What We Can’t Afford to Do Again: The Hard Hat Riot
A few days after the Occupy Wall Street movement began to stir in September 2011, I walked the narrow streets of the world’s financial hub in a light rain, looking for a protest still too small to find. During the next few weeks, OWS would change the national conversation. The slogan “We are the 99 percent” did what years of complaint by economists and liberals could not: it focused attention on staggering income inequality and “the top 1 percent” who’d enriched themselves phenomenally during the past thirty years. “I am so scared of this anti-Wall Street effort. I’m frightened to death,” Frank Luntz, the GOP’s master of spin, told a private meeting of Republican governors at the end of 2011. “They’re having an impact on the way Americans think about capitalism.”
Suddenly, cable news shows that had been obsessing over the deficit “crisis” and President Obama’s latest poll numbers were explaining how decades of tax cuts and deregulation unraveled the social contract established in the New Deal. It had been accepted by every American president for thirty years afterward, until Richard Nixon brilliantly divided the New Deal coalition, largely around race. In the early days, polls showed that the Occupy movement’s grievances were broadly shared, even by the white working class, which Nixon and then Ronald Reagan had lured to the GOP. Yet how long before the 99 percent would cleave back into the 51 and the 48 percent? I couldn’t know. For the moment, though, it was amazing to see such broadly shared political discontent surfacing at all.
As I headed down the dark canyon of Wall Street itself, I decided to climb the steps of Federal Hall to get a better view of blue-helmeted cops behind barricades, waiting for trouble that never came that day. With the famous statue of George Washington to keep me company—our first president gave his first inaugural address on the site—I found myself thinking, and not in a good way, about another historic gathering on those same steps, one that offered important lessons for any American political movement: the Hard Hat Riot of 1970. The violent but little known skirmish marked the ultimate fracture of the Democratic