"Borderline Americans": Nationalism, Racism, and Class Infighting

By Comrade Sloth

On July 12, 1917, the sweltering July sun beat down on a bizarre sight in the town of Bisbee, Arizona: a line of nearly two thousand men being marched down the street by armed guards. They had been forcefully pulled out of their homes--one man had even been dragged out of a grocery store--and escorted four miles across town on foot to a large baseball field to be sorted and organized. Their alleged crime was involvement in a strike by the Industrial Workers of the World, or "wobblies." Without any semblance of due legal process, about 1,200 men were transported by train to a camp in the New Mexico desert over 180 miles away.

To the posse who conducted this raid, due process was a privilege only granted to those who fit their definition of what constituted a real American citizen (the title of this post, "Borderline Americans," comes from historian Katherine Benton-Cohen's book on the Bisbee Deportation). Of the group that was deported, 90% were immigrants, with the majority being of Mexican or Slavic origin. Although they were eventually rescued by a nearby army camp, the incident remains a black mark on Cochise County history, underscoring the injustice that can arise when racist ideals motivate a misguided vigilante mob.

It's not difficult, however, to understand how something like this could happen within the historical context. Just three months after the start of the First World War, the American people were swept up by a heightened sense of nationalism. This yielded a reactionary fear of anything that they perceived as being "other":  other races, other nationalities, and other political philosophies. With a population so on edge, the cultural and political attitudes of the country were very easily influenced, particularly if given a scapegoat, a tangible enemy that could be fought and conquered at home. In this case, roughly 2,000 civilian men were assigned temporary deputy positions by a single sheriff, who had joined causes with mine managers to prevent the strike.

This kind of class infighting, between supposedly real Americans and their immigrant neighbors, is exactly the kind of wheel-spinning that has been such a detriment to the working classes in their struggle to improve living and working conditions. By pitting the white civilian men of the town against the immigrants, the ruling class of mine owners and operators, working in conjunction with the sheriff, were able to maintain the power structure and send out a strong warning to anyone who might consider organizing another labor strike in the future. To the bourgeoisie, workers are seen as expendable commodities; deporting and discarding over a thousand men was a calculated and strategic move, intended to make an example of any who wished to oppose them.