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7 Occupations That Changed US History

With the spread of political occupations to all 50 states today, lessons can be gleaned from past occupations for a movement that shows no signs of going away.

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Some of the women involved in the takeover went on to form the Boston Women's Health Collective, which wrote the groundbreaking” Our Bodies Our Selves,” They also helped found City Life/La Vida Urbana which is fighting home foreclosures today and is active with Occupy Boston.

4) Free Speech Movement

If you value freedom of speech, then thank an anarchist. Facing an extremely hostile political structure and media a century ago, the “Wobblies” ( Industrial Workers of the World), Emma Goldman and other anarchists honed their soap-box speaking to effectively promote their causes and build their ranks. They believed in the power of workers as producers, and put their hope in the general strike and street politics.

Margaret Kohn, author of  Brave New Neighborhoods: The Privatization of Public Space, writes that street speaking “confronted ‘respectable’ citizens with a visible reminder (and powerful critique) of poverty and deprivation. IWW orators tried to transform the figure of the hobo from a symbol of moral deprivation into an indictment of the capitalist economy and its exploitation of itinerant workers.” Kohn argues that “a democratic society requires public forums,” and that while public space today is controlled by monied interests, a century ago it was government that severely limited political activity in public space.

On the West Coast, the Wobblies were trying to organize miners, loggers, farm laborers and other migrants who worked at privately owned camps in rural areas. During the off-season the Wobblies would set up soap boxes in front of the office of “sharks,” agents who would extort fees for jobs at these camps – jobs that sometimes did not exist, leaving workers penniless and homeless once they arrived at the work site. Businessmen colluded with politicians, courts and police to try to smash the free speech campaign by banning street speaking, mass arrests, jailings, beatings and vigilante attacks.

The press weighed in with opinions like this  San Diego Tribune editorial from March 4, 1912: “Hanging is none too good for them. They would be much better dead, for they are absolutely useless in the human economy; they are the waste material of creation and should be drained off into the sewer of oblivion there to rot in cold obstruction like any other excrement.”

Even when the courts ruled in favor of free speech, local police would arrest street speakers who would be convicted by local courts of charges like disorderly conduct or conspiracy. In Spokane, Washington, the Wobblies successfully used the tactic of filling the jails to force the city to relent. As one speaker would be arrested, another would mount the soapbox. Kohn writes, “Often these inexperienced orators simply climbed up and began to read the United States Constitution, barely completing a few sentences before they were arrested.” Arrested Wobblies described jail conditions that included “beating prisoners, confining 30 men in an eight-by-six sweatbox, housing them in freezing conditions without blankets or cots, and turning cold hoses on them in freezing conditions.”

After more than 500 arrests and the failure of brutality to cow the protesters, the city of Spokane agreed to recognize the Wobblies right to free speech, assembly and press. Similar battles were waged in Seattle, Fresno, British Columbia and Kansas City. In San Diego the Wobblies were defeated systematic police violence and “armed vigilante squads” who kidnapped Wobblies arriving by train, and hauled them to the town limits “where hundreds were badly beaten, stripped, tarred and feathered, and run out town,” according to Kohn.

Despite this setback, the Wobbly campaign to open public space to political speech was eventually enshrined in constitutional law.