The Palmer Raids:
Crossing the Lines of Justice
October 2, 2012
Upon occasion, the United States government has infringed upon its people’s rights in order to “protect” Americans from themselves: the Palmer Raids of 1919 and 1920 are no exception. In the wake of the Russian Revolution, A. Mitchell Palmer sent federal agents to arrest those who spoke out against the American government. Most of these arrests were illegal and its subjects were mistreated. One such person, Emma Goldman, was deported after living legally in the United States for over 30 years. In order to the fully understand the Palmer Raids we must first visit the Russian Revolution and how it affected Americans and America’s immigrants.
After years of oppression under the serfdom of old Russia, the lower class became fed up with the government. The Russian serfs were slaves and frequently sold and traded like livestock. Serfs made up the majority of the country’s population, but were treated with no respect. Eventually they were able to break free of serfdom, but progress toward revolution did not stop there.
The Industrial Revolution was sweeping the world at the turn of the century and fueled many jobs for the lower class. In Russia, the workers were mostly comprised of former serfs and peasants. Factory working conditions were horrific. They worked long hours, rarely saw the sunlight, and made almost no money. These conditions, coupled with famine and a losing streak in wars, caused great tension between the government and its people. Finally, on February 23, 1917 riots broke out in Petrograd, Russia’s capital, and started the Russian Revolution.
The people of Russia desired freedom and equality among classes. The Bolshevists promised just this. The Bolshevists believed that the emperor of Russia, or Czar, must die and that all should be shared equally amongst classes. Communism, in their eyes was the only way for everyone to be treated fairly and force was the only way to achieve this goal. They helped spark the Russian Revolution, a bloody civil war, in which many died. The leader of the movement Vladimir Lenin eventually overthrew the government and formed the Soviet Union.
In the United States, things weren’t as bad as Russia; however, much of the same sentiment was felt on American soil. Slavery of the African Americans hadn’t been forgotten yet and conditions in American factories had many workers in an uproar. Many believed that capitalism did not allow the poor to be able to succeed and meet all of their needs. Americans, seeing how the Russian Revolution was unfolding, began speaking out against the government and other forms of authority. Workers formed unions and fought for better working conditions and for better lives. In 1919 alone, 4 million workers went on strike because of the poor working environment.
Mixed with the hard feelings of unfair labor situation, other factors made tensions run high in America. A flu epidemic killed nearly 700,000 Americans in 1919 alone. Many had died in the World War I and therefore, Americans began wanting more out of the short years they seemed to have under the circumstances. In June of 1919, things came to a head when bombs exploded at prominent U.S. officials home’s including Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s. Believing that Bolsheviki anarchists were responsible, Palmer took things into his own hand to make sure the United States would not, “have the horror and terrorism of Bolsheviki tyranny”.
Fearing the United States would suffer the turmoil Russia experienced during the Russian Revolution, A. Mitchell Palmer decided “to tear out the radical seeds that have entangled American ideas in their poisonous theories”. In November of 1919 and January of 1920, federal agents, under Palmer’s authority, raided the offices of radical and labor organizations throughout the country. Around 5,000 people were arrested during this attack...
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