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War Abroad, Trouble at Home

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Jun 21, 2017

In June 1917, the United States was raising, training and equipping an army to go to Europe “to make the world safe for democracy.” At the same time, at home it was facing one of the greatest upheavals since the Civil War. The crisis was led by two women, the anarchist Russian immigrant Emma Goldman and Alice Paul, the New Jersey Quaker suffragist.

Paul had organized the first picketing of the White House in January 1917, trying to force President and former New Jersey Gov. Woodrow Wilson to support an amendment to give women the vote. On June 20, as Russian envoys entered the White House, a banner was unfurled that read in part, “WE THE WOMEN OF AMERICA TELL YOU THAT AMERICA IS NOT A DEMOCRACY. TWENTY-MILLION AMERICAN WOMEN ARE DENIED THE RIGHT TO VOTE. PRESIDENT WILSON IS THE CHIEF OPPONENT OF THEIR NATIONAL ENFRANCHISEMENT.”

This was too much for some. A mob attacked the women and destroyed the banner as the police and Secret Service stood by watching. When criticized for their actions, Paul defended the pickets with a press release saying, “The intolerable conditions against which we protest can be changed in the twinkling of an eye. The responsibility for our protest is, therefore, with the Administration and not with the women of America, if the lack of democracy at home weakens the Administration in its fight for democracy three thousand miles away.”

Undaunted, the next day the women were back at the White House. The Philadelphia Ledger carried the story.

“Screaming ‘Traitors!’ an angry crowd, led by Mrs. D.E. Richardson, attacked the suffrage pickets at both the west and east gates of the White House this afternoon, ripping down their yellow banners and trampling them in the street.

“Police reserves were called out to quell the rioting, in which several thousand men and a large number of women took part. Nearly 10,000 persons witnessed the rout of the suffrage pickets.

“Miss Hazel Hunkins, one of the pickets, climbed upon the palings of the White House fence, holding her flag aloft in a vain endeavor to save it. Mrs. Richardson climbed up after her, scratching and clawing, and after a bitter struggle wrenched the banner away and tossed it to the howling crowd.”

That night, District of Columbia Police Commissioner Major Pullman announced the pickets were within their rights and should be unmolested, “unless the police department is requested to alter its policy by White House officials.”

Overnight something changed. According to the Ledger, “Following two days’ riots, Major Pullman issued strict orders against permitting the militants to flaunt their banners or to stand before the White House.

“Pullman served formal notice on the women at 9:30 that they could not continue their tactics. Then he strung a line of patrolmen and policewomen from suffrage headquarters a block away from the White House up to and along the avenue on which the mansion fronts.

“‘The period of leniency has passed,’ he said, after issuing this order.”

Then came a turning point.

“The women clung desperately to their yellow banner bearing a quotation from one of President Wilson’s speeches on democracy.

“‘You must move on,’ said the patrolman. ‘You can’t stand here with that standard.’

“The two policewomen then stepped up and argued for a moment with the leader of the pair, Miss Burns.

“‘Wouldn’t you rather give up the banner and move on than be taken in?’ said the officer.

“‘You can’t take away this banner; it’s private property,’ said Miss Burns in a low even tone, as though reciting a prepared speech. ‘We will keep it. It is private and we have the right to stand here.’”

The two women were taken away.

“The arrested suffragists were released shortly after arriving at police headquarters. Before being freed they were warned against attempts to picket.

“They were charged with obstructing traffic and told they would have to appear later to defend the charge.

“The police told the two women that other charges might be made against them, though they refused to say what these might be.”

Wilson received more bad publicity the same day when Alice Paul received a letter from one of the Russian envoys and released it to the press.

“I have just read about the deplorable incident near the White House.

“From all my heart and soul I am proud of the courage of American women who so boldly demand real liberty and democracy.

“I am praying all good forces in the world to give you the courage to stay unshaken, to find in high ideals unlimited forces of joy, helping you not to fall down spiritually.

“I am proud of Miss Burns and Mrs. Lewis, who stood so courageously despite the angry crowd.

“In Russia different kinds of oppressors did the very same thing as American police do now. Yet a real liberty was won and there are no forces on the earth which could dissuade humanity from it.”

The situation was becoming an embarrassment for Wilson and the Democratic Party. On June 28, Mrs. Ellis Meredith, head of the Women’s Bureau of the Democratic National Committee, wrote to Wilson’s private secretary saying, “As long as they (the pickets) can get on the front page of the papers they will keep up their present tactics. … Mr. Creel (chairman of the Committee on Public Information) tells me he can get the Associated Press and the other two news organizations to suppress anything concerning them, but that the relations between himself and the local press are not such that they will relegate the stories about the women to a line or two in police news.”

As the government was searching for a way to deal with Alice Paul in the newspapers, it had Emma Goldman in court. The Asbury Park Press of June 16 stated, “Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman, called the two leading anarchists in this country, were today held for action by the federal grand jury in $25,000 bail each by a United States commissioner on charges of conspiracy against the government. They are accused of working to prevent registration for the selective draft. Both waived examination.

“‘These people are leading spirits in a countrywide conspiracy against the U.S. government,’ Harold Content, assistant United States attorney, said in presenting the complaint against them. ‘They are continual disturbers against peace and law, known all over the country. The government must use drastic measures in order to live up to President Wilson’s proclamation.’”

The Courier News, from Bridgewater, summarized the feelings of many.

“Now that the Federal authorities have Emma Goldman and her pal, Berkman, arch-anarchists and breeders of disloyalty to the flag which has protected them, it is hoped that the sentence will at least be deportation. They seem to be the brains of the anarchy which afflicts our country and with them out of the country the sedition, conspiracy, murder and other crimes fostered by their teachings may be checked. It is hoped that the cult, root and branch, may be eliminated. The best that can be said of them is that they are not citizens. If they were their crime would deserve nothing less than court-martial. The least that can be said of them is that they are snarling ingrates who would bite the hand that fed them and whose existence in a decent country is a menace.”

The trial began on June 27, and the New York World stated, “The court was probably the most carefully guarded room in New York in many long years. Unusual precautions were taken. Marshal McCarthy and his deputies cleared the corridors of the building of several score followers of the radical leaders half an hour before the selection of a jury began.

“Deputy marshals and secret service men were stationed at the elevators, at the door of the court room and were scattered among the spectators. Two deputy marshals were ranged on either side of the Judge’s bench and Harold A. Content, Assistant United States Attorney, who is handling the case for the Government, was guarded by – Detective Sergeant Barnitz. The extra precautions were taken because of threatening letters which have been received by Judge Mayer and Mr. Content.”

As soon as the court was called to order, the scene was set.

“Berkman, who has a sprained ankle, kept protesting to the Court regarding his physical pain, which handicapped him in questioning the (prospective jurors). Judge Mayer insisted that the trial proceed.

“Miss Goldman explained that Harry Weinberger had been in charge of their case, but that they had determined to defend themselves.

“‘We realize,’ Miss Goldman said, ‘that the trial will be a farce, but we will examine the jurors under protest.’”

On June 29, the Trenton Times reported Goldman was still questioning prospective jurors.

“‘Would you believe it to be a lawful change if we had in this country a revolution?’ Berkman asked one man.

“‘We are not going into the discussion of revolutions here,’ said the Court.

“‘Were any of your fathers or grandfathers signers of the Declaration of Independence?’ was Berkman’s next question. The Court remarked that it was immaterial for the trial whether the (prospective jurors) were descended from the Mayflower.

“Emma Goldman was allowed to ask these questions:

“‘Would you be prejudiced against the defendants to know that Emma Goldman had devoted a large part of her life to the emancipation of women?’

“‘Do you believe in woman’s equality with man?’

“‘Would you be prejudiced against Emma Goldman if it came out in the trial that she advocated birth control for the poor?’”

Just how bad the situation had gotten for the government was shown when the Washington Post of June 30 announced, “COUNTRY GIVES A POOR RESPONSE TO WILSON’S CALL FOR 70,000. Hope that President Wilson’s call for the filling up of the regular army and its reserves by June 30 could be realized was abandoned yesterday when figures for recruiting Thursday showed that only 1,313 men had been accepted for service throughout the country.”

Before the U.S. could win the war in the trenches of Europe, it had to win the hearts and minds of the American citizens.

Next Week: The government strikes back.


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