The Taming of the American Crowd: From Stamp Riots to Shopping Sprees

Reviewed by Stephen
McFarland, Jr.

Al Sandine, The Taming of the American Crowd: From Stamp Riots to Shopping Sprees (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009)

Early in this book Sandine gives a brief account of the Baltimore bank riots of 1835, in which politically connected bankers who had cannibalized the Bank of Maryland, making off with the savings of its depositors, were treated to a rude surprise by an angry mob of citizens braving gunfire to ransack and burn their homes – along with that of the Mayor who had colluded with them. In light of the baffling quiescence that gripped Americans in the face of similar government and finance-industry chicanery in 2008, Sandine’s narrative of the historical permutations of the American crowd is most timely.

This wide-ranging popular history examines the shifting role of the crowd from Colonial times to the present. Recovering many fascinating and little-remembered episodes, Sandine traces a somber downward trajectory of the role of mass action in the streets, with attention to a variety of gatherings ranging from demonstrations and marches to riots, strikes, lynch mobs, and carnivals. He argues that crowds, at their best, have been crucial to the collective struggles for rights, resources, and political agency, but that Americans’ abilities to mobilize crowds for democratic purposes have been virtually destroyed by elite manipulation, repressive policing, suburban dispersal, alienation, media spectacle, and consumerism. Though the book sacrifices depth for breadth, overlooks promising international crowd forms (particularly in the Global South), and falls short in drawing practical lessons, it recounts a wealth of illuminating and often inspiring episodes of popular struggle.

The first chapter argues that public gatherings have been crucial in communities’ struggles to defend their interests. It highlights a rash of Depression-era crowd actions in which people appropriated food from stores, defended homes threatened with eviction, and demanded jobs at the factory gates. Sandine further argues that revelry has been a key vector of solidarity along class, ethnic, and neighborhood lines, outlining a  history of public celebration running from the medieval carnival to the bacchanalia around 19th-century July 4th celebrations, on through to the mass entertainment of Coney Island and the countercultural festivities of the 1960s. In the second chapter, he substantiates his argument about the role of the crowd with capsule histories of ten crowds which, he argues, “made history.” He begins with the Athenian Assembly, then jumps ahead to the French and American Revolutions, the “Great Upheaval” of workers’ struggles in 1877, the industrial strike waves of the 1930s, and the “ghetto eruptions” of the 1960s, with various stops along the way.

Having established the central import of crowds at various turning points in US and European history, Sandine turns his attention to crowds gathered for less noble purposes. Drawing on Gustave Le Bon’s influential 1895 study The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, which popularized the notion of “crowd psychology,” Sandine recounts in chapter 3 the “carnival air” among the thousands of participants and onlookers in the KKK-organized lynch mob that murdered two black youths in Marion, Indiana in 1930. He shows the careful planning and organization that went into the barbaric event: Klansmen handed out leaflets, posted street signs, and made advance announcements over PA systems.

Chapters 4-6 trace efforts by corporate and political elites to co-opt, create, and repress crowds. Sandine here charts the development of municipal regulations designed to prevent autonomous crowd activity and to harness crowd-energy for the pageantry of patriotism, militarism, commerce, and mainstream party politics. Drawing on the work of Thomas Spencer, he presents the amazing history of St. Louis’s century-long tradition of the “Veiled Prophet” celebration, which began when elites and vigilantes paraded through the streets behind the police commissioner, who wielded an ax and bloody chopping block in commemoration of the violent breaking of the 1877 St. Louis General Strike. Ranging at a heady pace over the history of May Day, soapbox speakers, the women’s suffrage movement, Gay Pride marches, right-wing attacks on socialist, anti-war, and civil rights demonstrations, the Macy’s Thanksgiving day parade, Coney Island, the World’s Fair, Disneyland, mass media, and sporting events, Sandine argues that the arc of the American crowd has bent downward towards passivity, consumerism, and spectacle for spectacle’s sake. Chapter 6 narrates the role of the police in enforcing this passivity, and the brutality with which they have repeatedly suppressed restive crowds.

The book continues with a meditation on the social trends that have accompanied the “taming” of US crowds since 1945, rehearsing a by-now familiar cultural studies script covering suburbanization and the death of downtown, car culture, shopping malls, and gentrification. In closing, Sandine reflects briefly on the role of technology in crowd behavior, touching refreshingly but hastily on crowd forms developed outside Europe and the US – in Argentina, Burma, and the Philippines – and musing over the possibilities of resurgence of the American crowd in the midst of the current economic crisis.

In all, Sandine offers refreshing glimpses of mass street actions that have shaped US history at crucial turning points, including several that have been largely forgotten. Given the inroads that Tea Party organizers have made in harnessing middle-class disaffection, Sandine’s reminders about episodes of racial violence, xenophobia, and militarism deserve serious attention.

The very eclecticism that makes this book an enjoyable read also accounts for its main weakness: Sandine makes little effort to categorize, analyze, or draw strategic or tactical lessons from the wealth of examples he puts forward. Without an effort to construct a rigorous typology of crowds, engage  in careful comparative study, and connect crowd actions to their organizational, political, and economic contexts, these important histories are liable to remain a mere litany of ‘one damn riot after another.’

Another striking omission is lack of attention to the recent history of non-violent direct action and civil disobedience. The civil rights movement is mentioned only in passing, and the anti-nuclear movement is all but ignored. This history of mass action structured around participatory democracy, affinity groups and spokescouncils,1 puts the lie to LeBon’s notion of the pathological crowd. Sandine’s discussion of the anti-corporate-globalization movement that emerged out of the Seattle WTO blockade in 1999, which drew direct inspiration and lessons from the anti-nuclear movements of the 1970s and 80s, is relegated to the chapter on policing. This is perhaps in part because the resurgence in Seattle of creative crowd tactics – involving activist networks from all over the world – clashes with Sandine’s Eurocentric assumption that the crowd has been “tamed.” Sandine treats the cycle of street protests and blockades running from Seattle to Miami in 2003 more as an object lesson in police power than as a sign of a renewed potential for crowd action.2

Where Sandine cites examples of crowd actions outside the US, he largely restricts himself to European cases, with a few brief exceptions in the final chapter. Certainly it would be impossible to cover the history of crowds across the entire globe in a 200-page volume. But forms of mass action are disseminated internationally with increasing speed, and those who, like Sandine, hold out hope for a return of the crowd to its vital role in shaping history must increasingly look to developments around the globe: to the plantones of Oaxaca, the black blocs of Athens, the blockades of El Alto, the flash mobs of Tehran, and the bandhs of Kathmandu.

Stephen McFarland, Jr. PhD Program in Earth and Environmental Science CUNY Graduate Center


1. See Barbara. Epstein, Political Protest and Cultural Revolution: Nonviolent Direct Action in the 1970s and 1980s. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

2. For insights based more on the movements themselves, see the magazine Rolling Thunder; also Kristian Williams, Confrontations: Selected Journalism. Tarantula Publishing, 2007.