A family of protesters makes themselves at home on a staircase at the State House during the protest of 1936.
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1936: An 'army' seizes the Capitol
By JON BLACKWELL / The Trentonian
On April 21, 1936, for the first time since the Revolutionary War, a force calling itself hostile and insurrectionary occupied the state Capitol in Trenton.

Unlike the heavily armed redcoats and Hessians of 1776, however, these invaders were peaceful. They were unemployed men, not professional soldiers, and their only uniform seemed to consist of beat-up suspenders and patched pants.

They sought not to overthrow the government, but to publicize how desperate their condition had become during the Great Depression years and to pressure the Legislature into restoring relief payments to the jobless.

The protesters called themselves the "Army of Unoccupation" and promised not to harm or damage anything -- just sit there. "We'll do just as much as the real Legislature," one of them told the State Gazette. "Nothing."

It was a wonder they had anything to joke about.

The Depression had wiped out jobs, factories and faith in the political system. Trenton's city government was helpless: For the hard winter of 1931-32, Mayor Frederick Donnelly set up a public works program to give jobs to the desperate. It found work for only 500 out of 7,000 unemployed, at $3 a day. Then it ran out of money.

Desperate times robbed young men of their childhoods. Joseph Bekiarian of Edison was one of them. Sixteen years old, one of 10 children, he left home in 1933 because he thought of himself as a burden on his jobless parents. He served a two-year stint in the Civilian Conservation Corps and then couldn't get hired anywhere.

"That's how I started riding the rails," said Bekiarian, who is now 82 and lives in Franklin Township. "I'd have maybe $2 in my pocket and a loaf of bread and that was about it."

"Basically I was a hobo. Hoboes would sleep in the railyards and hobo camps and try to find odd jobs that lasted two days or so. We didn't steal anything. And we shared all we had."

Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal was a source of inspiration for some when it began in 1933. His Works Progress Administration created public jobs for laborers, artists and skilled craftsmen. In Trenton, 600 WPA men filled in the Delaware and Raritan Canal, built the highway that would later become Route 1, dug ditches and erected public buildings.

But in 1936, there was no New Deal program to provide direct relief to the jobless. That responsibility fell to the state, which doled out aid depending on whether local "overseers of the poor" felt someone was deserving enough.

How much you deserved depended on where you lived. Trenton, under tight-fisted city manager Paul Morton, was particularly notable for turning away applicants.

And a state report found that in one unnamed city of 25,000, food allowances for blacks were less than for whites, because the local overseer believed that "Negroes were able to subsist on less expensive food than white persons."

Under state relief, a family of three could expect to get $55 a month -- the bare minimum for food, shelter, clothing and heat. But that paltry amount, multiplied by the hundreds of thousands of families on relief, threatened to bust the state budget early in 1936.

On April 15, the New Jersey Emergency Relief Administration -- the state's welfare fund -- simply shut down. Local governments would have to feed the poor themselves.

And the Legislature was acting helpless to do anything about it. Extending the state relief program would cost at least $6 million, a hefty amount to raise through taxes, an impossible amount to find anywhere else in the budget.

Days of yammering debate went nowhere when Assembly Speaker Marcus Newcomb of Burlington gaveled the session to a close on April 21. The legislators, anxious to get home and prepare for their upcoming primary elections, gathered their books, papers and briefcases, and cleared out in haste.

Only a few of them noticed the 20 purposeful-looking men in the galleries, descending to the Assembly well.

One by one, the jobless men parked themselves in the lawmakers' chairs and kicked up their feet on the carved-oak desks. They announced themselves to be the Workers' Alliance of New Jersey. A custodian walked down the aisle and asked them to leave.

Their response was a firm no.

The protest was hardly spontaneous. The Workers'Alliance had been around for months, built around WPA workers, union organizers and angry young men without jobs. It raised pitifully small sums for private relief and left-wing political activity in Trenton. Now it had scored a publicity coup.

Their leader, John Spain, a ruddy-faced ex-WPA worker and a father of five, mounted the rostrum and announced he was convening a new Legislature.

"This is, at present, an Assembly of the Workers' Alliance, not the gathering of the bunch of miserable buffoons that you usually witness in this building," he said.

With that, members of the alliance began to debate and vote on "bills" to pay for relief. They adopted a heavy corporation tax and an income tax.They created a 30-hour work week and a system of unemployment insurance.

None of the votes meant anything practical, but made for good political theater.

"Be it resolved," went their first act, "that unless the Legislature contemplates providing food for the unemployed when it returns to this chamber we shall retain possession of this chamber."

Next order of business was to provision the "Army" for a long encampment. They sent out to West State Street groceries for food, cigarettes and toiletries. The speaker's lectern became a cutting board with men slicing loaves of bread and making sandwiches.

As afternoon turned to night, men played cards under a chandelier with only two bulbs casting light overhead. In street clothes, some slept at desks or on the wool carpet of the aisles. No one had thought to bring bedding, so law books were put to use as pillows and overcoats became blankets.

State House guards had no idea what to do. Clearly, they had a case of trespassing on their hands. Assemblyman J. Parnell Thomas of Bergen County called them "a mob of occupation under Communist leaders" and urged force to clear them out.

But news photographers were already there, snapping pictures and relaying the images across the country; evicting them would look bad, very bad. Gov. Harold Hoffman permitted the men to stay and called on the Legislature to return the following Monday to take up relief.

On April 22, solidarity-minded union men began to flood into the State House, swelling the "Army's" numbers from 20 to 250.

Sol Stetin, a Paterson silk dyer who later went on to become president of the Textile Union Workers of America, was there. "I had the leasure of getting the Passaic County assemblyman's seat," Stetin, now 88, recalled. "We certainly showed them we meant business."

While the spectacle unfolded in the State House, local governments stared down the prospect of being unable to feed citizens who were going hungry.

In Ewing, the township appealed to its "more fortunate citizens" to pay for the care of 296 needy families. Camden and Neptune prepared to close their schools and use education money for relief.

Gov. Hoffman, asked to create emergency debt for relief, refused. He could only do that to "repel invasion and put down insurrection," he explained.

With that, the Army of Unoccupation adopted another bill: "Be it resolved: That the group of citizens now invading the state Assembly chamber in the State House in Trenton do hereby inform the governor of the state of New Jersey that an insurrection is in progress against the state Legislature for failure to provide relief funds."

The governor didn't take up the challenge. When the Legislature came back on April 27, it found the perfect way to finesse the issue. It appointed a five-member board, all Republicans, to administer state relief --  but never explained where the money would come from. (The board would later tap $6 million from an inheritance tax windfall.)

When the Army of Unoccupation finally packed its belongings and filed out of the State House on April 29, Stetin recalled, Assemblyman Thomas sneered that the State House would now have to be fumigated.

Hardened in his anti-Communism, Thomas would later be elected to Congress, chair the House Un-American Activities Committee, and hold hearings on Communism in Hollywood that helped inspire the infamous blacklist. All the time he was preaching law and order, however, he was taking kickbacks on the side, and in 1949 he went to federal prison.

The men who held the State House for eight days, meanwhile, declared victory.

None of their political goals had been achieved, that was for sure. But they had, in Spain's words, exposed New Jersey legislators as "cynically, brutally indifferent representatives of finance capital" and made themselves into the good guys. It was a tactic that served the union movement well in future political battles.

"No booing, good order," Spain commanded as the "Army" dispersed. "We'll be back with votes. Don't think this is goodbye."