Raids on Occupy camps carry powerful echoes of US history

 

AMERICA: In 1932, first World War veterans and their families camping out in Washington were branded criminals and communists

WHEN POLICE cleared out encampments of the Occupy movement around the country this week, the late-night raids, demonstrations, arrests and skirmishes carried powerful echoes of US history.

In 1932, three years after the start of the Great Depression, tens of thousands of first World War veterans and their families camped out in the mudflats along the Anacostia river in southeast Washington, within view of the Capitol.

They scavenged wrecked cars, chicken coops and scraps of wood from a nearby dump to build their shanty town. Like the tents pitched in Zuccotti Park, the camp lasted two months.

In 1924, the US government had promised bonuses averaging $1,000 to first World War veterans, but the certificates of service could not be redeemed until 1945. By 1932, the men who fought in the trenches of Europe were poor, hungry and homeless.

The “Bonus Army” started on May 25th, 1932, when veterans in Portland, Oregon, gathered in the railroad yards with bugles and flags, then hitched rides on freight trains to Washington, to demand immediate payment.

Word spread and men, women and children converged from all over the country.

Then, as now, Congress had bailed out big business. Like the present-day Occupy protesters, the Bonus Army enjoyed popular support. On Sundays, residents of the capital “came down and brought them sleeping bags and tents, cigarettes and food, big bags of potatoes in sacks, and turnips and a piece of pork or something”, Tom Allen, co-author of The Bonus Army: An American Epic, recounted on National Public Radio (NPR).

Like Occupy Wall Street, the Bonus Army organised its camp.

“There was a library and there was a post office,” Allen continued. “They had their own barber shops; produced their own newspaper, the Bef News[for Bonus Expeditionary Force]. It had streets with the names of states.”

Like Occupy Wall Street, the Bonus Army was maligned by the establishment. Then they were branded criminals and communists. This week, representative Peter King of New York hammered endlessly on television that the occupants of Zuccotti Park were “living in faeces and urine, living in their own filth”.

The 1932 protesters received the support of retired marine corps general Smedley Butler, who visited the country’s largest “Hooverville” (after the Depression-era US president Herbert Hoover) along the Anacostia.

“I never saw such fine Americanism as is exhibited by you people,” Butler told the protesters. “You have just as much right to have a lobby here as any steel corporation. Makes me so damn mad, a whole lot of people speak of you as tramps. By God, they didn’t speak of you as tramps in 1917 and ’18.”

The House of Representatives voted to pay the bonuses, but the Senate refused. When police went to clear out squatters from abandoned buildings near the Capitol, they were cornered and opened fire, killing two veterans.

The largest fighting force seen in Washington since the end of the civil war was mobilised.

“These guys got in there and they started waving their sabres, chasing these veterans out, and they started shooting tear gas,” said Fred Blancher, a witness to the crackdown whose archive interview was broadcast by NPR.

“There was just so much noise and confusion, hollering and there was smoke and haze.”

The army scattered protesters, then burned their camp to the ground.

The charge down Pennsylvania Avenue was commanded by the army chief of staff, Gen Douglas MacArthur, later of second World War fame, and then Maj George S Patton. Onlookers shouted “Shame! Shame!” at the army.

The future US president Dwight D Eisenhower, then an aide to MacArthur, was appalled that the army would attack veterans. “I told that dumb son-of- a-bitch not to go down there,” Eisenhower said later.

Newsreels of the clashes were shown in cinemas across the US. The public sided with the veterans. Hoover was badly beaten by Franklin D Roosevelt in the 1932 election.

Four years later, the veterans received their bonuses. In 1944, Congress passed the GI Bill, out of gratitude to the military and to ease soldiers’ transition to civilian life.

But today, again, unemployment and homelessness are significantly higher among veterans, who are strongly represented in the Occupy movement. In a rare show of unanimity, the House this week voted to provide tax incentives to companies that hire veterans.

New York Times.

The present-day 30-year “Reagan era” echoes the Gilded Age at the end of the 19th century, with its robber barons, and the Roaring 20s, a pro- business period that culminated in the Great Depression, Sachs wrote.

The Depression led to Roosevelt’s New Deal, decades of greater equality, higher top tax rates, stronger trade unions and financial regulation.

It is too soon to know what will happen to the Occupy movement but Sachs is convinced it heralds a “new progressive era”.