Some liberals are shocked and upset at the increasingly ugly, even violent nature of the health care debate, but those who know American history are not surprised. What we are witnessing is the same tactic employed for decades by those in power in the United States. Whenever something or someone threatened the hegemony of capitalism, those with power and money have made a show of their pit bull: the Radical Right. Whether it's the Ku Klux Klan or the Silver Shirts or the Black Legion, right wing thugs have always been useful for beating, intimidating and killing workers who wanted to organize, minorities who wanted equal rights or those who resisted the capitalists' wars. And the American law enforcement and legal systems have been quite adept at looking the other way.
Let's take a little historical tour after the break to compare how American justice treats the Radical Right and the Radical Left. At the end of our journey, let's ask and answer a few questions as to why this disparity exists.
For more than a century, any idea, no matter how violent or rebellious, can be advocated and promoted in America as long as it's Right Wing. In fact, the Radical Right has been allowed, sometimes invited, to wage terrorism against citizens and even parts of the government while that same government expended considerable resources to harass, imprison and murder Leftists for doing nothing more than exercising Constitutional rights.
Let's take that tour through the history of the last 100 years and compare how American justice has treated the Right and Left wings.
The 1910s: The Klan and the Wobblies
America was anything but a united country as it entered the First World War. A growing Socialist and labor movement in the North coincided with growing restiveness among the South's African-American population as it struggled to survive under Jim Crow.
The response of the Democratic Wilson Administration was two-fold. First, the southern-born President saw fit to endorse tacitly a revival of the Radical Right Ku Klux Klan. After viewing D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, a film glorifying the first Reconstruction period incarnation of the Klan, Wilson was reported to praise it:
It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.
The Klan soon went to work, lynching black soldiers returning from the First World War, opposing unions and harassing Jews and Catholics.
In Ocoee, Florida, the Klan resorted to mass terrorist tacticsto destroy a prosperous, predominately black town whose informal leaders were registering voters. Over 250 Klansmen joined with the white citizens of Ocoee in a rampage through the black community, burning homes and churches and shooting anyone who tried to flee. An estimated 50 people were killed while another 450 fled for their lives into the night. The Klansmen remained "on guard" after the terror spree to prevent the black citizens from returning.
No one was even arrested for the crimes.
The Klan's presence at the 1924 Democratic Party Convention was so great that it was dubbed the "Klanbake Convention," and their attempt to nominate their candidate was averted only by compromise after 103 ballots.
The second part of the Wilson strategy was to destroy the Left, especially the IWW, often called the Wobblies. The IWW had been founded in 1905 by labor organizers who were frustrated with the moderate, trade union approach of the American Federation of Labor. Big Bill Haywood was one of the early spokesmen:
This is the Continental Congress of the working class. We are here to confederate the workers of this country into a working class movement that shall have for its purpose the emancipation of the working class from the slave bondage of capitalism.
The IWW differed from the AFL in several important ways. It organized all workers rather than just those in skilled trades. It forbid discrimination on the basis of race while the AFL looked the other way. It emphasized direct action like strikes rather than cooperation with established political organizations like the Democratic Party. Howard Zinn, a self-admitted Wobbly admirer, summarized them thus:
The IWW never had more than five to ten thousand enrolled members at any one time, people came and went, and perhaps a hundred thousand were members at one time or another. But their energy, their persistence,k their inspiration to others, their ability to mobilize thousands at one place, one time, made them an influence on the country far beyond their numbers.
How did government and other powerful elements respond to this organization that wanted to improve the lot of workers, a group that refused to discriminate on the basis of race at a time when the Klan was burning African-Americans alive in their homes? They did everything possible to suppress and destroy them.
The IWW went to Missoula, Montana to organize lumber and mining workers. The town passed a law to outlaw their speeches. The Wobblies spoke anyway and were jailed. Soon, other Wobblies began to arrive by boxcar. They too were arrested. More came until the jails were filled and the town was forced to repeal its ordinance.
Such victories were encouraging, but even more frequently, the IWW was met with government-delivered or government-sanctioned violence. Wobblies were jailed, beaten and lynched just for trying to organize workers, distribute literature and make speeches. They were not pacifists. They believed in fighting back when attacked, and the IWW was involved in several pitched gun battles with company thugs, lynch mobs or the militia that was invariably called out to suppress strikes.
Their persistence produced some major successes. In 1912, a wildcat strike of mill workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts drew the organizing support of the IWW. Once the strike began, the strikers had to provide food for the 50,000 people who were dependent on the 10,000 workers now out on strike. Money came from all over the country to support the strikers and their families. The governor called out 22 companies of militia and 2 troops of cavalry to suppress the strike, but the Wobblies didn't give up. Often they sang one of the IWW songs written by Wobbly Joe Hill. In the end, the mill owners gave in and gave the workers a negotiated contract. One provision insisted on by the workers was that the lowest paid receive the biggest raises.
Such a thing could not be allowed to continue. It was too dangerous to the capitalists who ran the country. Already, a socialist, Eugene Debs had gathered 900,000 votes in the 1912 election, more than a quarter of the number received by the incumbent Republican President. In 1914, the Colorado coal strike against the Rockefellers culminated in the Ludlow Massacre in which National Guardsmen opened up with machine guns on workers and their families who were camped in tents after having been evicted from their company-owned housing. The world was shocked.
Even America's entrance into the First World War did not bring an end to the IWW's efforts to organize workers. The IWW opposed the war and advised resistance to the draft that was necessary to sustain it. As the war ended and the soldiers returned home, labor tensions escalated. Seattle dock workers went on strike and soon 110 locals, AFL and IWW, joined them. This general strike involved 60,000 union workers and another 40,000 unorganized sympathizers.
The business and political leadership of Seattle was terrified. They looked across the ocean at the successful Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the unsuccessful Spartacist Revolution in Germany and feared that the same was happening on their turf. The mayor stated:
The so-called sympathetic Seattle strike was an attempted revolution. That there was no violence does not alter the fact... the intent, openly and covertly announced, was for the overthrow of the industrial system, here first, then everywhere.
The Red Scare was born. Joe Hill was framed for murder and executed. "Don't mourn. Organize," was his dying wish. In 1917, the Department of Justice had conducted raids on 48 IWW local offices. They arrested and prosecuted 165 IWW leaders for their antiwar activities. Big Bill Haywood was found guilty and jumped bail to flee to Russia.
In the fall of 1919, a young Department of Justice agent, J. Edgar Hoover, led the raids that would be called the Palmer Raids after Wilson's Attorney General. The DOJ claimed that they had gathered 60,000 names of dangerous radicals. Two hundred and fifty were put aboard a ship to Soviet Russia, including Emma Goldman. In January, 1920, another 3,000 were arrested merely for holding membership in the Communist or Communist Labor Parties.
Eleven months later, fifty black American citizens were massacred in Florida by an armed and organized Klan mob. Neither Hoover nor any other governmental officials were interested in investigating those crimes. It was a pattern that would repeat again and again.
The 1930s: The CIO and the Business Coup
America's leading capitalists were in a panic after Roosevelt's first 100 days. Accustomed to enjoying complete control over the government during the preceding 12 years of Republican rule, they found FDR's rhetoric and more importantly, action to constitute a threat to their dominance of American economic and political life. They looked abroad and saw ruling Fascists in Italy and Spain and a rising Nazi Party in Germany and thought their fortunes would fare better under a similar regime if it could be instituted in the United States.
These were men of action: Rene DuPont of the chemical fortune, the Heinz family, several wealthy men connected with J. P. Morgan includng Thomas Lamont, and Prescott Bush whose connections with the Nazis continued through 1942. Politicians were included as well as Wall Street interests. Among them were two previous Democratic Party candidates for President: John Davis and Al Smith.
Their plan was to overthrow the government of the United States.
Their plan depended upon three distinct elements:
- The Public Face: The American Liberty League Funded by the DuPonts and U.S. Steel, General Motors, General Foods, Standard Oil, Birdseye, Colgate, Heinz Foods, Chase National Bank, and Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, the League was "the front for the whole thing" according to Gerald MacGuire, the New York City stockbroker who was one of the conspirators.
- Fascist thugs like the Black Legion, the Silver Shirts, and of course, the Ku Klux Klan. The Black Legion was organized into arson squads, execution squads and anti-Communist squads. They wore a skull and crossbones on their uniforms to boast about the Communists they had murdered.
- The Super Soldiers, an army of 500,000 veterans mobilized by the American Legion. The troops would gather in Washington, surround the White House and demand Roosevelt's resignation. If he said no, they would kill him.
The conspirators needed a trusted, charismatic leader for their private army, and tried to recruit retired Marine General Smedley Butler. This was their mistake because Butler had no use for these capitalists. He led MacGuire and his backers on long enough to get the details of the plot, then blew the whistle on them.
The House Un-American Activities Committee convened hearings and heard Butler's testimony, most of it in private. They returned with a whitewashed report that focused on MacGuire but expunged all the information given them by Butler about the plutocratic backers. Butler expressed his disgust with the report, "They have slaughtered the little guys and let the higher-ups escape." The press quickly let the matter vanish from its pages, and some historians believe that Roosevelt allowed the conspirators off the hook in exchange for their toning down their attacks on the New Deal.
While the DuPonts and the Bushes spent the 1930s plotting coups, funding fascist murderers and importing Nazi spies, Walter Reuther was trying to organize workers to fight for fair wages and safe working conditions. He worked on Ford's assembly lines until he was laid off during the Great Depression. Looking for work, he went to Soviet Russia where he worked in a factory in Gorky. He returned in 1936 to become the president of auto workers' union local in Michigan. During an organizing campaign, Reuther and a fellow organizer stood on an overpass over which workers passed on their way to and from a Ford plant. Ford "security men" came up behind them and began to beat them:
Seven times they raised me off the concrete and slammed me down on it. They pinned my arms . . . and I was punched and kicked and dragged by my feet to the stairway, thrown down the first flight of steps, picked up, slammed down on the platform and kicked down the second flight. On the ground they beat and kicked me some more.
The Ford thugs beat Reuther, broke the back of fellow organizer Richard Merriwether, attacked female UAW members who were passing out leaflets and tried to destroy the cameras and photographic plates of Detroit News employees who were there to chronicle events.
Dearborn, Michigan police stood and watched as this all took place. Later, the National Labor Relations Board did reprimand Ford. No one was ever prosecuted.
A year later, company thugs attacked Reuther in his own home, leaving him hospitalized.
After being elected president of the UAW in 1947, Reuther survived an assassination attempt at his home that left him permanently crippled.
Reuther was a Socialist Party member, and he cooperated with Communist Party members during the struggles of the 1930s. His politics moderated after the outbreak of the war, and he eventually became a Democrat. In 1952, he was elected president of the umbrella Congress of Industrial Organizations and negotiated a merger between his more militant labor organization and the older, more moderate American Federation of Labor.
In the 60s, Reuther began to re-think his political moderation in light of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. He took the UAW out of the AFL-CIO in 1968 and publicly opposed the war in Vietnam. That same year, he and his brother, Victor, were almost killed in a private plane crash when the altimeter failed at landing. Eighteen months later, Reuther and his wife were killed in a crash of another private plane whose altimeter failed upon landing outside Detroit. Victor Reuther believes neither crash was accidental. The FBI refused to investigate.
The lesson is clear. Capitalists can get away with treason, but militant labor organizers rarely reach old age.
The 1960s: Breakfast Programs and Church Bombers
In 1963, the civil rights movement was gaining momentum Sentiment in much of the country was turning against Jim Crow segregation. The response of the Radical Right in the South was to do what it had always done: use terror.
On September 15, 1963, a Sunday morning, a bomb went off killing four little girls attending a bible class. No one was arrested. After a two-year "investigation," J. Edgar Hoover announced that there was no significant chance of prosecution. It was not until 1977, with Hoover gone and the country going through the post-Watergate period of "reconciliation," that anyone was arrested.
The event was hardly the exception. The Southern Poverty Law Center's Civil Rights Memorial remembers some of those who died in the fight for equality. Most of their murderers were never punished.
In response to white violence against blacks, Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton founded the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California in 1966. Its founders espoused the goals of protecting the black community from police brutality and promoting socialist and Marxist economic policies. The seemingly immortal foe of the Left, J. Edgar Hoover, called the Black Panthers "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country," and he launched a total program of surveillance, infiltration and harassment designed to destroy them.
The Panthers released a Ten Point Program that included the following demands:
WE WANT FREEDOM. WE WANT POWER TO DETERMINE THE DESTINY OF OUR BLACK AND OPPRESSED COMMUNITIES.
WE WANT FULL EMPLOYMENT FOR OUR PEOPLE.
WE WANT AN END TO THE ROBBERY BY THE CAPITALISTS OF OUR BLACK AND OPPRESSED COMMUNITIES.
WE WANT DECENT HOUSING, FIT FOR THE SHELTER OF HUMAN BEINGS. We believe that if the landlords will not give decent housing to our Black and oppressed communities, then housing and the land should be made into cooperatives so that the people in our communities, with government aid, can build and make decent housing for the people.
The Panthers' Leftist politics were bad enough, but they believed in exercising not only their First Amendment but their Second Amendment rights as well. Their practice of openly carrying firearms led the state of California to attempt to restrict gun rights.
In their neighborhoods, the Panthers opened free medical clinics and provided breakfast programs for children, sickle cell anemia testing, and drug rehabilitation.
The combination of strength and compassion was a potent one. The Panthers grew rapidly in northern cities.
In 1968, Huey Newton was arrested and jailed on a murder charge that would later be dismissed by an appeals court. Bobby Seale was arrested, tried and convicted as a member of the Chicago Eight arising out of the antiwar demonstrations at the Democratic Party Convention. In 1969, Fred Hampton was murdered by a Chicago police tactical unit as he lay in his bed at home.
In 1969, New Haven Panther members kidnapped and held captive Alex Rackley, a member they suspected of being an FBI informant. After being tortured, Rackley was taken to a isolated location and executed.
The police raided the New Haven office and arrested several members. Two of the men admitted taking part in the torture and murder, and one of them implicated Bobby Seale, who had been in New Haven to deliver a speech at Yale University.
The case came to trial in the spring of 1970 and received national attention. Speaking of the accusations against Seale, Yale Chaplain William Sloane Coffin said,
All of us conspired to bring on this tragedy by law enforcement agencies by their illegal acts against the Panthers, and the rest of us by our immoral silence in front of these acts.
Radicals like Jean Genet, Benjamin Spock, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin arrived at the Yale campus to speak. Jury selection alone took four months. The city of New Haven was tense. Yale students were on strike. While the Panthers' torture and murder discredited them, the FBI's COINTELPRO was fully exposed, and its program of destroying Leftist movements by illegal means was hampered from that point on.
In the end, the jury hung 11 to 1 in favor of acquittal for Seale, and the prosecution did not attempt to re-try him.
The Power of the Left
Why has the American government repeatedly allowed Right Wing terrorism while, at the same time, it has waged open, unconstitutional war on Leftists?
The most obvious conclusion is that the government is invariably the servant of the same capitalist interests that fund and recruit Right Wing thugs.
The less apparent but more important answer is that powerful interests in America are united in their fear and loathing for Reds. Open racism is fine, even if expressed against the President of the United States. Fevered advocacy of violence is no problem, as long as the advocate is a Right Wing mouthpiece. Actually engaging in violent behavior, even large conspiracies like the Klan, is permissible as long as the victims are Leftists, women or minorities.
The capitalists who run this country know that their power hangs by a thread. They know that they cannot maintain their stranglehold without the acquiescence of the mass of people. Even armed forces and militias can rebel when the legitimacy of their orders is widely questioned. Even private armies can desert if the opposition appears too strong.
For 40 years, the Left has slept. Jailed and beaten, harassed and betrayed, we sank into silence and cynicism. Without an active Left, the capitalists were free to wage their wars, steal vast sums of money and impoverish an entire nation.
We have reached a critical point, the last push by the capitalists to crush the will of the American people once and for all with the goal of reducing the mass of workers to the abject poverty common in India or China. They expect some resistance. They fear a resurgent radical Left. They are showing us their pit bull, still leashed, but at the ready should we rise up.
We are hardly something to be feared. Disorganized, mostly unarmed and untrained, we are hardly a revolutionary vanguard. But it was never us that struck fear in the heart of the most powerful capitalists; it was our ideas. In the end, it will be our ideas that will win.
I'll close with the words of IWW member Jack White at his trial in 1912 for speaking publicly in violation of a local ordinance. Here's what White had to say about American justice:
I have seen you , Judge Sloane, and others of your kind send them to prison because they dared to infringe upon the sacred rights of property. Yo have become blind and deaf to the rights of man to pursue life and happiness, and you have crushed those rights so that the sacred right of property shall be preserved. Then you tell me to respect the law. I do not. I did violate the law, as I will violate every one of your laws and still come before you and say, "To hell with your courts."
In responding to a comment, I was reminded of this very appropriate bit of verse from Langston Hughes from "Let America Be America Again":
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek--
And finding only the same old stupid plan.
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak...
O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be--the land where every man if free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's Negro's, ME--
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Our dream is indeed mighty, but it is up to us to bring it back again.