Fight for Rights: The Chicago 1919 Riots and the Struggle for Black Justice

Chief of Police John Garrity

John Garrity became police chief in 1918, after Chief Herman Schuettler died.

A lifelong Chicagoan, Garrity was born June 21, 1869 and grew up in a working class family. His father had been a teamster; his two sisters, Mary and Catherine Anne, went into millinery work as young women. John Garrity was ambitious. In the late 1880s, he began work for the post office as a letter carrier. In 1894, he was briefly hired as a police officer during the Pullman strike, as part of an effort to beef up the police to control labor, only to be fired in May 1895 after the city council cut the police budget. Undaunted, Garrity returned to the post office. By 1900, he was a superintendent, a position he held until his appointment as chief of Chicago's Police Department.

Many were surprised when he was made police chief, but anyone following the debates over police militarization would have understood the choice. In addition to his service with the post office, Garrity had a long career with the Illinois National Guard. He enlisted in the Second Infantry of the Illinois National Guard in 1889. By the time of the Spanish American War in 1898, he was a captain in the unit when it was sent to Cienfuegos, Cuba. In 1916, he was a commander when the troop when it went to the Mexican border during police actions against Pancho Villa. Garrity remained in command when his regiment was called up for service in World War I and went with his men to Camp Logan in Houston Texas in September 1917. Then, just before his men were sent overseas in April 1918, he abruptly resigned after being found physically unfit for overseas duty.

In March 1919, the New Majority complained that the “Chicago police are armed with army rifles and bayonets and the whole force has been drilled with these weapons.” When Garrity was questioned about the practice by the Chicago City Council, he admitted that no other city made its police officers learn how to use bayonets but declared that his men would continue to do so “until the peace treaty has been signed, and possibly for a longer time, until the period of reconstruction has passed.” Garrity also asked the city council for “a supply of gas bombs, similar to those used in trench warfare,” because he wanted his cops to be able to bomb houses when people were barricaded inside. And he advocated that the police department hire a supplemental police force, what he called a “depot brigade,” of 3,000 former soldiers and sailors to use in case of emergency.

In his letter appointing Garrity to head the department, Thompson made it clear that Garrity's extensive experience in the National Guard was the reason for his appointment. But Garrity did not just bring a general skill or enthusiasm for the weapons of war to Chicago. His military experience was of a very specific kind: Garrity had been involved in all of Illinois’ major race riots. In 1908, his national guard unit was assigned to patrol Springfield, Illinois, after the race riot in that city. In 1917, Garrity commanded 600 men on patrol in East St. Louis after the race riot there. The Illinois National Guard did not distinguish itself in its East St. Louis action. The Chicago Tribune blamed lack of ammunition, but an investigating committee reported that many of the guardsmen “stated that 'they didn't like n****rs' and would not disturb a white man for killing them.” The investigation by the House of Representatives concluded that members of the state militia shot at Black people who were trying to escape from white mobs.

Both Chicago’s Second Regiment and its commander managed to escape blame for the failures in East St. Louis. In an interview the day he took office, Garrity promised Chicago a new police department and assured the Chicago Tribune that he would be his own boss and not take orders from any politician. He also vowed that there would be no “soft jobs” and that all the officers would learn “military discipline.” That may have given hope to those who favored a turn toward a more militarized police; it did not quiet concerns about the department.

Garrity resigned as Chief of Police on November 10, 1920, and he died August 10, 1940.

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