Some history that might affect us in 2020
The great famine in Ireland, 1845 -1849. During the worst of it, 1847, one million Irish died and another one million were put on ships bound for America. A microorganism, the “potato blight” was actually found first in Philadelphia and New York City. Winds spread the spores to the rest of America and it crossed the Atlantic into most of Europe but settled most in Ireland because of its dependency of a single susceptible variety of potato, the “Irish Lumper” The blight also affected Germany, leading to the deaths of 700,000.
In 1846, three-quarters of the Irish harvest was lost to blight. By December, a third of a million destitute people were forced on the dole or straining meager public works. Since over three million Irish people were totally dependent on potatoes for food, hunger and famine were inevitable. By February 1847, there were huge snowdrifts and the poor had no warm clothes to work outdoors in cold and wet weather. When the father of a family became sick or died after working on the public works, the women or children in the family tried to take over the work but it was very hard and involved carrying heavy loads or digging. This type of work was not useful in helping the people who were starving.
English landowners quickly figured out it was cheaper to purchase tickets to the new world for their Irish tenants than support them through a blight no one knew the potential length of. New York, three times the size of Boston, was better able to absorb its incoming Irish. Throughout the Famine years, 75 percent of the Irish coming to America landed in New York. In 1847, about 52,000 Irish arrived in the city with a total population of 372,000. The Irish were not the only big group of immigrants arriving. A substantial German population totaling over 53,000 also arrived in 1847.
Unlike many other nationalities arriving in America, the Irish chose to huddle in the cities partly because they were the poorest of all the immigrants arriving and partly out of a desire to recreate the close-knit communities they had back in Ireland. The Irish loved each other’s company, but the daily pressures of living in America at the bottom rung of society also brought out the worst in them. Back home, the Irish were known for their honesty, law-abiding manners, and chastity. In America, old social norms disintegrated and many of the Irish, both men and women, behaved wildly. In the hopeless slums of New York, prostitution flourished and drunkenness occurred even among children.
So many Irish drifted into the five points of New York City, a repository of the poorest, most disadvantaged and exploited of all the immigrants, including the Irish and the Blacks. Since virtually all Irish were Catholic, the burgeoning supply of them fostered fear of the Papacy, which became fear and hatred of the Irish.
The original Five Point in New York City are no longer there as they were in the mid-1800s. They existed off Centre Street to the west, Bowery to the east, Canal to the north, and Park Row to the south. The Civic Center and Chinatown also bound this area now. The Martin Scorsese film“Gangs of New York (2002) , accurately depicted a long running catholic/protestant feud erupted into violence fueled by Irish immigrants rebelling against low wages and social repression and an influx of freed slaves with similar repression. This mix of low wages, lack of jobs, racism and social repression generated frustration and anger finally brought to a head by the onset of conscription into the Union Army (in New York) in at the time of “Draft Week”(Mid July, 1863).
The actual riot boiled over July 13-16, 1963. Working class discontent and smoldering anger were a function of white working-class men, mostly of Irish descent, who feared free black people competing for work and resented that wealthier men, who could afford to pay a $300 fee to hire a substitute, sparing them from the draft. Initially focused on frustration and anger at the draft, the protests evolved into a race riot. The death toll was thought to be around 120 individuals. Herbert Asbury, the author of the 1928 book “Gangs of New York” upon which the 2002 filmwas based, puts the figure much higher, at 2,000 killed and 8,000 wounded.
The military swinging up from the residual of Gettysburg did not reach the city to create martial law until late in the second day of rioting, by which time the mobs had ransacked or destroyed numerous public buildings, two Protestant churches, the homes of various abolitionists or sympathizers, many black homes. The “Colored Orphan Asylum” at 44th Street and Fifth Avenue was burned to the ground. Eleven black men were hanged over five days. The area’s demographics changed as a result of the riot. Many black residents left Manhattan permanently with many moving to Brooklyn. By 1865, the black population had fallen below 11,000 for the first time since 1820.
Reading through the narrative of the New York City situation in the mid-1800s, reveals several things that stand out. A populous stranded by low or nonexistent wages into squalor and miserable living areas full of crime and death. A populace unable to get reasonable paying jobs. Rampant disease and no real protection from it. Psychologists suggest that these conditions have the facility to alter the normal adaptive human brain to a “Mob Mentality”. Humans tend to imitate each other’s behavior in certain situations. Crowds can easily become uncontrolled and frenzied once a critical mass of numbers is reached, exerting a hypnotic impact resulting in otherwise unreasonable and emotionally charged behavior the individuals would ordinarily indulge in. When angry and frustrated individuals congeal into a large group, they “deindividualize”, absorbing the power and authority of the anonymous mob, then they become capable of striking out violently at issues not original to their complaint. The violence becomes the remedy for their complaint, which usually broadens quickly.
A study of riots in the 60s and 70s show that original complaints of poor, crowded living conditions, few jobs, police hassle of a poor black population and no viable hope of any improvement eventually boiled over into massive riots that did millions of dollars of property damage, and death, most of it doing more damage to the original complaints of the rioting population. Seemingly minor issues sparked many of these riots. The Watts riot started when a Los Angeles police officer tried to arrest a Watts resident for drunk driving. The Watts riot lasted for six days, resulting in 34 deaths, 1,032 injuries and 4,000 arrests, involving 34,000 people and ending in the destruction of 1,000 buildings, totaling $40 million in damages. Rioting to make a social point vanishes when rioters destroy and loot business establishments they would ordinarily protect.
But all that was then. This is now but we have some of the same pressures building and we should be aware of them because we’ve been there before. What we have now for the first time in 100 years is a massive social and physical disaster that threatens to bring back some of the factors that created mob violence in the past.
- Coronavirus has the capability to relentlessly incapacitate virtually human on the planet. It’s like the “Terminator” (1984) “Listen, and understand! That Terminatoris out there! It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop…”. We canmore or less “flatten the curve” of its longevity and potential to kill humans, but not obliterate it. It moves and shakes in its own schedule.
2. In “flattening the curve”, we perpetrate on ourselves a style of living that doesn’t work well for our longstanding social order. “Social Distancing”, voluntary or involuntary quarantining, involuntary closing of all but (seemingly) necessary businesses, creating virtual ghost towns.
- Large masses of citizens forced to be out of work with no consistent end in sight, none of their usual funds to pay for rent, transportation, food. Promises of Federal money to offset this, none seen as of yet. Panic within the population that their homes, cars and especially their jobs are at risk.
- Previously healthy persons not predicted to succumb to this strain of flue, unexpectedly dying, sometimes very quickly. The realization that first line defenders of the population, doctors, nurses and other medical providers seen to be wrapped up like modern day mummies, many lined up to (legitimately complain bitterly about their lot on Cable News Network (CNN).
- Federal Administrators promising to insure all the needed materials to buttress the viral Pandemic, face masks, gowns, gloves, goggles/face shields, ICU equipment, mechanical ventilators. These promises are inconsistent and the identified individuals in charge, mostly politicians have not come through as yet, leaving the population with the impression there is no protection from the virus.
The point of this long diatribe is to point out how some of the above factors have led to violent riots in the past.
- A seemingly inalterable scourge will continue seemingly unabated, picking out innocents to infect everywhere and anywhere. Open-ended fear and anxiety that death looms unpredictably.
- Loss of normal social interaction (distancing and quarantining) creating lonliness, antisocial ideation, open ended anger at a threat that cannot be seen or felt. Looking for something to rage at.
- Loss of the extremely important social interactions inherent in meaningful performance of work that generates a paycheck that an individual can maintain social visibility by paying his bills. No convincing evidence this situation will resolve before the job is lost.
My point is that if all this comes to a substantial head, a critical mass of angry, frustrated citizens ready to find something to rail at, riots are possible. History shows that some of the factors that created riots like the Draft Day riot of 1863 can be superimposed over some of the factors involved in the Pandemic of 2020. A hated but otherwise indistinct metaphysical object (the Draft), uncomfortable living conditions, loss of jobs, social breakdown, inconsistent political assistance (Boss Tweed) and fear of unpredictable death from the environment. That we haven’t seen any yet, only means the requisite critical mass has not been reached, but it could happen if some of these factors don’t start resolving fairly quickly.
A critical mass can be a very dangerous thing. Camp of the Saints (Jean Raspall- 1975) a dystopian fiction novel depiction the destruction of western civilization by the mass migration of the “third world” (the poor and disadvantaged) to France and the West, like locusts in the western United States. The critical mass of humanity was reached to enable them to move as one force, absorbing everything in their way.
Copyright DWC, 2020