The protest that made Occupy DC possible

Jacob Coxey traveling through Montgomery County, Maryland. Courtesy of Maryland State Archives.

Chaltain ties the Occupy DC protest of 2011 to the Coxey’s Army march of 1894.  Notable is the mention of the Capital Grounds Act, a measure used to silence political speech in Washington D.C.

At the time of the parade, the United States was in the second year of a major economic depression and millions of Americans were unemployed; Coxey believed he had the answer to the nation’s economic woes. He proposed that the federal government issue $500 million in treasury bonds, that it apply those funds to initiate a massive program to build up the nation’s roads, and that it hire an army of workers, all of who would be guaranteed eight-hour days and daily wages of $1.50.

Convinced his plan would be ignored unless he presented it in person, Coxey intended to lead his peaceful parade of unemployed citizens all the way to Washington, D.C., where they would present a “petition in boots” to Congress on May 1 – International Labor Day. By the time they arrived, he promised reporters at a press conference on January 27, “We’ll have 100,000 men. We’ll not take a dollar with us, and instead of muskets every man will carry a white flag with the words, ‘Peace on Earth, Good Will toward Men, but Death to Interest-Bearing Bonds.’”

What Coxey did not know was that a law forbade him – without the official permission of the Vice President and the Speaker of the House – from presenting his petition in the way he envisioned. The Act to Regulate the Use of the Capitol Grounds, originally passed in 1882 to “subserve the quiet and dignity of the Capitol of the United States,” prohibited “any harangue or oration” and outlawed the display of “any flag, banner or devices designed or adapted to bring into public notice any party, organization, or movement” on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol.

Prior to Coxey’s arrival, the act had almost never been enforced. Yet it reflected the sentiment of the time, which held that Washington was a place for official business, not active protest.

Chaltain’s article goes on to mention that the Coxey march ultimately helped to transform the perception of DC into a place where it is fitting for the people to take their concerns and to seek redress.  A far cry from spending 20 days in jail for trespassing.

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