Sunday, October 3, 2010

The First National Pilgrimage to D.C.

The Sunday New York Times has a brief but interesting piece on the first national march on Washington, in 1894.  The article notes that the protesters were arrested for stepping on the Capitol grass -- a charge the author notes would be "preposterous" today.  Maybe not.  Concerns about aesthtics have led to proposals to limit protests on the Mall as well as actual limits in places like Central Park.  To be sure, protests are still allowed in such places.  But in some cases courts and officials have preferenced blades of grass over actual protesters.  The piece notes how little has actually changed over time with respect to national pilgrimages to D.C. 

Here is an excerpt:

Marching in 2010 and marching in 1894 are, of course, two different experiences.

On May 1, 1894, Coxey and somewhere between 500 and 1,000 marchers rambled along Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol. Thousands lined the streets to watch. These days, the only people who watch for any length of time are reporters and cops.

And yet, Coxey’s march foreshadowed many of the same logistical and tactical issues that today’s protest organizers face. Even Coxey’s message points to those of modern marches. One of the platforms of the rally in Washington on Saturday, which was sponsored by liberal groups, called for increased infrastructure spending to create jobs.

Newspapers covered virtually every step of Coxey’s journey from Ohio to Washington. Mr. Coxey and his aides stressed their Christian roots, while reporters described them as tramps and cranks. Politicians and the press seemed to have one primary concern: How many will march? Organizers today continue to be frustrated that their larger message gets lost amid the focus on crowd size, and Coxey was perhaps the first march leader to use a wildly optimistic number — he predicted 10,000 to 500,000 demonstrators — to generate publicity.

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