Writings and observations

What we criminalize

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A century ago, Idaho was a legislative leader in passing a law that would be adopted not long after by almost half the states: The criminal syndicalism act. It’s a slice of history worth reviewing.

The background is this: In the teens the activist and relatively radical edge of the labor movement was the Industrial Workers of the World (members were called “wobblies”). Its success and scope was actually limited, but it was well known regionally and nationally: Anti-union forces talked them up a great deal in fearful tones. In Idaho they mostly were active in the northern lumber camps, and organizers appeared in southern Idaho farms. Their main tool was the strike (in some places, mostly outside Idaho, things sometimes went further), though they were accused of much more. Their demands were for such workers’ protections as an eight-hour day and more worker safety, but their rhetoric was strident enough that they conflicted with other union groups as much as they did businesses.

There was a genuine radical connection, and some IWW leaders really were close to then-emergent Communist Party organizations. As World War I approached, the organization was also accused of being in league with the kaiser. (You know, whoever was handy.) Most of the people in the field were simply active union members, but across much of the state, panic of the unknown and fear of the group was exploding. One academic study of the period noted that “the economic and social problem became an … IWW problem and led to an attack on unpopular doctrines and groups.”

With memories of Silver Valley mine worker violence then not quite a generation in the past, Idaho’s leaders were quick to line up against the wobblies. And in March 1917 the legislature passed a law intended to get at them. This was the syndicalism act, which sought to ban “the doctrine which advocates crime, sabotage, violence, or other unlawful methods of terrorism as a means of accomplishing industrial or political reform.”

You’ll notice how un-specific the language is. That was considered a feature, not a bug, because the broad-brush accusations could easily be thrown around, and were. The point here is that purpose of the law had little to do with concerns about overthrowing the government (which already was covered by laws against treason, sedition and the like); that was the fig leaf. The real point was in suppressing the IWW. (The organization, much smaller and less active than it once was, still exists and is based in Chicago.)

The cover came off a few years later when Idaho legislators passed anti-union legislation criminalizing such acts as “work done in an improper manner, slack work, waste of property, and loitering at work.” And the anti-syndicalism law was eventually weakened by court decisions and later legislation. But in 1917 the measure passed because a relatively small group that actually affected Idaho at the edges was blown up into a terrible threat to decent society. It was made to seem so terrible that freedom of speech took a battering. (That battering would get much worse on a national level at the nation went to war.) For its part, the IWW declined in the twenties for its own organizational reasons, and never recovered.

Doesn’t take much for us to react badly; people are more easily manipulated than they would ever like to believe.

That’s no less true today than it was a century ago. It’s as simple as this: When someone points a finger and blames “them” for our problems, ask first what agendas are really involved. In the politics of today no less than back then, it’s a critical piece of intelligent self-government.

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