One of the most galling and misleading arguments tossed around following the death of George Floyd is an attempt to draw a parallel between the carnage sweeping the nation and the Boston Tea Party.
In this clumsy effort, “riot” has become just the latest word twisted for political purposes. Merriam-Webster defines “riot” as:
A violent public disorder; specifically: a tumultuous disturbance of the public peace by three or more persons assembled together and acting with a common intent.
It takes an impressive level of historical illiteracy to describe the Boston Tea Party as a “riot.” And while the spread of bad history is always lamentable, when agitators warp events like the original Tea Party to justify setting fire to American cities the deception becomes dangerous.
True Defenders of Liberty
On December 16, 1773, some 30 to 130 members of the patriot group known as the Sons of Liberty—some dressed as Mohawk warriors—boarded three British shipping vessels docked at Griffin’s Wharf and dumped 342 chests of tea into the Boston harbor.
Though many witnessed the event’s aftermath, it was a moonlit, covert act completed in three hours. No harm came to the ships and crews of the Beaver, Dartmouth, and Eleanor. No violence or confrontations of any kind took place between the British soldiers, colonial patriots, or Tory loyalists that night.
The justifiable motives of the event were, namely, the oppressive Townshend Acts and the Tea Act of 1773. More broadly, it was part of the growing frustration of American colonists being taxed without representation.
The colonials were under the correct impression that the 1689 English Bill of Rights recognized certain fundamental rights granted to all Englishmen. In response to the denial of these rights, the colonists struck back at the government responsible.
A Proportional, Targeted Response
The Sons of Liberty used the Boston Tea Party to send a targeted message to London. For the Crown-supported, monopolistic British East India Company that was the specific focus of the protest, the value of the destroyed tea amounts to $1.7 million today.
Yet, protesters harmed no property within the city of Boston itself. The only item damaged was a single broken padlock onboard one of the ships, replaced the very next day by the patriots themselves. The sole injury that night was to John Crane, a member of the Sons of Liberty who was temporarily knocked unconscious when struck by a crate of tea.
That cold night in December 1773, the Sons of Liberty did not seize or destroy the property of their countrymen. They didn’t threaten members of other local militia companies, rampage through the streets of Boston, or exploit the anger of the moment to burn down the homes or businesses of their neighbors.
The Floyd protests, however, have already destroyed hundreds of buildings and led to the deaths of at least three people, including a slain police officer in Oakland.
The Answer to Injustice is Not More Injustice
As Target and other retail stores lie burning or ransacked in Minneapolis and throughout the nation, it isn’t CEOs or millionaire businessmen who feel the brunt, it’s the average workers who can no longer go to work.
Instead of “sticking it” to the source of what they see as “systemic racism,” rampaging rioters and looters hurt those with whom they claim to empathize. Pillaging Targets, Wal-Marts, or similar discount stores harms single moms working two jobs. It hurts minorities trying to build up a resume. It hurts recent high school graduates who either can’t afford college, can’t get in, or can’t pay the tuition without working retail for as many hours as they can between classes, studying, and sleep.
In the era of coronavirus, chaotic destruction and looting hurt the recently laid-off waitress, trade worker, or one of the 40 million others who filed for unemployment benefits since mid-March. Big retail stores exempt from mandatory closures can be temporary lifesavers. The jobs they offer can help pay rent or put food in the mouths of hungry kids. Wanton devastation doesn’t help those grieving George Floyd—it deepens in the pain and pours salt on the wounds of a nation that’s already suffering six ways from Sunday.
In contrast to the targeted nature of the Boston Tea Party, the chaotic riots that began in Minneapolis to protest racial injustice have devastated black small business owners. One particularly heart-wrenching example is of Korbi Balla, a black firefighter who spent the entirety of his life savings opening his own bar only to have indiscriminate arsonists burn it to the ground. Vandals in Minneapolis also destroyed 189 units of affordable housing that were set to open later in the year.
Mourn the lost tea of the British East India Company all you want. But remember, afterward, the Sons of Liberty didn’t proceed to burn down Paul Revere’s neighborhood.
Anarchic Violence Will Not Solve Our Problems
Civil Rights icon Frederick Douglass made it through the evils of slavery only to witness the struggle to remove the badges and incidents of that horrid institution. Speaking in 1883, he exclaimed, “The temptation at this time, is of course, to speak more from feeling than reason, more from impulse than reflection. We have been, as a class, grievously wounded, wounded in the house of our friends, and this wound is too deep and too painful for ordinary measured speech.”
Yet, Douglass cautioned patience, not violence. “We should never forget, that, whatever may be the incidental mistakes or misconduct of rulers, government is better than anarchy, and patient reform is better than violent revolution,” he said.
Eighty-one years later, in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in promoting nonviolent solutions to civil rights issues, Martin Luther King, Jr. echoed Douglass’s sentiments:
Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. I am not unmindful of the fact that violence often brings about momentary results. … But in spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones. Violence is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding: it seeks to annihilate rather than convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible.
A Crime Against the Dead
The nightly horrors witnessed these past days do not symbolize what this country is. This isn’t America. This isn’t who we are. It’s certainly not representative of the vast majority of law-abiding Americans who care deeply for their fellow man.
To continue to realize the equality enshrined to every American in the Declaration of Independence, to continue to work towards a more perfect union, we need to finally heed the words of men like Douglass and MLK.
If we’re to have the informed citizenry needed to guard against tyranny and oppression, then the radical left must cease its gross distortion of American history.
Likening the lawless rioters filling America’s major cities with terror with the patriots of the Boston Tea Party insults the memory of those who made this country possible and dishonors the higher principles that animated the American Revolution.
Citizens who peacefully assemble in non-violent protest do credit to the First Amendment. But those who plunder their neighbor’s property and destroy America’s cities aren’t patriots, they’re opportunists.