One of the strategies that Occupy Wall Street has used to bring media and political attention to their movement is civil disobedience, namely, through trespass. Trespassing has been used by movements throughout the history of the United States and today it takes on even further significance through permanent trespass called “occupation”. One strategy authorities have used to counter these social movements, as they have the Occupy Movement, has been the use of trespass laws to squelch dissent.
During the depression of the 1890s, Jacob Coxey, an Ohio businessman, led a group of unemployed to D.C. to demand jobs. People marched from all over America, but only about 500 made it to the capital to encamp. However, before Coxey could make his speech, he was arrested for trespass. One statement from the 1892 Progressive Conference seems eerily familiar:
…we meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot-box…. The people are demoralized;… public opinion silenced…. homes covered with mortgages, labor impoverished, and the land concentrating in the hands of capitalists. The urban workmen are denied the right to organize for self-protection, imported pauperized labor beats down their wages… The fruits of the toils of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind…. From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes: tramps and millionaires. (link)
Those words, uttered over 100 years ago, mirror the economic troubles we are faced with today: record foreclosures, long term unemployment and a widening income gap. The work of millions is stolen for the fortunes of a few.
During the Great Depression, there was another group of trespassers that got the ire of the government, the Bonus Army. In 1924, Congress voted to pay $3.5 billion to veterans of WWI. Congress decided to pay the bonuses over 20 years. However, during the Great Depression, many of the veterans were having difficulty finding work and decided that they needed their WWI bonuses right away. So in 1932, about 10,000 vets marched on Washington, D.C. to ask for their bonuses up front. A bill to pay the veterans was passed in the House on a vote of 209-176. However, the Senate voted it down, 62-18 before it could get to President Hoover who had promised to veto it.
Army Chief of Staff MacArthur was convinced that the march was a communist conspiracy to undermine the government of the United States, and that “the movement was actually far deeper and more dangerous than an effort to secure funds from a nearly depleted federal treasury.” But that was simply not the case.
The government’s response to the occupation of the Anacostia Flats across the Anacostia River from the Capital was to send in the military, under the direction of Douglas MacArthur, and evict the veterans. The demand for their pay was too much for many. Without firing a bullet, but with ample use of tear gas, MacArthur proudly removed the desperate veterans who were asking only for the wages promised them.
Just like the Occupy Movements have been called communist and socialist by the right, the Bonus Army was called communist by Army Chief of Staff MacArthur:
Army Chief of Staff MacArthur was convinced that the march was a communist conspiracy to undermine the government of the United States, and that “the movement was actually far deeper and more dangerous than an effort to secure funds from a nearly depleted federal treasury.” But that was simply not the case. (link)
In the Flint autoworkers strike of 1936-7, the workers surprised management and took over the Fisher Body Plant on Dec. 30, 1936, trespassing on private property. And they called on the people of Detroit to occupy public space to show their support.
“The union called for supporters to gather at Cadillac Square in Detroit as a show of strength. The overflowing crowd of 150,000 supporters surprised even the union sympathizers and gave the union the self-confidence they needed to show its power and solidarity over its management “oppressors.” Other union workers joined in sympathy strikes, closing plants in other states.”
Many blacks and some whites trespassed in white only lunch counters in the South during the Civil Rights Movement and sit-ins, a popular form of protest in the 60s and 70s, were also utilized by free speech movements. The American Indian Movement occupied Alcatraz Island as a way to protest treatment by the United States government.
Times have changed, and the goals of the protesters are not so obvious today. The current Occupy Movement is not only a fight for a living wage, but for something grander. The economic forces we fight today are as powerful, but they are also more diffuse and harder to understand. The Coxey Army wanted jobs. The Bonus Army wanted the money promised them for their service during WWI. In the Fisher Body Plant in Flint strike of 1936, the workers wanted the eight hour day, a fair and living wage, and job security. Others trespassed for civil, political, social, racial and economic equality. Trespassing is one of the only ways disenfranchised groups of people can get the attention of non-responsive governments and massive corporate controlled media conglomerates.
By trespassing, we are saying that mega-corporate occupation of the power and wealth of this nation is illegitimate. We are here to take our power back and do our best to divest from an economic system that harms us and our fellow citizens. Wealth made through market manipulation, deregulation through legalized bribery of Congress and usury must end. Wealth made on the backs of workers, home owners, students, immigrants, and others who suffer hardships due to this economic usury must end. Wealth accumulation without regard to the economic well being of the people and the nation has to stop if we are ever going to have a sustainable economy that benefits everyone and not just the 1%. Until this happens, the cycle of boom and bust that only benefits those who can manipulate Wall Street and threaten economic collapse to extort bailouts will continue unabated.
Thus, we also fight to repeal Citizens United and tax Wall Street trade as well as making the top tax brackets pay their share in taxes for the services and infrastructure this nation creates for their companies to thrive, among others issues.
The standard counter-social movement strategies are being used to repel the occupy movement today, including labeling the groups communist (tired as that is) or Nazi and using trespass laws to cite, arrest and removal of occupiers.
One reason the brutality of the police in Oakland, Berkeley, Denver, Portland, Tulsa and elsewhere is so shocking is because the protesters have framed their struggle in counter to the excesses of the state and corporations, and the police, as corporate/state operatives, demonstrate these excesses.
If you like the status quo, I ask, why do you support the banks over the people? Do you like paying to bail out the banks thus leading to the lay off of teachers and other public servants? Do you like corporations that give multi-million dollar bonuses and pay zero taxes? Do you prefer corporations buying elections because you weren’t really using your vote anyway?
Think about what you are supporting before stereotyping and dismissing those that obviously care about people and the state of this country. Support an Occupation in your area. And if you already support the Occupy Movement, spread the word.