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Taking a stand on March 5 has a long history; once again, the young lead the way

by Chris Mahin Thursday, Mar. 06, 2003 at 4:27 PM

Editorial on March 5th student strike.

Taking a stand on Ma...
march5.jpgromzma.jpg, image/jpeg, 250x163

On March 5, 2003, a student strike will take place all over the United States. The theme of the protest will be "Books Not Bombs," as campuses protest the push toward war against Iraq.

March 5 is a fitting day for this protest. No day of the year personifies the struggle for justice in this country better than the Fifth of March. No day better symbolizes the central role of young people in that struggle.

March 5 is the day the American Revolution began in 1770. It's the day that young people in Boston took matters into their own hands and decided to confront the representatives of the state power.

The political forces advocating a U.S. military assault on Iraq like to pretend that the American Revolution was a nice, neat, respectable affair and that this country was founded by upstanding property owners in New England and Virginia. In fact, the American Revolution was begun by people who didn't own anything, people who were the ancestors of today's downsized and underemployed. The first battle of the American Revolution was the Boston Massacre of March 5, 1770, a confrontation that young people led and in which they spilled their blood. As young people all over the United States prepare to stand up to the powers that be again on another March 5, it is worth recalling what happened on the evening of March 5, 1770, on King Street in Boston.

By March 1770, Boston had been occupied by British troops for 17 long months. The poor of Boston hated that occupation every bit as much as the residents of today's inner cities hate the police occupation of their neighborhoods.

All through the long winter of 1769, soldiers and citizens had clashed in street brawls and tavern fights. March 5, 1770 began as a cold and gray day. That evening, a small crowd of mainly young people gathered around a British sentry, accusing him of striking a young boy with his musket. The members of the crowd began hurling insults (and any missile they could find) at grenadiers who arrived to reinforce the sentry. The soldiers started shooting. By the time they were finished, "half a pail of blood" had been spilled into the snow, according to one eyewitness.

The first man to die -- the first martyr of American Independence -- was a black man named Crispus Attucks, a native of Framingham, Massachusetts. He had escaped from slavery in 1750 and had gone to sea as a sailor.

In total, five people were killed. Samuel Gray was a ropemaker; James Caldwell was a sailor; Samuel Maverick was a 17-year-old apprentice and Patrick Carr a leather worker. Carr was an Irish immigrant.

The massacre provoked outrage. On March 8, about 10,000 of Boston's 16,000 inhabitants took part in the funeral procession of the martyrs. (At the time, this was the largest procession to ever have taken place in North America.) Attucks, Caldwell, Gray and Maverick were buried in the same grave. Nine days later, Carr's body joined theirs.

The British troops were put on trial. Their lead defense attorney was John Adams, a wealthy lawyer who later became the second president of the United States. In his closing remarks to the jury, Adams said the killings were justified and blamed the violence on the immigrant (Patrick Carr from Ireland) and the black man (Crispus Attucks). He called the crowd on King Street "a mob." He also made a point of denouncing the demonstrators for being a young and very multi-ethnic group. Adams dismissed the protesters as "a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs." ("Teague" is a despicable term of contempt for Irish Catholics, similar to the "n-word" for blacks. A "jack tarr" is a sailor.) All but two of the soldiers were acquitted, in part because of Adams' demagogic speech.

In recent years, it has become fashionable for ruling-class historians to downplay the Boston Massacre. Some dismiss it as a minor "riot." But nothing can change the fact that the Boston Massacre started the American Revolution. "From that moment," Daniel Webster said, "we may date the severance of the British Empire."

It was not until 1887 that Boston authorized the erection of a monument to the martyrs in Boston Common. On it are the words of John Boyle O'Reilly: "And honor to Crispus Attucks, who was leader and voice that day: The first to defy, and the first to die, with Maverick, Carr and Gray. Call it riot or revolution, or mob or crowd as you may, Such deaths have been seed of nations, such lives shall be honored for ay ..."

Before the Civil War, some opponents of slavery made a point of refusing to celebrate the anniversary of the American Revolution on July 4. They argued that the Revolution should be celebrated instead on the day it began -- on March 5. While March 5 ought to be commemorated every year, the protests planned this year make that commemoration especially important. Every year on March 5, we would do well to remember how the American Revolution began. While slaveowners and other wealthy people eventually wormed their way into the leadership of the revolution, they did not shed its first blood. The first man to die in the American Revolution was a black man. Since that man was a runaway slave compelled to use an assumed name, he was, in a sense, an "illegal." Another of the casualties in that first engagement was an immigrant. A third was a teen-ager. And all five who died were workers. They now sleep forever in the same grave in the Old Granary Burial Ground in downtown Boston, a symbol of the unity of America's poor -- black and white, immigrant and native-born, "legal" and "illegal," young and old.

When I visited Boston in 1996, I saw homeless people of different nationalities shivering in the April cold just a few feet outside that cemetery's gates. Clearly, we once again need the unity of the poor and the defiant defense of human rights, which "the rabble" displayed on King Street in 1770. May the student strike of March 5, 2003 help push forward the fight to complete the revolutionary process in America, the struggle for which Crispus Attucks and his compatriots gave their lives.

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