We may now be gazing upon the fading days of the Occupy movement as an actual episode in which numerous, large scale occupations are taking place and having immediate impact. Then again, maybe not. But if so, it is perhaps time to begin reflecting upon the movement and how we might measure it.
Elsewhere I have written about Occupy within the contest of two earlier American social protest movements against poverty: Coxey’s Army of unemployed men looking for work in 1894, and the Bonus Marchers of impoverished World War I veterans in 1932.
During the depression of 1893-98, the second worst in U.S. history, many Americans began to agitate for a federally-funded public works project to build and improve roads across the country. In addition to building up the infrastructure, such projects could also put men to work during an era when unemployment was in the teens and there was no goverment welfare safety net to speak of. Coxey's Army, led by an Ohio millionaire named Jacob Coxey, was the largest of many protest movements advocating this approach. Thousands of men marched to the nation's capital in support of the plan.
Later on, the Bonus Marchers were a collection of homeless and unemployed World War I veterans who sought government action during the darkest depths of the Great Depression. During the roaring `20s the government had promised to award them a one time bonus of $1,000 in gratitude for their wartime service, payable in 1945. However, unemployed vets, many of them homeless, sought early payment of the bonus in 1932. They too crossed the country in caravans, arriving in the nation's capital.
Despite their numbers, organization, and commitment, neither group was able to achieve its immediate goal. Congress did not create a public works job program as Coxey requested, nor did it award early payment of the cash bonus promised to war veterans as the Bonus Marchers requested. In both cases, the press and political opponents smeared peaceful and patriotic protestors as criminals and revolutionaries. And after arriving in Washington, D.C., both groups suffered state violence from police and even the military. Indeed, in 1932 one of America's lowest moments came when future WWII heroes Douglas MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower, and George Patton all played a direct role in leading military forces against their former fellow servicemen, who had assembled peaceably
As we now witness what may very well be the decline of the Occupy movement, in the face of similar smears and violence, it is worth considering the following questions:
How do Historians look back upon Coxey’s Army and the Bonus Marchers; how do they measure their political significance; and what might that portend for the way history comes to view the Occupy movement should it soon fade from the scene as did its predecessors?