by Dave Lister
In June 1932, during the depths of the Depression, some 15,000 unemployed veterans of the Great War in Europe marched on Washington, D.C., along with their families and set up an Occupy-style encampment on the banks of the Anacostia River not far from the Capitol. Calling themselves the “Bonus Expeditionary Force” but dubbed by the media the “Bonus Marchers,” the men had come to petition Congress to make good early on a congressionally approved bonus to each veteran scheduled for payment in 1945. Awaiting a decision, the men flew the flag, marched and sang patriotic songs, and the women prepared and distributed the food provided them by sympathetic merchants. Strict order was maintained in the camp, and only those who could show military service and an honorable discharge were admitted.
The House quickly passed a bill approving early payment of the bonuses, but on June 17 it was overwhelmingly rejected by the Senate. Having no place else to go, the stunned marchers returned to their camp and hunkered down, hoping for a sympathetic ear from the Hoover administration. Rather than receiving the veterans, Hoover cordoned off the White House with armed troops. On July 28 the order was given to clear the camps. Under the direction of Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur, the marchers were brutally driven out of town with bayonets and tear gas and their encampment burned. It was a shameful chapter in American history.
The Occupy Portland protesters, and indeed the Occupy protesters around the country, may see themselves as something similar to the bonus marchers of 1932, but in reality there is little comparison. The bonus marchers conducted themselves in an orderly, disciplined fashion. The Occupy encampments have been crime-ridden, with reports of rapes, thefts and drug abuse. The bonus marchers purposefully kept out anarchists and troublemakers. The Occupiers embraced them. The bonus marchers had a leader, Walter Waters, a former Army sergeant from Portland. The Occupiers tout the fact they are leaderless, leaving no one responsible for anything. Finally, the bonus marchers had a purpose: They were petitioning the government to fulfill, albeit early, a specific promise. The Occupiers seem purposeless.
Calling themselves the “99 percent,” the Occupiers are protesting everything from student loan debt to bank bailouts. They are angry with Wall Street. They are angry with the banks. They decry capitalism and big corporations, even though their retirement accounts, if they have them, are dependent on those entities. They misdirect their anger at the nebulous “1 percent” rather than the fraction of 1 percent, the members of Congress, who created a regulatory environment that required the banks to make questionable loans and opened loopholes for the unscrupulous to be able to game the financial system. If you could synthesize their multiple messages into a theme, it seems they are saying, “We were promised the American dream, and we haven’t received it.”
I am unsympathetic. Blocking streets to prevent commuters from picking up their children and getting home to their families, shutting down banks so folks can’t cash their paychecks and disabling ATM machines with super glue isn’t sticking it to “the man.” It simply does injury to the true 99 percent, the hardworking people trying to make a living, obeying the laws and paying taxes.
The American dream is not a promise; it is an opportunity. The American dream cannot be given; it can only be achieved. And in America, unlike most of the rest of the world, it is achievable. The only thing standing between any person and the attainment of the American dream is that person himself.
Dave Lister is a small-business owner who served on Portland’s Small Business Advisory Council.