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Executives feared their newsreel footage would “cause riots and mass hysteria.”
Even in this age of police bodycams and bystander videos, there are certain categories of footage that most media organizations won’t share with the public. We rarely see corpses, for instance, and never executions or graphic images from school shootings. This sanitizing censorship may be intended to prevent such horrors from being normalized or gleefully distributed on the internet. But it’s hard to imagine today’s news creators suppressing, as they did in 1937, footage from the deadly anti-labor crackdown that came to be known as the Memorial Day Massacre.
On May 30, 1937, Orlando Lippert, a veteran cameraman for a leading newsreel outlet, Paramount News, was assigned to cover a Memorial Day picnic in Southeast Chicago. But his assignment would turn out to be more than just a holiday puff piece. Workers at the local Republic Steel plant had been on strike for several days, seeking recognition for their new union and vying for adoption of the same landmark concessions recently won by their colleagues at US Steel, including an eight-hour day and time-and-a-half overtime pay.
The economic hardships of the Great Depression had eased only slightly during the preceding months, and labor organizing had caught fire in many sectors. A new tactic, “sit down strikes,” helped produce major wins for labor at General Motors and Ford in nearby Detroit. Local police, friendly with the Republic Steel bosses, had already clashed with some of the strikers that week, cracking heads. And so, to demonstrate their resolve, the Steel Workers Organizing Committee sought an impressive turnout of supporters on Memorial Day.
Lippert arrived in Chicago that hot, sunny morning as men, women, and children in their Sunday best started arriving on the wide, vacant field about three blocks from the massive Republic plant. He couldn’t have guessed that he was about to witness—and document—the shootings of dozens of people by police, including at least one woman and one child, and the vast majority shot in the back or side as they fled, 10 of them fatally. Nor could he have imagined that his shocking footage, among the most sensational and meaningful of the century, would be kept from the public for weeks, until a famed investigative reporter and a crusading senator brought the images to light.
The massacre marked the first time film footage would be introduced as evidence in a congressional probe, according to reports. And it would spark the first known calls for police to carry cameras in their vans or cars—a precursor of the dashcams and bodycams that are now considered vital in exposing police malpractice.
“I made some scenes of demonstrators out in the open prairie and the police lined up across that same field,” Lippert later recalled. “When the demonstrators moved toward the east, I moved the truck east.” The picnic’s organizers had urged the crowd to march toward the plant and establish a mass (and clearly legal) picket outside the gates. Lippert captured the dramatic confrontation as the lead marchers came up against a line of 200 or more police officers—some armed with axe handles supplied by Republic, which also provided tear gas.
As angry words flew and police ordered the crowd to disperse, a few marchers tossed stones and a tree branch in the direction of the cops. Many officers, without warning, responded by drawing their pistols and firing point blank at people up front, and then at the fleeing marchers. When those officers stopped firing, their comrades pursued the crowd, clubbing people, including women, as they huddled on the ground, helpless.