In 1992, Chicago's city council approved an anti-gang ordinance that allowed police to arrest persons who "remain in any one place with no apparent purpose" in the presence of a suspected gang member. The new law made it possible to be convicted without the city having proved the accused guilty of actual criminal behavior. The city arrested tens of thousands of young people before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law as unconstitutional in 1999.
As for “terrorists,” in 1997, Mayor Richard M. Daley complained to the federal court that the terms of the 1982 ACLU decree were impeding investigations of such groups and asked it to be lifted. The request was denied, but in 2001, an appeals court gutted the agreement and gave the Chicago cops authority to spy on activists and to videotape all street demonstrations. Among what the compliant court described as “incipient terrorist groups" that could now be targeted were not only self-styled anti-globalization anarchists but also Quaker peace groups.
Critics asked plausibly whether what the city feared was not the threat to public order such groups presumably posed but the threat to the city’s reputation that would result were the world’s TV cameras to again show young people rioting in the streets of Chicago. ●