Opinion: How a Single Death Can Spark a Revolution

By Denise Fesdjian

My name is Denise Fesdjian and I’m an associate in our firm’s Chicago office. I wrote this Diversity & Inclusion article with the hopes that it will offer you an insightful and relevant perspective on diversity through the lens of a lawyer. This is my first ever op-ed, so please bear with me as I pen my thoughts on this new canvas of expression.

It’s needless to say that the events over the last few months have been unsettling. While many of us wouldn’t have thought that things could get any worse than the catastrophic spread of the COVID-19 virus, we are now faced with an equally viral and tragic event: the unjustified killing of George Floyd. While the COVID-19 pandemic has been labeled a black swan event, in other words, one that nobody could have predicted (except for Bill Gates apparently), the death of George Floyd is quite the opposite: it’s a regular occurrence that unfortunately, we have come to expect. Unlike the black swan-like nature of the COVID-19 virus, George Floyd’s death should come as no surprise. Reports of police brutality against African Americans have become so commonplace that sadly we often forget them almost as quickly as we hear of them. Yet George Floyd’s death has suddenly become the catalyst for waves of protests, both in our country and beyond. While it seems unlikely that one man’s death (important in its own right) could spark such a widespread revolution, it turns out that it’s not the first time to happen in our nation’s history.

When most of us think of the American Revolutionary War, the usual cast comes to mind. George Washington. Thomas Paine. Paul Revere. But there is another person who played an important role (albeit involuntarily) in the Revolutionary War: Christopher Seider (or Snider). I will freely admit that I hadn’t heard of Christopher Seider until I was trying to brainstorm a topic for this post, but I came to find out that Seider is considered to be the first casualty of the American Revolutionary War. Just eleven years old at the time, Seider was a boy who lived and worked in Boston during the pre-Revolutionary War period. On a seemingly ordinary day in Boston, Seider joined a crowd that had gathered to protest the import of British goods. Ebenezer Richardson, a British customs officer and Loyalist, attempted to silence the protest, but eventually grew tired of the unrest and fired shots into the crowd, injuring one person and fatally shooting Seider. Although Seider is considered the first victim of the American Revolutionary War, the political climate leading up until that point was ripe for a revolution. But Seider’s death meant something more; it represented something that our new nation could rally behind: evidence of an injustice. Seider’s death was a revolutionary cause.

Similarly, our current reality is ready to be eclipsed by one that sees the end of the systemic use of unjustified police violence against African Americans. Like the pre-Revolutionary War period, the events leading up to George Floyd’s death have been building for some time, leading our nation to demand change. As the Boston Gazette noted in 1770, in prophetic fashion no less, “It is hoped the unexpected and melancholy death of young (Seider) will be a means for the future of preventing any, but more especially the soldiery, from being too free in the use of their instruments of death.” While we have clearly failed to heed this warning, the death of George Floyd, like Seider’s, will hopefully serve as a reminder for the change we need.

And so I leave you with these final thoughts: a poem by Phillis (Phyllis) Wheatley, a former slave turned emancipated poet who lived in Boston during the Revolutionary War. I find this poem to be as hauntingly relevant today as it was then.

On the death of Mr. Snider Murder’d by Richardson

In heavens eternal court it was decreed
How the first martyr for the cause should bleed
To clear the country of the hated brood
He whet his courage for the common good
Long hid before, a vile infernal here
Prevents Achilles in his mid career
Where’er this fury darts his Pois’nous breath
All are endanger’d to the shafts of death
The generous Sires beheld the fatal wound
Saw their young champion gasping on the ground
They rais’d him up. but to each present ear
What martial glories did his tongue declare
The wretch appal’d no longer can despise
But from the Striking victim turns his eyes —
When this young martial genius did appear
The Tory cheifs no longer could forbear.
Ripe for destruction, see the wretches doom
He waits the curses of the age to come
In vain he flies, by Justice Swiftly chaced
With unexpected infamy disgraced
Be Richardson for ever banish’d here
The grand Usurpers bravely vaunted Heir.
We bring the body from the watry bower
To lodge it where it shall remove no more.
Snider behold with what Majestic Love
The Illustrious retinue begins to move
With Secret rage fair freedoms foes beneath
See in thy corse ev’n Majesty in Death.