1912: The San Diego free speech fight

A history of the most violent of the Free Speech Fights. A combination of police brutality and vigilante terror was unleashed against the IWW and the workers of San Diego, including torture and murder.

Submitted by Reddebrek on February 19, 2017

"The little flags which the citizens of San Diego are wearing are outward evidence of the determination that treason shall never again be tolerated in San Diego, by word of foul mouths or by the flaunting red rag of anarchy."

San Diego Union (1912)

"Your commissioner has visited Russia and while there has heard many horrible tales of high-handed proceedings and outrageous treatment of innocent people at the hands of despotic and tyrannical Russian authorities. Your commissioner is frank to confess that when he became satisfied of the truth of the stories, as related by these unfortunate men, it was hard for him to believe that he was not still sojourning in Russia, conducting his investigation there instead in this alleged 'land of the free and home of the brave.' Surely, these American men, who as the overwhelming evidence shows, in large numbers assaulted with weapons in a most cowardly and brutal manner their helpless and defenseless fellows were certainly far from 'brave' and their victims were far from 'free.'"

Colonel Harris Weinstock [i]

"Out there in San Diego

Where the western breakers beat

They're jailing men and women

For speaking on the street"

IWW Song [ii]

In an August 2000 issue of the San Diego Metropolitan, a local business journal, Jerry Butkiewicz, head of the San Diego-Imperial County Central Labor Council, is quoted as saying "I really have no idea how San Diego's reputation [as an anti-labor town] got started because it happened long before I was involved in the labor movement." [iii] The feature, "Busting the Anti-Union Myth," briefly addresses the brutal history of the San Diego free speech fight, but focuses mainly on giving a sunny picture of the local labor movement. While Butkiewicz deserves credit for working hard to create a strong and active labor movement, and it is certainly a good sign that the business press would spend time giving favorable coverage to local labor leaders, the notion that San Diego's bad reputation as an anti-union town is a "myth" is wishful thinking at best and disingenuous boosterism at worst. Even a casual review of what little labor history there is on San Diego reveals that if there is a "myth" about San Diego labor relations, it is that "America's Finest City" is an exception to the rule of class conflict that has frequently marred Los Angeles and San Francisco as well as other large American cities. The only full-length study of San Diego labor is the 1959 A Short History of the San Diego Labor Movement, a report financed by the AFL-CIO and First National Trust and Savings Bank of San Diego, by Frederick L. Ryan. In it, Ryan makes the claim that a "reasonable attitude on the part of both business and labor leaders . . . made labor conditions different in San Diego. This tolerance is characteristic of a middle-class type of society in which the members on both sides are fairly prosperous and confident of their future." [iv] This is the study's central thesis, the way it was reported in the local press, [v] and the way it has been noted by scholars who cite Ryan as the "Dean of San Diego Labor History." If one reads his work to the end, however, the narrative seems inconsistent as Ryan concludes:

The Gompers tradition has remained strong in San Diego, and for years the unions suffered one political defeat after another. They were continually "off-balance," fighting against proposed legislation that would introduce the open shop in one form or another or that would limit the unions' use of the strike and boycott. Nor were they able to rely on the common working man because the common laborer had little sympathy with the crafts. [vi]

The successes Ryan attributes to the San Diego labor movement are the enforcement of "minimum standards" and the fact that the "existence of unions was protected." [vii] These are hardly convincing arguments for a strong labor movement. Interestingly, Ryan also notes that with the elimination of the most radical elements of the movement "Something . . . has been lost . . . The long term goal of a better society that appealed to the emotions and the ethical principles of the old-time unionists has almost disappeared." [viii] Thus a critical reader of Ryan's own history might conclude that the story of labor in San Diego is something very different than a tale of "tolerance" and "reasonable" accommodation. In fact, the history of San Diego's labor movement shows the extreme limits of the Gompers tradition that has ignored unskilled workers and not served immigrants and people of color well in addition to the extremely hostile and sometimes brutal reception received by all those who have chosen a more radical path. Ryan fails to make this harsher judgment because his study is top down in nature, blind to issues of race, and apologist with regard to the faults of the conservatism of the Gompers tradition. Hence while he is very critical of the vigilante response to the IWW, quoting a scholar who compares them to European fascists, [ix] Ryan fails to see the full significance of the Free Speech fight for San Diego labor, no less the history of the city itself.

If Ryan's take on the Free Speech fight is lacking, other local historians have also failed to address it at all or sought to diminish its important. The predominance of booster history written to be sold to tourists explains much of this. A lot of local "history-lite" treats the issue as a colorful but forgettable part of San Diego's otherwise pleasant past or as an amusing tale of when the eccentric radicals came to town. Most of the serious considerations of the Free Speech fights have come in sections of books on the IWW or California labor, not the city of San Diego. [x] To date, there is no book-length study on the San Diego Free Speech fight. One reason for this may have been hostility toward the Wobblies by local historians themselves. For instance, scholars researching the Free Speech fight at the San Diego Historical Society Archives are likely to review the vertical file of periodical articles on the IWW. A careful observer of these materials will note a "Memorandum to the Files" dated April 24, 1954 by G.F. MacMullen, Director of the SDHS from 1954-64, which states, "The foregoing is set forth as a starter for a file on this phase of San Diego's history---a phase which has been considerably garbled by present-day 'liberal' historians." [xi] The rest of the memorandum gives an unsympathetic summary of several events surrounding the Free Speech fight during which, MacMullen tells us, he was fourteen. He then cites the Union, the mouthpiece for the vigilantes, as evidence for his point of view. The articles in the file are almost entirely collected from papers hostile to the IWW, with not one single document from the liberal or labor press. MacMullen's hostility toward "liberal" history is remarkable given the fact that, as Daniel Cornfield tells us in the introduction to his 1995 anthology Working People of California, the history of labor and people of color was slow to make inroads in the Golden State and "the new social history did not make a major impact on the writing of California history . . . until the late seventies and early eighties." [xii] Attitudes like MacMullen's show why that history has been even more tardy in reaching San Diego.

Rosalie Shanks' award-winning [xiii] 1973 Journal of San Diego History article "The I.W.W. Free Speech Movement, San Diego, 1912," is probably more liberal than G.F. MacMullen would have preferred but it still mythologizes the past by portraying the Free Speech fight as a struggle between "two violent mobs," [xiv] a move which inoculates San Diego against more severe criticism by admitting some wrong-doing. This kind of intellectual homeopathy is an ideological apologist’s stock in trade, as Roland Barthes reminds us, "One inoculates the public with a contingent evil to prevent or cure an essential one." [xv] The essential "evil" that Shanks’ essay conceals is the fact that the vigilantes were not aberrations in San Diego's otherwise tolerant hegemony, but rather an expression of the city's essential character. Shanks cites Ryan as her evidence of the city's otherwise liberal character when she argues that, "In direct contrast to the bitter opposition in the Los Angeles area, a distinctive attitude existed in San Diego that was reasonably tolerant toward organized labor." [xvi] She then goes even further by ludicrously suggesting that the San Diego Union, because it had supported child labor laws, was a bastion of "liberal if not radical" thinking on labor issues despite its overall conservatism. The fact that the Union's owner, John D. Spreckels, was a major proponent of open shop, a member of the vigilante committee, [xvii] and owner of a business that had been organized by the IWW is not mentioned. Shanks’ own prose is also instructive as she puts quotation marks around "free speech" [xviii] when addressing the Wobblies’ grievances, refers to the "hordes" of their membership, [xix] and speaks sympathetically about San Diego's "anxiety" over the upcoming fair: "While in preparation for her debut as an important cultural and seaport city, San Diego could not afford to allow radicals to disrupt her labor force and flood her streets with inflammatory speakers of questionable ‘moral’ character." [xx] She also notably refers to a Tribune editorial about lynching Wobblies as a call for "capital punishment," [xxi] cites the virulently anti-IWW press for much of her evidence of IWW violence and wrong-doing, and inaccurately characterizes Special Commissioner Harris Weinstock's conclusions about the events in San Diego as "thoroughly confused" and equally condemning of both sides. [xxii] Thus, even though she ends the essay by defending free speech, it is clear that the Wobblies are to be "detested" along with the vigilantes. [xxiii] While the handful of Masters’ theses, dissertations, and periodical articles that exist on the subject do a better job than Shanks, the history of the IWW in San Diego has largely been ignored or underplayed by subsequent generations of San Diegans.

California's preeminent historian, Kevin Starr, has noted that despite the fact that labor and radicals were persecuted all over the United States during the early twentieth century, "No state pursed its radicals more remorselessly than did California." [xxiv] Furthermore, he argues that "both the resistance and the suppression of the IWW revealed the paranoid underside to public life in the Golden State." [xxv] No place was this more evident than in San Diego. As Phillip S. Foner argues in The Industrial Workers of the World, 1905-1917, the other free-speech fights were "a tea party" [xxvi] compared to the struggle the IWW and their sympathizers engaged in when they came up against "the worst enemies of organized labor in the United States" [xxvii] and fell victim to "some of the worst brutality against prisoners in American history." [xxviii] The paranoid hysteria, blind hatred, and eventual terrorism that the IWW inspired in the Anglo booster oligarchy and their petty bourgeois minions exposed the brutality that follows when the powerful come to perceive themselves as victims. In this case, the crime that had been committed against the aggrieved elites was not so much speech or any real threat to their power but simply the existence of an "other" which defined itself against their mythological version of the past and their Social Darwinst dreams of the future. The IWW and their constituency were, by their very existence, an affront to the booster's self-proclaimed identity. Because of this they could not be allowed to speak, occupy public space, or for that matter even exist in the presence of their version of the future. [xxix]

What the IWW threatened to do was upset the racial and class hierarchy that had been so carefully constructed and maintained in San Diego. Before the IWW came to the city, no one had even thought to organize unskilled laborers. The first IWW Local 245, which was then prophetically changed to the unlucky 13, was set up in 1904 at the urging of Frank Little to do just that. [xxx] The Wobblies sought to organize Mexican workers who had been neglected by the local AFL. Their efforts aroused criticism of the AFL and resulted in some unions leaving the Labor Council which then denounced the IWW in the local papers. [xxxi] As opposed to the AFL, who, as has been noted, were frequently hostile to immigrant and unskilled workers, the IWW was anti-racist and internationalist in outlook, actually seeking out the most marginalized workers for organizing. The Wobblies were the only American union to oppose exclusion laws and organize Asian workers as well as racially excluded blacks and Mexicans. Jews, Catholics, and recent immigrants were also welcome. [xxxii] As a federal investigator into the Colorado mining wars put it, the Wobblies were "born out of the fires of that conflict." [xxxiii] They rejected contracts, believed in direct action, were suspicious of political organization, and mixed anarchism, syndicalism, Marxism, and an inverted form of Social Darwinism freely as their rough and ready membership regarded such distinctions as useless nitpicking. [xxxiv] The IWW opened its doors to all comers with very low dues and gave its previously impotent and excluded membership a sense of community and a way to channel their deep grievances. [xxxv]

In an obscure 1956 book, Skid Row U.S.A., Sara Harris interviewed former Wobblies about what the union meant to them. One old Wobbly, "Rickety Stan," describes why he joined the IWW and what it meant to him:

Things was terrible . . . Them bosses hearts was made up from rusty iron. Say some workingmen had a argument with the bosses, the bosses was not worrying. By them in the head they had it figured out was always plenty men would work for nothing and never give the boss no arguments neither. They thought dumb workers was the cheapest things in the world. Till one time the dumb workers begun to get smart and says to each other, “Alone we ain't nothing but weakers.” So what's to do, ha? Nothing? Nothing like hell! Is plenty to do. Is get together and organize a union. We won't be weakers no more if we got our own union. So the hobo workers organized and we got us the one big union

. . . Never did find a place to lay my head steady before my union came. No matter where I was working, things'd always get so bad I'd have to move on. After my union, I didn't have to move on unless I wanted to. If things got bad, I could stay right where I was and fight the bosses was making them bad. My union brothers would help me. I never felt like a brother to no man or woman till after I joined the one big union. Before I'd thought I was nothing but a bum. After I got in our union, I found out who the real bums was. Not me and my brothers but the bosses we was working for.


Thus when the IWW came to San Diego, they sought to turn "bums" into men by transforming the attitude of the town's small disposable labor force from individual shame and defeatism to solidarity and class anger. Their method was street speaking. In We Shall Be All, Melvin Dubofsky explains that "For the Wobblies free-speech fights involved nothing so abstract as defending the Constitution, preserving the Bill of Rights, or protecting the civil liberties of American citizens." [xxxvii] They were interested in "overcoming resistance to IWW organizing tactics" and demonstrating that "America's dispossessed could, through direct action, challenge established authority." [xxxviii] The aim was to show workers who were dubious about legal and political reform "the effectiveness of victories gained through a strategy of open yet nonviolent confrontations with public officials." [xxxix] The IWW sought to win Free Speech fights in order to preserve and enhance their recruitment efforts as well as their ability to educate unskilled workers about how anti-union employers and the turnover of common laborers keep wages down. [xl] Rickety Stan describes how he used to agitate:

I let them have it straight. I said, “How do you like living the way you live anyways?” The fellow's always say the same things I used to before my organization came. “What do you mean how I like it? All I know I got to live. Right?” So then I'd say, “Well my friend, there's living and there's living. Why should bosses live so good and you and me live so lousy? Who say the world's got to be like that?”


While much of the press reports and unsympathetic historical accounts cite obscene language as one the primary offenses of the soapboxers, talk such as this was probably even more unwelcome to San Diego's oligarchy. Stan also describes the tenacity of the Free Speech fighters, recalling proudly that "they was sure scared of littler agitators like me . . . A sheriff's man came with a whip and hit me over the face and punched me in the belly and threw me in jail . . . I couldn't ever have quit. What did beatings or jail matter compared to the class struggle?" [xlii] This kind of commitment to endure numerous beatings and jailings in the name of the struggle partially explains the brutality with which the Wobblies were met. They were a tough bunch and hard to beat down, but San Diego, more than any other city, upped the ante of brutality in response to both their tenacious foes and their fellow citizens who chose to stand by them. As Dubofsky points out, San Diego was an odd choice for a Free Speech battle as it didn't have a huge migratory working class or large industry. [xliii] The reaction they inspired might also seem odd in that there was not a huge base for IWW recruitment. What the wave of intense terrorism unleashed on the Free Speech fighters shows, however, is how little tolerance there was for even the idea of an unruly working class in San Diego. By organizing Mexicans and other unskilled workers and making their presence felt on the streets, the IWW presented the antithesis of the boosters' vision.

The IWW claimed that the real reason for the street speaking ordinances that banned public speeches was the business elites' fears of their efforts "to educate the floating and out-of work population to a true understanding of the interests of labor as a whole." [xliv] The Anglo booster oligarchy could be tolerant of a weak, craft-based AFL and it was fond of using unskilled Mexican and other workers for cheap labor as long as they remained docile, but the thought of a unified, openly rebellious, class-conscious, multi-racial working class sent chills down their spines. Hence when the IWW organized Mexican workers in John D. Spreckels' streetcar franchise and struck, it was as if their worst nightmare had come true. There were only 50 members in Local 13, but the efforts to go after the poorest workers in the mill, lumber, laundry, and gas industries were a profound threat to the symbolic order as was the location of the Wobblies' oratory, Heller's Corner, at the corner of 5th and E Streets, in the heart of the Stingaree. The Stingaree which sprawled southward from E Street toward Market, was where the majority of working class whites, white-ethnic immigrants, blacks, Chinese, and Mexicans lived. [xlv] Full of shops, saloons, cheap hotels, gambling houses, opium dens, and prostitutes, this district was at the center of the Anglo elite's sordid racist and classist imaginary. It represented the exotic and the debased, vice, violence, and the unruly others who did not fit the Mission fantasy picture. As a New York Call article of that era recounts, one possible motivation for the ban on street speaking was that "it was unpleasant for 'ladies' to pass crowds of ill-clad and grimy-looking workingmen." [xlvi] Rickety Stan describes what street life was like from his perspective: "Nobody knows how a man feels to get treated like a dog and to have nobody care if he lives or dies. I came into town and I seen the way everybody looked at me like I didn't amount to nothing. Just because I was shabby." [xlvii] In the midst of crowds of such men, the Wobblies would stand on soapboxes, denounce the boosters, and try to educate and organize San Diego's working class. The prospect of the Stingaree's combination of lumpenproletariat and unskilled laborers finding common interests across racial and ethnic lines against the boosters was a horror to be avoided at any cost. Hence, the war on free speech went hand in hand with a war on public space. As Foner points out, "San Diego had plenty of room for her traffic and no one believed that this little town in Southern California would suffer a transportation crisis if street meetings continued." [xlviii] The fact that the "restricted district" encompassed 49 blocks in the city's working class core was clearly an effort to eliminate the possibility of San Diego's "undesirable elements" coalescing into a unified group. Indeed, even indoor spaces like Germania Hall were made off limits by local police. [xlix] This left the IWW and their sympathizers with two choices: resist or be utterly silenced and erased from the map of the city. The ban on public expression was so complete that it did not stop at radical politics but included the enunciation of more moderate ideas as well as religious ones, making San Diego's law the most restrictive in the country. [l] Hence, the Free Speech fight was not just a war on the IWW, but on the entire San Diego working class and anyone else who dared dissent from the fascist hegemony.

Even before the anti-street speaking ordinance was passed, an incident occurred on January 6, 1912 when real-estate man and off-duty constable, Robert Walsh, drove his car into a closed-off Soapbox Row with horn blaring in an effort to disrupt the speakers. His car was rocked and his tires slashed by onlookers even as a Wobbly speaker warned the crowd against giving the police an excuse to break up the meeting, which is exactly what followed. [li] The real action started when San Diego authorities, acting in response to pressure from Spreckels, passed an ordinance banning street speaking which went into effect on February 8, 1912 and was immediately met with civil disobedience by the California Free Speech League. The League, a coalition of AFL unionists, Socialists, Wobblies, religious leaders and other people of conscience, elected local IWW man Wood Hubbard secretary, Socialist Casper Bauer, treasurer, and E.E. Kirk of Magonista fame, attorney. [lii] Local IWW member Laura Payne Emerson, two other women and 38 men were the first to be arrested for speaking in public. More arrests followed and IWW headquarters announced it would flood the city with protesters. Because of this fact, many accounts fail to recognize that the Free Speech fight in San Diego was not just an IWW affair. It united them with their foes in the AFL, Socialists, and large number of San Diegans who were outraged by the city's emerging fascist tendencies as the League chastised the Weinstock report for forgetting. [liii]

When Superintendent of Police John Sehon issued an order for a round-up of "vagrants," things heated up as the jails filled. City officials responded to the waves of incoming Wobblies by passing a "move-on ordinance" that further extended the powers of the police to breakup public assemblies which they did with increasing brutality, wading into crowds with batons flying and beating prisoners on the way to and in jail. A Labor Council Committee sent from San Francisco found that accusations of police brutality were well grounded in fact and that, "Outside the jail not a single act of violence or even wantonness has been committed!" [liv] Still, despite this and other chidings by state officials, the police's reign of terror continued. Sixty-five year old Wobbly Michael Hoey was arrested and savagely beaten by three policemen who kicked him in the groin repeatedly and left him to lie on the cement floor of the overcrowded, vermin-infested cell for weeks until he was finally transferred to the hospital were he died as a result of his injuries. When 5000 people showed up to protest police brutality, they were greeted by a four-hour assault from fire hoses strong enough to knock many of them off their feet. One of the protesters who wrapped himself in the American flag to shield himself from the barrage of water was arrested, roughed up, and fined for "insulting the national emblem." [lv] Agnes Smedley, a young girl at the time of the Free Speech fight, recounts her impression of the war on the streets of San Diego:

The opponents of free speech were like the land speculators I had known


. . I heard my friends called unspeakable names, saw them imprisoned and beaten, and streams of water from fire hoses turned upon their meetings. I escaped arrest, but the fight released much of the energy damned up within me . . . It was in this struggle that I felt the touch of a policeman for the first time. Before me in a small group, two policemen walked deliberately pushing against a workingman who walked peacefully with his hands in his pockets. One of the policemen shoved him until he was hurled against the other policemen; the second policeman then grabbed him by the collar and, shouting that he was attacking an officer of the law, knocked him to the pavement. “That's a lie!" I screamed, horrified, thinking they would listen to me. “That policeman shoved him . . . I saw him . . . the man had his hands in his pockets.” The policemen were already upon the man blow after blow they beat into his upturned face, and I saw blood spurt from his eyes."


In May of that year, another IWW man, Joseph Mikolasek, was murdered by police who shot him in the leg as he stood outside of the IWW headquaters. After being shot, Mikolasek reached for an ax to defend himself and was then shot four more times. A round-up of Wobblies, not an investigation into the shooting, followed the murder.

The only response many of the prisoners could make was to sing. Rickety Stan recalls the IWW songs with fondness: "You should have heard us singing with all our voices together. Sometimes we used to put our arms around each other. We always sang about what us workers would do to the bosses and their tools. It was good." [lvii] The purpose of the songs was to express solidarity and defiance and, simultaneously, drive their jailors to wits’ end. Police Chief Wilson, for one, saw the singing as an expression of the depraved nature of the Wobblies as he complained to the Labor Council Committee sent to investigate from San Francisco:

These people do not belong to any country, no flag, no laws, no Supreme Being. I do not know what to do. I cannot punish them. Listen to them singing. They are singing all the time, yelling and hollering, and telling the jailors to quit work and join the union. They are worse than animals. [lviii]

If the police chief thought the brutal treatment dished out by his charges was insufficient, he was not in need of help. Vigilantes, urged on by most of the local press, took up the terrorism where the official violence left off. IWW bard, Joe Hill, for instance, was so severely beaten by a group of vigilantes that he could barely speak during an appearance at a solidarity rally in Los Angeles. [lix]

The vigilantes were backed by many of San Diego's most prominent citizens, praised by the press, and left unmolested by the police so that they were, in effect, an unofficial arm of the city's power structure. Prominent businessmen and Exposition directors such as San Diego's own robber baron John D. Spreckels, banker Julius Wangenheim, sporting goods manufacturer Frank C. Spalding, as well as lawyers and realtors John and George Burnham, and other booster elites John Forward, Jr., Carl Ferris, Percy Goodwin, W.F. Luddington, and Colonel Fred Jewel were the driving force behind the vigilantes. [lx] Kevin Starr argues that the "oligarchs did not take to the streets," but the "threatened middle and lower middle classes," [lxi] as he characterizes the vigilante thugs, would not have been able to operate with such impunity if not for the encouragement and support of the elites in both the city government and the private sector. However enlightened, the elites who opposed vigilante violence, such as George Marston, Edward Scripps, Samuel Fox, Ed Flethcer, [lxii] and others clearly lost the day and, if they spoke too loudly, paid a steep price for it. In an editorial entitled "Put This in Your Pipe and Smoke It, Mr. Anti--Labor Man," Scripps' paper, The Sun, argued in 1910 that "it appears that there are some people in San Diego who think they are able to run this town successfully in the way that General Otis of the Los Angeles Times has been trying to run the city of Los Angeles for the last twenty years" and then went on to attack Spreckels by name suggesting that the city's number one booster believed he "ought not to be taxed for occupying the streets with his railways." [lxiii] According to a contemporary article in the NY Call, The Sun "took the side against free-speech" and refused to print some accounts of police repression, leaving only the Herald and The Labor Leader as the voices of dissent. Vendors of these papers, the Call claims, were harassed and arrested while sellers of the Union, the Tribune, and The Sun were unmolested. [lxiv] A close examination of The Sun, however, reveals that Scripps' paper, while proclaiming that "San Diego wants none of” the "IWW invasion" or the "anarchist," was a firm supporter of the principle of free speech, the Weinstock investigation, and, at times, an end to police brutality. [lxv] Specifically, The Sun favored the moderate compromise of creating a site where public meetings could be held at all times. [lxvi] This may not have pleased all involved in the Free Speech fight, but it was a far cry from the position of those who supported the vigilantes. It was probably a combination of Scripps' distaste for the far left and his prominence that saved him from the vigilantes.

Spreckels' Union praised the vigilantes and openly threatened anyone who might oppose them. Writing on the wave of terrorism that swept through the city, Spreckels' mouthpiece roared, "And this is what these agitators (all of them) may expect from now on." Flaunting all criticism of torture and murder, the paper proclaimed, "If this action be lawlessness, make the most of it." [lxvii] Utterly shameless in its support for some of the worst vigilante violence in the history of the United States, the paper went so far as to attack Colonel Harris Weinstock, the Special Commissioner who was sent to the city by the Governor to investigate human rights abuses, for reading a threat he received from the vigilantes during an address at the Commonwealth Club. Claiming that the letter was probably "written by an I.W.W," the editorial went on to chastise Weinstock for "the injustice he has so impetuously cast upon 'the ordinary good citizens of San Diego.’" [lxviii]

When the editor of the San Diego Herald dared to take the other side in the Free Speech fight, he was kidnapped, bound, threatened with lynching and run out of town. [lxix] Defying the threats of the vigilantes, Abram Sauer returned to publish his paper and wrote an article exposing the fact that, "The personnel of the vigilantes represents not only the bankers and merchants but has as its workers Church members and bartenders. Chamber of Commerce and Real Estate Board are well represented. The press and public utility corporations, as well as members of the Grand Jury, are known to belong." The vigilantes struck the paper again, breaking into its offices and destroying an upcoming edition, forcing the production of the Herald to move to Los Angeles where it had to be smuggled back into San Diego as contraband. [lxx] As opposed to the muckraking of the Herald, the Tribune took a more politically correct line by openly endorsing the lynching of Free Speech fighters: "Hanging is none to good for them and they would be much better dead; for they are absolutely useless in the human economy; they are waste material of creation and should be drained off in the sewer of oblivion there to rot in cold obstruction like any other excrement." [lxxi] Following Samuel Johnson's maxim that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, the supporters of extra-legal violence proclaimed their love of country, exhorting the opponents of free speech to wear American flags on their labels and associating their beloved terrorism with other great battles in American history. As the Union put it, "Let every loyal citizen of San Diego wear the little flag on his lapel. It is the flag of Yorktown and Gettysburg. No American citizen need be reluctant to wear it, and wearing it his neighbors and fellow citizens will know just where he stands on a question that just now is of vital importance to San Diego." [lxxii]

On April 12th, the Union ran an announcement by the vigilantes in which they proposed "the deportation of these undesirable citizens" after they had left their "mark on them." [lxxiii] The vigilantes taught "patriotism and reverence for the law," as one local journalist put it, by torturing and marking their victims. [lxxiv] In one of the most notorious incidents, a drunken, well-armed vigilante army of four hundred men wearing white arm bands stopped a southbound train from Los Angeles carrying 140 men, over half of whom were under 21, kidnapped them, and took them to a cattle corral in the vicinity of San Onofre and tortured them for 18 hours. [lxxv] In the corral, the men were forced to run the gauntlet of 106 vigilantes where they were punched, kicked, and struck with pickaxe handles, wagon spokes, and whips. As one victim, Charles Hanson, remembered it, " The first thing on order was to kiss the flag. 'You son of a Bitch, Come on Kiss it, God damn you.’ As he said it I was hit with a wagon wheel spoke all over, when you had kissed the flag you were told to run the gauntlet." [lxxvi] As Albert Tucker, another victim, recalls, "Several men were carried out unconscious . . . afterwards there was a lot of our men unaccounted for and never have been heard from since." [lxxvii] "Codger" Bill Lewis, Wobbly and brother of one of the IWW men who went to San Diego recounts "They kilt two wobs and ya' don't know how many more bodies they mighta' dumped in the desert for the coyotes since a lot of us were what ya' might call foot-loose, without family ties and connections if we was to disappear." [lxxviii] One of the weapons reserved for special beatings of defiant Wobblies was an 18 -inch hose filled with sand and tacks. Toward the end of the nightmare, those who could walk were made to sing the "Star Spangled Banner" before being released and forced to walk up the tracks toward Los Angeles. This flag-kissing torture ritual was repeated a month later in Sorrento Valley and other smaller attacks are too numerous to mention. [lxxix]

By the time the famous anarchist Emma Goldman came to speak in San Diego with her partner Ben Reitman, the vigilante terror was at its height. At Santa Fe Station, she was met by an angry crowd of vigilantes, mostly the same upper class women whose delicate sensibilities were supposedly offended by the vulgar soapboxers, screaming: "Give us that anarchist; we will strip her naked; we will tear out her guts." Goldman herself remembers "Fashionably dressed women stood up in their cars screaming: ‘We want that anarchist murderess!’" [lxxx] Narrowly escaping this mob, Goldman and Reitman made their way to the U.S. Grant Hotel where another mob gathered outside in Horton Plaza and the hotel manager warned her that, "the vigilantes are in an ugly mood." [lxxxi] While Goldman met with Police Chief Wilson and Mayor Wadham to unsuccessfully demand they clear the mob or allow her to speak to the crowd, Reitman was kidnapped from the hotel. He later spoke of his ordeal after being threatened at gunpoint and captured by "several persons who looked like business men" with the help of the police:

The twenty-mile ride was frightful . . . As soon as we got out of town, they began kicking and beating me . . . When we reached the county line, the auto stopped at a deserted spot. The men formed a ring and told me to undress. They tore my clothes off. They knocked me down, and when I lay naked on the ground, they kicked and beat me until I was almost insensible. With a lighted cigar they burned the letters I.W.W. in my buttocks; then they poured a can of tar over my head and, in the absence of feathers, rubbed sage-brush on my body. One of them attempted to push a cane into my rectum. Another twisted my testicles. They forced me to kiss the flag and sing "The Star Spangled Banner." [lxxxii]

The Union celebrated the news of Reitman's sadistic, sexualized torture, cheering the departure of Goldman before she could give a scheduled talk, and crowing that: "Dr. Ben Rietman, is said to be somewhere on his way to Los Angeles, clad thinly in his underwear and a coat of tar and feathers acquired somewhere on the Penasquitos Ranch twenty miles to the north of this city after being forced to kneel and kiss the Stars and Stripes and promise never to return to San Diego." [lxxxiii] In Living My Life, Goldman recounts how Reitman was never the same after the assault, "His whole being was centered on San Diego, and it became almost a hallucination with him." [lxxxiv] When, in 1913, the two returned after his recovery only to be driven out again by J.M. Porter and his vigilante fellows, Reitman was "consumed with terror" [lxxxv] and could not bring himself to return a third time, after the Free Speech fight was over, when Goldman finally spoke unharrassed by thugs in 1915.

Colonel Weinstock's report on the violence in San Diego illustrated that the Merchants and Manufacturers Association, the Chamber of Commerce, the San Diego press, and "much of the intelligence, the wealth, the conservatism, the enterprise, and also the good citizenship of the community" had organized and participated in criminal vigilante behavior and recommended the Governor direct Attorney General Webb to intervene, but no substantial action was taken other than some public chiding. [lxxxvi] As Melvyn Dubofsky puts it, "No agency of government was prepared in 1912 to defend the civil liberties of citizens who flouted the traditions and rules of America's dominant classes." [lxxxvii] Indeed, the only serious consequence befalling the vigilantes was the citing of J.M. Porter for contempt of court, while the real powers behind the terror got off scot-free. In fact, Spreckels and others went over the heads of state officials and pressured the Federal government to investigate the IWW. While this specific request never resulted in any arrests, the IWW was, in the years to come, to be the victim of the intense paranoia of the Red Scare, as laws were passed specifically to prosecute them. Technically, as Carey McWilliams claims, the San Diego free-speech fight was won, [lxxxviii] and when Emma Goldman finally did speak in San Diego in 1913, an enthusiastic member of the Open Forum argued that "out of the fire [of the Free Speech fight] has come the intellectual salvation not only of the martyrs, but of all the inhabitants of the city." [lxxxix] Local IWW member Laura Payne Emerson was less optimistic: "The sacred spot where so many I.W.W.'s were clubbed and arrested last winter lies safe and secure from the unhallowed thread of the hated anarchist, and in fact, from all other human beings . . . They have the courts, the jails and funds. What are we going to do about it?" [xc] In the final analysis, while the heroism of the Wobblies and their supporters who endured brutal beatings and torture, on multiple occasions in some cases, for the right to free speech must be remembered, it is clear that the vigilantes won the more important battle. Their terrorism cleared the city of "undesirable citizens" and taught not just radicals, but all working people, unionists, and other marginalized groups that the price for stepping outside the accepted parameters of political speech and activity in San Diego was very steep indeed. The boosters, via legal and extralegal violence, were able to maintain unquestioned control over the shape and future of the city. They would have their Exposition, lure the Navy to town, and insure the city's conservative course for decades to come.

The fight for free speech and access to public space re-emerged in the 1930s as unions frequently struggled for the right to picket and/or leaflet businesses downtown. In the sixties, CORE struggled for those same rights on the streets and Herbert Marcuse fought the American Legion for the right the to teach unpopular ideas at UCSD. San Diego's countercultural newspapers, The Door and The Street Journal, were attacked by local authorities and right-wing vigilantes with regularity and local activists were spied on by police. Hence, the notion that the Free Speech fight was a one-time struggle in San Diego is wishful thinking. Public Art which criticized racism and police brutality in "America's Finest City" in the 1980s and ‘90s lost its funding and caused a considerable angry backlash. Even recent petty battles over whether people without beachfront property can drink beer on the beach reflect the old struggle between those who think they own the city and those who believe in the democratic right for anyone to use public space.

Today, in the gentrified Gaslamp, nothing marks the site of Heller’s corner and the tipsy crowds of tourists and locals strolling the Disneyfied streets have no idea that so much blood was spilled there in a battle for the right to criticize the government and the rich in public space. Even the vice has been driven out of the quarter and now expensive prices and high-end condos do a better job than the police at keeping the rabble from crowding the streets. Public spaces like Horton Plaza and celebratory events like Street Scene and its various holiday-inspired offshoots, ensure that access to "public space" in the heart of downtown comes with a price tag hefty enough to filter out "undesirable citizens" like the homeless. "Non commercial expressive activity," as the signs in the malls say, is not welcome and rarely present.


[i] Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States Volume 4: The Industrial Workers of the World 1905-1917, (New York: International Publishers, 1976) 199-200.

[ii] Ibid 195

[iii] San Diego Metropolitan 8/00

[iv] Frederick Ryan, The Labor Movement in San Diego: Problems and Development from 1887-1957, (San Diego: State College Bureau of Business and Economic Research, 1959) 8.

[v] Evening Tribune 9/28/59

[vi] Ryan 136

[vii] Ibid

[viii] Ibid 135

[ix] Ibid 22

[x] Michael McKeever's cursory coverage of the IWW in A Short History of San Diego is typical of local history lite. More serious treatments can be found in Kevin Starr's Endangered Dreams:The Great Depression in California as well as the already noted Foner and Dubofsky books. Two other good sources are Heyman Weintrab's thesis, "The IWW in California, 1905-1931," (UCLA, MA thesis, 1947) and Charlotte Benz Villalobos' "Civil Liberties in San Diego: The Free Speech Fight of 1912," (SDSU MA thesis, 1966). The San Diego Reader has also published some excerpts of MA theses.

[xi] San Diego Historical Society IWW vertical file

[xii] Cornford 4

[xiii] Rosalie Shanks, "The I.W.W. Free Speech Movement, San Diego, 1912," The Journal of San Diego History, Winter 1973. 25. This essay was the award winning paper presented at the San Diego Historical Society 1971 Institute of History.

[xiv] Shanks 33

[xv] Roland Barthes, Mythologies, (New York: Noonday, 1972) 42.

[xvi] Shanks 26

[xvii] Robert Warren Diehl, "To Speak or Not to Speak: San Diego 1912," (MA Thesis: University of California San Diego, 1976) 88-123. cited in Bokovoy 31.

[xviii] Shanks 26

[xix] Ibid 29

[xx] Ibid 28

[xxi] Ibid 30

[xxii] Ibid 32

[xxiii] Ibid

[xxiv] Kevin Starr, Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California, (New York: Oxford, 1996) 29.

[xxv] Ibid

[xxvi] Foner 194

[xxvii] Ibid 205

[xxviii] Ibid 203

[xxix] It is important to note that some prominent San Diego's such as George Marston and E.W. Scripps dissented from the fascist tendencies of the boosters who supported the vigilantes. Unfortunately, they did not hold the day.

[xxx] Bokovoy 18

[xxxi] Ryan 20

[xxxii] Dubofsky 77, 84

[xxxiii] Ibid 32

[xxxiv] Ibid 86-7

[xxxv] Ibid 84-5

[xxxvi] Sara Harris, Skid Row U.S.A., (New York: Doubleday, 1956) 180, 181-2.

[xxxvii] Dubofsky 98

[xxxviii] Ibid

[xxxix] Ibid

[xl] Ibid 99

[xli] Harris 190-91

[xlii] Ibid

[xliii] Dubofsky 109

[xliv] Foner 195

[xlv] Bokovoy 36

[xlvi] "The History of the San Diego Free Speech Fight," (San Diego: San Diego Branch of the International Workers of the World, 1973) 117. This pamphlet is actually a reprint of issues of the New York Call Sunday issues beginning March 15th, 1914. From here on notes will refer to the NY Call.

[xlvii] Harris 185

[xlviii] Foner 195

[xlix] Ibid 194

[l] Ibid 195

[li] Pliny Castanien, To Protect and Serve: A History of the San Diego Police Department and Its Chiefs, (San Deigo: San Diego Historical Society, 1993) 27-8.

[lii] NY Call 118

[liii] Foner 200

[liv] San Diego Sun 3/26/12; Foner 201

[lv] The NY Call, Starr, Foner, and Dubofsky all recount this protest

[lvi] McWilliams 289

[lvii] Harris 187

[lviii] Foner 200; Starr 35

[lix] Foner 199

[lx] Diehl in Bokovoy 31

[lxi] Starr 38

[lxii] Diehl in Bokovoy 31

[lxiii] Sun 8/29/10

[lxiv] NY Call 126, 128

[lxv] Sun 1/10/12 and 4/22/12; an article in the 4/3/12 issue of the Sun dismisses complaints about bad jail conditions.

[lxvi] This compromise while allowing free speech, would have marginalized it much like the "free speech zones" created by police to make it easier for government officials and corporate elites to avoid the wrath of protesters. The way space was policed at the most recent Republican National Convention in San Diego is a good example of this practice in more recent times.

[lxvii] Union qtd in Foner 196

[lxviii] Union 1912 in vertical file at San Diego Historical Society

[lxix] Sun 4/6/12

[lxx] Sun 5/16/12; Foner 198

[lxxi] Tribune qtd in Foner 196

[lxxii] Union 1912 in vertical file at San Diego Historical Society

[lxxiii] Union, "The Vigilantes," 4/12/12

[lxxiv] Dubofsky 110

[lxxv] David Helvarg, "How San Diego Took Care of Its Wobblies," San Diego Reader, 8/10-18/77

[lxxvi] Foner 198

[lxxvii] Dubofsky 110

[lxxviii] Helvarg 1

[lxxix] Dubofsky, Foner, and Starr all recount this incident

[lxxx] Emma Goldman, Living My Life, (New York: Meridian, 1977) 496.

[lxxxi] Ibid

[lxxxii] Ibid 500-01

[lxxxiii] Union 1912 in San Diego Historical Society vertical files

[lxxxiv] Goldman 510

[lxxxv] Ibid 514

[lxxxvi] Foner 200

[lxxxvii] Dubofsky 112

[lxxxviii] McWilliams 289

[lxxxix] Foner 204

[xc] Dubofsky 112

(excerpt from Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See, The New Press: 2003 by Jim Miller)