If you were reading left-leaning commentators over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, you probably saw a rather strange argument: that looting, arson and rioting in Ferguson, Missouri in the aftermath of the decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for shooting Michael Brown was defensible on the grounds that it was equivalent to the Boston Tea Party or the Stamp Act Riots. The problem with this parallel is that it is at best willfully ignorant of history, and at worst a deliberate call for an escalation to violent revolution.
Given the emotions running high over the Brown case, protests were inevitable, and it was also inevitable that some protesters would get out of hand, as happens with angry crowds. But what happened went well beyond protests, to looting and arson of a Little Ceasars pizza joint, a small cake bakery, an antique store, a beauty shop, and other businesses, some of them small concerns owned by local African-American entrepreneurs.
Among the various efforts made by people on the Left to justify or defend this, we had a Time Magazine column, celebrities and other Twitter users and even a teachers’ guide pushing the parallel between the Ferguson rioters and colonial protests against taxation without representation. Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jamelle Bouie, who spent much of a day pushing these parallels and retweeting readers doing the same, went further:
(Notably, Coates backed off any effort to draw the parallel in his Atlantic column on the topic).
There are four major problems with justifying the violence in Ferguson by reference to the Boston Tea Party and the Stamp Act Riots, either in moral terms or in terms of the effectiveness of this sort of protest.
1. The Violence in Ferguson Targeted Innocent Small Business Owners
By contrast, the Boston Tea Party was directed at destroying the property of the government-granted corporate monopoly (the British East India Company) that benefited from the Tea Act. The Stamp Act Riots—as the first outburst, before the development of colonial leaders like Sam Adams—were sometimes less directed and more random, generating some mob violence similar to contemporary riots. But what made the violence effective was that much of it was aimed at government officials in charge of collecting the Stamp Act taxes, and others who collaborated with them, leading many to fear for their lives and property if they continued to cooperate. In contrast, the likes of local baker Natalie Dubose had done nothing at all to deserve having their businesses destroyed.
This has, in fact, been the pattern for most of the urban African-American riots of the past 50 years, from 1960s riots in places like Newark and Detroit to the Los Angeles riots of 1992 to Cincinnati in 2001: the destruction of local homes and businesses, some of which never return, and the decimation of the wealth (however modest) of the local black middle class. To say that violence and civil disorder, in the abstract, may be effective or justifiable proves nothing about the effect of this kind of violence, the wanton arsons and the self-interested looting.
2. The Boston Tea Party Provoked a Harsh Response
The idea that the Boston Tea Party could be used as a model for the Ferguson rioters ignores the fact that the Boston Tea Party didn’t work—at least, not in the sense of causing the British Crown to back down. To the contrary, the Crown did what governments often do in the face of civil unrest: close ranks and crack down. The Tea Party led to the military occupation of Boston and the near ruination of the city’s economy.
The Stamp Act Riots were, again, more effective, but only because they caught by surprise a government that was 3,000 miles away, slowed by eighteenth-century trans-oceanic communications and (in the aftermath of seven years of war) without the force on hand to impose order. But the longer term effect of the Stamp Act crisis was not to convince the British government that it should avoid antagonizing the colonists, but rather to persuade the Crown to exert more control over the colonies in order to avoid a repetition—precisely the spine-stiffening effect that prepared it for passage of the Tea Act and its subsequent response to the Tea Party.
In Ferguson, by contrast, the protestors aren’t going after a distant government an ocean away, but contending with local authority—the very opposite of the colonists’ demand for more local control. And local authority by its nature is more immediately responsive to push back at threats to the civil order.
3. The Founding Fathers Were Appalled By Mob Violence
Much of the citation to the Boston Tea Party and the Stamp Act Riots is, more or less, an effort to troll conservatives who like to cite the Founding Fathers. But the men who established the government we have today were, most of them, appalled by mob violence. Ben Franklin, whose wife had to turn away Stamp Act rioters with the family firearm, did everything he could in London to distance himself and other peaceful protesters of the Stamp Act from the charge of complicity with the rioters. John Adams, who had defended British troops charged with firing into the crowd at the Boston Massacre in 1770, supported the Tea Party but was horrified by more violent steps taken against merchants; the HBO series made from David McCullough’s wonderful book uses a fictionalized event to dramatize this, but Adams himself wrote in 1774:
These private Mobs, I do and will detest…These Tarrings and Featherings, these breaking open Houses by rude and insolent Rabbles, in Resentment for private Wrongs or in pursuance of private Prejudices and Passions, must be discountenanced.
This horror of the works of the mob was evident in Adams’ subsequent design of the separation of powers in the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 (“to the end it may be a government of laws and not of men”), and after the unrest of Shays’ Rebellion in 1786, fear of the mob was one of the direct triggers for calling a Constitutional Convention. Our system of divided government, checks and balances, and staggered elections—all of them frequent targets of scorn by progressives these days—was purposely designed in good part to ensure that government by popular sovereignty would be deliberate and not ruled by mob passions and mob violence.
President Washington himself rode out in 1791 to crush the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania, and ever since, the usual pattern in American history—especially when riots are directed against local government—has more often than not been a backlash that puts down the rioters by force, as happened in the Draft Riots in New York in 1863. And contra Coates and Bouie, that has not been the pattern only when the rioters are black. Unrest among predominantly white college students, for example, was—just as much as urban African-American rioting in that era—a factor in the rise of Ronald Reagan to be California governor in 1966 and Richard Nixon to the presidency in 1968. When riots and lynchings have been effective, as they were in establishing Jim Crow in the 1870s, it was usually because they had local government on their side, and a weary and distant federal government (which under President Grant had originally reacted with blunt force against the KKK) was no longer on hand to respond. But the Klan of the 1870s is a poor role model for anyone looking for any kind of positive social change.
4. Rioting Works When It Leads To Revolution
This brings us to the final point, and maybe the most critical. We look back with some fondness today even to the worst mob excesses of the Stamp Act Riots and the Boston Tea Party, not because rioting was morally justified or successful in bringing about its aims, but because we see the ultimate result that those outbursts led to the American Revolution. Coates at least acknowledges this. But that’s exactly the problem: rather than accomplish their goals and de-escalate the crisis, what the riots and the Tea Party did was to make things worse to the point that we ended up at war for seven years. There was no peaceful resolution, only a bitter struggle that cost thousands of lives and required the colonists to take up arms against the government they had originally petitioned for redress.
The solution was not reform, but secession. But how is that an answer in Ferguson? And do liberals who regularly mock talk of the Second Amendment as a final bulwark against tyranny now embrace the idea of building armed militias to separate themselves from the United States, or even from the State of Missouri? Because if you’re citing the Revolution as your inspiration, you have to consider the full consequences of that choice.