30 July 2020 – Over the last few days, I’ve engaged in a social-media exchange about events in Portland, OR involving protest demonstrations there, and camo-clad so-called “Federal agents.” So, it seems timely to point out why we have a First Amendment to our Constitution, and remind readers that the American Revolution started with a protest demonstration—the Boston Tea Party. Lest we forget, the Portland demonstrations were organized (if that word applies) by the Black Lives Matter movement to protest police brutality, especially the alleged murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis, MN police officer Derek Chauvin.
The social-media exchange I mentioned above devolved into a dispute about where protest demonstrations fit into the workings of a democracy. My position, which I get to explain in this essay because I pay for this space in the World Wide Web to post whatever I darn well please, is that protest demonstrations are a necessary part of a properly functioning democratic society. My opponent (who will remain unnamed, as will the social-media platform that carried the exchange) took the position that such demonstrations were not. Effective or not, he (There, I’ve narrowed his identity down to 49.1% of the U.S. population!) claimed that protest demonstrations were not part of the formal functioning of government, and were, thus, illegitimate. In rebuttal, I pointed him to the First Amendment, which guarantees “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances,” and to the history of the Boston Tea Party that effectively began the American Revolution.
In this essay, I’m not going to recite the history of the Boston Tea Party, which you can read for yourself by following the link above. It’s a pretty good account that agrees with the mass of American History texts I’ve read over the years. (It’s important to point that out these days, as an example of how we verify that something is not fake news.) Instead, I hope to point out parallels between Boston Tea Party events and public protest demonstrations in the 21st century.
The Revolutionary War in America is generally acknowledged to have started with what Ralph Waldo Emerson called “Shot Heard Round The World,” in Lexington, MA in 1775. The actual American Revolution, as an historical movement, began years earlier, however. A protest organization named “The Sons of Liberty,” which had by then been active for over a decade, was responsible for mounting a force of 100 protesters, who boarded the ships Dartmouth, Beaver, and Eleanor docked at Griffin’s Wharf in Boston, MA disguised as Native Americans. The Sons of Liberty, of course, are an exact parallel to today’s Black Lives Matter movement.
Once aboard the ships, the protesters dumped the ships’ cargoes of tea, belonging to the East India Trading Company and valued at $1 million today, into Boston Harbor. After dumping the tea, the protesters cleaned up the decks of the American-owned ships! This represents, of course, an ideal example of how a peaceful protest as envisioned by the First Amendment should be carried out
Protests this Summer in the streets of Portland, Minneapolis, and other cities have been far larger, involving hundreds of thousands of protesters. They have also sometimes devolved into violence. However, it should be noted that the 2020 demonstrations were in response to government actions (i.e., police brutality) that ended with loss of life, rather than just a tax on tea. It is reasonable to expect folks to get a bit more worked up after suffering homicidal attacks perpetrated by government agents (which policemen are)!
That said, the modern protest demonstrations have been predominantly peaceful. Most violence has occurred in situations where demonstrators have been met with armed resistance. The same thing happened in the American Revolution. Five years before the Boston Tea Party, British soldiers shot at demonstrators protesting the presence of armed troops in city streets, injuring six protesters and killing five. Called “The Boston Massacre, the moral of that story is that the surest way to make a demonstration turn violent is to send in armed troops.
To summarize my position on protest demonstrations’ place in a democracy, when government in a democratic society fails to function properly for any reason, the people have the duty to take to the streets in protest. It is every bit as important as having a free press, which is generally acknowledged as a requirement for proper functioning of a democracy. Far from being some kind of extra-legal activity, both are specifically written into the U.S. Constitution by the First Amendment. You can’t get more legal than that!