Like many of you, I’ve spent the last few nights on Twitter, watching with a mixture of shock, outrage, sadness, and disbelief as the events in Ferguson, Missouri, unfolded on my timeline. There’s no two ways about it: this was a police occupation, or as a Philadelphia newspaper called it in an alarmingly accurate phrase, a “police coup.” In addition to my sadness and outrage, though, I encountered the occupational hazard of being a historian: I was struck by the parallels between the past and today. Specifically, I thought about the ways in which events were unfolding in real time on social media and an eighteenth-century equivalent to Twitter during a similar period of military occupation in an American urban area.
In 1768, two regiments of British regulars were deployed to Boston, the capital city of provincial Massachusetts and in many ways the most volatile area of the escalating colonial resistance to British taxation policies in the post-Seven Years War era. That June, a riot on the city’s wharf against customs officials attempting to enforce the controversial Townshend Acts convinced government officials in both Massachusetts and London that troops were needed to quell the increasingly destructive actions of “the mob.” Adding to this sense of urgency was the fact that Boston’s “patriot” resistance was well-coordinated and managed by the Sons of Liberty and the Loyal Nine, opposition groups that included such prominent names as John and Samuel Adams, Paul Revere, and perhaps the most gifted propagandist and polemicist in the city, James Otis, Jr. With such formidable talents keeping the flames of mob violence stoked, colonial officials reasoned, only the presence of soldiers could see the laws enforced, parliamentary authority maintained, and-most importantly-a message sent to other colonies that the disturbances in Boston were not to be emulated.
So in September, the troops arrived, disembarking from their transports in Boston Harbor and marching in full-dress uniform (the famous “redcoats”), banners waving and fifes and drums playing, right into downtown Boston to set up their barracks at Boston Common—in the heart of enemy country, as it turned out. Boston was now an occupied city.
The Boston “Whigs” (what the opposition movement most often referred to itself as) were outraged. A “standing army”—that is, a force on wartime footing deployed in a time of peace—was the instrument of tyrants, people like Sam Adams thundered in the press and in tavern harangues. Military occupation was the prelude to despotism, and colonists were already being deprived of their due rights as British citizens anyway. To keep the inflammatory presence of the soldiers front and center in the public eye, Adams and James Otis began printing an underground newspaper called the Journal of Occurrences (also sometimes dubbed Journal of the Times), which was basically Twitter for 1760s Boston. It was the closest thing to real-time updates that Bostonians could get on the actions and disposition of the occupying force in their midst, and Adams and Otis leveraged to the hilt the power of the Journal’s role in shaping public discourse.
Almost daily, Bostonians could read a thorough record of the soldiers’ actions against the peaceful good folk of Boston. The soldiers themselves held a dim view of these provincial rabble-rousers, and many of them also took part-time jobs in the city to supplement their meager pay, which aroused the ire of laborers and artisans competing for scarce wage labor in a depressed economy. The Journal played on these ample sources of tension by providing accounts of “outrages” and provocations perpetrated by these representatives of tyranny and despotism. The Journal passed along “Reports that the small-pox is on board some of the Irish transports” carrying the troops into Boston harbor. It lamented that Boston Common had been “made the spot where the main guard is placed and paraded, and their cannon mounted; so that instead of our merchants and trading people transacting their business, we see it filled with red coats, and have our ears dinn’d with the music of the drum and fife,” and wondered “How would the merchants of London be startled if they should behold their exchange thus metamorphosed?”
More damning actions were also reported, like the incident on Nov. 9 where “A married woman living in Long Lane, returning home in the night, was seized by the neck and almost strangled, she was then thrown upon the ground, and treated with great indecencies.”
For nearly two years, the Journal’s accounts (tweets?) were posted, disseminated, reprinted in newspapers within and outside of Boston, discussed, and internalized by colonists whose sympathies lay with the “patriot” opposition. In Boston, the tensions between townspeople and troops—kept at a rolling boil through the efforts of Adams, Otis, and other leaders—had their tragic culmination on the night of March 5, 1770, in the notorious (and somewhat mis-labeled) Boston Massacre. The reporting on that event—Paul Revere’s inaccurate but evocative print showing a line of British soldiers being ordered to fire on a group of defenseless Bostonians—proved a watershed moment in the growing colonial drive for independence from Britain. Eighteenth-century “social media” was crucial in this creation of a community of identification—of a growing sense of colonial solidarity with Boston’s radical Whigs and conviction that a legitimate threat to colonial liberties existed and must be addressed.
The Boston patriot movement did not have nearly the power that the troops did. The soldiers had weapons, ammunition, and the monopoly on the legitimate, legal use of force (to borrow from Max Weber). The soldiers had the power of the State—crown, Council, Parliament, and colonial officials—behind them. To challenge that array of power, the Journal of Occurrences employed what James Scott called the “weapons of the weak”—tools of resistance that may not have equaled the brute force available to State actors, but were equally effective from their use of publicity and community-building to subvert the hegemony of the established power structure.
Something very akin to this is happening in Ferguson this week, too. The police force is more heavily-armed than some of the infantry units deployed to Iraq in 2003. In their establishment of what amounts to martial law—clearing the streets, closing businesses, silencing media, arresting reporters, firing rubber bullets and tear gas at protestors—the police have amply demonstrated their willingness to use this force indiscriminately and for their own ends. But Twitter feeds, livestreaming, and other social media—but especially Twitter, I think—have undercut the police’s ability to undertake their program of occupation and suppression and escape accountability and civilian oversight. Just this morning, largely in response to white-hot pressure generated by social media, Missouri’s Governor emerged from his hidey-hole and removed the local police from operations in the area. As other tragic occurrences in places like Ohio and Philadelphia attest, though, without social media, Ferguson would have been unnoticed and unobserved by the rest of the country. A modern-day Journal of Occurrences indeed.
I’m not dumb enough, or naïve enough, to draw some grand, sweeping conclusion about Twitter’s ability to shine a light into darkness, eradicate injustice, and bring unicorns and rainbows to everyone. For every tweet exposing police misdeeds, there’s probably one attacking the protestors as “rioters” or “animals” or “unruly negroes” or some other Neanderthal grunting. When Boston went on lockdown after the marathon bombings, there wasn’t a whole lot of condemnation, though we’re now seeing the ramifications of this paramilitary mentality big-time in Ferguson. As a society, we celebrate the bad-ass, military-style, law-and-order-at-any-cost, damn-all-niceties approach of Jack Bauer or RoboCop. We consent to an occupational presence All. The. Time. in our airports, schools, and public spaces. Militarism breeds fascism-we know this, but seem blithely convinced that since we’re a “democracy,” we’ll somehow avoid that consequence. And if the comparisons to fascism strikes you as overblown and overdramatic, consider this: “sundown towns” (people of color get out by sunset) and white-flight suburban enclaves, “redlining,” gated communities with private security, predominantly white police forces armed with military-grade equipment “policing” predominately black areas—it’s just a few short steps and a change of accent from these to lebensraum.
But one thing we have working against the power of racism and violence sanctioned by State actors is social media. Information wants to be free. And backchannels on Twitter reach thousands before authorities even know about them. These are the weapons of today’s weak. You don’t have AR-15s, sound cannons, or armored personnel carriers, but you have hashtags, livestreams, and snapchat. The rules are changing, just as the British found out in 1768. In the constant struggle to balance Liberty and Order, those who work for liberty have powerful tools in their toolboxes. Sunshine is the best disinfectant. Let’s work to make #Ferguson an affirmation of that.
Image Credits: Paul Revere Engraving at http://www.earlyamerica.com/image/review/winter96/massacre.jpg
For more on the Journal of Occurrences, see the edited collection by Oliver M. Dickerson, Boston Under Military Rule (1768-1769), as Revealed in the Journal of the Times (Boston: Chapman and Grimes, 1936) and Richard Archer, As If an Enemy’s Country: The British Occupation of Boston and the Origins of Revolution (Oxford UP, 2012).