Occupy Wall Street camps are today's Hoovervilles
As local officials move to shut down Occupy Wall Street encampments across the nation, the political impact of the demonstrations is likely to grow — if U.S. history is any guide.
The Occupy sites that sprouted up in recent months in response to the poor economy resemble the Great Depression's so-called Hoovervilles, shanty villages inhabited by a newly created class of poor people.
Named for Republican President Herbert Hoover, who was thrown out of office after one term because of his failed policies in dealing with the Depression, the Hoovervilles ultimately helped shape the New Deal and the vision of a liberal state that would provide an economic safety net.
Although the Hoovervilles lasted for almost a decade, the Occupy camps face extinction as municipal officials from Oakland to New York move to close them down, citing health and safety issues.
The first Occupy camp — in New York's Zuccotti Park — grew out of an anti-Wall Street demonstration two months ago. The movement spread to dozens of cities, becoming a factor in the national political debate with an amorphous philosophy blaming the richest 1% of the nation for the economic problems hurting the other 99%, such as burdensome debt, tight credit and a lack of jobs.
Now many of the camps are being dismantled. New York police raided the Zuccotti Park encampment early Tuesday morning. Police also have emptied the Oakland camp, where there were confrontations between demonstrators and cops in recent weeks. An estimated 3,000 arrests have been made in cities nationwide, including Honolulu, Denver, Atlanta and to Albany, N.Y.
Protesters have since taken to the Internet to say their movement remains undefeated and will continue despite the loss of some pieces of real estate.
"We move forward in the grand tradition of the transformative social movements that have defined American history," one protester wrote on the website of the original Occupy Wall Street protest in New York. "We stand on the shoulders of those who have struggled before us, and we pick up where others have left off. We are creating a better society for us all."
Although the movement has succeeded in pushing the issue of income and wealth inequality to the fore, it never developed specific policy proposals.
But it did attract allies, including labor unions and Democratic government officials and candidates. Those allies have grafted their own political programs onto the demonstrators' zeal and are likely to gain from the political fallout.
After all, in the 1930s it was the Democrats who popularized the term "Hooverville," much to the benefit of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
— Michael Muskal
Photo: A bread line in New York's Times Square in 1930, early in the Great Depression. Credit: Associated Press