This Month in Boston Counter-Cultural History was for two years a monthly feature in the local independent arts & culture newspaper the Boston Compass. The column explores the role of arts & culture in envisioning, provoking and enacting social change, as exemplified by stories from Boston’s rich legacy of creative activism.
The articles were compiled into two illustrated calendars featuring artwork by many local artists, which were sold to raise money for the volunteer-run newspaper.
Large-format poster versions of the 2015 calendar artworks and articles were produced for an exhibition at Boston City Hall Office of Arts & Culture, and were later exhibited at CityPOP Egleston in Jamaica Plain.
See below the illustrated articles organized as a chronology, 1690-2006:
Coffee Talk Press
In Boston on September 25, 1690 independent journalist Benjamin Harris published the first newspaper printed in the American Colonies. Harris introduces the 4-page publication, Publick Occurrences, Both Forreign and Domestick, by describing his intention to “furnish…an account of such considerable things as have arrived unto our notice,” so that “people everywhere may better understand the circumstances of public affairs, both abroad and at home.”
The domestic news from September 1690 includes several accounts of conflicts between New England pioneers and Indians, missionary work with Indian villages, the abatement of a small pox outbreak in Boston and other public health matters, a dramatic suicide in Boston by an elderly man, and news from battlefronts with French-Indian forces in New Hampshire, Maine and Canada. British Empire battlefronts in the Caribbean and Ireland are summarized, and foreign news is concluded with a bit of scandalous gossip on the incestuous French royal family. The final page is left blank so readers may handwrite amendments to the news stories and introduce new ones before redistributing.
British law prohibited independent publications of any kind. Within four days the Governour & Council issued a declaration that Harris “presumed to print and disperse a pamphlet… without… authority,” and ordered “said pamphlet…be suppress’d and called in; strictly forbidding any person…to…print without license first obtained from…the Government.” Every undistributed copy was confiscated and destroyed. The one known surviving copy is now housed in the British Library.
Harris had previously served jail time in London for publishing seditious material. After fleeing to Boston he operated a coffeehouse and bookstore, which served as a popular meeting place for political discourse, surely inspiring and informing the short-lived Publick Occurrences. He later returned to England and continued to publish without a license.
In 1765 British Parliament passed the Stamp Act imposing a tax on all printed materials produced in the 13 Colonies, including newspapers, permits and legal documents. Colonists considered the tax a form of censorship and oppression that limited free expression, trade and justice to only those who could afford the tax.
On August 14, 1765 the first public protest of the Stamp Act occurred in Boston at what is now the corner of Washington and Essex Streets. There stood a tall and broad elm tree from which the protesters hung an effigy of local Stamp Officer Andrew Oliver and a British cavalry boot painted as a grimacing devil, within which was a scroll labeled “Stamp Act.”
Following the protest an organized mob ransacked Oliver’s house, threatened his life and forced him to resign his position publicly at the same tree, effectively making the Stamp Act unenforceable. With this victory the tree was heralded as the Liberty Tree, and became the primary outdoor public meeting place and site for protests and broadsides in the years leading to revolution.
During the British occupation and siege of Boston in 1775 a group of Loyalists led by Job Williams cut down the Liberty Tree for firewood to signify the Revolution’s failure. Nevertheless, the symbol of Liberty endured. Trees in cities and towns throughout the Colonies were given Liberty Tree status and functioned as rallying points for organized rebellion. Liberty Tree emblems adorned flags at Revolutionary battles and the remaining stump became known as the Liberty Stump.
In 1872 a banquet hall was built at the site of the Liberty Tree. Embedded into the third story Washington Street facade of this building, now the Registry of Motor Vehicles above the Chinatown T-stop, is an impressive bas-relief carving of the Liberty Tree with the text: Sons of Liberty 1766; Independence of their Country 1776.
The Revered Massacre
In the 1760s a radical mob of Bostonians, the Sons of Liberty, intimidated and terrorized merchants and local officials for colluding with Britain in the tyrannical rule of the American Colonies. In 1768 British troops were ordered to occupy the town and keep the peace. After incidents of harassment on both sides, on March 5, 1770, in an armed altercation near what is now the Old State House, a soldier in the 29th Regiment accidentally fired upon the mob, startling other soldiers to fire. Five Americans were killed.
The details of the Boston Massacre tragedy are misconstrued in America’s public memory thanks in large part to an engraving and poem The Bloody Massacre in King Street published by Son of Liberty Paul Revere three weeks later. In the mass-media of the day, the propaganda artwork demonizes the British while depicting the volatile mob as wholly innocent, swiftly garnering in the 13 Colonies public sympathy for and solidarity with the Sons of Liberty, leading ultimately to revolution.
In Revere’s interpretation of events, women, a puppy and well-clothed unarmed men comprise a peaceful public gathering. An officer stands behind a row of soldiers, ordering them to fire upon the crowd. A line from the poem reads, “Like fierce barbarians grinning o’er their prey, approve the carnage and enjoy the day.” The slain figure of Crispus Attucks, a Native/African-American who was the first to be shot, is portrayed as a European. This fabrication, however, did not cement into historical fact, as the true Attucks has since been deemed a Patriot and martyr.
Revolution and Bust
A true story, The American Heroine premiered at Boston’s Federal Theater on March 26, 1802. The performance featured Deborah Sampson as her daring alias, Private Robert Shurtliff of the Continental Army. Sampson’s show toured throughout Massachusetts and New York, captivating audiences with her harrowing tales of combat, and brushes with both death and the discovery of her cleverly concealed identity. A woman dressed in a soldier’s uniform was a rare site for theatergoers but even more fundamentally novel was the notion of a woman on a public speaking tour. Never before had this occurred in America.
Sampson grew up in poverty in a broken home and entered into indentured servitude at age ten. At age 22 “Shurtliff” served in the Revolutionary War as a means to support herself and experience the country beyond Massachusetts’ South Shore. In 1782 she received a bullet to the inner thigh during a skirmish in Westchester County, NY. Rather than allow her true sex to be revealed to the medic, she treated the wound and resumed her duties despite agonizing pain. She managed to evade detection for some 18 months into her service before falling ill in Philadelphia, and upon examination while unconscious the attending doctor noticed the cloth binding her breasts. When she had fully recovered the doctor informed the commanding officer of her secret. Although impersonating a man was technically illegal the officer granted her an honorable discharge and commended her for her bravery, albeit privately.
Following the honorable discharge receiving back pay proved difficult, as it was for many veterans at the time. She was once again in the familiar position of being broke. After a nine-year bureaucratic battle she successfully petitioned for her back pay. Somehow from this petition her unique story was leaked to the press, who painted her as an American Heroine. Capitalizing on her newfound celebrity she commissioned a biographer and published The Female Review in 1797, later selling copies by the dozens on her groundbreaking speaking tour.
Sampson was repeatedly denied a Federal pension often rewarded to wounded veterans who could prove financial need. In 1804 her friend, neighbor and esteemed Patriot Paul Revere wrote a letter to Congressman William Eustis on her behalf, stating in part, “I have no doubt your humanity will prompt you to do all in your power to get her some relief; I think her case much more deserving than hundreds to whom Congress have been generous.” Her pension was granted shortly thereafter and today Deborah Sampson is the official Heroine of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
On February 12, 1812 Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry signed a bill redrawing Essex County’s voting districts to aid his Jeffersonian-Republican Party over the rival Federalist Party in the upcoming election. The new boundaries concentrated Federalist voters into one district while giving Republican voters a slight majority in several others, ensuring more seats in the State legislature for the Republicans.
Once word of the rigged bill began to spread from Beacon Hill, a political cartoonist caught wind and drew his own map of the new oddly shaped districts. He illustratively embellished district borders to resemble a profile of the mythical winged fire-lizard “salamander,” and comically named it the “Gerry-Mander.”
The Boston Gazette published the cartoon map a month later, further fueling a public critique of Gerry’s corruption. As yet another example of art’s power to capture and expand public consciousness, the practice of corrupt redistricting has henceforth carried the name: gerrymandering.
On September 28, 1829 Bostonian David Walker published the Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. The Appeal condemns slavery as immoral and barbaric, and calls for immediate abolition. Historian Herbet Aptheker heralds the Appeal as “the first sustained written assault upon slavery and racism to come from a black man in the United States.”
Walker, a devout Christian, charges the white Christian establishment with hypocrisy for supporting a de-humanizing fundamentally unchristian system, and demands repentance. He denounces the American Colonization Society’s plan to re-locate American free blacks to a new colony in West Africa, which was championed by Thomas Jefferson and other leaders, as a guise with the true intent of distancing potentially incendiary free blacks from the ignorant enslaved. Most urgently Walker appeals to his “afflicted and slumbering brethren” to “remember your freedom is your natural right,” and to assert “you are men as well as they.”
Walker owned and operated a used clothing store near Faneuil Hall where he sewed copies of the Appeal into the linings of garments, which were worn by traveling agents into the slave slates. There the pamphlets were covertly distributed and read aloud to the primarily illiterate slave population. The Appeal was threatening to slaveholders who feared slave resistance and uprising. Walker’s agents faced harsh penalties for possession of the Appeal in slave states, including in Louisiana life imprisonment or death. Likewise Walker became a marked man in Boston with Georgia offering a $10,000 bounty for his capture. Walker’s death the following year is attributed in public record to “consumption” from tuberculosis, a common public health problem at the time, however there is speculation that anti-abolitionist conspirators poisoned him for his radical literature.
Walker catapulted the Abolitionist movement that eventually achieved emancipation in 1863. His impassioned prose has informed and inspired African-American leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Malcom X, and today’s Dr. Cornel West who honors the Appeal as “the most powerful theological critique of slavery from the black Christian tradition.”
A Kindled Uprising
The fledgling Massachusetts Congress of the 1780s, in their paternal wisdom, charged themselves with the problem of the Mashpee Indian tribe of Cape Cod. The Legislative Act of 1788 granted State-appointed overseers total command of the Mashpee’s economic affairs – the power to tax, manage natural resources and trade, and to indenture servants including children. The Act of 1789 prohibited teaching literacy to the Mashpee under pain of death.
Enter – William Apess: a brilliant and charismatic Pequot Indian educated in white schools; a traveling Methodist preacher, activist, poet, and author who meets the Mashpee in 1833 and learns of the wrongs against them. On May 21, 1833 the Mashpee hold a council, adopting Apess into their tribe as Minister. A letter drafted to Harvard College requests the dismissal of Rev. Phineas Fish, appointed as missionary to the Mashpee without their consent, who for two decades has abused his office and the tribe for personal gain. A second letter to the Governor & Council petitions a redress of grievances and plea for self-government, declaring the laws governing the Mashpee lands and people to be unconstitutional, including the sanctioned extortion of the Mashpee’s natural resources.
Within this “Mashpee Nullification,” as it came to be known, is an ultimatum, which was also posted about the Cape – after July 1, 1833, no white men may harvest wood or hay from Mashpee land. In open defiance, on this very day the Brothers Sampson of Barnstable are confronted by Apess and others as they load freshly hewn logs into carts. After a verbal exchange with Apess, the Sampsons leave peacefully but with an empty cart, vowing to press criminal charges against the tribe for interfering with their spoil. When the Overseers hear of the confrontation, rumor of a “Wood Riot” and fear of an imminent violent insurrection is spread to the authorities and media. Governor Levi Lincoln prepares to muster a militia but first sends a representative to address the Mashpee in their meetinghouse, who peacefully provide him a daylong account of their trials with the whites. The representative promises a legislative hearing to consider the Mashpee petition. Undermining this positive step, the day concludes with the Barnstable County Sheriff issuing a warrant for the arrest of Apess for trespassing and inciting riot – a backwards indictment indeed. A handpicked jury sentences Apess to 30 days in jail, further agitating relations and exciting the press and public.
The Mashpee petition was read aloud before the legislature in January 1834, under the unprecedented protest of several representatives. A week later a Mashpee delegation is invited to speak to the public before a packed State House Hall of Representatives. There Apess delivers a profound speech on the moral obligation of government to uphold justice, from which many a legislator is moved to reflection on the flawed policy towards native peoples. Shortly thereafter passes the Mashpee Act of 1834, forming a semi-autonomous Indian District of Mashpee. In May 2007, descendants of these Wampanoags became a federally recognized Tribe, the tenth in New England.
On July 26, 1846 Henry David Thoreau was arrested and jailed in Concord for unpaid federal taxes. Among other US policies and practices, Thoreau morally objected to the Mexican-American War which he felt was one of conquest and imperialism, and he refused to contribute to funding it. He spent one night in jail before an anonymous person paid his back taxes against his wishes and he was set free.
Thoreau delivered a public lecture shortly thereafter on “The Rights and Duties of the Individual in relation to Government” which was later revised and published as an essay. This work, re-titled “Civil Disobedience” in 1866, provokes a sense of moral obligation and call to action to resist State-sponsored injustice through noncompliance.
Civil Disobedience as a text and political concept has inspired social movements such as Abolitionism, Suffrage, Labor, Civil Rights, and today’s OWS.
Shadrach Minkins was born into slavery in Norfolk, VA circa 1814. On May 3, 1850 he escaped his enslavers and fled to Boston. There he found refuge in the free black community on Beacon Hill, a job waiting tables at Taft’s Cornhill Coffee Shop, and support from the Boston Vigilance Committee, founded in 1841 to “secure to persons of color the enjoyment of their constitutional and legal rights.”
Meanwhile, the Nation and its leaders polarized around the issue of slavery. Following Mexico’s surrender to US armed forces in 1848, the newly acquired Southwestern territories promised to upset the balance between Free and Slave States. Fearing an opposing political majority would threaten their rights and interests, each side braced for civil war. To avert such disaster Congress passed the Compromise of 1850, a bill that made concessions to both North and South regarding slavery and the new territories. The Fugitive Slave Law was a controversial provision, which mandated that Northern authorities and citizens aid Southern slave owners in recovering their missing property.
The Boston Vigilance Committee criticized the Fugitive Slave Law as a Federal imposition upon State’s rights, and for being immoral and unconstitutional. Blacks accused of fleeing slavery were not entitled to a fair trial, nor was any proof of ownership required for arrest, simply the word of the slaveholder. Furthermore, penalties for aiding fugitive slaves or for refusing to cooperate with authorities were severe, including stiff fines and prison sentences. Despite the dangers, the Vigilance Committee published articles, distributed pamphlets and hung broadsides throughout the city criticizing the law and warning blacks and their allies to be wary of the police.
On February 15, 1851 US marshals apprehended Shadrach Minkins while at work, arresting him to the nearby courthouse to await his return to Norfolk. The Vigilance Committee was quick to the scene, surrounding then occupying the courthouse with an angry mob, overrunning the marshals and stealing Minkins away in the melee. Minkins hid in a Beacon Hill attic until he was safely smuggled aboard the Underground Railroad to Montreal where he lived free for the remainder of his days as a husband, father and barber.
President Millard Fillmore was livid over the insurrection in Boston, sending in the National Guard to cap mob violence and enforce fugitive slave captures. The President demanded that the Vigilance Committee be condemned for Minkin’s escape. Nine members were indicted but charges were dropped against seven before trial. The remaining two defendants, black Abolitionist attorneys Lewis Hayden and Robert Morris, were tried for treason. However, both men were acquitted by a Boston jury resentful of the military occupation, and unsympathetic to the Southern slaveholder and the Federal effort to preserve a Union at the expense of the principle of Liberty.
Bread & Roses
In 1900, the textile mills of Lawrence, MA produced a quarter of all woolen cloth in the United States. The industrialists who financed Lawrence’s development profited greatly from this productivity, partly due to wise capital investment but also through the exploitation of immigrant labor. Most were young female immigrants and their children – desperate people with no economic alternatives – who faced miserable conditions at work and home. Exposure to harsh chemicals and stagnant air in the mills literally poisoned the workforce; crowded and unsanitary tenements spread diseases; and wages were so meager that proper nutrition was unattainable. In addition to profits, this system produced a culture where most women died by age 25 and many of their children died on the job.
Despite substantial returns, on January 1, 1912 wages were cut after a law was implemented reducing working hours for women and children from 56 to 54 per week. To the owners’ surprise, after the first wages were issued on January 11, 1912, the women and children walked out of their jobs together. They demanded not only bread, but roses too – a living wage, and to be treated with dignity and respect as human beings. Thus began the Bread & Roses strike. By the next day 25,000 workers had taken to the streets.
To declare the truth of their plight and their pressing needs, strikers held signs, hung broadsides, distributed pamphlets, and sang the protest anthem “Bread & Roses.” Word spread to the International Workers of the World (IWW) who descended upon Lawrence and assumed a leadership role in negotiations and organizing. Donations of food and money from sympathizers across the Northeast poured in to sustain the strikers.
Authorities employed severe measures in an attempt to subdue the strike. Police, militia and even university students from many cities and towns joined local forces. Demonstrators were beaten, arrested and several were killed. The Federal government sat idly by as unrest persisted until a February 24 Lawrence train station incident made national headlines. Reports of police brutalizing a group of mothers as they attempted to spare their offspring from starvation by sending them to volunteer host families in Philadelphia struck a chord with the greater public – it could no longer be denied who was in the wrong. A Congressional investigation of the textile industry commenced and shortly thereafter the strikers’ demands were met. The settlement was matched across industries as owners feared further strikes and government intervention.
Over the next six decades Lawrence was subjected to a propaganda campaign to erase from public memory the brave refusal of the Bread & Roses strikers. An annual “God & Country” parade framed the events of 1912 as an unfortunate disruption initiated by the anti-American IWW outside agitators, which was overcome by a legion of patriotic Lawrence citizens. Not until the 1970s, when the New York painter Ralph Fasanella came to Lawrence with an historian and journalist to resurrect the people’s history through an exhibition at the public library, did the Bread & Roses narrative that’s now celebrated annually in Lawrence return to the fore of public consciousness – a true testament to the power of art.
Cannot Gag the Truth
In 1873, moral authoritarian Anthony Comstock and his New York Society for the Suppression of Vice lobbied Congress to pass an Act for the “Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use.” Under the Comstock Law, mailing and in certain instances possessing “obscene” materials was illegal, including pornography, erotica, sex toys, sex education materials, and contraceptives. Many critics considered the law an invasion of privacy and a denial of civil liberties. They claimed the law would fail to discourage sexual deviance, which could not be legislated away. Moreover, they argued that conflating contraception and sex education with obscenity would only serve to exacerbate the social, economic and public health consequences of unwanted pregnancy.
Decades later in the Lower East Side slums of New York City, nurse Margaret Sanger witnessed these consequences daily. Caring for poor women infected or mutilated from shoddy “back-alley” abortions, she dedicated herself to promoting contraception as a preventative measure. Sanger illegally distributed dozens of publications on sex education, coining the term birth control. In 1916 she founded an illegal birth control clinic in Brooklyn, continuing to operate it even after multiple arrests and jail sentences. In 1921 she founded a national advocacy organization, the American Birth Control League (ABCL). Its charter states:
“We hold that children should be (1) conceived in love; (2) born of the mother’s conscious desire; (3) and only begotten under conditions which render possible the heritage of health. Therefore we hold that every woman must possess the power and freedom to prevent conception except when these conditions can be satisfied.”
Meanwhile in Boston, obscenity censorship was rampant. With support from Mayor James Michael Curley, the prude and powerful Watch & Ward Society suppressed plays, novels, speeches and other communiqués deemed unsavory – “Banned in Boston” became a popular phrase and code for racy content. Sanger planned visits to Boston on several occasions but the Mayor forbade her to speak publicly, threatening her with prosecution.
Sanger and a host of other controversial figures were invited to speak on April 16, 1929 at Boston’s Ford Hall Forum, a lecture series initiated by political dissidents in 1908 to promote open dialogue on social issues. Cleverly appropriating her Boston speaking ban, she took the stage with a gag over her mouth as press flashbulbs strobed about the forum. Harvard Professor Arthur Schlesinger stood beside and recited her prepared statement, which read in part, “The authorities of Boston may gag me, they do not want you to hear the truth about birth control. But they cannot gag the truth.”
The ABCL continued its advocacy, earning doctors the right to prescribe contraceptives in 1938, and the following year forming the Birth Control Federation of America, now known as Planned Parenthood. Sanger witnessed in 1965 the legalization of birth control in the U.S., a year before her death at the age of 86. Although this and subsequent rulings overturned much of Comstock Law, some amended provisions remain on the books to this day including a $250,000 fine for mailing unsolicited information on abortions.
June 21, 1958 marked the beginning of the summer where American lawns were first ornamented with Plastic Pink Flamingos. In 1957 Don Featherstone, a local art school graduate and employee of Union Products in Leominster, MA, sculpted two flamingo moulds inspired by photos from National Geographic. One bird stands upright while the other bends down to graze upon a lawn.
The ornaments were popular in Northern working-class suburbs as an affordable pastiche of ‘50s Floridian fascination – a weatherproof reminder of America’s exotic yet increasingly accessible tropical vacationland. As popularity grew, cultured elite labeled the flamingos the epitome of poor taste “kitsch,” disguising their distaste for the Working Class as merely patronizing aesthetic criticism.
In 1972 avant-garde director John Waters produced Pink Flamingos: An Exercise in Poor Taste, a film which shockingly embraced all things kitsch, thereby challenging and subverting conventional bourgeois aesthetic mandates. Sticking it to the Class Snob, the film’s cult following assumed a confrontational “we love it because you hate it” attitude towards taste-making privilege – one facet of farther-reaching forms of privilege and oppression. Plastic Pink Flamingos then became a powerful symbol for counter-cultural efforts, particularly the gay rights movement of the ‘70s & ‘80s. Faux flocks of flamingos fluttered about gay nightclubs and equal rights demonstrations; flamingo printed motifs and miniature accessories accented the flamboyant fashion of proud protesters and partiers.
By the late ‘80s the bourgeoisie had caught up to and co-opted counter-culture in many forms including the iconic Plastic Pink Flamingo, which was now sold at art museums and galleries. The “high culture” adoption of the tacky ornament stripped it of its subversive quality and it was largely abandoned as a revolutionary tool except as a nostalgic ode to more radical times.
Don Featherstone climbed the ranks of Union Products, eventually becoming company President. He retired in 2000 and currently resides in Fitchburg, MA with his wife Nancy.
The Boston Redevelopment Authority’s (BRA) Urban Renewal policies in the 1950s and ‘60s dramatically affected Boston’s cityscape and culture. Dense low-income neighborhoods were labeled unhealthy outdated slums. Gradually they were demolished, their residents displaced, and replaced with large-scale public and luxury housing, government, commercial and industrial complexes, and highway infrastructure.
On April 27, 1968 activists occupied a South End lot, a former residential block slated by the BRA to be redeveloped as a high-rise parking garage. Led by Mel King, the Community Assembly for a United South End (CAUSE) rallied 400 people to camp there and refuse to leave until their demand was met for the site to be developed as much-needed affordable housing.
Within their self-proclaimed Tent City, protesters chanted, sang songs, played music and danced; painted and hung signs; and ate food donated by Boston Celtics star Bill Russell who owned a restaurant nearby. The festive spectacle of Tent City and the vigilance of the occupiers drew in many passersby and garnered strong media attention. Within three days public support for the protest had swelled and the BRA conceded to halting their redevelopment plans.
CAUSE continued to advocate for the housing rights of South End residents and 20 years later, on that lot, the Tent City mixed-income apartment complex was dedicated. Sited across from Back Bay Station and Copley Place in a highly desirable area, Tent City houses over one hundred units for families of a broad income range, serving as a successful planning model that privileges diversity and access over homogeneity and isolation.
King was raised in the South End’s New York Streets “slum” district, which was razed in 1955 for the Herald Traveler plant, later known as the Boston Herald. He is a former State Representative, MIT Professor, and founder of the South End Technology Center for community-based education.
Grass-rooted in Information
During the 1960s in Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, and the South End many homes were demolished and residents displaced to make way for Interstate 95, a.k.a. the Southwest Expressway. By the early 1970s a broad grassroots coalition of opposition to the Southwest Expressway and other planned highways through Roxbury, The Fenway, Cambridge, and Somerville successfully pressured the state government to cease urban highway construction in Massachusetts. Federal highway construction funds were reallocated to transform the existing 4-mile swath of rubble into the Southwest Corridor Park and the southern portion of the MBTA Orange Line, both of which opened in 1987.
On August 5th, 1969 Operation Stop, a committee of the Boston Black United Front (BBUF), erected an unsanctioned Community Information House on the corner of Columbus Avenue and Ruggles Street in Roxbury, near a planned highway interchange. The Community Information House served as a regional hub for the dissemination of information about highway construction and community impacts, and for the organization of opposition to the highways. BBUF co-chairman Chuck Turner stated at the dedication two days later, “We of Operation Stop say ‘these highways will not be built through our community!’ The construction of this Community Information House as the first use of this community land for community purposes demonstrates our position of no more roads over people. This land is ours and we will use it for our own purposes.”
The Southwest Corridor marked the first time federal funds were diverted from a highway project to public transit, setting a precedent for other US cities. “Highway Revolts” have occurred in cities throughout America and worldwide, sparing countless neighborhoods from the wrecking ball and the ill social, economic, environmental and public health effects of highway intrusion.
Is Rudolph Radioactive?
On Christmas Day, 1978 four men dressed as Santa Claus broke into the Pilgrim Nuclear Station in Plymouth, MA armed with a giant lollipop. Before their arrest, a television news crew documented Santa offering the oversized confection to the station manager as a gift, “In honor of the fact that Boston Edison thinks their ratepayers are a bunch of suckers.”
This theatrical protest is one of many conducted during the ‘70s and ‘80s by the Reindeer Alliance, an affinity group of the New England-based anti-nuclear activist organization Clamshell Alliance. The following Christmas, Santa, his reindeer (costumed actors) and a full-size sleigh blocked the entrance to Boston’s Somerset Club, where a private party for corporate elites with ties to Big Energy was about to begin. As guests arrived, Santa handed them stockings full of coal to remind them “what bad boys and girls they’d been this year.” This time two news networks covered the performance.
Employing humor and an appealing spectacle, thereby attracting press, these creative actions aimed to garner public sympathy for their anti-nuclear cause. Troubled by the volatility of nuclear power and the potentially devastating consequences for the New England Seacoast, the Clamshell Alliance sought to close New England’s nuclear plants and reform national energy policy.
The success of Clamshell’s efforts to inform and engage the public were evident following the 1979 Three-Mile Island partial nuclear meltdown accident in Pennsylvania. Nationwide public pressure to investigate the accident and the energy industry resulted in a moratorium on all new nuclear plant construction and more stringent regulations on equipment, operational safety, and nuclear waste management.
Despite this progress the existing plants remained open, and Clamshell and its offshoots continued to playfully provoke power. Other “reindeer games” included a Halloween mutant march through Boston, clown hopscotch on Route 1 near the Seabrook, NH plant, live-action Simpsons skits starring Monty Burns at Pilgrim, and more. To this day, symbolic no-nuke protest persists in New England. Four grandmothers were arrested on Mothers Day 2014 for planting flowers at Pilgrim and charged with trespassing. A later indictment of these horticulturalist seniors (time served) drew increased media attention, compounding the intervention’s impact by making even more strikingly clear the backwards logic of the status quo.
Mettle of Arts
In the early 1980s Congress debated the future of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which in the ‘70s contributed to the emergence and expansion of cultural institutions nationwide. Conservatives argued that federally funding cultural production undermines artists’ right to free expression because funding decisions are inevitably politically motivated. The Reagan Administration’s advocacy to completely abolish the NEA in 1981 received pushback from Hollywood celebrities and others who staged protests and media spectacles heralding the NEA as vital to American cultural life. Nevertheless, in 1982 the Administration significantly reduced the NEA budget, with severe consequences to arts institutions. Adjusting for inflation, the NEA has never fully recovered their pre-Reagan endowment.
On May 17, 1983 President Reagan held a special luncheon at the White House to honor leading artists and arts patrons from across the US. These thirteen guests were the inaugural class of recipients of the annual Presidential Medal of Arts, now known as the National Medal of Arts. Among those honored were painter Frank Stella, tobacco mogul and philanthropist Philip Morris, and Elma Lewis for her four decades of visionary leadership in arts education in Roxbury. At the luncheon President Reagan personally presented each guest with a medal. With all in attendance, Lewis took this face-to-face opportunity to criticize Reagan’s arts policies. She asserted that politics were no excuse for denying fair access to the arts for all Americans, which in a civilized society should be a moral obligation of government.
Lewis founded the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts in Roxbury in 1950, where she practiced a holistic arts-integrated pedagogy intended “to support anything positive in black life and to destroy anything negative that touches it.” In 1966 she started the Elma Lewis Playhouse in the Park, a summer concert series in Franklin Park that has recently been resurrected. In 1968 she founded the National Center for Afro-American Artists (NCAAA), a collective of artists in all media who exhibited and performed together worldwide. In 1980 the NCAAA opened a museum, still in operation at 300 Walnut Avenue, to house their permanent collection and to exhibit contemporary art of the African Diaspora.
Dissent and Dissonance
A striking manifestation of 1960s American counter-culture, the Youth International Party, a.k.a. Yippies, were pioneers of theatrical protest tactics – outlandish public interventions pushing an anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, sexually liberated progressive-absurdist political agenda. Led by the charismatic Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, the Yippies’ spectacular disruptions of business-as-usual included exorcising the Pentagon, dropping heaps of dollar bills from the balcony of the New York Stock Exchange, nominating Pigasus the pig for President at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and many more.
Following the antics, arrests, and a House Un-American Activities Committee hearing, in the ‘70s Rubin and Hoffman’s lifestyles diverged drastically. Hoffman fled to Mexico to escape drug charges, re-emigrated to upstate New York under the alias Barry Freed, and dove into local environmental activism. Rubin adopted a “can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” attitude, becoming a Young Urban Professional – a “yuppie” stockbroker, philanthropist, and organizer of “networking parties” for elite Wall Street financiers.
After Hoffman’s re-emergence and year in prison the daring duo reunited for a cross-country “Yippie versus Yuppie” speaking tour, visiting Boston on January 22, 1985. Sponsored by Boston College’s Social Justice Lecture Series, the debate pinned Hoffman’s Radical Idealism: abiding by a moral imperative to expose, resist and undermine an unjust oppressive social system; against Rubin’s Practical Realism: working pragmatically in and through the system to create change while “getting ahead.” Borne by the contemporary American Baby Boomer after the perceived failure of the ‘60s revolutionary program, this ideological grappling was put on comic display for the young minds at the Roberts Center.
Steadfast positions delivered on poverty, labor, foreign and economic policy, war and peace, are interspersed with quips of darting and biting wit. During Q&A, as to whether he had “sold out,” Rubin says he prefers the term “taking over.” Hoffman pleads to the audience for radical action: “Democracy to be true to itself, demands dissent. Question authority and you’ll find out it’s illegal, immoral and just plain stupid. I urge you to question authority.” He exits to a standing ovation yet to this day the debate goes on.
Haley of Holies
The Haley House was founded in 1966 in Boston’s South End as a soup kitchen with free lodging for the local homeless community. Over the decades their non-profit work has expanded to include affordable housing, organic farming, a food pantry, cooking classes and job training, and the Haley House Bakery & Café at 12 Dade Street in Roxbury’s Dudley Square.
At the Café Bostonians enjoy delicious fresh food with ingredients from nearby farms. Meals are prepared by chefs from the Transitional Employment Program (TEP) to support those formerly incarcerated with their societal reintegration. The atmosphere is relaxed and inviting, with special pay-as-you-will meals, rotating exhibitions by local visual artists, lectures organized in partnership with Discover Roxbury on local history and culture, and Nina LaNegra’s jubilant and engaging Thursday night “Art is Life Itself!” music, poetry, open mic and discussion series.
Every November since 1996, to finance their grassroots efforts addressing our society’s most pressing problems, the Haley House holds an Annual Thanksgiving Pie Drive. TEP trainees bake the pies from scratch in the Café kitchen. This year seven varieties are available including two gluten-free options, with proceeds benefiting TEP. Some patrons buy one or two for their Thanksgiving table while others purchase dozens and donate them to the food pantry. Still others volunteer to be Pie Captains, spearheading company-wide bulk pie purchases at their places of work. This year’s Pie Drive goal is 1,500 pies. Do your family, community and tummy a favor by driving some pie home, would you?
In the face of persecution from Catholics during the 11th Century Crusades, the Ashkenazi Jews of the Rhine River valley in Western Europe fled east, farther into Germany, and there formed autonomous, insular communities. Once removed from outside influence, a unique culture took shape and with it a new language – Yiddish. A surprising mixture of Germanic, Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Slavic and Romance languages, Yiddish became the primary spoken language of millions of Jews for nearly a millennium. By the age of mechanical reproduction written Yiddish journalism, literature and poetry was also thriving.
In the 20th Century the Holocaust nearly eradicated the Jewish population in Europe. The Nazi genocide aimed to eliminate all traces of Jewish cultural and economic influence. Much of their art, music and literature was stolen or destroyed. Following Germany’s surrender in 1945 many Holocaust survivors sought refuge in the US. Wishing to leave the trauma of the Old World behind, most carried with them few if any Yiddish books. Assimilation took hold – the old tongue remained a mystery to the survivors’ Americanized offspring – and after one generation Yiddish was near extinction.
One member of that second generation, Hampshire College student Aaron Lansky, began in 1973 to learn, speak and read Yiddish in order to better understand the rich but increasingly obscured pre-Holocaust Jewish culture. He traveled to New York City and elsewhere interviewing elders, hearing their stories and collecting their Yiddish books, which were often discarded by next of kin. By the 1980s Lansky had amassed a huge collection of books and recordings, and in 1989 he received a MacArthur Genius Grant in support of his dedicated cultural preservation initiative.
In June 1997 a permanent facility for the Yiddish Book Center opened to the public on a 10-acre site at Hampshire College campus. In addition to housing over 1 million Yiddish texts, the Center offers workshops, courses, fellowships and publications on the Yiddish language and Jewish culture, and presents film screenings, art exhibitions and musical performances by artists of the Jewish Diaspora.
The Plymouth 25
Every Thanksgiving Day since 1970 the Jamaica Plain-based United American Indians of New England (UAINE) organize the National Day of Mourning in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Native people and their allies protest against the falsification, sterilization, and mythicization of the Pilgrim Thanksgiving story, and the misinformation regarding Native culture, colonization and genocide.
During the November 27, 1997 National Day of Mourning 25 protesters were arrested by State and local police. Known as the Plymouth 25, the defendants received considerable public support in the form of petitions, letters, and an economic boycott of the Town of Plymouth. Facing a public backlash that threatened the Town’s robust tourism industry, on October 18, 1998 Plymouth reached an unprecedented settlement with UAINE. The Town dropped all charges against the Plymouth 25 and agreed to allow demonstrations every Thanksgiving Day in perpetuity without permits. Among other concessions, Plymouth contributed $100,000 to the Metacom Education Fund to teach accurate Native history in New England, and funded the installation of two plaques downtown.
The text for these plaques was written by UAINE and approved in its entirety by the Massachusetts Historical Society. One plaque honors the National Day of Mourning on Cole’s Hill. The other in Post Office Square honors Metacomet, son of Massasoit who greeted the Pilgrims, called King Philip by the colonists, leader of the Wampanoag uprising known as King Philip’s War 55 years after Plymouth Rock. The following are excerpts from each:
“…Many Native Americans do not celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims and other European settlers. To them, Thanksgiving Day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of their people, the theft of their lands, and the relentless assault on their culture…”
“…Metacomet was murdered in Rhode Island in August 1676, and his body was mutilated. His head was impaled on a pike and was displayed near this site for more than 20 years. One hand was sent to Boston, the other to England. Metacomet’s wife and son, along with the families of many of the Native American combatants, were sold into slavery in the West Indies by the English victors…”
The Plymouth 25 settlement marks a victory for all oppressed peoples struggling for justice and the liberation of their past as well as present. The United American Indians of New England have vowed to continue to protest on the National Day of Mourning until “the oppression of Two-Spirited people is a thing of the past.”
On July 23, 2004 the 19th annual Veterans for Peace convention was held at Emerson College on Boston Common. At the event, seven attending veterans who served during the 2003 invasion of Iraq founded the organization Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW).
Since its inception IVAW has steadily grown in membership, with chapters forming across the US and abroad. Employing a decentralized cooperative leadership model, individual members and chapters have worked for peace through a variety of methods. These range from traditional advocacy, such as the Right to Heal campaign to ensure traumatized soldiers receive exemptions from additional tours of duty, to creative activism and community-building projects.
In the street theater piece Operation First Casualty, veterans in combat gear patrol city streets and detain citizen (actors) to bring to the fore of public consciousness the frightening reality of urban warfare. Veterans seek cross-cultural dialogue and reconciliation in the Enemy Kitchen, where veteran and Iraqi chefs collaborate to provide Baghdadi meals, recipes and cooking lessons. IVAW’s Burlington, VT chapter initiated the Combat Paper Project to help veterans process their wartime experiences. Veterans cut their combat uniforms into small pieces and reduce them to pulp to make paper for artwork, poetry and journaling.
Following the 2011 American withdrawal, Iraq has been in a perpetual state of violence and lawlessness. Although the 9-year occupation has ceased, IVAW’s work has not. The flourishing of their veteran community has inspired a farther-reaching vision of change:
“We strive for a world free of unjust war – a world without the political and economic conditions allowing militarism to exist, and without structural forces pushing our youth, our poor and those facing incarceration into the military… We strive for a society that holds political leaders, profiteers, and war criminals accountable for the consequences of their actions… We strive for a political culture… committed to building peace and preserving life…[and] that acknowledges our nation’s moral responsibilities to the people of Afghanistan, Iraq, and all civilians adversely affected by U.S. military intervention.”
Left to Our Own Devices
In October 2004 radio host Linda Pinkow aired the first episode of What’s Left on WMBR, 88.1 FM. Now marking its 10-year anniversary broadcasting from MIT, What’s Left offers listeners a mix of live interviews, news clips, music, poetry, humor and other forms of culture, all from a Left political perspective.
Her guests include political activists promoting upcoming events, writers and scholars with newly released publications on social issues, and others for whom a chance to share underrepresented political viewpoints on public airwaves is empowering to their person and their cause.
Pinkow often chooses locally relevant subjects for her episodes in response to current events, or sometimes focuses on an issue simply because it is not covered elsewhere. She culls clips and quotes from across the Web to enrich the discourse, and draws upon the vast music library at WMBR to open the hearts of her listeners. In an interview with Linda she elaborates on the importance of the arts in her program and in politics:
“Social movements are hard. Fighting against the system can be painful – with no money, little support, feeling isolated. The arts bring joy to the movement.”
“Social change requires new ways of being in the world, new culture, and the arts can encapsulate these new ways of being into forms that inspire our imagination, without the didacticism that often plagues the Left.”
In an age of increasingly corporate-controlled airwaves, WMBR and What’s Left provide a vital public non-commercial outlet for cultural exchange and political dissent. Hear it live from 6-7pm every Friday.
Public Service Announcement
In Federal Court on December 23, 2004 the City of Boston repealed Police Rule 75, effectively permitting busking and the display and sale of artwork in Boston’s public spaces.
Police Rule 75, enacted in 1950, placed numerous restrictions on “itinerant” musicians performing for tips. Musicians were required to obtain licenses issued by the police commissioner, and in a large portion of the city including the Back Bay, South End and North End, licensed itinerant music was permissible only from 6-9pm and excluding Sunday. Licensed female musicians had to be accompanied by a licensed male musician.
Stephen Baird of the Jamaica Plain-based Community Arts Advocates filed a federal suit to repeal Police Rule 75 in August 2004 “to protect artists’ and performers’ freedom of expression in Boston.” In the suit Baird describes repeated incidents where Boston Police and Park Rangers violated his First Amendment rights. In one incident a park ranger on Boston Common ordered him to stop playing his hammered dulcimer, insisting that he needed a permit to do so. Neither the Parks Department nor the City of Boston issue permits to play on Boston Common, making it impossible for artists to comply with such demands and thus denying their Consitutional right to free expression.
With this repeal no permit or license is required to perform or exhibit art publicly in Boston. If an artist is not blocking the flow of pedestrian and vehicle traffic and is not disturbing the peace, there are no legal grounds for an officer of the law to interfere with the artist’s work. Despite this fact the harassment of buskers continues, as does Mr. Baird’s advocacy.
The Death and Life of Parading in America
On Columbus Day Weekend, 2006 the first Honk! festival activated the sidewalks, parks, plazas and people of Davis Square with jubilant music that recalls the parading traditions of New Orleans, Haiti, Brazil and the Balkans. Organized by the Second Line Social Aid & Pleasure Society Brass Band, the inaugural event gathered together bands from coast to coast to “Reclaim the streets for horns, bikes and feet.”
An annual all-volunteer festival, Honk! exemplifies a spirit of DIY. Without amplification, admission fees, stages or staff, Honk! draws local crowds and faraway talent to dance and play in the streets. Honk’s spirit is contagious, where audience members return home to form their own activist street band, or occasionally a whole new festival as in Seattle, Austin and elsewhere.
John Bell, Honk! organizer and longtime contributor to Bread & Puppet Theater, described to me the death and life of parading in America:
The Age of the Automobile imposed a dullness, predictability, and frigidity upon what was a vibrant, thriving musical parading culture. Through Honk! new generations experiment with both a resurrection of a celebratory street life and a retooling of parading as activism.