Pre-Occupied D.C.

A tent city of protesters springs up in our nation’s capital during a severe economic downturn. After several months of Bonus Army Posteroccupying government property and the public’s imagination, the protesters are finally evicted as police raid the camps and destroy the temporary shantytowns.

While this might be ripped from today’s headlines, I’m not talking about the end of the Occupy D.C. movement, which has spent the past several months camped in the city’s McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza parks.

This is the story of D.C.’s very first group of occupiers (not counting the British during the War of 1812) – the Bonus Army, which staked its tents in our nation’s capital eighty years ago.

The Bonus Army was a group of impoverished World War I veterans who marched on Washington in 1932 demanding government compensation for their military service.While Congress had authorized the bonuses in 1924, there was a catch – they wouldn’t be redeemable for their full value until 1945. Meanwhile, thousands of veterans and their families were destitute and unemployed as the country was in the grips of the Great Depression.

A group of about 20,000 veterans occupied Washington in protest, forming tent cities with their families in sight of the Capitol dome as they waited for the legislation to pay out what was promised to them.

Ironically, there had been a very similar march on a different American capital a hundred years before that – one that would ultimately be responsible for the very existence of Washington, D.C.

In the Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1793, a group of Revolutionary War veterans showed up on Congress’s doorstep demanding payment for their wartime service.

Congress managed to flee out the backdoor of Independence Hall, and the unsettling experience led them to abandon Philadelphia altogether as the capital. It also provided the reasoning behind locating a new capital in a federal district where Congress could ensure its own protection. Thus the District of Columbia was born.

So we already know that our early government was a bit jittery about marches on the capital led by disgruntled veterans.

Soldiers in the Bonus Army
“Soldiers” in the Bonus Army, in sight of the Capitol dome – 1932. (Photo: MPI/Getty Images)

When the Bonus March arrived in the city during a time of economic turmoil, the Hoover administration was equally wary. Soon the ranks of the Bonus Army swelled to more than 40,000, including the veterans’ families and other supporters.

They created a ramshackle encampment on an area of marshlands across the Potomac called Anacostia Flats, and also occupied parts of Pennsylvania Avenue waiting for a decision from Congress on their bonuses.

Bonus Army on the steps of the Capitol
The Bonus Army on the steps of the Capitol waiting for a decision on their bonuses – 1932.

Tensions began to rise as the Senate vetoed the Bonus Bill, and the Bonus Army refused to leave the vicinity of the Capitol. One month later, police were ordered to evict them.

In the confusion that followed, two veterans were shot and killed. The Hoover Administration decided to send in the army, led by none other than Douglas MacArthur, future President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and George S. Patton.

The Bonus Army camps are raided by police. (Photo: LOC)

Men, women, and children were forcibly evicted with tanks, cavalry, and infantry troops brandishing bayonets and gas. Going against orders, MacArthur followed the Bonus Army across the river to dismantle their main encampment, the Anacostia Hoovertown.

Some of the shantytowns went up in flames, and the entire protest movement was disbanded. There were several injuries during the raids, even resulting in the death of a baby. After this harsh treatment from the army, public opinion began to shift toward the Bonus Marchers and their families.

Burning Bonus Army Camp in sight of Capitol Dome
Some of the camps went up in flames after raids by the U.S. Army – 1932.

There was a backlash against the Hoover Administration, and Franklin Roosevelt won that year’s election, ushering in the New Deal to tackle the country’s economic woes.

When a smaller Bonus Army returned in 1933, the new administration took a much more sympathetic stance, providing them with clean facilities and even sending in Eleanor Roosevelt to meet with the movement’s leaders. One veteran was said to remark, “Hoover sent the Army. Roosevelt sent his wife.”

Eleanor Roosvelt with Bonus Army
Eleanor Roosevelt visits a Bonus Army encampment – 1933.

In 1936, Congress finally provided the marchers with the payment they’d been seeking, and the country learned its lesson. After the end of another world war a decade later, returning veterans would be greeted with a G.I. Bill to help them feed their families and transition to civilian life.

The District would also be much more accommodating to future protest marches, which would become a fixture of civic life in the capital.

The city was initially supportive of the most recent protest movement – Occupy D.C. – particularly after the Occupy Wall Street encampment was evicted from New York’s Zuccotti Park.

It seems that what eventually did in this movement was the enormous expense to the city, the unsanitary conditions of the camps, and the army of rats that had also joined them.

Occupy D.C. camp in Freedom Plaza
The Occupy D.C. camp in Freedom Plaza receives written notifications to vacate the park. (Photo: Historic District)

This weekend the U.S. Park Police sent in the cavalry in a mostly peaceful attempt to disband the camps and enforce a ban against sleeping in the city’s federal parks.

But if history is any guide, this certainly won’t be the last movement to occupy the District.

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