Oregon Governor Kate Brown calls them "Trump Troops." This refers to the unidentified federal paramilitary forces being inserted into domestic law enforcement in Portland and, apparently considered for Chicago. "We do not need federal troops in Chicago," Mayor Lori Lightfoot said at a press conference Monday, after widespread looting downtown the night before. The entire federal activity is fluid and unclear as to its purpose, goals and constitutionality. Though not a direct parallel, the situation calls to mind the Pullman Strike of 1894 in Chicago.
As a result of the Depression of 1893, George Pullman had reduced the wages of workers making Pullman Sleeping Cars that he leased to most American railroads. He had created a "model community" (now Pullman National Monument, https://www.nps.gov/pull/index.htm) where the workers were basically required to live. It was a self-contained community with stores, etc., run by Pullman. But when Pullman cut wages, housing rents remained unchanged. This resulted in a wildcat strike by the workers.
About a third of Pullman employees were members of the American Railway Union (ARU), founded and led by Eugene Debs. George Pullman refused to negotiate with his workers. At the request of Pullman workers, the ARU agreed to a boycott that shut railroad traffic from Chicago to 27 other states.
The mayor of Chicago at the time was John Hopkins. He had fallen out with George Pullman over business matters. Consequently, he was not interested in helping Pullman, and, indeed, Chicago police collected contributions for the strikers.
Governor John Peter Altgeld had been elected with labor support and refused to send state militia to assist Pullman in breaking the strike.
But, the U.S. Attorney General, Richard Olney, convinced President Grover Cleveland to send federal troops to Chicago, ostensibly to enforce a federal injunction against obstructing railroads, striking or even "ordering, directing, aiding, assisting or abetting any person in the commission of the acts forbidden."
As with the current situation, however, there was more politics than public safety in the deployment. Altgeld's seminal biographer, Harry Barnard, notes in Eagle Forgotten: The Life of John Peter Altgeld, Attorney General Olney was a railroad lawyer – "one of the biggest in the nation."
There was also decided bias and bigotry in the national media. The current president rails against some amorphous "ANTIFA" and blames violence on anarchists and hoodlums: "The 'protesters' are actually anarchists who hate our country." In 1894, the Chicago Tribune, precursor of today's Fox News, was a corporate, capitalist establishment promoter. On the Pullman Strike, the paper reported that "anarchy" prevailed in Chicago, that the strike was in reality a "revolution," that the issue was not and never had been the Pullman workers' wage question, but a contest between "law and order" and "lawlessness and anarchy."
Governor Altgeld sent a letter to President Cleveland that is equally applicable today: "[A]ll these troubles were local in character and could easily be handled by state authorities. The newspaper accounts have in many cases been pure fabrications, and in others wild exaggerations." The letter continued:
"I submit that local self-government is a fundamental principle of our Constitution.... To absolutely ignore a local government in matters of this kind...not only insults the people of this State...but is in violation of a basic principle of our institutions. The question of Federal supremacy is in no way involved.... Federal supremacy and local self-government must go hand in hand, and to ignore the latter is to do violence to the Constitution."
Attorney General Olney replied: "The paramount duty of the President of the United States is to see that the laws of the United States are faithfully executed and in the discharge of that duty, he is not hampered or crippled by necessity of consulting any Chief of Police, Mayor or even Governor."
History continues to repeat and political interest continues to govern policy.
Dennis Rendleman is a Springfield lawyer and historian.