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The ‘Sense of Life’ at the Bughouse Square Debates

2011 Bughouse Square Debates in Chicago, IL

At this point in history, the US government perpetrates at least seven wars. A stagnating US global economy now serves the wealthiest one percent at the expense of the bottom ninety-nine percent. The political class has an increasing disinterest in confronting the current and oncoming crises that have and will result from climate change. And, there is an intensifying bipartisan consensus among the Washington establishment that national security and American capitalism should trump civil liberties and digital privacy rights.

Now more than ever the American people of this country need to be out in public spaces debating with one another, having dialogue about the issues that corrupt and inept politicians will never properly confront. It is time for the rabble-rousers to be out in the square creatively attracting the attention of people, inviting them to gather around and here what he or she has to say.

One park in Chicago, Washington Square Park, has a history of being a location, where poets, religionists, revolutionaries, labor leaders and cranks would draw crowds. It came to be known as Bughouse Square. From the 1910s to the 1960s, speakers would get up on soapboxes and say whatever they had to say.

Bughouse Square was most popular in the 1920s and 1930s. “Soapboxers” from the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Proletarian Party, Socialist Party, along with vegetarians and Moody Bible Institute would address crowds.

Last weekend, in Chicago, the Bughouse Square Committee held its annual Bughouse Square Debates event to celebrate the culture of free speech that once made the park so vibrant. The event, revived by the Newberry Library, marked the 125th anniversary of the Chicago Haymarket Affair. It opened with a speech by actress Alma Washington as Lucy Parsons.

Parsons was an African, Mexican and Native American labor activist, who came to be well known among those who regularly visited Bughouse Square. Her husband, Albert Parsons, was one of four labor activists convicted and hanged for allegedly bombing Haymarket Square—an act that touched off the Haymarket Riot. Following the riot, Albert fled to Geneva, Illinois. The Chicago police came looking for Albert at the newspaper office where she was working. She refused to give them information on Albert and went to jail. Later, the police came to her house and tore open her mattress. They took her son and put him in a rug and rolled him around on the floor. Albert eventually decided to return to Chicago and to stand in solidarity with others that were being made to pay for the violence at the riot.

When it came time for Albert to be executed, the authorities wouldn’t let her and her children see Albert. Lucy pressed the police for one last goodbye for the children, the police wound up throwing them in jail. They were thrown in a cold cell and stripped naked, demonstrating clearly the law was not the same for the rich as it was for the poor.

Lucy continued to have a presence in Bughouse Square following the execution of her husband. In the 1920s, the Chicago Police Department considered her to be “more dangerous than a thousand rioters.” It is this kind of bold radicalism that one thinks of when they think of Bughouse Square.

Participants in the “soapbox” debates event can say anything and spout off on any topic or issue. The event is populist and egalitarian in nature, meaning one doesn’t have to be a pundit or regular columnist of a newspaper to give their opinion to a crowd.

Those who “soapbox” must command the attention and approval of the crowd. If he or she loses the crowd, they will be heckled. Their “soapboxing” will be tested in the same way individuals were tested during the peak of the square’s heyday.

Here’s one example of a “soapboxer” at the event over the weekend. What happens in this clip is exactly what makes the event a rousing experience. Eric Kohn, a representative of the Chicago Tea Party, gets up and attempts to argue to the crowd that Americans may not be mature enough for free speech. The crowd catches him and his argument begins to turn into a defense of corporations. The crowd is so rowdy that Kohn even ends his time on the “soapbox” before it is supposed to be over (each “soapboxer” gets 15 minutes during the event).

Another “soapboxer” at the event was Stephanie Weiner of the Committee to Stop FBI Repression. She is one of twenty-three activists whose home was raided by the FBI. She and the twenty-two other activists were given subpoenas to appear before a grand jury investigating them for their political beliefs. Her motivation for getting up on the “soapbox” is very much in line with what motivated soapboxers in the early 1900s.

She, unlike Kohn, commands the attention of the crowd. Each person is into it, struck by the war against civil liberties and constitutional rights that she and the other activists are facing.

American author, broadcaster and Pulitzer Prize winner Studs Terkel describes his memories of Bughouse Square in his memoir Touch and Go. He writes, “I attended Bughouse Square as regularly as possible in the years that followed. I doubt whether I learned very much. One thing I know: I delighted in it. Perhaps none of it made any sense, save one kind: sense of life.”

That was what I took away from the event: the energy of life that flowed amongst people as they listened to individuals speak, as they got up on the soapbox, as they interrupted the “soapboxers” they thought were feeding them a bunch of bullshit on a topic and deserved little respect if any at all.

Today’s “public square,” in most respects, has been abandoned. Among the majority of the population, there is little effort to reclaim the “public square.” Most Americans have ceded the “public square” to private companies and organizations. When they enter areas and try to speak, they are asked if they have a permit. An officer shoos them away or arrests them for engaging in a public demonstration. Crowds do not form around people who start yelling. People keep on walking by and go about their day.

The Internet has become a refuge for those who have lost a war for control of the “public square.” Social media is held up as some kind of panacea for the erosion of the “public square.” But, the Internet is not guaranteed to always exist as a protected area for free speech, freedom of expression and the open exchange of ideas. Private companies already seek to impose restriction on activities and limit one’s ability to remain anonymous, the chief reason why one might want to gather online instead of in a park or government plaza.

It is clear Americans must in some way find the willingness and stamina to reclaim the ability to come together and energize democratic society with the spirit that was alive in Bughouse Square. Soapbox debates may seem antiquated in a world dominated by technology but it is the passion that flowed amongst people, who were grappling with the most pressing social and political issues of the day, that kept movements alive in Chicago. And, if there is to be any departure from the horrifying path those in power are taking this country, it will come from reconnecting with that “sense of life” Studs Terkel remembered from his time in Bughouse Square.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."