Frightened and enraged by the crimes and abuses of the Trump administration and its enablers, I look back for hope and courage to earlier bad times and voices of resistance. I re-post here a letter written at such a time by the brave and brilliant Claudia Jones; I recommend that you read it, reprinted below (*).
(For an introduction to the life and legacy of Claudia Jones, see my earlier post, “Finding Claudia Jones.” For a list of my published and unpublished work on Jones, refer to this page of posts and essays.)
From Ellis Island in 1950, Jones wrote to the Daily Worker: “We are threatened by the government with becoming the first inmates of American concentration camps…” Incarcerated with 16 other “aliens” threatened with deportation, Jones’s fierce and poetic letter described the prisoners, the circumstances of their detention, and the conditions on Ellis Island.
In 2006, appalled by emerging revelations from Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, I reflected on Jones’ letter in an essay entitled “A Strange and Terrible Sight in Our Country,” originally published in the Women’s Review of Books (September/October 2006). The essay title comes from a comment by a comrade of Jones, who wrote: “When the torch of the Statue of Liberty lights up every evening, the rays shine over a newly made concentration camp for American political prisoners, a strange and terrible sight in our country.”
I remember thinking in 2006 that our country had sunk far below what I remembered or knew about the McCarthy years. Claudia Jones and her companions were uncomfortable, but unlike the prisoners at Abu Ghraib, they were not tortured. They were harassed, re-arrested, and in many cases deported, but they had access to legal counsel and could fight for their rights in court, unlike those at Guantanamo. Communists such as Jones, like the rest of us, tended to ignore or overlook the inconvenient fact of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, but at least families were not separated during that grave injustice.
In 2019 we have fallen farther still—much farther. In 1950, Jones could appeal to what was universally acknowledged, if sometimes betrayed—most often for people of color—as the rule of law. When she denounced the “foul lies” of the attorney general, Jones could assume that most Americans, even fervent anti-Communists, expected elected officials and cabinet ministers to tell the truth. Unlike Trump and Barr, President Truman and Attorney General McGrath would have been shamed if caught in a lie. Claudia Jones and her comrades had a different view of “justice” than most of their fellow-Americans, but all agreed that in the United States, it was supposed to be available to all, and neither American citizens nor resident “aliens” could be detained without due process of law.
And now? In concentration camps on our border, little children in cages cry for their parents: a more strange and terrible sight than even Claudia Jones, who had no trouble recognizing evil and injustice, could have imagined.
Featured Image (top):
“Statue of Liberty as seen from measles ward, Quarantine Hospital, Ellis Island 2008” courtesy of Ian Ference
(*) Letter from Claudia Jones to John Gates, Editor of The Daily Worker, Nov. 8, 1950
ELLIS ISLAND, Saturday afternoon
In thinking about the collusion of the “free press” with the ruling circles’ attack on American democratic liberties, I decided to write to you. Of course, if I attempt to write descriptively, it will only be because, while I know you (and I) hold brevity to be the soul of wit, description should not be the second class citizen. So here goes my letter:
Homing pigeons gather aimlessly in the large yard on an island which lies in New York’s great harbor. Occasionally a homing pigeon flies in from the bay dotted with whitecaps and the pigeons scatter.
They either gather in a solid mass and noiselessly fly away, together, or, with loud grace, flap their wings and soar away . . . One flapped his wings 31 times before he ascended to fly over the massed brownstone building with numerous windows.
If one looks closely, it is obvious this is not just a haunt of homing pigeons or seagulls. The windows on all buildings are all wired with criss-cross light iron bars. Others are heavier . . . Around the huge yard, barbed-wire, way beyond the height of a man, towers and outdoor lights, as on a baseball diamond, are spaced with regular frequency . . .
Look even closer . . . Men in shirtsleeves or rough lumber jackets peer out from occasional windows on the right end of the yard, looking out on the bay, where, now and then, on this foggy, rain-swept day, foghorns cry their warning to approaching vessels . . . Some of the ships are more beautiful than others. There are tugs and passenger ships . . . Coast guard cutters and barges are anchored to the pier on the left end of the island, which barely commands our view.
It is not too foggy to see the towering skyscrapers which beckon beyond the bay, on the other shore, on the mainland.
One cannot imagine the mainland without its wealth of men, women and children of many lands who for centuries – and likewise today – toiled in mine, mill, factory and the endless plain – all the stretch of these great green states to make America.
From this view, another famous island, that so many ships and their passengers from five continents have eagerly nodded to, throughout the last 300 centuries [sic], cannot be seen. Bedloe’s Island, home of the Statue of Liberty, gift of the descendants of Joan of Arc, lies on the left of this shore . . . And well it does – for this woman, with liberty’s torch, still stands proudly aloft her earthly home . . . And literally stands with her back to Ellis Island.
Here, on Ellis Island, it would not be well for her shadow to grace the newly-established wing of the Attorney General of the U.S. – or, as the 17 imprisoned inmates of this wing call it – the “McCarran Wing.” In this wing are 17 men and women – a virtual United Nations composition. O yes, and the guards – one woman guard and two men guards.
Among our company of 17 is a Slavic-American, the brawn and brain of whose people are forever merged with the great industrial achievements of America’s working people – the miners of Pittsburgh, the auto workers of Detroit, the anthracite and copper miners, on the Mesabe range of the Minnesotas.
Here is a Finnish-American, who sat four years in a similar detention jail, when another attorney general, Palmer by name, sought to impose Alien and Sedition raids and laws, defeated by the mass protests of Americans of an earlier day.
Here are trade unionists from fur, electrical and maritime industries, who smile their firm greeting of approval when, from shops and locals, wires or letters come, telling of actions taken on behalf of American liberty. Here is a Negro man from the British West Indies, whose people’s blood mixed with Crispus Attucks, on that early day on Boston Commons when West Indian warriors, of the strain of Toussaint l’Ouverture, fought in the American Revolution. Second-class citizens, like 15 million Negro Americans, whose sons serve in Jim Crow units in Korea, they are no strangers to the second-class Jim Crow justice likewise meted out to West Indians of foreign birth.
Here are women, Negro and white, whose lives, like those of Emma Lazarus and Harriet Tubman, are a refutation of women’s inequality in any field of endeavor; women whose lives from early youth was pursuit of truth and once learning, applied that truth learned in American homes and schools to help guarantee life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in devotion to the American people and to future generations of children by participating in the struggles of the people. Here too, are leading representatives of the vanguard party of all the toiling people – Communist leaders.
One of the women, as you know, was confined for over a week to solitary confinement and was under constant surveillance.
DEVOTION TO STRUGGLE
All 17 here are examples of devotion to the struggles of the labor movement, in the fight for Negro rights, against discrimination and lynching, in the fight for democracy, in our efforts on behalf of the peace and security of the people. And some hold beliefs that only under a Socialist society can these rights be finally secured!
There is a Spanish-American, a Ukrainian-American, an Italian-American, a Greek-American and Jewish-Americans. Descendants of Haym Solomon and Giuseppe Garibaldi, and of the people of Simon Bolivar and La Pasionaria, San Martin, they are proud and honored descendants of these heroes and heroines.
Why are we here – on this notorious “Island of Tears” – so close to Liberty’s statute [sic], where we have always been in mind, spirit and action?
The majority of newspapers tell you, that we are here because we are awaiting deportation hearings. That is a foul lie. Like many others now incarcerated, we have been out on bail for various periods of time pending disposition of deportation proceedings launched against us.
Many of us have had no hearings or legal examinations of any kind. We have never been confronted with any evidence, or made familiar with any crime, alleged or charged against us. Nor have any of us been informed or charged with the slightest infraction of the terms of our release on bail . . . Nevertheless the government has re-arrested us without due process of law, and seeks to assign us to a virtual life-long imprisonment on Ellis Island.
We are threatened by the government with becoming the first inmates of America’s concentration camps, the direct victims of the mad drive of the ruling circles to fascism at home and atomic war abroad.
Others, like U.S. Attorney Irving H. Saypol, who fought our plea for a restraining order against illegal re-arrest and who argued against the writ of the 11 , already here for nearly 2 weeks, for bail (which has already been substantially placed on all our heads), claim that the U.S. Attorney General used his discretionary powers under the unconstitutional McCarran Act to deny us bail. This too, is a foul lie.
The ridiculous part of it is that the American people are supposedly asked to believe that we are “awaiting deportation hearings” – a “normal procedure,” and hence, the Attorney General so uses his discretionary powers that he first illegally rearrests people already out on bail, then asks the court to give him time to ascertain whether he was discreet about the use of his discretionary power. But Lincoln once spoke of the basis on which people can be fooled.
The truth, of course, is that this is a clear violation of the American Constitution, the Bill of Rights, both of which guarantee the right of bail and the right of habeas corpus. That Judge F. McGohey ruled on the government motion of postponement , first, and not on the right of bail is a clear violation of this time-honored right.
I feel and I’m sure all the rest do likewise, that legal struggles, important as they are, (and we feel our attorneys and the American Committee for Protection of Foreign Born are doing a heroic job) are incidental to the mass struggle to free us. We can and must win the right to remain free on bail. We must and can win the right to our citizenship – the onus of which legal lack is on the Department of Justice and its Immigration Service, who denied us naturalization, purely on the grounds of our conscience, our beliefs and our ideas.
But no law or decree can whittle away or pierce by one iota our convictions and loyalty to America’s democratic and revolutionary traditions. We are Americans, each and every one of us, similarly persecuted, not by accident of birth, but by choice. We yield to no one in laying claim to being true patriots.
Everyone asks in letters which have begun to come in what they can do for us. Of course it is welcome to receive mail here. We look forward to it. We are being sent packages of food, candy, papers, including my favorite, the Daily Worker, fruit and books. Our conditions are the conditions of imprisonment, of being denied absolute liberty. We won the right after protest for the women to move from the hotbox of a room and to be together during the days with the men.
The heat was unbearable for Rose Nelson Lightcap, longest confined of the women, and what with Betty Gannett’s sinus and fear for a flaring up of my bronchitis, the change was necessary, hazardous as it was to our health. What we want is out – freedom! What we want is aid – aid morally, financially, and above all by mass protests and action, to the mass campaign of the American Committee for Protection of the Foreign Born, by the trade unions, the Negro people, the women, the youth, national groups, and all labor progressives who love peace and cherish freedom, lest all face the bestiality and tormented degradation of fascism.
I am confident – and I know the others all share my view – that we can and will win this round against the ruling circles who seek to bring fascism at home and atomic war abroad.
In a break for fresh air – I looked again in the yard. It is no longer raining. Men are in the yard, and the homing pigeons seem to be in their nests. It seems also that the fog has begun to lift.
My love to Lil and best regards to John Pittman, Alex [Bittelman] and Betty [Gannett] and George Siskind send their best regards and comradely greetings.
(*) Letter transcribed Nov 2016 from PDFs of microfilm
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Please, send the comments and her letter to the NYT.
Blake paints a grim picture. It may become grimmer:
If Trump loses in 2020, especially in a close vote, will Trump declare the vote invalid?
Will the Supreme Court support Trump?
If Trump declares a national emergency, will the Army support him?
If Trump’s Base, which is heavily armed, marches upon Washington DC, and upon state capitols in protest, in insurrection, will the Army suppress them? Maybe not. The military’s rank and file,(Perhaps their generals too.) I’ll bet, is for Trump. It is very heavily armed.
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While Jones words are apt and terrifying, it’s Atkinson’s claim that Jones “expected officials to tell the truth”–that the president and others would have been horrified to be caught in an outright lie–that got me. We all feel we are walking on some kind of false floor, that at any moment the bottom will drop and the walls will spin and we might or might not be held in place by centrifugal force. It’s impossible to track how far off the path of history we’ve strayed UNTIL we compare our situation to earlier bad times. This is one reason these Atkinson essays are so revealing. She brings the witness of the past to bear on today. And it’s almost unbearable.
I wish this piece – your introductory comments and Claudia’s letter – could be republished in the New York Times. Thank you.
Great idea. Crissy, send to the Times. Immediately.