Mark Twain once said, "History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme."
I wonder what Twain would think if he looked around America today?
When unemployment rates hit crisis levels during the early 1930's, the unemployed took to the streets and demanded relief aid from the government.
Today the unemployed are again taking to the streets, but their demands are somewhat different.
At rallies, gatherings and training sessions in recent months, activists often tell a similar story in interviews: they had lost their jobs, or perhaps watched their homes plummet in value, and they found common cause in the Tea Party’s fight for lower taxes and smaller government.
The Great Depression, too, mobilized many middle-class people who had fallen on hard times. Though, as Michael Kazin, the author of “The Populist Persuasion,” notes, they tended to push for more government involvement. The Tea Party vehemently wants less — though a number of its members acknowledge that they are relying on government programs for help.
It boggles the mind to see unemployed, working class people using their time to demonstrate for less government involvement, while living off of unemployment or social security checks. What exactly are these people thinking? How can people work so directly against their own best interests?
It's an insanity that Thomas Frank spoke of in his book What's the Matter with Kansas?
the country we have inhabited for the last three decades seems more like a panorama of madness and delusion worthy of Hieronymous Bosch: of sturdy patriots reciting the Pledge while they resolutely strangle their own life chances; of small farmers proudly voting themselves off the land; of devoted family men carefully seeing to it that their children will never be able to afford college or proper health care; of hardened blue-collar workers in midwestern burgs cheering as they deliver up a landslide for a candidate whose policies will end their way of life, will transform their region into a “rust belt,” will strike people like them blows from which they will never recover.
I won't try to speculate on these people's knowledge of politics, economics or history, because I don't think ignorance can explain it all. They obviously feel strongly about what they are doing and are willing to sacrifice to achieve it, and that I must respect.
However, you have to wonder if these people know anything at all about how their unemployment insurance and social security checks came into being. I'm only guessing, but I bet they probably believe that the federal government "imposed" these new laws on the people of America. The idea that the federal government fought the concepts tooth and nail, and were forced by a nationwide grassroots movement to approve it, is probably not something that has occurred to these people.
That's why I'd like to tell the story of the International Unemployment Day - March 6, 1930.
Unemployment in 1930
“Any lack of confidence in the economic future or the basic strength of business in the United States is foolish.”
- Herbert Hoover, November 1929
In the early years of the Great Depression, before the New Deal, unemployment was something to fear. In many places there simply was no "outdoor" relief. The elderly and infirm that could not work got institutionalized. Those who needed aid but could work had to turn to degrading work and ostracism at almshouses or workhouses. The relief system created a pariah underclass to serve as a warning to the struggling workers of America, and even this pathetic system was easily overwhelmed during hard times.
Even when unemployment was endemic, the poor suffered in silence, often blaming themselves for their short-comings. Occasionally, when unemployment became so widespread that it reached destructive levels, the unemployed began to realize that their misfortune wasn't a result of personal failings.
It was at these times that the unemployed would take to the streets. When that happened they were almost always met with police brutality. Tompkins Square Park in New York City was the scene of several of these events during the 19th Century. Coxey's Army in 1894 was a milestone that helped create public soup kitchens in most cities, but nothing else.
Being unemployed in America in 1930 still meant that you were on your own.
Since no official unemployment numbers were kept before 1938, no one knows for absolute certainty how bad things got and at what pace. However, President Roosevelt’s Committee on Economic Security later estimated that the number of unemployed jumped from 429,000 in October 1929 to 4,065,000 in January 1930. While below 9%, the rate of job loss was sudden and dramatic.
Nevertheless, the depression was still early. The nation had seen severe, but short, recessions before. Most people in Washington felt that they just needed to wait it out.
"Gentleman, you have come sixty days too late. The depression is over."
- Herbert Hoover, responding to a delegation requesting a public works program to help speed the recovery, June 1930
There was one group that considered the depression very differently. They didn't blame the unemployed for their misfortune. They blamed the economic system that tolerated this suffering. These people were very unpopular in powerful circles.
The group was called the Trade Union Unity League, and it was an industrial umbrella group for the Communist Party of the United States. It had been formed just six months earlier, and its purpose was to organize disenfranchised groups such as women, the unemployed, and blacks in the South.
They were in the right place at the right time. Until 1931 they were the only national organization in America that was agitating for federal relief.
The TUUL was led by William Zebulon Foster. Since entering the working world at the tender age of 10, Foster had bounced around between various left-wing labor organizations. He was a member of the Socialist Party, the IWW, and the AFL at different times. He earned his credentials serving time in prison for free speech, and being run out of town at gunpoint by corporate thugs. Disillusioned by the failure of the 1919 Steel Strike, he joined the Communist Party in 1923. In 1929 he became the General Secretary for the CPUSA.
The TUUL's strategy was simple - make it impossible for people to ignore the suffering via confrontation.
Bleeding heads converted unemployment from a little-noticed to a page-one problem in every important newspaper in every important city in the United States. No one could any longer afford to ignore it.
If bleeding heads were the objective, the police were more than happy to oblige.
Two thousand demonstrated for "free food for children" in Cleveland on February 11, 1930. The mounted police charged and beat the demonstrators. It was the first of many to come.
On February 14, 1930, 250 TUUL member demonstrated at City Hall Plaza in Philadelphia "to point out that while the manufacturers are reaping huge profits...there are 200,000 unemployed workers in the city of Philadelphia."
During the fifteen-minute engagement with 150 patrolmen, detectives and mounted policemen two of the paraders were sent to hospitals and seventeen were arrested.
- NY Times
The very next week, 1,200 jobless men and women marched on City Hall in Chicago, but before they reached their goal "they were dispersed by mounted and foot policemen, who swept through them time and again, swinging sticks right and left."
A few days later the police broke up a mob of 3,000 unemployed men in Los Angeles with tear gas before they had a chance to start their march. Several more communists were sent to the hospital before the jail.
The same day about 100 mostly women and children, carrying a banner that said "We demand relief for the unemployed" attempted another demonstration in front of City Hall in New York. Once again there was a police riot.
"In the riot which resulted, women and children of from 8 to 15 years were roughly handled and beaten by the police, who used their fists.
"When the detectives, patrolmen and mounted men finally cleared City Hall Park, three women, two girls, and a man had been arrested and locked up at the Oak Street station charged with disorderly conduct. Those beaten and bruised were left to shift for themselves."
- NY Times, March 2, 1930
It's amazing to think that the police could beat women and children with their fists and still be considered the "good guys". But in these days communists were something less than human, even when they came in the form of 8 year old girls. It wasn't just the Nazis of Germany that had a sub-human class.
"Unemployment is increasing - the crisis is sharpening. Everywhere misery and suffering exists and increases daily.
"Billions of dollars for bosses' wars - wage-cuts, unemployment for the workers."
- TUUL handbill, 1930
By this time the decision was made to perform an unprecedented, global demonstration of unemployed men and women to draw attention to the growing depression. They called it International Unemployment Day. Flyers were handed out, the communists began organizing.
The authorities responded first by smears. The media reported that Foster received $1.25 million from, of all places, Berlin.
"The Department of Justice hopes also by this fake story to demoralize the great unemployed demonstration on March 6, which is to be world wide."
- William Foster
The authorities next turned to their most effective weapon - fear.
The following day a story was released to the media about 88 boxes of dynamite being stolen from a construction site in the Bronx. The police "believed the explosives might have been stolen by Communists to make bombs" for the demonstration (NY Times, March 3, 1930). No proof was offered and no one was arrested for the theft.
Then there were stories about communist plans to blow up City Hall, the New York Stock Exchange, assassinate President Hoover, John D. Rockefeller, Mayor Walker, and several others.
The New York police amassed riot wagons, armored vehicles, tear gas bombs, and machine guns. Several people were arrested simply for handing out circulars announcing the demonstration.
Chicago also had a "bomb plot". Police there raided communist headquarters the night before in the hopes of finding weapons.
The Detroit police readied firehoses. Boston also arrested "sympathizers" for distributing handbills about the demonstration, and refused to authorize any mass meeting "under any circumstance". Atlanta formed a riot squad after refusing to issue a permit for a parade.
The red-baiting and repression by authorities had reached such a level of hysteria that educators and artists, such as H.L. Mencken, issued a petition warning of the dangers of a new Red Scare.
"An Ohio court has actually sentenced two young girls to ten years for distributing pamphlets. In California more than 900 unemployed were arrested for the crime of being out of work. In Chicago 137 are being tried for sedition for holding an indoor meeting to discuss unemployment...In the South workers are being sent to the chain-gang for organizing unions.
"To combat this persecution for political opinion, concerted protest is necessary. The people of the United States must be awakened to the threatened complete destruction of their civil rights."
- John Reed Club petition, May 1930
I wonder what the tea party protesters of today would think if they met the same sort of repression that the socialists of 1930 encountered? Would they still think that health care reform and government benefits was the problem?
Interestingly, the American Federation of Labor viewed the coming demonstration not as an opportunity, but as a personal threat. Joseph Ryan, the vice-president of the AFL, said in response to reports of tens of thousands of workers planning to quit for half a day to join the demonstration "it will not be permitted".
The AFL accused the demonstrations of being "a well-designed policy, directed from Moscow, to stir up as much trouble as possible. It is inconceivable that any party or organization can be so devoid of any sense of decency to resort to such measures."
The AFL said that the motives behind the demonstrations didn't represent the unemployed. Yet, for some reason, the unemployed kept turning up at the demonstrations.
The Big Day
"The seven million totally unemployed and millions more of part-time workers in the United States are not going to passively starve.
- William Foster
Despite similar repression and intimidation, when the sun rose on March 6, 1930, in Europe, the leftists turned out by the tens of thousands. The authorities responded as expected.
Two demonstrators were killed in Berlin. In Vienna the police charged the crowd with fixed bayonets. 15 were shot and wounded in Bilboa, Spain. Everywhere there were arrests and beatings by police.
Less violent demonstrations happened in London and Sydney.
The New York Times were quick to announce that the worldwide protest was a "complete fiasco" for the communists. It never said exactly why that was.
In spite of the hysteria, beatings, arrests, and general repression, workers and unemployed turned out in massive numbers in America. Somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 turned out in New York City.
William Foster was guilty of "inciting" the demonstrators to "march"
The police prepared for action as soon as it became apparent that all hopes for averting a riot had been shattered by the Communists' defiance. Immediately after Foster's speech some 2,000 communists forming the heart of the audience, led by special cohorts bearing inflammatory signs, moved in the direction of Broadway and down toward Sixteenth Street and the battle began.
- NY Time, March 1930
I'm not sure how "moving" towards downtown constitutes a "riot", but it was all the police needed as an excuse.
"If this were a meeting of bankers you wouldn't keep them from marching on City Hall."
- William Foster to Police Chief Whalen
The mob was led by a group of children holding aloft placards and singing the Internationale.
Maybe its just me, but when I think of a "mob" I don't picture singing children.
Hundreds of policemen and detectives, swinging nightsticks, blackjacks and bare fists, rushed into the crowd, hitting out at all with whom they came in contact, chasing many across the street and into adjacent thoroughfares and rushing hundreds off their feet. Some of the Communists showed fight. This only served to spur the police, whose attack carried behind it the force of an avalanche.
- NY Times, March 1930
More than a hundred of the New York demonstrators were hurt when mounted police charged the crowd. Hundreds more were arrested, usually after being beaten.
Foster and four other communist leaders were arrested and held without bail for the crime of unlawful assembly - a misdemeanor. Weeks later they were still in jail. Police Chief Whalen received a commendation from the Chamber of Commerce for his handling of the situation.
The scene was repeated all over the country. In Cleveland, over 10,000 unemployed demonstrated. The moment the demonstration was scheduled to be over, mounted police charged the crowd, "scattering it like chaff".
In Detroit over 75,000 turned out for a massive protest.
The threatening crush, which might have meant serious injuries to many, was averated when the police ordered Woodward Avenue cars and buses to drive straight through the crowd-jammed street.
- NY Times, March 1930
I'm not exactly certain how driving buses into crowds was supposed to prevent injuries.
In Pittsburgh, around 5,000 demonstrators were attacked by police after a march of just half a block. Five were hospitalized.
In Boston, police arrested five men and one woman the moment that a crowd began to form. 42 were arrested in Milwaukee. Five more were arrested in Buffalo, 12 in Seattle, and three in New Haven.
In Madison, a group of university students attacked the unemployed demonstration.
In Washington D.C. the police used tear gas against a mostly black demonstration in front of the White House after one of the leaders attempted to give a speech from the fence. Nine of them were beaten and arrested.
Several of the band of radicals were small Negro boys 9 or 10 years old, who carried placards opposing child labor.
The following day, the NY Times headline was (I kid you not!) "Communist demonstrators are charged at Washington with using bad language." I didn't even know that could be a crime.
The unemployed were given sentences of $50 (a fortune for someone out of work in those days) or spending 30 days in jail.
Demonstrations in Philadelphia, Youngstown, Denver, San Francisco, and many other cities were uneventful.
A lot of people got seriously hurt, but did they accomplish anything? Yes.
On the very same day as the demonstration, the Canadian legislature passed an unemployment relief bill. Within a couple months, member of Congress were on the floor proposing bills for relief programs for the unemployed.
What was noticeable was that the suffering of the unemployed was finally pushed to the front page. The media would continue to make efforts to ignore the suffering. Food riots, while common, wouldn't get reported because of the fear that it would alarm the public. But the March 6, 1930, demonstrations caused the first crack in this wall of silence. By 1932, the wall of silence finally broke down.
Even more importantly, despite the brutal repression, the March 6 demonstration began a trend. As the Great Depression got worse month after month, and unemployment skyrocketed with no end in sight, the unemployed demonstration grew in size. Before long, a demonstration of more than 100,000 was common.
With these demonstration came organization and education. People began to question the model of capitalism that the authorities enforced with an iron fist. By late 1932, the general public had decided that the country needed a real change.
I think the world needs another International Unemployment Day.