Community, protest, change

Robyn explores the culture of action, reaction, unrest and resistance in Chicago


Standing with your back to Buckingham fountain, looking into the city, it’s a 17 minute drive to Forest Home Park Cemetery; apart from the odd kink, curve and two left turns, it’s ten and half miles of straight road west through Chicago. The first mile of road to put distance between you and the looming Lake Michigan, is named after Ida B. Wells; the journalist and Civil Rights leader who moved to Chicago from Memphis in 1893 to escape the harassment that followed her reporting on lynchings in the South. The small commemorative act of naming West Ida B Wells Drive after her, affords the name a quotidian quality that, to an outsider, is as lacking in portent as the monument erected for the Haymarket Martyrs in Forest Cemetery, at the opposite end of that ten mile stretch. Standing quietly and at just 16ft high, the monument features a robed woman, poised protectively over the crumpled body of a fallen worker - both are set in bronze and sit on granite. The base of the statue is inscribed with the names of August Spies, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Louis Lingg, and Albert Parsons; the 19th century syndicalist anarchists who were arrested in connection with the Haymarket bombing of 1886, and who were later executed in spite of insufficient evidence proving their guilt. These quiet tributes, though mere threads in the bright fabric of this American metropolis, allude not only to a history but to a culture of action, reaction, unrest and resistance in Chicago. 

We might think of the midwest as a little more passive than cities on the coast better known for protest, but that in and of itself is interesting to consider given that Chicago’s history is one largely defined by the struggle of the working class. From 1889 to 1983 Chicago was the second largest city in the US, and attained that title in no small part through the staggering industrial growth and agricultural development that took place in Illinois over the early years of the nineteenth century. This growth would not have been possible without Cyrus McCormick, a Virginia born businessman who invented the McCormick reaper, a mechanical tool used to harvest wheat. McCormick moved to Chicago in 1847, opened a factory where these machines were produced, and within a decade 4000 reapers were leaving the plant a year. As you might imagine, wheat plantings doubled with the newfound capacity to harvest drastically larger crops, and Illinois soon became the largest exporter of grain in the US. That seems an important part of both US and Illinois State history, right? Right! But the funny thing is, Chicago’s connection with early anarchist movements isn’t.

The Haymarket bombing took place on May 4th 1886, but the social climate of the years leading up to it were a crucible for the unrest that imploded on the date in question. Just the day before the bombing took place, August Spies had been speaking at an open air Lumber Shovers’ Union meeting at the McCormick’s Reaper Works. The meeting advocated the eight hour working day and had attracted an estimated 500 McCormick strikers, who migrated from their pickets outside the factory to the location at which Spies was speaking. The previous year employees at McCormick’s had staged a walk-out to protest against a fifteen percent pay cut which was begrudgingly restored after relentless striking. However, tensions between McCormick and his employees prevailed and the following year McCormick staged a lock out and replaced all remaining staff with non-union member labourers. Locked out employees were still stationed outside the factory on May 3rd and it was their hasty acquittal of the meeting to make it back to the picket in time for the end of day bell, that drew the attention of police. The squadrons that arrived soon after riled strikers began heckling those whose workday had just ended, fired openly into the crowd, killing two and injuring a further number. The May 4th meeting at Haymarket was organised by Spies to discuss and contest police brutality at the previous day’s event.

1886 seems a long time ago, and in the context of the US’ short lifetime to date, it is; but fast forward a hundred years and, in many ways and for many people, all that had changed about Chicago was its size. Fred Hampton had been dead seventeen years by 1986; shot in his sleep during a pre-dawn raid carried out by the FBI in conjunction with the Chicago Police Department. His title as deputy chairman of the Black Panther Party, and chairman of the Chicago chapter, made Hampton a ‘radical threat’ in the eyes of national and local authorities. By the time of his death Hampton had famously organised an anti-racist, anti-class Rainbow Coalition with other revolutionary movements advocating for betterment of economically disenfranchised groups living in Chicago at the time. This coalition saw the Panthers join forces with the Young Patriots Organisation (a leftist organisation made up of working class white southerners living in uptown Chicago) and the Young Lords (a civil rights organisation advocating for the empowerment and self determination of Hispanic and Latinx people), and though all parties were different in their orientation to racial issues, all acted in solidarity to oppose police brutality towards their communities, and alleviate the financial implications of capitalist driven disenfranchisement. Just a year before his death, at the peak of his organisational activity, Hampton was arrested on accusations of robbing an ice cream truck and distributing its contents to nearby youths, and was sentenced to 2-5 years in spite of insufficient evidence proving culpability - this fact, when considered alongside his later assassination, makes it hard not to notice obvious parallels between his contemporary cultural climate, and that of the Haymarket Martyrs. 

1886 seems a long time ago, but fast forward a hundred years and, in many ways, all that had changed about Chicago was its size

Today, Chicago would seem to remain a city driven by the insistence of its people; insistence on joy, on preservation, on solidarity as a way of life. The city grieved for George Floyd as the rest of the world did, but its method of mourning struck me as unique; not more or less, bigger or better, but distinctly Chicagan. Like most places in the US, businesses in Chicago boarded up their shop fronts in anticipation of riots after Floyd’s death, and like many places in the US, residents of Chicago emerged with materials to transform the plywood boards into murals that gave shape and colour to a plethora of internal agonies. When the streets quietened, a collective of local artists formed and began collaborating to gather the decorated shop front boards – determined to memorialise another moment of communal action in the history of many peoples. The project now known as “Boards of Change”, transformed the vibrant plywood into polling booths that were installed in public and creative spaces, as well as areas of the city with low voter turnout. More than a gesture, this action strikes me as the most contemporary manifestation of a revolutionary spirit that lives in Chicago, is relentless in its pursuit of social betterment, and unflinching in its belief that wherever there are people there is power. 

Illustrations: Laurie Avon

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