"Spontaneous" demonstration at Boston harbor, 1773. Oh really?
Day after day during the latest Congressional recess, crowds turned up at Republican town halls, pushing representatives for answers on health care, immigration and more. The insistent questions and the chants telling members of Congress to “do your job” have elicited a consistent response. “More of a paid attempt to bully and intimidate,” concluded Senator Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). These were “professional” protesters, suggested press secretary Sean Spicer. “I don’t think most of those are spontaneous, genuine protests,” agreed secretary of education Betsy DeVos, speaking of the resistance she encountered. “I think they’re all being sponsored and very carefully planned.” And from our Tweeter-in-Chief: “The so-called angry crowds…are actually, in numerous cases, planned out by liberal activists. Sad!”
The responses are entirely predictable. Decade after decade, “outside agitators” have been blamed for numerous conflicts in American life, a tradition harking all the way back to the founding of the Republic. Like zombies, these outside agitators seem to keep springing to life to wreak their devilish mischief.
Segregationists routinely claimed that the civil rights movement was fomented by out-of-town northerners and communists. The infamous “Southern Manifesto,” issued by over a hundred members of Congress in 1956, after the Supreme Court handed down Brown v. Board of Education, warned that “outside agitators are threatening immediate and revolutionary changes in our public school systems.” Segregationist governor George Wallace of Alabama in 1964 insisted that “we have never had a problem in the South except in a few very isolated instances and these have been the result of outside agitators.”
The same refrain echoed a century earlier. Jefferson Davis, on his way to becoming president of the Confederacy, complained bitterly of northern interference in the South’s way of life. “Bad men have gone among the ignorant and credulous people, and incited them to murder and arson.” As one prominent plantation owner blithely explained, “Our slaves are the happiest three millions of beings on whom the sun shines.” But “into their Eden is coming Satan in the guise of an abolitionist.”
In July 1835 a pro-slavery mob in Charleston, South Carolina broke into the post office, where they confiscated abolitionist tracts and burned them. This cartoon includes a poster offering "$20,000 Reward for Tappan," referring to a bounty placed by the city of New Orleans on the head of Arthur Tappan, founder and president of the American Anti-Slavery Society.
In the eighteenth century, it was not abolitionists but agents of the British crown who were being accused by southern patriots of setting their slaves against them. The approved term in use was “instigated insurrection.” As American colonials were deciding in 1775 that they must become independent of Britain to become truly free, the “dread of instigated insurrections,” reached new heights in South Carolina, where black slaves greatly outnumbered whites. Rumors spread that the new British governor for the colony would free all its slaves.
Worse, a plot was discovered—it is still not clear whether real or imagined—that Thomas Jeremiah, a free black ferry pilot, was fomenting an uprising of African Americans to aid the British. Jeremiah was promptly executed, but meanwhile, “the newspapers were full of Publications calculated to excite the fears of the People—Massacres and Instigated Insurrections, were words in the mouth of every Child,” recalled one colonist, suggesting a much greater range of vocabulary among young folk then than now. In North Carolina, similar fears were expressed, “in these Times of general Tumult and Confusion, that the Slaves may be instigated, encouraged by our inveterate Enemies to an Insurrection.”
In all these cases, the notion was that outsiders were “stirring up” black residents who otherwise would never consider demanding their freedom. The same dynamic occurs in the area of labor history, where owners of factories regularly tarred organizers as “outside agitators, having no interest in the welfare of our city or our citizens,” but who nonetheless seek “to stir up trouble in the ranks of labor.” (That example is taken from the rash of strikes after World War I.)
And, yes, the tactic has been used (though less frequently) by Democrats blaming Republican agitators. When members of the newly formed Tea Party swarmed town hall meetings in the summer of 2009, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs suggested that organizers had “bragged about manufacturing to some degree that anger.” More recently, after violent protesters on the campus of U. C. Berkeley tried to prevent conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking, liberal professor Robert Reich claimed, “They weren’t Berkeley students. They were outside agitators…part of a group ready to create the tumult and danger.”
Blaming outsiders allows people to claim, or even to believe themselves, that the disruption comes from beyond their communities. By labeling agitators as the Other, opponents also excuse their own conduct in lashing back—they are not battling neighbors in their own Congressional districts but invaders from abroad. Mike Huckabee, debating whether to display the Confederate flag over Southern state houses in 2008, framed his racist taunt in the usual way: “You don't like people from outside the state coming in and telling you what to do with your flag. In fact, if somebody came to Arkansas and told us what to do with our flag, we'd tell 'em what to do with the pole; that's what we'd do.” It was the perfect dog-whistle for a region with a history of lynchings, whose residents were now being asked to cast their ballots for an African American seeking the presidency.
But leave rhetoric aside for the moment. What about the reality? Aren’t there outside agitators, after all? Today, one needs only to go to websites like Indivisible to find indisputable proof of coordination. For that matter, during the civil rights movement students from northern colleges spent “Freedom Summer” in Mississippi. Before the Civil War, abolitionists agitated openly against slavery—prime among them that fellow Frederick Douglass, whom President Trump praised as “an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.” Talk about a professional agitator!
In the end, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Betsy DeVos clearly thought it was damning to reveal that protests against her were not “genuine” because they were not “spontaneous.” Rather, they were “sponsored and very carefully planned.” Yet DeVos seems to have had no qualms about giving millions of dollars of her own money to organize support for privatizing education. One presumes that money was not used haphazardly but in ways that were very carefully planned.
Of course there are outside agitators! These are known as people committed to a cause, like Betsy DeVos and Frederick Douglass. The real question is, how much tinder is lying about when the match is struck? John Brown was an outside agitator, but his plans to lead an uprising near Harpers Ferry, where few slaves lived, was an abject failure. (Paradoxically, Brown was much more successful in arousing sympathy after he was caught, tried and hanged for treason by the commonwealth of Virginia.) Certainly agitators work to heighten awareness of conditions that need to be changed. The patriots of the American Revolution were adept agitators who worked unceasingly to coordinate resistance among distant colonies, through their Committees of Correspondence. In Boston the meeting at Old South Church, which sparked the original Tea Party, was hardly “spontaneous.” Sam Adams had carefully organized his “Indians,” who only awaited his signal to take to the harbor. That came when Adams told the assembly, “This meeting can do nothing more to save the country.”
Any successful movement will include outside agitators. The debate should focus not on tarring them as the Other, but on determining the merits of their cause. Should those prove to be just, the proverb from the movie Field of Dreams seems appropriate: If you build it, they will come.
James West Davidson
Occasional thoughts on history, teaching, paddling and the outdoors