Police officers keep the peace, but sometimes in the past have been state-sponsored terrorists.
My interest in gory topics like this one is not a fascination with the macabre, but a conviction that for too long anything that contradicts our mainstream narrative of what America is, has been swept under the rug. Shaking out the dust can be a corrective, I think. I don’t think we’re worse than other nations, but I do think that our narrative of American exceptionalism is dangerous. I truly think we have been a force for good in the world, but that we need to balance that by owning up to the things we have done to our own people.
Now in 2017 it seems to me that we are again on verge of a grim and evil era, characterized by repression of minority communities, detention of tens of thousands of immigrants and more.
In this post, I compile representative incidents in our history that seem to me to exemplify the use of terror as a tactic, used by local authorities, corporations, government and dominant communities. I define “terror” as the deliberate use of violence as a social tool to achieve some goal. Terror tactics include the murder of individuals and groups, arson, harassment, seizure of assets, imprisonment, exile and other means.
I do not cover in this posting much of what was done to the native peoples. That’s a vast subject, and terror in conjunction with ethnic cleansing of Indian peoples was a major element in our history for three centuries. I’m going to consider that topic in future postings. That whole history is exemplified in the Trail of Tears , in which Cherokee were forced to migrate to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) in 1838 and 1839. Of some 15,000 Cherokee forced out, some 4,000 died on the way. The forced migration was not actually intended as a death march, but to solve conflicts over land in Georgia and for the political benefit of Andrew Jackson’s political base. Terror was used by locals in Georgia to encourage migration (although the Trail was administered by the Army), by means including murder, other forms of violence, theft of farms, robbery, expropriation of assets.
There are other victim communities I do not address in this post, to keep it from becoming unbearably long. That does not mean I think the pain was somehow lesser. Physical and psychological violence have long been used to intimidate women and the LGBTQ community. When conformity is rigidly enforced, I don’t think it’s too much to call it a kind of terror.
What is probably the bloodiest use of terror in our history is also one of the least known. In 1915 a Mexican rebel named Basileo Ramos was stopped at McAllen, Texas. In his possession was a document called the Plan de San Diego , which called for the killing of all Anglo men and giving California, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona to Mexico, and land to Indians and African Americans. Tension had been building in the Rio Grande Valley since the Mexican Revolution started (1911). The Texas Rangers and vigilantes went crazy, with the killings of Tejanos and Mexicans in 1915 and the next couple of years estimated as high as 5,000 (estimates range from 300 or so to the thousands). I’d call this violence a brutal kind of police repressive terror, designed to ensure the Mexican American community in Texas be submissive.
That era also the Green Corn Rebellion in Oklahoma (1917). Maybe a thousand rural rebels gathered together but were dispersed quickly, with three killed. 150 were sentenced to prison. The events discredited the Socialist party in Oklahoma and helped discredit the IWW. Terror as used here included stiff prison sentences to deter future activism, and using the fear of social revolution to arouse public sentiment against radical groups.
The use of terror in our colonial and history up to the Civil War was constant in maintaining slavery, but took many forms. Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 saw perhaps a thousand Virginians join under Nathaniel Bacon, rebelling against Governor William Berkeley. The causes were complex, but Bacon’s forces included people of all conditions. They chased the governor out of the capital (Jamestown) and burned it. The Governor rallied forces, defeated Bacon’s men (he had died of sickness), but exacted revenge by hanging 23 rebels, and the authorities made sure than the dangerous combination of white indentured servants and African slaves did not happen again.
In another colonial use of terror, in 1704 during Queen Anne’s War, English colonists from the Carolinas in alliance with a thousand Creek warriors attacked the Spanish missions in La Florida, largely destroying them; the leader’s report claims more than a thousand killed, with hundreds resettled and a large number captured and sold as slaves. The Apalachee massacres (one of several names) were intended to destroy the missions, and eliminate them as a refuge for runaway slaves.
One of the clearest cases in our history of terror used in conjunction with ethnic cleansing is the Mormon War in Missouri in 1838. 19 Mormons were killed at the Haun’s Mill Massacre , and the governor called for the Mormons to be exterminated and drive out. Thousands fled to Illinois where troubles continued. The prophet Joseph Smith was murdered in jail in 1844, leading to the Mormon exodus to Utah. This is a classic example of terror designed to panic a social group into fleeing. Many lynchings and other terror activities were followed by sizable numbers of people fleeing.
Executions that are technically legal have been used as a kind of terror. In 1862, 38 Lakota were hanged at Mankato, Minnesota . More than 300 had been sentenced to death as a result of the bloody Sioux rebellion (something like 800 settlers were killed). Abraham Lincoln commuted the death sentences on the others. In 1847, the US Army hanged about 50 deserters—Irish Catholics who went over to the Mexican side, where they gained fame as the San Patricios . In one event 30 were hanged together, standing for hours with nooses around their necks till the US flag was unfurled at the victory at Chapultepec. The purpose of the one was to deter future Indian rebellion and get them out of Minnesota, and the other, to discourage desertion but also for revenge, because the deserters had fought hard against American forces.
The Civil War brought out terror on a considerable scale. German Americans had settled in Texas in considerable numbers, but many remained Unionists. In an 1862 event known as the Great Hanging at Gainesville , about 40 fleeing German Unionists were caught and hanged. In another incident, armed Germans fleeing Confederate conscription were caught and lost a firefight called the Battle of the Nueces ; some were killed in the skirmish and the ones taken prisoner were shot, in all several dozen. In 1863, Confederate guerillas under the notorious William Quantrill raided the strongly Unionist town of Lawrence, Kansas , and killed between 180 and 200 men, which precipitated a spiral of violence by both sides in which no quarter was given. The Texas killings were designed to intimidate Unionists. Quantrill’s motives may have partly been simple bloodlust.
The use of terror in the form of lynching to perpetuate white supremacy is well known. Nearly 5,000 people were murdered in the lynching era 1882-1968, 73% of them black. The murders were often attended by large crowds, sometimes advertised in advance, and victims were sometimes quite sadistically tortured. The events seem to me to be grim performances reinforcing the idea of white superiority, enactments of intimidation and sometimes exercises in community sadism.
The era of lynchings grew out of the grim history of terror used to preserve the slavery system, which as is well known commonly involved corporal punishment and systematic denial of slaves’ humanness. Less well known is the usually violent aftermath of slave rebellions—there were at least 250 of them. The Stono Rebellion in South Carolina happened in 1739; it was broken up and 50 participants executed. In New York City in 1741 a rumored slave rebellion was found (it’s not clear if it was real plot or simply imaginary); 30 blacks and four whites (unusually, two were white women) were executed, some hanged and some burned at the stake. In the 1800 Gabriel’s Rebellion, Gabriel sought to lead a march on Richmond, but the plot was betrayed—25 people were hanged together, Gabriel alone. The 1811 German Coast Uprising in Louisiana was quickly defeated, with some rebels killed in skirmishes, and a hundred more executed, with their heads placed along the road to New Orleans (the German Coast was an area above New Orleans populated by many German immigrants. In the aftermath of some slave rebellions, local vigilantes conducted terror campaigns. Gruesome executions were thought to be exemplary.
Violence was particularly intense in the reconstruction era. Most of the violence was against black participation in the political system and sometimes related to national politics between Republicans and Democrats. Much of the violence was orchestrated by local political leaders determined to eliminate black people’s influence on politics, sometimes involving murder and a few times, massacre. Violence against black people continued well into the 20th century (see here for a Wikipedia list of mass racial violence ) .
Among a long list are the 1866 New Orleans riot that killed at least 44; the 1866 Memphis riot that killed 46; the 1868 Opelousas massacre that killed somewhere between 25 and 300; the 1873 Colfax massacre that killed 150 or more. The Wilmington riot of 1898 killed somewhere between 15 and 60; the 1920 Ocoee riot in Florida killed 50 or 60; the 1919 Elaine (Arkansas) riots killed between 100 and 237; the 1921 Tulsa riot killed maybe 300. The Wilmington riot was a carefully organized assault designed to overturn city government and eliminate black participation. The Elaine pogrom was instigated by owners against black field workers and sharecroppers protesting conditions. The Tulsa riot seems to have been to destroy economic competition.
Another community sometimes victimized by terror has been Asians in America, particularly the Chinese in the later 1800s. The most notorious event was the 1885 Rock Springs massacre in Wyoming, in which white mobs killed at least 28 Chinese miners. The issue was that Chinese miners were being preferentially hired for lower wages, so the goal was to terrorize Chinese out of the region. There were a number of such riots, and the overall context included severe state laws against Asian ownership of land, citizenship and immigration, and included the 1924 legislation sometimes called the Asian Exclusion Act.
Police and related groups have sometimes been the agents of official or semi-official terrorism. Three examples from early labor organization efforts make the point. In the Pennsylvania coal fields in 1877 and 1878, there was labor agitation, some of it by an Irish secret organization known as the Molly Maguires . The story is debated, but many were arrested and about 20 were hanged. Vigilantes ambushed and killed others. The state had set up the Pennsylvania Coal and Iron Police (1865-1931), run by corporations, which were active in repressing labor organization. In 1914, Colorado experienced a massacre of laborers and their dependents, encamped at Ludlow . They were attacked by Colorado National Guardsmen and guards from the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company. In 1919, and again in 1920, Attorney General Palmer conducted raids (known as the Palmer Raids ) on alleged radicals; overall some 10,000 arrests were made, 3,500 held in detention and 556 resident aliens deported. Palmer’s enthusiasm for arresting radicals was tempered by less-panicked courts. The tactics used in each of these cases were aimed at intimidating opposition to corporations,and included picking off leadership, imprisoning activists often on trumped-up charges, physical intimidation, blacklisting and murder.
There are more recent examples, such as the gory Attica prison event. Some current public (and some private security forces) habitually overreact, habitually assume the guilt of minorities and habitually prefer force to negotiation. The deliberate use for force to achieve specific goals, in the sense of terror, seems to me to have lessened. But I think we need to face reality: the selective use of intimidation and, yes, terror, to maintain political and corporate status quos is a deeply engrained American tradition.