Warning: strong language, violence and communism.
I have a special disdain for and fear of mobs and the irrational behavior they engender, especially violence. It is not a phobia, it’s more like the healthy fear you should have of the lion’s den. Outside: ooh look, a lion. Inside: yikes-a-hooty.
I have had two opportunities to witness street mobs in action, from formation to mayhem to dispersion. The experiences didn’t provide me much in the way of insight. But did they did make an enormous impression on me, and confirm for me what is commonly understood of mob psychology.
Marketplace of Ideas
The first incident happened on May 2, 1981, shortly after I had moved to Seattle from Missoula, Montana. I had a Saturday off from my new job at the cinema, and walked down to the Pike Place Market. It was a clear, cool, sunny day. At the entrance to the Market, at 1st and Pike, there was a small group of demonstrators from the Revolutionary Communist Party. I knew the RCP. They were very active in Seattle. They were serious communists, who called for the violent overthrow of the US Government by the end of the 80s. They meant to wage all-out war on American soil, killing everyone who opposed their violent imposition of a Worker’s Paradise.The American Communists were lame. The Chinese and the Soviets were pikers. The RCP were going to really crack a few eggs.
But, for today, this was a peaceful group of maybe fifteen comrades, more than half of them women, in their twenties and thirties. They had their red flags, Revolutionary Worker newspapers , and a bullhorn. I walked past them, past a man on the sidewalk playing a flute, past the florist into the Left Bank Bookstore, with its door propped open.
After I browsed for about ten minutes, I heard one of the partisans start up on the bullhorn. I walked over to the door.
“Listen up, America! Your time of complacency is coming to an end! The working people will no longer tolerate the oppression by the ruling class! The bourgeois Reagan regime will not survive the coming upheaval!”
I walked out the door to listen. My complacency was already over. It had been, for two years. The man with the flute played on. Some other people stopped to listen. The speaker gathered some steam. He quoted Marx, from the Manifesto, nothing to lose but their chains, blah, blah, blah, and then handed the bullhorn off to an African-American comrade. He brought the anger. More people gathered as he rained the wrath of the proletariat on the heads of the dirty, racist, honky capitalists who were going to die in the Revolution.
Understand: I was sympathetic to my communist brothers and sisters. But I was strictly for non-violence. I winced at the thought of a revolution by force of arms. Any sensible person knows that’s a dead end, especially in a country that provides for the peaceful change in government.
The crowd began to feed some of that anger back to the RCP. I don’t think it mattered much who these demonstrators were. Their message was angrily anti-American, and the growing crowd didn’t like it. I was close enough to see their faces, and the partisans were sorry they had let this guy on the bullhorn. Someone took it back, as the crowd grew more hostile.
“Hey, listen. Don’t let us do all the talking. I know there’s a lot of people who have a different point of view—“
“Damn right, commie $#@?!”
“Okay. So the horn’s all yours. Come over here and speak your mind.”
Too late for that, Phil Donahue.
“We want an exchange of ideas here, not a shouting match.”
Yeah, violent revolutions are all about exchanging ideas.
Across the street was the legendary 52 Donuts, a grubby, yellowed cafe peopled by lost boys and hoods. They all emptied out, joined the mob, and immediately became the most hostile and violent people on the street. After all, how could you could pass up a little ultraviolence, especially when you’re in a mob? And mobs don’t get arrested until the cops show up — by then the mob is no more. But now, there was crowd of about two to three hundred people.
Here’s some advice from a former radical. If your rhetoric for overthrowing the oppressive capitalist system evokes anger and violence from street kids at 52 Donuts – scroungers, thieves, pan-handlers and hustlers – it’s time to furl your red flags and call it a day. If the struggling masses want to break your head on the pavement, they probably can’t be counted on to break bourgeois heads at your request.
Well, you know
We all want to change the world
But when you talk about destruction
Don’t you know that you can count me out
Yep, it turned out the street kids loved America, and not the Revolution. The following year I wrote about this incident for a composition class.
The people (in the crowd) hurled their worst insults at them, and they retorted with Marxist-Leninist doctrine. Then the violence broke forth. It began when a few people went into the Market and bought some vegetables (and eggs), which they threw at the communists as the crowd cheered.
“Hey! Why are you afraid to talk? If you disagree with us, get up here and we’ll have a debate like civilized human beings!”
At the time the irony was lost on me of a group that wanted a peaceful environment to launch a violent struggle in which thousands if not millions of their fellow citizens would be slaughtered. I have since learned this is in keeping with RCP strategy to remain safely on the right side of the law, until the day arrives they can oversee their revolutionary bloodbath.
With that, the speaker received a raw egg squarely in an open eye with such force that his eye started bleeding. At that point I was standing about ten feet away. I knew that staying in that particular spot might soon became dangerous, but I couldn’t persuade myself to leave. Part of it was the excitement…
Then a man, mid-twenties, appeared at my side, said he was a reporter and started interviewing me. I told him how it started. The crowd was pushing in, pressing more tightly around the demonstrators. There was no pushing my way out now. I was in it.
Our talk was interrupted by some confusion behind us. I heard the rattling of the chain-link fence that encased the market newsstand. A tall young man scurried up it and climbed onto the roof. After shouting and whistling, he got everyone’s attention.
“Okay, everybody, listen up! This whole situation is goddamn ridiculous! It’s stupid, and it should stop right now. These people out here – now, I don’t happen to agree with them personally. But dammit, they got a right to be here and have their say.”
A few cheers.
“I think you’re all a bunch of cowards if you don’t have the guts to talk to them like they want. (Booing now) And this bullshit of throwing stuff just shows what chickenshits you are! Now knock it off!”
Some scattered cheers, but mostly anger still. His effort to elevate the discourse didn’t help, other than indicating that, like me, not everyone there was with the mob.The crowd was now a mix of bystanders, trouble-makers looking for a fight, and some persons who would defend the demonstrators, either peacefully or by obliging the trouble-makers with a fight.
People armed themselves. They took the flags from the communists and used the sticks to batter them. They grabbed the newspapers and made a pile with them and the flags and started a bonfire in the street. I saw a young woman being kicked and beaten with a flag pole by a 10 year old kid. The other women had their hair pulled, were slapped, kicked and pushed down. The sticks were broken to give them sharp ends…
Fists started to fly. The reporter and I put ourselves between as many people as we could (holding our arms out and pressing backwards against the mob) to prevent fights. There was little we could do. It was becoming a riot…
There was sheer mass confusion. Shouting, flying objects, fist fights, and the whole crowd pressing closer to the center. Finally the the communists were completely pressed in… and were forced to start retreating. Then the cops arrived, about six or seven of them. They forced their way through the crowd, breaking up fights.
I don’t think I’ve mentioned the blood. There was blood.
One cop broke up a fight and one of the fighters tried to grab him. He got a serious thwacking across his thigh.
“Hey, we saw that!” someone yelled. “Somebody get his badge number!”
“Don’t worry, I got it!” yelled someone else.
(Side note: The police broke up the melee when the communists were utterly hemmed in, kept it from getting worse, and made possible their retreat. Red Papers 4 (1970), part of the RCP’s founding manifesto, advocates and celebrates the murder of police officers at every opportunity. Yeah, you’re welcome, comrades.)
The crowd began to withdraw toward the street again, and disperse, while the demonstrators ran into the Market. I helped a woman off the ground and told to her to beat it – as her brave brothers already had. I stayed until the place was completely cleared. The man playing the flute was gone. The pavement was littered with produce, eggs, and pages from the Worker newspapers. I picked one up, smeared with egg, and kept it.
When I wrote about this in 1982, I saw the episode as a defeat of American values (freedoms of speech and peaceable assembly) at the hands of thuggish American patriotism. I thought the mob should have known they were stepping on rights which were central to our national greatness. But I didn’t consider that mobs don’t know anything. They don’t think. Now I look at the incident more as the confused collision of bored and violent kids feeling the resurgent national pride ushered in by the new president (along with the release of the hostages from Iran and the first space shuttle launch), with incendiary, strident America-hatred – all mashed into the forward, unthinking, unfeeling momentum of a street mob: which more than anything acts likes a mindless, furious lunatic.
Next: Mobs | Part Two