Chicago’s 1855 ‘Beer Riot’ Is a Bridge to the Unrest of 2020

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Bloomberg’s CityLab Ι Aug. 14, 2020

It’s been one of the most striking images of this summer’s season of urban uprising: bridges over the Chicago River drawn up to block access to downtown Chicago’s Loop, the raised structures standing like iron sentinels guarding nearly deserted nighttime streets.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot ordered the drawbridges raised early Monday morning after property damage at the Magnificent Mile upscale shopping district just north of the Loop and elsewhere. The unrest was triggered by a police shooting on Sunday. Officers shot and wounded a 20-year-old South Side man who had allegedly fired a gun at police, a story that has been contested by the accused’s family and eyewitnesses. Fueled by misinformation (that police shot a child), ambiguity (there was no police body cam footage of the shooting), and above all, rage at decades of disinvestment and police violence in Black communities, a large group of people took to the streets, looting several businesses Sunday night and Monday morning.

The drawbridges also came up in late July and at the end of May, as downtown was rocked by protests and clashes with law enforcement in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder by police. In May, the mayor issued a 9 p.m. curfew, requiring protesters to clear downtown with only 35 minutes of notice, even though the bridges were still up and transit shut down. And this weekend, several bridges will once again go up as part of the city’s scheme to limit downtown access and prevent more unrest.

Co-opting infrastructure to control protest has been a go-to move for Lightfoot, but this medieval-looking maneuver appears to be something of a novelty in Chicago, where the citizenry has never been shy about taking to the streets. Even during the 1968 riots in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the chaos surrounding that year’s Democratic National Convention, evidence that the bridges were enlisted to help control street violence is hard to come by.

But there’s at least one well-documented historic example of Chicago’s many bridges — more than 60 punctuate the city — playing a starring role in quelling a popular revolt. And that incident has some uncanny echoes with today’s nationwide reckoning with racism and police violence.

During the Lager Beer Riot of 1855, Chicago’s leaders also tried to use downtown bridge access to stymie dissent. This took place in the aftermath of an epidemic, after public health concerns shook up the city’s politics, when an aggrieved minority that had been discriminated against and targeted by police refused to take any more abuse. The conflict asked fundamental questions about the structure and function of law enforcement, kicked off a wave of police reform, and tested the city’s commitment to multi-ethnic diversity. If you don’t count the violence against Indigenous communities associated with Chicago’s founding, it stands as the young city’s first wide-scale organized civil unrest.

As detailed in The Great Chicago Beer Riot: How Lager Struck a Blow for Liberty, an exhaustive 2015 account by John F. Hogan and Judy Brady, the incident was born of tensions between the native-born Protestant Chicagoans who founded the city and newer German and Irish immigrants. From 1850 to 1860, the population swelled from 30,000 to 112,000; nearly 40% of the city was German or Irish. Native-born locals viewed the newcomers with suspicion: The Germans were widely seen as subversive foreigners, the Irish as a distant species of subhuman. The conservative Chicago Tribune towed the nativist line: “Who does not know that the most depraved, debased, worthless and irredeemable drunkards and sots which curse the community are Irish Catholics?” the paper asked its readers in 1855.

The Trib had an ally in Mayor Levi Boone, a pro-slavery, anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic member of the Know-Nothing shadow party that emerged from the declining Whigs. A doctor (and great-nephew of Daniel Boone), he was also staunchly-pro temperance, and rose to prominence as Chicago’s chief health officer, guiding the city through waves of cholera. Per his commitment to teetotaling, Boone and the city council raised liquor license fees up from $50 per year to $300 for three months — directly targeting the beer halls and saloons of the Irish and Germans.

Police began enforcing Sunday closing laws that had been on the books since 1843 but were routinely ignored. Hotels and bars owned by native-born were rarely disturbed, according to the Chicago Public Library. Boone also barred Germans and Irish immigrants from the police force and other municipal posts, and purged these ethnicities from these positions if they were already there. He announced the closings on Saturday, March 17: St. Patrick’s Day. Hundreds of bar owners and staff were arrested for refusing to pay the new fees or for staying open on Sunday.

These saloons operated much like social clubs and community centers for new Americans. They were a centerpiece of the “continental Sunday” for Germans and Catholics — one day off of work a week to attend church and then file into the beer garden or set out a picnic with friends and family as the drinks flowed, says Dominic Pacyga, historian and professor emeritus at Columbia College in Chicago. This was anathema to the Protestant native-born. “What you were supposed to do on a Sunday was sit at home, drink lemonade, and talk about the Bible,” Pacyga says. German lager represented the foreign and unfamiliar to U.S.-born Chicagoans, but to immigrants it was a beloved signifier of culture and identity.

The riot to come was named in its honor.

Inside the courthouse at Randolph and Clark Street, both factions agreed to try one test case of the arrested barkeeps, and let that precedent stand for all. The trial was scheduled for April 21. That day, Germans residents crossed the Clark Street Bridge — a brand-new 30-foot-wide structure that spanned the Chicago River on a swivel pivot, allowing masted boat traffic to pass — and swarmed the courtroom, where they were ejected by police. Mayor Boone used this reprieve to supplement police with “some 150 special officers recruited and deputized from nearby stores and warehouses,” according to Hogan and Brady.

But by late afternoon, 500 people — mostly German, with some Irish — had gathered north of the bridge, determined to overwhelm the courthouse. They advanced south, with fifes and drums up front, and muskets, pistols and meat cleavers throughout.

The mass broke into two groups. The first crossed the bridge, but a second, larger throng was cut off when the bridge tender swung the pivot bridge out, stranding them on the street, and giving police more time to amass. Bafflingly, Boone commanded that the bridge be reconnected to the street, which handed the crowd their own opportunity to reinforce.

When the melee began, rioters shouted, “Pick out the stars! Shoot the police!” to help single out police officers, who had stars clipped to shirt collars — the only defining mark that identified the uniform-less force. The chaos resulted in 60 arrests, 19 injuries, and somehow only one death: Peter Martens, who shot a policeman (nonfatally) and was killed by police while attempting to run away. Eventually, police and local militias dispersed the crowd, and the mayor placed the city under martial law.

A host of reforms came in the wake of the riot. The police force was professionalized and expanded after 1855 — despite political resistance from North Side aldermen, who had sizable German populations in their wards. North Side leaders feared that a formalized police force would be more like an occupying army, sent from nativist neighborhoods into their own to enforce a very specific vision of social order. “To them, as well as their constituents, the police represented a repressive institution, a tool of the Puritan elite to keep working people from enjoying life as they saw fit,” wrote Hogan and Brady.

The city also reduced liquor fees and abandoned the Sunday closure policies. And a wider political backlash brought Thomas Dyer — a Democrat with German and Irish support — to the mayor’s office.

“It’s really the beginning in many ways of ethnic voting patterns in Chicago,” says Pacyga. The conflict also helped break apart the old Yankee hegemony that had ruled the city from its earliest history.

The riot and the reforms that followed didn’t end up solving any of the issues that triggered it. In Chicago and across the nation today, conflict over discrimination and the role of law enforcement still tips easily into violence; the police blockades, raised bridges, and tear gas wafting through city streets are testament to the generational failure to address these grievances. The framing and subtitle of Hogan and Brady’s book — How Lager Struck a Blow for Liberty — tell the reader explicitly who was in the right (the people on the bridge wielding pistols and meat cleavers) and who wasn’t (the mayor, police, and Chicago’s entire civic apparatus). It remains to be seen how tomorrow’s historians will grade city leaders on how well they are handling today’s uprisings. But a similar pivot may soon be coming.