On July 4, 1934, the U.S. was in the fourth year of an economic crisis. On the West Coast, longshoremen had taken advantage of their newly acquired unionization rights and were on strike. In San Francisco, there was an uneasy calm on the waterfront after a vicious battle between police and strikers the day before.
The peace lasted only for a few hours. San Francisco’s police were planning another attempt to open the port. On the morning of July 5, they fired tear gas and charged the picket lines. The struggle lasted for hours. “It was a Gettysburg in the miniature,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported. By evening, two strikers were dead and the National Guard had set up machine-gun nests to guard the port.
The violence wasn’t surprising. The Fourth of July often has been the occasion for such incidents, particularly when the economy turned bad. The last deep economic crisis had been in the 1890s. In 1894, commerce was paralyzed by a railway strike that began in Chicago. On July 4, federal troops were sent to open the city’s rail yards. That evening, Chicago erupted in violence. “Gatling guns scarcely kept the mob at bay,” a newspaper account read. Eleven people died before order was restored a week later.
There had been an equally bloody railroad strike in July 1877, in the midst of the previous depression. In Chicago, federal cavalry -- “veteran Indian fighters, who could be relied upon in any emergency” -- charged a mob of 10,000 on Halstead Street. Egged on by Chicago businessmen, the federal government established a permanent garrison at Fort Sheridan, 30 miles north of the city.
The depression of the 1870s was the worst since the early 1840s. There was trouble then, too. In Philadelphia, competition for scarce jobs stoked tensions between immigrants and native-born Americans.
The July 4 parade of 1844 was intended as a demonstration of nativist power. It set off four days of urban combat as mobs fought soldiers with artillery. On July 8, Philadelphia was placed under martial law.
On Independence Day, 2013, we are struggling with the aftermath of what has been called the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. But this crisis hasn’t been marked by widespread social unrest. Why not?
The first reason is that we have the capacity to control unrest more efficiently, in large part due to bloody Independence Day protests of the past. Rioting in the 1840s caused major cities of the industrial northeast -- Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Baltimore -- to undertake the first serious attempts at creating urban police forces. The troubles of the late 19th century led to reforms that made the National Guard better at riot control. And the 1930s produced tighter legal restrictions on the timing and location of demonstrations.
We’ve seen a similar expansion of policing capacity over the last three decades. Law enforcement officers are better equipped than ever before. The sight of police in full riot gear was a novelty in 1980; not today. And major police forces are much better at containing violence when it does happen.
That helps explain why the Occupy protests were so peaceful in most cities -- and why they generally ended quietly.
The second reason is the collapse of the union movement. Union-organized strikes and demonstrations don’t usually turn violent, but the potential for conflict is reduced if strikes and demonstrations aren’t organized at all. And that is the story of the last three decades. Today, only 7 percent of the private sector workforce is unionized. Between 1950 and 1980, the U.S. experienced an average of 300 major strikes a year. Between 2000 and 2010, it was 17 a year.
A third reason is the endurance of the social safety net -- the web of programs including welfare, unemployment insurance, Social Security and Medicaid that protects Americans from economic distress. The system has been battered over the past 30 years. Still, the safety net remains much more extensive than it was in the 1930s. And it’s doing what many of its designers hoped it would do -- helping to keep the peace during hard times.
Finally, federal authorities are acting in a limited way to prevent the economy from spiraling further downward. Granted, policy makers have been reluctant to launch aggressive spending programs to stimulate the economy. But the Federal Reserve has shown no hesitation about pursuing unorthodox measures to avoid a full-scale depression. This is a big change from previous crises, when governments hesitated to aggressively intervene in the economy.
Americans today think of economic policy as a technical matter, detached from gritty questions of law and order. That makes us different from our predecessors of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
We may not like all the ways that American society has developed to keep the peace when times get tough, but they have prevented another violent Fourth of July.
(Alasdair Roberts is the Jerome L. Rappaport Professor of Law and Public Policy at Suffolk University Law School in Boston. He is the author of “America’s First Great Depression: Economic Crisis and Political Disorder After the Panic of 1837.”)
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