This May Day: Celebrate the Protests and Riots That Created Systemic Change

Photo Courtesy: Getty Images | The Black Lives Matter organization, the Downtownerz, poses for a photo during a protest against the police killing of Ma’Khia Bryant.

May 1st or May Day as it is called in the United States is more commonly called Labour Day or International Workers’ Day around the world. And while we might think of our Labor Day, that occurs in September, as a time for relaxing and barbecuing, across the globe May Day is a day to remember and celebrate the historical struggles of the workers’ rights movement. It’s also a day to engage with the ongoing struggle, through protest actions and other forms of resistance.

The U.S. has a long history of protesting injustice, sometimes with peaceful protests and other times with protests that use the destruction of property to send a message. Some people have expressed confusion about the efficacy of protests, or believe that peaceful protest is the only legitimate form of grievance. Others have argued that property destruction is an effective way to threaten capital, and bring powerful actors to the bargaining table when they otherwise would have ignored protest movement. However you feel about this argument, protests and riots have been historically effective tools for Americans standing up to abuse, hate and inequality. This May Day is a great day to learn about some key protests and riots in history that led to systemic changes in America.

The Boston Tea Party

Rioting and property destruction are integral to the birth of America. Whether or not something goes down in history as senseless violence or noble bravery has less to do with the facts of the event and more to do with who is telling the history. In fact, one iconic rebellion saw a loss of $1,000,000 in property, yet it is called an act of heroism in classrooms across the country. On December 16, 1773, more than 100 men boarded ships and dumped 90,000 pounds (45 tons) of tea into Boston’s harbor to protest Britain’s policies of “taxation without representation.”

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The Boston Tea Party highlighted the anger and frustration the colonists felt over Britain’s tyrannical control. It was one of the earliest political protests in the country, inspiring American patriots to recruit rebels across the 13 colonies and begin the American Revolution. By 1776, the colonies had declared their independence from Britain.

The 1913 Suffrage Parade

The journey to women’s suffrage was long, difficult and violent in the U.S. On March 3, 1913, the first major event to fight for women’s right to vote took place in Washington, D.C. — the 1913 Women’s Suffrage Parade. Led by Jane Addams, Alice Paul, Anna Howard Shaw and the National American Woman Suffrage Association, the massive parade drew thousands of women.

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Unfortunately, the movement also attracted male spectators, who antagonized and attacked the women. Despite the police presence, almost 100 marchers were injured and hospitalized, which caught the attention of newspapers and led to congressional hearings. The D.C. supervisor of police was fired for failing to secure and protect the paraders.

Congress approved the 19th Amendment, allowing white women the right to vote in 1920 — seven years after the parade. It took another 45 years for women of color to freely exercise the same right to vote.

The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot in San Francisco

Before the famous Stonewall Riot, there was the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot of 1966, a historical event now known as the first LGBT uprising in American history. For years, the San Francisco Police Department abused and victimized transgender women and drag queens in the Tenderloin District, who were often forced to engage in sex work to survive. It was also a crime to cross-dress at the time.

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On one fateful day in 1966, a group of trans women dining at Gene Compton’s Cafeteria had enough of the harassment and transphobia. As a cop tried to arrest one woman, she threw a cup of coffee in his face, lashing out against police brutality and injustice. Using their high heels and purses, the “screaming queens” fought back. The clash ended with flipped chairs and tables, broken restaurant windows, a damaged squad car and a burned down newsstand. Another group organized a similar protest the next day.

In the wake of the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, there was wider support for transgender rights. Glide Memorial Methodist Church and Vanguard (a queer youth group) publicly addressed the issues raised by the transgender community and offered them help. In 1968, advocates created the National Transsexual Counseling Unit (NTCU) to provide transgender social services. Over time, the police brutality toward the community decreased, and the cross-dressing ordinance was repealed in 1974.

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963

In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom — one of the most famous and massive protests in American history. The protest took place in front of the Lincoln Memorial, where 250,000 demonstrators marched and called for the end of systemic racism and inequality.

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The march was almost canceled due to President John F. Kennedy’s fear of the event ending in violence, but the organizers, A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, pushed for the march to go on as planned. The mass protest was entirely peaceful, with celebrities, powerful organizations and 3,000 members of the press in attendance.

The event is credited with pressuring the John F. Kennedy administration to step up and take action to promote racial justice and equality. In the aftermath of the march, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed, outlawing segregation in public spaces and discrimination in voting and employment.

Toxic Waste in Warren County, North Carolina (1982)

There were a variety of impetus that lead to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and while some will point to the first Earth Day, the origins of the environmental movement date back much earlier than that are are inextricably linked to the Civil Rights Movement. Indeed, it was people of color naming and fighting environmental racism that really began to fan the flames of this movement.

(Original Caption) 10/21/1982-Afton, NC- Resembling civil rights demonstrators of the 1960’s, blacks and whites march together in protest against a dump for toxic wastes. Many in this rural community contend Warren County was chosen as the site because most of its citizens are black and poor. Officials deny the question of race played any part in the selection. Front center is Reverend Joseph Lowery of Atlanta, who heads the Southern Christian Leadership Conference founded by the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

People of color continued to lead that movement, which is unsurprising given the disproportionate impact of environmental degradation on low-income, minority communities. In 1982, in Warren County, North Carolina, residents protested the dumping of 6,000 truckloads of toxic waste near their homes. Worried that the toxins would leak into the drinking water, folks laid down in front of trucks as a first act of protest. Street protests followed for the next six weeks. Though they ultimately lost that battle, they inspired the formation of local groups and national coalitions cross the country, all with the aim of protecting minority communities from the impacts of environmental racism.

ACT UP and the FDA in 1988

AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power or ACT UP was formed March 12, 1987 at a time when President Reagan had yet to even utter the word AIDS publicly, despite an estimated 40,000 deaths from the disease at the time. The FDA had just approved its first treatment, AZT, and set a price tag of $10,000. In the first year, much of ACT UP’s actions were disorganized and angry; activists blocked traffic outside Wall Street and City Hall in Manhattan and barged into the offices of politicians throwing fake blood. A year after its founding, ACT UP organized a die-in outside of the FDA offices. Protestors brought tombstones claiming death at the hands of the FDA. The goal was access to experimental drugs; prior to the protest the FDA wouldn’t even discuss it, yet a few months later access to these drugs was granted.

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In an interview with NRP, historian and author of How To Survive A Plague, David France remarks that it was the combination of aggressive and destructive actions alongside strategic protests that made ACT UP successful at achieving their goals. ACT UP continues to fight for research into and access to life sustaining interventions to HIV infection alongside “tackling the structural drivers of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, such as stigma, discrimination and poverty.”

Occupy Wall Street and The 99% (2011)

On September 17th of 2011, protesters occupied Zuccotti Park to protest rising income inequality. This occupation would last two months and come to be known as Occupy Wall Street, spurring similar occupations to spring up across the country. While many criticized the movement for lacking clear demands, others claim that this was instrumental to the movement’s success. Rather than offering politicians a list of demands to be used as bargaining chips, the Occupy Movement held that the government should not be negotiating with the people but should be of the people. Politicians watched as the movement amassed power in the form of popular support and were left to imagine and offer up for themselves what such a government ought to look like.

Photo Courtesy: Getty Images | Members of Occupy Wall Street stage a protest near Wall Street in New York, on October 15, 2011.

Though specific outcomes of this protest are hard to define, the impact is undoubtedly still being felt today. For one, the Occupy Wall St movement popularized the concept of the 99%. This pushed the Democratic Party further to the Left, and gave opportunities to progressive politicians like Bernie Sanders to run on platforms aimed at addressing income inequality. Furthermore, even though Bernie lost his recent presidential campaign, the popularities of these ideas lead Biden to adopt many of Sanders’ agenda items in his effort to win the Presidency.