Editor’s note: A shorter version of this article first appeared in today’s issue of USA Today.
As the indignation of the Wall Street Occupiers spreads across the nation, it is time to step back and consider the broader historical perspective. What will history books record about the Wall Street Occupation? For starters, what was the start date? The answer to that simple fact alone has some potentially profound meaning.
The Wall Street Occupation began on September 17. How ironic that date is.
If the Wall Street Occupiers could hop into a time machine and read their New York Times from September 17 almost a century ago—specifically, September 17, 1920—they would be struck by this headline: “WALL STREET EXPLOSION KILLS 30, INJURES 300; MORGAN OFFICE HIT; BOMB PIECES FOUND.”
At noon the previous day, a horse-drawn wagon carrying hundreds of pounds of explosives and deadly shrapnel exploded in front of the headquarters of J.P. Morgan at 23 Wall Street, the heart and busiest section of America’s financial district. The final death toll was 38, with over 400 injured.
The suspects were surprisingly similar to the spectrum of leftist protestors who are occupying Wall Street right now. They ranged from radical progressives to socialists to communists to anarchists, from homegrown Bolsheviks to Italian Galleanists to Communist Party USA. No matter their labels, all shared one thing in common: they were anti-capitalist, anti-Wall Street, anti-banker, and generally despised what President Obama constantly refers to as “millionaires and billionaires” who do not “pay their fair share.” They saw banks, loan-makers, investors, Wall Street, and the wealthy as sinister forces. They, too, shouted “down with capitalism!”
As the bomb immediately produced millions of dollars in damages and worse still in human carnage, certain wealthy bankers and investors, like J. P. Morgan, braced themselves for a march on their homes by anti-capitalist mobs—a prelude to what happened in New York this time around. The September 17, 1920 New York Times, in a lengthy page-one article titled, “RED PLOT SEEN IN BLAST,” noted not only that Mr. Morgan’s home was being guarded but—in another similarity to the current Wall Street Occupation—that “many cities” around America were preparing their financial districts “against similar disaster.” Mayors nationwide worried about the Wall Street chaos metastasizing to their cities, organized by left-wing ringleaders connected to the New York fiasco.
It strikes me that today’s Wall Street Occupiers, as they go national, have become increasingly belligerent and violent. Reports abound of widespread theft, destruction of property, rampant drug use, sexual assaults from groping to alleged rape, knocking over trash cans, defecating on police cars, clashes with police—involving rocks, tear gas, riot gear, shouting down police as “Pigs”—stabbing threats, mass arrests, blatant anti-Semitism, refusals to report crimes, and all sorts of other violent outbursts. Incidents have occurred across the country, from New York to Boston to Baltimore to Cleveland to Denver to Oklahoma City to Oakland, California.
Democrats have responded to the Wall Street Occupiers in varying ways, from Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi's strange, “God bless them for their spontaneity,” to President Obama expressing empathy with their “frustrations.” “I understand the frustrations being expressed in those protests,” Obama told ABC’s Jake Tapper. “In some ways, they’re not that different from some of the protests that we saw coming from the Tea Party…. I think people feel separated from their government. They feel that their institutions aren’t looking out for them.” Likewise, Vice President Biden has framed the protests as a sort of leftist version of the Tea Party.
More generally, the Occupy Wall Street behavior is a cautionary tale to President Obama and Democrats: Class-based rhetoric and demagoguery is poisonous and destructive. Once the enraged masses spill into the streets in more and more cities, the chances for violence magnify exponentially. Class envy and hatred engenders an unhealthy rage. I’m amazed that the protests have not gotten much more violent. Gee, Roseanne Barr literally called for guillotining wealthy bankers—and she was deadly serious.
The September 17, 1920 New York Times was a picture of that violence. It was at newsstands on Wall Street the exact same day the current Wall Street Occupation took hold on September 17, 2011.
Is the date a coincidence? Yes, I think so, even as the symbolism is jarring. The planners in September 2011, as far as I can tell, have no idea of the irony of the set of dates, being inspired and led by other forces. Unless, that is, the devil has a sense of irony.