The United States is at present a country that seems to be a complete mess. A clueless leader, large scale natural disasters, a massive forest fire, repeated numbers of shootings or other types of violence, and discrimination of all sorts on the rise. We would like to believe that this is the first period that such things were happening en masse to our neighbours to the south. Not so. They have a history littered with examples of all these kinds of things. The documentary Bisbee ’17 is an example of such a time.
In the year 1917 the United States was engaged in its first large scale war – World War I. The war effort relied heavily upon American mining. In the mining town of Bisbee, Arizona copper mining was the name of the game. Copper was essential for munitions and the mining companies in this small town were making huge profits as a result.
A significant portion of the miners, who were largely made up of immigrants, grew tired of the discrimination they faced (the white miners got the better jobs and preferential treatment), imbalance of power and the dangerous working conditions. The Industrial Workers of the World group stepped in. They mobilized a large portion of the miners and got them to make demands.
This divided the town along union and mining companies lines. When the demands the I.W.W. and miners made were all ignored they went on strike. On July 12, 1917 a group of deputized men led by Bisbee’s Sheriff Henry Wheeler went around the camp and rounded up almost 1,200 strikers at gunpoint and forced them onto a train. They were then brought to the barren desert of New Mexico. Bisbee was only 7 miles from the Mexican border. This became known as the Bisbee Deportation.
Families and friends were divided. Men died. Men disappeared. Women and children were left without means of support. The mining companies’ tactics to break the strike succeeded. 90 percent of the deportees were born outside of the U.S. A large percentage of those were either Mexican or Eastern European. Sheriff Wheeler is generally the man blamed for the Deportation, but actually it was likely the wealthy Walter Douglas who had the power and money to make it happen. He was conspicuously absent during the Deportation.
The Deportation seemed to disappear from town history. It was rarely mentioned. Even today residents don’t really talk of the Deportation. It is a town that can keep a secret. This despite the fact that the town has changed drastically since 1917. It went from the richest town in Arizona to the poorest. The last mine shut down in 1975. Despite the fact that there is still copper in the ground. A mining town without a mine is generally called a ghost town. Many residents still believe that the mining companies will reopen and save them.
While some residents today understand both sides, most believe that what the mining companies did was a necessity. I.W.W. was seen as a being infiltrated by pro Germany supporters and the miners who were on strike were influenced by socialists/communists. What was done was done to protect the town.
Director Robert Greene (Kate Plays Christine, Fake it so Real) has gotten presentday residents to play the parts of those who took part in the Deportation. Immerses them in the time and what happened. Many, even those who knew nothing about what happened, were obviously affected. Over 100 years later and the issue is still divisive.
Not your traditional documentary as it involves some recreation of historical events. Story is told from several different perspectives to try and give a complete picture. Interesting even if you have never even heard of the town.
At one point a resident says that this would not happen today as “The world’s changed a lot since then.” I propose that it hasn’t changed or maybe that we have returned to a time of fearing or hating those who are seen as different from us. The U.S. has once again become a place not very welcoming for immigrants. A place where children are seperated from their parents and imprisoned in pens. Change has not happened.
Audio Commentary by Director Robert Greene
Bisbee 17 Shorts (36 minutes)
Ghost Towns of Arizona, a short film by Robert Greene (2006, 7 minutes)
Deleted and Extended Scenes (37 minutes)
Booklet featuring an Oral and Visual History of the Making of Bisbee 17