When I started writing this, it began as an incoherent rant. Thoughts swirling in my mind, confused about the unraveling of my country, watching surreal scenes unfolding before my eyes of Gucci shops being looted and the most immoral, anti-Christian President in American history carrying a Bible in front of a church which he had just cleared with tear gas in order to stage his photo op.
I was angry at the violence I was seeing on the streets of my country.
Sirens blared below on the street as thousands of protestors walked along Central Park South, just a block from my house. What would I wake up to tomorrow, I thought.
My mind started wandering.
I went back to my high school years and remembered the long, American history classes about how my country was built.
I also looked inward at who I am and how my own rights came to be “protected” when only a half-century ago I, too, would have been a criminal, just because I was born the way I was.
I also thought about the last time I wheeled my mom to the voting booth in her wheelchair, just two years before she died— she insisted on voting against Donald Trump.
I certainly don’t condone the random violence and looting that’s taking place. I’m watching violent criminals smash windows of shops and grocery stores and walking out with iPhones and jumbo packs of toilet paper.
I doubt these are the people that Martin Luther King Jr. was talking about when he said that rioters are unheard people.
But. (I can’t believe there’s a but— but please keep reading.)
It’s important to have some perspective about the history of violent riots in this country and what they led to.
A simple, undeniable fact exists that cannot be refuted by any historian, nor interpreted to suit someone’s political agenda— Republican or Democratic. America was founded on riots.
The very birth of this nation began from violent uprisings in Boston by ruthless mobs (in the eyes of the authorities in power) of oppressed colonists who had a voice that wasn’t being listened to.
From as far back as the days of tar-and-feathering British tax collectors and throwing tea into Boston Harbor, disenfranchised, unheard people have resisted power by fighting back, using fists, clubs and stones, when their voices weren’t heard.
When colonists rioted on Boston Common… they weren’t being listened to by their British overseers when they wanted more rights… and that led to a revolution— and the birth of a nation called the United States of America.
I just watched a Facebook video and saw gangs of teens raiding the Christian Dior shop in Chicago… it’s revolting. I wonder if they even know what’s going on. I wonder if any of them can even name the black man that was murdered in Minneapolis.
My mind is wandering again.
When workers rioted in mines of West Virginia and the steel mills in Pittsburgh in the late 1800s and early 1900s (many Greek immigrants included)… they weren’t being listened to by the industrialists, nor the government that was supposed to protect them.
They were angry. Instead of protecting their safety, their rights— the government bowed to the Carnegies and the Rockefellers.
My late grandfather, Michael Papadomanolakis worked in mines in Utah, before making his way back east to West Virginia where he worked as a miner.
I don’t remember him because he died when I was a kid but my dad often told me about the “West Virginia Coal Mine Wars” that my papou experienced. I guess these were that era’s riots. Disenfranchised, unheard people trashing buildings (in this case factories and coal mines) trying to make their voices heard.
The newspaper stories from these events in American history are full of references to Greek immigrant strikers who revolted in places like Ludlow, Colorado and the coal mines of Blair Mountain, West Virginia as “thugs” and violent criminals, disrespecting property and trashing everything in sight.
They took up their arms and fought violently against the authorities— demanding a better quality of life for their families— like all Americans were supposed to be entitled to.
Average citizens were mortified, just like are now. The public villainized these people— just like we are villanizing them today.
The end result? These angry, violent labor uprisings led to things like safety regulations in factories and mines, child labor protection laws and an eight hour work day.
I just watched CNN headquarters in Atlanta attacked by mobs of young, masked hoodlums. What does this have to do with George Floyd, I’m wondering. What does this have to do with justice for the victims?
Then I think of the women whose march on Washington turned into a full-scale riots way back in 1913 and again in 1917. Women were screaming for their right to vote… but the men weren’t listening.
These badass women (I can say that, today) even scaled the White House gates to make sure their voices were heard even louder.
These violent incidents would lead to the 19th amendment to the Constitution that gave every woman in America the right to vote.
Yet at the time— these “badass women” that were demanding their rights were dehumanized and spit on. They were called whores and “unruly servants” of their men that needed “reigned in, with any means.”
Finally, who has heard of the Stonewall Riots in 1969, when gay Americans literally fought back, tired and frustrated after years of police abuse, harassment and inhumane treatment.
The Stonewall Riots were the defining moment in the national movement that would protect gays and lesbians from violence, discrimination and give them the rights that all Americans enjoyed.
The Stonewall Riots gave me the protections that I have today as a gay American.
Those “criminal thugs” in Greenwich Village who rose up against injustices in this country are the reason that today, no one can deny me housing, or employment. That angry mob that set fire to buildings and overturned police cars is the very reason why my very existence is no longer “criminal” as it was in 49 out of 50 states in 1969.
There goes my mind again as the sirens wail outside my window.
It’s hard waking up and seeing your shop destroyed or a burned out shell that used to be your favorite restaurant. It’s hard watching live Facebook videos of angry mobs and trying to reason with the violence.
I’m struggling with the random destruction too. I’m struggling with the unraveling of my nation that I love so much. I’m having a hard time trying to process it.
I just saw a Facebook post with photos of a friend’s restaurant windows smashed and read his disheartening post. This specific guy I’m talking about had posted a few days earlier an impassioned plea to his friends against police brutality in this country and in support of the “Justice for George Floyd” movement.
How ironic that his restaurant was trashed. It angered me.
The criminals have hijacked the outcry for justice for George Floyd. I’m outraged. These people looting Versace and Target have nothing to do with the struggles of minorities who wanted basic rights. They have nothing to do with the women who demanded they be allowed to vote.
But hindsight is twenty-twenty, isn’t it? And it’s easy to look back at history and make magnanimous statements. It’s easy today to call the American colonists in Boston “freedom fighters,” or the females demanding their right to vote as “badass women.” It’s easy to use the term “heroes” for the rioting Greek immigrant coal miners who took up arms in Ludlow, stood up against injustice and burned an entire town to the ground.
Back then they were called criminals and violent thugs too.
And then I go back to that image of that image of George Floyd who was murdered by a police officer and was screaming— I can’t breath.
And they didn’t listen.
I go back to the video of a black man who was shot in cold blood in Georgia whose family screamed for justice in a white-dominated criminal justice system.
And they didn’t listen.
And I wonder if anyone is listening to this little girl.
The Library of Congress has an outstanding collection of images and essays from the Suffrage riots. Click here.
An excellent piece in the New Yorker about the riots in Ludlow when Greek and other immigrant miners took up arms against the mining company that was depriving them of their basic rights as workers. Click here.
A great, short video about the Stonewall Riots in 1969 that sparked the gay rights movement.
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