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“They Charged With Their Clubs Uplifted”: The Tompkins Square Riot of 1874, and the Limits of the Democratic Public Sphere, Wesley Bishop
In January 1874 New York City police rioted, attacking a peaceful demonstration of 7,000 working class people and activists. The demonstration had been called for by the various working class groups of the city in hopes of pressuring the city government to create public works programs to alleviate the unemployment crisis brought on by the Panic of 1873. Following the police riot, many of the city’s newspapers which had hitherto been critical of the workers’ movement began arguing the police had behaved with excessive force. What followed was an extended debate over the limits of free speech, the right to assemble, and the use of the public sphere in politics. This article argues that although the march could be, and sometimes has been, seen as an important victory for the workers’ movement because of the conditions it revealed and democratic norms it pushed, we should be less sanguine over the riot’s impact. Yes, workers continued to organize, yes, the working class movement pushed what was acceptable as democratic practice, but the fact remained that for the majority of the unemployed and their families in NYC, the police’s actions had dire consequences for many working poor people’s immediate well-being.
Respondents: Kate Masur, Northwestern University, and Leon Fink, UIC
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