All Together Now: two hundred years of American public assembly

excerpted from the AMERICAN UTOPIAS playbill

Even before the Declaration of Independence, a public demonstration in Boston Harbor proved the political impact that could be unleashed by Americans taking nonviolent action together. In what became known as the Boston Tea Party of 1773, residents of the Colony of Massachusetts dumped a British shipment of tea into the harbor to protest the British Parliament’s Tea Act, which they believed amounted to taxation without representation. Parliament’s response was to end Massachusetts’ self-government and shut down Boston’s commerce; this helped inspire the First Continental Congress and, as tension between the colonies and the British Empire escalated, the start of the American Revolution in 1775. Since American independence was established, American law has shaped – and been shaped by – the power of public assembly.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the most common public protests in the US were strikes and labor demonstrations. Despite eruptions of violence, the efforts of nineteenth-century labor demonstrations culminated in the establishment of the Department of Labor and Commerce, and a Secretary of Labor in the President’s Cabinet, in 1903.

The beginning of the twentieth century also saw public assembly put to use by the women’s suffrage movement. Several organizations such as the Women’s Political Union imported the tactics of parades, street speakers, and pickets from the English women’s suffrage movement. It was not until after several large, some violent, protests did President Wilson declare his support for women’s suffrage, and the Nineteenth Amendment was finally ratified in 1920.

The mid-twentieth century ushered in the Civil Rights Movement, which further demonstrated the power of peaceful protest to change American life and law. The efforts of Dr. Martin Luther King, JR. and his colleagues to advocate for integration and racial equality paved the way for so many civil rights advances that his method of nonviolent protest inspired countless other movements around the world.

The power of public assembly and the delicate dance between demonstrators and the laws that regulate demonstrations continues into the twenty-first century. Legal battles recently flared again after the Occupy Wall Street movement began in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park in 2011, and quickly inspired parallel Occupy movements across the country.

For the full story, read the note in the American Utopias playbill.

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