A lot of people have found it a bit jarring this week as the media, corporate and social, have alternately served up images of militarized police putting down citizen protest in Ferguson, Missouri, and super-rich CEOs dousing themselves with ice buckets for charity. The social distance between those sets of pictures, they suggest, is a measure of America’s second Gilded Age.
In fact, they underestimate that distance, as well as the differences between our time and the first Gilded Age of the late 19th century.
The titans of Gilded Age industry, who owned the national government, were not shy about the proper response to those Americans unhappy with great gaps in wealth and power. In the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, Railway World, the voice of the industry, declared that it was “one of the imperative duties of all governments” to break the strike “even if the drums must beat, the glittering bayonets advance, the breech-loading rifles pour forth death-dealing volleys…the Gatling guns mow down crowds…, and if heavy artillery must batter down whole towns that become citadels of folly and crime.” Governments obliged: militias killed at least 69 people and wounded many more.
The railroad strike and continuing labor protest set off an armory-building and police-militarization boom.
New York City’s government, its finances crippled by the 1870s depression, couldn’t pay for a new armory for the New York militia’s Seventh Regiment, a unit so dominated by the wealthy that historian Sven Beckert writes “it might be better characterized as an armed version of the Union Club than as an institution of state.” So the business elite—Astors, Dodges, Singers, Vanderbilts—raised the money to build it themselves.
For tactical reasons, the building was relocated from working-class downtown to the upper East Side. “A majority of the men live above Thirty-Fifth Street, and their rallying-point must be readily accessible in case of sudden calls,” the New York Times explained. The exterior was constructed as a fortress, with iron-shuttered rifle loopholes, from which, as one newspaper explained, shooters could “pick off advancing crowds,” and a tower where “two or three Gatling guns could be mounted…and sweep (Park) avenue.” True to its funders' social pedigree and tastes, the interior of the building, financed through a three-week fair on the grounds kicked off by President Rutherford B. Hayes himself, was designed and furnished by Louis C. Tiffany, complete with a library in old mahogany and a colonel’s room finished in “polished French black walnut.”
In Chicago, Marshall Field, the department store magnate, underwrote a similar militarization. He donated land three blocks from his home on the city’s “Millionaire’s Row,” an address he shared with fellow grandees like George Pullman and Phillip Armour, for the construction of the First Regiment Armory: “The two upper stories, on top of the massive masonry of the first floor, are crowned at the angles by great bastions, from which an enfilade fire may be directed against any side of the walls,” as a contemporary observer described it. Field and his associates then furnished the police with four twelve-pound cannons, a Gatling gun, 296 breech-loading rifles and 60,000 bullets.
In other words, in the late 19th century, when the Robber Barons wanted a militarized police force to defend their wealth and power from those left behind, they often had to reach into their own pockets to supply the guns and even carry a gun themselves as a militiaman.
In our time, the super-rich are under no such obligation. They and their offspring leave the carrying guns to others. Their taxes having been slashed by George Bush, they did not even have to pay for the military weapons originally purchased on the national credit card for the wars of the last decade, the surplus weapons now being handed down to police departments to brandish at the discontented.
No, in our time, it is the people of places like Ferguson, the people left behind in an increasingly unequal nation, who will have to pay, as taxpayers and inheritors of the national debt, for the rifles and armored vehicles pointed at them when they grow restless with the status quo.
In such places in our America, every day is an ice bucket over the head.