The notion of direct action — of in-your-face demonstrations designed to force injustice onto the national stage, sometimes involving occupying public space — has long been a part of protest politics in this country. In fact, in the depth of the Great Depression, more than 40,000 former soldiers occupied a marsh on the edge of Washington D.C., created a self-sustaining campground, and demanded that bonus money promised at the end of World War I be paid out immediately.
The so-called Bonus Army attracted tremendous national attention before General Douglas Macarthur, assisted by Major George Patton and Major Dwight Eisenhower, used active-duty troops to roust the occupiers.
The Freedom Rides of the early 1960s showed the spirit of independence and democratic direct action. Raymond Arsenault, a professor at the University of South Florida, brilliantly outlines the story of the early civil rights actions in a 2007 Oxford University Press book (Freedom Rides: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice) that became a national phenomenon when Oprah Winfrey devoted a show and a substantial online exhibition to it.
Arsenault notes that the rides were not popular with what was then the mainstream of the civil rights movement — no less a leader than Thurgood Marshall thought the idea of a mixed group of black and white people riding buses together through the deep south was dangerous and could lead to a political backlash. The riders were denounced as "agitators" and initially were isolated.
The first freedom ride, in May, 1961, left Washington D.C. but never reached its destination of New Orleans; the bus was surrounded by angry mobs in Birmingham, Alabama, and the drivers refused to continue.
But soon other rides rose up spontaneously, and in the end there were more than 60, with 430 riders. Writes Arsenault:
"Deliberately provoking a crisis of authority, the Riders challenged Federal officials to enforce the law and uphold the constitutional right to travel without being subjected to degrading and humiliating racial restrictions ... None of the obstacles placed in their path—not widespread censure, not political and financial pressure, not arrest and imprisonment, not even the threat of death—seemed to weaken their commitment to nonviolent struggle. On the contrary, the hardships and suffering imposed upon them appeared to stiffen their resolve."
The Occupy movement has already shown similar resolve — and the police batons, tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets have only given the movement more energy and determination.
David S. Meyer, a professor at U.C. Irvine and an expert on the history of political movements, notes that the civil rights movement went in different directions after the freedom rides and the March on Washington. Some wanted to continue direct action; some wanted to continue the fight in the court system and push Congress to adopt civil rights laws; some thought the best tactic was to work to elect African Americans to local, state and federal office.
Actually, all of those things were necessary — and Occupy will need to work on a multitude of levels, too, and with a diversity of tactics.
Single-day events have had an impact, too. Earth Day, 1970, was probably the largest single demonstration of the era — in part because it was so decentralized. A national organization designed events in some cities — but hundreds of other environmentalists took the opportunity to do their own actions, some involving disrupting the operations of polluters. The outcome wasn't a national platform but the birth of dozens of new organizations, some of which are still around today.