May, the month to occupy

Bonus Army encampment in July 1932. By Theodor Horydczak, via the Library of Congress.

In the Northern Hemisphere, and well before the onset of global warming, May has always been a great month for protests — especially ones that involve spending a lot of time outdoors. As the month comes to a close, let’s take a moment to remember five born-in-May occupations that rocked.

These five have interesting features in common, relating to the conditions that catalyzed them, the instigators and the authorities’ overly harsh responses (often resulting in an outpouring of public sympathy). Each of these occupations faced deteriorating economic prospects, increasing disparities in wealth distribution, a lack of legal recourse or government accountability, along with an abject insensitivity or intentional denial of the needs of the society’s poorest members. The organizers of these events were completely committed to mounting a protest alongside the concurrent development of an alternative community to provide for basic needs.

1. Bonus Expeditionary Force (1932)

On May 29, 1932, a “Bonus Army” marched into Washington, D.C., to demand cash payment for their government-issued veterans’ certificates. The United States was in the throes of the Great Depression, and the almost 20,000 unemployed vets and their families felt they had no choice but to look to the government for economic relief.

The bulk of the demonstrators occupied marshy land on the southeast banks of the Anacostia River in what was called “Hooverville,” after President Herbert Hoover. A nearby garbage dump provided most of the building materials for their camp. Amidst the scavenged materials, the vets laid out streets and provided services including sanitation. It was peaceful and orderly until the Senate voted against payout of the benefits. Over the next month, the federal government offered travel stipends to encourage the increasingly agitated “Army” to leave, and many did take that offer. But about 2,000 of them continued to protest, and late in July, after an altercation with formerly supportive Metropolitan Police, President Hoover ordered the U.S. Army to remove them.

The protesters were attacked in downtown D.C., and Hooverville was flattened with tanks and torched. In the end, three people were dead and 54 injured. While the Bonus Marchers were not immediately successful, the handling of the situation ruined Hoover’s reelection bid, setting the stage for the approval of a payout of the veterans’ benefits three years later.

2. Resurrection City (1968)

Also in Washington, D.C., Resurrection City was born on May 10, 1968, this time on the National Mall, in the Capitol’s line of sight. Occupiers from poor communities across the nation were mobilized by the call for a “live-in” (not simply a sit-in) by Martin Luther King, Jr., who had discussed the idea just before his assassination. The Poor People’s Campaign came to Washington to make the plight of the poor visible to lawmakers. The city was built of donated plywood and housed about 5,000 at its peak, with kitchens, health care, sanitation, schools, a city hall and a mayor.

Despite almost daily rain, each day began with a demonstration at the Department of Agriculture. Afterwards, people followed their own areas of interest, meeting with members of various departments and bureaus to talk about changing policies that affected them personally. Evenings ended with song, serving to build community and sustain morale, as despair seeped in at times from spending so much time with hostile officials or slogging through the mud.

Fueled originally by rage after the assassination of King, the people of Resurrection City experienced another a psychological blow when Robert Kennedy was also assassinated. Within three weeks of his death, the city was physically bulldozed. Many went home dejected, but others recognized the work of Resurrection City and the Poor People’s Campaign as having changed the national dialogue about poverty and having led to major federal investments in programs including food stamps and school lunches.

3. French occupations and strikes (1968)

At the same time, in May of 1968, French students kicked off a series of occupations in the universities and schools in Paris protesting their country’s economic and political systems. Their slogans included, “The more you consume, the less you live” and “We want structures that serve people, not people serving structures.”

When the authorities reacted with what was considered extreme force against the students, the movement expanded to workers, becoming history’s largest general strike. At its height, 11 million people in France participated — more than one fifth of the population — bringing the economy of the country to a standstill for more than two weeks and raising the real specter of revolution. However, agreements on the part of the government, some trade unions and the communist party led to most people returning to work or school once new elections were called. The concessions strengthened the hand of French organized labor, though they bowed little to the students’ revolutionary aspirations. The de Gaulle government was re-elected. De Gaulle himself, however, resigned a year later after losing a referendum.

4. Oaxaca occupations and APPO (2006)

May 22, 2006, marked the 25th year of consecutive protests by Oaxaca’s teachers for improvements in pay and working conditions. Unlike preceding years, when the occupations ended after a week or two with raises for the teachers, on June 14 the police opened fire and ignited a movement that came to be led by the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO). Overnight, 600 occupying teachers swelled to more than 30,000 participants.

The Popular Assembly was formed by members of unions, parents, regional and city representatives, social groups, cooperatives, and others, uniting around issues that broadened to include governance and electoral fraud. Protesters demanded the resignation of the governor. The APPO declared itself the state’s governing body and called for people in other states in Mexico to follow suit. Many were supportive. “No leader is going to solve our problems” was a sentiment commonly heard. The occupation of Oaxaca lasted for 150 days in 2006, with many injured and about 20 people killed, including Brad Will, a young U.S. journalist. The struggles against corruption and for government accountability in Mexico continue.

5. Spanish Indignados (2011)

Beginning in May of last year, the Spanish Indignados — the outraged — started a series of ongoing occupations, inspired by the revolutions earlier that year in Tunisia and Egypt. The original call was put out for actions in 58 Spanish cities on May 15, 2011. Within the first month, the so-called 15M movement had hundreds of encampments across Spain, as well as supporting actions in other parts of the world. The protesters demanded radical changes in the Spanish political, economic, electoral and banking systems, and called for supporting basic rights of home, work, culture, health and education through direct democracy.

By August 2011, the Spanish public broadcasting company estimated that between 6.5 and 8 million Spaniards had participated in this movement. A march, in the form of eight columns starting from around the whole country, began walking toward Madrid and organizing people’s assemblies along the way. Then, on October 15, an international day of action called for by the movement, protests were reported in nearly a thousand cities worldwide. Occupy Wall Street, which was heavily influenced by the Indignados, made it a major day of protest in the United States as well. On the one-year anniversary of 15M this past month, several days of protests in Spain and elsewhere marked the date.

The results of these May occupations varied politically, socially, economically. Yet each opened up physical and political space that directly led to widespread public airing of issues, as well as some direct satisfaction of demands. Despite severe repression by authorities, the courts of public opinion and of history, have often sided with these movements. Real change was made, and it is still in the making.

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