Current events? No—the turbulent goings-on of 1919 America, when Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer led a series of often illegal raids to uproot a suspected Bolshevik menace in the country. The controversial page from U.S. history will be dramatized Dec. 4-14 in The Palmer Raids, a piece presented at Off-Broadway's Ohio Theatre by the acclaimed Chicago troupe Plasticene Physical Theater Company.
The Russian Revolution was fresh in every American's mind when, in April 1919, an explosive device was left in the mailbox of a Georgia senator. It blew off the hands of a maid who collected it. Within the space of a few days, 34 similar mail bombs were intercepted. Some had been directed at tycoons like John D. Rockefeller and political leaders like Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. Another exploded in front of Palmer's very home.
Palmer suspected the Anarchist movement, then a visible force in American society. On Nov. 7, 1919, the second anniversary of the Russian Revolution, more than 10,000 suspected communists and anarchists were arrested. On Jan. 2, 1920, another 6,000 were arrested. These operations became known as "The Palmer Raids," and were led, in part, by J. Edgar Hoover, then head of the Justice Department's Alien Radical division. Many detainees held without trial for a long while. Most were eventually released, but 247 were deported to the Soviet Union. Among them was author and orator Emma Goldman.
Palmer then announced that a Communist revolution was due to strike Yankee soil on May 1, 1920—a claim which caused widespread panic and led to the expulsion of five elected Socialists from the New York legislature. The uprising, of course, never occurred. For a while, Palmer was considered a rising Presidential candidate, but as criticism of the raids mounted, his star fell.
Several current publications have drawn parallels between Palmer's activities and Attorney General John Ashcroft's recent actions. Plasticene was founded in Chicago in 1995. The group is known for athleticism and daring and trucks in, as the company puts it, "the body in action, objects in motion, light as revelation and sound as sensation." This is Plasticene's New York debut.
Tickets are $20. Call (212) 613-3173.