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  • Writer's pictureTheresa Capra

Violent Protests in American History: Part 1 – How do 2020’s protests compare to early ones?

America was founded on violent protests. How do 2020's protests compare to early ones such as Bacon's, Shays', and the Whiskey Rebellion? Analysis can help shed light on current events. #theresacapra #research #equity


Sometimes history delivers a one-two punch: a landmark event enveloped in a historical year.  Times of war come to mind: August 6, 1945 - the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, an earth-shattering day smack in the middle of a record-breaking year as World War II came to a climatic end.

The year 2020 is progressing in a similar pattern, even if we are not in the grips of a world war. During one of the worst pandemics in world history, lies May 26: the day George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin while spectators captured the agonizing 7:46 minutes. Appropriately, it all went viral setting off violent protests unseen in decades.

“But why are they burning and destroying their own neighborhoods?”

It’s a question I’ve heard a million times from well-intentioned folks who champion racial equality but struggle to make sense of fiery protests. Historians have weighed in on the ‘why’, noting that in low-income areas, African-Americans do not own a lot of property and small shops charge unfair rates for inferior products, thus commercial destruction can be seen as a revolt against economic oppression. As for the psychology of rage, that too is misunderstood. Protests, including violent ones, are politically motivated, coordinated attacks on the status quo. Labeling Black Lives Matter as an angry mob bent on destruction is a political tactic bent on marginalization.

In the face of tumult, eyewitnesses search for understanding, but often history is overlooked. Violence is upsetting in any form, especially now that it’s crowd surfed on social media, but a quick scan of American history can demonstrate to neutral observers that violent tactics are as American as apple pie.

Bacon’s Rebellion

Life during colonial America was inconceivably harsh compared to our comfortable times. However, there are familiar parallels such as oppression, disease and riots. In 1676, Smallpox was ravaging indigenous people on the present-day American continent at warp speed.  Simultaneously, the expansion of white government was paving the way for violent uprisings and racial tension.

In 1676, Nathaniel Bacon, a plantation owner in Virginia, mounted a rebellion against the governor, William Berkeley, for assorted reasons ranging from personal snubs, to Berkeley’s refusal to grant freeholders such as Bacon carte blanche to kill Native Americans.

Although Bacon was from an affluent family, he was able to galvanize the obvious social and economic disparities that pervaded the region. He recruited a makeshift army that included poor farmers, slaves, and black and white indentured servants, marginalized groups who were oppressed by the wealthy and had axes to grind.

Bacon’s protesters were not peaceful. They instigated violence, pillaged farms, looted, and most notably burned the capital city of Jamestown to the ground - their own community. History books have never relegated that act to rage, instead it is clearly understood as a calculated anti-establishment move that diminished Berkeley’s power. The exact strategy was employed by protesters who set the Minneapolis police department ablaze, yet many commentators, including the President of the United States, have reduced their actions to that of an “angry mob.”

Bacon died of dysentery before he could see his rebellion through, but the wealthy plantation owners got the big take-away: the lower classes need further oppression to maintain the status quo, and enforcement of strict racial codes would be necessary to prevent poor whites, poor Blacks, and enslaved persons from joining forces in the future.

Shays’ Rebellion

The cherished American Revolution was, in itself, a violent protest against perceived tyranny from a legitimate government. In fact, Thomas Jefferson harkened back to Bacon as the first patriot fighting British oppression because it fit their rebellious narrative, despite the truth that Bacon’s rebellion was a power struggle between two stubborn men. But even after the procurement of liberty and establishment of democracy, violent uprising was inevitable.

After the Revolutionary War, many veterans who returned to their farms found themselves struggling to make ends meet. These poor farmers were often cash-strapped, so their local economies moved on the exchange of goods and services rather than paper currency. In western Massachusetts, wealthy coastal merchants began to insist on hard cash for goods while declining lines of credit. The lack of paper money made it impossible for the farmers to pay their debts because besides their farms, all they had was the shirts on their backs. They petitioned the government to print more money to level the field--they sought relief through the courts but the government, dominated by the wealthy, ignored their plight, and the bureaucratic scales never tipped in their favor. In the face of economic oppression, what did these early Americans do? Rebel, of course. Protesters destroyed government property, assaulted tax collectors, and shut down the courthouse - the physical emblem of injustice.

The summer of 2020 is a mirror’s reflection in many ways. For example, in Portland, protesters drew strong federal responses when they occupied a courthouse, while protesters in Denver targeted the state Supreme Court. In Sacramento, peaceful demonstrations turned violent when citizens vandalized government property and occupied a park.

There is a major difference: the absence of Daniel Shays to coordinate a coup. Daniel Shays, a veteran and farmer directly affected, organized protesters into a full-scale insurgency that sought to topple the government from 1786 to 1787. Eventually the militants were quelled, and Daniel Shays escaped and lived the remainder of his days in poverty. But the violence of Shays' Rebellion resonated with the status quo leading to a stronger federal government that could squash violent rebellions that challenged the establishment. It even made its way into the preamble of the Constitution - ”insure domestic Tranquility.”

The Whiskey Rebellion

In 1791, the congressional branch of the newly formed United States of America decided to flex its muscle by imposing a tax on distilled beverages to pay down debt amassed during the Revolution. Since whisky had become the most popular drink, the controversial excise became known as the whisky tax. Whisky was a form of currency on the western frontier for poor farmers, especially in Pennsylvania, so to them it was really an income tax rather than an excise on domestic commerce. Farmers refused to comply - they viewed it as a tool of oppression from wealthy, eastern landowners.

Resistance quickly snowballed into violent insurrection - homes were burned down, property destroyed, and statues set ablaze in effigy. Unfortunately, violent unrest always claims innocent victims and tax collectors became casualties of war. There was Robert Johnson who was attacked by a mob of men disguised as women while he was traversing through his collection route. He was tarred and feathered and left for dead in the woods. John Connor, who attempted to arrest the perpetrators, met the same fate.

Similar events have unfolded today. In Oakland, a federal contract security officer, hired to protect federal courthouses, was shot and killed during a demonstration that turned violent. David Dorn, a retired police captain, was shot and killed by looters in a pawn shop.

Generally, it has been the Black community caught in the crossfire. First, Covid-19 hit African-Americans hard, resulting in higher mortality rates. Simultaneously, Black-owned businesses that were shut received limited government assistance compared to white communities. Then the protests erupted and the Black-owned businesses that were destroyed  may never recover.

History has been kind to the Whiskey Rebellion, which ran from 1791 to 1794. For starters, it’s not labeled as a riot, rather it’s a rebellion that embodies rugged individualism. This is in stark contrast to how the record treats the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s, which are labeled as race riots. Although the media has avoided labeling the George Floyd protests as riots, it’s inescapable when the President of the United States does so repeatedly from the Rose Garden.

How does this compare with the federal tenor during the Whiskey Rebellion? George Washington did prefer a diplomatic resolution but ultimately he is credited with using federal force to suppress the insurrections after years of climatic standoffs. A lingering lesson is that wealthy interests would always prevail.

But race was not involved so how do we celebrate the historical destruction of property and violence today? With a festival, of course!

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