Occupy Wall Street

All-American occupation movements

It turns out we've been making history like this for a long time

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    Courtesy of Oakland Museum
    A Sioux Encampment, oil painting by Jules Tavernier.

    1875: Sioux Indian cccupation at White River

    A tarp-city protest against the white man's land grab

    As with most cases of Indian resistance, the country’s first tarp-city protest originated with a broken treaty. In 1868, the U.S. government considered the Black Hills of the Dakota region worthless and deeded the land in perpetuity to the Sioux. Then trespassing wildcat miners found gold. The government sent Gen. George Custer to investigate the claims, and when he reported that the region was indeed full of gold “from the grass roots down,” Washington reconsidered its arrangement with the Sioux.

    In September 1875, President Grant sent a delegation to the banks of the White River to meet with Sioux chiefs and negotiate a price for the land. But the Sioux, under the influence of the “wild” chiefs Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, had other ideas. When the government delegation arrived at the meeting place on the White River, they were greeted by a massive temporary settlement 20,000 strong. As Dee Brown describes it in “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” “the Plains for miles around were covered with Sioux camps and immense herds of grazing animals. From the Missouri River on the east to the Bighorn country on the west, all the nations of the Sioux and many of their Cheyenne and Arapaho friends had gathered there.” The Black Hills Treaty of 1968 stipulated that any ceding of territory must be signed off by three-fourths of adult male Sioux. The show of force was a statement that they intended to hold the “Great Father” in Washington to his word. The city-size Sioux encampment provided the backdrop for several days of tense standoff, which resolved nothing and set in motion a conflict with the plains Indians that culminated at the Battle of Little Big Horn.

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    Newscom/File
    Officially called the “Army of the Commonweal in Christ," Jacob Coxey's supporters descended on the Capitol in March 1894 to demand investment in public works and denounce Wall Street speculators and the robber barons.

    1894: Coxey’s Army

    The first protest march on Washington demanding economic justice.

    The Depression of the 1890s ushered in a new age of social protest and conflict: Populist political parties, militant unions like the Wobblies, and violent industrial strikes defined the decade. In March of 1894, eccentric Ohio businessman and perennial People’s Party candidate Jacob Coxey helped organize the first protest march on Washington demanding economic justice. The most famous of more than 40 such groups that marched on the Capitol, Coxey’s crew was officially called the “Army of the Commonweal in Christ.” Coxey demanded investment in public works and decried Wall Street speculators and the robber barons. He conceived a protest spectacle that prefigured the Bonus Army of the 1930s and the Poor People’s Campaign of the 1960s.

    One hundred bankrupt famers and destitute migrant laborers marched out of Coxey’s hometown of Massillon, Ohio, on foot, horse and wagon in the direction of Washington. When they reached the Capitol the following month, their number had swelled to 500. The New York Times described their number as composed of “tramps … hard-looking people [who] up to the present time have shown no disposition to be unruly.”

    Sympathetic Americans showered Coxey with letters of support and provided more than $1,000 for supplies. People along the march route provided food along the way. Upon arrival in Washington, Coxey and his fellow protest leaders were met by 1,500 soldiers, who arrested them for walking on the Capitol lawn. Like OWS, the event spawned copycats, with Coxey’s Armies sprouting up around the country. His speech announcing the occupation, which he was not allowed to deliver, declared: “We stand here to-day in behalf of millions of toilers whose petitions have been buried in committee rooms, whose prayers have been unresponded to, and whose opportunities for honest, remunerative, productive labor have been taken from them by unjust legislation, which protects idlers, speculators, and gamblers.”

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    Library of Congress
    Veterans and their families camped on the banks of the Anacostia River in 1932 while seeking early payment of war bonuses due in 1945.

    1932: The Bonus Army

    Amid the Great Depression, World War I veterans march on Washington.

    After three years of Depression, America’s WWI veterans and their families set up the original Hooverville on the banks of the Anacostia River. The veterans and their families, many of them homeless, amassed in the Capitol on June 15 to pressure the Senate to approve early payment of $2 billion in war bonuses due in 1945. When the Senate rejected the bill, the veterans built a makeshift city of lean-tos, shanties and tents on the margins of the federal center.

    As with the OWS encampments, a protest society emerged, complete with laws, committees and logistics cells. Among the celebrity supporters of the protest was Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler, a beloved veterans’ advocate who spent days at the camp eating hard bread and delivering fiery speeches. “They may be calling you bums now,” Butler told some 40,000 veterans and their families, “but in 1917 they didn’t call you bums! You are the best-behaved group of men in the country today. If you don’t hang together, you aren’t worth a damn!”

    Despite rumors that the veterans were planning to riot on Congress when food ran low, the Bonus Army occupation remained nonviolent until attacked. On July 28, the camp was cleared by forces under the control of Brig. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who led infantry, cavalry and six tanks against his fellow veterans, resulting in four dead and more than a thousand injured.

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    Ohiohistorycentral.org
    The United Rubber Workers first demonstrated the power of the sit-down during its 1936 strike against the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. in Akron, Ohio.

    1936: Akron workers occupy Goodyear factory

    Unions discover the power of the sit-down strike.

    Labor’s historic gains in the 1930s were not gifts from FDR, but the fruits of a key insight: The power of a strike greatly increased when combined with the occupation of the plant. By sitting down at their machines instead of leaving the building, workers reduced two threats at once: scab labor could not assume positions on the floor, and owners hesitated to risk property by instigating a violent confrontation. The United Rubber Workers first demonstrated the power of the sit-down during its 1936 strike against the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. Immediately the CIO adopted the strategy across a range of industries. Like tasks on the assembly line, Akron’s rubber workers made history with precision coordination.

    According to one account: “Instantly, the noise stopped. The whole room lay in perfect silence. The tire builders stood in long lines, touching each other, perfectly motionless, deafened by the silence. A moment ago there had been the weaving hands, the revolving wheels, the clanking belt, the moving hooks, the flashing tire tools. Now there was absolute stillness, no motion anywhere, no sound. Out of the terrifying quiet came the wondering voice of a big tire builder near the windows: ‘Jesus Christ, it’s like the end of the world.’” The workers occupied the plant for 30 days in February and March.

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    On Feb. 1, 1960, four black students at North Carolina A&T University began a sit-in at the downtown Woolworth’s in protest of its segregated dining area.

    1960: The Greensboro sit-ins

    Students' action galvanizes the national civil rights movement

    The civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s does not lack for iconic images, but the pictures of college students occupying a handful of department-store diner stools have kept their place in the pantheon. On Feb. 1, 1960, four black students at North Carolina A&T University began a sit-in at the downtown Woolworth’s in protest of its segregated dining area. After the first days of local press coverage, 16 more students joined their ranks. Before the end of the month, similar sit-in protests had popped up throughout the South and West involving tens of thousands of people. The original Greensboro sit-in continued until the first blacks were served at the counter on July 25. By then Woolworth’s had lost $200,000 of business. The sit-ins galvanized the national civil rights movement and threw its generational split into sharp relief. Younger groups like SNCC came to the fore, while the NAACP refused to officially endorse the action.

  • 1968:
    Photo courtesy of Bill Wingell
    Folk singer Pete Seeger performs at the Resurrection City occupation.

    1968: Resurrection City

    King's last crusade: “Bring the poor to Washington. Make them visible.”

    In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. conceived what he suspected would be his last big project: a national Poor People’s Campaign culminating in a tent city on the Washington Mall. Robert Kennedy supported the effort, and according to some accounts was the first to urge King, “Bring the poor to Washington. Make them visible.” The idea was to create a multiracial class movement of poor whites, blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans. King spent his last morning alive planning logistics for the Poor People’s Campaign, which continued after his assassination under the leadership of Ralph Abernathy.
    During May and June 1968, between 2,000 and 5,000 people arrived at the Washington Mall by bus, train and mule. Each day at Resurrection City began with a demonstration in front of the Department of Agriculture. It rained heavily and the mud complicated sanitation plans and sunk spirits. When Robert Kennedy was assassinated on June 5, the mood darkened even more. On June 24, district officials sent bulldozers through the 17th Street entrance to demolish the plywood city. Looking back, organizer Marion Wright Edelman has said of the encampment: “It’s really important for people to know that, while they went back home in despair and depressed, a lot of follow-up occurred which did lead to major federal investment in nationwide nutrition programs, like food stamps and school lunches. The Poor People’s Campaign struggle was not in vain.”

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    Photo courtesy of Vic Wilcotz, Peoplespark.org
    Demonstrators recline after taking over a three-acre lot near the University of California at Berkeley.

    1970: People’s Park

    Hippies plant a countercultural oasis over the objections of Gov. Ronald Reagan

    During one month in the spring of 1969, about 100 hippies and student activists reclaimed an overgrown three-acre lot in Berkeley’s South Campus neighborhood and turned it into a countercultural oasis. They dubbed it the People’s Park. Among those not pleased with this reclamation of university property was California Gov. Ronald Reagan, who had been elected on a “crush-the-hippie-student-rebellion” platform. Early on the morning of May 15, Reagan sent police to forcibly remove those seeding the park and erect a fence around the emerging green space. Protests were quickly held on the U.C.-Berkeley campus marked by shouts of “Take the park!” Six thousand young people marched on the park, now surrounded by riot police. In the clash that followed, a student bystander named James Rector was killed by police buckshot, and more than 100 were sent to hospital with head trauma. The park has been a symbol of occupation protest ever since. This week the New York Times quoted one U.C.-Berkeley official discussing her unease with the Occupy protests on university property. “Our experience with these encampments is that they are never temporary,” she told the paper. “We’ve had a long-term encampment at People’s Park for 43 years.”

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    504 Sit-In 20th Anniversary Committee
    Demonstrators occupied the San Francisco regional office of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

    1977: The disabled occupy federal buildings

    A forgotten action helps pave the way for the Americans With Disabilities Act

    It probably wouldn’t surprise people that the most dramatic and effective occupation protest of the 1970s took place in San Francisco. But the cause is little remembered today. On April 5, 1977, hundreds of disabled protesters occupied the San Francisco regional office of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare to demand a sharpening of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a precursor to the American With Disabilities Act. Similar actions were coordinated around the country, but most ended after a day or two. The San Francisco siege lasted 25 days, ending only on May 1, when President Carter’s HEW Secretary Joseph Califano signed Bill 504, adding regulatory teeth to the Rehabilitation Act.

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    Photo courtesy of Eric Roth
    A caravan of demonstrators arriving at the New Hampshire nuclear power plant were arrested within 24 hours.

    1977: Seabrook Nuclear Protest

    Arrest of 1,400 people launches the anti-nuclear movement

    On May 1, 1977, opponents of New Hampshire’s Seabrook nuclear plant settled in for a long-term protest. Arriving at the site in a massive caravan, they set up tents, dug latrines and built dining and medical facilities. But they wouldn’t get to test the durability of their encampment. Within 24 hours, state police arrived and arrested more than 1,400 protesters. The largest group incarceration of protestors since the Vietnam war, the short-lived Seabrook occupation became an international symbol in the battle over nuclear energy. More than any other nuclear protest of the era, it helped spark a grassroots antinuclear power movement that in the next decade would, in turn, midwife the nuclear freeze movement of the 1980s.

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    Julia Butterfly Hill, a former restaurant manager turned environmental activist, lived in a tree for two years.

    1997: Julia Butterfly Hill goes out on a limb

    A lone protester draws international attention to the logging of old-growth forests.

    Julia Butterfly Hill, a former restaurant manager turned environmental activist, began the most famous one-person occupation protest in American history on Dec. 10, 1997, when she climbed a 180-foot redwood tree named Luna. Then 23 years old, she stayed there for more than two years, weathering an El Niño winter and even bigger media storms. She successfully staved off its destruction and drew international attention to the issues of logging old-growth forests. A biopic of Hill’s occupation has been stuck in development for years, with Rachel Weisz slated to play the lead.

  • 2011:
    Protests against Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-union agenda became a full-fledged occupation of the Wisconsin Capitol building in February 2011

    2011: Wisconsin State House

    Pro-union demonstrators take over the state Capitol

    The Valentine’s Day protests against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-union agenda became a full-fledged occupation of the Capitol building on Feb. 20. By then, more than 70,000 people had surrounded the famous Madison rotunda. On Feb. 25, fears of an imminent and possibly violent police sweep were quieted when Jim Palmer, the head of the state’s largest police union, declared his union’s sympathy with the protests and asked Walker to keep the building open to the public. Most protesters left a few days later when the building was closed for cleaning and maintenance, though several hundred die-hards were allowed to stay behind. Protests continued outside the building for months, centering the nation’s attention on anti-union policies being pushed by GOP governors under the cover of a budget crunch. The occupation of the Wisconsin state house demonstrated that the push back against such policies would be swift and massive.