After several years of tracing leads and sifting ideas, followed by ten months of steady application, I submitted the final draft of More Powerful Than Dynamite to my editor in June 2011.
To write at length is to feel quite alone and unaccompanied even at our best moments, and in this instance the labor seemed more solitary and discouraging even than usual. The narrative I had just completed revealed a forgotten history, a road not taken, a distant past. Little – very little – in my research offered much promise of resonating with readers at a time when an ascendant radical Right dominated political discourse and ailing progressivism had faded to near nihility. Around this moment, a New York Times review of a book on radical movements began with the cheerless observation, “We might as well call it: The American left is dead.”
Beyond the politics I also felt a writer’s pangs. In addition to the months spent in archival reading rooms I had employed a trove of freshly available computerized databases. Set in the year 1914, this is nevertheless a book of the digital age. Word-searchable periodicals, reference works, and high-resolution photographs in close-up of even my most obscure protagonists – these online resources created new vistas and new snares for research. To convey the violence of a windstorm, for instance, I thought to describe the physical motion of the equipment that measured atmospheric conditions. Digital searching netted several newspaper articles about the National Weather Bureau’s office in Lower Manhattan. I browsed full-text editions of meteorological manuals from the period, and even accessed blueprints of the machine itself. The same type of information was available for the floor plan of the Singer Building, the operation of streetlights, the scheduling of the railroads, the scrimping of the poor, and the prodigality of the affluent.
The capacity to miniaturize narrative focus down to the pinpoint was intensely satisfying to me as a historian and writer. I had ventured upon an archeology of knowledge. But I wondered if readers – seeing only the end results – would find my practice of dealing with matters item by item, and treating the past in its individual particulars, quite so exhilarating.
So it was with perhaps more than the usual trepidation that I relinquished the typescript to the proofreaders. You write a book to join a conversation. You do history to impart yesterday’s perspective to today. My work was done, but there was little reason to hope it would be relevant to the discussions of the hour.
Then, a bare few months later, More Powerful Than Dynamite vaulted into vivid life before me. A people’s movement arose, promising leaderless democracy, personal self-realization, and an alternative to the profit motive. We debated its claim to represent the 99%, but it was another popular rallying cry that had truly breathtaking implications: “Another world is possible.”
Occupy Wall Street inspired wondrous reactions from every individual who cared about it. For me, the activities in Liberty Square were a materialization and confirmation of much that I had learned in the previous years about the events of 1914. I never slept in Zuccotti Park, but I visited often, and participated in frequent demonstrations. Watching protesters claim ownership of the streets felt like witnessing a living reincarnation of the historical agitations that I had previously studied through images and text. Emma Goldman and Upton Sinclair had paraded these very blocks. I had traveled these pathways alone while writing about the residents of the Gilded Age city. In pursuit of their experiences, I had visited their homes and communed with their landmarks. Much of New York has been razed and rebuilt in the intervening century, but much remains: Union Square, Wall Street, City Hall – these were attractions with symbolic power, then as now. We marched where they had marched, in solidarity with our predecessors.
Throughout the fall, the past shadowed events. The anarchist efforts in 1914 had languished until official violence roused widespread sympathy by turning protesters into victims. When the commissioner ordered restraint on his men, the radicals’ momentum stalled again. “With the clubbing came the converts,” labor leader “Big Bill” Haywood had explained, “and after there was no more martyrdom there were no more additions to the ranks.” Occupy’s fortunes followed this same pattern. Had NYPD officers not succumbed to rage in the first week, the movement might have vanished before it caught on. Instead, rampaging policemen wielded nightsticks and mace, handcuffs and riot-control netting, and thereby provided the video and images that galvanized union members, veterans, students, artists, the unemployed, and young professionals to rally with the occupation.
A century ago activists in New York deployed irreverence, cutting irony, and an instinct for theater that extended their protestations’ reach far beyond their numbers. Despite the overwhelming force wielded by the plutocracy and police, their verve often gained them the initiative. Marching across the Brooklyn Bridge with tens of thousands of others on a November night in 2011, I knew the same exhilaration that the industrial-age crowds must have experienced when listening to one of Emma Goldman’s speeches. Halfway across the span I noticed people around me stopping, turning, and pointing back toward Manhattan. There, on the blank stone face of the Verizon Building, enormous projected images commemorated the two-month anniversary of the movement. I stared with those around me, thinking, We did this. Our people had the vision to create this. Our spotlights beam with messages of community. Theirs glare down from police towers and helicopters. The images cycled faster through the list of occupied cities around the world as cheering crescendoed on the bridge.
The confrontations of 1914 had not ended in elation, however, but in tragedy and violence. A few desperate activists chose to construct a bomb to target the Rockefeller family. Their device exploded prematurely, destroying its creators instead of its intended victims. One of the men responsible had been driven to fanaticism by sustained police repression; he had been beaten, arrested and jailed. As Occupy persisted my dread deepened that such an act could recur at any instant. It would have merely taken one lone bomber in his or her garret apartment (or – since some things have changed – his converted Bushwick loft, or her prewar mid-rise doorman building in Washington Heights) to contrive a bomb and redirect the history of the movement. It never happened. There was a nationwide outcry about anarchist dynamiters: They were conspiring to destroy an Ohio bridge, in Chicago they would disrupt a NATO Summit. In each case the plot turned out to have been the work of police and FBI agents provocateurs. The use of informants and instigators had been a common government tactic in 1914 as well. But the Occupy movement in this instance eschewed past trends, hewing to pacifism till the last.
No one doubted that the city would soon retaliate against us, so each moment demanded cherishment and analysis. We were witnessing practical, organized anarchism in action, but it existed in an isolated place within a hostile polity that would not tolerate it much longer. One night in the square, I stood with a friend keenly discussing Occupy’s merits and failings. After about twenty minutes, a stranger tapped my shoulder and suggested we relocate: A Livestream camera directly behind us had been broadcasting our entire conversation to the global audience. It became clear at times that the anarchists’ much-cherished consensus – like any form of governance – could mask a certain amount of politicking and arm twisting. In the daily protest marches I noticed how a few individuals could steer a demonstration toward confrontational tactics. During the general assemblies it occasionally seemed that the loudest, best-organized factions had the power to sway debates. Despite such shortcomings, this was a great experiment in participatory democracy. Yes, it was working. No, it would not be permanent.
At dawn on the morning after police destroyed the encampment I gathered in Foley Square with a few exhausted survivors of the raid. No one yet knew what the loss of the ground would mean for the continuation of the protests, but transition clearly was at hand. Numbers swelling to several hundred we returned to Zuccotti Park a few hours later to find the square penned by steel fencing and patrolled by private security, a state of affairs that would last for months to come. The movement dispersed gradually out into the neighborhoods and boroughs, becoming Occupy Brooklyn, Occupy Harlem, and – after the next year’s hurricane – Occupy Sandy.
By the time More Powerful Than Dynamite was published, in April 2012, the uncongenial political environment of the previous year had been transformed. Mainstream consensus on austerity and laissez-faire had given way to a significant confrontation with issues of income disparity and corporate malfeasance. As I traveled around the country speaking with readers about the book, similar questions arose at every stop. Many wanted to talk about the place of violence in political struggle. They wondered how this story related to my previous writings about the Weather Underground. A gratifying number asked methodological questions about my research. Curious about the level of detail, they wanted to know what was fact and what was fiction. I responded by assuring them that every element in the narrative rested on a trustworthy source. Numerous people found the story familiar in its outlines. They were red-diaper babies, or came from a family of labor activists. After one event an elderly gentleman approached to tell me proudly that it was his mother who had tied the fuse on the bomb meant to assassinate the Rockefellers.
Mainly readers wanted to ask – or to tell – about Occupy Wall Street. In Seattle, Berkeley, Denver, and other cities I visited, activists had constructed their own encampments. Visiting these sites revealed the same energies I had read about from the previous century, and seen firsthand in Manhattan, but each unique community infused its protests with local meaning. In Albany, New York, the occupiers targeted state government. In London, England, they commandeered the front steps to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Interviewers and audience participants frequently asked me to speculate about the future of the movement. I was not a spokesperson, of course, nor did I possess any special insight that might allow me to predict what would occur next. I wanted to see the energies from the occupations continue to generate community organizing efforts around such questions as housing, student rights, and financial-sector reform.
The movement had generated new questions as well as new answers. So much of Occupy’s success stemmed from the seizing and holding of specific sites; the importance of urban space demanded study. The serious commitment to leaderless democracy, consensus decision-making, and an opposition to posing formal demands, had defined the movement. Mature consideration would be necessary before it could be decided what had worked in these positions, and what had been a hindrance. A professor suggested to me in the fall of 2012 that the transient nature of the demonstrations might stem from changes in media and social-networking technologies; it was possible, she surmised, that in the Internet Age, protest cycles – like news cycles – were becoming increasingly compressed. We were sitting in a café outside of the New York Public Library when she offered this observation. While we were debating, with exquisite timing, a parade of several hundred Occupy protesters came storming through Bryant Park chanting slogans about the mortgage crisis at a volume that rendered further conversation impossible.
But there was one thing I could answer – the question I heard more often than any other. Many interviewers and readers concluded that the parallels between 1914 and the Occupy Movement proved the adage that the past repeats itself. Each had a preferred metaphor to describe the same idea: History – I heard – is cyclical, it surges in waves, or swings like a pendulum. In response I argued that the similarities between the two moments corresponded to no transcendent pattern, but instead reflected concrete realities.
The agitations in 1914 targeted a nation that made almost no economic provision for its most vulnerable citizens, a society where the moneyed few controlled a disproportionate share of resources and power. Disillusioned with political processes, and desperate for redress, tens of thousands of people – the homeless and unemployed, professional activists, bohemian sympathizers – coalesced in a brief, but powerful series of demonstrations against the status quo. In later years, especially during the middle decades of the twentieth century, their successors in the labor movement compelled the government to create a relatively full-bodied commitment to social welfare. This too proved transitory. By the beginning of the twenty-first century many of these protections had been annulled. The claim that Americans were divided into the 1% and everyone else once again rang true. Not a naturally recurring cycle then, but a century’s worth of struggle, resistance, and retrenchment had reestablished conditions to incite such a movement as Occupy Wall Street.
More Powerful Than Dynamite chronicles a moment that time’s passage had effaced. But it was not a failure of the people or the ideas of 1914 that led to its erasure from our cultural memory. It was the context. Within weeks of the explosion that climaxed the movement in New York City, the Great War had begun in Europe. Four years later, when that conflict had ended, the political world had changed. Many of America’s leading dissidents had been repressed, imprisoned, or expelled. The Bolshevik Revolution had ensured that Communism, not Anarchism, would dominate the radical vision for the century’s future. Individual memories would bear forward the personal lessons of 1914. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Walter Lippmann, Upton Sinclair, and other influential notables, all emerged from that year of anarchy with new prejudices, fears, and ideas that would stay with them for the remainder of their lives. Yet the larger background that had motivated their actions could never be reclaimed. It is fruitless to speculate about how Occupy Wall Street will be remembered a hundred years hence. But there should be no doubt as to the significant place it has earned in our radical tradition.
And no one who stood with the occupiers will forget the impression of gathering with friends in a liberated place.
New York City
September 17, 2013