Sunday, April 10, 2016

A Century of Melting Pot Frictions: Part Four

Part of a series exploring the prejudice each new immigrant group encountered when they arrived in this country.

Russian and Italian immigrants were often grouped together as anarchists, perhaps because many of them were socialists advocating for improved labor rights. Russian socialists were referred to as Bolsheviks, the Russian political party led by Lenin which seized control of the Russian government in October 1917. Within a year's time, newspapers across the United States were instilling a fear of the "red terror," Bolshevism, in the hearts of their readers.

The Tennessean, 15 Dec 1918

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), an international labor union founded in Chicago in 1905, became synonymous with anarchy, subversion, and Bolshevism in many people's view. The union's goals (higher wages, shorter hours, improved working conditions, and a voice for the masses of low-paid laborers) was seen as a threat to the existing economic system.

Industrial Workers of the World cartoon, 1919

On March 9, 1919, the Waterbury police raided a meeting of the IWW and arrested approximately 187 men who were in attendance, most of whom were Russian (two were Italian and one was Polish). The police needed two trucks to transport the literature they seized to the police headquarters. Also confiscated were a red flag and the IWW charters for the Waterbury and New Haven chapters. Among the many people arrested were IWW organizers from Chicago and New York, Alexander Chernoff and Michael Rosenberg. Local IWW leaders arrested during the raid included Mark Zeitlin (or Zaitzeff) and Paul Matecky. All of the Waterbury men arrested were factory workers. Waterbury Police Superintendent George M. Beach commented "there is not room in Waterbury for the IWW and the police department; so I guess the IWW is doomed to go." (Hartford Courant, 11 March 1919)

Some of the allegedly incendiary literature seized during the raid included the lyrics to the IWW song, "The Preacher and the Slave."
Long-haired preachers come out every night,
Try to tell you what's wrong and what's right;
But when asked how about something to eat
They will answer with voices so sweet:
You will eat, bye and bye
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray, live on hay,
You'll get pie in the sky when you die.
A slogan, "Labor is entitled to all it produces," was also highlighted by the Hartford Courant as an example of the subversiveness of the IWW.

The Waterbury Republican condemned the raid and arrests, noting that, although the men attending the meeting were there "to listen to the exposition of a doctrine with which most Americans are not in sympathy," they were peacefully assembled and the meeting did not appear to be anything more than "the usual peace-time IWW gathering... No evidence that violence was plotted or contemplated has been produced." ("That Affair at Waterbury," Hartford Courant, 16 March 1919) While some argued that most of the men arrested were impoverished working men, undeserving of harsh penalties for attending an informational meeting, a correspondent for the Hartford Courant declared that the men were "all wearing very good American clothes, bought by them with good American wages, made by them in American factories--and made, for the most part, while the real Americans were away at war." The nativist language of the Know Nothing era, previously targeted at Irish Catholics, was now being used against Russian laborers seeking fairer wages.

Later that month, a letter written in Russian was sent to a Waterbury manufacturer, threatening "a terrible revolution beginning from the factory districts" and "Fright. Death. Woe." ("The Waterbury Incident," Hartford Courant, 1 April 1919). The Hartford Courant dismissed the letter as the work of "some mentally unbalanced man."

Hartford Courant, 8 November 1919

A coordinated set of raids were held in November, 1919, when forty-one alleged anarchists in Waterbury, Ansonia, New Britain, and Hartford were rounded up by federal agents and local police as part of a national campaign to "prevent disturbances" on the anniversary of the establishment of the "Russian Soviet." Six of the supposed anarchists were in Waterbury. Hundreds more, deemed to be "dangerous anarchist agitators," were arrested throughout the U.S. with the intention of having them deported. The six "alleged radicals" arrested in Waterbury were charged with attempting to distribute "Red" literature and stirring up unrest. People were so afraid of the "red terror," that sharing written information was enough to get someone arrested.

The Waterbury "anarchists" were eventually allowed to return to Waterbury, where they joined in a brass workers' strike during the summer of 1920. These were extremely tense times. The Waterbury police armed themselves with five machine guns and 160 riot rifles during the strike. The Goss family home at 70 Hillside Avenue was attacked in the night during the strike, when someone tossed a stick of dynamite into the house (no one was harmed).

The New York Times, 2 June 1920

The public fear of Russian socialists gained more apparent justification in 1920, when Michael Kolachuk was arrested for placing a bomb near the home of Superintendent of Police George M. Beach. He was sentenced to 10 to 15 years in the state prison and a fine of $1,000 ("Bomb Plotter is Given Prison Term," Twin-City Daily Sentinel, 22 Sep 1920).

Tensions continued to simmer for years. Some labor organizers and other who longed for economic equality, mistakenly optimistic that the socialist revolution in Russia would create a better world for everyone, promoted the propaganda of Lenin and Trotsky. Die-hard capitalists who feared a disruption of the social and economic order were quick to condemn all labor organizers as subversives. A Russian immigrant, Sedor Sakarguk, was arrested in Waterbury in April 1921 for distributing circulars. The fact that he had lived in the United States for seven years, but had not applied for citizenship, was viewed as suspicious ("Red Use Vicious Literature Among Foreigners in Conn.," Hartford Courant, 12 April 1921).

Anti-Russian and anti-socialist sentiment would explode again following World War II, stoked by the Cold War.

Part One: Irish Immigrants 

Part Two: German Immigrants

Part Three: Italian Immigrants

Part Four: Russian Immigrants

Part Five: Chinese and Japanese Immigrants

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