Note: This guest blog post by Angelina Conti remembers another time when a nonviolent peace encampment was used as a tool for protest.

by Angelina Conti

When the Occupy Wall Street movement began in Zuccotti Park in September, I was surprised to find myself thinking about the Bonus Army and a lesson half remembered from a high school history class … something about veterans occupying the capitol, General MacArthur, and a fire.

The Occupy Together movement has spread to many other cities and finally is part of the mainstream national media.  And I’ve done some research on the Bonus Army. I’m thrilled to see activists, specifically young American activists, reclaiming a strong history of nonviolent occupation.

In case you don’t know the story, here’s what I learned.

In 1924 the U.S. Congress issued bonus certificates to veterans of World War I based on the length of their service: $1.25 for each day served overseas and $1.00 for each day served in this country, to be paid in 1945. But by 1932 the country was deep in the throes of the Great Depression, and veterans began to lobby Congress to give them their money early. In May, thousands of  unemployed veterans, many of them homeless and many of them accompanied by their families, began to descend on Washington, DC. Eventually numbering between 10,000-20,000, they occupied empty buildings and set up several tent cities, the largest of which was in Anacostia Flats, opposite the Capitol. They called themselves the Bonus Expeditionary Force, but newspapers, the public, and high school history textbooks have forever dubbed them the Bonus Army. They used the camps as staging areas for several nonviolent marches on the Capitol.  (You can find footage on YouTube here.) 

Accounts of the tent cities emphasize that they were well-organized and orderly. Veterans and their families laid out streets, dug latrines, and held military formations daily. Walter Walters, one of the primary leaders of the Bonus Army, announced that there would be "no panhandling, no drinking, no radicalism” (accusations of communist “infiltration” were rampant and overblown).

The social structure and the largely nonviolent nature of the Bonus Army camps was important to the movement. The ability of destitute veterans to build their camps with a humane, orderly, nonviolent, and community-minded ethos shamed the government for failing to provide the kind of safety net that veterans (and everyone) so badly needed.

A receptive House of Representatives passed a bill in June to give veterans their bonuses, but the bill died in the Senate later that summer.  As a result, tensions increased and orders to “evacuate” the camps were issued in July.

First the DC police and later the army, including tanks and at the command of General MacArthur, marched on the Anacostia camp. In the ensuing melee, two veterans and two babies were killed, local hospitals overflowed with the injured,  and the camp burnt to the ground. This “evacuation” – a military routing of United States veterans by the United States Army - marked the end of the Bonus Army movement.

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Gene Sharp’s famous “List of 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action,” includes methods that describe the Bonus Army as well as the current Occupy Together movement. Among them are group lobbying, haunting officials, assemblies of protest or support, withdraw from social institutions, and protest emigration. But perhaps the most apt is simply nonviolent occupation.

Although there are differences between the Bonus Army and Occupy Together, there are some important similarities: citizens, many of them having cooperated and served in economic and governmental systems that have failed them, use nonviolent occupation and community building not only to shame and make demands of the government, but also to demonstrate how a transformed social and economic system might work.

Like their Bonus Army predecessors, Occupy communities have set up (or are striving to set up) systems of social welfare and mutual aid: trash and compost collections, medical aid tents, and community classes. In Philadelphia and elsewhere, the goal of daily consensus- based General Assemblies is democratic and inclusive community decision-making. “Building a new society in the shell of the old” is an apt description and one that Occupy activists are using openly. It’s a phrase claimed also by anarchism, the labor movement, the Catholic Worker movement, and Gandhian nonviolence.

This is perhaps the best answer to the not totally unfair critique that Occupy Together has no coherent single grievance or vision for change. While it may be in its infancy – and  while this kind of structural critique many be new to some of those involved – Occupy Together activists seem to understand that the problem is systemic and manifests in many forms. Seeing the connections between economic policy, free trade, lack of jobs, reduced environmental regulation and environmental degradation, the burden of student loans, and lifetimes spent in debt is indicative of structural understanding and thus the push for change.

In terms of clarifying solutions, building a community based on humanity, dignity, mutual aid and respect, and living democracy is a strong good place to start that change.Angelina Conti

Angelina Conti lives in Philadelphia and works in higher education. She taught Peace Studies for two years at the Woolman Semester. This piece also appears on her blog: www.notafraidofthunder.com.

Bonus Army resources

Story about the Bonus Army produced by PBS's American Experience

Story about the Bonus Army on Eyewitness to History