Sep 17, 2018
August 17 marked the 100th anniversary of the end of one of the largest show trials in history, organized by the U.S. Justice Department and its Bureau of Investigation, precursor to the FBI. A hand-picked jury convicted 101 members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) of thousands of violations of the Espionage Act, merely for speaking out against World War I. Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis sentenced the vast majority of defendants to years in prison.
The Justice Department did not even attempt to prove the charges against the individual defendants. Rather, it carried out a rabid propaganda portraying the IWW as German-sympathizing bomb throwers, and convicted these men for being members of the organization. The whole court system went along with this show.
The Justice Department prosecuted the IWW because of its class struggle leadership and its opposition to the war. The preamble to the IWW constitution, ratified in 1905, stated: “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common... Between these two classes a struggle must go on, until all the toilers come together on the political as well as on the industrial field, and take and hold that which they produce by their labor....”
The IWW put this stance into practice. In the period before the First World War, it led strikes of thousands of workers throughout the country, who stood up against the bosses, the National Guard, the police, and the army. At this time, the American Federation of Labor included only skilled white men, but the IWW organized unskilled workers, immigrants, black and white workers, women and men and children (in an age when child labor was still common).
And the IWW continued to organize workers and lead strikes during the war. Between April and November of 1917, after the U.S. had declared war on Germany and as it was gearing up to send troops to France, workers carried out 3,000 strikes. The government moved to get the conservative American Federation of Labor to help it rein in those strikes – and the A.F. of L. complied. But the IWW remained steadfast in its opposition to the war.
The IWW had always faced repression, and had faced many frame-ups before the outbreak of World War I. For instance, during the massive strike of textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912, cops killed a young woman striker named Anna LoPizzo – and then had the nerve to arrest two of the main strike leaders for this killing! But the repression really ramped up during the war. Vigilantes linked to the companies murdered IWW organizers like Frank Little. The U.S. Army broke up workers’ meetings, arrested and held hundreds of strikers without charging them with any crimes. California passed a “Criminal Syndicalist Law” and sent hundreds of workers to prison for simply having an IWW membership card or song book. Even the Postal Service banned the IWW’s two main publications, and refused to deliver letters between IWW members, including letters pertaining to the show trial as it was being prepared in Chicago.
The recently founded Bureau of Investigation took the lead in the government’s attempts to destroy this organization. During World War I, the Bureau went from an insignificant branch of the Justice Department with just over 100 employees for the whole country, to a massive repressive organization that was largely dedicated to rooting out the influence of militants in the workers’ movement. In September of 1917, the Bureau raided every office of the IWW across the entire country within the space of 24 hours. Its agents stole more than five tons of material from the Chicago office alone, including membership lists, internal letters, newspapers, and even office furniture, pencils, and paper clips. The Philadelphia District Attorney said outright that these raids were carried out “very largely to put the IWW out of business.”
The show trial in Chicago, the jailing of many of its leaders, and the deportation and murder of others did not totally destroy the IWW. But they succeeded in denying the working class of some of its most experienced leaders during the massive strike wave of 1919 that began just after the end of World War I.
In years to come, the Justice Department and its Bureau of Investigation (FBI) would carry out further attacks on people who fought against exploitation and racism. It organized a series of campaigns against the Communist Party as soon as it was founded, starting with the Palmer Raids of 1919-1920, and reaching a peak during the McCarthy period of the 1940s and 1950s. The Justice Department arrested and tried the leaders of the Socialist Workers Party in 1941 as the U.S. prepared for WWII. And the FBI carried out systematic campaigns against the black movement, including trying to blackmail Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. into committing suicide, and organizing the murder of militant leaders like Chicago Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in 1969.
Today, the press and the Democratic leadership characterize Robert Mueller as a hero in what they hope will be a successful campaign to remove Trump. But their history shows that the Justice Department, the FBI, and the rest of the state apparatus are not on the side of the working class. They were built to defend the interests of this country’s ruling class, at all costs.