It was the morning of January 22, 1932, in a quiet, middle-class neighborhood of the Bronx. A crowd was gathering in front of 2302 Olinville Avenue, near the Bronx Park.
City Marshals and Police had moved in to evict 17 tenants who were on a "rent strike". A crowd of 4,000 had gathered nearby.
When the marshals moved into the building and the first stick of furniture appeared on the street, the crowd charged the police and began pummeling them with fists, stones, and sticks, while the "non-combatants urged the belligerents to greater fury with anathemas for capitalism, the police and landlords." The outnumbered police barely held their lines until reinforcements arrived.
Every single reserve police officer in the Bronx had to be called in to prevent being routed by the rioters.
The situation at Olinville Avenue was only calmed down when a compromise was reached.
the strikers agreed to a compromise offer that called for two- to three-dollar reductions for each apartment and the return of evicted families to their apartments. "When news of the settlement reached the crowd," the Bronx Home News reported, "they promptly began chanting the Internationale and waving copies of the Daily Worker as though they were banners of triumph."
In other words, the rent strikers won a complete, if temporary victory.
At nearby 665 Allerton Avenue the same scenario was repeated when the police attempted to evict three tenants.
"The women were the most militant," noted the New York Times they constituted the majority of the crowds, the arrestees, and those engaged in physical conflict with the police. This time, the evictions did occur, but only with the help of over fifty foot and mounted police and a large and expensive crew of marshals and moving men.
After the Battle of the Bronx, as it was later called, the landlords at Bronx Park East asked a blue ribbon committee of Bronx Jewish leaders to arbitrate the dispute. But the strike leaders rejected arbitration. "When times were good," strike leader Max Kaimowitz declared "the landlords didn't offer to share their profits with us. The landlords made enough money off us when we had it. Now that we haven't got it, the landlords must be satisfied with less."
The landlords retaliated by forming rent strike committees. They used their resources to push through quick evictions. Many of the renter strikes were broken. Mass evictions took place at 665 Allerton Avenue and 1890 Unionport Road.
"This is a peculiar neighborhood. It is the hot bed of Communism and radicalism. The people in this neighborhood are mostly Communists and Soviet sympathizers. They do not believe in our form of government."
- state senator Benjamin Antin
The landlords continued their offensive and the judges rarely considered the neediness of the families. By December 1932 is appeared that the Bronx rent strikes had largely been crushed.
But then something happened.
in December of 1932 and January of 1933, the Unemployed Councils began a new wave of strikes that rapidly assumed far greater proportions than the last one. Beginning in Crotona Park East, the strikes spread into Brownsville, Williamsburg, Boro Park, the Lower East Side, and much of the East Bronx. In February of 1933, a panicked Real Estate News writer warned that "there are more than 200 buildings in the Borough of the Bronx in which rent strikes are in progress, and a considerably greater number in which such disturbances are brewing or in contemplation."
So who were the Unemployed Councils and what have they to do with rent strikers in the Bronx? To answer that question we must go back a few years in time.
Unemployment and Civil Unrest in America
"There is no poverty in America."
- Dr. Ray Lyman Wilbur, Secretary of the Interior, 1931
Unlike today, the unemployed haven't always suffered in silence.
On November 5, 1857, 15,000 unemployed men convened at Tompkins Square Park in New York City. They did not ask for charity, but for work. However, some of the hungry stormed baker's wagons and the police responded with force.
Tompkins Square Park was again the site of another mass protest of the unemployed and hungry on January 13, 1874. Once again the demonstrators demanded public works projects, not charity. Once again the police responded in kind.
"mounted police charged the crowd on Eighth Street, riding them down and attacking men, women, and children without discrimination. It was an orgy of brutality. I was caught in the crowd on the street and barely saved my head from being cracked by jumping down a cellarway."
- Samuel Gompers, 1874
Most of these demonstrations achieved nothing. But decade after decade of efforts convinced local governments to set up soup kitchens and, in some places, public works projects.
It's difficult to find accurate information about the unemployment situation of the early Great Depression and the civil unrest it caused because the newspapers and politicians simply refused to acknowledge it until 1932. The AFL, the sole remaining national labor union after all other national labor unions had been brutally crushed, was completely unable to deal with the changing environment.
There was only one organization in America prepared to capitalize on the suffering and strife caused by the economic meltdown - the communists. While all other organizations in America either denied the social and economic problems, or ran away from them, the communists embraced them.
The Origin of Unemployed Councils
"If a modern state is to rest upon a firm foundation its citizens must not be allowed to starve. Some of them do. They do not die quickly. You can starve for a long time without dying."
- leader of Children's Bureau of Philadelphia, 1931
On August 31, 1929, in Cleveland, Ohio, the Trade Union Unity League (TUUL) was born. The idea behind it was "dual unionism".
As part of the 13-point plan that included unemployment insurance, a seven-hour workday, and recognition of the Soviet Union, they called for each local to set up Unemployed Councils.
Into these Councils shall be drawn representatives of the revolutionary unions, shop committees and reformist unions, as well as unorganized workers. The councils shall be definitely affiliated to the respective TUUL.
Early on Cleveland was the center of agitation by the unemployed of the Great Depression. On February 11, 1930, some 2,000 unemployed workers stormed Cleveland City Hall. They were dispersed when police threatened to turn fire hoses on them.
“Marching columns of unemployed became a familiar sight. Public Square saw demonstrations running into tens of thousands. The street-scene is etched in memory. It was in the heart of working- class Cleveland, during a communist-led demonstration. Police had attacked an earlier demonstration. In the Street battle, several unemployed had been injured, and one had since died. In the same neighborhood, the Unemployed Councils had called a mass protest, a solemn occasion that brought out thousands. The authorities, under criticism and on the defensive, withdrew every cop from the area, many blocks wide. . . (163-164)”
- Len de Caux, labor journalist living in Cleveland
Before February was over there were skirmishes between police and the unemployed in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles.
Proving once again that they were way out in front of events, the Communists declared March 6, 1930, International Unemployment Day. The demonstrations in places like Chicago and San Francisco were peaceful, but other places weren't so lucky. In Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Boston, battles broke out between police and demonstrators. The worst clash took place, as usual, in New York.
The unemployment demonstration staged by the Communist Party in Union Square broke up in the worst riot New York has seen in recent years when 35,000 people attending the demonstration were transformed in a few moments from an orderly, and at times a bored, crowd into a fighting mob. The outbreak came after communist leaders, defying warnings and orders of the police, exhorted their followers to march on City Hall and demand a hearing from Mayor Walker. Hundreds of policemen and detectives, swinging night sticks, blackjacks and bare fists, rushed into the crowd, hitting out at all with whom they came into contact, chasing many across the street and into adjacent thoroughfares and rushing hundreds off their feet. . . . From all parts of the scene of battle came the screams of women and cries of men, with bloody heads and faces. A score of men were sprawled over the square with policemen pummeling them. The pounding continued as the men, and some women, sought refuge in flight.
- NY Times
The demonstration succeeded in prodding city officials to collecting fund to be distributed to the unemployed. On October 1930, the unemployed demonstrators rallied at City Hall Plaza to demand the Board of Estimate to distribute the funds. The police again attacked the demonstrators, but the Board finally agreed to distribute the funds.
I'm spending my nights at the flophouse
I'm spending my days on the street
I'm looking for work and I find none
I wish I had something to eat
- the popular 'Soup Song' sung to the tune of 'My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean'
At this very same time unemployment was causing a massive wave of evictions for poor families. More than 200,000 evictions occurred in New York City in 1930 alone. There would be millions more to come.
Proving yet again that they were out in front of events, the Unemployed Councils called for a nationwide moratorium on evictions and direct aid to the dispossessed. The politicians of both political parties responded by calls for donations to charities.
The Councils would mobilize neighbors to stop the evictions and even move the furniture back into the apartments after the police had left. Thousands of organized incidents of eviction resistance occurred throughout the Great Depression.
By early 1931 millions of Americans were dependent on Relief aid. Unemployed Councils helped families apply for aid, demonstrated at relief offices, and sent delegations to lobby for more aid for local offices.
The first real food riots in the Great Depression broke out in February 1931.
In Minneapolis, several hundred men and women smashed the windows of a grocery market and made off with fruit, canned goods, bacon, and ham. One of the store's owners pulled out a gun to stop the looters, but was leapt upon and had his arm broken. The "riot" was brought under control by 100 policemen. Seven people were arrested.
"Who has the most children here?"
- Minneapolis food rioter asked before handing out stolen bacon
Food riots broke out in San Francisco, Oklahoma City, St. Paul, Van Dyke, and many other cities. But I dare you to find any mention of them in the New York Times.
As the Depression deepened and starvation spread across the country, the media reported it less and less.
Thousands of unemployed workers looted food stores (afraid of their contagious effect, the press usually did not report food riots); indeed, Irving Bernstein reports, "By 1932 organized looting of food stores was a nationwide phenomenon."
As far as the media was concerned, the poor in America were starving to death in silence.
But this was still America, and some people were determined to bring attention to the plight of the homeless and hungry no matter what the cost. Those people worked in the Unemployed Councils.
"We march on starvation, we march against death,
we're ragged, we've nothing but body and breath;
From north and from south, from east and from west
the army of hunger is marching."
- Hunger Marcher's song, 1932
Local hunger marches started on April 1, 1931, when a large group of unemployed forced their way into the Maryland state legislature to demand relief.
Later that month 3,000 turned out in Columbus, Ohio. In May 15,000 unemployed marched on Lansing, Michigan. By the end of summer there had been 40 hunger marches in states all over the country.
"One vivid, gruesome moment of those dark days we shall never forget. We saw a crowd of some fifty men fighting over a barrel of garbage which had been set outside the back door of a restaurant. American citizens fighting for scraps of food like animals!"
-- Louise Armstrong, an incident in Chicago, spring 1932
Despite this growing movement, it was business as usual in Washington. A few of the more bold Democrats proposed modest relief packages which Hoover immediately vetoed. It required someone outside of the two parties to take this movement to the next level, and that someone was Herbert Benjamin.
Herbert Benjamin was an unapologetic communist until his dying day. A few months before he had returned from Moscow where he had received training on organizing the unemployed.
Unlike Coxey's Army in 1894, this hunger strike would have 1,670 "delegates" rather than being a ragtag group. Columns of unemployed represented by all races would leave from Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, and St. Louis, and all arrive on December 6. Marches from the west coast would leave earlier and meet up in either Chicago or St. Louis.
Each delegate wore an armband that said "National Hunger March, December 7, 1931", which was the day that Congress would open for a new session. There were ten marchers to a truck as well as a smaller car that would run ahead looking for hostile crowds and/or police. While the media and local governments were extremely hostile to the marchers (Mayor Mackey of Philadelphia advised them to "pass by" his city. Hartford closed its streets to them), the public often turned out in large numbers to cheer them on and protect them from the local police. The marches were given $40 for all expenses, but frequently local communities would furnish them food and medical care free of charge, or at cost.
All of the columns reached Washington D.C. on December 6, as scheduled. Both the Hoover Administration and the media was in an uproar.
Three days later, however, 14 persons appeared outside the White House as "hunger marchers." In a cold drizzle they unfurled their banners ("Mr. Hoover, We Demand Food & Lodging," "Mr. Hoover You Have Money for the Entertainment of the Fascist Assassin Grandi."). Promptly the police pounced on them, arrested all 14 for parading without a permit.
Next day the U. S. Secret Service paid Leader Benjamin the compliment of taking his "hunger march" seriously and thus helping to publicize it throughout the land. Chief Moran declared that his sleuths had learned the march was really a Communist demonstration on a large scale. "Marchers" from all parts of the country would be brought to Washington in 1,144 trucks, 92 automobiles. They would be lodged and fed along the way. They would have medical attention. They would defend themselves with stones. They would be organized in military fashion. They would petition the President and Congress for relief for the jobless. They would make trouble. Only one thing in their plans did Chief Moran fail to ascertain and that was where the money was coming from to finance such a large undertaking. As usual, Moscow was publicly suspected.
"The marchers were of several races, mostly whites and negroes, but among them were several scores of yellow men from various climes. Many women appeared in the column."
- Daily Mirror
1,000 police showed up for the march, as well as 1,000 Marines, and an unknown number of secret service. Another 500 police were in the Capitol. Police were armed with shotguns and machine guns.
Vice-President Curtis sent out word that no marchers could enter the Capitol grounds carrying placards that were critical of the president.
Congress refused to let them speak in the Capitol. Neither Democrat nor Republican heard their demands. In response the demonstrators sang the "Internationale". President Hoover also refused to see them. According to the Washington Herald, the marches who were arrested were beaten.
The march then went to the AFL Headquarters to meet with President William Green, who promptly berated the marchers.
The first hunger march was over and the marchers left Washington. However, it had forced the media to actually report on the hunger problem in America, something it was loath to do. It also pushed Congress to propose relief legislation, which the Hoover Administration promptly defeated.
“The communists brought misery out of hiding in the workers’ neighborhoods. They paraded it with angry demands.... In hundreds of jobless meetings, I heard no objections to the points the communists made, and much applause for them. Sometimes, I’d hear a communist speaker say something so bitter and extreme, I’d feel embarrassed. Then I’d look around at the unemployed audience; shabby clothes, expressions worried and sour. Faces would start to glow, heads to nod, and hands to clap (162—163).”
- Len de Caux
A grassroots movement grows
Father James R. Cox was known as Mayor of Shantytown in Pittsburgh because he was so active in helping the homeless.
The first hunger marchers had scarcely left Washington before Father Cox started his own Hunger March. Dubbed "Cox's Army", it started on January 6, 1932 at 12,000 in size, but grew to 25,000 by the time it reached Washington.
Father Cox hated communists and felt the need to reclaim the pressing issue of homelessness and hunger in America from the communists. In fact, Cox's march was funded by store owners in the Pittsburgh area.
President Hoover personally met with Father Cox and heard his proposals, which were then ignored after the photo-op was over.
In March 7, 1932, about 4,000 unemployed factory workers marched on the Ford Motor Company in Detroit. They were looking either to get their old jobs back, or unemployment insurance.
They marched from Detroit to the River Rouge plant. Their signs read, "We Want Bread Not Crumbs," "Tax the Rich, Feed the Poor," "Free the Scottsboro Boys," and "Stop Jim Crow." At the Dearborn line, the crowd was told to disperse. None of the marchers was armed, but teargas and fire hoses were used on the crowd. Finally, the order to shoot was given - scores were wounded. Killed outright were Joe York, Joe DeBlasio, Coleman Leny, and Joe Bussell.
The order to shoot was given by private thugs hired by Ford, who was violently anti-union at the time. Firemen hosed them with icy water in the sub-freezing temperatures.
About 60 men were wounded, mostly in the back as they ran. One later died. The police blamed communists for the violence and sought to arrest Communist leader William Z. Foster, as well as starting a crackdown on leftist organizations.
The Unemployed Council decided to hold a public funeral, and between 30,000 and 70,000 people turned out for what was later called the Ford Hunger March. The Detroit police wisely decided not to make a show of force that day.
A massive crowd, tens of thousands strong, took over the broad main street. Detroit police decided it was better to disappear. For several miles, through the downtown area, stopping all traffic and all business, the crowd escorted the victims to their graves. Nothing like this had ever been seen in Detroit.
[note: there was a Ford Hunger March reunion in Detroit during the deep recession of 1982, which also got little media coverage]
During the summer of 1931 the socialists finally took the hint and set up their own Unemployed organizations.
In Chicago socialist Karl Borders formed the Workers Committee on Unemployment, and by the end of 1932 he had twice as many members as the local UC.
Independent socialist A. J. Muste organized the Leagues of the Unemployed in small towns throughout Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.
In Seattle it was the Unemployed Citizens League, formed by socialists Hulet Wells and Carl Branin, who directed the Seattle Labor College and published The Vanguard, a weekly newspaper. It was set up as a self-help organization and distributed food, firewood, and clothing.
By 1932 it overshadowed the local Unemployed Council, which called the organization a “social fascist” effort. However, the Councils couldn't compete with the immediate aid that the UCL offered the unemployed.
The communists changed tactics, joined the UCL, and agitated for more direct political action. By 1933 this tactic began to bear fruit as the self-help organization began to demand public assistance.
The Great Rent Strike War of 1932
Which brings us back to the spreading rent strike of New York City. These were the poor, the hopeless, the unemployed. Most of the people effected, and sympathetic, were about to be evicted anyway. So why not put up a fight?
Using the networks they possessed in fraternal organizations, women's clubs, and left wing trade unions, aided by younger comrades from the high schools and colleges, Communists were able to mobilize formidable support for buildings that were on strike and to force police to empty out the station houses to carry out evictions. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the strike of five buildings on Longfellow Avenue between 174th and 175th streets, which the Greater New York Taxpayers Association made a test case of its efforts to suppress the movement. Three separate waves of eviction provoked confrontations between police and neighborhood residents, the largest of which involved three thousand people "hurling stones, bottles and other missiles." On another occasion, a mob of fifteen hundred fought the police for an hour and then took off after the landlord when they saw him moving through the crowd. The strike finally was broken, but only after more than forty evictions, an injunction against picketing, and numerous arrests and injuries. The police needed full-scale mobilization to suppress such strikes. "The police have set up a temporary police station outside one of the buildings," read the Daily Worker description of a Brownsville rent strike. "Cops patrol the street all day. The entire territory is under semi-martial law. People are driven around the streets, off the corners, and away from the houses."
The Unemployed Councils had no coherent legal strategy, or a way to argue the legitimacy of the rent strike before judges. They mostly used the strife for party organizing efforts.
However, they were the only organization that actually cared about the families about to be dispossessed. Despite all official efforts to crush the movement, it continued to grow.
"Rent strikes can be compared to epidemics, for when a strike breaks out in one apartment house, strikes start in nearby houses or landlords are forced to capitulate to threats of tenants. Some landlords have been forced to reduce their rent a number of times."
- secretary of the Bronx Landlords Protective Association
Although evictions did take place, some tenants won rent reductions through striking, while others won reductions merely by the threat to strike. Most of the strikers were Jewish, and often they were communists as well.
As many as 77,000 evicted families were restored to their homes using these tactics.
"The entire East Bronx is full of fire."
- a Bronx landlord
By January of 1933, the landlords were starting to use the charge of "criminal conspiracy" against rent strike leaders. By March the City issued a ruling against picketing of apartment buildings. This last law had dubious legal standing, but it was temporarily effective at shutting down the epidemic of rent strikes.
The Unemployed Councils then shifted tactics by taking large numbers of tenants to the newly created Home Relief Bureaus, where they would conduct sit-ins and hunger strikes until given relief. The government was more sensitive to pressure, and had more resources, than the landlords. Eventually the government simply took over paying rent for the tenants, while the Unemployed Councils became their de facto bargaining agents.
“I stood in the rain for three days and the Home Relief Bureau paid no attention to me,” a woman declared at a neighborhood meeting in New York City. “Then I found Out about the Unemployed Council...We went in there as a body and they came across right quick.” “The woman at the desk said I was rejected,” another woman added. “I was crying when Comrade Minns told me to come to the meeting of the Unemployed Council. One week later I got my rent check.”
New York wasn't the only place for rent strikes. In Chicago, particularly in the black neighborhoods, evictions and protests were an epidemic.
In early August, 1931, an eviction riot led to three people being shot dead, and three injured cops. The fear of further unrest prompted the mayor to declare a moratorium on evictions. Some of the rioters got work relief.
In Detroit it took 100 police to evict a single resisting family.
The outcome of the rent strike movement was to force the government to enact serious housing reforms, the twin pillars of which were rent control and public housing.
Of course it wasn't just renters who faced evictions. On July 13, 1933, at 11413 Lardet in Cleveland, Ohio, the Cuyahoga County sheriff's deputies arrived and evicted John and Sophie Sparenga and their four children.
As their furniture was carried to the street, a local "home defense" organization went up and down the street raising the alarm. Before long 4,000 to 6,000 protesters surrounded the 150 cops.
As police arrived, they were greeted by taunts, jeers and volleys of rocks, bricks, sticks and even kitchen utensils. The officers responded with nightsticks, tear gas and fire hoses. Four times during that day and night, the protesters were dispersed, only to re-form and battle again into the darkness.
"This is a crowd that won't scatter, a crowd that is strangely grim and determined," wrote James Steele in an account of the incident for The Nation magazine.
Some 14 people, including two policemen, were injured in the fracas, most suffering minor bruises, scrapes and tear-gas burns. Four people were arrested but later released.
Today the home at 11413 Lardet is bracketed by foreclosed homes.
Many might be under the false impression that the New Deal was completely implemented after FDR took office. In fact, most parts of the New Deal weren't passed until years afterward. Social Security didn't get passed until 1935. The United States Housing Act didn't get passed until 1937.
The Emergency Price Control Act, which limited rent hikes on apartments didn't get passed until 1942. When the law expired in 1947, many state and municipal governments stepped in.
All during this time the unemployed kept up the pressure.
In Colorado, when the federal relief funds were discontinued in the winter of 1934 because the state had repeatedly failed to appropriate its share of costs, mobs of the unemployed rioted in relief centers, looted food stores, and stormed the state legislature, driving the frightened senators from the chamber. Two weeks later, the General Assembly sent a relief bill to the governor, and federal funding was resumed (Cross). An attempt in Chicago to cut food allowances by 10 percent in November 1934 led to a large demonstration by the unemployed, and the city council restored that cut.
In early 1935 the various Socialist and Communist councils united to create the Workers Alliance of America. Most of the Unemployed Councils were absorbed by the Alliance.
The reason was that the communists were preparing to face the deadly threat of fascism rising around the world, and they wanted a united front to do so.
Some people may be under the impression that FDR's election and the New Deal was simply a logical reaction to extreme hardships. That democracy naturally corrected itself.
That wasn't the case. It took a grassroots movement, working against all odds, to push the government into action. It's a lesson we should remember.