Left-leaning activists and pundits made a truly absurd reach in order to defend the violent looters and rioters destroying millions of dollars in property across America and ruining the lives and livelihoods of the very black people the protests are purportedly aimed to help. Pundits strained to compare the George Floyd riots to — get this — the Boston Tea Party.
“Our country was started because, the Boston tea party. Rioting. So do not get it twisted and think this is something that has never happened before and this is so terrible and these savages and all of that. This is how this country was started,” Don Lemon said on CNN.
“Our country was started because, the Boston tea party. Rioting. So do not get it twisted and think this is something that has never happened before and this is so terrible and these savages and all of that. This is how this country was started” –@DonLemon on @CNN 11:53 PM ET. pic.twitter.com/dGu5TmArsp
— Brent Baker (@BrentHBaker) May 31, 2020
“It is estimated that the Boston Tea Party, the riot that gave birth to this country, resulted in $1.7 million dollars (in today’s dollars) in property damage (tea). I’m just going to leave this right here for whoever needs to read it,” New York Times columnist Charles Blow tweeted.
It is estimated that the Boston Tea Party, the riot that gave birth to this country, resulted in $1.7 million dollars (in today’s dollars) in property damage (tea). I’m just going to leave this right here for whoever needs to read it.
— Charles M. Blow (@CharlesMBlow) May 28, 2020
Bishop Talbert Swan, a local NAACP leader, also compared the two. Responding to Trump’s condemnation of the riots, he tweeted, “AMERICA was founded on a RIOT, the Boston Tea Party. Fed up white people rebelled and destroyed millions of dollars of property. You call them PATRIOTS. When Black people fed up with injustice and the extrajudicial MURDER of their people riot, you call them THUGS.”
AMERICA was founded on a RIOT, the Boston Tea Party.
Fed up white people rebelled and destroyed millions of dollars of property.
You call them PATRIOTS.
When Black people fed up with injustice and the extrajudicial MURDER of their people riot, you call them THUGS.
— Bishop Talbert Swan (@TalbertSwan) May 29, 2020
But there is simply no comparison between the Boston Tea Party and the George Floyd riots, as The Federalist’s Joshua Lawson rightly pointed out. In fact, this absurd comparison is a heinous insult to the patriots who dumped tea in the Boston harbor.
The Boston Tea Party
The Boston Tea Party did involve property damage, to be sure. But the property damage was targeted, relatively safe, and calculated to make an important political statement. The Sons of Liberty who dumped the tea were protesting taxation without representation, an important principle of British law.
The Sons of Liberty targeted one specific type of property for destruction: tea from the monopolistic, government-supported British East India Company. The colonists protested the Townshend Acts and the Tea Act of 1773, which the British government levied in order to make American colonists help pay the cost of the Great War for Empire (the true first World War variously referred to as the “French and Indian War” in the Americas or the “Seven Years War” in Europe and fought between 1754 and 1763). While Americans arguably should have footed the bill for the war more than they did, the colonists rightly complained that they were being taxed without representation.
Under the 1689 English Bill of Rights, taxes could not be levied upon Englishmen without their consent. Britain refused to extend the colonists any representation in Parliament, and the American Revolution took shape.
By dumping tea into Boston harbor, the Sons of Liberty made a direct, limited, targeted protest against an illegal tax on tea. In doing so, they harmed no property within the city of Boston itself. They only damaged one item besides the tea: a broken padlock on one of the ships, which the patriots themselves replaced the very next day. The tea party only injured one person — John Crane, himself a Son of Liberty — who was temporarily knocked unconscious when struck by a tea crate.
The Boston Tea Party sent one specific message to London — give us representation or drop your taxes. That specific demand led to the Revolutionary War.
The George Floyd riots
The George Floyd riots, by contrast, devolved from specific protests over the horrific police abuse that caused the death of George Floyd. Americans are not divided over this police brutality: both Republicans like President Trump and Democrats have rightly condemned it. Not so the looting, vandalism, and arson of the riots.
The riots have caused millions of dollars in damage — Sacramento’s mayor estimated $10 million, damage in Atlanta has been estimated at between $10 and $15 million. Rioters damaged an estimated 50 businesses and properties in Pittsburgh, with similar numbers in Seattle (50 businesses), Chicago (45 properties), and Madison, Wisc. (75 businesses).
This damage carries a deeply personal toll as well as an economic one. A black business owner in Minneapolis, where George Floyd died and where the riots began, broke into tears explaining that the riots destroyed the sports bar into which he had poured his life savings. A black woman in Philadelphia, Pa., urged police to stop the riots, saying, “We need some security on this land NOW! Not tomorrow, not later.”
David Dorn, a black retired St. Louis police captain, “was murdered by looters at a pawnshop,” the Ethical Society of Police reported. Did his black life not matter?
George Floyd was arrested on charges of using a counterfeit $20 bill. He had lost his job due to the coronavirus lockdown in Minneapolis, but he was well-liked at the club where he worked security. Chances are high the club would have hired him back — but the club itself burned down in the riots.
Not only would George Floyd have opposed the riots, but the riots would have harmed the very man they were ostensibly intended to commemorate. They are certainly harming members of the black community across America. As businesses already struggled with reopening from the coronavirus crisis, they now face waves of destruction.
The George Floyd riots are wanton destruction, not targeted to achieve one specific end but to spread mayhem. If rioters truly want to end police brutality, they should adopt a set of concrete demands and focus on the local level, as none other than former President Barack Obama recommended.
Perhaps the most important difference between the Boston Tea Party and the George Floyd riots involves representation. The Sons of Liberty lacked the ability to vote out members of Parliament and push their demands that way. Achieving that basic representation was the whole point of the tea party — and the revolution.
By contrast, the George Floyd rioters are citizens of a free republic. If they so choose, they can vote for local, state, and federal leaders who represent their interests. They can petition their government on all levels for a redress of grievances. They can write to their mayors and city councils and demand concrete action. Instead, they choose to loot, pillage, and burn to get their way — when it is not at all necessary for them to do so. Rather than voting and expressing themselves legally, they aim to terrify Americans to … achieve what, exactly?
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.