It's taken the better part of a century, but Washingtonians are finally getting the hang of dealing with big demonstrations like the one yesterday, which are seemingly a fact of life in the capital.
The Constitution provides for peaceable assembly and the right of petition for redress of grievances, but over the years those rights were rarely observed with liberality. Some obvious disturbers of the peace deserved to be hauled off to the local jail, but many well-intentioned peaceful folk wound up there, too.
They were against war, in favor of jobs for the unemployed, the vote for women, a bonus for jobless ex-servicemen. Though sometimes radical groups infiltrated their ranks, most demonstrators were energized true Americans who thought the government in Washington was doing them wrong. That can be said of the peace marchers of the Vietnam War period.
The first big "march on Washington" occurred in 1894 when "General" Jacob Coxey from Ohio led a ragtag "army" of jobless, numbered in the high hundreds, to Washington to support his plan for printing redeemable bonds--"funny money" some called it--to pay for public works projects that would put men to work.
A huge crowd, described as both curious and sympathetic, gathered on the Capitol grounds to hear Coxey, but the police moved in with clubs. Coxey was jailed for 20 days and fined $5 for--would you believe?--walking on the Capitol grass. So much for peaceable assembly in 1894.
Meantime, his "army" was driven by the Virginia militia from its camp in Rosslyn. It settled temporarily near what is now the State Department building in Foggy Bottom, and later moved to Bladensburg and, after the hungry group raided nearby farmers' fields, was dispersed from there, with some jailed at the Maryland House of Correction.
The next big issue confronting Washington was women's right to vote. Suffragists did lots of things to annoy the authorities. On Nov. 10, 1917, the wife of former representative William Kent (R-Calif.) and 40 other women were arrested and led to the "black Maria"--the patrol wagon--after marching in front of the White House in what The New York Times called a "sedately spectacular" episode.
They wanted President Woodrow Wilson to support the Women's Suffrage Amendment to the Constitution, ultimately adopted three years later.
The next big demonstration has been described as a textbook example of how not to handle such an event. It was the Bonus March of 1932. The story is oft-told and sad: thousands (17,000 is one figure I've seen) of Depression-impoverished World War I veterans gathered to push for a cash bonus, which they were denied.
As the encampment dragged on, patience waned and the old D.C. Board of Commissioners asked President Herbert Hoover for Army help in getting the vets out of town. Under the overall command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the Army Chief of Staff, a cavalry unit headed by Maj. George S. Patton Jr., sabers drawn, charged down Pennsylvania Avenue and routed the vets. Their camp on the Anacostia flats was evacuated and burned.
There have been numerous demonstrations and countless picket lines in Washington since. And in dealing with them, the authorities have finally come to discover one interesting and too-long-elusive point: in this democracy they, too, for the most part, are on our side.