Thinking about the analogy between Occupy Wall Street and the Bonus Army a bit more, I remembered the Tompkins Square Riot of January 1874, where 15,000 New Yorkers who had gathered to demand relief and jobs from the city government were met by police on horseback, who then charged the crowd and sparked off a riot. This was in the middle of the deep recession of 1873, at the time the most serious America had endured, when millions of people were out of work and suffering. It was also the beginning of the Gilded Age, a period of 30 years or more which brought the richest Americans great fortune and wealth.
Philip Dray kicks off his book, There Is Power In A Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America, with a description of the scene at Tompkins Square on the 13th of January 1874:
The police commissioner, Abram Duryée, strode into the park to order the crowd to disperse, a squad of officers walking behind him and using their batons to prod the reluctant. Two German workers who resented being shoved struck back, prompting police on horse to enter the square. The crowd panicked and rushed to the gates, but the pathways were narrow and the horsemen came on swiftly, charging “like Cossacks,” one Russian immigrant recalled, swinging their clubs and chasing the protestors out of the square and through nearby streets as far as the Bowery. There were injuries from the policemen’s blows and numerous arrests.
Dray notes that the city was increasingly concerned with the potential for radicals and anarchists to stoke discontent among the poor and unemployed against the young capitalist system itself, with local papers full of paranoia left over from the short-lived Paris Commune of 1871. According to Dray, New York’s Mayor, William Havemeyer, responded to the unemployed workers’ calls for the city to supply jobs by telling the protest’s organisers, “It is not the purpose or object of the city government to furnish work to the industrious poor. That system belongs to other countries, not ours.”
I don’t really like to draw direct comparisons across 140 years of history, but there are no doubt some similarities involved. It’s also useful to remember that protests against economic structures which disproportionately benefit a tiny elite are nothing new in New York or the rest of America.