On Feb. 23, 1933, the Salt Lake County sheriff's office held a foreclosure sale on six houses and one farm, and quickly had a riot on its hands.
A mob assembled outside the City-County Building, urged on by a speaker who told them to make a demonstration loud enough for the Legislature to understand that the unemployed in Utah meant business.
As the Deseret News reported at the time, the mob partially broke down a door to the room where the sale was ongoing. When officers tried to use a water hose to subdue them, they wrestled the hose away, beat some of the officers and ended up flooding much of the building's first floor.
Describing the incident as a "riot," the paper said the mob finally subsided in the face of tear gas.
Two days later, during a preliminary hearing for 15 men charged in connection with this riot, about 250 volunteer citizens, armed with nightsticks, joined about 50 officers to stand guard. A large crowd outside listened to a speaker characterize the volunteers as "hired assistants of the interests."
The only reason to review this long-forgotten bit of Utah history is to point out what ought to be obvious. Hard economic times lead to anger and unrest. This can be dangerous, and it may not be necessary to articulate a focused or coherent argument in order to organize a mob.
There was no evidence that the original owners of the property were part of the mob, or that they even supported the demonstration. Whether the volunteers who kept the peace were hired by "the interests" is difficult to know because no one ever articulated what those interests were.
In much the same way, the "Occupy Wall Street" protests in recent days, which now have spread all the way to Utah, have been unable to articulate what participants stand for, other than a general discontent with the economy.
As politics abhors a vacuum, the movement won't stay this way long. No doubt sensing a leftward bent among the mostly young crowd, labor unions have stepped in to lend support. Media reports in recent days note how public employee unions have, in particular, joined the ranks. Some are drawing comparisons to the union protests in Wisconsin last winter.
These protests bear a striking resemblance to the origins of the tea party. Both seem motivated by government bailouts to banks and corporations. The tea party, however, has focused around its own interpretation of the Constitution while involving itself in mainstream politics. The "Occupy" crowd has an anti-capitalist bent and, as far as I can tell, rarely mentions the Constitution in any context.
Some have compared them to the Arab Spring, but the two movements couldn't be more opposite. The Arab Spring is about returning power to the individual. Occupy Wall Street has a collectivist sound to it, with demands for fewer rewards for initiative.
Supporters have rallied around the numbers one and 99, arguing that 99 percent of Americans are powerless. As David Freddoso, online opinion editor for washingtonexaminer.com, wrote recently, "…if 99 percent of Americans actually sympathized with your cause, the entire nation's economy would have collapsed long ago — apparently to the delight of the organizers of this current protest."
Wall Street, government, consumers — they all bear some of the blame for how the boom suddenly turned into a bust. The homeowner who borrowed against equity in ways he couldn't afford shares some of the blame with the financial geniuses who bundled that equity into speculative instruments to build card houses of wealth.
In Salt Lake City, "occupy" protesters have promised to set up camp in Pioneer Park. The good news is this may finally bring a purpose to the park other than drug dealing. The bad news, however, is that is won't push the nation any closer to a meaningful strategy for economic recovery.
Like the tea party, the protesters seem non-violent and sincere. But as Utahns learned 78 years ago, it doesn't take much to change that.