When America Celebrated Its Riots: Remembering Crispus Attucks
Boston Massacre, March 5th, 1770, William L. Champney, 1850-1857
by Eugene Wolters
On March 5, 1770, the senseless killing of a black man and his compatriots spurred one of the most significant revolutions in modern history. But like most American history, the Boston Massacre has been whitewashed to erase its revolutionary value.
In the streets of colonial Boston, a petty verbal dispute between a wigmaker and a British soldier escalated when the soldier struck the wigmaker with his musket. A mob broke out. The mixed-race crowd would be described by not-yet President John Adams, in antiquated racial taxonomies, as a “motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molattoes, Irish teagues and out landish jack tarrs.” They were led by Crispus Attucks, an Afro-Indigenous man believed to be a runaway slave.
The crowd taunted the soldiers by throwing snowballs and other objects. The soldiers eventually fired, against orders, into the crowd. After the dust had settled, five had been killed, including Attucks. To this day, the Boston Massacre is celebrated as the foundational riot of American history.
Last month, a grand jury failed to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the murder of the unarmed Michael Brown. It didn’t take long before Daniel Pantaleo, the officer responsible for the death of Eric Garner, was cleared by a grand jury of any wrongdoing. It also didn’t take long for a string of other police shooting victims to get media attention, including Akai Gurley, after walking down the stairs of his apartment.
The left was galvanized: protests against the excesses of the police spread across the country. In Ferguson, protesters vandalized police cars and destroyed private property. The mainstream media and politicians from the left and right decried the violence. They claimed it was counter-productive to change.
“We will not allow a small contingent of agitators to bring disorder and violence to these protests,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said of the Eric Garner protests. “Those who reject peaceful protest and provoke violence can expect immediate arrest and prosecution.”
The racist backlash was nearly immediate. Conservative commenters asked why the black community had a specific right to riot at injustice, arguing that whites responded to injustice in a more “civilized” manner. Counter-protestors wore shirts claiming “I can breath, because I follow the law.” Leaving aside the obvious irony that white communities regularly riot for no reason, it’s a particularly obscene claim from a group of people that actively celebrates the riots in Boston, the physical assault of British tax collectors, and destruction of private property by a mob of drunken hooligans that cost the British East India Company $1.7 million in today’s money.
To distinguish between “good riots” like in Boston and the “bad riots” in Ferguson is itself an exercise in historical amnesia practiced by the left and right. But even those “good riots” can only exist in our collective consciousness at the expense of the black bodies, like Attucks, that made them. America can feel safe in the condemnation of violence in Ferguson because America has learned to detest the popular power of the unwashed masses.
Before the Boston Massacre, the people of Boston were already wary of the British military presence who were there to keep the peace and protect Royal assets. They were more or less a colonial police force.The fervor that culminated in the killing of Attucks began with the killing of another unarmed man: Christopher Sneider. Sneider was certainly not innocent in the eyes of the law. He and a large mob of Bostonians were throwing stones at the house of a British customs employee. The senseless killing of Sneider created a growing resentment both among the working and land-owning classes.
Yet in a cruel historical irony, even the police brutality that helped foment the American revolution seems mild in light of the failure to indict Darren Wilson or Daniel Pantaleo; the British soldiers, at least, were put on trial. But if modern conservatives seem to have forgotten their revolutionary roots, they can find comfort in the familiar arguments of the British defense.
John Adams, the future president of United States, defended the British soldiers in the ensuing trial. He argued that the image of Attucks “would be enough to terrify any person.” 200 years later, the politics of white fear haven’t changed much. “He looked like a demon,” Wilson said in testimony of Michael Brown.
In his testimony, the British Captain Thomas Preston recounted the crowd of rabble-rousers, armed with bludgeons and clubs, who shouted “fire if you dare, God damn you, fire and be damned, we know you dare not.” Despite threats of overt violence, against themselves and others, the British troops were ordered not to fire. In a cruel historical irony, members of a military force in a time of unparalleled brutality were required to show more restraint in the face of danger than modern American grand juries expect from their police. One soldier was hit by a thrown object and dropped his musket. Shortly after, another soldier, against orders, fired his weapon into the crowd. In the ensuing panic, the other soldiers began haphazardly firing into the crowd, leaving 5 dead and six injured.
Adams noted that some of the rioters were intoxicated, and his description of “negroes and molattoes, Irish teagues and out landish jack tarrs [a term for sailors],” were certainly intended to strike fear in the hearts of white settlers who had every reason to fear the power of those “motley crews” who were not afraid to exercise popular justice.
Meanwhile, a propaganda battle ensued over the telling of the massacre. Paul Revere, who assisted the anti-British propaganda efforts by disseminating the famous depiction of the Boston Massacre that you’ve probably seen in grade school text books, purged the bodies of color from the crowd and tried to include more “gentlemanly” figures, historian Marcus Rediker notes in his book “Outlaws of the Atlantic.” In some depiction, Attucks himself is portrayed as white. Rebellion is only fitting of the well-born, after all.
If the Boston Massacre was America’s foundational riot, the aftermath was its foundational whitewashing. Rediker argues in the motley crews that allied African, mixed-race, and white sailors that agitated against poor working conditions and impressment. For many, the slave riots in the Caribbean served as inspiration for one’s natural right to rebel. But that revolution quickly gave way to the American Revolution we’ve all heard: white land-owners quickly grew tired of the motley crews that sparked the Boston Massacres and other anti-British fervor.
Samuel Adams witnessed these motley crews of sailors violently battle against British “press gangs,” that sought to enlist sailors in the British Navy by force. It was here, argues Rediker, that Samuel Adams was able to formulate a new “ideology of resistance” to justify mob activity. By 1786, notes Rediker, Adams had renounced his ideas of democratic resistance in the aftermath of Shay’s Rebellion. If Americans stopped celebrating the justice of the mob, it was because they couldn’t. In the south, slaves outnumbered their masters in terrifying ratios. Instead, our foundational riots slowly became mythic, a relic from a time a time long-gone, never to be re-created. Even the left demands that the protests in Ferguson and across the country remain peaceful in the face of centuries of violence.
That mythic narrative only maintains cohesion with the systemic exclusion of black bodies. What is taxation without representation in the face of the legacy of Jim Crow? If the legacy of Crispus Attucks has been whitewashed and stripped of its revolutionary potential, it’s because it had to be.
What followed is the story we know: the “universal rights of men” became a euphemism for the rights of white propertied men. John Adams and others made sure to craft a government that curbed popular passions and put the well-to-do in charge. The right to rebel was in fundamental conflict with the gendered, racial and class antagonisms that built America.
Some would take the foundational white washing of the American Revolution as an excuse to abandon it all together. But is it better to abandon a tragic history, or struggle for its re-interpretation. The cooptation of the American Revolution by the landed gentry provides a warning, and lesson, for future revolutionary. The perpetuation of slavery that resulted from the American Revolution continues to haunt America’s black communities.
But if the narrative of the American Revolution can only maintain cohesion with the whitewashing of Attucks and its motley crews, what would it mean to reclaim the narrative? The re-telling of history is productive in another way: it destabilizes the narratives on which the status quo justifies itself. What would it mean for politics if the left reclaimed the American Revolution?
About the Author:
Eugene Wolters is the founder and editor of Critical-Theory.com. He is also a freelance writer and corporate sellout living in Brooklyn, New York. A New School University graduate, he spends most of his days lamenting his worthless degree and soul-crushing job(s). His favorite activities include: trolling, reading and carting his fat-ass around Brooklyn on a bicycle.