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Civil Unrest: The Building Blocks of a Nation

The rioting after the death of George Floyd may be shocking to some, but it’s nothing new.

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In 1866, abolitionist Frederick Douglass penned an essay for The Atlantic on the benefits – and necessity – of rebellion: “There is cause to be thankful even for rebellion. It is an impressive teacher, though a stern and terrible one.” Protests and violent unrest are not a recent development in America. They have been one important patch in the quilting together of the nation from the very earliest of settlers. Today, most American’s don’t view violence as a way to create positive change. Most importantly, peaceful protest and the right to petition the government for change are protected by the United States Constitution.

Colonial America

In the early colonial days, settlers were involved in a number of rebellious acts against the rule of England. From Bacon’s Rebellion over a governor’s heavy hand that left the colonial capital of Virginia in ashes, to the 1689 Boston revolt.

The most famous and historically well-covered account of civil unrest was the Boston Tea Party. In what has been called a political mercantile protest, colonists – who were tired of Mother England increasing taxes while no representation from the colonies was heard in Parliament – showed their displeasure on December 16, 1773, at Griffin’s Wharf in Boston, Massachusetts. Dressed as Native Americans, rabble rousers boarded ships and dumped 342 chests of tea, imported by the British East India Company, into the harbor. The event was a forewarning to King George III that the colonists wouldn’t allow for oppression – of any kind – in the new world. It was one of the most significant events in the rallying of patriots in all 13 colonies to fight for independence.

The many rebellious activities of American settlers brought forth the ultimate protest: In April 1775, shots were exchanged between the red-coated British army and the colonists’ homegrown militia. That first shot is still described as “the shot heard round the world.” The event was the catalyst of the American Revolutionary War and the beginning of a new nation based on freedom from tyranny.

The United States of America

As the United States of America fought and won freedom from England, riots and protests were commonplace. Issues at stake were labor, governing, rent control in larger cities, hunger, and, of course, race. The Anti Rent War in upstate New York spanned six years. Renters declared their independence from what was known as the Manor System of owners. These folks resisted tax payments and demanded land reform – which they ultimately achieved. In and around the American Civil War, military draft protests and riots popped up across the nation.

By the late 19th century, calls came from labor unions for a 40-hour work week. One event occurred in Chicago, Illinois, in 1886. It was dubbed the Haymarket Affair. What began as peaceful protesting for an eight-hour workday ended with the police killing a man and injuring several others. Dynamite was thrown into police lines and when the riot was finally done, seven police officers and four civilians were dead.

The 1960s

Martin Luther King Jr.

The 1960s was a decade for protests from the Civil Rights movement, outrage against the draft for the Vietnam War, and anger toward one political party that had gone against the wishes of its registered members. It all came together in 1968 – a year of over 100 riots following the death of civil rights activist Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

Some of the major protests were in Chicago, where the Democrats were holding their national convention to nominate their choice for president of the United States. There was rioting in the streets as a radical faction of the party made threats to delegates in protest of plans to continue the Vietnam War.

Americans are rebellious against oppression and tyranny. Current events may seem scary and disturbing, but the country has seen worse in the past. Are the events of today similar to those of history, or would change be better achieved by peaceful protest of the kind promoted by Martin Luther King, Jr.?

Whatever the best way of bringing about change, civil unrest and protest don’t come from nowhere. As Frederick Douglass concluded in The Atlantic essay a century and a half past, “The thing worse than rebellion is the thing that causes rebellion.”

Sarah Cowgill

National Columnist at and Sarah has been a writer in the political and corporate worlds for over 25 years. As a sought-after speech writer, her clients included CEOs, U.S. Senators, Congressmen, Governors, and even a Vice President. She’s worked as Contributing Editor at Scottsdale Life, a news reporter for the Journal and Courier, and guest opinion political writer for numerous publications nationwide. A born storyteller, Sarah has published a full-length book and is currently finishing a quirky, sarcastic, second novel.

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