A History Of Destruction In American Protests, From Boston In 1773 To Ferguson In 2014
I’ve been scrolling through the #Ferguson hashtag all morning. Last night, protesters burned buildings down, destroying businesses; they overturned cars, they smashed windows, they looted. This is a moment of extraordinary anger. Officer Darren Wilson was not indicted for the murder of Mike Brown, and, as it turns out, that no-indictment is rare — or, at least, it’s rare when the murderer is not a police officer. And it’s heartbreaking that business owners in Ferguson are bearing the brunt of the aggression. It bears noting that there was almost no police presence in Ferguson last night to protect those businesses. Well, there was no police presence in Ferguson last night to protect businesses in majority Black areas; they did show up to create a barricade around a brewery.
The most frequent Twitter-voiced armchair condemnation of the destruction in Ferguson goes something like “Shame on you, destruction solves nothing,” and frequently goes further into sentiments like “these people are pathetic,” and, ultimately, “Black people don’t want us to be afraid of them, but then they do things like this.” Twitter racists, you seem to have a short memory: Black protesters in Ferguson are protesting and venting their anger through destruction over injustice. White protesters in Keene, New Hampshire, were protesting and venting their anger through destruction last month over the fact that they were drunk and unruly in public and the cops wanted them to go home, and they didn’t want to. Or, in other words, “You can’t make me!”
But hey, let’s talk about destruction of property as a political tactic for a minute. In fact, let’s talk about it in the context of American independence from Britain. In 1773, the British government put a tax on tea from the British East India Company imported into the not-yet-independent American colonies. I won’t get into it too far, but basically, in order to keep tea prices competitive for British subjects in Britain, Parliament levied taxes on British subjects living in America. The problem was that there were no political representatives serving the American colonists in Parliament. Decisions affecting the colonists, their money, and their trades were made without their input.
In Boston, the Sons of Liberty reacted against this, coining the term “No taxation without representation.” In other words, the colonists would not pay a government to govern them without their input. To protest, the Sons of Liberty seized a ship carrying a shipment of tea from the British East India Company and threw all the tea into the harbor, thereby destroying quite a lot of very valuable property. It’s important to note, here, that the tea was bound for American merchants who would otherwise have stood to profit from it not being destroyed. Or, again in other words, it was destruction of property to the detriment of innocent small businesses.
An interesting note about the Boston Tea Party: Several of the Sons of Liberty dressed up as Native Americans to raid the ship and destroy the tea because of negative cultural associations with Native Americans as “savage,” “barbaric,” etcetera. Or, in other words, it has always been more plausible to White people in America to believe that a person of color would be unruly than that a White person would.
The Boston Tea Party is viewed, historically, as the spark that lit the flame of the American Revolution. In general, we see it as a good in this country. The destruction that took place is excusable because it served a greater purpose, the purpose of American liberty.
That liberty, of course, was not extended to Blacks in America, who remained enslaved in the South for almost a hundred more years after the American revolution. We had to have a war over it. There were almost 300,000 Confederate soldiers who died in defense of their right to own Black people as slaves. It was during the Reconstruction Era, immediately following the Civil War, that the first Ku Klux Klan was founded. Blacks in the south were frequently returned to something just a hair shy of slavery through the Black Codes. Confederate-sympathizing Southern leaders were returned to positions of power to an extent much greater than what Lincoln would have imagined. The Jim Crow Era began in 1876, during which the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case mandated the doctrine of “separate but equal” in regards to racial segregation. It took almost another hundred years before the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1965. In 1971, President Nixon initiated the War on Drugs, which has incarcerated Black people, and Black men in particular, en masse in America. The real result of the War on Drugs is, in short, that despite the fact that Black and White people in America use drugs at an equal rate, Black people are incarcerated on drug offenses 10 times as frequently as Whites.
So, you see, Black people have never truly been free in America. They work, they pay taxes, they own businesses, they go to school, they contribute, but they are not (and have not ever been) afforded actual equality to Whites. Blacks live in disproportionate poverty to Whites. Black students in American public schools are suspended disproportionately, and majority Black and Hispanic schools have inadequate funding to provide important subjects like chemistry and advanced algebra; plus, the quality of teachers hired at majority Black and Hispanic public schools is quantifiably lower than those hired at majority White schools. Blacks are imprisoned disproportionately, are three times more likely to be searched during a stop, and Black and Hispanic youth constitute 70 percent of the incarcerated youth in America. Black Americans are twice as likely to be killed by a police officer during an arrest than White Americans.
All of this is despite the fact that Whites make up 69.3 percent, and Blacks 28.1 percent, of all arrested criminal offenders. Just for good measure, I’m also going to remind the reader that Whites and Blacks use welfare benefits at roughly the same rate.
So if the destruction of property was justified for White Bostonians in 1773 because it was done in response to oppression via taxation, why is it not justified for Black Missourians in 2014 in response to oppression via poverty, unequal education, incarceration, and profiling? If we lionize the Boston Tea Party in our national memory as the spark of a greater conflict with authority that ultimately benefitted the country, why are we saying “For shame” to the protesters in Ferguson?
Our nation was founded on protest that is not always non-violent. We’ve destroyed plenty in the name of freedom. Millions of people have died on American soil in wars fought ostensibly to move the country forward into greater freedom and greater equality — yet when Black Americans protest, we hold them to the standard of non-violence. It’s not the only way, and historically, it’s not even the American way.
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I’m closing comments on posts about Ferguson this week because, well, I CAN, and it’s Thanksgiving week and people are in pain and I don’t want any racist ass trolls on this site making it any worse. — Amelia