The first person to die for the United States was not a soldier.
He was not a tall, white hero in a powdered wig who waved the Stars and Stripes over his head as he charged into battle. He was simply a man of color who had enough.
In 1770, amid growing tension between American colonialists and British soldiers in Boston, Crispus Attucks and a mob of other citizens surrounded a British soldier and berated him with insults and complaints. Eight other soldiers came to the aid of the first, and the mob was eventually worked up to the point of throwing objects.
Nine soldiers opened fire. They shot into the unarmed crowd without orders, killing Attucks and four other men. Six more civilians were also wounded in the barrage. This incident would come to be known as the Boston Massacre, what most historians consider the inciting incident of the American Revolution.
Americans today are so used to the revolutionaries of this time being romanticized that one might assume Attucks and the other victims were immediately applauded by their fellow colonialists as heroes fighting against an unjust system. The truth is that when the British soldiers were brought to trial, Attucks in particular was painted to the jury as a troublemaker who was displaying “mad behavior” and had it coming.
Six of the soldiers were acquitted, two were given reduced sentences on manslaughter charges and one was never arrested at all. The whole incident sparked public outrage, eventually becoming part of the greater fires of revolution.
Is any of this sounding familiar yet? Probably.
If a man of color like Attucks were to stand up to unjust authority today, his treatment would be much of the same. Instead of being accused of “mad behavior,” he would be labeled as a thug. The more conservative types out there would focus their arguments against him while downplaying the involvement of the white participants.
These things happened to Crispus Attucks in the earliest days of our country, and these things still happen to men of color who dare to taunt or disrespect the people whose unjust authority is constantly enforced on them.
Many current Americans will acknowledge those colonists who stood up to unlawful rule with chaos and violence as great heroes, but will then smear those who rioted in Baltimore as criminals.
Recently, it has even become more common to question the patriotism of those who dare to challenge our own authority structure. On Sept. 15, New York City police union chief Patrick Lynch referred to those who suspected brutality and racism in the recent detainment of tennis star James Blake as being “un-American.” The irony of his statement seemed entirely lost to him and on his supporters.
If the irony is lost to you as well, try to remember that America was not founded by people who blindly worshiped those who were in charge. Try to remember that we stole merchandise and destroyed property to send a big message in a certain Boston harbor. Most of all, try to remember that America was literally born in the blood of a man of color who was fed up with those in uniform.