Archive for the ‘Protests’ Category

Deja Vu All Over Again?

November 4, 2011 Leave a comment

They call it Liberty Square, the hundreds of people who have been staying at what was commonly known as Zuccotti Park until Occupy Wall Street began some six weeks ago. Now, the leaderless organization, holding “general assemblies” that rely on consensus, has built a small community that is the nexus of the larger protest movement that has spread so far beyond Manhattan. Within Liberty Square you’ll find a sleeping area, a medical station, a supply depot, a commissary, and—what caught my eye, as well as the peepers of many others–a library.

Plan your next stay in NYC

What do you know, this rabble, as the vulpine conservative pundits would have you think of them, can actually read. Yes, and they can create their own security force, provide sanitation, produce media accounts, and even rein in the drumming circles that once kept awake neighbors.

This exercise in spontaneous community building during an era of economic hardship led me to think of the Bonus Army. You remember that fighting force, yes? Not a crack team sent to drive out some foreign tyrant or bring democracy to a distant land, the Bonus Army was made up of veterans who, during the early years of the Great Depression, wanted the bonus they had been promised for fighting in World War I. You see, losing jobs and homes and life savings made some of the vets a little desperate—and impatient.

After years of wrangling, Congress in 1924 agreed to give the vets money as compensation for the pay they lost giving up their civilian jobs to answer their government’s call (you know, for that war to end all wars—and, as some of its critics would have it, the war to aid all capitalists). President Calvin “Silent Cal” Coolidge vetoed the bill, saying it would be a budget buster. Congress overrode the veto, and the vets had their so-called bonus: money based on their length of service, plus interest, payable in 1945, or when they died (which of course meant some would not get much pleasure out of their hard-earned bonus. This led to a nickname for the payment—the Tombstone Bonus).

The Depression, though, convinced many of the vets that they couldn’t wait till 1945 or their interment. Starting in 1932, some of them demanded the money pronto. One of them was Walter W. Waters of Portland, Oregon. He led a group of vets from his hometown on a march to Washington D.C. Along the way, many more former doughboys and their families, from all across the country, joined this Bonus Army. In DC, they set up camp at the Anacostia Flats not far from the Capitol. Some military and government honchos saw a subversive element at work, and several Communists did try to exploit the movement, Still, most of the 25,000 or so strong at the main Anacostia camp and smaller ones around the city were what they said they were: honest, patriotic vets looking for what they felt they were owed for their service. Waters, fearful of disruptions that would bring down the authorities or turn public support against them, laid down this edict: “No panhandling, no liquor, no radical talk.”

Camp Marks

Like the Wall Street occupiers, the vets soon built a self-regulating community, but on a much vaster scale. Camp Marks, as it was called (named for a friendly local cop), had a barbershop, its own newspaper, classes for the children, musicians (but as far as I know, no drum circles), baseball teams, and, yes, a library. Most amazingly for the times, the camp was integrated. For housing, some of the “soldiers” slept in donated tents, while other scavenged a local dump for items they could use to cobble together makeshift huts.

Occupy Wall Street, its spokespeople say, has few specific demands. The Bonus Army, though, was in Washington for one thing: to get their bonuses as soon as possible. In June, Congress considered a bill that would do just that, drawing several thousand of the marchers to Capitol Hill. The House approved the early payment; the Senate nixed it. The protest seemed to be over, but Waters and others vowed to remain in DC until they got what they wanted.

A certain general loved the smell of wooden shanties in the afternoon...

I wish I could say there was a happy ending to this tale. Alas, alas…On July 28 police and Bonus Army participants who had been camped in downtown DC clashed. This led the military to head into the city, using a force that had been secretly preparing for just such an event. Eagerly leading the army was none other then General Douglas MacArthur, with a somewhat more reluctant Major Dwight D. Eisenhower by his side.  Also taking part was some officer named Patton. Cavalry troops, tanks, and tear-gas tossing infantry drove the people off the streets, then headed for Camp Marks. More tear gas and the fires the soldiers set dispersed the remaining marchers. Not an episode of our glorious history certain Americans would like you to know too much about, hmm?

It wasn’t just the library that led me to connect the Bonus Army to the Occupy movement. The attack on Iraq War vet Scott Olsen did it too, though he is obviously looking for something different than what the marchers of ’32 sought. Or is he? I guess you could say social justice is at play in both circumstances. I just hope the larger Occupy movement doesn’t face today’s equivalent of MacArthur and Patton on some city street.

(An added note on Olsen: It appears there may have been an attempt by some right wingers to smear him, just as good ol’ J. Edgar Hoover tried to taint the Bonus Army with exaggerated claims of Red influence [uh, people do still remember that Red=Communist, right?]. Read more on that here and here.

And for more info on the Bonus Army, check out Paul Dickson and Thomas B. Allen, The Bonus Army: An American Epic; this Smithsonian article; or this website.)