That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organising its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness… it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. -Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence
In 1767, the British Empire was faced with severe debt, and it looked to its American colonies as a source of potential revenue. Parliament passed the Stamp Act, which levied a tax on every official document in the colonies. The Act provoked violent protests throughout the colonies, and crowds directly threatened the stamp collectors. The Sons of Liberty, a revolutionary group founded by Founding Father Samuel Adams, organised a protest that involved hanging an effigy of the man in charge of collecting the tax and ransacking his house, and later that month, protesters raided the house of the Lieutenant Governor. The pressure and violence eventually worked, resulting in Parliament overturning the bill.
Several years later in 1775, tensions were still on the rise. Earlier that year, Parliament had passed the Tea Act, which lowered the tea tax for the failing West India Tea Company and severely harmed colonial merchants. When the first three ships full of tea arrived in Boston Harbor, Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson faced immediate pressure to send the ships back to England. When he refused, the Sons of Liberty, which had grown more influential and more radical since the Stamp Act, decided to raid the ships and destroy the tea. On December 16, the Sons of Liberty dressed as Native Americans and stormed the ships under cover of darkness, throwing all the tea into the harbour. The act prompted Parliament to pass the Coercion Acts of 1774, which further angered the colonists and sowed the seeds for the eventual American revolution.
Americans today take a rose-colored view of the American War for Independence, choosing to only focus on the actual battles and ignore the dirty work that was done before (and after) the colonies declared independence. In fact, the Revolution began because of actions that many would consider terrorism today as government officials were tar and feathered and soldiers were ambushed. America was founded on the backs of revolutionaries who were fed up with protesting peacefully and waiting for government to solve their problems.
Contrast this with the past few decades of American history. After ostensibly giving African-Americans equal rights in the sixties, our government and legal systems have done their level best to protect the interests of the wealthy and trample on the rights of poor minorities. From The War on Crime to the disproportionate amount of police brutality visited upon African-Americans to the unwillingness to go after police officers who take advantage of their positions of power, the government has been stacked against African-American people for decades now. This is not to say that there have been no attempts to change things through the political process: on the contrary, we are a mere three years removed from having an African-American president. However, nothing has fundamentally changed: lives are still being ruined for drug offences, innocent people are still getting killed by the police, and the poverty rate for black people is double that of white people.
The failures of our current political and justice systems raise an important question: at what point is enough enough? At what point are we justified in fulfilling the duty that Thomas Jefferson said all Americans have, to overthrow an unjust government that is not working for the people that it is supposed to serve? Americans love to talk about their right to overthrow tyranny in a purely speculative and fantastical sense, but for whatever reason, they are wilfully ignorant of it when the need arises. We are quick to criticise China for its police state but slow to criticise the police in our own country; we love to take Iran to task for abusing protesters but are glad to turn the other way when an American police officer pelts members of the press with rubber bullets. Instead of recognising what real tyranny looks like, we gleefully talk about what we will do when Democrats try to take our guns and Republicans try to reintroduce segregation. Meanwhile, both parties work together to expand the surveillance and police state and give corporations even more benefits at the expense of the American people. Americans have allowed the political and economic establishment to sell a fantasised version of patriotism and tyranny while personal freedoms are eroded throughout the country.
The death of George Floyd and subsequent reaction paints a perfect picture of the failure of the American people to fully grasp the tyranny that lies directly in front of us in the form of police brutality and unaccountability. I am tired of hearing how Trump and the “Republikkkans” brought racism back to our hallowed shores, despite the fact that white supremacy and far-right ideologies had a historic resurgence during the Obama administration, and it is incredibly frustrating to hear people say that 'if you want to change things, vote' when every member on the Minneapolis town council belongs to either the Democratic or Green Party, and one of the Democratic candidates for vice president declined to prosecute the officer who murdered Daniel Floyd the first time he killed a civilian. But perhaps the most infuriating aspect is the double standard that exists whenever a black person attempts to protest. We are only four years removed from when Colin Kaepernick refused to 'stick to football' and knelt during the playing of the national anthem for the country that has been determined to treat him like a lesser citizen his entire life. The outrage culminated in the future President of the United States calling him a 'son of a bitch' on the campaign trail and staging an elaborate walkout stunt for his Vice President. For whatever reason, Americans have accepted a sterilised view of acceptable protest that was borne out of decades of propagandising and softening the process that led to every significant achievement in our country, and we conveniently ignore the riots leading up to the American Revolution to the violent slave uprisings of the 1800’s to the Stonewall Riot. Most Americans hold the view that protests should never have the audacity of directly challenging authority: protesters must abide by the rules law enforcement lays out, they cannot impede traffic (and if they do, drivers should be allowed to mow them down), and under no circumstances should they dishonour our special Freedom Song and Freedom Flag. This view of protesting is so detached from reality that it makes us wonder how it is supposed to change anything. There is no point in only protesting when and where the state says we can, and any protest that doesn’t make people uncomfortable is of no good at all.
Jefferson recognised this when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, and he specifically said that people have a duty to overthrow tyrannical and unjust structures of power and replace them with new, fair ones. It would certainly seem that our current system fits the description: although we are five decades removed from the Civil Rights Act, African-Americans are still disproportionately arrested, and the War on Drugs continues to decimate minority communities for no apparent reason other than keeping the prisons full. It is quite telling that America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. On top of the huge problems with our criminal justice system, our legal system rarely holds officers accountable. From 2005 to 2019, there were a mere 35 murder convictions for police officers who committed a crime while on duty. The calls for justice for George Floyd ring awfully hollow when you consider that the killers of Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Tony Timpa, and thousands of others never got punished for their actions. and likely never will. It makes one wonder, when are the people justified in forcefully rebelling against the systems that oppress them?
If the American Revolution is our guide, the line has been crossed. After all, the initial uprisings included direct violence against government officials and destruction of private property and culminated in an outright rebellion years later. Compared to today, the reasons seem trifling: the first riots were incited because of a mere tax, which seems like nothing compared to the unaccountable police of today that get away with killing innocent people. Further, the American people have done their level best to reform the system peacefully by working with the system that we were given. And yet, the two candidates running for President have either praised segregationists, called for the killing of innocent, black teenagers, recommended more police brutality, or told wealthy people that nothing would fundamentally change. As we are told that there is no place for violence and the rioting dishonours the memory of George Floyd, police run over protesters, pelt journalists with rubber bullets, shoot less-lethal rounds at people sitting on their porch, and trash water supplies left out for protesters. America was founded on the principle that a system that refuses to change from the inside must be challenged from the outside, and the country wouldn’t exist today without the revolutionary spirit that raided a private company’s ship in a protest against oppression. One has to wonder what the people angered by today’s protests would think of the actions of many of the founding fathers.
That revolutionary spirit is on full display today as an entire nation rises up in protest of an egregious act that nobody can justify. George Floyd’s death finally unravelled the tensions that have been brewing for decades now, and people that have grown disenfranchised with a system that is swift to pass judgement on them although it almost never punishes the police are finally striking back. This is not to justify the violence against ordinary people, many of whom have been impacted by the same systematic problems that protesters are fighting back against. Rather, it is to point out that the state no longer has a monopoly on violence, despite its efforts to regain control. As the first police station burned, so did the perception that the police and government are untouchable, and everyone now knows that nothing can be done to prevent a mass uprising. As the police attempt to crack down on protests, peaceful or otherwise, there is a sense that momentum has shifted, that nothing can hold back the tide now.
Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable. -John F. Kennedy
Society should never glorify violence, and those who protest should avoid harming bystanders and journalists at all costs. Further, the use of force should never be used as anything more than a last resort when all else fails, and we must do everything in our power to bring about change peacefully, as many of the protests today are.. Nor should this be taken as an argument for harming innocent people, and we must focus our anger first and foremost on the ugly systems that exist. However, it is undeniable that our society is broken in a fundamental way, and the events of the last few months have illustrated it in a way that nobody can ignore. In the space of a few months, a global pandemic has decimated our lives and our economy, a black man was hunted down and killed in broad daylight, a no-knock raid resulted in the death of an innocent woman and the imprisonment of a legal gun owner, and a black man was executed by police officers. All the while, the richest people in America added hundreds of billions of dollars to their own wealth while millions of people lost their jobs and healthcare. It should come as no surprise to anybody that the people finally rose up, and our leaders should be listening to our problems and working with our communities to address them, not finding ways to put down the people with the courage to take action. Our government officials could learn a lot from our protesters, who have taken it upon themselves to start repairing their communities and take care of the people in them.
In many ways, we are seeing a new movement blossom out of a tragedy. As people take direct action to improve their lives, there is a noticeable lack of electoral politics. Instead of shouting campaign slogans and arguing which person can lead the state the best, people are standing up for themselves directly and holding the state accountable. On top of the tangible potential for real justice, there is also an atmosphere of self-reliance in the air as people of all races, religions, and sexual orientations come together across the country to take control of the society that they all live in.
When it can be said by any country in the world, my poor are happy, neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them, my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars, the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive, the rational world is my friend because I am the friend of happiness. When these things can be said, then may that country boast its constitution and government. Independence is my happiness, the world is my country and my religion is to do good. -Thomas Paine
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