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America’s Tahrir Square
The world is watching in stunned amazement as the Arab Spring plays out. People in one nation after another in North Africa and the Middle East have taken up the tactic of nonviolent, mass popular assembly to shame political leaders into addressing outstanding grivences.
The mass nonviolent assemblies that marked the earliest stage of the Arab Spring uprisings have been taken up by an increasing number of Europeans contesting the intensifying austerity programs being imposed on them. Tens of thousands of working people have come out in strikes, protests and rallies in Greece, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Portugal, Slovenia and Spain. These demonstrations signal mounting popular opposition to the budget-slashing, tax-increasing, pension-cutting austerity plans European governments are imposing to placate finance capital.
With the exception of the popular rallies held in Madison and a handful of other cities earlier this spring, Americans have been noticeably quiet in the face of the imposition of austerity. Reactions to higher unemployment rates, mounting debt and growing foreclosures have yet to find a political voice.
Nevertheless, Americans have a long tradition of popular assembly to protest perceived grivences. However uninformed Sarah Palin might be, Tea Party activists never fail to remind their fellow Americans that the country was founded on campaigns of popular protest. Sadly, these "activists" don’t recognize the nonviolent rallies, demonstations and protetsts of the 1960s are part of the nation’s legacy of popular redress of grievances.
Nonviolent assembly was only part of the ’60s uprisings that included far more violent urban riots in Detroit, Newark and other cities. Tea Party activities run from the June 1969 New York Stonewall riot that kicked-started the modern gay rights movement. Tea Party activists fail to acknowledge that the call for freedom finds new expressions with each historical era.
However, the rebellions of the ’60s and many, many other popular actions draw upon the legacy of the all-but-forgotten Bonus Army assembly and riot that took place in Washington, DC, in the summer of 1932. This event suggests a very likely senario by which the U.S. government will act if mass demonstrations spread to the U.S. As the Great Recession drifts deeper into a possible replay of the Great Depression, watch out for police and military actions to repress militant mass mobilizations.
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The powers-that-be in the various North African and Middle East countries that witnessed or are witnessing popular uprisings have responsed in very different ways. They have ranged from the surprising acceptance of the legitmacy of political opposition to the outright slaughter of demonstators.
The most remarkable responses to mass, nonviolent civil actions occurred in Tunisia and Egypt. In these cases, the military refused to fire on the assembled populus, thus unofficially supporting the agenda for social change.
Having learned the lessons from Tunisia and Egypt, the governments of Algiera, Jordan and Morocco moved quickly to use selective violence by police and/or military forces to suppress popular demontrations. Things escalated in Bahrain, where a violent crackdown by state forces responded to popular demonstrations ending with the entry of Saudi troops to putdown the uprising.
A further escalation in state-sanctioned repression of popular actions is taking place in Syria and Yemen. Local authorities are using the military and riot police to quash these initiatives, leading to mass arrests, injuries and killings of protesters.
The civil war in Libya represents the end-point in state reactions to popular protest. Following the popular uprising that gained control of the country’s second-largest city, Benghazi, the government of Colonel al-Gaddafi deployed state elite military forces and foreign mercenaries in an attempt to put down the uprising. However, the intervention of U.S. and NATO air forces and on-the-ground "advisors" turned the uprising into an all-out civil war that will probably not end until Gaddafi is killed or forced to flee.
America’s history of social protest reflects attributes of many of the responses playing out in North Africa and Europe. Over the last 40 years, a handful of representative popular actions suggest the range of options the state employes to deal with popular assembly.
Major nonviolent gatherings draw little police violence. The August 1963 March on Washington drew 250,000 people to hear, among many others, Martin Luther King delivered his legendary "I have a dream" speech; little violence was reported. Similarly, in October 1967, 70,000 rallied in Washington, D.C. to protest the Vietnam War, with little violence; in ’68, a follow-up rally grew to a half-million people. In May 1968, a month after King’s assassination, the SCLC’s Poor People’s Campaign organized "Resurrection City" in Washington that drew thousands of people; it closed after two weeks and its goal, an economic bill of rights, was not enacted.
Forgotten today but not unlike the sparks of self-immolation that set off the Arab Spring, Norman Morrison, a Quaker activist, set himself afire in 1965 protesting the Vietnam war.
The nonviolent demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic party convention were greeted by a riot by the Chicago police. And then there was the June 1969 Stonewall raids that led to a police riot by New York’s finest. However, the urban riots in late ’60s in Detroit, Newark and other cities led to armed Nation Guard combatants to kill many citizens and occupy cities.
* * *
Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur and George Patton were three U.S. generals who led major military campaigns during World War II and who have come to symbolize the nation’s global prowess. Eisenhower commanded the Normandy invasion and was the 34th president; MacArthur oversaw the war in the Pacific and was the Supreme Commander of the occupation of Japan; and Patton’s heroics inspired Stanley Kubrick’s 1970 movie that starred George C. Scott.
Forgotten by mainstream history, these generals got their strips commanding a U.S. military campaign against World War I veterans and their families in Washington, DC, during the summer of 1932.
In 1924, Congress approved a bonus for veterans, but did not authorized the expenditure of funds. As the Depression deepened and unemployment mounted, a growing movement of veterans, calling themselves the Bonus Expeditionary Force, demanded payment. In May, the first wave of veterans, their families and many unemployed supporters descended on Washington, setting up a Hooverville camp at the Anacostia Flats across from the Capitol and demanding their bonuses. In time, some 43,000 people assembled, included 17,000 veterans.
Under mounting pressure, the House enacted a bonus payment plan only to have the Senate reject it. This set the stage for a showdown on July 28th pitting unarmed vets and their supporters against Gen. MacArthur’s 600 armed troops, horse-mounted cavelry (with Patton leading the charge) and even a half-dozen tanks. After an initial confrontation at the Capitol, President Herbert Hoover ordered the military offensive halted.
MacArthur refused the President’s order, claiming Communists were behind the vets campaign. He drove the assembled vets at the Capitol and attacked their encampments. While no guns were fired, the military used bayonetted rifles and gas grenades to disperse the vets, arresting 135 people and injuring hundreds. According to the New York Times, "Flames rose high over the desolate Anacostia flats at midnight tonight, and a pitiful stream of refugee veterans of the World War walked out of their home of the past two months, going they knew not where."
(Writing much later, Eisenhower, who served as MacArthur’s junior aide, claims he advised his boss: "I told that dumb son-of-a-bitch not to go down there. ? I told him it was no place for the Chief of Staff.")
In the wake of the assault on the Bonus Marchers, vets and their supporters scattered, defeated. However, public reaction to Hoover’s backing of MacArthur’s assault increased as news reports and newsreels got the story out. The incident contributed to Franklin Roosevelt’s election that fall.
* * *
H. Rap Brown once famous noted, "Violence is American as apple pie." As the Great Recession deepens into a possible second Great Depression, mass popular demonstrations may begin in take place throughout the country. These mobilization might link today’s vets (who are terribly underserved by the government) with the unemployed, the poor, the foreclosed and others. If enraged, these activists may follow the models pioneered in the Arab Spring and now being picked up in many European countries to challenge the policies of imposed austerity.
As we acknowledge the 79th anniversary of the Bonus March, we should not forget how truly violent things can get, especially how federal troops can be used against American people.
David Rosen is the author of “Sex Scandals America: Politics & the Ritual of Public Shaming” (Key, 2009). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.