How have notions of citizenship been expanded by small groups in America?

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Answered by: Dixon, An Expert in the American History by Era Category
The idea of citizenship can be a very narrow one, defined by taxes, jury duty and voting. Pushing this a bit, the idea of the people themselves, the way they perceive their actions as an essential form of American citizenship can open this up. If we adjust our lens in this way, seemingly aberrant acts can actually be seen as new notions of participatory citizenship.

Various small groups have pushed these boundaries at the grassroots level, developing new notions of citizenship that enabled them to redefine their role in the American public sphere. Particularly compelling are three groups united by their ability to have used food as a rhetorical device in their dissent.

For each, resistance to the status quo prompted actions that were seen as illegal or questionable. And yet, these disruptive actions offered a method of participatory citizenship each group felt had been denied them.

It is easy to forget that the Boston Tea Party was an illegal act by a small group of men against the government and commerce. After the citizens of Boston rejected paying for tea that had been taxed by a parliament in which they had no representation the Royal Governor refused to return it to Britain, as many of the boats had been in other colonies. This prompted the resisters to board the East India Company boats and dump the tea into the harbor. This event quickly became a rallying point for the colonists, leading to the First Continental Congress.

The Kosher Meat Riots were a response the huge influx of eastern European Jews to America in the early twentieth century. The rising demand for kosher meat occurred as refrigeration cars on trains began to be available. The entire meat trade in America was increasingly controlled by a very few ranchers and meat-packers, who owned the cow, the refrigerated cars and the meat packing plants, enabling them to inflate the prices at will. When a boycott did not work, butchers returned to selling the meat at the high prices, causing Jewish women to first march and then riot to bring attention to their cause.

Finally, the Black Panther Party began a breakfast program for children that combined indoctrination with free 'soul food,' as part of their larger program to help ghetto residents. Not only did this point out the lack of real government aid to poor blacks, at a time when The Great Society plan was touted as being the answer to poverty, but it also defined a specific form of food for the black movement in general.

For each of these groups, notions of citizenship became expanded. In Boston, tea taxation highlighted and prompted actions that united the colonies. For the Jewish women, kosher meat became a rallying cry that got the women into the streets and active. For the Black Panthers, free soul food created an identity at odds with the public persona of black violence and uselessness, while enabling them to give back to their community in a genuine way.

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