We Are What We Are: Chicago and the Paradox of Protests

By Benjamin van Loon and Aaron Kalfen
From MONU #34: Protest Urbanism | Download a PDF of this article

MONU (Magazine on Urbanism) is a unique biannual international forum for architects, urbanists and theorists that are working on urban topics. MONU focuses on the city in a broad sense, including its politics, economy, geography, ecology, its social aspects, as well as its physical structure and architecture. Therefore architecture is one of many fields covered by the magazine – fields which are all brought together under the catch-all term “urbanism”. MONU is edited in the city of Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Continuous publication began in June 2004. MONU is an independent, non-conformist, niche publication that collects critical articles, images, concepts, and urban theories from architects, urbanists and theorists from around the world on a given topic.

Democratic societies are alive and malleable, but only because they’re caught in a paradoxical tension between the natural, dynamic, and human will to create—and the controlled, inert, and bureaucratic will towards governance.

With its controlled and bureaucratized gridwork of streets and infrastructure, perhaps no American city better illustrates this Democratic paradox than Chicago; a city commanding a history of creation, ambition, violence, protest, and the chronic pains of democratic subsidence.

The Western political history of Chicago begins in the late eighteenth century, but its role in the larger narrative of democracy is emblemized by three climactic moments of protest in the city over the past 140 years: the Haymarket Riot of 1886 (Haymarket), the Democratic National Convention protests of 1968 (DNC), and the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 (BLM).

Though Haymarket was ostensibly about labor rights, and the DNC and BLM protests largely about different forms of civil rights, each similarly illustrates the regulating role of the built environment over both social and govern-mental malaise. In this essay, we will analogize this hidden regulation using our nascent Protest Organism Model (POM).1

Each of these protests was powered by a similar economic complaint, despite taking place in three different centuries. And in the aftermath of the violence each time, cities, policies, civil practices, and individual relationships with the urban environment evolved in kind—suggesting that the paradox may be essential to democracy and to the livelihood of cities themselves.


The POM analyzes the shape and mentality of protests in the urban environment. This philosophical and infrastructural modeling can potentially be a tool for effective protest planning, while at the same time paradoxically aggregating the information necessary for contravening these same moments of protest.

The paradox of this model is ultimately an extension of how protest serves a fundamentally democratic function. As historian Howard Zinn writes, “Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it.”2 As such, the message of a protest is as critical to the efficacy of a protest as is the actual choice of location for demonstrations. If protesters better understand the urban environment, demonstrations have the potential to be more frequent, impactful, and safer—especially as the confluence of multiple uses in dense urban areas has the tendency to diminish protest voice and efficacy.

The urban environment informs the physical shapes of human “protest organisms,” or the collection of participating individuals who collectively form a larger protesting form. During the 2020 BLM protests in Chicago, for example, enormous populations created a presence that was seen, heard, and nearly continuous in many parts of the city.

Not all protests grow to the same magnitude as the BLM movement, but many strive for similar outcomes. By understanding the city’s infrastructure, buildings, and districts—and the way a multi-body organism moves through those spaces—organizers could thoughtfully prioritize those locations that would be most conducive to visibility, attention, and safety. This intellection could also diminish the distillation of messaging that can occur when protest actions become too large, or take place in areas with competing optics or priorities.

Similarly, by law and by nature, cities themselves require responsible demonstrations in order to prevent social and political tensions from reaching unmanageable physical extremes. With an understanding facilitated by POM, modestly sized pro-test groups—which are more typical of everyday urban protests—can use the urban environment more strategically. For example, a demonstration of 50 individuals in an open and highly populous area will often ring flat. Though those same 50 individuals in a pocket park may have a more effective stage.

The urban environment always has a 360-degree audience. If protests can find the right stage in key city nodes, those audiences will notice. As detailed in the rest of this article, the Haymarket, DNC, and BLM protests were composed of different protest population sizes in different locations of Chicago, with historic impact.


Between 1880 and 1890, Chicago—more than a decade past the Great Fire—saw its population double to nearly 1.1 million people, due largely to jobs and immigration. A New York Times report from 1886 specifically attributed the jobs boom to “a large increase [. . .] in the number of new manufacturing and mercantile enterprises.”3
Labor was in high demand, and without much regulation, it was exploited. Tensions leading up to the events in Haymarket Square on May 4, 1886 began nearly two decades earlier, when the State of Illinois passed the Eight Hour Work Day Act of 1867, mandating that the legal workday constituted eight hours of work “between the rising and the setting of the sun.”4 While this was a simple measure to keep labor conditions more humane, the law stuck in legislation for the next seventeen years.

The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, impatient for legislation, asked American laborers to observe the eight-hour day beginning May 1, 1886.5 This led to protests and violent clashes in several cities, including Chicago, where, on May 3, laborers on strike at the McCormick Reaper Works factory clashed with the police. Six workers were killed in the melee.

Organized labor in the city issued a notice for a public rally to be held the next day at Haymarket Square, a popular open-air market roughly 5.6km away from the McCormick site, and a few blocks from Chicago’s downtown center.

Chicago had several public markets leading up to the 1880’s, including the West Randolph Street Public Market—colloquially, Haymarket Square—which was officially designated as a market district by the city in 1881.6 A mix of typical build-ing types—mostly two- and three-story masonry structures—surrounded the square.7 A police station was located nearby on Des Plaines Street.

Roughly 20,000 workers were expected to attend the protest, but due to inclement weather, only around 2,000 workers actually showed, and when the meeting ended later that night, only a few hundred remained.

The protest turned violent as a police force of 176 officers moved to disperse the meeting. According to one report, “A dark line was seen to form north of Randolph street and in front of the Desplaines (sic) Street Station [. . .] The officers marched three deep, occupying the whole width of the roadway, but leaving the sidewalks clear.”8
A still-unknown individual threw a pipe bomb into the contingent, igniting a riot that would leave seven officers and eight workers dead, and more than a hundred others wounded.

While the trope of the bomb-throwing anarchist, still referenced today, comes directly from this event, the events of 1886—with Haymarket as their denouement—have had a lasting impact on labor, including the still-standard eight-hour work-day.9


Chicago’s population ballooned to an all-time high of more than 3.6 million by 1950, though over the following decade the city lost roughly 100,000 people as a result of White flight, as well as significant racial segregation and urban disinvestment.10 The economic and political factors underscoring this exodus were largely the result of policies set by the city’s mayor, Richard J. Daley, notorious for his total control of the city’s political machine and fusillade of patronage job appointments.11

Daley was mayor from 1955 to 1976, and by the late 1960’s, he was at the height of his political power. He used this to muscle the Democratic Party into holding its national convention (DNC) in his city in August 1968 at the International Amphitheater at Halsted and 42nd, roughly 8km south of downtown.

It was a contentious year for any kind of large-scale politi-cal convention. Globally, peace talks for the Vietnam War were stalled. Politically, one of the standout would-be Democratic presidential candidates, Robert F. Kennedy, was assassinated that June at a political event in Los Angeles. And socially, the assassination of Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee, that April triggered a series of protests and violence that lasted for months in cities across the US.12

The backdrop of violence in Chicago in particular, and increasingly vocal left wing protest groups leading up to the DNC, served as fuel for Daley’s convention plans.13 He refused demonstration permits to almost all protest groups, except one that planned to gather at the Grant Park bandshell for August 28 at the southern end of Grant Park, a high-visibility public area next to Chicago’s downtown core. Daley also commissioned an army of 23,000 police and National Guardsmen to the city, significantly outnumbering the expected volume of 10,000–15,000 demonstrators.14

After a week of violence, starting with a man shot and killed by police outside an adjacent anti-war festival north of down-town, no protest groups actually reached the convention site, which was far outside of Chicago’s main business and commercial orbit, offering more opacity for Daley’s political project but better optics for protesters.15
Then, as the one permitted rally at Grant Park wound down on August 28, protesters planned an “illegal” march to the convention center. Police responded with blockades, and the two bridges over the railroad tracks, out of the park, and into the city’s downtown core at Balbo and Congress were blocked by heavily armed National Guardsmen.

Demonstrators moved farther south and crossed an unguarded bridge at Jackson. As thousands began to pour into the streets, police moved in with full violence—all in full view of TV cam-eras. These images have since come to emblemize the 1968 DNC, and were ultimately the result of Daley’s ominous opening re-marks at the convention: “As long as I am mayor of this city, there’s going to be law and order in Chicago.”


In March 2020, the entire US shut down in a national response to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, which had already made its way deep into the heart of the country.

Donald Trump, the self-declared “law-and-order president” who sat in the White House at the time, deliberately downplayed the threat of the disease that would eventually leave more than 600,000 Americans dead. Additionally, Trump’s well-established record of racism had been stoking social tensions in cities across the US for years, even as the pandemic worsened into April and May.
In late May, a video began to circulate online showing a White police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota (a six-hour drive from Chicago), with his knee on the back of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man detained for supposedly trying to pass counterfeit currency. For more than nine minutes the officer knelt on Floyd’s back as he gasped for air, and as he died on the street he gasped repeating his final words:

“I can’t breathe.”

The tragic power of these last words during a time when tens of thousands of people were dying (from a disease that often literally suffocates people), sparked a fire of national outrage.

Protests against police brutality erupted in cities across the US.16 On May 29, groups spontaneously gathered in Millennium Park (a northern extension of Grant Park, which had since become the city’s main tourist attraction) and moved into the downtown core, for a mostly peaceful gathering. The next afternoon, an estimated group of around 3,000 protesters gathered in Daley Plaza, next to City Hall, many with signs and face masks reading: “I Can’t Breathe.” Beginning as a peaceful gathering, protests then became more dangerous into the evening and extended throughout and beyond downtown.
To quell the rising violence, Chicago was one of twelve US cities to institute a citywide curfew,17 and the mayor called in the National Guard for the first time since 1968.18 Public transit was shut down, and most of the bridges connecting downtown to the rest of the city were raised—making it almost impossible for protesters to get in or out. As a result, any-one trapped downtown after curfew was subject to arrest.

By the end of that day, at least one person was killed, six were shot, and more than 200 were arrested. And as the day turned into the weekend, more than eighty people were shot and nineteen more were killed.19

At the time of this writing in mid-2021, wreckage from the riots still peppers the city, alongside scores of unofficial tributes, art works, and shrines to George Floyd.


Because it is now a recent memory, many Chicagoans’ relation-ship with the city is permanently changed as images of the raised bridges serve as a sinister instantiation of power. But this skepticism was likewise a psychological-social side effect of Chicago’s other pinnacle protest movements over the past 140 years, each of which served as a strivation for democracy.

With these brief studies in mind, the POM can be understood as an emerging method of understanding how protests function as organisms within the larger urban theater. A better under-standing of the individual relationship with the built environment, and how this environment can both amplify and moderate protest moments, has implications for mapping how space usage, power dynamics, human agency, technological creation, and political control will further shape protests — and democracies — into the future.

In this way, cities are like democracy itself: living and ever-changing, but ultimately subsisting in a state of paradox. As such, cities are fundamentally democratic spaces, not as a result of ideology, but simply as a truism traced all the way back to the words of Plato and the foundation of democratic thought in Western society:

“This city is what it is because our citizens are what they are.”


Aaron Kalfen, AIA, NCARB, is a leading designer and architect with nearly a decade of professional experience across a variety of building typologies in global markets. He currently serves as an architect for Goettsch Partners, a Chicago-based architecture firm that develops innovative building solutions in complex urban environments with bold design clarity. Before joining GP, Kalfen was a designer for GREC Architects and HNTB where he led creative design and technical design efforts on significant mixed-use, hospitality, sports, and aviation projects. Kalfen holds a Master of Architecture from the University of Kansas and lives in metropolitan Chicago.

Benjamin van Loon is a writer, educator, and communications executive with diverse experience in real estate, architecture, urban planning, and economic development. He currently serves as communications director for the Association of Foreign Investors in Real Estate, following previous roles as communications leader Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, as well as communications manager for World Business Chicago, the City of Chicago’s economic development partner. He is also an adjunct professor of public relations at Northeastern Illinois University, where he holds a master’s degree in communications and media. He lives and works in Chicago.


1. This Protest Organism Model (POM) is a work-in-progress developed by the authors as an illustrative tool and does not currently have a civic application. With added data for population density, building usage, infra-structure, and other smart city metrics, the model could potentially be applied for large-scale event planning, transit engineering, and other uses.
2. Howard Zinn, The Zinn Reader: Writings on Disobedience and Democracy (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1997), 383.
3. “The Population of Chicago,” New York Times, 2 July 1886.
4. 820 ILCS 145/1: Sec. 1. “On and after the first day of May, 1867, eight hours of labor between the rising and the setting of the sun, in all mechanical trades, arts and employments, and other cases of labor and service by the day, except farm employments, shall constitute and be a legal day’s work, where there is no special contract or agreement to the contrary.”
5. John B. Jentz, “Eight Hour Movement,” Encyclopedia of Chicago, http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory. org/pages/417.html; David R. Roediger and Philip S. Foner, Our Own Time: A History of American Labor and the Working Day (New York: Verso, 1989).
6. “Fulton-Randolph Market District: Final Landmark Recommendation,” City of Chicago, 13 May 2015, https://www. chicago.gov/content/dam/city/depts/zlup/Historic_Preservation/Publications/Final_Designation_Report.pdf
7. “Haymarket Square Map Chronology,” Ultra Local Geography, 13 January 2012, http://ultralocal.blogspot.com/2012/01/haymarket-square-map-chronology.html
8. James Green, Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America (New York: Anchor, 2007)
9. Willam J. Adelman, “The Haymarket Affair,” Illinois Labor History Society, http://www.illinoislaborhistory.org/the-haymarket-affair/
10. Arnold R. Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago, 1940–1960 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968).
11. Adam Cohen, American Pharaoh: Mayor Richard J. Daley, His Battle for Chicago and the Nation (New York: Little Brown & Company, 2001)
12. During the riots throughout the summer in Chicago following King’s death, at least nine people were reported killed, around 1,200 were injured, and more than 200 buildings were destroyed, costing an estimated $9 million in property damage across the city (approximately $68 million adjusting for inflation in 2021). The violence was so pervasive that some buildings on the city’s west side, even today, still show damage from that summer.
13. When asked about Chicago’s plan for dealing with these groups, Daley said, “no thousands will come to our city and take over our streets, our city, our convention.” See: “Connolly Slate Wins Floor Fight,” New York Times, 27 August 1968.
14. Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (New York: Viking, 1983)
15. “Hippie Killed by Policemen in Old Town,” Chicago Tribune, 23 August 1968.
15. Many of the protests organized around the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, a global network that “builds power to bring justice, healing, and freedom to Black people across the globe.” See: “About Black Lives Matter,” https://blacklivesmatter.com/about/, Retrieved 31 May 2021.
16. “Curfews go into effect in cities around the country,” NBC News, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/cur-fews-go-effect-cities-around-country-george-floyd-protests-continue-n1219801, Retrieved 31 May 2021.
17. “George Floyd fallout: New protests and unrest reported in city and suburbs; CTA suspends service; National Guard called in; city reduces access into downtown,” Chicago Tribune, https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/breaking/ct-george-floyd-chicago-protests-20200531-qghf4l7ysjgl3etxqu3jv6oq6a-story.html, Retrieved 31 May 2021.
18. The protests cost Chicago an estimated $125 million in economic damages, some of which were directly derived from the emergency use of infrastructure to stymie protest access. This outweighed the damages of 1968 by nearly $30 million, and accounts for between 5% and 10% of total economic damages for the 2020 BLM-related protests (and subsequently heavy-handed police responses) in all US cities, which could be as high as $2 billion; See: “Exclusive: $1 billion-plus riot damage is most expensive in insurance history,” Axios, https://www.axios.com/riots-cost-property-damage-276c9bcc-a455-4067-b06a-66f9db4cea9c.html, Retrieved 31 May 2021.

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By Ben van Loon

Writer, Researcher, Chicagoan