We Do Not Protest Too Much

We’ve been down this road before. It has helped.

This past week has embraced us with the feeling of a watershed moment. Peaceful protests are still the central focus across the country, while incidents of mayhem seem to have died down. History shows that something good often comes out of it, impossible as it may seem at the time.

1963 Civil rights march, photo at Gallup.com, from US National Archives.

When Gallup conducted polls in the early 1960s, both before and after the 1963 March on Washington (the “I Have a Dream” speech), respondents said that such massed protests hurt the cause of civil rights. Not by a bare majority either; in May 1964, 74% of those polled by Gallup said that non-violent protests “hurt the Negro’s cause for racial equality. ” It’s hard to see the watershed when the waterfall is still falling on our heads.

Protests, historically, have followed a particular pattern. Oppression. Uprising, partly peaceful/partly violent. Masses come together. Law enforcement cracks down. More mass protests, more crackdowns. Trials with verdicts, rarely with justice satisifed. But later, some change. Society inches forward over the rubble.

Here are a few examples from the last seven centuries or so.

Negotiations Go Better when You Don’t Spit on the King

The Peasants’ Rebellion of 1381 is an early example of mass protests which led to positive change, though it took a squirrely path to get there. Let me set the scene. The Black Death had ravaged Eurasia and North Africa, where by the 1350s, somewhere between 30-60% of the population had succumbed. Peasants died by the millions, but the landowners and wealthy were also not spared, leading to a labor shortage and inflation. Laborers demanded higher wages and more autonomy, and some got it from the barons who depended on the peasants to work their farms for income. At the same time, England was engaging in continuous skirmishes with France on their own soil and across the Channel, and constant war was expensive. All of it sounds rather familiar.

Wat Tyler meeting Richard II, in the Peasants’ Rebellion of 1381. Illustration in Jean Froissart’s Chronicles.

A poll tax–a tax per person–was instituted by the monarchy, officially under teenaged King Richard II, but in truth the scheme of his uncle regent, John of Gaunt, whose military exploits in France had emptied the royal coffers. This poll tax was unpopular. A per-capita tax hit the poor hard, and even the fledgling parliament thought it too expensive and regressive. Things came to a head in 1381, when folks grabbed their pitchforks and went off to complain, following an enterprising leader named Wat Tyler through Kent and Wessex towards London. It would be like if much of the southern U.S., from Texas to Florida, marched north to D.C., burning county records, deposing mayors, and opening up the prisons as they went.

Tyler and his forces made it to London and confronted teenaged King Richard II on June 13, 1381. At this first meeting, Richard agreed to Tyler’s demands including abolishing serfdom and eliminating the poll tax. While they met, however, another group had stormed the Tower of London, killing the officials inside. Two days later, meeting for a second time outside the city walls, the exchange between Richard and Tyler was less productive. The meeting began cordially enough, but at one point Tyler, claiming thirst, took a swig of water and “rinsed his mouth in a very rude and disgusting fashion before the King’s face.”

This didn’t end well for Tyler or the peasant movement, at least in the short-run. The outraged members of the king’s entourage killed Tyler. Leaderless and out-weaponed, the mob was attacked and dispersed. Richard took back most of concessions.

However, those who read their Shakespeare know that Richard II was ultimately deposed by a cousin Henry IV, who claimed that Richard’s poor stewardship of his people forfeited his divine right to kingship. Wat Tyler got a sort of revenge. Fearful of provoking the peasants, England did not enact another poll tax until the 1990s. Within a half-century, serfdom in England had been abolished. It was one of the earliest successful uprisings on behalf of laborers. There were more to come.

Haymarket: Anarchists, Injustice, and the Birth of the Labor Movement

Five hundred years later in Chicago, workers played out a scenario somewhat similar to their peasant cousins across the pond. To the consternation of protesters and AP History students alike, the Haymarket Affair turned into the Haymarket Riot and the Haymarket Massacre.

Worker protests had been increasing beginning in the late 1870s, not just in the U.S. but in many industrializing nations, from Europe to Australia. American laborers called for a general strike beginning May 1, 1886 to demand an eight-hour day and a 40-hour workweek. In Chicago on May 4, during a mass protest where lines of police were trying to disperse the large crowd, someone in the crowd threw a bomb at police. The police responded by firing on the mostly unarmed crowd. When the smoke cleared, seven police officers and 38 civilians were dead, with hundreds wounded.

An 1896 engraving of the Haymarket affair, published in Harper’s Weekly.

The police rounded up a number of suspects, and eight anarchists were accused, six of whom were French and German immigrants. A wave of anti-union, xenophobia arose, along with an outpouring of support for the police. The evidence against the specific men charged was thin, but public sentiment and the judicial system were hugely biased against the defendants. For example, during jury selection, anyone with pro-union sentiment was summarily dismissed by the judge, while the defense was limited in who they were allowed to dismiss. The prosecution had little evidence linking the accused to the crime, so they ended up arguing that these men, who had been at the protest, were as guilty as whoever threw the bomb because they didn’t actively do enough to stop it. The men were found guilty and executed.

Still, popular support for ideals behind the strike remained, and the May 1 date of the Haymarket protest became attached to a worldwide day to celebrate labor. Within two years, the first International Workers Day was held on May 1, 1890 and deemed a great success. Legislation supporting worker’s rights was passed and union membership soared. Even though some of the gains made have waned with anti-union sentiment over the past few decades, many basic worker rights, like the forty-hour workweek, have stayed intact.

The history of Haymarket Monument tells its own story. In 1889, a statue dedicated to the fallen Chicago police was erected on the spot of the riot, to great fanfare. However, only forty years later, a streetcar jumped the tracks, aimed by a local Chicago driver tired of seeing a policeman “raising his arm” at the public. Over the decades, the statue was removed, put back, covered with graffiti, blown up by student groups, covered with black paint before the 1968 convention, guarded at great taxpayer expense by Mayor Daley, and eventually moved to the police academy. In 2007, a new statue was unveiled by sculptor Mary Brogger, a replica of the speakers’ wagon used by labor organizers. Brogger was smart, though. She chose a metal with a patina that would be easy to clean, just in case graffiti artists got frisky. Chances are, they will.

Bombers With a Bustle

Uprisings weren’t limited to peasants or laborers, and they weren’t always popular at the time. The suffragettes at the turn of the 20th century marched frequently and in large groups. However, crowds flanking the streets where they marched often hurled insults and objects. One of the largest marches took place in 1917, right before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. During the parade, police looked away as spectators attacked the demonstrators.

Even in 1917, protesters knew where to aim their attention. Photo from the Library of Congress archives.

The women’s movement itself was not in complete agreement about how to approach getting the vote. Some protestors advocated using bombs, arson, and vandalism to respond to violence that greeted them. Others extolled passive protest, famously chaining themselves to the White House and conducting hunger strikes when imprisoned. As with today, the suffragettes also focused attention on the president and Washington D.C. as a backdrop for their protest.

At the time, the women’s request for the right to vote was not popular. Pundits often claimed that being in charge of domestic households would make women ill-prepared to know how to select municipal leaders. Or that, once they did, their children would suffer from neglect. There was fear that when women could vote, all hell would break loose. Next thing you know, women might be working or even wearing pants. The pundits were right about that part.

Mass Gatherings of Radical Seniors

While some used a mix of violent and non-violent tactics to press for social change, one fellow from southern California came up with a passive but effective approach, using PR tactics. Francis Townsend, a 66-year-old from Long Beach, believed at the beginning of the Depression that one way to ease unemployment would be to take seniors off the job–by paying them.

Townsend wasn’t the only one talking about paying people to retire, but he had a multi-step Plan and decided to gather supporters to his cause. His Plan involved providing a modest payout to those willing to leave their jobs, and his argument was that it would kickstart the sagging economy and keep old people from starving. He connected with an advertising man, Ernest Clements, and the two of them created Townsend Clubs, which soon swept the country.

A 1938 rally for the Townsend Plan at the Memorial Coliseum. Photo from the LA Times archive.

Within a few years, the Clubs were holding annual conventions, attended by the tens of thousands in large venues, like the Los Angeles Coliseum. While these weren’t face-offs against the police, these protests were large and loud., offering a public face to the private lobbying happening in DC. By 1935, half of America clamored to adopt the Townsend Plan. They got what they wanted, when in 1935, FDR and Congress passed the Social Security Act.

Persistence, focus, protesting en masse. American history–world history–has a long track record of successful move towards change.

Even if it doesn’t seem so progressive at the time.

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