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The Palmer Raids: Crossing the Lines of Justice Essay

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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.

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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.

Read more: How separation of powers guard against tyranny essay

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 on civil liberties, many without warrants. The few warrants that were issued were not very specific in nature. Emma Goldman wrote in her autobiography Living My Life: Emma Goldman describing the unfair experience of friends.

She wrote, that some “had been rounded up at the raid of the Union of Russian Workers. The documents discovered there consisted of English grammars and text-books on arithmetic. The raiders had beaten up and arrested those found on the premises for possessing such inflammatory literature. ” These arrests were notoriously nicknamed the “Palmer Raids” because of their unethical nature. Not only were the raids immoral, its targets were treated with much disrespect. Some of the detainees spent months in solitary confinement. Others spent a week in facilities without toilets.

These people did nothing but disagree with the government. The American Civil Liberties Union complained 1,500 individuals had been arrested from their group and only 39 had any substantial evidence against them. In essences, the government was arresting people because they might do something. One of the 5,000 people arrested was Emma Goldman. Ms. Goldman had a long arrest record including spending almost two years in the Missouri State Penitentiary for opposing the draft during World War I. She was a public figure who went all across America speaking about birth control, gay rights, parenting, and anarchy.

As a Russian immigrant, Emma Goldman had followed the Russian Revolution and Bolshevism. Goldman brought some of that fire and distrust of the government to her rallies. Although arrested many times, her only “crime” was for speaking out against the government and exercising her freedom of speech. However, the Bill of Rights could not keep from getting her arrested and deported. December 20th, 1919, 249 radical immigrants, including Emma Goldman and the people rounded up from the Union of Russian Workers, waited while being imprisoned, on Ellis Island.

Ellis Island had been a sign of freedom to immigrants coming to this country, but on this day, it was a prison and the site of lost fundamental freedoms. Of the 249, only eleven had committed, what one of reasonable logic would consider, criminal acts. The remaining majority were arrested for anarchy, which had been made a deportable offense by the highly controversial 1918 Immigration Act. According to Emma Goldman, “The condition of the emigrants on Ellis Island was nothing short of frightful. Their quarters were congested, the food was abominable, and they were treated like felons.

These unfortunates had cut their moorings in the homeland and had pilgrimed to the United States as the land of promise, liberty, and opportunity. Instead they found themselves locked up, ill-treated, and kept in uncertainty for months. ” The very next morning, December 21st, 1919, the “Red Ark” shipped out on the Buford. Barely sea worthy, the Buford was “built at the end of the last century, had been used as a transport in the Spanish-American War and later discarded as unsafe. ” The boat was much too small for all of its passengers and flooded constantly. Many became ill from the poor condition they endured on their way to Europe.

The food was rancid and the toilets inadequate. Luckily, no one died during the voyage, but the immigrants were subjected to subpar condition, again, for little to nothing. The ship set anchor outside of Finland. Finland did not like the anarchist or the Bolshevists, whose ideals also threatened their way of life. The prisoner were locked into unheated train cars and shipped to Russia with little food and water. During the trip, the Finnish guards treated the prisoner with little respect and stole food and water. However, everyone made it to war torn Russia alive. Some were happy to be home, but most missed the United States.

Even if the country had deliberately and dishonorably thrown them out, many missed the United States once desired foundation and the families they had left behind. While the immigrants directly affected by the deportation were unduly mistreated by the United States government, their families may have had it worse. The wives of those deported had petitioned to be deported with their husband, but were denied. The “Buford Widows” and their families were left to fend for themselves in a time when men mainly ruled the workplace. The women were also teased and harassed by people who saw their husbands as criminals and terrorists.

The actions made by the United States government were unconstitutional. In the United States Constitution, specifically the Bill of Rights, an amendment acknowledges freedom of speech and another amendment states that people are innocent until proven guilty. The foundation in which this country was built on was not being implemented in a way the founding fathers would have agreed. Raiding those who were expressing their opinions and treating them and their families like dirt, is not part of this foundation. Clearly the United States government and A. Mitchell Palmer overstepped their boundaries here.

While these people may have been outspoken radicals, they were not criminals. They were people looking for a better life; not only for themselves, but striving to make a better life for all. That seems to resemble the “American dream” more so, than criminal activity. However, Emma Goldman and others were unfairly deported and mistreated like common thieves for their ideals. It is actions like the Palmer Raids, where those of authority in the past, have intentionally rid the people of their rights to “protect” others that changes the interpretation of the unique and ethical foundation that was once desirable around the world.

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