Thursday, July 12, 2007

July 12

On this date in 1917, in one of the more remarkable vigilante actions in the history of the American labor movement, more than a thousand “deputies” wearing white armbands rounded up nearly 1200 residents of Bisbee, Arizona and deported them by train to a remote town in New Mexico. Their crime, so to speak, was to have struck against the copper mines that enriched the shareholders and executives of companies like Phelps Dodge.

The western mine fields had been an especially fierce battleground for decades, as workers chafed against the grip of companies that paid them poorly, recklessly endangered their lives, and pitted them against each other on the basis of race and national origin. These companies likewise owned the houses where workers lived, the stores where they shopped, and the newspapers that lectured them regularly on their obligations to the company. The mainstream labor movement, best represented by the American Federation of Labor, generally ignored miners, who found support instead from more politically radical unions like the Western Federation of Miners and the Industrial Workers of the World.

As the Great War churned onward and the price of copper tripled, Arizona’s mine workers -- backed by the IWW -- escalated their demands for better pay, improved working conditions and anti-discrimination measures intended to reduce ethnic and racial rivalries. When those demands were refused, half the workforce of Bisbee walked off the job. Over the next two weeks, rumors circulated that the strikers and the IWW had been infiltrated by German saboteurs and spies. On July 12, sheriff Harry Wheeler announced that he had summoned more than 1000 “loyal Americans” from Bisbee and Douglas
for the purpose of arresting, on charges of vagrancy, treason and of being disturbers of the peace of Cochise County, all those strange men who have congregated here from other parts and sections for the purpose of harassing and intimidating all men who desire to pursue their daily toil. I am continually told of threats and insults heaped upon the working men of this district by so-called strikers, who are strange to these parts, yet who presume to dictate the manner of life of the people of this district.
Armed members of the hastily assembled Citizen’s Alliance rousted striking workers -- and anyone else they could get their hands on -- and marched them from town, after which they were loaded into manure-filled boxcars and hauled away to the desert of southern New Mexico.

Until the mass evacuation of Japanese Americans from their communities during World War II, the “Bisbee deportation” represented the greatest violation of civil liberties in the history of the American West.

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