Wednesday, 7. December 2011
Scorned by some, embraced by others, the Occupy movement is not going away
Originally inspired in part by the “Arab Spring,” this movement has drawn strength from popular anger against economic conditions, and more fundamentally, concern that the playing field is stacked against the little guy. Like the Tea Party before it, the early success has attracted powerful special interest groups hoping to capitalize. Time will tell if corrupting forces like this end up undermining the Occupy impact.
Here is a question for anyone trying to grapple with the fundamental roots of the movement — are they after capitalism, per se, or crony capitalism specifically? Certainly, special interest groups like unions as well as bona fide socialists are trying to inculcate themselves in the movement, and exercise their vocal cords to latch onto the underlying concerns. “Jobs, not Profits,” read some of the signs. “No More Corporate Money in Politics,” read some of the others. It is hard to see many signs yet saying things like “No More Union Money in Politics,” or “Union Money Married Wall Street Money to Elect Obama, and Lead the Bailouts.”
From those on the right, there has been a mixed, largely scornful reaction. You hear things like “they need to take a bath, and look for a job.” But there have been some more thoughtful communications too. Recently, asked about his take on the movement, Rep. Ron Paul (TX) summarized “I think it’s a very healthy movement.” Paul identified common concerns he and others concerned about the responsibility of government, not just “capitalism,” had for our current economic state of affairs.
Yesterday’s Occupiers – the “Bonus Army”
Today’s “Occupy” movement has some very interesting historical precedent. Back in 1932, as the early stages of the Great Depression gathered steam, industrial production fell dramatically while joblessness soared. A group of jobless, hungry World War I veterans calling themselves the Bonus Expeditionary Force (shortened to the Bonus Army) organized themselves and their families, and developed a demand that the government accelerate a bonus payment they had been promised, but not to be paid until 1945.
Then, they marched on Washington. Over 40,000 people camped out near the U.S. Capitol, pitched tents, and didn’t leave. During the day, they would mass in front of the capitol, and occupied much of the space on the stairs going up to the doors.
How did D.C. respond? They didn’t have pepper spray back then, but they did have tear gas, as well as other tools.
A sympathetic superintendent of police and war veteran, Pelham Glassford, actually tried to maintain a supportive environment for awhile. But as legislative efforts to accommodate their demands stalled, and as the Bonus Army continued to occupy the area, they wore out their welcome. Troops, not police, would end up dealing with this situation.
When the boiling point was reached, the U.S. Secretary of War directed the D.C. police to evacuate some buildings that had been occupied. The police became the object of sticks, bricks, and other objects of affections. Glassford’s superiors appealed to President Herbert Hoover to call out the troops.
An assault led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur (assisted by other famous military leaders like then-Major Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton) ensued, with troops supplied with machine guns, tear gas, and bayonets. In a mid-crisis incident, Gen. MacArthur, foreshadowing later behavior, apparently ignored higher civilian authority calling for restraint. The assault ended up leaving over 100 casualties, including deaths, including deaths for babies. After the Bonus Army was forced out, the real Army leveled and set fire to the camp. The Bonus Army dissipated, joining millions of other less-well organized citizens ‘on the road’ in the Great Depression.
Today’s Occupy movement isn’t the only recent development that has historical precedent from the Great Depression. In light of the government’s response to the Bonus Army, recent claims that the “US is a battlefield,” and the debate over efforts to assert a military role in jailing suspects of terrorism on U.S. soil, including U.S. citizens – well, history never repeats itself exactly, but it rhymes, the saying goes.
Will Winter Chill Our Own “Arab Spring?”
Today, as temperatures fall ahead of the winter months in much of the nation, so too are many of the Occupy crowds. Some are dismissive of the movement’s staying power in general, citing in part the upcoming winter. But there are other places to Occupy. They didn’t have the Internet back in the Great Depression, and the social media presence for the Occupy movement has been growing robustly in recent weeks.
We are going to continue to keep an eye on the Occupy movement, and how people are reacting to it, in the months ahead.
# # # #Bill Bergman has 10 years of experience as a stock market analyst sandwiched around 13 years as an economist and financial markets policy analyst at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. He earned an M.B.A. as well as an M.A. in Public Policy from the University of Chicago in 1990. Mr. Bergman is currently working with Social Movement Sciences LLC, a new enterprise developing evaluation and funding services for not-for-profit organizations.
This site depends exclusively on readers’ support. Please help us continue by subscribing .