In 1914, New York City experienced its worst winter in years. Massive snowstorms repeatedly drove upon the city while temperatures would dip below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. In just two nights, 16 individuals died of sheer cold, and scores more had to be hospitalized from frostbite. Those who could find shelter at all lit fires indoors in desperate attempts to survive the frigid nights, risking the safety of other buildings nearby. Those who could not find shelter often suffered injuries or illnesses, ending up at the hospital and occupying a bed for longer than a typical patient. Some others would purposely choose arrest; at least jail guaranteed some food and a warm place to sleep.
Nationally, unemployment had been on the rise, reaching a staggering ⅓ of available workers out of a job. In New York City, hundreds of unhoused people, mostly recently-unemployed men, lined the buildings to soup kitchens and shelters. Formerly the sole domain of religious groups, new charitable organizations sprang up to support and oftentimes shepherd the economically vulnerable into this or that cause. Favorable interpretations for these new organizations viewed them as modern, scientific, and wholly apolitical -- seen as an advancement over the improvised system of neighborhood power brokers developed by Tammany Hall. But critics pointed out the immense sums these groups brought in, the comparatively meager and low-quality food and accommodations provided for those in need, and the quick manner in which the biggest charitable groups banded together to create a monopoly on the whole enterprise. One couplet became popular among some in that time: “The organized charity, scrimped and iced / In the name of a cautious, statistical Christ.”
On February 13, in the middle of the worst blizzard the city had seen in years, a wealthy socialite went out dancing, leaving her chauffeur to wait in the car. The unfortunate chauffeur was found in the car frozen to death later that evening. Over the next couple weeks, the city government would work on establishing its first “municipal employment bureau”: a system to match unemployed workers and their skills to open jobs. When the city found that it suddenly needed many temporary workers to clear the streets of snow and ice, the list at the new bureau was invaluable in finding the necessary labor. However, the workers quickly realized how even this new system was rigged, and some became completely disillusioned with the new system. From Thai Jones’ More Powerful than Dynamite:
‘Thirty-five cents an hour was no fortune, considering the severity of the work. And that old foe, graft, incised deeply into even this meager sum. Each person sent from the employment bureau was directed to a private contractor who took twenty-five cents off the top plus a dime to hire the shovel. After an eight-hour day, and another nickel for the foreman, a man might have a dollar left. But he didn’t get a dollar, he got a ticket, which he could use only at a particular saloon. There he was charged 20 percent to cash the thing and was forced to buy a drink…’ (Jones 70)
It was in this difficult situation that a young 19-year old man by the name of Frank Tannenbaum started leading an “army” of unemployed and unhoused men into the churches of Manhattan. Frank was a passionate member of the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W. aka “Wobblies”) and fully believed in the union’s message of establishing true justice and human brotherhood through solidarity and direct action. Night after night through the snow and cold, the “Boy I.W.W. leader” Frank Tannenbaum lined up the other homeless men who wished to join him into marching ranks and led them through the city, politely but firmly demanding from the priests of these churches to live up to their Christianly values and provide food and shelter for just the evening. Some nights there were several dozens of men with Frank; other nights, well over a hundred. Word spread quickly: the wealthiest churches requested extra security from the police, while the press ran typical slanderous stereotypes of rabble-rousers. And yet, neither violence nor property destruction was ever reported to the police by these churches. From Thai Jones again: “The out-of-work army had shown the highest qualities of anarchism. It was spontaneous, nonviolent, dignified, and viciously subtle in its revelation of hypocrisy” (Jones 94).
After just over a week of demonstrating the power of direct action, Frank and his “army” were led into a trap by police, and Frank was promptly arrested, had bail set to to an incredible $5000, and was soon after sentenced to the maximum sentence: a year of hard prison labor. Frank would eventually leave prison and become a respected professor, but his actions in early 1914 seemed to inspire seasoned revolutionaries like Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman as well as lesser-known anarchists and direct-actionists to continue this new revolutionary chapter.
We live in a different world, but some similarities are striking. After over a decade of steadily decreasing numbers of homeless people in the United States, that number has started to increase again in the last two years. Unemployment rates skyrocketed earlier this year due to covid-19 and have only recently begun to drop primarily because, without government assistance, people are being forced back to work. We have a new incoming government, but few harbor genuine hope in its competency or political will, despite Biden and Harris’ progressive posturing.
And then there’s the snow.
Because more people are losing their homes, the government systems in place to support those people, which were already underfunded and stretched too thin, are in crisis. Our local shelters are full. Camps are a temporary solution, but are unsafe and unsanitary, especially for women, queer people, and people with disabilities. And, of course, being unhoused makes every other part of one’s life more difficult.
Addressing homelessness, however, is complex and multifaceted. Does that mean trying to prevent homelessness, or does it mean supporting people who are already homeless? Does preventing homelessness mean physically defending tenants from evictions? Does supporting already unhoused people mean helping them where they are, or does it mean finding them a new home? How can we balance immediate needs with long-term solutions? Frank Tannenbaum’s solution in 1914 was not a permanent one either, but it was a way for the men to win some dignity, survive the night, develop solidarity with each other, and inspire others. That is the beauty of direct action.
Jones, Thai. More Powerful Than Dynamite: Radicals, Plutocrats, Progressives, and New York’s Year of Anarchy. Bloomsbury, New York: 2012.
Moon, Robin J. “Where do homeless patients go after being treated for COVID-19?” PBS. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/health/where-do-homeless-patients-go-after-being-treated-for-covid-19
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