Time to ‘occupy’ our history books

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

For 2011, Time magazine named “The Protester” as its “Person of the Year.” Economic turmoil at home and a yearning for freedom abroad fueled a wave of demonstrations and protests that led the news media to take notice of a fundamental freedom of the First Amendment — “the right of the people to peaceably assemble.” The Occupy Wall Street protests, in particular, have launched a debate in this country about the legal limits of the freedom to assemble that shows no signs of letting up in the new year.

Although the Occupy demonstrations may appear novel, occupation as a form of protest is not a new phenomenon. For example, in 1932 during the Great Depression, World War I veterans — who, calling themselves the “Bonus Expeditionary Army,” sought early payout of a special payment from the federal government that was not due to be made until 1945 — camped along the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C., until they were dispersed by armed forces led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

In Flint, Mich., meanwhile, General Motors autoworkers occupied the company’s Chevrolet plant and refused to allow GM management in the facility. These “sit-down strikes” of 1936 and 1937 were in protest of GM’s refusal to comply with the 1935 National Labor Relations Act aimed at eliminating the interference of employers in the organization and unionization of workers.

Decades later in 1960, four black students from North Carolina A&T College staged a sit-in at the whites-only lunch counter of the F.W. Woolworth store in Greensboro, N.C., sparking similar protests nationwide against racial-segregation laws.

And before his assassination in 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. planned to march on the nation’s capital with an army of poor people who would build shantytown encampments at the Lincoln Memorial in an effort to bring attention to the issues of economic justice and housing for the poor.

Likewise, just as the form of the Occupy protests is not new, the issue of economic inequality that has fueled much of the demonstrators’ resolve also has been a part of many protest movements throughout our nation’s history.

The Boston Tea Party in 1773 was essentially a protest against the various taxes imposed on American Colonists by the King of England, with members of the Sons of Liberty boarding merchant ships and destroying British tea in a deliberate challenge to a local ban on public assembly and petition.

Meanwhile, an economic depression caused by the Panic of 1893 led populist Jacob Coxey to organize a group of about 500 unemployed men in a march to the U.S. Capitol in Washington to demand that Congress pass federal jobs legislation.

Moreover, before protesters occupied Wall Street in 2011, economic upheaval led to several instances of protest in New York City. During the Panic of 1857 thousands of jobless Americans protested outside of the Merchant’s Exchange building on Wall Street, demanding aid from financial institutions and the government. In 1874, the New York Police Department suppressed a demonstration involving thousands of unemployed workers in the city’s Tompkins Square Park. In addition, the Great Depression fueled several protests on Wall Street in the early 1930s.

While social media and the 24-hour cable news cycle have launched today’s Occupy protest movement into our immediate collective consciousness, we would do well to take a step back in time and “occupy” a history book, remembering those times when Americans tested the legal limits and sociopolitical boundaries imposed on the First Amendment. The fact that Time magazine chose to single out one of the five freedoms protected by the First Amendment as its standard-bearer for 2011 is significant, but freedom of assembly should not be viewed as a year-end novelty. It is a freedom that has been tested and practiced throughout our history.

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