How Occupy Wall Street Should Respond to Escalating Violence

Commentary about business and finance.
Nov. 2 2011 2:12 PM

Lessons for Occupy Wall Street

Take a cue from the only social movement that has ever made a real dent in the nation’s extremes of wealth and poverty.

Occupy Oakland.
Occupy Oakland protesters march near the Oakland City Hall on Oct. 25.

Photograph by Kimihiro Hoshino/AFP/Getty Images.

Last week, the Occupy Wall Street movement entered a new phase. For its first few months, Occupy was all about message, the 99 percent taking a tentative stand against the 1 percent. Now, the on-the-ground challenges of sustaining such a movement over the long term have begun to take center stage.

The freak East Coast snowstorm answered one challenge question a few weeks early: What will happen to the encampments when the weather turns cold? Apparently they will stay. More ominously, protesters in many cities now face the prospect of sustained police crackdowns, from the hassles of permitting and noise ordinances to the violence that erupted last week in Oakland. There, police used tear gas, flash grenades, and rubber bullets to attack protesters near city hall. One of those bullets fractured the skull of Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen, leaving him hospitalized in critical condition. Since then, Olsen has become the chief symbol of Occupy’s new reality: Going up against Wall Street, it turns out, is serious business. And the more serious the Occupy movement gets, the more official and near-lethal hostility it's likely to encounter.

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As they sort out what to do next, the Occupiers might take a page from the history of American labor, the only social movement that has ever made a real dent in the nation’s extremes of wealth and poverty. For more than half a century, between the 1870s and the 1930s, labor organizers and strikers regularly faced levels of violence all but unimaginable to modern-day activists. They nonetheless managed to create a movement that changed the nation’s economic institutions and reshaped ideas about wealth, inequality, and Wall Street power. Along the way, they also helped to launch the modern civil liberties ethos, insisting that the fight to tame capitalism went hand in hand with the right to free speech.

The first major national clash between “capital and labor,” in the parlance of the 19th century, came with the Great Rail Strike of 1877. That July, railroad workers in Martinsburg, W.Va. protested a pay cut by walking off the job. Within days, rail workers throughout the country joined in, effectively shutting down the nation’s major trade and transit system and inspiring localized general strikes. The authorities responded harshly. In Pittsburgh, the local militia fired on strikers, killing 20 men. By the time the smoke cleared a few weeks later, 80 more protesters across the country had been killed. President Rutherford B. Hayes recorded proudly in his diary that the rail strikers had been “put down by force,” setting the tone for many a future conflict.

Over the next half-century, the history of American labor came to read like one great catalog of “force”: 10 strikers and three strikebreakers dead in the 1892 Homestead strike; 2,000 federal troops called in to suppress the 1894 Pullman rail strike; up to three dozen killed, including 11 children trapped in a burning tent colony, during the 1914 Ludlow Massacre. Not until the passage of the Wagner Act in 1935 did the free-for-all violence of the labor wars begin to slow. Even then, it did not stop entirely. In 1937, the Chicago police fired into a crowd of strikers marching on the anti-union Republic Steel corporation, killing 10 men and wounding dozens more—one of the most lethal conflicts of the country’s last great economic crisis.

In response, workers a century ago sometimes gave as good as they got. Though the preponderance of power was always on the side of government, strikers regularly armed in self-defense. A handful of militants went beyond such clashes into acts of sabotage and even terrorism. On Sept. 16, 1920, a still-unknown assailant (most likely the Italian-born anarchist Mario Buda) left a cart loaded with dynamite at the corner of Wall and Broad streets in New York. It went off just after noon, killing 38 people and wounding hundreds in the most dramatic act of anti-Wall Street rebellion in the nation’s history.

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