A Brief History of Protest in Chicago

An Occupy Chicago gathering at Grant Park, March 2012. (Image: Michael Kappel CC by/nc)

By Don Rose

If world history is often told as a history of wars, much of Chicago history can be told as a history of protests – labor, civil rights, anti-war and other campaigns against injustice.

The author

Don Rose is a veteran Chicago-based political consultant, writer and columnist for the Chicago Daily Observer who has been closely involved in organizing major protests from the 1960s through the first decade of this century. He served as Martin Luther King’s Chicago press secretary and was spokesman for the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam.

In a sense the city was born in bloody protest: the 1812 Fort Dearborn Massacre, when Native Americans rose up and attacked soldiers departing from a fort built on land that was incorporated as the City of Chicago 25 years later. A star on the Chicago flag commemorates the uprising.

But most of the city’s best-remembered protests turned violent only after police attacked protestors. To be sure, there were protests clearly the reverse of fighting injustice, with violence aimed at racial and ethnic minorities, typically for transgressing residential or other “boundaries.” The 1919 race riots, in which 38 were killed, and mob attacks after World War II fall into that deplorable category.

Most of the world outside the USA celebrates May Day as the international labor holiday because on that date in 1886, tends of thousands of workers walked out of their jobs to demand an eight-hour day. Three days later, after police killed two strikers at the McCormick Reaper works, a massive protest rally was called at the Haymarket, near Randolph on Desplaines Street.


Though police were ordered by Mayor Carter Harrison to permit the peaceful protest, some 175 officers waded in to break up the rally. As they advanced, a bomb was thrown, killing one officer, and the police opened fire, shooting wildly, slaughtering and wounding countless numbers of workers. Eight policemen also died. Later eight anarchist leaders, none ever linked to the bombing, were tried for conspiracy; five were ultimately sentenced to death – the May Day Martyrs.

Contemporary editorial depictions of the Haymarket affair show police attacking protestors, or protestors attacking police. This is one of few depicting both.

Exactly eight years after Haymarket came another epic labor protest – a walkout by workers of the Pullman Palace Car Company, spurred by a cut in wages. A sympathetic boycott led to a nationwide railroad strike, which was broken by federal troops in a violent conflict that saw extensive property destruction and the killing of a number of strikers.In 1889, Jane Addams, who was really the first community organizer, co-founded Hull House on the Near West Side, which became the country’s best-known settlement house. From its base, she organized and led countless protests for the betterment of immigrants, labor, the unemployed, for political reform, education, women’s suffrage and against our entry into World War I. One of her best-known protests was a 1915 march on City Hall by some 1,500 jobless and hungry people demanding relief.

The Depression years saw numerous labor actions here, most notably the Memorial Day massacre of 1937, when police fired on peaceful picketers at Republic Steel, killing 10 and wounding 90, in one of the most violent episodes in our labor history.

The Sixties

Fast forward to the 1960s and we find that Chicago has become a virtual crucible of the social movements of the era. Students for a Democratic Society, organizing against the Vietnam War, was headquartered here – and a thriving local civil rights movement grew to the point where Chicago was chosen by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King to launch his first campaign in the North in 1965.

The first major civil rights protests of that decade were centered on segregated and inadequate education, with two massive citywide school boycotts in 1963 and 1964. A march on City Hall in 1965 was cut short by police intervention and mass arrests not far from the Conrad Hilton Hotel. This led to daily marches seeking the firing of school superintendent Benjamin Willis.

A frame from the 1969 film Social Confrontation: the Battle of Michigan Avenue (Image: Chicago Film Archives)

Also in 1965, when the House Un-American Activities Committee held hearings against “subversives” in Chicago, three days of mass picketing took place, and Chicagoans filed lawsuits against the committee. HUAC never again held hearings outside of Washington and was disbanded a few years later.

Dr. King and his associates led numerous marches into white neighborhoods in 1966 seeking open housing – several of which resulted in white violence. He also led 65,000 protestors, black and white, from Soldier Field to City Hall, where he posted his ten demands on its doors. Following his murder in 1968, an uprising on the black West Side left huge sections of the community in ashes.

The year 1968 was also when the Democratic National Convention met here and generated four days of mass protests, including police violence in Lincoln Park on the first night. In the bloody “Battle of Michigan Avenue” in front of the Hilton three days later, the whole world was watching as police indiscriminately bashed protesters, reporters and bystanders – impacting national politics, and Chicago’s reputation, for decades to come. An independent commission said “the police rioted.”

A year later came the “Days of Rage,” an intentionally destructive rampage through the Loop and Near North Side organized by a splinter of SDS. The protestors, later known as the Weathermen, smashed windows throughout the business district. They went on to commit more violent acts elsewhere.

A 2008 anti-war protest. (Image: Michael Kappel CC by/nc)

A presidency launched

In October 2002 a new war was looming and a new organization, Chicagoans Against the War in Iraq, staged a protest rally at Federal Plaza, where a young African American candidate for the U.S. Senate gave a powerful speech opposing the impending war. The war came anyway, as did more protests against it. One such demonstration in 2003 resulted in a mass arrest that a federal court recently found to have been illegal, costing the city $12 million in legal fees and settlements. But the 2002 speech is widely considered the prime reason Barack Obama was nominated for and won the presidency.

Probably the largest demonstration in Chicago’s history was peaceful and uninterrupted. In May 2006 a crowd variously estimated to be between 250,000 and 500,000 – primarily Latino – marched from Union Park to Federal Plaza protesting a harsh anti-immigration law pending in Congress. It became a model for massive demonstrations across the country.

More than 250,000 people marched for immigrant rights in 2007. (Image: Araceli Arroyo CC by/nc/sa)

Which brings us to September 2011, when Occupy Chicago — organized in sympathy with Occupy Wall Street — began an encampment in the financial district, protesting income inequality and financial crime. Some 300 “occupiers” were arrested that October for attempting to set up a tent city in Grant Park.

The ongoing occupation has been relatively peaceful, with as few as 30 and as many as 3,000 participating in protests. They’ve moved inside – their meeting space at 500 W. Cermak is just down the street from McCormick Place, where NATO will hold its summit – and are planning a Chicago Spring, starting with a “March for the 99 Percent” on May Day.

As we stand at the brink of the NATO Summit, with organizations local, national and international promising peaceful protests, but with a history of violence at similar international meetings in other cities, many questions remain. Will the city work with the protesting groups and make accomodations in an effort to keep the peace? Have the police learned from history, and are they properly trained to avoid violence if at all possible? On the other hand, are there groups fully bent on creating violence, as they have done intentionally elsewhere?

The city recently passed a series of complicated, controversial ordinances which include actions by demonstrators not within the control of the organizer that would nevertheless subject the organizer to fine or jail time. For example, if some protestors bring a sign to be carried by two or more people and do not advise the organizer, who must register all such signs in advance, the organizer becomes liable. Furthermore, the U.S. Secret Service has the power to come in and override decisions of local government. Both promise to protect the protestors’ First Amendment rights.

We shall soon see whether the model for these protests is the peaceful massive immigrants march – or a reversion to worse times in the city’s long history of protest.

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