On July 28, 1932, at the command of President Herbert Hoover, police and soldiers led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur attacked and destroyed the camp of the Bonus Army, a group of thousands of World War I veterans and their families and allies who had spent the spring and summer protesting the unemployment created by the Great Depression. The violence, in which two veterans were killed and dozens of people were injured, shocked the American public and helped to ensure the victory of Franklin D. Roosevelt over Hoover in that fall’s presidential election.
Will the raids by city officials in New York and across the country on the encampments of Occupy protesters create a popular backlash, as did the crushing of the Bonus Army? Another possibility is that the Occupy movement will suffer the fate of the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968.
Following the success of the civil rights movement in bringing about a legislated end to formal racial segregation, Martin Luther King Jr. sought to tackle problems of poverty and inequality that transcended race. Following his assassination in April 1968, the Poor People’s Campaign, which he founded, marched on Washington in May — and stayed. The protestors created a tent city on the Mall, complete with its own City Hall, and named it Resurrection City.
Resurrection City was a debacle. The tent city turned the Mall into a muddy morass. The movement’s goal of economic justice was complex and could be accomplished only over generations. Antiwar protesters and adherents of other causes further blurred the already vague message. The dismantling of the camp in June 1968 was anticlimactic. In August, the campaign moved to Chicago, where some of its members battled cops in what the government itself called “a police riot” during the Democratic National Convention. More Americans sided with the police than with the protesters, and a generation of political hegemony by the law-and-order right followed.
According to polls, most Americans initially sympathized with Occupy Wall Street. But a movement identified with the counterculture that creates shanty-towns in every city, including progressive cities like Portland, may end up alienating liberal as well as conservative members of the suburban middle-class majority. A better model for Occupy Wall Street than Resurrection City might have been Martin Luther King Jr.’s successful 1963 March on Washington, which followed the rules of successful oratory: Be brief, be bright, be gone.