Why Ferguson Isn’t Like the Boston Tea Party

Some commentators intent on defending the recent looting and rioting in Ferguson, Missouri have compared the situation to the Boston Tea Party. The off-the-cuff comparison wasn’t just relegated to Twitter, although it did flourish in that medium shortly after a Missouri grand jury refused to find probable cause of wronging on the part of police officer Darren Wilson, but by Wednesday of this week it resonated forth from the floor of the United States House of Representatives.

But Ferguson of 2014 isn’t at all like the Boston of 1773. Here are a few reasons why the two events are very, very different from one another.

1) Boston Dumped Stuff, Ferguson Kept Stuff

In Ferguson, the protesters looted stores and took whatever they could find. The owner of a cell phone store sacked by vandals told the L.A. Times, “They took everything — phones, cases, everything.” Looters in Ferguson were free – and appear to have been quite able – to keep whatever they took from stores (it counted as shoplifting no doubt, but good luck charging those crimes). In contrast, the Sons of Liberty that carried out the Boston Tea Party didn’t keep the tea. After sneaking aboard the ships and smashing open the chests of tea, they poured it over the side of the vessels and into the harbor. There was no economic benefit to the “protesters” in Boston; there is an economic benefit (short term) for the protesters in Ferguson.

2) Liquor Had Nothing to do with Police Brutality

Whether or not you think officer Darren Wilson acted appropriately or not in shooting Michael Brown, looting a liquor store has nothing to do with police brutality. The ostensible cause for the Ferguson riots has been perceived police brutality and racial disparity in the application of justice. Stealing liquor makes no point about either of those two issues. The Boston Tea Party directly dealt with the subject that provoked colonial frustration: a tax and monopoly on the tea trade imposed by the crown of Great Britain. Throwing the taxed tea that was part of a newly imposed economic monopoly into the harbor was a protest relevant to the subject matter. Not so in Ferguson.

3) Boston Had No Vote, Ferguson Does

One of the colonial frustrations of the mid-18th Century was the lack of representation in national policy decisions. Great Britain wasn’t terribly keen on offering the (still quite narrow) franchise to colonists when it came to electing members of Parliament. As well, local governors weren’t selected in Massachusetts, they were appointed from London. Ferguson exists very much in the 21st Century where, thanks to civil rights legislation and the 13th, 14th and 19th Amendments, the equality of due process and the right to vote is offered to all regardless of gender or race. Officials in Missouri are elected, and Ferguson residents are free to participate in those elections. This doesn’t mean that everyone elected is a worthy public servant, but the mechanism does negate the need for a lawless public outburst to make one’s voice heard.

These differences, however, didn’t stop Congressman Al Green (D-TX) from comparing Ferguson to the Boston Tea Party, nor did it stop a freelance writer for Time magazine from lamenting that others did not also see the similarities between Boston circa 1773 and Ferguson circa 2014.