New York’s revolt story
(Photo: National Archive / Newsmakers)
There are many ways to tell a city’s story – through its architecture, its local politics, its waves of immigration, even its rats. In a new tape, Don Mitchell, Professor Emeritus of Geography at Syracuse University, uses a unique lens to record New York City through the centuries: its protests.
Revolting New York: How 400 years of turmoil, rebellion, insurrection and revolution shaped a city spans the era of Dutch colonization to the inauguration of Donald Trump, arguing that protests are not only destructive but productive too. “We often think of civil unrest as moments of extreme violence that destroy but create new worlds,” said Mitchell, who co-edited the volume with the late geographer Neil Smith. “This is not meant to advocate urban violence, but we need to be mindful of the defining force of the riots, not just the chaos they wreak.”
However, Revolting New York does not claim that protests will lead to sweeping or rapid change. Mitchell says an appropriate way to think about how protest works is not to reverse a system, but to incrementally move a coil spring up or down. “After mass protests you end up in a slightly different place than before,” he said. “Although the power structure is being re-established and cultural life is returning to many of its norms, something has changed.”
CityLab spoke to Mitchell about how the nature of civil unrest and rebellion has changed over the centuries, New York’s place in the history of protest, and how Tompkins Square Park on the Lower East Side has always been a hotbed of defiance.
The book covers New York’s ritualized, carnival revolts of the 18th and early 19th centuries. What makes a riot “carnivalistic”?
In the western world, pre-industrial unrest was part of the social fabric. It was a common way for the lower classes to express dissatisfaction. Troubles were usually directed against property, even when individuals were involved. Proto-working class people, for example, would burn officials in portraits or dismantle homes. You could take furniture out of a house and burn it in a campfire.
While this expressed dissatisfaction, it served as a safety valve: if the unrest subsided, the existing order would generally be re-established. Such unrest has often been associated with the liturgical calendar or pagan holidays such as Halloween.
But along with Carnival riots, there were riots by African Americans – both slaves and those who were free – and attacks by white rioters on blacks. These attacks exceeded the limits of ritualism; They were racist violence through and through.
How did New York’s uprisings change in the 18th and 19th centuries and why?
The ritual turmoil began to fade in the early decades of the 19th century with the rise of industrialization, and the changing nature of the city led to it. The growth of a large working class, composed mostly of immigrants, created a new kind of protest. In the 1830s and 40s, workers rebelled against the capitalists.
However, aspects of ritualized carnival protests reappeared during the late 20th and early 21st centuries. In fact, these types of unrest subsided, but never really went away. We have always seen them, for example, during the riots that take place after sporting events. Protesters like the New Yorkers, who demonstrated against the World Economic Forum in 2002 and the Republican National Convention in 2004, made a conscious effort to revive the theatrical aspects of protests, for example with Guy Fawkes masks, street theater and portraits. They are flashy strategies.
Tompkins Square Park on the Lower East Side is a good example of the protest shift in the 19th century. As?
The space that was developed in the 1840s as the city expanded to the northeast was originally called Tompkins Square. It was a large military paradise square where the militia gathered and trained. It was also just a large, open space in a crowded neighborhood where people liked to gather. It became a place of organization and protest for radical European exiles and workers in the mid to late 19th century.
In 1874, it was the site of an explosive riot during a deep depression as people protested rent breakouts and called for food prices to be cut. On a cold day in early January, thousands marched into the square. The police panicked, attacked and injured hundreds. In order to neutralize the open space, the city transformed the parade ground into a park with playgrounds, fences and trees. Nevertheless, the park remained an organizational space. The communists coordinated rental strikes there in the 1930s, and marches challenging capitalism would deviate from it. It also remained a haven for the poorest, and this lasted until the 1990s.
What happened in the 90s?
In the 1960s, Tompkins Square Park became a haven for people being priced out of their homes. At that time, a relatively permanent group of homeless people was already living there. This trend accelerated as the Lower East Side became more disinvested in the 1970s. Gentrification began by 1984, and Mayor Ed Koch made it his policy to recapture and rehabilitate the city’s parks – to “clean up” Manhattan. The aim was to evict homeless people and squatters in the buildings around the park.
The park began to serve as the focal point of the organization to uphold the rights of the homeless and squatters and to fight gentrification. In August 1988, the city enforced a curfew in the park and the police were unable to cancel a protest. Many people saw the park as liberated. The graffiti of the time referred to the riots of 1874 with slogans like “Tompkins Square everywhere”.
Although a lot of organization follows, gentrification continues and the AIDS epidemic disintegrates communities as many longtime activists die. Resistance efforts continued to weaken in the 1990s, and the city took the opportunity to push people out, build a fence around the park, and rebuild it as we see it today – the same reaction we saw in 1874. But it doesn’t do that entirely successfully; Although the park is redeveloped today, it is still more open to different classes and homeless people than other parks in Manhattan, such as Bryant Park or Union Square. It’s still a competitive space.
Is New York unique when it comes to telling a city’s story through protest?
New York is unique and not unique at all. New York has always been a city of immigrants and a place that is more firmly anchored in current political currents. But the ongoing struggle between different factions and different classes is a real process of city building in any urban context. And violence – police violence, white racist violence, regressive violence – is always present everywhere.
What needs to be considered when the history of a city is recorded through this lens?
The danger of writing a city’s history through protest is that we will miss out on all of the organization getting caught up in a moment of turmoil and we will miss the day-to-day politics that are equally important to the design of a city. Protests must also be understood in a global context. For example, the Tompkins Square riots of 1874 were influenced by European revolutions such as the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Global Depression of 1871 and 1872. In many ways, there was already a global economy by that time.
A number of new protest movements are emerging today, often in response to the rhetoric and policies of the Trump administration. What does historical research on urban unrest reveal about the current protest climate in the US?
The current protests were no accident. The demonstrations of the 1960s created the prerequisites for social structures not only to be re-established afterwards. Although we saw the rise of conservatism and neoliberalism in response, authority was affirmed in a slightly different way. If we then look at the time from the Seattle riots in 1999 against the World Trade Organization to the occupation [Wall Street] Movement of 2011 we see a time of anti-globalization. Much of this organization sparked other responses, such as the 2003 anti-Iraq war protests. It also laid the foundation for Occupy; Many of those involved in Occupy cut their teeth during the protests against globalization. And now inequality has become a political issue. People organize around it.
With Black Lives Matter and similar current organizational efforts, the relationship between race, class, gender, and sexuality is being rethought in important ways. It gives a better sense of how these elements are intertwined. Every anti-racist struggle has to be a class struggle and so on. There is a lot of potential for transformation from these streams.
This story originally appeared on CityLab, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to CityLab’s newsletter and follow CityLab on Facebook and Twitter.