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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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Political occupations have a storied history starting with the first recorded labor strike. Some 3,176 years ago in Ancient Egypt royal tomb builders from the desert village of Deir el-Medina repeatedly occupied temples following the failure of Pharaoh Ramses III to provide wages consisting of wheat, fish, beer, clothing and other provisions.

In the centuries since, other movements have stamped their mark on history by occupying spaces, such as the Diggers who formed a utopian agrarian community on common land in 17th century England, and the workers, soldiers and citizens who established the ill-fated Paris Commune in 1871.

American history is rich with examples of political occupations that left a lasting impact. Sometimes the 99% pushed progress forward, as with Rosa Park’s occupation of a bus seat that propelled the Montgomery Bus Boycott and ended with Alabama’s bus segregation being declared unconstitutional. Often the 1% of the time – slaveholders, robber barons and merchants of war – re-asserted control with new methods of domination such as after the Great Upheaval of 1877. But each event proved that true democracy lies in collective act of taking space public and private, while corporations and the state are just two arms of the same beast.

With the spread of political occupations to all 50 states today, the most dynamic democratic movement since the 1960s, lessons can be gleaned from past occupations for a movement that shows no signs of going away. Here are seven of the most important occupations that changed American history.

1) The Great Upheaval of 1877

In his magnificent work Strike!, Jeremy Brecher describes how railroad men sparked the first general strike in U.S. history. Following a second pay cut in eight months, workers for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad seized the train lines and roundhouse in the small town of Martinsburg, West Virginia on July 16, 1877. The strike spread along the B&O line and workers halted freight traffic while continuing to move passengers and mail. Brecher argues that to succeed, the strikers had to “beat off strikebreakers by force [and] seize trains, yards, roundhouses.”

Thousands of miners, industrial workers, unemployed and youth rallied to the cause blocking and sabotaging trains protected by federal troops from moving in much of Maryland and West Virginia. Railroad companies enlisted state militias, but they inflamed sentiments by gunning down scores of strike supporters. In other instances guardsmen deserted, mutinied or handed over their weapons to the crowds.

The strike snowballed into an insurrection between as workers joined from every possible industry. Train yards were occupied in Buffalo, civil authority collapsed in Pittsburgh, strikers assumed policing, the telegraph and railways in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, and general strikes flared in cities throughout the Northeast and Midwest. Mass actions and strikes cropped up in Texas, Kentucky, Missouri and California.

While federal troops, corporate goons and police eventually broke a strike movement that lacked organization and strategy, and the massive national guard armories in the center of American cities is one enduring legacy, Brecher argues “the power of workers to virtually stop society, to counter the forces of repression and to organize cooperative action on a vast scale was revealed in the most dramatic fashion.”

2) 1930s labor movements

The Flint sit-down strikes that began in December 1936 and won union recognition for hundreds of thousands of industrial workers are legendary. But more than two years earlier, workers flexed their militancy through forms of occupation that won wage increases and union representation. Prior to this, argues Frances Fox Piven, co-author of Poor People’s Movements, workers were usually thwarted by intransigent capitalists who relied on vigilantes, police, government indifference and the self-interested leaders of the American Federation of Labor.

By 1934 the winds began to change. In Toledo, a faltering strike at the Electric Auto-Lite Company was bolstered by the radical Unemployed Leagues and local Communists. Defying court injunctions and mass arrests, more than 10,000 people shut down the Auto-Lite plant in May 1934. The crowd held their ground even after 900 Ohio National Guardsmen killed and wounded nearly 20 people. “With the threat of a general strike in the air,” Piven writes, the corporations agreed to a wage increase and limited union recognition.

At the same time, deadly battles raged in Minneapolis between vigilantes retained by the businessmen’s “Citizen Alliance” and workers led by the Teamsters and the Socialist Workers Party. Panic spread among the ruling class as more than 20,000 people joined the street fighting on the workers side, giving them effective control of the city. With the state government taking more of a neutral stance than usual, a settlement was reached that led to collective bargaining agreements with 500 Minneapolis companies by 1936.

The Longshoremen’s strike in San Francisco was less successful. In May 1934 a Communist-led union helped shut down most of the ports and teamsters honored the picket line. In July the police assaulted pickets, killing two and hospitalizing 115 others. Anger and sympathy swelled support for a general strike, but the AFL undermined it and it folded four days later.

It was the sit-down strike that changed the game, aided by government protections. In 1937 more than 500 sit-down strikes took place, building the United Automobile Workers and the Steel Workers Organizing Committee to more than 650,000 strong by 1938.

Piven describes why the sit-down strike was so effective: “With workers controlling the plant, employers could not import strikebreakers. In cases like General Motors, where many specialized factories depended on each other, a few sit-down strikes could, and did, stop the entire corporation. … Moreover, in the climate of the time, the sit-down strike, itself nonviolent, did not usually precipitate police action. And so the tactic spread, from factory workers to salesgirls, to hospital workers, garbage collectors, and watchmakers, to sailors, farmhands, opticians, and hotel employees.”

3) Harvard Building Women’s Takeover

On International Women’s Day in 1971, March 6, hundreds of women began a 10-day occupation of a Harvard-owned building in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Boston Phoenix reported at the time, “The idea originated with some members of Bread and Roses, a self-avowed socialist organization …. However, the plan was carried out by independent women from a least six different women’s organizations.” In the fall of 1970 Bread and Roses had circulated a call for a Women’s Center that could provide space for counseling on healthcare, abortion and birth control, legal aid, day care, activities for high-school girls and other community projects, and a place for lesbians.

There were many feminist organizations, collectives, consciousness-raising groups and communes with different politics and purposes at the time, but almost all supported the takeover. Once the occupation began many women who saw it on television or read about it in the newspapers joined or donated food, bedding and other supplies.

The occupiers did not realize there was already a struggle over the building, which was located in an African-American working class community. Harvard's expansion into the community had wiped out some 500 units of affordable housing due to the subsequent rise in property values and rents. The community wanted Harvard to replace that building and an adjacent one with affordable housing. When the women who took over the building learned that they had stumbled into this fight, they adopted the community's demand as one of their own. The women received an anonymous $5,000 donation from a female trustee of Radcliffe. In 1972 they purchased a house for use as a women's center that continues to provide services for the community and which acts as a base of activism for the women's movement.

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.

5)The Stono Rebellion

During the 1730s organized slave rebellions and conspiracies occurred in the Bahamas, Jamaica, Antigua, St. John and Guadalupe. On the morning of Sept. 9, 1973, up to 100 black slaves who had covertly gathered at the Stono River in South Carolina launched the largest rebellion in pre-Revolutionary War America. Slave revolts are by their nature a secretive affair, but Stono’s Rebellion involved the occupation of public space: a procession of liberated slaves who marched toward Florida where the Spanish had promised freedom. The leader of the group was a literate slave named Cato, who “wrote passes for slaves and do all he can to send them to freedom,”according to a descendant. After killing a handful of whites, seizing weapons and freeing other slaves, the growing group continued south, “with drums beating and banners flying, in some show of military order.”

Eventually a militia of some 100 whites caught up with the insurgents, “who fought well and bravely, but the armed militia won the fight,” with 20 whites and 40 blacks killed in total. Many slaves escaped from the battlefield, but captured rebels were shot and some decapitated with their heads mounted on posts.

As a result, South Carolina’s slaveholders imposed draconian measures prohibiting slaves from gathering in groups and learning to read, while also doubling tariffs on new slaves to try to slow the growth of the Black population. Nonetheless, accounts from Georgia indicate freed slaves had managed to escape that far, while Stono’s rebellion presaged even more dramatic uprisings led by Nat Turner and John Brown in the 19th century.

6) The Battle in Seattle

The immediate pre-cursor to the Occupy Wall Street Movement is the alter-globalization movement that caused the collapse of the WTO ministerial in Seattle in late 1999. Horizontalist and anarchist, the movement occupied areas around conclaves of the ruling elites: the WTO, IMF, World Bank, World Economic Forum and NATO.

While heavily influenced by Mexico’s Zapatista movement, which itself used occupied public spaces to advance its political agenda, the alter-globalization movement built upon other movements that used occupation to advance political and social goals. While many of these began abroad, they found a ready audience in the United States. This included Reclaim the Streets, which began in England in 1995 as a “disorganization” devoted to liberating public roadways – and blocking the construction of new ones. Much of the goal was fun, roving street parties, but it was layered upon a resistance to the socially atomizing and ecologically destructive effects of a car-centric society.

Related to this was Critical Mass, the international movement of bicycles reclaiming public space by organizing a mass rides through streets. An explicitly leaderless movement, the first Critical Mass was staged in San Francisco in 1992, but was inspired by one filmmaker’s experience in China where bicyclists would have to wait until there was a critical mass of bicyclists to cross through major intersections. Rides now take place in thousands of citieswhere bicyclists, roller bladders, skateboarders and others take over the streets for a few hours. In New York City, thousands of bicyclists would occupy the streets in a peaceful procession, changing people’s perception of how the roadways and public space could be used. Starting in 2004, however, the NYPD started arresting riders and seizing their bicycles to deflate the movement, but it still continues strong in hundreds of other cities around the world.

A third occupation movement that heavily influenced the Seattle movement was tree sitting, which took root in the Pacific Northwest in the 1980s. By setting up camp in trees, often 100 feet off the ground, ecological warriors stymied logging industry and U.S. Forest Service from felling unique old-growth forests. Supporters on the ground popularized many nonviolent tactics used by subsequent protest movements such as tripods, arm tubes, bicycle locks and concrete lock-ons to passively impede business as usual.

While the alter-globalization fell apart in the United States after the September 11 attacks, the worldwide movement helped to make the IMF irrelevant, while many veterans are playing critical roles in the Occupy Wall Street Movement today.

7) Lunch Counter Sit-ins

On Feb. 1, 1960, four freshmen from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College sat down at a whites-only lunch counter in a Woolworth store in the city of Greensboro and asked to be served coffee and doughnuts. They stay until the store closes. The next day the four return with other students, and by day four the number of protesters is nearly 300.

As planning began at two historic Black colleges in the area the prior fall, the students responded to the refusal of service by activating phone trees. Word quickly spreads throughout Black colleges and students in the South as does the tactic.

Tactics of nonviolence and returning to the lunch counter while refusing to be provoked by police and violent white mobs broadens the movement and gains it national support and sympathy. In Nashville, the student movement targets lunch counters as well as bus stations and department stores. In Savannah, Georgia, a widespread boycott movement forces some stores into bankruptcy and the next year the city agrees to desegregate buses, swimming pools, parks, restaurants and other public facilities.

In less than two weeks sit-ins, boycotts and pickets take place throughout North Carolina and South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia as well. Within a few months, sit-ins have occurred in every Southern state, and by year’s end an estimated 70,000 people have participated, resulting in more than 3,000 arrests.

The student led sit-in movement sparks the modern civil rights movement, leading to the formal dismantling of American Apartheid. 

Arun Gupta is a founding editor of The Indypendent newspaper. He is writing a book on the decline of American Empire for Haymarket Books.