“Such a town, as much a resort as a port city, should have collapsed instantaneously before the IWW onslaught,” writes historian Kevin Starr, “yet San Diego escalated the conflict.”
By the end of February 1912, police had arrested so many protestors in the free-speech fight, the city and county jails were overloaded. Sheriff Jennings ordered Dr. D.B. Northrup to inspect both lockups. “You have 154 men confined where you have accommodations for only 76,” Northrup reported. “Conditions are unsanitary. There is much sickness and liability of a severe epidemic at any time.”
Each prisoner demanded a separate trial. “Never before,” wrote the Sun, “were so many…on trial at one time in San Diego.” The small, poorly ventilated courtroom required extra benches and became as crammed as the jail. When the bailiff called a name at the initial hearings, the prisoner answered, “There!”
But few could hear the reply, or the proceedings. The jail was next door to the courtroom, and Wobblies, singing at the top of their lungs, drowned everything out. The “big noise” irritated police so much, one threatened a “cold bath”: turn a fire hose on the vocalists.
Solidarity wasn’t 100 percent. After two weeks of shoulder-to-shoulder confinement, a toilet in near-constant use, and rancid food twice a day, Oscar Erickson and Chris Tone wanted out. In exchange for freedom, they promised to quit the IWW and find work as mechanics.
The Wobblies’ strategy of packing jails and courts worked so well, police demanded an open-air stockade at Grape Street to handle the overflow.
And more — possibly thousands more — were on the way. Vincent St. John, highest ranking officer of the IWW, sent San Diego mayor James E. Wadham a letter from Chicago: “The fight will be continued until free speech is established in San Diego, if it takes 20,000 members and 20 years.”
The major appealed to governor Hiram Johnson for state troops. But Johnson, whose progressive views cost him the San Diego vote, said that since the city had created the problem, it could “damn well get itself out.”
A possible sign of things to come: on February 26, the Free Speech League held a parade of protest. People from all walks of life marched five abreast through downtown. The parade was two miles long.
Shortly after, urged on by the city council and businessmen, district attorney H.S. Utley proposed a compromise: if the IWW stopped soap-boxing, the prisoners could go free. Ernest Kirk, legal counsel for protestors, favored the idea. On February 28, he recommended it to the IWW. But they voted him down.
One of the original free-speech leaders, Kirk wanted a legal battle: test the ordinances in court. When Wobblies insisted on a policy of “no surrender,” said the Sun, Kirk “threw in the sponge.” His resignation marked a turning point in the struggle. The IWW took control. The Free Speech League remained supportive, but withdrew into the background.
At Spokane and Fresno, protests ground the system to a halt. But San Diego’s location, pinched into the southwestern corner of the country, made it distinct: mountains to the east, ocean to the west, a foreign country south. Few roads and railroads led to the city. So authorities decided to confront the “godless rabble” at the county line, and (Union) “cut them off at the pass.”
Sheriff Jennings sent constables on horseback to San Onofre. A detail of police guarded the train station at Sorrento Valley. They arrested anyone who looked “suspicious,” which often meant calloused hands or deep tans from working outdoors.
Early in February, former park commissioner Clark Braly feared police and sheriff’s deputies might not be enough. He proposed a “horsewhip vigilance committee” to help “defend San Diego.” Francis Bierman, a reporter for the Union, seconded the motion in print.
By the end of the month, over 400 men and some women, wearing constable badges and white armbands, patrolled the city and camped at the county line — but left the horsewhips at home. Word spread that vigilantes would force captives to run a gauntlet of swinging clubs, axe handles, and crowbars, and that few reached the end without missing teeth or a broken bone.
In an editorial on March 4, the Evening Tribune demanded more: “Why are the taxpayers of San Diego compelled to endure this imposition? Simply because the law…prevents the citizens of San Diego from…hanging or shooting them. That would end the trouble in half an hour. They would be much better dead, for they are…the waste material of creation and should be drained off into the sewer of oblivion.”
The Union also advocated “beatings, deportations, and other tactics of terror” from police and citizens. “This is what these agitators may expect from now on — that the outside world may know that they have been to San Diego.”
On March 8, Joe Mikolasek was first to stand trial, making him the test case. Further complicating matters: Mikolasek never mounted a soapbox. The police had arrested him for shaking his fists and condemning the brutality from the sidewalk. Whenever Judge Puterbaugh asked him a question, Mikolasek tilted forward, cupping an ear. “I’m sorry, Judge,” he said. “I’ve been sleeping on a cement floor for weeks and can’t hear very well.”
The jury deliberated for 80 minutes. During the lull, those in jail “serenaded” the courtroom with the “La Marseillaise,” “Union Maid,” and other songs of protest. In between numbers, they chanted, “Working for wages is outrageous!”
When the jury found Mikolasek guilty, singing stopped (Sun). “The boisterousness gave way to a silence unknown since the street-speaking arrests began.”
Then a man named Girk, beet-red with fury, tried to start a demonstration. Chief of detectives Myers — whose brutal tactics prompted Mikolasek’s original protest — grabbed Girk by the collar, tugged him out of the room, down the stairs, and into the street, all the while daring onlookers to “Go ahead, try something.”
Expecting a full-scale assault, police sentries ringed the jail all night, standing six feet apart.
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