Agnes Smedley came to San Diego in May 1912, to train as a teacher at San Diego Normal School — later San Diego State University. She’d never heard of the International Workers of the World, Emma Goldman, or the free-speech fight that had raged for months. And the world had never heard of Smedley, who would become an icon of human rights.
She was 20, “as primitive as a weed,” and — as she wrote in her novel Daughter of Earth — convinced that “Where I am not, there is happiness.”
In San Diego, she “felt the touch of a policeman for the first time.” She watched as officers and businessmen “hurled themselves against crowds of working men and women who demanded the right of free speech.” The businessmen reminded her of “land speculators.” Their aggression triggered hers.
When a “working” man tried to leave the melee, hands stuffed in his pockets, officers strolled up on each side. One officer elbowed the worker into the other. “Man of the law under attack!” shouted the second, as he bashed the man’s face with a nightstick.
“That’s a lie!” Smedley blurted. “That policeman shoved him…I saw!”
The officers ignored her. “Blow after blow, they beat into his upturned face, and in horror I saw the blood spurt from his eyes.”
Next thing she knew, Smedley was on the officer’s back, belting him with her free hand.
Then a blur: a squad of police rounding the corner; a “blue, ape-like arm” flinging her through the air; men dragging her off; then safety at a printer’s shop — most likely the pro-IWW San Diego Herald. As she picked herself up, Smedley made a lifelong resolve “to have no religion — except to help people who work for freedom.”
By the time Smedley came to San Diego, opponents of the free-speech fight had escalated from covert acts of violence to open warfare. Common words became codes: everyone knew that “citizens’ committee” meant vigilantes and “night work” the terror they inflicted on anyone who looked suspicious.
“We are fighting for our homes,” proclaimed J.M. Porter, a real-estate developer and alleged leader of the vigilantes. “Only troops can stop us!”
The free-speech fight began in January 1912, when a coalition of Socialists, labor unions, single-taxers, churches, and the Industrial Workers of the World protested an ordinance banning freedom of speech on San Diego’s Soapbox Row. The coalition used the “direct action” of nonviolent, passive resistance. They had themselves deliberately jailed. As they tied up the legal system, they sang. One song, published in a May edition of the Industrial Worker, included the lines:
In that town called San Diego, when the workers try to talk
The cops will smash them with a sap and tell ’em, “take a walk.”
They throw them in a bull pen, and they feed them rotten beans,
And they call that “law and order” in that city, so it seems.
By mid-May, J.M. Porter felt free to justify the “citizens’” response openly. The Union backed him: “San Diego’s fight is the fight of loyal Americanism against an abominable anarchism — it is the fight of the whole Union.”
The New York Times objected: “What San Diego most needs to restore freedom of speech and end mob law is a few prominent citizens and respectable business men in jail.”
Although many San Diegans objected, as well — among them George Marston, Edward Scripps, Samuel Fox, and G.A. Davidson — anti–Free Speechers ruled the city. On May 14, two carloads kidnapped Dr. Ben Reitman, tortured him, and turned him loose in his underwear. When word got out that Reitman was just one of hundreds abused, the governor and attorney general of California considered sending troops.
The Weinstock Report
Just days after the kidnapping, the state published Harris Weinstock’s report “on the charges of cruelty and all matters pertaining to the recent disturbances in the city of San Diego.” From April 18–20, Weinstock interviewed anyone who volunteered about the crisis (among those who didn’t were District Attorney Utley and several businessmen). When the report was published on May 18, it was already out of date — it didn’t include the shooting of Joseph Mikolasek or the Reitman affair — and open to a wide range of interpretations.
To the surprise of many, and the astonishment of the Herald, Weinstock found no mistreatment of prisoners in jail and said the police were “above average in intelligence, character, and personality.“
Members of the Free Speech League criticized the report for not including Socialists and the American Federation of Labor among the protesters. Casper Bauer, a Socialist, attacked the IWW. The league had planned on having only six or eight test cases in court, but then “the Industrial Workers lost their self-control and 40 were arrested” that first night. The “professional panhandlers” steered the fight in the wrong direction.
Weinstock couldn’t find a single violent act among the IWW. But because they had tried to “clog the machinery and overwhelm the city…such conduct cannot but merit the most extreme punishment within the law.”
As for the infamous “water cure,” in which police, firemen, and civilians turned four 100-pound-pressure hoses on a crowd, Weinstock reported no serious consequences. (“The means was effective,” he wrote.)
Weinstock lambasted the “so-called citizen-vigilantes.” He thought he was “sojourning in Russia…instead of this alleged ‘land of the free and home of the brave.’
“Who are the greater criminals; who are the real anarchists; who are the real violators of the Constitution — the so-called…‘scum of the earth’ or these presumably respectable members of society?”
One paragraph shock-waved through the city: the vigilantes and everyone who backed them — “the citizens’ committee, the press who condoned the lawlessness, the Merchants Association, the Chamber of Commerce, and other commercial bodies” — are liable to “criminal charges under section 5508, U.S. Revised Statutes.”
Punishment: a $5000 fine, up to ten years’ imprisonment, and ineligibility for public office. If convicted, the indictment would gut San Diego of at least 400 “citizens.”
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