Which Side Are You On?

Today I read a lot about the Astor Place Riot of 1849.  It’s not exactly holiday reading.  But it is a story worth telling here.

The Astor Place Riot occurred May 10, 1849 at the Astor Place Opera House.  When it was over  22 people were dead and another 38 were injured. It was a deadly confrontation between the poor and the rich, who controlled the police and militia.  The riot was triggered by rival performances of The Scottish Play by Shakespeare.

Join me below.

The Bowery Theatre catered mostly to a working class audience from the immigrant-heavy Five Points section of lower Manhattan.  You saw this neighborhood in the movie Gangs of New York. The lead actor at the Bowery was Edwin Forrest.  Wealthy people, to avoid mingling with the immigrants and the Five Points crowd, had built the Astor Place Opera House on the corner of Broadway and Astor Place in 1847. The Opera House had high ticket prices and a dress code requiring kid gloves for men.  The Wiki asserts that the Opera House was a symbol of classism and Anglophilia.

Forrest had recently had a European tour, which was a failure, and he attributed that to Macready. Macready then came to New York to perform the Scottish Play in the Opera House. In competition, the Bowery Theater offered the same play, starring Forrest, opposite it.

On May 7, 1849, the first night of the performances, an unruly mob of Forrest fans were in  the audience at the Opera House.  They threw rotten eggs, potatoes, old shoes and a stink bomb. Macready completed the performance anyway but decided to withdraw from the run.  However, he decided to resume playing the King of Denmark because of a petition signed by upper class New Yorkers including Herman Melville and Washington Irving. On May 10 he again tried to perform.

By the time of the performance, over 20,000 people filled the streets around the theater.

The New York Tribune reported:

“As one window after another cracked, the pieces of bricks and paving stones rattled in on the terraces and lobbies, the confusion increased, till the Opera House resembled a fortress besieged by an invading army rather than a place meant for the peaceful amusement of civilized community.”

The police force could not suppress the riot.  The National Guard, already mobilized and prepared, arrived.  Many rioters did not disperse even as the soldiers assumed the firing position. The order was given to fire directly into the crowd.  Twenty-two died; 38 were injured.


This riot happened about 160 years ago.  When we read about it, do we identify with the wealthy, kid glove wearing patrons of the more expensive, exclusive Opera House?  Or do we identify with the Five Points immigrants and their being shot?  Or neither?  My relatives didn’t arrive on these shores until five decades after the incident, but I find myself nevertheless in the camp of the poor people, of those storming the Opera.  Why is that?  I think it’s about class consciousness.

Fast forward to now.  Something strange has happened to Americans’ ideas about wealth and class.  Specifically, class consciousness has dissolved in sea of propaganda and seeming equality.  We don’t in general remember who we are any more.  And we don’t focus on what the ruling class, the most wealthy Americans have.  We settle for illusions and propaganda.

Examples? Poor white Southerners whose ancestors were poverty stricken sharecroppers make believe their families lived in places like Tara and owned slaves.  They make believe that a politics that advances the landowners’ interests advances theirs. Another? People whose parents might have been in the growing middle class of the 1950’s now find themselves having to have two, fulltime wage earners in their household to support a worse standard of living. These people make believe they are still in the middle class (whatever that may be), that they aren’t in financial decline. They make believe that politicians who are owned by corporations and the rich are on their side and are supporting their interests.  They mouth tired slogans and believe in ideas that will actually contribute to their continued, worsening struggle. More? Virtually everyone who is serving in Congress is rich.  They have no idea whatsoever what life is like for the rest of us.  Katrina destroyed Trent Lott’s home, so George Bush talked about how he’d build an even better one.  No FEMA trailer for him.  And the rest of those whose homes were destroyed?  Many are still in trailers. And those that aren’t? They’re told that somebody living in subsidized housing is evil because she has a 60″ television.  And they then have contempt for her. More? We make believe we’re surprised when the Democrats in Congress cannot hear us and do not respond to us and actually ignore us or act with contempt for our desires.  We make believe that they act for us. There may be a 2-party system, but it’s really a 1 class system.  It’s plutocracy making believe it’s democracy.  And we’re making believe that we cannot penetrate whatever beclouds the facts.

How did we become so blind?  How did we enter this trance?  More important, how do we open our eyes and wake up?

We need to begin at the beginning.  Maybe we need to read some history.  American history.    Maybe we could start with the Astor Place Riot.  And maybe then we can begin to understand who has been on our side in the past and whether anyone is now on our side.

Here’s Pete:      

Thanks for reading.


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    • davidseth on December 23, 2007 at 5:24 am

    Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

  1. into the lie that everybody can be rich (even worse, super-rich).  We’ve also become a nation of cheats, etc.  Milton Friedman and the Chicago School melded these two factors into their redefining of what the job of a corporation was (Friedman’s and the School’s idea is that corporations only exist to make profits).

    Burn down the mission!

  2. …who thinks that it might be safer if this post called it “That Scottish play”?

    Or is that too much of a theater in-joke?

  3. we have indeed become confused….

    the fastest growing economic demographic in the country may well be the working poor…

    those who work more than 40 hrs per week and still fall below the poverty line……

    the middle class is gone…….

    replaced by the lower upper class and the variously poor…..

    the dems play to the lower upper class and the upper class and pretend to care about the poor……

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