In March 1914, socialist mobs invaded and shook-down churches all over New York City
A case study in low-level leftist terrorism
Note, this is the second article in an ongoing series covering the first Red Scare. You can find the first article, on the infamous Sacco and Vanzetti case, here. If you enjoy the free content on this Substack, please consider becoming a paid subscriber to support my work.
As this series on the first Red Scare progresses, you’ll see a lot of mention of the socialist International Workers of the World (IWW) labor union and its members, nicknamed the “Wobblies.” Oftentimes, people were pretty nasty to the Wobblies. They were beaten up. Their meeting halls were ransacked and raided. In small cities across the country, IWW members were regularly run out of town by police and vigilantes. Some were even tarred and feathered.
When you look at the IWW’s stated goals: an end to war, food for the poor, better working conditions, and fair pay, it can seem hard to understand the hostility they received. As is the case today with liberal activist groups, the IWW was a lot more than their stated goals.
This article will detail a short and forgotten series of “protests” conducted by the IWW in New York City that illustrates why exactly Americans of the time period hated IWW members so much and didn’t want to live around them. The main reason was that the IWW used constant low-level violence, threats, and intentionally obnoxious behavior to make life generally unlivable for everyone else in order to get whatever it was they wanted, whether that was higher pay or letting murderers out of jail.
Frank Tannenbaum had a background common among IWW organizers of the period. He was born in Austria in 1893 to poor Jewish parents. At a young age he and his family had immigrated to the United States, where they started a small farm. He never finished high school and ran away from home at 15 to work a series of menial jobs. He ended up in New York City, which had a large transient immigrant population, and became involved in radical politics through a waiters’ union. By the age of 21, he was a popular and successful organizer for the IWW.
Tannenbaum was one of many IWW organizers active around the period. In 1913, the United States entered into a protracted recession. Unemployment was rampant, which made conditions in the enormous recent immigrant community (over 15 million would come to the US between 1900 to 1915) that much more desperate.
These new immigrants also had greater difficulty assimilating than previous waves. Not only were they more numerous, but many of them came from Eastern and Southern Europe as opposed to the Central and Northern Europeans typical of previous generations of immigrants. Few spoke English and there was an enormous culture clash with the WASP core population that had shaped American history and norms since the country’s inception. Immigrant communities became so large, concentrated, and insular that in many places there was no need to assimilate, further contributing to antisocial political radicalization.
Around this period, communists were still developing the confrontational tactics that they would successfully employ later in American history. For instance, on March 3, 1914, the IWW launched an “Unemployed Army” of veterans1 to march on Washington DC demanding economic relief from the recession. Although this effort ended in failure, eventually the communists would perfect the model with the 1934 Bonus Army March.
During the Bonus March, communists facilitated the arrival of more than 20,000 veterans and 20,000 other followers in Washington, DC to demand the early payment of bonuses awarded for WWI service. They created huge homeless encampments on government property and public land across the city. When Congress refused to hand out money under duress, the communists organized large illegal marches that shut down the city. This crisis lasted for months, until the government attempted a limited eviction from a Treasury Department building occupied by the marchers. When thousands of marchers attacked the police officers carrying out the eviction, troops under the command of General Douglas MacArthur cleared all the encampments.
Although only two marchers had been shot by police in self defense during the start of the riot, and no one had been killed by the troops, communists and their sympathizers in the media claimed the US military had attacked peacefully protesting veterans unprovoked.
The ensuing controversy led to the victory of NY Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt over President Herbert Hoover, who was known to take a hard line against radicals, in the 1934 Presidential Election. FDR was greatly favored by the communists, and during his administration communists and other far leftists enjoyed unprecedented government influence and support.
Tannenbaum’s protests, although more primitive, employed the same basic model. Tannenbaum gathered hundreds of unemployed people and IWW members and would have them storm churches around the New York City area. He called them the “Army of the Unemployed.” Once they all arrived inside a church, often at odd hours, the priests and church employees were confronted with demands for food, money, and shelter.
Although Tannenbaum and the other organizers claimed they were appealing to the priests’ Christian charity, it was a transparent shakedown. The IWW would either be given what it wanted or it would create a scene. There was always the implied threat that the men would simply destroy the churches they occupied.
Indeed, Tannenbaum regularly advocated for violence as during this terror campaign. He said2 to a large crowd of IWW members before one church was stormed:
Everything in this city was created by our hands or the hands of our brothers and sisters. We have a right to share in every house and in every man’s loaf of bread. What’s more, we are going to make the city give it to us or give it to us by force.
What we are getting here tonight is not charity. And, men, do not beg for what you want; take it. It is ours; it belongs to us; if the city won’t give it to us we will take it. We are only getting back a share of what is ours. Everything in this world belongs to us, and we’re going to take it.
The mob hit Labor Temple (Presbyterian) on February 28, First Presbyterian Church on March 1, and St. Mark’s Church on March 2. Large crowds of unemployed also appeared at Plymouth Church that same day.
One of the priests offered to hire some of the unemployed men to shovel snow. Once separated from the main group, the unemployed men complained to the priest that they had been forced to pay the IWW organizers in order to get these jobs, and were required to pay a large percentage of their wages even afterwards. The workmen, the priest claimed, said they had no idea what the Tannenbaum’s demands even were before they joined the mob. They had simply been told by IWW organizers that they were being given a free place to stay.3 Although some of the priests eventually acquiesced to the mob’s demands, they requested that police arrest the organizers or at the very least follow the mob around to ensure the public’s safety.
On March 3, a mob of 200 men led by Tannenbaum marched on St. Alphonsus Catholic Church. They shut down all traffic along their route. However, police were shadowing them by they time they arrived at their destination. Undercover detectives infiltrated the crowd to make sure no more violence occurred. A smaller group entered the church led by Tannenbaum, who demanded to speak to the head priest.
The priest, concerned for the many worshipers in his church, confronted the group. Tannenbaum announced that his men were going to be spending the night there. When the priest said that they couldn’t do that, Tannenbaum replied “Do you call this living up to the teachings of Jesus Christ?” and then demanded money. The priest again refused.