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The Forgotten Angel Island

Updated on June 15, 2013
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Eleanore Ferranti Whitaker is a published author of two suspense genre novels and a short story fiction and non-fiction writer.

Angel Island - The Imprisonment of Dissenters

Woodrow Wilson gave a warning in his second inaugural address of his intent to suppress dissent. He announced to newspaper editor, Arthur Brisbane of his opposition to "any system of censorship that would deny to the people of a free republic ....their indisputable right to criticize their own public officials." His subsequent policies, however, were to disprove this when limits to free speech would with presidential approval be circumscribed. In concert with the Department of Justice's recommendations of the expansion of the criminal code to include broadening of seditious activities. A million signatures were collected by Hearst newspapers protesting the loose language of this legislation.

Angel Island, located in San Francisco, California was originally an immigration site. Its chief purpose was to bar hostile immigrants and deport Americans considered to be radicals during the era of World War I. It functioned from 1910 to 1940 as the door through which Pacific rim immigrants entered the US.

War broke out in Europe in 1914 and Mexico endured a civil which increased the number of immigrants of various nationalities into the US through Angel Island.

Two new additions to the overcrowded Angel Island Immigration Station were interrogated and detained as "alien enemies," mostly Germans, Austro-Hungarians and Americans suspected of "alleged" radical political activities. By 1917, strict loyalty to the US government and US values was mandated, creating the perception that anything less was a threat to American security.

The total number of alien enemies and radical suspects grew and Angel Island became overcrowded. On April 6, 1917, non-citizen German and Austro-Hungarian men over age 14 were labeled "alien enemies." Women of these nationalities were added the following year.

In October 1917, the US Congress passed the Espionage Act, fortified later by the May 16, 1918 Sedition Act and Trading with the Enemy Act. Those who opposed the war openly were the first to be imprisoned at Angel Island. These included anarchists Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, Lincoln Steffens, John Reed and Bolton Hall. On May 30, 1917, the First American Conference for Democracy and Terms of Peace was held by war pacifists led by Scott Nearing, former dean of Toledo University. Others like Rabbi Judah Magnes, Florence Kelley, William "Pig Iron" Kelley, Bishop Paul Jones of the Utah Episcopal diocese, Thomas Van Lear, Socialist mayor of Minneapolis, John Works, Senator from California, Paul Kellogg, Crystal Eastman and Helen Keller joined forces to fight for peace rather than war.

Emma Goldman wrote, "Noncombatants and conscientious objectors from every social stratum were filling jails and prisons while the new Espionage Law turned the country into a lunatic asylum with every state and federal official, as well as a large part of the civilian population, running amuck. They spread terror and destruction. Disruption of public meetings and wholesale arrests, sentences of incredible severity, suppression of racial publications and indictments of their staffs, beating of workers--even murder--became the chief patriotic pastime."

For the crime of writing a letter to a Kansas City newspaper denouncing war profiteers, Rose Pastor Stoke was sentenced to ten years in prison. Roger Baldwin, socialite and socialist was among dozens who resisted the draft and was imprisoned for his actions. He remained defiant at his trial while pronouncing himself an anarchist. He refused to allow the state to coerce his conscience regarding war. Another draft resister was Philip Grosser who was turned over to military authorities and court martialed (a procedure that was illegal). He was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Angel Island became an American concentration camp for war dissenters. At Angel Island, men were tortured systematically. Those imprisoned at Leavenworth were forced to stand for a week with hands crossed against their breasts. The second week many were hanged by their wrists. Evan Thomas, brother of Norman Thomas, a Socialist leader was tortured.

Many war resisters like Kate Richards O'Hare, sentenced to five years in prison, Jacob Schwartz and Mollie Steimer, Mother Earth editor were also handed long prison terms.

From detention at Angel Island to dispersal to federal prisons, those who dared to speak against the government and refused to be drafted were initially incarcerated at Angel Island. Threats to the First Amendment were to continue when Oscar Ameringer and Victor Berger were threatened by government officials. According to the court hearing Ameringer's trial, he could have been sentenced to 1500 years imprisonment for circulating the Milwaukee Leader, confiscated by the US postmaster general and labeled "undeliverable under the Espionage Act."

Thus, Angel Island contributed its part in American history and the incarceration of dissenters and remains a tribute to the compromise of US Constitutional First Amendment rights.

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