Certainly Not a Bright Spot

Certainly Not a Bright Spot

Headline in the January 3, 1920 edition of the Boston Evening Transcript reports on roundups in New England.

January 2, 2013. You and I still have time to make our New Year’s resolutions.

On a different January 2, however—January 2, 1920—only one resolution mattered for thousands of people across the United States: the resolution to get out of prison. On that date, police rounded up and arrested two to four thousand people attending meetings that had been organized by undercover government agents. The chaotic roundups struck thirty-three cities in twenty-three states.

Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer (FBI photo).

The raids were a response both to a wave of bombings that had terrified Americans the previous year and to the failure of law enforcement to nab the bombers. U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, whose own house had been bombed, was under tremendous pressure “to do something and do it now, and do it quick.”

Palmer’s solution was the deportation roundups which, according to the FBI’s own version of events, “turned into a nightmare.”

The Palmer raids targeted Communist Party and Communist Labor Party members. It soon became clear that the dragnet had swept up people who were not Communists at all. Some detainees “did not so much as know the difference between bolshevism and rheumatism,” one congressman said. Worse, subsequent rulings found that membership in neither party justified deportation.

A May 1920 report documented the illegality of the Palmer raids, concluding that the Dept. of Justice had been a bigger threat to the country than the radicals rounded up in the raids.

In a detailed report on the raids published a few months after they occurred, twelve prominent lawyers documented charges against the attorney general and his agents of cruel and unusual punishment, arrests without warrants, unreasonable search and seizure, entrapment, misuse of office, and the compelling of self-incrimination.

The raids “were certainly not a bright spot,” according to the FBI, although they did teach “important lessons about the need to protect civil liberties and constitutional rights.”

For more about this dangerous time in history, read In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti.

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2 Responses to Certainly Not a Bright Spot

  1. Bonnie Clause says:

    Thanks for this bit of historical perspective, Susan. The reality of this kind of roundup–in America, no less!–makes the metaphorical fiscal cliff seem even more like something out of a Roadrunner cartoon.

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