Friday, November 18, 2011

A Nation's Forgotten Shame, A Nation's Courage, Reborn

The summer of 1932 is remembered in most history books as just another summer when the nation – and the world at large – was mired in the throes of what was eventually to be called The Great Depression. The schoolchildren of my generation were shown images of decrepit old trucks, heavily laden with the meager possessions of destitute families, crossing from the desolation of Oklahoma and Texas in search of something far short of the affluence toward which subsequent generations would endeavor. The aspirations of those families were more basic; they were hungry, counting themselves fortunate on those sporadic days on which they could taste the exquisite generosity that manifest itself in a bowl of beans and a crust of bread.

In our nation’s capital however, there was a movement afoot that would mark an even more desperate panorama; a time of growing hope that was to be ultimately and systematically dashed, and of what should have marked the death of our collective innocence and the acknowledgment of a nation’s shame. Had it only been reported, rather than swept beneath the rug of a culture’s illusion.

In early July of that year, the Depression was in full swing in our nation’s capital, though it was far less apparent in the halls and offices of government. Just beyond the grounds of the Capital Building, a legion of some twenty five thousand of our country’s veterans, along with their wives and children, had set up an encampment – really more of a makeshift city – in the sweltering heat to seek an audience with President Hoover. They represented a cross section of the country’s citizens – farmers, merchants, laborers – what would eventually be labeled the Middle Class. Most had served in the first War to End All Wars, and bore the scars of their time spent in the bloody trenches of Europe. Eight years earlier, a grateful government had passed the Adjusted Compensation Act, which promised each veteran a “bonus” of $500 for having so bravely served their country and the world. According to the terms of the Act, the bonus was to be paid in 1945, but these people were beyond desperate, and wanted to entreat their president, to convince him to accelerate the “bonus” payment and thus prevent their families from starving. They called themselves the Bonus Expeditionary Force, but were to become known – to those willing to search for their story – as the Bonus Army.

President Hoover, however, sent word that he was “too busy” to meet with them and hear their requests, despite the fact that in those days, he often concluded his day’s work by lunchtime. Instead, the president secluded himself in his office, and daily grew more impatient with what he saw as a throng of unwashed ne’er-do-wells and beggars who were impeding movement in the capital and offending the tourists. On July 26th, Vice President Charles Curtis dispatched two companies of armed marines to the scene, only to have them sent away by General Pelham Glassford, who was more sympathetic to the Bonus Army’s predicament, and who tersely reminded the vice president that he had no authority to command military forces. On the morning of July 28, 1932, however, President Hoover had had enough, and wanted this human eyesore removed. His Attorney General, William D. Mitchell, charged the Bonus Army with, in his words, “begging and other acts,” and Hoover ordered the Army’s highest ranking officer, General Douglas MacArthur, to clear the encampment, by force if necessary. At ten in the morning, a couple of Treasury agents were dispatched to a fringe area of the encampment (far removed from its makeshift “command post”), and these agents ordered the people they encountered to disperse.

As would be expected, the crowd took no notice of the two low-level bureaucrats’ command, and the agents left. And within hours, MacArthur took personal command from General Glassford and his aide, Major Dwight Eisenhower, and sent his heavily armed force to rout the troublesome rabble. Randomly flinging gas grenades into the crowd of men, women and children, the forces, along with city police, charged headlong into the crowd, swinging nightsticks, slashing with bayonets, and at some point, the police opened fire, killing two of the fleeing men. The women and children were not so quick to run, for they were cringing on the ground, blinded by the gas. And then came the tanks…

When all was said and done, the two men who had been shot by police – along with two infants asphyxiated by the teargas – had died. In his subsequent public statements, Hoover tried to assert that the assemblage was composed solely of communists, but the incident further tainted his already diminished image. The generals (and those who would later become generals and one, President) who led and executed the massacre, however, would go on to have long and storied careers. And the story of the Bonus Army would somehow be deleted from the history lessons taught to future children.

Fast forward to present-day cities around the country, and the scene that is emerging is alarmingly similar to that which unfolded in Washington, D.C. in the summer of 1932. The protesters that make up the Occupy movement are described by elected officials and some media sources as hippies, socialists… any dehumanizing label they can come up with in their attempts to cast the protesters as a collective, malevolent “them,” who are bent upon destroying everything that is important to a benevolent, more reasonable “us.” As happened so many years ago, the full strength of our country’s law enforcement agencies are just as bent upon silencing “them.” It’s all for their own safety, of course, just as they are keeping journalists from observing their actions for the journalists’ safety. And banning media helicopters from their observation points far above the melee… for the safety of the helicopters.

I cannot help but wonder, will the country ultimately hear what so many are saying, screaming, and putting their own safety at risk in order to be heard? Or will streets tremble beneath the tread of the tanks, and the nation strive once again to sweep another moment of shame beneath the rug of its illusion? And I also wonder at the restraint shown by the Bonus Army. I know that, had I found myself among their number and seen children – especially my own – killed as a result of the government's actions, there would have been more blood spilt, even if it were ultimately my own.

Members of the Bonus Army were the forebears of many who are now involved in the Occupy Movement. How fitting it is that the members of one brave movement can look back upon the actions of their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents and realize that even as injustice still thrives in our great nation, so does the spirit that would cast it out. There is worry, yes, but far greater, there is hope.

In tribute to the Occupy Movement, a video by Bill Gibson:

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