Occupation isn’t a tactic that started this fall.
In 1932 US military veterans of the Great War (now World War I), facing a job market even worse than today, demanded that the Federal government pay them their promised bonuses–no more than $1,000–early. A bill providing for an early payment of the service bonus was stalled in Congress. Veterans looked for a way to push the issue.
Across the country, groups of veterans started separate marches to Washington, D.C. to make their claim, staging parades along the way. Other vets joined them in Washington, riding freight trains, hitchhiking, and organizing car caravans. Ultimately more than twenty thousand veterans would converge on the Capitol.
The first three hundred marchers reaching Washington by the end of May 1932, followed by thousands more. President Herbert Hoover and District of Columbia Police Superintendent Pelham Glassford welcomed them with a warning against associating with Socialists and Communists. Superintendant Glassford, a veteran of the war, met frequently with the protesters, and arranged for a safe campground in Anacostia, across the Potomac River. He also helped the marchers set up their camps and raise money from local merchants to feed the marchers. The Bonus Marchers asked him to serve as their “secretary-treasurer,” and he agreed, even as he secured tear gas for the police–to protect the Capitol from the veterans.
On June 7, the Bonus Army, comprised of veterans of diverse backgrounds, including the decorated and the disabled, marched. They emphasized their service, their patriotism, and their discipline, winning some support from Congress and the press. Implicitly, they also emphasized their desperation: men with jobs could not spend months traveling to the Capitol and camp out on lawns to demand a relatively small cash payment. They also lobbied Congress.
On June 17 the Bonus Army gathered outside the Capitol while the Senate overwhelmingly (62-18) rejected the Bonus Bill. The veterans marched back to their encampment peacefully, but refused to leave the city, and more veterans continued to arrive. At Camp Anacostia, they welcomed some families into their camps, advertising the presence of women and children within their ranks. Some organizers traveled to other cities on the East Coast to raise money to feed the marchers.
As with Occupy, the long encampment produced tensions among the demonstrators and with the police. By the end of July, as Congress prepared to adjourn its legislative session, authorities grew more determined to clear the veterans out of the city. Local and national officials issued eviction orders to the encamped veterans. On July 28 the US Army, led by General Douglas MacArthur, overran the camps, using tear gas and burning the protesters’ shacks. A few of the veterans fought back by throwing rocks, and MacArthur suggested that Communists had hijacked the veterans’ campaign–and that some of the men weren’t even veterans. (These charges turned out to be false.) Using fire, bayonets, and tear gas, he routed the marchers from the Capitol.
In November 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt defeated President Hoover in a landslide.
Bonus Marchers reappeared just after he took office, in early 1933. President Roosevelt arranged for lodging, food, and bathrooms at an army post in Virginia, and met with a delegation of Bonus Marchers in the White House. Roosevelt initially resisted paying the bonus, but offered the veterans priority for employment in the newly established Civilian Conservation Corps; by 1936, he agreed to pay the bonus as well.
A few brief notes:
Occupation isn’t new. It’s provocative, potentially effective, and authorities have a hard time finding a balance between reaction and overreaction.
The Bonus Marchers had a very clear–and limited–demand. Although they didn’t get it right away, their impact was larger than that demand.
Protest politics works in concert, if not coordination, with regular institutional politics.
This account is drawn from my book, The Politics of Protest: Social Movements in America. I learned most of this from Lucy G. Barber’s wonderful book, Marching on Washington: The Forging of an American Political Tradition (University of California Press, 2004).