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Connections: Protests are as American as apple pie

In 1774, a successful act of civil disobedience resulted in the forceful closing of the court at Great Barrington and in the raising of a Berkshire militia. When the shot was fired at Lexington in 1775, Berkshire was ready.

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America 2014.

The recent nationwide protests over the Ferguson, Missouri, affair may seem unique but protests, marches, occupations, and acts of civil disobedience are a part of the fabric of American life. And an intimate part of Berkshire life. Witness the weekly antiwar protest in Great Barrington. Or the demonstrations and marches against the Kinder Morgan natural gas pipeline.

Some historians claim “Coxey’s Army” was the first major protest in the United States. In 1894 in Ohio, Jacob Coxey began organizing a march to Washington D.C. to protest economic policies. Americans were suffering. The Panic of 1873 left many homeless, jobless, penniless. The Depression of1893 left 4,000,000 out of a population of approximately 62,000,000 unemployed. Coxey wanted Congress to help the people.

Coxey planned to attract followers along the route and he did. By the time he approached Washington D.C., Coxey’s Army numbered in the thousands but it was of little use. The legislation Coxey sought to block passed Congress and became law as he marched. Coxey and his army were stopped from occupying the capitol steps by the National Guard. Later, Coxey ran for office and lost. By 1896 the country was recovering, Coxey and his army were forgotten.

In March 1911, a fire broke out in the Triangle Shirt Factory in New York City. The doors were locked during working hours and the fire escapes were too narrow. Trapped in the burning building by locks and bottlenecks, 146 people (123 women and 23 men) died. Many jumped or fell to their deaths on the busy New York Street. Passers-by were horrified as bodies hit pavement. An open-air protest was held to support the formation of unions to protect the rights of workers.

New York City in 1911: the first march for women’s rights took place. The Suffrage March down Fifth Avenue swelled because of the 123 dead women at the Triangle Factory. Signs and sashes proclaimed: Votes for Women and End sweat shops. Down the same street one hundred years later silent marchers held signs: “Ban stop and frisk.”

In 1932, the Bonus March turned into the Bonus occupation. Soldiers massed in Washington D.C., to demand payment for – sad to say – their service in WWI. Their plight caught the sympathy of the nation; still, it took 12 years to pass a Bill to insure that American soldiers were paid and had benefits.

In 1963 Blacks marched on Washington demanding civil rights and listened enthralled to the Reverend King deliver “I Have a Dream.”

Farmers, veterans, women and the Black community, all have marched and camped out to secure their rights, but none of these were the first. Even if you discount early protests and acts of civil disobedience such as the Boston Tea Party because they were in The Colonies rather than the United States, the first was not Coxey’s Army. It was more than one hundred years earlier — Shays Rebellion.

Shays Rebellion did not begin in Berkshire County, but it ended here. After it ended, Daniel Shays and his army of “regulators” were demonized as marauders, and later canonized as men who influenced the United States Constitution of 1787. The truth is somewhere between.

The Revolutionary War left the country heavily in debt. To reduce the debt, taxes were imposed. Whether fact or fancy, it was generally believed that the heaviest tax burden fell on the poorest citizens. The poor, primarily farmers, were already reeling from personal debt.

Personal debt mushroomed during the Revolutionary War because farm profits fell and mortgages rose while the farmers were away fighting. When they were compensated for their military service, it was paid in worthless currency — currency even the government would not accept in tax payments. The combination of these economic pressures created “desperate debtors.”

When the “desperate debtors” could not pay, they were hauled into to court to face laws that favored the lenders and tax collectors. The Court dispossessed and imprisoned them. That seemed punishment enough but it was made exponentially worse by the feeling that it was class warfare: wealthy lenders versus desperate borrowers; the law tilted in favor of the merchant class and against the farmer.

The Hartford Courant called the farmer-debtors, “the most discontentedest.” Though not a word, the superlative was an accurate description. The “most discontentedest” became the soldiers in Shays Rebellion.

Their anger was focused on the courts where the foreclosures, bankruptcies, and incarcerations were sanctioned. Shays sought to close the courts until the laws could be “regulated.” He did not succeed. The Rebellion was squashed on a field in Sheffield. Some regulators escaped; some were hung.

People sit down, stand up, camp out and march because they want change. The most effective protests are those that influence popular opinion and change laws. Therefore, two protests cannot be overlooked even though they took place in The Colonies before we were the United States of America. They should not be overlooked partly because they took place in the Berkshires, but mostly because they helped propel a seismic change.

The Boston Tea Party in opposition to the Tea Act of 1773 took place on December 16. In July 1774 in a tavern in Stockbridge sixty delegates representing Lanesborough, Pittsfield, Stockbridge, Great Barrington, Sheffield, Tyringham and New Marlboro drew up and signed the “League and Covenant.” It was the first combined opposition to Royal rule in Berkshire. It promised that no British goods would be purchased or consumed in Berkshire County. In August the acts “for regulating the civil government and impartial administration of justice” led to the forceful closing of the court at Great Barrington. This successful act of civil disobedience encouraged further conventions, resolutions, and probably most important, the raising of a Berkshire militia. When the shot was fired at Lexington in April 1775, Berkshire was ready.

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