coal miners prior to child labor laws, 1911
Director Robert Greene
BISBEE ’17 B
USA (112 mi) 2018 d: Robert Greene
Cities that are haunted … seem to straddle past and present as though two versions of the same city are overlaid on top of each other.
―Colin Dickey, Ghostland, 2016
Despite near unanimous positive reviews, this is not an altogether engaging film, more abstract and intellectual than emotionally driven, feeling repetitive and muddled throughout by minor details, falling victim to its own stylistic deficiencies, where memory is not always the best purveyor of truth, suggesting history is written by the victors. Ordinary citizens are called upon to recreate a traumatic event from their town’s storied past, but much like restaging Civil War battles doesn’t actually get at the heart of what caused the Civil War, here the present is used to comment upon a specific event in the past, still leaving plenty of questions unanswered. Recalling the troubles with Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012), where the perpetrators of mass genocide were given a cinematic opportunity to restage how they did it, given a platform to celebrate what they viewed historically as a tremendous victory, yet when seen onscreen without all the political hyperbole and bias, it was viewed as little more than mass murder. Suddenly their so-called victory, which is how the history books portrayed their actions, was seen in a completely different light. At the outset of this film, a brief explanation of what happened here 100 years ago in the tiny border town of Bisbee, Arizona scrolls down the screen, recalling a specific event that seems unthinkable today, yet surprisingly similar tactics are being used round the clock today on a daily basis, rounding up illegal immigrants, some who have been here for decades. Surrounding the town are gigantic dirt pits, which remain a constant eyesore, home of what was some of the most profitable copper mining pits in America, where Phelps Dodge was a goliath in the industry, driven by huge profits for a stockpile of munitions needed during the war effort of WWI, making Bisbee one of the wealthiest towns in the entire state. But capitalism is driven by cheap labor, where most of the miners were Mexican or Slavic-European immigrants, paid a pittance in wages, forced to endure hazardous working conditions fraught with life-threatening safety concerns that were routinely overlooked by the company. Mind you, at that time, child labor in the mines was not only an acceptable but a routine practice, as just a year earlier in 1916 Congress passed the Keating-Owen Act which prohibited interstate shipment of goods made by children under age fourteen, but the next decade underwent a series of court challenges, so child labor wasn’t actually abolished until the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. Instrumental in bringing about that change was the intervention of unions (also lawsuits from catastrophic accidents and deaths), which challenged the sole authority of the companies. In Bisbee, the miners were organized by the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), which submitted a list of demands, which included fair treatment of Mexican and European immigrant workers who were routinely given lower paying jobs than American whites (paid twice as much), kept in racially segregated copper camps and company towns, not even paid in U.S. currency, but company coupons redeemable only at the overpriced company store, yet all demands were angrily and vehemently denied, resulting in a strike. Caught up in the patriotic fervor of the war effort, this was viewed as un-American and an affront to all decent citizens, rounding up all the miners on July 12, 1917, including friends and supporters, rousting them out of bed in an early morning sting operation conducted by a horde of deputies, herding nearly 1200 of them into a gated baseball diamond with as many as 50 snipers posted along the roofs en route before forcing them at gunpoint onto train cattle cars where they were dropped off and abandoned in a sweltering desert in the middle of New Mexico with no food, water, or shelter, actions that are mirrored today in rounding up undocumented families that are herded into caged tent villages at gunpoint (often separating children from their parents), before they can be deported out of the country, many still without their children.
What’s perhaps so striking about this historical incident is that the town is still defined by its abhorrent acts of the past. In one family a brother arrested his own brother who worked in the mines, permanently exiling him from the community, and more importantly, from his own family, where it remains a town divided, torn by what happened on both sides, still trying to fathom the impact 100 years later. Since the closing of the last copper mine in 1975, Bisbee has become a ghost town, virtually uninhabited, now one of the poorest towns in the state where population records show about 5000 residents remain, down from 25,000 in 1910, including many transplants from other regions. One of the director’s goals was to film the town’s reenactment of what happened, believing this would identify key elements of the turmoil that still exist today, with everyday citizens playing a part, which has the effect of deflating any elevated emotional impact, as few characters are developed or can hold a camera, instead most are one-dimensional recreations that aren’t remotely convincing in the roles, leaving much to be desired. Because what ultimately happened is announced at the outset, there’s little tension or built-up dramatic suspense, instead the story is told in six chapters, never really addressing how people can actually defend the town’s actions, as many do, other than to suggest the entire town of Bisbee was a company town indoctrinated by the company line, which still exists today. Citizens were actually sold by exaggerated claims that the IWW (aka Wobblies, whose slogan was One Big Union!), represented a threat to their lives, capable of instilling violence, including blowing up the mines, believing the town would erupt in a bloody confrontation, which they then used as an emergency excuse to usurp the law, taking matters into their own hands with a vigilante lynch-mob mentality, cutting the telegraph lines so news could not get out to the rest of the world, supposedly preventing violence by enforcing acts even more monstrously violent, where the cattle cars themselves are a silent remembrance of the Holocaust to anyone watching these events today. Underlying these actions are the irrational concerns of a mob mentality, which include deeply held racists views, as Bisbee was known as a “White Man’s Camp,” subject to believing in paranoid conspiracies, where otherwise peaceful and law-abiding citizens were suspected of outrageous criminal behavior, with no evidence provided, where the anti-American sentiment was really packaged hatred, finding the opposition as the enemy and then demonizing them as subhuman, which justifies the subhuman treatment of them. In contrast, one of the Mexican-American citizens portraying a striking miner, Fernando Serrano, sings Solidarity Forever in Spanish to the tune of the Battle Hymn of the Republic alone in front of a mirror. The company and their powerful agents, the sheriff along with 2200 sworn deputies known as the Loyalty League armed with rifles, wearing white armbands to distinguish them from the miners, frame the confrontation as bringing law and order to a group of rabble-rousers who are threatening their American way of life (as the IWW took a position against the war), yet they and they alone acted unlawfully, ignoring all laws and constitutional rights, behaving like a fascist dictatorship, never held accountable for their actions in subsequent legal challenges, where much of this remained a dirty secret known only by those who perpetrated the acts themselves. Most of the people who were rounded up that day were not socialists or bomb-throwing radicals, but their crime was simply standing up for fair wages and better working conditions.
Bringing this to the light of day is not only laudable, but serves as a mirror for similar action taking place today in the name of the government, where the word “deportation” holds a special place for border residents, who still hold much of the vehement racist resentment directed against those who would enter the country illegally, despite the horrors they may be running from, seeking only a better life for their family, yet they are tainted with a broad brush of xenophobic prejudice and white superiority, which even affects those Mexican-Americans living in Bisbee who feel they are somehow better and don’t wish to be associated with poverty and a developing underclass, especially after they’ve worked their way to respectability. Still among the better films on the subject remains Chantal Akerman’s From the Other Side (De l’autre côté) (2002), as the lines of division couldn’t be more clearly defined, with people believing they are patriots to want to drive this undesirable element out, again framing their beliefs behind the American flag, using law and order guidelines. They love the law when it works for them, but they’re not about to sympathize with anyone who feels differently than they do, still calling them vermin and outside agitators that need to be eradicated, just like they did 100 years ago. Despite the reenactment and the obvious revelations that this was a horrible thing to do to anyone, no matter who they were, there are still plenty in denial who hide behind the idea of bringing order to the community, thinking otherwise it was a powder keg about to explode, completely ignoring the fact that these were heinous acts of brutal violence, with two shot to death when attempting to resist the arrests (a striker and a deputy), with the sheriff and his appointed deputies blatantly violating the law, yet no one was held accountable. What’s missing from the film are some of the unique historical details, like Arizona had only been a state for five years, with officials still used to taking care of problems themselves, while the strike also took place while Mexican independence was being fought for during the Mexican Revolution (1910 – 1920), while the Russian Revolution (1917), which inspired the IWW leaders, was also happening at the exact same time. Significantly, there was a similar deportation of IWW strikers in Jerome, Arizona just a few days earlier, though on a much smaller scale, transporting 75 men in cattle cars more than 150 miles to Kingman, with armed threats never to return. Other missing items include Bisbee authorities placing armed guards on all roads leading into town afterwards to insure that none of those deported could return and also to prevent any new troublemakers from arriving, or that the local Bisbee newspaper was owned by the major mining company, Phelps Dodge, which labeled the strikers as “agitators, idlers, wreckers, traitors, spies and anarchists,” or that the boxcars were lined with manure several inches deep, or most importantly what happened to the entire group afterwards, as viewers watching the film will likely assume they all perished, as it happened in mid-July with temperatures soaring well over 110 degrees, where it is implied that they were left to die. Actually the train was not welcomed in Columbus, New Mexico, their initial destination, so they were dropped off 200 miles away in the open desert of Hermanas, New Mexico. A later train brought food, rations, and water, but they were completely without shelter for two days until U.S. troops arrived, escorting them to holding facilities in Columbus, where they remained for many months, but were not allowed back to their homes in Bisbee. Only a handful ever returned, as some did a decade later under assumed identities. President Woodrow Wilson set up a commission to investigate the Bisbee Deportation, but determined no federal law applied, referring the matter back to the State of Arizona, who found the mining companies at fault, but took no action against them. 300 deportees brought lawsuits against the companies, but none went to trial, as all were settled out of court. Suits were also filed against the actions of the sheriff and over 200 vigilantes, but the only case going to trial ended with a not guilty verdict, while all the other cases were dismissed.