Thank you for riding the deportation express.
On the surface it appears to be an illegal deportation of anti-union Americans at the hands of newly deputized company loyalists in Bisbee, Arizona. Approximately 1,200 copper mining strikers and sympathizers were rounded up at gunpoint in 1917, ushered into cattle cars, and driven over the border to New Mexico with the declaration that returning home would end in their death. Maybe the illegality of the incident was enough to keep it all a closely guarded secret, but digging further reveals another truth instead. Suddenly the surnames and faces present on each side come into focus with white Anglo-Saxon men holding guns and immigrants (Mexican, Slovak, and otherwise) holding signs. As the story shifts from politics to race, the decades-long silence on the subject becomes deafening.
As director Robert Greene shows during the course of his documentary Bisbee ’17, a small group of residents have banded together to shed light on the incident in a much louder way than has ever been attempted before. Being that 2017 is the tragedy’s centennial anniversary, the topic was buzzing with newcomers to town hearing of this dark history for the very first time. The reason for their ignorance doesn’t do those aforementioned deputies’ so-called justification any favors either as it largely stems from them having blocked any and all modes of communication while their mass incarceration took place. And if the only people left when the dust settled were loyalists and the victims’ scared families, nobody remained to contradict the prevailing party line from solidifying.
Knowledge, however, isn’t always a great unifier—especially not for a blue-collar industry community holding onto the delusion that the owners of its local mines will eventually come back and rejuvenate their dying economy. Knowledge often proves a great divider instead once heritage, guilt, and blame get involved. Because what would it mean if Bisbee’s prosperity after World War I hinged upon a state-sanctioned ethnic cleansing? What would it mean for descendants of the perpetrators (Sheriff Harry Wheeler, Copper Queen Mine owner Walter S. Douglas, and manager John C. Greenway)? What would it mean for the predominately white residents who can say their families have endured here for generations specifically because their ancestors were complicit? The similarities to the current administration’s xenophobia for this border town aren’t lost.
Just listen to a gentleman who spent his entire life working for Copper Queen as a miner and later company president. He talks about always being told this exile of radical union protestors was a necessity to save lives because a bloody civil war in their streets was eminent. He also vehemently explains how he agrees that this was true. Were members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union actually violent? The answer might be “Yes,” but it would never be that simple since strong-arm tactics of the men in power would have inherently pushed them to that brink by denying them their rights. And the fact they were minorities treated worse than their scab counterparts shows what lives those stories were actually saving: white lives.
Greene knows these truths while also acknowledging they’re meaningless to those entrenched in a false truth for decades. Rather than merely interviewing people in Bisbee from different walks of life to film their thoughts and perhaps spark a debate, he decides to stage an elaborate reenactment as part of the centennial celebrations instead. He casts those who “understand” the loyalist side as loyalists and those cognizant of the immoral displacement of human beings as those who were thrown out. We therefore hear the sanctimonious laughter and ego of the likes of Sue Ray and James West alongside the heavy emotional turmoil experienced by Fernando Serrano. And maybe—just maybe—putting a proverbial pitchfork in the hands of deportation supporters will awake them to the heinousness of the crime.
The filmmaker has in effect forced these residents to unwittingly absorb what happened on a psychological level. No longer can they intellectualize an atrocity like their parents and grandparents did before them. Greene introduces his premise as though a game and then lets the camera capture personal truths his amateur actors learn in the process. Two brothers (Mel and Steve Ray) confront the reality that their great-grandfather put on a badge to throw his own brother out of town with visceral, tactile participation. They can’t hide behind their mother Sue’s skewed version of heroism and tough choices to cowardly stand in the middle and say they relate to both men’s decision. No, they must look at each other from opposite sides of a cage and live that injustice.
It’s rather ingenious because we witness as much heartache and empathy as borderline sociopathic pleasure to perform the part of authoritarians as though their side of the conflict deserves compassion. One man dismisses his wife’s exclamation that giving the loyalists an equal platform to the protestors is akin to saying we should give Nazis equal respect to the people they slaughtered during the Holocaust. He’s correct in saying it’s a hyperbolic comparison, but it’s apt nonetheless. Men like him can’t see the hypocrisy, privilege, or hate behind their beliefs, though. They refuse to comprehend that those with power who then provide themselves with greater advantages than their subordinates aren’t allowed to play the victim. And that’s why little if anything has changed during the hundred years since.
Watched in conjunction with my Buffalo, NY film series Cultivate Cinema Circle.
courtesy of 4th Row Films