What Crowds Are For
Where there are many people, anything out of the ordinary may be enough to draw a crowd. But traditionally crowds gathered to defend the community against outsiders who might otherwise impose their interests. Desperate people formed crowds to obtain satisfaction of basic unmet needs. In times of plenty, they would find one another again in the marketplace. The seasonal celebration also included nearly everyone. Today such festive or purposeful crowds have almost vanished, at least in the United States. The bonds of community have dissolved under the influence of suburbanization, mass culture, home entertainment, distant employment, and the like. The desperate needs of the millions of Americans who have little or no share of our relative affluence as a nation are more likely to keep them isolated, angry, and ashamed than to bring them together. Can we agree that they, at least, would be better off as members of crowds?
Consider the original meaning of the word. The English “crowd” seems to be derived from Old English and Medieval Dutch verbs meaning to press, push, or shove.i This capacity for physical turmoil, whether or not it gets played out in action, is one of the things that distinguishes a crowd from other groupings, such as a troupe of performers like a chorus or drill team. A crowd is potentially turbulent, and “turbulent” derives from the Latin “turba,” meaning both disorder or turmoil and a crowd or mob. There is power in this turbulence, this “street heat.” People who may never become members of a chorus or drill team, or even a work crew, may use their numbers physically and instrumentally to obtain satisfaction of basic human needs when individual efforts cannot.
The numerous poor of earlier times knew how to combine for political leverage. Livy, the great historian of the Roman Republic, might have banished the commoners from his narrative altogether if they had not, on occasion, made some history of their own. For example, when the patricians would try to stifle land reform efforts with a military call-up, the people would riot. When the patricians tried to spread fear of foreign invasion one too many times, the people exited Rome en masse, leaving their betters to defend its walls. In Livy, patricians have names, reputations, and speechmaking abilities. The people have only their numbers and the will to use them, if need be, to protect their mates from abduction and arbitrary arrest, and otherwise as mentioned.ii In the later years of the Republic, social polarization became so great that a crowd might kill anyone it met wearing gold rings or fine clothes.iii
While the near extinction of such dangerous crowds in our part of the world will certainly not elicit tears, perhaps we have lost something, too, even something of our nature. The turbulent multitude had a prominent role in human evolution. We know that other terrestrial primates, such as baboons, macaques, and chimpanzees, live in relatively large groups. Being numerous affords them some safety from predators. Once down from the refuge of trees and living on the African plains, our ancestors seem to have followed a similar strategy.iv That there is safety in numbers remains generally sound advice. The visitor to a foreign city can usually feel secure on a crowded street. In ancient times the crowd could give a jolt to a Roman emperor’s insular world of fawning courtiers and slaves, like the time that spectators cheered the rivals of Caligula’s “favorites” (probably charioteers). “If only the Roman people had a single neck!” he was heard to shout.v But the people had not one but many necks, far too many for even a psychopathic emperor to put to the axe. Still, the safety to be found in numbers is never absolute. Another emperor executed some who cheered against his favorites.vi
E. P. Thompson wrote that as recently as two hundred years ago in England and France, “the market remained a social as well as an economic nexus….the place where the people, because they were numerous, felt for a moment that they were strong.”vii The focus of such presumptive strength was not the predatory beast that may have threatened their prehistoric ancestors but wealthy members of their own kind and their hired toughs. Absent the rise of a prominent middle class, such a polarity of rich and poor has been a prominent feature of almost every social landscape outside the tribal world. In fact, the power of the poor resides mainly in the assembled multitude. As the axiom has it, “We are many, you are few.” But unless we, the many, come together bodily in our numbers we are powerless against the forces that wealth can buy. In the United States today, the multitude has largely been dispersed. What crowds remain consist mostly of pacified consumers and distracted spectators.
Thus pacified and distracted, what need have we for the purposeful crowds of other times and other countries? This is to ask, what need have we for more influence over the decisions that affect us all? What need have we for the collective joy of traditional festivities? Might combining our numbers serve us well under certain easily imagined circumstances? As we gain a better sense of what has disappeared over the horizon of our history, the answers to these questions will become clear. We begin with a sketch of the historic role of rioting, proceed to public partying, and then see how the two are linked.
The City Mob
In the centuries that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire and the disappearance of the kind of multitudes which had filled the capital’s entertainment centers and its public baths, slowly accumulating urban density reinvigorated European crowds. The preindustrial European city, especially if it were a capital, might include a district of potential rioters, a permanent mob consisting of “a combination of wage-earners, small property-owners and the unclassifiable urban poor.”viii Like the lowest of the low of Rome who worshipped Nero, this mob “lived in a sort of symbiosis” with its ruler,ix supporting and identifying with him and dependent on monarchic crumbs. The ever-present crowds of eighteenth-century Parisian neighborhoods were expected to attend dozens of annual religious festivals, royal entrances to the city, royal marriage celebrations, occasions of state mourning, the cannon serenades of military victories, masses for royal births and illnesses, and public executions.x As Colin Lucas has written, “The crowd as assembled was a necessary but dangerous public for the state.”xi In return, the monarch tried to insure that the capital got a steady supply of grain, often at the expense of the surrounding countryside. George Rudé has described similar crowd-mollifying measures in London.xii
So long as the ruler met some minimal expectations of patronage and the ruler’s actions clothed them in “vicarious glory,” members of the city mob defended him or her enthusiastically.xiii But when the ruler disappointed them, they rioted, sending a message intended to restore things to their normal state. When not overly destructive, such violence was thought to be “socially functional.”xiv The prototypical riot communicated a grievance by people without other effective means of vertical communication. As Martin Luther King, Jr., put it, riots of protest speak “the language of the unheard.”xv
Eric Hobsbawm characterized the urban crowds of preindustrial Europe as “primitive rebels,” “primitive” because their rebellions did not attempt to overthrow the existing social order. Typically, the members of such crowds were only trying to get enough to eat. Arlette Farge has given us a vivid account of the “primitive rebels” who made the poorer neighborhoods of eighteenth century Paris their home. “Crowds and gatherings were a regular part of the everyday scene…,”xvi as they were in American cities of the time, though on a smaller scale. In Paris, that scene might include a procession bearing the reliquary of a saint; the celebration of another saint’s day with its own familiar rituals, feast, and pranks; fanatical harangues; an open-air version of the hiring hall; a purse-snatcher in a pillory; the agony of a woman giving birth; and a public hanging,xvii performed without benefit of the quick drop and speedy death by a broken neck.xviii Each such event would have its gathering. The crowd was the people’s “natural organ” and representative, the enforcer of its traditional prerogatives, and—through derision, charivari, assault, and sometimes murder—its self-policing agent.
Police records show that rioting was also a part of ordinary, everyday Parisian life. In 1787 when the Parlement called for public celebrations to mark the first successful challenge to royal authority (by nobles refusing to pay taxes), many of the poor took the opportunity to riot for a week.xix Participation of the poor in the Revolution, when it came, “was a continuation in an extreme form, of their everyday politics.”xx But the transition to revolution was not immediately clear. Still protesting as they always had, some of those who fought back against the Gardes Française in the Faubourg St. Antoine in early 1789, were heard to shout, “Vive le Roi,” while others were shouting, “Vive le tiers état!”xxi
Purposeful Crowds in the United States
American history is also dotted with spontaneous attempts to satisfy unmet needs and remedy grievances through collective action. During the early years of the Depression, for example, when over a hundred deaths by starvation were recorded and many more people perished of hunger-related illnesses,xxii many responded as hungry people have for thousands of years, by banding together to obtain food. Hundreds of Arkansas residents converged on a downtown to demand food for their families in January 1931. Having received assurance from the Red Cross that they would be reimbursed, local merchants gave them food. An Oklahoma City crowd broke into a grocery store and was only dispersed by fire hoses and arrests.xxiii Hundreds of people attacked a grocery and meat market in Minneapolis to grab what food they could through broken windows. When the store owner pulled a gun, they attacked him, too. It took a hundred police to restore order. In March 1931, over a thousand men waiting in a New York City bread line mobbed trucks delivering baked goods to a nearby hotel, perhaps inspiring the newspaper headline which appears in Modern Times, the Charlie Chaplin film classic of 1936, “Bread Line Broken by Unruly Mob.” Though most hunger riots went unreported for fear that such news could encourage additional acts of food vigilantism,xxiv the “organized looting of food was a nationwide phenomenon.”xxv Food riots got the poor of ancient Rome monthly allotments of free grain, distributed after 368 CE as bread. Americans got the Food Stamp Program.
People also came together as unemployed workers during the Depression. They were often assaulted by the police.xxvi Five hundred jobless men rioted for shelter in Detroit in 1931. In Indiana, 1,500 invaded a packing plant and demanded jobs.xxvii A few months after that, jobless veterans and their families converged on the nation’s capital to plead for pension payments due in 1945. Congress refused to act, and President Hoover loosed the Army on them. The Washington News described the “pitiable spectacle” of “the great American Government, mightiest in the world, chasing men, women and children with Army tanks.”xxviii The soldiers killed two, injured thousands, and burned the “bonus marchers’” camp to the ground.xxix
Sometimes organized by radicals, people also used their numbers to prevent evictions and obtain public relief. Tens of thousands of destitute residents were returned to their homes through the efforts of anti-eviction crowds, which would harass eviction teams, picket the process to draw larger crowds, and move ejected furniture back inside. A participant in one such action described an experience in a Chicago ghetto in 1931 that seems to have anticipated crowd tactics of thirty years hence. The police came on the scene and began to rain down blows with billy clubs and night sticks, while members of the anti-eviction crowd “stood like dumb beasts—no one ran, no one fought or offered resistance, [they] just stood, an immovable black mass.”xxx There and elsewhere crowd pressure succeeded in forcing authorities to suspend evictions.xxxi
Jobless crowds pushed into relief agencies to beleaguer bureaucrats and take up office space until their demands were met. Social workers were reluctant or unwilling to call the police, and the invading “committee” often had the outside backing of a neighborhood crowd. Success in obtaining food baskets increased the size and frequency of these efforts until the agitation for federal relief was irresistible.xxxii But a continued clamor was required to get states to allocate the necessary funding to match that of Washington, under the formula of the Federal Emergency Relief Act of 1933. In Colorado in late 1934, mobs of the unemployed rioted at relief centers, looted food supplies, and drove panicked politicians from the state senate. Similar events occurred in other states.xxxiii A contemporary described the massive eruptions of the early Depression years as “a kind of spontaneous democracy expressing itself….”xxxiv
Such spontaneity has often been associated with mass movements in the United States, but the deliberation and organizing required for large demonstrations and marches has also been a factor. Mass literacy meant that crowds could reach a much broader public with their messages. As the suffragists discovered, if a gathering were sufficiently large and spectacular, newspapers would give it national and even international coverage.xxxv “The enemy must be converted through his eyes,” said suffragist Harriot Stanton Blatch.xxxvi She might have added, “and reading glasses.” By contrast, the largest nonviolent demonstration of today becomes no more than a tiny blip on the screen of public awareness, if that. The massing of “activists” is nothing new.
Though they put the nonviolent demonstration to highly effective use, the suffragists did not invent it. Followers of John Wilkes, the English radical, were parading support for their hero “with flags flying and drums beating” in the 1760s.xxxvii They had counterparts in France before the Revolution, too, and probably much earlier antecedents. For the long-term objective, a mere show of strength could be more effective than a riot. The observer of an early nineteenth-century demonstration described “a kind of discipline in disorder.”xxxviii During World War I, suffragists used their numbers to advance what Thoreau had called “civil disobedience,” “pursuing peaceful means to achieve a violent reaction,” which might include multiple arrests.xxxix
Participants in the civil rights movement made broader and better known use of such tactics, hoping to gain federal intervention by provoking Southern authorities to arrest them for peacefully demonstrating. Their tactics often brought brutal assaults by mobs. A major problem with this strategy was that the Democratic presidents to whom they appealed, Kennedy and Johnson, hoped to retain the support of segregationist Southern Democrats. Certainly President Kennedy did not want a repeat of what had happened when the government used federal officers to shield James Meredith’s admission to the University of Mississippi in the fall of 1962. Substantiating the fact that in defending historic prerogatives, the violent crowd is often an ugly obstruction to much needed change, an all-night riot of “beer cooler vigilantes” had ensued, resulting in the deaths of three bystanders and the wounding of 128 marshals.xl Nonetheless, the goal of leaders of the Birmingham (Alabama) campaign was to so provoke Southern extremism as to leave Kennedy no alternative but to intervene. The campaign was a spectacular success in terms of exposing racist violence, what with the police using clubs, dogs, and high-pressure water hoses on child marchers. The city buzzed with reporters from Europe and Japan, and the New York Times carried more stories on racial issues in two weeks than it had in the previous year. But it took a riot by blacks “wielding knives, overturning cars, hurling bricks and rocks at anyone who moved,”xli following the bombing of King’s brother’s house and the motel headquarters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), to get any federal troops sent to Birmingham. While the movement gained the moral high ground through nonviolent resistance, the federal government found it harder to ignore black rioters.
Rollicking in the Streets
As children we learn to think of life in earlier times in terms of deprivation: no electricity, no central heating, no cars or planes…. Physically, too, most people worked much harder in the past than we may care to imagine. But our ancestors had communal play to balance the rigors of work. Chinese villagers had numerous festivals.xlii Birth, initiations, marriage, and death were occasions for music and dance in Africa, but music and dancing might celebrate nothing more than the appearance of a full moon.xliii Central American villagers may still enjoy fireworks, dancing, drinking, feasting, and hilarious attempts by some to climb a greased pole, all of which figure in seasonal festivals. As for Europeans, consider the mass euphoria of the traditional Carnival. Peter Burke has described this festival as “a huge play in which the main streets and squares became stages, the city became a theatre without walls and the inhabitants the actors and spectators….”xliv As spectators, people would see a procession of floats; they would watch competitions such as races, tug-of-wars, and jousting over water; they might follow mock lawsuits. They might also help celebrate the wedding of a bear and a man in a bridal dress. But no one was only a spectator. Many would wear costumes or masks and dance in the streets. Many would have sex with people they might never meet again or recognize if they did, though not to promote the fertility of the earth, the original purpose of such license.xlv Certainly, all would fill themselves with food and drink. As Bakhtin wrote, “everyone participates because [Carnival’s] very idea embraces all of the people”—and all of life, too, while it lasts.xlvi
As in Saturnalia, the festival’s ancient ancestor, rank and other hierarchical distinctions ceased to exist except to be mocked. The husband and wife exchanged roles, the poor gave alms to the rich, the judge was put in stocks: each familiar dyad was reversed,xlvii as “all were considered equal during carnival.”xlviii In southern European towns, this fiesta could begin as early as late December and continue for several weeks until Lent.xlix Then, with the mock trial and execution of the personified Carnival (a laughing fat man adorned with hams, sausages, and other viands), the giant party would fizzle out, clearing the way for the lean time of Lent. Like the poor protagonist of the bittersweet Brazilian song,l participants were said to spend half the year remembering the last Carnival and the other half preparing for the day when they could cast their vote for Dionysus once again.
Like rioting, festival appears to have prehistoric roots. Some speculate that in a pre-patriarchal world, communal defense was succeeded or accompanied by communal hunting, which could have given rise to maenadism and its “very primordial form of festival.”li The riot may be one descendant of such prehistoric practices and traditional festivals another. The ancestral line would include ancient vegetation rites of death and rebirth, especially (at least in the Aegean world) those of the mystery cults of Dionysus or Bacchus, whose celebrants would make music, engage in frenzied dancing, and consume immoderate amounts of wine, though their revelry might stop short of the ancient Cretan rite of tearing a bull to pieces with their teeth.lii It appears that early Christians shared elements of the Greek mystery cults and Rome’s “oriental” religions, such as ecstatic dancing. As late as the seventh century CE, the Church (in the Council of Constantinople) condemned cross-dressing and invocations of Dionysus in winemaking. But going into the late Middle Ages, parishioners and priests still danced in church.liii In medieval Germany, the Dionysian impulse “drove ever increasing crowds of people singing and dancing from place to place.”liv This according to Nietzsche, who added that with “the magic of the Dionysiac rite…[one] expresses himself through song and dance as the member of a higher community; he has forgotten how to walk, how to speak, and is on the brink of taking wing as he dances.” One might gain an inkling of the ritual, he wrote, by imagining Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” as a painting.lv
But there is no need to imagine a painting of collective joy. For that we have many examples, such as Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s The Wedding Dance (1566) and The Peasant Dance (c. 1568), Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s Village Feast with a Theatre (after 1616), and Petrus Paulus Rubens’ The Fair or Village Wedding (c. 1635-1638). We also have the banquet imagery of Rabelais.lvi For the crowds that filled the streets and squares of medieval and Renaissance European towns for Carnival and other festivals, the holidays’ indulgences and social summersaults “disclose[d] the potentiality of an entirely different world, of another order, another way of life”lvii that stood in stark contrast to the austerity and fixed hierarchy of the official order, both clerical and secular. Over the valley of lives filled with hard work, poverty, and want, the “Big Rock Candy Mountain” casts its glow. For the Levellers, Diggers, and other primitive communists of seventeenth-century England, as well as for their many intellectual successors, there would be an ultimate reversal followed by a lasting utopia. All hierarchies would then be relegated to the past and the earth become a “common treasury,” to be equally enjoyed by all.lviii Or as May Day demonstrators chant in the streets of Berlin, “Everything for everyone and everything for free!”lix
The slogan is reminiscent of another painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder—namely, The Land of Cockaigne, also known as The Land of Milk and Honey (1567). Here a peasant, a cleric, and a soldier lie under a tree from which a table spills food and drink into the waiting mouth of one of them, while the others indulge in post-prandial slumber. A plucked chicken has put itself on a plate. An egg strolls by, ready to be eaten. Stuck in an obliging pig in the background is the knife which has already taken a slice out its back. A kneeling knight waits for one of several pies to drop from a roof, and a man climbs into (or out of) a mountain of buckwheat. Clearly this fantasy of infantile orality was inspired by more than sympathy for hungry peasants. The goods of Bruegel’s land of plenty satiate one and all alike, and do so without human effort.
The loaded shopping carts of most Americans, not to mention our pervasive weight problems, signify our occupation of a similar realm. But those goods do not fall into our shopping carts or leave the store by themselves. Overworked Americans of all ages and most income brackets, a great many of whom carry unsustainable debts, report growing dissatisfaction with the jobs that make high levels of food consumption individually possible.lx Without the play of festival to balance work, there is only the food we eat, live and mediated spectacles, shopping, and occasionally for some the private party. The transition from recurrent periods of plenty for all to year-round overconsumption for most may represent the triumph of agricultural technology, but it does not seem to have left us any happier.
Americans at Play
Americans had no sooner gained national independence than they began acquiring holidays of their own, though they did not import the all-inclusiveness of Carnival. Typically, recurrent public events were experienced differently depending on gender, class, ingestion of alcohol, and one’s cultural distance from the old country. Take the Fourth of July. John Adams thought that July 2nd (the day in 1776 when the Continental Congress took a draft of the Declaration of Independence in hand to declare colonial independence) should be commemorated by “by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty” and that it would be celebrated “by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival…to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other….”lxi On the original July 2nd, a sportive crowd in New York toppled a statue of George III on a horse, mutilated its face, and displayed the head on a flagpole.lxii But as the Fourth, and not the Second, gained recognition as the nation’s birthday, many made good on other elements of Adams’ prescription. For male members of Philadelphia’s upper crust, it was a day of sermons, speeches, and military parades, followed by private dinners. A painting of July 4th, 1819, depicting the celebration in that city’s Central Square, includes in its crowded foreground a pair of elegantly uniformed militiamen, small boys with toy guns, women fixing picnic lunches, a dog, a violinist, and some men getting drunk.lxiii Soon affluent Philadelphians were apt to go out of town on Independence Day, leaving it up to the sheriffs and watchmen of those pre-police days to control the “saturnalia of passion” which would tend to break out among working-class celebrants under the influence of alcohol, playing cards, and guns.lxiv Many had to observe a one-day strike in order to participate in the saturnalia.
Around 1840, native-born Americans of Milwaukee attended Independence Day speeches that hammered home civic and moral themes, while the city’s German-born Americans frolicked in beer gardens. Some Cincinnati workers paraded with the American flag. In 1837, a Rockdale, Pennsylvania, Sunday school’s observance of the Fourth drew several hundred students and spectators, but the “rowdy men and women” of this industrial area generally celebrated the holiday by crowding local roads and attending “disorderly, political picnics.”lxv In New York City, the Fourth was the occasion of an increase in the murder rate resulting from “drinking and group rowdiness.” Christmas and New Year’s were similarly riotous.lxvi
These different ways of observing a common event can be explained, to some extent, by the fact that the immigrants who filled the country’s newly industrialized cities of the nineteenth century were often members of a first generation of industrial workers, the first from their towns and villages to endure the discipline of the factory clock, men and women who had known and lost a life that balanced work with festival. Until late in the century, having a job in their adopted land meant working for ten hours a day, six days a week. Whereas a member of the middle class would have a summer vacation, the industrial laborer’s only break from the grinding succession of work days came on Sunday and the infrequent holiday. As the original “labor day,” the Fourth of July was especially important.
In late nineteenth-century Worcester, Massachusetts, the focus of Roy Rosenzweig’s excellent study, members of the property-owning class would celebrate the Fourth with exclusive picnics or by socializing in their private clubs. They might also make social calls, attend musical recitals, or stay at home, wining and dining friends or playing croquet and lawn tennis.lxvii The contrast with their immigrant workers could hardly have been more pronounced. For them, festivities would begin on the eve of the Fourth when crowds would begin to gather downtown and in the streets of working-class neighborhoods as early as 8 p.m. “for an all-night carnival of noise-making and fireworks.”lxviii More rambunctious members of the crowd would visit the homes of representatives of the local elite to unhinge their gates, overturn sheds, ring their doorbells, and so on “in a muted form of class hostility.”lxix Worcester was not unique: Independence Day “had a persistent underside of parody and burlesque” in other parts of the country, too.lxx
The Fourth itself was the occasion for a large outdoor gathering, with plenty of food, alcohol, and games—namely, foot races, tug-of-wars and wrestling for cash prizes. Men engaged in spontaneous and numerous fist fights, and many chased after a greased pig. That was the experience of many of Worcester’s Irish immigrants, at any rate. The Irish-Catholic temperance society attracted a less boisterous picnic crowd of about equal size, three thousand to five thousand.lxxi Worcester’s generally more conservative Swedish immigrants were also split between rowdy and respectable celebrants.lxxii The French Canadians, who made up Worcester’s other large immigrant group in the late nineteenth century, also kept to themselves. Like Mexican-Americans with their Cinco de Mayo, they tended to celebrate St. Jean Baptiste Day (June 24th), a holiday with roots in pre-Christian fertility rites, and to skip the Fourth.lxxiii The Nativist Order of United American Mechanics—an organization of native-born skilled workers, foremen, and clerks—held their own celebration of the Fourth.lxxiv The Italians, Poles, and Lithuanians who made up the next wave of immigrants to come to Worcester celebrated Independence Day as boisterously and separately as had their most intemperate predecessors.lxxv Among the workers of this industrial city, ethnic events easily outdrew any multiethnic or interclass gatherings. The story of how such events were tamed and their celebrants brought together will be taken up in a later chapter.
Meanwhile, Sunday was regularly reserved “for the bawling, splashing, many-actioned, brilliant-colored crowd.”lxxvi Its working-class constituents did not share middle-class longings to escape the multitude and the distractions of city life but sought instead “the sociable, often bibulous, sometimes violent, communal activities of their rural and pre-industrial predecessors.”lxxvii They found a reasonable semblance of such pursuits in the “’boss-less’ crowds” of the private amusement parks that began to appear in the waning decades of the nineteenth century. Coney Island was easily the biggest of these, in terms of the crowds it drew on summer Sundays. Modeled on the popular entertainment sectors of the World’s Fairs—for example, Philadelphia’s (1876), Chicago’s (1893), and St. Louis’s (1904)—Coney offered thrill rides, spectacles, freak shows, exotic settings like Luna Park’s “Streets of Delhi,” animal acts, and a fine beach. For New Yorkers, it was only a subway ride away. In 1910, these attractions drew twenty million visitors, a higher proportion of the American population than the Disney theme parks would attract eighty years hence.lxxviii
With entrance fees, the proprietors of Coney’s Luna Park, Dreamland, and Steeplechase Park could weed the crowd of undesirables, and with crowd energy diffused over multiple amusements—from peepshows to thrilling rides to immersion in the surf—the Coney experience fell well short of its sobriquet, “Sodom by the Sea.” “Innocent play is a moral antiseptic,” claimed Luna Park’s Frederic Thompson.lxxix Yet its “demographic” was young adults, not families. Luna Park even provided childcare. Coney Island’s grown-up patrons “may have acted like children, but they seldom burdened themselves with kids when they went to the parks.”lxxx
Coney Island was especially popular with recent immigrants. Like Worcester’s Fourth of July celebrants, members of different European ethnicities gravitated to different bath houses and different sections of the beach. Racist stall games—“Kill the Coon” and “African Dodger”—smoothed some such differences. But more important as homogenizing influences were the informality of the crowd and the leveling influence of the beach, where all wore swimming suits and all romped together in the surf, “exactly contrary to the manner of behavior anywhere else.”lxxxi (Brought to mind are the baths of imperial Rome, which were “places of equalization in a highly stratified society.”)lxxxii In addition, people were literally thrown together by some of the mechanical devices of the Coney Island parks. The Barrel of Love through which people entered Steeplechase Park, for instance, was a revolving drum which launched customers into one another’s arms. The innocence of such involuntary embraces stands in contrast to the libidinal opportunities of the traditional festival, which would sometimes bump the birthrate up in nine months. Yet all in all, the mixing of genders, classes, and ethnicities of Coney’s formative years was exceptional at the time.lxxxiii
Coney Island attracted enormous pleasure-seeking crowds into the 1940s: forty-six million passed thru its turnstiles in 1943. Even three years later, when middle-class families were starting to take their leisure at sites that could only be accessed by car and Coney’s stalls and rides had lost their glow, density at the beach reached 4,800 bathers per acre, meaning that each individual in this close-packed throng commanded, on average, nine square feet of sand.
The Festival of the Sixties
Americans have not always deferred the experience of collective joy till the weekend or the arrival of an official holiday. Someone landing in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district on October 6, 1966, for example, might have run across a crowd of “Beautiful People ecstatically costumed and handing out flowers to friends and FBI agents” alike to celebrate their opposition to laws forbidding “chemical mysticism.” The six hundred to a thousand people in the Panhandle on that sunny afternoon, “dancing with brave banners waving over their looney heads,” had an audience consisting of cops, newsmen, and some real estate agents from a nearby conference. These men in suits stood “staring, simply transfixed, simply amazed [by the] Flutes and finger cymbals, tinkle and toot, and all that long hair, short skirts, and laughter.”lxxxiv The Oracle article from which I have looted this account goes on to say that an FBI agent hid the flowers he had been given behind his back, and the real estate men “all stared at their shoes when a slim girl approached them with a juicy slice of watermelon. They were terrified that she intended to offer them a bite. ‘Don’t be afraid,’ she said sweetly.”lxxxv It seems that the antics of the “Beautiful People” needed the validation of witnesses with feet in the cultural mainstream.
Berkeley and San Francisco were at the epicenter of changes that, for those caught up in them, seemed to be coming from deep inside the earth. Free outdoor rock concerts were the order of the day. People danced at the slightest rhythmic provocation. Great music was in the air. The smell of hashish and incense was in the air. “We all wanted to be everything that was ‘yes,’” a survivor says.lxxxvi The lyrics of a song by Sly and the Family Stone (“Everybody is a Star”) had broad credibility: the stars in the rock-and-roll firmament included not only the onstage musicians but “the dancers with the face paint freaking freely in the crowd.”lxxxvii The early rock concerts seemed “beachheads of a new, ecstatic culture meant to replace the old repressive one.”lxxxviii And the counterculture taking root was a thing of crowds.
The local eruption sent sparks over a wide radius. Soon there were smoldering pieces of the cultural revolution’s furniture scattered nearly everywhere across the land. A former student leader describes the 1970 shutdown of a Midwestern university in these terms: “It was the original street party…. People were smoking dope on the streets…. We had our makeshift parades going down the street. Some guy with a Nixon mask on, it was a circus atmosphere…a lot of fun, nobody got hurt…everybody was everybody’s friend.”lxxxix To paraphrase what was said of France in May 1968, our party was a reprisal for a hundred and fifty years of ceremonial impoverishment.xc
Was there any reason that this festival should not last throughout the year? The Calvinist ethic which had made nonproductive use of one’s time “the deadliest of sins”xci was made to turn cartwheels and stick out its tongue. But political reaction to this cultural revolution followed closely on the run-down heels of youthful rebellion. Most Americans were afraid to take a bite of the watermelon. And the watermelon was not always sweet. Just as outrageous appearances need outraged witnesses, collective bliss would ultimately require something in the way of crowd control, to be discussed in Chapter 6.
Rioting for Fun
Back in the 1830s, civic leaders of both major parties, the Democrats and the Whigs, had invested heavily in the Bank of Maryland. Colluding with bank partners, they milked the bank of its capital by taking out loans and then closed it, using propaganda to persuade the public that the bank had gone broke and using Maryland law to avoid an audit or settlement.xcii But the bank had catered to people with scant savings. Its closure and the delay in settling accounts victimized widows, orphans, small tradesmen, and the like. On the other hand, the debtors and partners of the bank had “profited shamelessly.”xciii By August 1835, a year and a half had gone by without a resolution. Handbills appeared which called for direct action by “Judge Lynch.” Ten thousand people converged on a meeting site, but only to throw some rocks. Next evening, a citizens’ guard, appointed by the mayor of Baltimore and armed with sticks, could not prevent a crowd from sacking the home of one of the partners of the bank. When the crowd turned on the citizens’ guard, hurling stones and injuring several of them, the mayor okayed their use of guns. The guard then shot and killed twenty and wounded dozens. Next day, a Sunday, hundreds participated in the destruction of the mayor’s home and those of four bankers, throwing furnishings out the door, where they fed the flames of bonfires as several thousand looked on.xciv
Large crowds, accompanied by a fife and drum, cheered on the Baltimore bank rioters. The rioters responded by making a show of burning the law library of an attorney of the bank, emptying his wine cellar, and ceremonially breaking his plates in the street. The rioting was “a saturnalia where social man’s usual restraints could be shucked.”xcv Just as the traditional festival would sometimes lead to rioting and even revolution, festivity has often broken out in the midst of a riot. Watts residents joined the rioting in 1965 “with a camaraderie and jubilation usually reserved for festive occasions.”xcvi “A spirit of carefree nihilism was taking hold” during Detroit’s ghetto riot of 1967.xcvii An observer reported that young rioters appeared to be “dancing amidst the flames.”xcviii The narrator of a fictional account of that event says that he had never before seen people so happy, despite the burning buildings and the bodies lying in the streets.xcix
If revelry and riot were born together in the need of our human ancestors to set up a hullabaloo to scare off savage predators, as suggested above, it should not be surprising that riot and revelry occupy neighboring points on a continuum of communal possibilities. Their social proximity goes some way to explain the tendency of police officials to overreact at times when confronted with festive gatherings. But such overreaction often provokes rioting; indeed, the recreational riot of the spring break seems to require it. On the other hand, maybe this link between riot and festivity is just a matter of too much testosterone. In reference to the singing, reciting, food sharing, and social breaks included in suffrage movement assemblies, Harriot Stanton Blatch declared that men’s “democracy grew by riots, revolutions, wars. Women conquered in peace and quiet, with some fun.”c
The question is, what has become of such crowd-determined behavior in the United States? The range of possibilities for collective action includes some that are clearly abhorrent. Yet without the self-directed crowd, we cannot respond to what may be a pressing need for collective action. The nascent social movement cannot survive its childhood. We also lose the experience of collective euphoria. Here in America something as old as the city in human history is on the verge of becoming extinct. What remains of the crowd are agglutinations of individuals—shoppers, drivers, spectators—crowds whose constituents are individually distinct, competitive, and mutually obstructive. By describing various crowds that once held sway, the next chapter will give a better sense of the exceptional nature of this development.