An account of the San Diego Free Speech Fight, focuses on the role of the local press in stirring up hostility to the IWW, and its support for vigilante violence.
By Davey Jones - San Diego Indymedia, January 21, 2005
The radical interaction between the working members of a community and the owners of production and capital in modern times have been, in the words of one historian, a streak that "runs through the fabric of American history like a color through a plaid: sometimes dim, sometimes bold, but always a part of the design." Indeed the Free Speech Fight in San Diego that was waged throughout most of 1912 by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was one of this streak's boldest moments, and yet stands alone in its bitter excess and consequences, causing one to question its place in the larger quilted design of labor conflict. The events of 1912 in San Diego demonstrate more than a fight for free speech, however. They indicate the power of big business leaders in their ability to overcome labor in vying for public sympathy, which both forces demanded for their respective plights. In utilizing the press which they owned, capital was able to mobilize citizens against the IWW, who were eager to address the issue themselves as Wobblie tactics in jail and court overcrowding left the city essentially powerless.
To say that the Wobblie's struggle to freely demonstrate and recruit on public property was met with harsh resistance in San Diego is a drastic understatement. The battle was surely the most violent of such Free Speech Fights staged by the IWW, of which there were at least twenty-five in various cities across the country in the years 1907 to 1916. Autumn of 1909 saw large campaigns in the states of Pennsylvania, Montana, Washington, and even as far north as Vancouver, British Columbia, with smaller yet still important fights being waged during the following two years. In Missoula, Montana, the IWW won a relatively easy victory, but in Spokane, Washington the battle was bitter and hard-fought. More than 100 speakers were arrested on the first day of the conflict, growing to 500 four weeks later. The punishment of those arrested was extremely harsh in all cases, with beatings by police officers, denial of medical treatment, and overcrowded, unsanitary jailing the norm.
The most notable forebearer of the San Diego struggle was in 1910 in Fresno, California. This Free Speech Fight, relative geographic proximity aside, can be seen as a small prologue to events that would follow further south. It was in the farmlands surrounding Fresno in the San Joaquin Valley that immigrant and unskilled fruit labor (which comprised the majority of the rural working population of the area) was organized into a local union by veteran IWW leader Frank Little. The police began disturbing IWW meetings and making vagrancy arrests upon accusations by local employers of a deliberate labor shortage caused by the organization, to which Little responded to with a call out for help. In a courageous display of unity that seems to remain at a sorrowful idle in labor's past, men from as far up the Pacific coast as Portland, Oregon traveled south to aid in the struggle. Rail lines, which were already frequented by migrant Wobblies searching for work, became massive arteries that allowed IWW members to flood the town from neighboring Western states.
Events in Fresno quickly became less about the initial accusations by employers, and more about the rights to publicly speak, organize, and recruit. This development was no surprise, as the organizer Little had prior participation in both the Free Speech Fights in Missoula, Montana and Spokane, Washington. In the case of Fresno, the outpouring of support from outside the battleground, and the city's attempts to deal with the situation, are precursors to the later fight in the south. Yet what sets the San Diego experience apart from the other struggles, other than the tremendous amounts of civic unrest, lawlessness and violence that accompanied it, was that no such existing conflict or strike served as an immediate catalyst, as in the case of all other Free Speech Fights. As one historian noted, "it was the point of view of many Wobblies that a fight for free speech should be undertaken only when it arose as a result of, or in connection with an industrial dispute. The San Diego affair had no such direct connection."
Historians and the IWW themselves agree that the Free Speech Fight in San Diego officially began in January/February of 1912, but dealings with Wobblies in the area go back a few years earlier. Perhaps inspired by the growing strength of the IWW in nearby Los Angeles and further north in Fresno and San Francisco, a 'mixed' local was formed in 1910; mixed meaning that the chapter did not have the numbers necessary to limit itself to a specific industry. Despite the fact that the chapter never had more than fifty members at a time, once established Local Union 13 began assisting workers in strike efforts.
In August of 1910, the IWW lead the organization of Mexicans working at the San Diego Consolidated Gas and Electric Company, demanding better pay. This small battle was successful and the company settled with the strikers within a week's time, conceding to higher wages and a union shop, which unfortunately did not last long, as many immigrant workers returned home to partake in the Mexican Revolution. However the IWW now felt a certain local pride that comes with small victories, and bilingual meetings on street corners were held weekly, with a Ms. Laura Payne Emerson leading the proceedings in English. The initial success of the IWW in collectively bargaining against a local utility monopoly seemingly resounded with prominent members of the business community, for later that year in November, it was evident that the group was not held in the city's highest regard. Attempting to organize a commemoration of the Chicago Haymarket victims' hangings of 1887, the IWW was met with police resistance, as Germania Hall, where the event was to be held, was forcibly closed by authorities to prevent the gathering. Members then proceeded to continue the festivities unabated by moving into the streets of the business district, where they were promptly arrested and released after a brief but embarrassing detainment that included fingerprinting and photographing them.
This action against Wobblie activity can be seen chronologically as a response to fears that extended beyond locality, for less than five weeks prior the Los Angeles Times plant was rocked by a dynamite explosion which killed 20 persons. Despite the fact that subsequent police investigation proved that the IWW were not involved, the event forever tainted popular support for all labor groups. A culmination of labor struggles at the newspaper that began decades prior in 1890, the explosion also rang with recently escalated circumstances in the last seventeen months pressed by general strikes in the metal-working and brewing industries in the Los Angeles area. The entire county was thus engulfed in labor conflict, and under pressure from industry leaders, owners of big capital and arch-conservatives such as Times editor Harrison Gray Ottis (who gave the IWW the 'Wobblies' label in print for the first time), the city of Los Angeles passed an anti-picketing ordinance in 1909 which lead to nearly 500 worker arrests in the weeks that followed. The ordinance was clearly directed at the speaking rights of labor activist groups such as the IWW: It shall be unlawful for any person to discuss, expound, advocate, or oppose the principles or creed of any political party, partisan body, or organization, or religious denomination or sect, or the doctrines of any economic or social system in any public speech, lecture, or discourse, made or delivered in any public park in the City of Los Angeles. It was ordinances such as this that some "eighty-five citizens and property owners" had on their minds when they recommended by petition to the San Diego Common Council on December 8, 1911 that the city take action against speech within a "seven-square block" business sector that included the strip known as "Soapbox Row." These 'citizens' were also invariably swayed by none other than the words of the Times' Otis, who with the Los Angeles Merchants and Manufacturers Association's (MM) representative F.J. Zehandelaar, had spoken in November at a local business conference calling on San Diego to enact curtails on free speech.
Equally compelling to these commercial interests was a similar recommendation in late 1911 by the San Diego Grand Jury, whom the Wobblies had prior confrontations with. The San Diego Union reported just two days prior to the petition on December sixth that IWW members "denounced and threatened" Jury members regarding two men who were arresting for resisting an officer. The "Soapbox Row" referenced in the petition referred to the downtown block of E Street between Fourth and Fifth that since the 1890's had been officially sanctioned by the city as an area for meetings and demonstrations. Frequented by the Salvation Army, various religious groups, socialists and single-taxers, the IWW was using the area in conjunction with its street-corner recruiting tactics, the primary means by which the Wobblies expanded their influence and grew their membership. The "Row" was now clearly under siege by those who felt that the IWW's numbers certainly did not need to increase, especially by recruiting in the heart of commerce in the city (geographically beneficial for the Wobblies yet with irony equally embarrassing for business leaders).
A counter petition was offered to the council five days later on December 13, 1911, which was signed by 250 persons, including socialists and Wobblies. It was on this night that the council deliberated whether to ban speech in the area requested in the initial petition, ban it altogether city-wide, or let the situation stand, as the 250 new signers suggested. Councilmen were confident that the matter would be resolved with a public vote, and the matter sat idle over the next few holiday weeks until the night of January 6, 1912, when the malaise was effectively shattered by bold headlines. "'SHOOT THE POLICE' SHOUTS DISTURBER; 'YES' CRIES ANGRY MOB Open-Air Meeting at Fifth and E Ends in Serious Disorder" screamed the San Diego Union the following morning. The "incipient riot that for a time threatened to end in bloodshed" was how the press dramatically described the multi-hour ordeal that ended in arrests and required the attention and efforts of every available officer in the city.
Although it is unclear of his direct motives, one can easily speculate what R. J. Walsh, a wealthy real estate baron (and coincidentally deputy constable), was thinking as he drove his car, honking the horn loudly, into a crowd of nearly a thousand people that the police were carefully observing at a relative distance. From all accounts, he was there to incite a riot, and that's what he got. Socialists and assorted allies were holding a meeting, and a large number had gathered to hear them, spilling into the street. Managing to anger the crowd enough to have debris thrown at his car, a man hopped onto the running board of the vehicle, and went so far as to slit the left rear tire with his knife. Sure enough, a mere two days after the ordeal, the council were no longer torn about the matter of free speech in San Diego. Without a public vote, Ordinance 4623 was passed on January eighth (with an emergency clause that made the law immediate and superseded the customary waiting period), and the 'official' fight for free speech had commenced. The measure restricted street meetings within "49 square blocks in the center of town," citing traffic disturbances and "preserving the peace" as motivations. Punishment meant the standard for such a measure; a fine, thirty days in jail, or both. The council may have responded hastily in foregoing the typical delay process, but they acted in confidence, for the Ottis-sponsored Los Angeles law had indeed withstood court scrutiny upon its passing a few years prior.
Press coverage of the events began with varying degrees of hostility, depending on the paper. The San Diego Union, initially seeking to compromise (yet still keep speech out of the center of commerce), mildly editorialized in the week following: The council proposal, while dictated by a sense of justice and fair play, appears rather inadequate. It is hardly fair to prohibit the oratorical discord in one small part of the city, and suffer it to have full sway only a block or two distant. Other property owners have some rights. The ordinance would merely have the effect of removing what many persons regard as an intolerable nuisance, from one locality to another. . .Why would it not be better to set aside for the nocturnal oratory some vacant tract, where the speakers could talk all night if they saw fit without discomfort to anybody except their hearers. . .perhaps a part of Balboa park could be utilized.
This permissive attitude of the Union eroded quickly however, and the publication in ensuing months wholly commits to berating the IWW along with it's peer, the Evening Tribune. Traditionally less 'liberal' than the Union, the Tribune did not delay and blasted the speakers on January twenty-third, stating that "these are the patriots who assume to exercise the despotic powers of the initiative, referendum and recall." Police Chief Keno Wilson, who noted that the IWW were "worse than animals," did not press his officers into making arrests immediately (perhaps waiting to see if the measure would be contested), but within a month the jail cells were beginning to fill. The newly formed California Free Speech League, comprised of church activists, Wobblies, Socialists and other concerned allies, held a large parade demonstration on the one-month anniversary of the ordinance passage. The march, which numbered nearly 5,000, resulted in forty-one arrests, all of whom were held (illegally) for nearly a full day and night without being formally charged. Word spread quickly that the fight was on, and by the end of the month, Police Superintendent John C. Sehon had thus requested a general round up of all vagrants within the city limits. The California Free Speech League, this time allied with the American Federation of Labor, responded with yet another massive, two-mile protest parade.
Arrests continued throughout, and over 200 men had been jailed by the first week of March, thereby necessitating transfers north to Orange County facilities. On the tenth of that month, responding to rising arrest rates and reports of brutality, a crowd of nearly 5,000 people amassed around the city jail while IWW members orated regarding the conditions inside its brick walls. The police promptly dispersed everyone present with fire hoses, the use of which was a relatively new practice, but one that has continued through the civil rights struggle of later decades to the present day. "For a full hour hundreds packed themselves in a solid mass" reported an eyewitness in the Oakland Globe that month. "Bending themselves to the terrific torrent that poured upon them they held their ground until swept from their feet by the irresistible flood. . .an old gray haired woman was knocked down by the direct force of the stream from the hose. . .a mother was deluged with a babe in her arms."
The situation was clearly reaching a critical mass for both sides, and editorials in the corporate press all along the California coast became increasingly hostile towards the IWW, suggesting drastic solutions. The voice of capital was calling on San Diego's citizenry to take matters into their own hands, for it was clear that with their jail-filling and court-crowding tactics, the IWW had the San Diego police force in shambles. On March fourth the San Diego Evening Tribune lambasted the protesters; "Hanging is none too good for them and they would be much better dead; for they are absolutely useless in the human economy; they are the waster material of creation and should be drained off in the sewer of oblivion there to rot in cold obstruction like any other excrement." The following day the paper clearly demanded that someone take action. "Why are the taxpayers of San Diego compelled to endure this imposition?" the editorial of March fifth asked. "Simply because the law which these lawbreakers flout prevents the citizens of San Diego from taking these impudent outlaws away from the police and hanging them or shooting them. This would end the trouble in an hour." The San Diego Union concurred without surprise, and directly challenged its readers to violence, stating; "if this action be lawlessness, make the most of it."
The citizens of San Diego overwhelmingly and graciously accepted, as the real violence of the situation came to fruition after the battle cry in the press had sounded. The Free Speech Fight saw its first fatality mere days after the harsh editorials demanding action began running, on March 28, 1912. The IWW reported that Michael Hoy, a man in his sixties, was beaten severely with kicks to the groin and stomach in Jail where he was held for forty days, and denied medical treatment. Conversely, the corner's office reported that the cause of his death was tuberculosis of the lungs and valvular heart disease. It was now clear that no matter what the costs, San Diego would not, in the words of the Tribune, "be invaded by armies of Wobblies, nor bankrupted by scores of prisoners who resided in jail as beneficiaries of the public purse and who demanded costly individual trials."
On April Fools Day (thus perhaps in exaggerated jest), the IWW announced that "within the next few days 10,000 unemployed persons would march on San Diego," yet as those days came and went, the local press reported not of a protester mass, but of a "vigilante committee of 1,000 persons" that had been assembled to combat the Wobblies. On April 12, 1912 a letter to the editor of the Union from the committee clarified its purpose: We the law abiding citizens of this commonwealth think that these anarchists have gone far enough and we propose to keep up the deportation of these undesirable citizens as fast as we can catch them, and that hereafter they will not only be carried to the county line and dumped there, but we intend to leave our mark on the them in the shape of tar rubbed into their hair, so that a shave will be necessary to remove it and this is what these agitators (all of them) may expect from now on, that the outside world may know that they have been to San Diego.
Leave marks the vigilantes indeed did, but tar was the least of it. In the first week of April, Albert Tucker and 140 fellow men, many of whom were minors, were riding on a train bound for San Diego when they were met by nearly 400 armed men carrying various guns, knives, whips and clubs. "Inside of a half hour they had us off the train and then bruised and bleeding we were lined up," Tucker recalled years later. "The vigilantes all wore constable badges and a white handkerchief around their left arms. They were drunk and hollering and cursing the rest of the night. . .we were forced to kiss the flag and then run a gauntlet of 106 men, every one of which was striking at us as hard as they could with their pick axe handles." Tucker's account of the 'gauntlet' was corroborated by many who were driven in automobiles to the edge of the city, most frequently the desert beyond Escondido or San Onofre. Chris Hasen, who received a broken leg the same night Tucker was beaten, recalled that "as I was lying on the ground I saw other fellows running the gauntlet. Some were bleeding freely from cracked heads. . .it was the most cowardly and inhuman cracking of heads I ever witnessed."
However, not just Wobblies came under the wrath of the vigilantes; sympathizers and supporters of the IWW were targeted as well. Some of the men dragged into the desert returned, and gave sworn affidavits regarding their ordeals. John Stone testified in one such affidavit that he and fellow Wobblie Joseph Marko were beaten and shot at near the county line, after being interrogated by the police for ten hours and handed over to vigilantes for transport. The San Diego Herald, the only major paper in the city to not walk the party line of vigilante support and encouragement with the Union and the Evening Tribune, printed the testimonies and shortly thereafter on April fifth the editor, Abram R. Sauer, was kidnapped from his residence by six armed men. He was bound and gagged, roped around the neck, and left in the desert told never to return.
Return he did, and predictably the shaken editor described the incident in his paper, pointing the finger at prominent members of the community. "The personnel of the vigilantes represents not only the bankers and merchants but has as its workers leading Church members and bartenders. Chamber of Commerce and the Real Estate board are well represented. The press and the public utility corporations, as well as members of the grand jury, are known to belong." As if to prove him correct, 30 men promptly went to the press company that printed the Herald and destroyed the upcoming edition forms, threatening to wreak havoc with any plant that would reproduce the paper. Yet the editor Sauer continued remotely, and had to resort to smuggling his publication into the city. Police Chief Keno Wilson denied that there was any official involvement or support of vigilante groups by his department. Indeed by all accounts, the men who 'escorted' and subsequently beat Wobblies were not members of the police department, but citizens wearing plain clothes united only by badges, armbands and intent. Yet by these same accounts those arrested were efficiently removed directly from San Diego's overflowing jail late at night in a systematic fashion for months. Some collaboration was in place, perhaps most likely in the form of silent approval in handing men over to the citizens. It is also important to note that during this entire period of widely reported citizen violence, no vigilantes were ever arrested or accused of any crime.
Possibly the height of the violence in San Diego occurred when Emma Goldman, infamous anarchist author and speaker, arrived with her manger and lover, Ben Reitman on May 14 to give a lecture at the Conservatory of Music. Their train arrived to angry shouts from the crowd; "give us that anarchist . we will strip her naked . we will tear out her guts." The mayor met with Goldman at her hotel advised her not to go out and face the mobs. When she returned to her room upstairs, Ben Reitman was gone. Kidnapped by vigilantes who were under police escort, he was restrained in a waiting automobile and urinated on. Driven some 20 miles outside the city, he was tarred (as surely as the committee had promised in its letter to the Union) and covered in brush and foliage. The gruesome treatment that transpired after is best described in Reitman's own words, as relayed by Goldman in her autobiography: As soon as we got out of town they began kicking and beating me. They took turns at pulling my long hair and they stuck their fingers into my eyes and nose. 'We could tear your guts out,' they said, 'but we promised the Chief of Police not to kill you.'. . .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 me and beat me until I was almost insensible. With a lighted cigar they burned the letters I.W.W. on my buttocks. . . one of them attempted to push a cane into my rectum. . .another twisted my testicles.
Disgusting as this account is, what is most unfathomable is that neither Reitman nor Goldman were members of the IWW, or affiliated with its members beyond their general agreement with labor struggles. It obviously made little difference to the vigilantes and their supporters.
Most historians with an interest in the topic have concerned themselves with questioning why the San Diego Free Speech Fight was so violent, and the obvious answer is that all the actions taken by the vigilante groups against the Wobblies had the force of the city's official centers of power, but none of the accountability. Police Chief Wilson was able to turn a blind eye to the violence, and this pragmatic approach, whatever his moral scruples about it, came from the forced position of having a jail overflowing and a court system burdened beyond belief by IWW tactics which sought to do just that. Yet because the press played an important role in rousing the populous (no vigilante groups were formed nor fatalities had until after the editorial runs began in the Union and the Evening Tribune), the ownership of these papers is a matter that deserves careful consideration.
Millionaire John D. Spreckels, who was born into an extremely wealthy sugar-refining family, had much to gain from seeing every Wobblie out of San Diego. The ease with which the IWW organized workers that did not fall under the care and guidance of the American Federation of Labor, such as streetcar conductors, infuriated him because he owned the entire San Diego streetcar franchise. Also, Spreckels was planning to invest in building an incoming rail line from Yuma, Arizona that would pass through Baja California. Control of that Mexican land was in jeopardy however, as rebel Flores Magon, who had both the financial and manpower support of the IWW, had invaded the area in 1911 during the Mexican revolution. It is in the matter of Baja California that Spreckels shared interests with fellow millionaire power-player Harrison Gray Ottis. Ottis owned valuable property in the region, and it was subsequently threatened by the same Wobblie-backed forces that Spreckels faced. Also, as mentioned earlier, Ottis had a history of clashes with the IWW in Los Angeles, and lead the fight against them there. Fortunately for the two colleagues, both of them had overwhelming control over public opinion and the framing of community discourse, as they both owned powerful newspapers. Spreckels had purchased both the Union and the Evening Tribune at the turn of the century. One citizen of San Diego in a letter dated April 27,1912 described the Union as "an old-line, stand-pat newspaper, rotten to the core and. . .run in the interests" of its owner. Ottis controlled the Los Angeles Times, which was described by noted Californian historian Carey McWilliams as "the spearhead of the anti-union movement," as well as publications as north as San Francisco.
It is important also to note that when the Free Speech Fight was beginning, unlike in any other American city where they occurred, San Diego was going through a period of change and potential for growth. The large real estate booms of the 1870's and the 1880's were followed by downturns, and it was not until the early twentieth century that the San Diego economy began to stabilize and mature. From 1910 to 1915, heavy developing and city planning was at an all-time high, in anticipation of the Panama-California exhibition which was scheduled for 1915. In 1909 a bond issue of $1,250,000 was passed to support the event, and new roads and infrastructure were being erected all over the city as a result. With so much industry building, the rise of labor forces in the city comes as no surprise, and equally predictable, given the financial stakes, was capital's crushing response.
In conclusion, the editorials in San Diego papers clearly were intended to curb public support for the Wobblies in their struggle, and then to encourage citizens to take up arms against them. The owners of the press, capitalists with enormous influence, were able to keep the threats of organized labor out of the city by turning the citizens against the workers. Some may question the tenuous relationship between the Wobblies, the owners of the press and San Diego's economy. But it is not difficult to conclude that such motives were indeed a key factor, given an editorial (written by a local business leader) in the Union on April 15, 1912, titled "San Diego's Course Commended" (italic emphasis is mine):
The anarchist horde that recently tried to rule in San Diego did not hesitate to threaten publicly that unless the city allowed the colonized hoboes to do as they pleased, they would destroy its prosperity and ruin the prospects of the Panama-California exposition. Some timid souls in the community have feared that the action taken to rid San Diego of the red menace would "hurt the town," their idea apparently being that were this city advertised throughout the country as an anarchists' paradise, less detriment would result than if it should be proclaimed as a place where advocates of dynamite and the torch would not be tolerated. But the fears that have been expressed appear not to have been warranted.
In any event, San Diego chose the lesser of two evils. It could not afford to be advertised as a city where law could be set at naught with impunity. Such a place will be shunned by respectable, law-abiding people. Capital, too, avoids a locality where persons who would over-throw the government have free reign. The text merely needs some decoding, as do much of the corporate press. A more effective description, closer to the intentions of Spreckels and Ottis, would read 'capital avoids a locality where persons who are active in unions and organizing workers to fight for their rights.' Looking at the economic status of present-day San Diego, it is clear to see which force prevailed.