A historical precedent that might prove a bonus for Occupy Wall Street
By Nicolaus Mills, Saturday 19 November 2011 12.00 EST
This Tuesday’s pre-dawn destruction of the Zuccotti Park encampment of Occupy Wall Street by New York City police in riot gear has been seen by some as a serious defeat for the movement. A day after 142 Occupy Wall Street protestors were arrested and Zuccotti Park was cleared, the New York Daily News, which has been hostile to Occupy Wall Street since it began, reported, “Camp Zuccotti appears to be gone for good now.”
But if history is any guide, the raid on Occupy Wall Street and the destruction of the tents and sleeping bags the protesters left behind is not likely to have the effect the movement’s foes want. The Great Depression offers a striking parallel to this week’s attack on Occupy Wall Street.
In 1932, a police and Army raid on the Bonus Army of first world war veterans, who had come to Washington, DC to ask for immediate payment of their Adjusted Service Certificates (which everyone called their bonus), resulted in an Occupy Wall Street-like rout. But in the end, the vets were the ones who prevailed and gained public sympathy.
The 1932 raid reached its peak of violence on 29 July when Washington’s commissioners and President Herbert Hoover gave the Army the authority to evict the marchers from empty government buildings near the Capitol and from their makeshift camps along the Anacostia River. The Army chief of staff, General Douglas MacArthur, aided by Major Dwight Eisenhower and 600 troops, backed up by tanks and cavalry, confronted the vets, tear-gassing them and setting fire to the shacks they had been living in.
In August, the New York Times observed, “Press opinion, accurately reflecting public opinion, has been almost unanimous in holding up the hands of Mr Hoover.” But support for Hoover did not last. Eight state legislatures passed resolutions condemning the use of the Army to put down the Bonus Marchers, and in the 1932 presidential election Hoover’s callousness toward the vets became one more sign of his indifference to the pain the Great Depression was causing.
Franklin Roosevelt, who in 1932 would defeat Hoover in a landside election in which he won 42 of 48 states, was horrified by the Army’s treatment of the Bonus Marchers. “You saw how he strutted down Pennsylvania Avenue … Did you ever see anyone more self-satisfied?” Roosevelt remarked of General MacArthur. “MacArthur,” FDR also noted, “has just prevented Hoover’s reelection.”
One year later, when the Bonus Marchers came back to Washington, Roosevelt made sure they were treated with dignity. He had tents, latrines, showers and mess halls prepared for them at an old Army post in Fort Hunt, Virginia. He made sure the vets who needed it got medical and dental treatment, and he signed a special order allowing the vets (most of them in their forties) to enroll in the newly established Civilian Conservation Corps; 2,600 of them did.
Eleanor Roosevelt outdid her husband when it came to the Bonus Army. Unaccompanied by the secret service, she visited the vets with only longtime FDR aide Louis Howe accompanying her. She mixed easily with the men, and her gesture was enough to prompt one vet to remark, “Hoover sent the Army. Roosevelt sent his wife.” By 1936, with the New Deal firmly established, Congress finally gave the vets the bonus and the victory they had been asking for.
President Obama shows no signs of treating Occupy Wall Street the way FDR treated the Bonus Marchers. Nobody expects Michelle Obama to pay a surprise visit to an Occupy Wall Street site any time soon. But as Occupy Wall Street regroups, the movement need not fear that the surprise attack on it – personally authorised by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg – has diminished its influence. According to a 15 November Siena College poll, by a 57-40% margin, New Yorkers think Occupy Wall Street should be allowed in public parks around the clock.
As the weather gets colder and the protesters figure out ways to get through the night without the sleeping bags and tents now banned from Zuccotti Park, it is the extraordinary care they have taken to welcome the mentally ill and the homeless drawn to their site that poses their greatest problem. Without either the power to tax or to build homeless shelters, Occupy Wall Street has taken upon itself to be more compassionate than the city.
Photograph of Bonus Army marchers by Signal Corps photographer, 1932. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bonus_marchers_05510_2004_001_a.gif