In 1932, the Bonus Army was the first major protest group to camp on the Mall. These World War I veterans fought for many years to collect a pay bonus promised to them and camped in Washington to keep this issue in front of Congress for more than a day. In the 1960s and 1970s, encampments became more common. Each group camped to raise public awareness of specific economic, political, and social problems, but few resulted in policy changes the demonstrators wanted. Often disruptive, each encampment succeeded in challenging government authority over how and why citizens could bring their concerns to the government on the Mall and other public spaces.
Why did protesters camp on the Mall?
In 1932, more than 43,000 World War I veterans and their families came to Washington to demand payment of bonuses due them for wartime service. Known as the Bonus Army, these veterans were hit hard by the Depression. Both President Hoover and Congress proved unsympathetic. Congress defeated the Bonus Bill while marchers camped outside the US Capitol. After 3 months, the encampment ended tragically when police evicted the Bonus Marchers and killed two protestors. The US Army, under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, razed and burned campsites.
The 1968 Poor People's Campaign camped on the Mall to protest economic injustice in America one month after the assination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King. Called Resurrection City, the camp opened in May on the south side of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. It was an independent city of 5,000 people with stores, a hospital, and a city hall. Protestors camped to fight for an Economic Bill of Rights advocating meaningful jobs at a living wage for every employable citizen. No bill was passed and DC police evicted demonstrators from Resurrection City on June 23.
In 1971, Vietnam Veterans built a campsite on the Mall to make visible their living conditions in Vietnam. Worried about another protest against American involvement in Vietnam, the National Park Service, the Supreme Court, and the White House debated whether the protestors could legally sleep on the Mall. The veterans refused to move. For 4 days they spoke with the public and lobbied Congress for troop withdrawal. More than 800 veterans tossed their medals, ribbons, and discharge papers on the steps of the Capitol. Despite these efforts, Congress did not vote for immediate withdrawal of troops from Vietnam.
Native American protestors occupied the Washington Monument grounds in the summer of 1978. The American Indian Movement's Longest Walk began on Alcatraz Island in California and ended in Washington to raise awareness of threats to tribal authority on Indian lands. Movement leaders and tribal elders stayed in tipis set up near the Washington Monument, visible from both the Capitol and White House. In addition to the encampment, there were rallies, workshops, demonstrations, tribal ceremonies, and lobbying throughout the city. All of the Congressional bills which the protestors opposed were defeated.
When the American Agriculture Movement protested on the Mall in February 1979, they brought not only tents but tractors. These protestors were small-scale farmers who wanted higher crop prices and more representation in the agricultural policy process. They had been on the Mall almost two weeks when a blizzard hit the city. Protestors took refuge in the Smithsonian buildings and used their tractors to transport stranded city residents. While their actions encouraged goodwill with D.C. residents, Congress remained unsympathetic. These last protestors to occupy the Mall, like most groups before them, failed to achieve their goals.