Sunday, November 13, 2011

History that's haunting America

FRONTLINE TO PICKET LINE. US war vets line up to protect Oakland occupation.

AMERICA'S Occupy Wall Street movement has not only spread across the continent from shore to shining shore, but taken on new seriousness in the West Coast port city of Oakland, where police attacks on the protesters have widened their support, and led to a general strike action stretching from school teachers to longshoremen (port workers).

People were not placated by an apology from the mayor after an ex-marine was injured when police officers fired tear gas canisters into the crowd. As the Marine Corps paper reported:

OAKLAND, Calif. — A clash between Oakland police and Occupy Wall Street protesters left an Iraq War veteran hospitalized Wednesday after a projectile struck him in a conflict that came as tensions grew over demonstration encampments across the San Francisco Bay Area.

Scott Olsen, 24, suffered a fractured skull Tuesday in a march with other protesters toward City Hall, said Dottie Guy, of the Iraq Veterans Against the War. Olsen’s family members said the Marine Corps corporal served two tours of duty in Iraq.

The demonstrators had been making an attempt to re-establish a presence in the area of a disbanded protesters’ camp when they were met by officers in riot gear.

Fortunately Scott Olsen recovered. But news of the attack brought more ex-servicemen out to line up in protection of the protest camp, and stirred expressions of support from among serving military personnel.

Although some wild rumours had been flying around about "the marines coming", there is no doubt that ex-marines and other veterans have been turning up at occupy protests, not just on the West Coast but at Wall Street itself. Their participation is at least partly motivated by experience of the jobs market and health issues after the military has dispensed with their services, and has apparently taken extra encouragement since the AFL-CIO unions voiced support.

We might also note that in a week when politicians and the media have been trying to turn poppy-wearing and Armistice Day into their own propaganda stunt, a group of ex-servicemen turned up at St.Paul's cathedral to meet with the Occupy LSX campers.

Although the British Legion and American Legion are different, both originated in the period after the First World War and Russian Revolution, when the ruling classes grew frightened that returning servicemen facing unemployment and hardship would form dangerous revolutionary material. One only has to look at photographs of the original Jarrow Crusade to see that these marchers with neatly folded capes over their shoulders were marching in step and used to it.

But for the United States, supposed land of safe and successful capitalism, the news of ex-servicemen siding with the people against the bankers, and coming into potential conflict with the very forces they served has a haunting echo of history. Next year will be the 80th anniversary of the Bonus March when unemployed ex-servicemen went to Washington to demand payment of money owed them from their First World war service.

The Bonus Expeditionary Force, as they called themselves, numbered 43,000 marchers, 17,000 First World War veterans. their families, friends and supporters, who assembled in Washington, D.C., in the spring and summer of 1932. Many had been out of work since the onset of the Depression.

Retired Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler, who became famous for his frank and outspoken criticisms of US policy and the use made of the military to serve big business interests by intervening overseas, visited the marchers' camp to show support.

But on July 28 US. Attorney General William D.Mitchell ordered the veterans removed from all government property. First the Washington police moved in, and meeting resistance, opened fire. Two veterans were wounded and later died. Then President Hoover ordered the army to clear the campsite.

At 4:45 p.m., commanded by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the 12th Infantry Regiment, Fort Howard, Maryland, and the 3rd Cavalry Regiment, supported by six battle tanks commanded by Maj. George S. Patton, formed in Pennsylvania Avenue while thousands of civil service employees left work to line the street and watch. The Bonus Marchers, believing the troops were marching in their honor, cheered the troops until Patton ordered the cavalry to charge them—an action which prompted the spectators to yell, "Shame! Shame!"

After the cavalry charged, the infantry went in with fixed bayonets and adamsite gas, an arsenical vomiting agent. Driven out, veterans, families, and supporters retreated across the Anacostia River to their largest camp. Hoover ordered the assault stopped. But General MacArthur, who regarded the Bonus March as a Communist attempt to take power, ignored the President and ordered a new attack.

(Perhaps a later President Truman was mindful of this episode when, fearing war with China, he relieved General MacArthur of his command in Korea, and MacArthur came home to a ticker-tape reception on Wall Street).

Fifty-five veterans were injured in the onslaught and 135 arrested. A veteran's wife miscarried. When 12-week-old Bernard Myers died in the hospital after being caught in the tear gas attack, a government investigation reported he died of enteritis, though a hospital spokesperson said "the tear gas did not do it any good".

The US public showed what it thought by dumping Hoover and giving a landslide electoral victory to Franklin Delano Roosevelt that year. In 1933 there was another veterans' march, which Roosevelt tried to defuse with a more compromising approach, though it was to be some years before he was forced to agree the bonus.

On the labour front, 1934 saw a West Coast maritime strike, which became a general strike in the San Francisco bay area, including Oakland. There was also the widely supported teamsters' strike in Minneapolis.

The two men killed when police opened fire on the Bonus Marchers in Washington were William Hushka , a Lithuanian immigrant who had served in the US Army in World War I, and Eric Carlson a veteran from Oakland, who had served in the trenches in France during that war. Both men are buried at Arlington.

Studs Terkel's Hard Times, an oral history of the Great Depression, has accounts of the Bonus March and its repression.

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