In July of 1917, 2,00 deputized citizens of Bisbee, Arizona, under direction of the county sheriff (and almost certainly the copper mining interests that ran the town), rounded up at gunpoint 1,200 striking mineworkers, members of the IWW, marched them four miles out of town, loaded them onto boxcars, and transported them into the New Mexico desert, to be left to die in the middle of nowhere. The one-hundredth anniversary of this event, and the town’s attempt at reckoning with it, is the subject of the latest film from documentarian Robert Greene, which opens today at the SIFF Film Center.
Questioning the nature of truth as it is presented in non-fiction film is the guiding mission of Greene’s work, in acclaimed films like Actress and Kate Plays Christine. Bisbee ’17 too is explicitly about the recreation of historical events, as the town organizes a kind of dramatization of the Deportation (as it has come to be known), with various townspeople, some of them fairly recent arrivals to the community, some with family members who fought on either side (or both sides) in 1917. We meet the various locals who will be taking part in the reenactment, and learn a little bit about their current lives, though the emphasis is on their thoughts about the strike and its bloody conclusion.
That the consciousness of an American community has not changed much with regard to labor rights in the past hundred years should come as no surprise. But even some of those who say they still support the mining company’s actions notably feel pangs of regret as they watch their fellow citizens rounded up and shipped away. There’s a lot of good old fashioned American excuse-making on the pro-capital side, especially ubiquitous is that most despicable of all arguments: that the actions of these cruel men were on some level acceptable simply because they believed they were doing the right thing. I don’t know where this idea comes from (I suspect Evangelical Protestantism, but I can’t say for sure), that what you do in life doesn’t matter as long as your intentions are good, that any evil is justifiable in the name of belief, but it is long past time it was discarded. Let us send it to the desert to die.
Stories like that of Bisbee are increasingly necessary, not simply for their obvious parallels to the political issues of the present day (Bisbee is only a handful of miles from the Mexican border, and Deportation today has all kinds of new though not-so different resonances). Somewhere in the immediate post-war era, with the mass expansion of public education at the high tide of Cold War propaganda, America lost a sense of its own labor history, of the crimes committed by capital in the creation of our communities and our nation. As the great factory and mining towns that built the foundations for our national wealth have been abandoned over the last 40 years (Bisbee in most respects looks identical to the mining towns my parents grew up in in Northern Idaho), whole generations have been adrift, without a coherent narrative to explain how things got to be so bad or what we can do to get from here to a better place. Watching the residents of Bisbee grapple with basic truths about capital, its exploitation of labor and its manipulation of racism in the creation of an all-white community (the vast majority of the deported mine workers were Latino or Eastern European), one can, with hope, see the beginnings of a reborn class consciousness.
But compared to Peter Watkins’s La Commune (Paris 1871), which similarly reenacted a historical event and mixed in coverage of the past with discussions among the performers about their own feelings regarding the events they were depicting, highly energized, engaged and informed discussions of labor, sexual and racial politics as they stood in the last century and continued into the present, one can see just how much our educational system, our culture, our politics, have let us down. We’re playing catch-up, but it’s starting to look like we might finally be back in the game.