The Future Belongs to Crowds

“I hate all the planning there is in the world of music,” the critically celebrated but underpublicized pianist Sviatoslav Richter once said. He might have been even more famous if he hadn’t rejected the usual practice of booking establishment engagements far in advance. Instead, he’d alight on short notice in some small-town school auditorium and lay down some Chopin for the unsuspecting masses. “When things are planned out in advance,” he declared, “they always collapse.”

Richter understood that planning often diminishes the romance of a gathering and the integrity of a performance. He felt that there’s something suspicious about too much advance notice — it sets the stakes too high, makes an event artificial. Spontaneity, on the other hand, suggests a certain purity of intent: A performer on the street corner draws a crowd that really wants to hear music; a mob erupts in protest when the people can no longer stand to go unheard; a lone voice takes the Speaker’s Corner podium out of genuine passion and belief. If it doesn’t turn out, well, nothing’s lost. If it does, history can shift.

From the apes gathered at the monolith according to 2001: A Space Odyssey to the Sermon on the Mount, where events have happened suddenly and crowds have massed without warning, political winds have changed for good and fashions have been pioneered; creeds have been written, stars have been born and prophets found. “The future,” as Don DeLillo sagely observed, “belongs to crowds.”

What follows is a highly selective list of significant mob scenes less Dada and more earnest than the flash-mob phenomenon, compiled with specific attention to mobs that started out calamitous but ultimately led to good.

1. March 15, 44 B.C.E.: Mark Antony delivers a funeral oration for Julius Caesar that rouses a mob to riot, demanding revenge against Caesar’s murderers. The scene provided Shakespeare with excellent dramatic fodder.

2. Sometime around year 3 B.C.E., as described in the third chapter of the New Testament’s book of Mark: After going on a healing spree that culminates in healing a man’s withered hand in a synagogue on the Sabbath, Jesus is forced to flee the wrath of the Herodians. As he travels toward the sea, “a great multitude” from all neighboring countries follows behind, declaring him “the son of God.” A little later Jesus endows his 12 disciples with the power to heal the sick and cast out devils. They are the first Christian priests.

3. December 16, 1773: Fed up with paying taxes to the British, a group of colonial activists disguise themselves as Mohawk Indians, board the cargo ships headed for their harbor and dump 342 containers of tea into the water. According to participant George Hewes, the identities of the protestors were kept hidden even from one another: “There appeared to be an understanding that each individual should volunteer his services, keep his own secret, and risk the consequence for himself,” he wrote. “No disorder took place during that transaction, and it was observed at that time that the stillest night ensued that Boston had enjoyed for many months.” The Boston Tea Party began a chain of events leading to the American Revolution.

4. June 20, 1789: After King Louis XVI locks reform-minded members of the Third Estate out of their assigned meeting hall at the Menus Plaisirs, the group moves their meeting to a nearby indoor tennis court, where they propose an oath of allegiance. Five hundred and seventy-seven of the.Third Estate’s 578 members sign the oath, reaffirming their solidarity and pledging to stay united until the Estates General complete a satisfactory constitution. A week later, the king calls a meeting of the Estates General and writes a new constitution.

5. August 16, 1819: A crowd of workers gathers in St. Peter’s Fields, Manchester, England, to hear Henry Hunt, a radical advocate of parliamentary reform and voting rights for the working class. As the local police confront the mob with the intent of restoring order, 14 people are killed and over 600 injured. Although the “Peterloo Massacre” initially prompted the British government to suspend civil rights and prohibit public gatherings, the bloodshed turned public opinion irrevocably in the direction of the radicals’ demands, and within the next 20 years nearly all their proposed reforms were adopted.

6. June 28, 1969: At 1:20 a.m., police raid the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, and for once, the crowd fights back. The three days of violent protest that follow marks the start of the gay pride movement. A Village Voice headline on July 2 read: “Gay Power Comes to Sheridan Square.”

7. November 9, 1989: The leader of East Berlin’s communist party, Günter Schabowski, makes a vague remark at an early evening press conference about opening the border with West Berlin for “private trips abroad.” Two hours later, thousands of people swarm to the Bornholmer Strasse checkpoint demanding to be let through. By midnight, all checkpoints are opened, and East and West Berliners flock to the Berlin Wall with hand tools to initiate its destruction, which officially begins the next day.


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