This sounds like it could have happened in the past few months. But it was March 6, 1930, International Unemployment Day. With joblessness soaring after the 1929 stock market crash, it represented one of the first nationwide demonstrations where Whites and Blacks — most members of the Communist Party — locked arms against an unfair system.
The extreme law enforcement reaction would be repeated 90 years later during the George Floyd protests, when authorities used force to clear Lafayette Square for a President Donald Trump photo op.
In 1930, the protest started quietly at noon with a few hundred people picketing for jobs on the sidewalk in front of the White House. Meanwhile, hundreds of plainclothes and uniformed police officers surrounded the area.
Although the rally was peaceful, tensions were high. As the country fell into the abyss of the Great Depression, the unemployment rate in March of 1930 was 8.7 percent, compared with 6.2 percent now. By the end of 1931, it had skyrocketed to almost 16 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Police were on edge not only because of wariness of revolutionary “Reds” holding a demonstration, but also because public protests were not as common yet, let alone ones involving Blacks and Whites fighting together, as a New York Times reporter noted.
“Spectators were treated to the unusual spectacle of several White girls walking with colored men during the ‘picketing,’” he wrote. More provocatively, 25 years before the civil rights era in the United States, “one of the placards carried by the demonstrators urged social and economic equality for Negroes and whites.”
“Interracial protests and activism was something that was very new,” Randi Storch, a professor of history at the State University of New York at Cortland, said in a phone interview. “Other socialists and groups on the left thought of it, but the Communist Party actually did it.”
After the protesters spent about an hour chanting slogans and attracting an audience of government employees on lunch break, local Communist Party leader William “Bert” Lawrence climbed the White House fence to get above the crowd to give a speech. Immediately, an undercover officer began hitting Lawrence to pull him down. Lawrence then punched the officer in the face, according to The Washington Post. The demonstration had been peaceful, but then violence erupted.
A few marchers came to Lawrence’s rescue, only to be met with the full fury of police, with blackjacks and nightsticks flailing. In what The Post called a “Red Riot,” the officers began clubbing people as protesters fought back by punching and kicking. But they were no match for the overwhelming force in blue.
Officers threw a tear gas bomb to scatter the crowd as police continued “swinging their clubs or blackjacks freely on whoever happened to be in the way,” The Post reported. One protester in particular caught reporters’ attention: D.C. teenager Edith Briscoe “fought like a wild cat,” Capt. William G. Stott told the New York Times.
“Policeman B.J. Beckman particularly got a bit more than he bargained for when he attempted to club one of the colored demonstrators,” wrote a reporter for the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper. “Rushing to the aid of her dark-skinned comrade, Edith Briscoe, white, 19-year-old communist leader, who is well known here, jumped upon the officer’s back and prevented his blackjack from doing damage to the head of her comrade.”
Briscoe fought Beckman off with her fists, “cutting his mouth badly,” wrote the Washington Star. She was arrested along with 12 other protesters and charged with assault and disorderly conduct.
The Communist Party’s linking of racism to the inequities of American institutions shows “stunning parallels between the social movement mobilizations that we’ve seen in 2020,” James Gregory, professor of history at the University of Washington, said in a phone interview.
On International Unemployment Day, police violence also erupted in cities including Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee and Boston. Despite civil unrest unfolding right in front of the White House, President Herbert Hoover worked quietly in his office during the disturbances while his wife received a delegation from the local convention of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
In New York, the confrontation exploded into one of the worst riots the city had seen in recent years.
Shortly after 2 p.m., the Associated Press reported, more than 40,000 Black and White protesters jammed into Union Square in downtown Manhattan, carrying heady signs for the 1930s, such as, “Unity of White and Negro Workers Is What We Want.”
William Z. Foster, the Communist Party leader who ran for president in 1928, called on the crowd to march to City Hall to confront the mayor about unemployment and racism. New York City Police Commissioner Grover Whalen “warned the Communists not to transform a peaceful demonstration into a riot” even though the march would be a peaceful one.
Foster and the crowd began moving toward Broadway when an army of 1,000 police, mounted and on foot, halted them in an early form of kettling. “Hundreds of policemen and detectives, swinging nightsticks, blackjacks and bare fists, rushed into the crowd,” preventing them from moving, according to the New York Times.
“Fifteen minutes of spectacular fighting scattered the protest” in all directions as “firemen turned hoses onto the crowd and a police truck equipped with tear gas, submachine guns and riot guns” arrived, the Times continued. The police “attack carried behind it the force of an avalanche.”
Foster was arrested along with other Communist Party leaders and served six months for inciting a riot and demonstrating without a permit. And Edith Briscoe in Washington? She was fined $75 for assault and battery. A few years later she became Foster’s secretary as they continued their work in the Communist Party, and she went on to become a well-known D.C. activist, heading up the group Women’s Strike for Peace.
International Unemployment Day was the start of a decade of protests in the United States by the Communist Party and other groups during the Great Depression. Unemployment marches became a familiar sight, and the party went on to form unemployment councils that also organized demonstrations and actions against evictions and widespread hunger.
The 1930 marches against unemployment and police brutality saw a rare reckoning. New York Police Commissioner Whalen was heavily criticized for abusive police actions during the New York riot on March 6. Two months later, he was forced to resign.
On the same day as International Unemployment Day, the Senate Commerce Committee scheduled its first hearing to consider an unemployment insurance bill. By 1932, seven states had passed unemployment assistance into law, leading President Franklin D. Roosevelt to pass the Social Security Act in 1935, providing federal unemployment insurance.