Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

July 3, 2009


Progressive Historians - In December of 1932 and January of 1933, the Unemployed Councils [In New York City] began a new wave of strikes . . . In February of 1933, a panicked Real Estate News writer warned that "there are more than 200 buildings in the Borough of the Bronx in which rent strikes are in progress, and a considerably greater number in which such disturbances are brewing or in contemplation.". . .

Unlike today, the unemployed haven't always suffered in silence. On November 5, 1857, 15,000 unemployed men convened at Tompkins Square Park in New York City. They did not ask for charity, but for work. However, some of the hungry stormed baker's wagons and the police responded with force. Tompkins Square Park was again the site of another mass protest of the unemployed and hungry on January 13, 1874. Once again the demonstrators demanded public works projects, not charity. Once again the police responded in kind.

"Mounted police charged the crowd on Eighth Street, riding them down and attacking men, women, and children without discrimination. It was an orgy of brutality. I was caught in the crowd on the street and barely saved my head from being cracked by jumping down a cellarway." - Samuel Gompers, 1874

Most of these demonstrations achieved nothing. But decade after decade of efforts convinced local governments to set up soup kitchens and, in some places, public works projects.

It's difficult to find accurate information about the unemployment situation of the early Great Depression and the civil unrest it caused because the newspapers and politicians simply refused to acknowledge it until 1932. The AFL, the sole remaining national labor union after all other national labor unions had been brutally crushed, was completely unable to deal with the changing environment. . .

The unemployment demonstration staged by the Communist Party in Union Square broke up in the worst riot New York has seen in recent years when 35,000 people attending the demonstration were transformed in a few moments from an orderly, and at times a bored, crowd into a fighting mob. . .

New York wasn't the only place for rent strikes. In Chicago, particularly in the black neighborhoods, evictions and protests were an epidemic. In early August, 1931, an eviction riot led to three people being shot dead, and three injured cops. The fear of further unrest prompted the mayor to declare a moratorium on evictions. Some of the rioters got work relief. In Detroit it took 100 police to evict a single resisting family.

The outcome of the rent strike movement was to force the government to enact serious housing reforms, the twin pillars of which were rent control and public housing. . .

Some people may be under the impression that FDR's election and the New Deal was simply a logical reaction to extreme hardships. That democracy naturally corrected itself. That wasn't the case. It took a grassroots movement, working against all odds, to push the government into action. It's a lesson we should remember.



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