Greater Greater Washington

Wall Street isn't DC's first "occupation"

Public discourse has varied over the power, impact, and ultimately resolution of the encamped protests in McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza as they have grabbed headlines over the past two months. "Occupy" is merely the latest in a long string of DC protests.


Destruction of Bonus Army camp. Courtesy HSW.

In their scope and length, McPherson's Occupy DC and Freedom Plaza's Stop The Machine groups share characteristics with protests of the past: links to related protests across the country, ties to liberal political groups, and relatively well-developed internal structures and governance.

Coxey's Army

In response to the Panic of 1893, several "armies" marched on Washington, DC demanding unemployment aid and relief. The best known, Coxey's Army, was led by wealthy populist and political figure Jacob Coxey.

Launched in Ohio with 100 unemployed men, the protest moved through Pennsylvania, gathering strength. In the spring of 1894, Coxey's Army arrived 500 strong in Washington. Public interest and attention quickly fizzled, however, after Coxey and his followers were arrested for trespassing on the Capitol grass while trying to storm Congress.

Two decades later, in 1914, Coxey regenerated his army of "tramps" and marched on DC again. This time, Coxey was able to address a crowd from the steps of the US Capitol without being arrested; but his march made little lasting impact on the city or on national policy.

Resurrection City

After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968, leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference continued plans already in motion to descend upon Washington. Members of the Poor People's Campaign, focusing on inequity in employment and housing, arrived in DC in mid-May. In the shadows of the Lincoln Memorial, the epicenter of 1963's March on Washington, "Resurrection City" quickly but haphazardly formed with a collection of self-constructed shacks. Deluged by rain and poor planning, the group quickly became a burden to the Johnson administration. By that summer, the protest had disintegrated.

According to the July 5th edition of Time Magazine,

Churning through the trash-strewn gumbo that had once been a manicured meadow, a federal bulldozer last week interred the last traces of Resurrection City. Its few remaining inhabitants scattered or imprisoned, the shantytown capital and symbol of the Poor People's Campaign had long since become an ugly, anarchic embarrassment to their cause.

Bonus Army

The Great Depression's Bonus Army is arguably the most well-known occupation-style protest that Washington has seen. According to The Bonus Army: An American Epic

In the summer of 1932, at the height of the Depression, some 45,000 World War 1 veterans - whites and blacks together - descended on Washington, DC from all over the country to demand the bonus promised them eight years earlier for their wartime service. earing violence after the Senate defeated the "bonus bill" Herbert Hoover's Army Chief of Staff, Douglass MacArthur led tanks through the streets on July 28 to evict the bonus marchers.
Set up on on the site of the old Anacostia flats, men, women, and children alike camped in structures built from materials scavenged from a nearby dump, but in a tightly-controlled environment in which veterans laid out streets, built sanitation facilities, and created an internal civil structure.

With martial law invoked, the Army set the shacks ablaze, and the veterans and their families left the city. Whether a result of the Bonus Army or not, that fall, President Hoover lost in a landslide to Franklin Roosevelt. Eventually, in 1936, Congress passed the "Bonus Act" that would pay out nearly $2 billion to WWI veterans.

If past is prologue and we can glean lessons from these past protests, Occupy DC and Stop the Machine might have ignominious conclusions. Timeand perhaps the onset of winterwill be the judge.

John Muller is an associate librarian, journalist and historian. He has written two books, Frederick Douglass in Washington, DC, Mark Twain in Washington, DC, and also writes at Death and Life of Old Anacostia

Comments

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The message these Occupy groups are sending may be a valid one, but you have to question the 'right' of these protesters to what is turing into a permanent encampment on public property. I mean if you or I had set up a tent in either of those parks, we'd have been forcibly removed immediately. Couldn't you or I have an equally valid reason to protest ... and similar first amendement rights? Is it different for them because there are a 'lot of them'? What kind of a message do the authorities send when they allow something by 'a lot of them' that they wouldn't allow from an individual? Might makes right? Mobs can get what they want? The individual is not important?

Personally, I think they would do a better job of getting their message across if they didn't do their protest at taxpayer expense. So far they cost us over a $1 million in our hard earned tax payer dollars. Look at the tea partiers who came to town a couple years back. They held similar protests and were maybe even more effective at getting their message across. (They got Congressmen in power who are doing what they wanted.) BUT they didn't do this on the taxpayer's dollar. They stayed in motels and hotels or even campgrounds and paid their own way ... And they didn't expect Mr. and Mrs. Average Taxpayer to pay for their protests like these folks are doing.

I think the longer they go on staging their protest at our expense, the less they stand a chance of making a difference in any way.

And it's too bad, because the basis for their message is IMHO a valid one.

by Lance on Nov 29, 2011 11:01 am • linkreport

@Lance,

The benefits to living in the Nation's Capitol are many and well-documented. There are obviously also inconveniences. Playing host to the nation's various ongoing protest theater productions is one of them.

by oboe on Nov 29, 2011 11:17 am • linkreport

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

I repeat: "or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Assembly doesn't mean you have to leave at night. Just because you have a home, doesn't mean they do.

by Redline SOS on Nov 29, 2011 12:16 pm • linkreport

"Just because you have a home, doesn't mean they do."

Actually, from what I've read they do.

Not that it matters since even the homeless in DC aren't allowed to sleep in a public park at night. The point here is that they aren't buying themselves any friends by taking taxpayer dollars (like the Wall Streeters did) and by blocking Metro stations (like they attempted to do the week before last.) Protesting is one thing. Sponging off the taxpayer is another.

by Lance on Nov 29, 2011 12:57 pm • linkreport

The Supreme Court, as recently as the Westboro Baptist Church case, reaffirmed the right to assemble and protest, but also reaffirmed the right of a locality to set reasonable limits on the time and place of that protest.

Just as the Westboro crowd has the right to protest at a funeral, the locality can limit them from protesting on the church steps - and can limit them from chanting at 2:30 in the morning in a residential neighborhood. In Westboro, the court said the locality could limit them to a reasonable distance from the church and burial sites, so they would not disturb the religious services.

The right to protest is upheld, but it is not without limits.

by Mike S. on Nov 29, 2011 2:08 pm • linkreport

Westboro Baptist Church spreads its hate through picketing in our streets, provoking attacks, with abusive language and flag desecration, attempting to create a confrontation. This is not a church, this is a hate group. This is not about protesting, freedom, or God. They are in it for the money and the press; this is a family law firm. They are not a "church." It is a scam. They go after anything that can get them in the news. This is a family of lawyers using this “god hates you” thing to make money. It is time for this scam and the hate to end.

by CB on Nov 29, 2011 8:48 pm • linkreport

Yes Lance, when the Tea partiers came to town they followed all the rules.

But where are they now, Lance? When is the next Tea Party rally?

The Tea Party is dead and if you think this occupation is big then you just wait till spring. We are here and we're not leaving anytime soon!

by jay on Nov 30, 2011 9:38 am • linkreport

Actually, there were many Tea Partiers who expected the Metro to open up early for them and to run extra trains even though they hadn't spoken to Metro about it. See http://dcist.com/2009/09/metro_service_no_tea_party_for_prot.php.

Also, most of that $1 million dollar number is a city issue. Complain to Lanier about sending extra cops on overtime and late night shifts to watch over and monitor the encampment at a cost of $870,000+. The Occupy crowd didn't ask for most of that and would likely be happier without it.

by Charles on Dec 1, 2011 3:05 pm • linkreport

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