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Palmer Raids, 1919-20

The first mass arrest of immigrant workers

Published Dec 21, 2006 1:16 AM

The Dec. 12 raids by immigration police against hundreds of workers at meatpacking plants across the country bear all the earmarks of an earlier anti-immigrant chapter in U.S. history.

The 1919-20 Palmer Raids saw thousands of immigrants—mostly from Europe—rounded up, detained without trial, beaten and many eventually deported. Like today, it was a time when the government was obsessed with “regime change” abroad and fighting “terrorism” at home; a period of economic and political crisis, when the bosses were waging an anti-labor offensive and the foreign-born made an easy scapegoat for harsh economic conditions.

On Nov. 7, 1919, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer ordered a series of coordinated raids against the offices of an immigrant labor group, the Union of Russian Workers, in 12 cities across the U.S. Police arrested 650 people without warrants. The pretext for the raid was a series of bombings in eight U.S. cities. Conveniently, anarchist pamphlets were found at several sites, prompting a hysterical campaign against “lawlessness,” “anarchism” and “un-American Bolshevism.”

Typical of the media frenzy was this editorial in the Tacoma (Washington) Leader: “We must smash every un-American and anti-American organization in the land. We must put to death the leaders of this gigantic conspiracy of murder, pillage, and revolution. We must imprison for life all its aiders and abettors of native birth. We must deport all aliens.”

On Dec. 21, six weeks later, 249 “radical aliens” were dragged from their homes, forcibly put on board a ship and deported. But that was only the dress rehearsal.

On New Year’s Day of 1920, between 5,000 and 10,000 individuals, in 23 states, were arrested and jailed. Some of the arrests were made just because the individuals subscribed to left-wing newspapers, read Russian novels or ate in restaurants that served ethnic food.

Most of the arrests were made without warrants. Reports at the time tell of indiscriminate beatings. Many were detained for long periods without legal counsel. Hundreds were deported.

In Detroit, the raid “marked a peak in brutality,” according to “Labor’s Untold Story,” a remarkable U.S. labor history published by the United Electrical workers.

“Eight hundred men were packed in a narrow windowless corridor on the top floor of the Federal Building. They remained there, many ill and without food, for six full days. ... Then they were moved to a deserted army encampment at Fort Wayne where new methods of torture were devised. The wives and children of those imprisoned there were beaten in the sight of the prisoners.”

Another account reported, “In some cases, persons coming to visit or bail out those arrested were themselves arrested on suspicion of being communists. Palmer explained such persons were ‘practically the same as a person found in an active meeting of the Communist Party.’”

Not one person was ever tried and convicted for the 1919 bombings. The only evidence of domestic terrorism ever produced was a blueprint for what was originally claimed to be a bomb, but which eventually was discovered to be a record player.

Palmer’s first raid took place exactly two years after the Russian Revolution, the singular event of the 20th century that shook the imperialist world to its core. The revolution had toppled the tsarist aristocracy, put an end to Russia’s participation in World War I, and brought the workers and peasants to power. The Bolshevik slogan “Workers and oppressed peoples of the world, unite!” resonated everywhere, including in the U.S.

In this country, it was a time of working-class revival and militancy. Socialist, anarchist and communist organizations, including the International Workers of the World (the Wobblies) and the newly formed Communist Party, were on the rise.

In the year 1919, 4 million workers, an estimated one-fourth of the working-class at the time, went on strike. In Seattle, a government-imposed lockout against shipyard workers sparked a citywide general strike. In September 1919, over 300,000 steelworkers fought a bitter nationwide battle against U.S. Steel Corp. The workers, many of them immigrants, labored 12-hour days and were paid starvation-level wages.

Stopping this working-class renaissance was the real reason for the Palmer Raids, not any phony war against terrorism. And what better way to divide the workers than the tried-and-true method of promoting racism as well as hatred toward the foreign-born.

When Palmer’s agents were breaking down the doors of immigrants’ homes, one particular agent leading the charge was an enthusiastic 24-year-old anti-communist zealot by the name of John Edgar Hoover.

Palmer had named Hoover to head up the General Intelligence Division (GID), a newly formed anti-radicalism department in the Justice Department. The GID eventually morphed into the FBI.

The lessons learned by Hoover in strike-breaking, illegal domestic surveillance and detention, denying workers their rights, infiltrating progressive organizations, and beating and even killing progressive leaders have served the FBI well during its 80-year-long infamous history.