After a bitter presidential election, pitting an establishment candidate with unsavory ties to Wall Street against a populist slow to denounce his racist supporters, a group of boys broke into their public school and destroyed everything they could get their hands on. They tore books, punched holes in the walls, and defaced a teacher’s desk. In hallways and doorways, they scrawled the words, “We are Bryan men.”
The incident occurred in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1897, shortly after William McKinley, a pro-business Republican, defeated William Jennings Bryan, a populist Democrat. Bryan was known as “The Great Commoner,” a showman with a flair for oratory and, in the mind of his opponents, a dangerous ability to energize voters outside the two-party system. He rode a wave of discontent from small-town and rural voters, who felt victimized by East Coast elites and rising levels of immigration, and who appreciated his religious fervor and commitment to the workers and farmers of the heartland.
The past months have witnessed similar dynamics with the opposite result: a victory of popular resentment against the political establishment. Media outlets have documented hundreds of instances of racist or intimidating graffiti in public schools, particularly in areas with diverse student populations. Although there are obvious differences between past and present, these incidents underscore the connections between populism, property destruction, and public education.
Schools straddle national, state, and local politics. They propound ideals of citizenship and claim the bulk of local tax revenues. Historically, when social policies threatened white supremacy or community values, school buildings bore the brunt of discontent. Riots and ritual property destruction, central tenets of eighteenth-century populism, continued throughout the nineteenth century. Northern mobs vandalized schools that hosted abolitionist meetings or admitted black students in the decades before the Civil War. Southern vigilantes burned hundreds of African-American schools during Reconstruction, hoping to prevent social or political equality between the races. “It could be impossible to establish any schools,” wrote a federal agent in Louisiana, “as they would not be tolerated [unless]guarded by U.S. troops.” Arson and dynamite became popular during the early 1900s, as resentful taxpayers destroyed dozens of expensive, consolidated school buildings and anti-German sentiment led to the destruction of several Lutheran schools after World War I. For their part, immigrant families burned down dozens of schools to protest anti-Catholic sentiment and compulsory attendance laws, which deprived them of children’s income. Later, the civil rights movement unleashed a backlash of racist graffiti and broken windows, while in Kanawha County, West Virginia, the adoption of multicultural textbooks in 1974 ended with elementary schools firebombed and school buses peppered with buckshot.
That was just the damage inflicted by adults.
Schoolchildren have been inclined “to cover doors and furniture with uncouth and obscene figures” since the dawn of public education in the nineteenth century. Window-breaking and arson have also occurred with striking regularity. Such actions were not simply juvenilia. Children often found in their elders’ identity politics a natural outlet for their own destructive tendencies. In 1925, a boy in Ohio burned down a Catholic school after watching the Ku Klux Klan burn a cross in his town. Resistance to desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas, prompted two white boys to detonate a homemade bomb outside their high school in 1958. Racial unrest led several student activists to throw Molotov cocktails in urban schools during the 1960s. Soon after, the scrawled insignias of ethnic gangs began to appear on school walls. Children understood the political implications of property destruction just as well as their parents.
What lessons do these histories impart?
First, they call into question the notion of a “surge” in school vandalism during the Trump era. While reports of vandalism have risen by twenty percent in some areas, we should remember that racism, intimidation, and bigotry—however morally unacceptable—have been more or less endemic in our schools since the beginning.
Moreover, they raise the disconcerting possibility that, for all its high-minded rhetoric, American democracy remains inherently childish, a vehicle for resentment, exclusion, bullying, and scrawled epithets. If that is the case, we should drop the pretense that schools exist outside of politics, or that students are too tender to understand the sharp-elbowed contest for power. Rather than despair about the small-mindedness of the American electorate or about bigotry corrupting the young, the destruction of school property should spark serious conversations about majority rule and minority rights in this country, and the crude means by which they have often been contested. Property destruction has never been far from our schools, and it is rarely the isolated, furtive, or wanton act that one might assume. Rather, as a means of asserting one’s identity and claiming power, vandalism is a political and an inherently educative phenomenon.
Campbell F. Scribner is an assistant professor of education at the University of Maryland and the author of The Fight for Local Control: Schools, Suburbs, and American Democracy.