On a gusty April morning in 1914, a gun battle broke out between Colorado National Guardsmen and a group of striking coal miners. The strikers had been living in tents in a field after being evicted from their company-owned homes in town. Several miners (including a 12-year-old boy) were shot to death, and when the canvas shelters caught on fire, 11 children and two women were killed by the smoke. Nor did the guardsmen, buttressed by private security guards, remain unscathed: four were killed over the course of the day, and more in the week that followed.
The Ludlow Massacre, as it became known, was but one skirmish in a protracted, often violent conflict that raged throughout the United States during the early years of the 20th century. A radical social change was at stake: Would the miners, meat-packers, silk workers, garment makers, and steelworkers of the newly industrial nation be able to join labor unions in order to bargain over the terms of their work—their wages, their hours, the safety of their jobs? One contemporary journalist described the tent colonies as “the outward sign of civil war.”
Almost 100 years later, the attention of the country was once again galvanized by a tent city—this one in Zuccotti Park, a few blocks away from the New York Stock Exchange. Initially the inspiration of a few activists determined to call attention to poverty in the midst of New York’s extreme wealth, Occupy Wall Street—like the early labor movement—tapped into a widespread sense of dispossession and fear, this time in the wake of the 2008 financial panic and the recession.