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The Wobblies and San Diego's shame

The battle of Soapbox Row

IWW demonstration, 1911. On March 4, 1912 the police department hastily deputized 500 men for the battle, and the common council passed an anti-picketing ordinance, making all demonstrations illegal.
IWW demonstration, 1911. On March 4, 1912 the police department hastily deputized 500 men for the battle, and the common council passed an anti-picketing ordinance, making all demonstrations illegal.

Nearly 400 men gathered along the rails just below the San Diego-Orange County line and waited as they had on many damp spring nights in that year of 1912. Each wore a white handkerchief tied to his right arm, the deputy badge of the 1000 or so vigilantes acting in the name of their fellow San Diegans. Organized by the city’s power brokers, the group had recently declared war on the Industrial Workers of the World, & America’s infamous revolutionary union, vilified as “enemies of law and order.” Clutching guns and clubs, the vigilantes passed around bottles of whisky to fortify their will to repel the invasion due on the next train from Santa Ana.

Group of San Diego policemen, ready for IWW demonstrations. The board of supervisors authorized a mounted force to patrol the Orange County line and drive back Wobblies attempting to reach San Diego.

As the men anticipated, about 150 Wobblies, as IWW members and sympathizers were known, had hitched a ride on the train that night. The mob forced the unarmed stowaways off the train, ran them through a gauntlet of clubs, then coerced them to kiss the American flag and sing the national anthem, beating them all the more if they refused. If Wobblies’ claims are to be trusted, the bodies of a few of those pitiful anarchists and syndicalists lie in unmarked graves near what is now the San Onofre nuclear power station. After driving the Wobblies north across the county line, the vigilantes bedded down for the night in an encampment set up for them by the County Board of Supervisors.

IWW prisoners, 1911. Wallace was told to sing the national anthem, and when, as he says, he forgot the tune, he was pounded until he remembered it, which he did.

The incident on that night in 1912 was just one example of the wider struggle between capital and labor that characterized tum-of-the-century America, when vast amounts of wealth were accumulated through industrialization and concentrated in the hands of a few and when utopian ideologies openly challenged the wage-labor system and promoted the redistribution of wealth.

Police Chief Keno Wilson loaded officers into the departments’ lone black touring car and chugged down to Fifth and E to break up the meeting.

According to the IWW, all it would take to achieve a labor utopia would be the organization of all working people or their local unions into a single workers’ syndicate. A general strike then would cripple the world economy and bring down capitalist empires. Unlike other unions and Socialists, the IWW felt this could be best achieved through direct action in the form of nonviolent civil disobedience and sabotage that would cripple the machinery of capitalism.

San Diego’s “free speech fight,” as the conflict of 1912 is known, was only one among some 20 or so similar struggles that occurred around the United States during the same era. Like other more famous sites of antiunion violence, the use of vigilantes in San Diego on behalf of conservative men of property was the result of the failure of legal methods to silence union agitation.

San Diego was an unlikely breeding ground for the kind of discontent the IWW could harness. The Wobblies’ promises of the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and an end to the exploitation of wage laborers largely appealed to minorities, migrant workers, loggers, miners, factory workers, and unemployed drifters and outcasts. In contrast, 1912-era San Diego was a sleepy port town of 50,000 or so that lacked any major industry that might make a town vulnerable to radical labor organizing. So as the free speech fight went into full swing in San Diego, some in the IWW recognized the folly of concentrating their efforts here. As IWW bard Joe Hill lamented during one fight, “There is too much energy going to waste organizing locals in jerkwater towns of no industrial importance. A town like San Diego, for instance, where the main industry consists of catching suckers, is not worth a whoop in hell from the rebel’s point of view. Still, there has been more money spent on that place than there ever was on Pittsburgh, Detroit, and other manufacturing towns of great industrial importance.”

But by 1912, the fight had become more a matter of principle and honor than one to further union organization.

The Wobblies had first come to San Diego in 1911, a time of regional rebellions along the border with Baja California during the Mexican Revolution. Exiled Mexican anarchist Flores Magon raised a ragtag army hoping to capture Baja and thereby influence the ideological direction of the revolution. The IWW threw what organizational support it could behind Magon in hopes of forming the first anarchist nation. As individuals, Wobblies volunteered to fight for Magon and perhaps, if successful, obtain a parcel of Mexican land. Though his campaign ultimately failed, Magon and his men had some early successes in battles against Mexican federal troops at Tijuana, Mexicali, and Tecate.

When Magon’s troops defeated the federates at Tijuana, San Diegans came to fear that the revolutionary chaos instigated by the Magonistas and the Wobblies would spill across the border. Local gun shops were said to have done a booming business in those days. One San Diegan in particular, C&H sugar king and financier John Spreckels, worried more than his share, but he had more than his share of power and wealth to worry about. At the time, he was building a railroad link with the agricultural empire in the Imperial Valley on lands granted to him by deposed Mexican president Porfirio Diaz. The Magonistas had harassed his workers and hijacked his trains, as Spreckels tried in vain to get Washington to send troops to protect his interests. Spreckels also used his newspapers, the San Diego Union and Evening Tribune, to rail against the revolutionaries. Once the Magonistas were defeated, the activities of the remaining few Wobblies who chose to stay in San Diego kept alive the memory of the revolutionary threat. They continued to harass Spreckels by attempting to organize streetcar conductors and motormen employed by one of his companies.

In November of 1911, Spreckels was brought together with fellow empire builder Harrison Grey Otis at a businessmen’s meeting in San Diego. Otis, ultraconservative owner of the Los Angeles Times, in addressing the San Diego businessmen, urged the city to fight unionism by restraining free speech as Los Angeles had through restrictive city ordinances. These men of capital in Otis’s audience believed the enemies of private property were moving in for the kill, given that 1911 was the year that the membership rolls of the Socialist Party in California hit their peak and the nation’s press was warning of a “rising tide of Socialism,” as 73 Socialist mayors were voted into office. Any pre-existing fears of radical unionism in the minds of San Diego’s businessmen were only heightened by Otis’s rhetoric.

The first planned action by the businessmen was to hamper the ability of radical unions to spread their messages by shutting down San Diego’s Soapbox Row. On this downtown stretch of E Street, between Fourth and Fifth avenues, Wobblies, Socialists, Holy Rollers, “Single Taxers,” and other citizens had traditionally vented their various frustrations without harassment from city officials. As one IWW organizer put it, because these groups had no access to the mainstream press, “the streetcorner was their only hall, and if denied the right to agitate there, then they must be silent.”

On December 8, 1911, 85 “citizens and property owners” of San Diego submitted a petition to the San Diego Common Council, similar to today’s city council, urging that they pass an ordinance prohibiting street speaking within a seven-square-block area of downtown. In their words, Soapbox Row was “a nuisance and detriment to the public welfare.” Their petition was bolstered by a recommendation by the San Diego Grand Jury to ban street speaking from the city entirely. They claimed IWW members had threatened the jury members after the indictment of two Wobblies arrested for resisting a police officer. But the common council also received a counter-petition signed by 250 persons, including many of the 100 or so of the city’s resident Wobblies.

The council was initially cool to the proposed speech ban. But rather than taking a politically dangerous stand, they decided to put the issue to a public vote. Before that could happen, a disturbance on Soapbox Row pushed the council toward passing the ordinance. On the night of January 6, 1912, real estate dealer and deputy constable R.J. Walsh reportedly drove his automobile toward a jammed Soapbox Row, sounded his horn, and attempted to drive through the crowd. Once in their midst, he was stopped by a group of men who refused to step aside. Someone stuck a knife into one of his tires, and Walsh’s car limped to the police station, where he reported the incident. Rather than chastise Walsh for his driving stunt, Police Chief Keno Wilson loaded officers into the departments’ lone black touring car and chugged down to Fifth and E to break up the meeting.

Two days later, the common council passed City Ordinance No. 4623, creating a 49-square-block “restricted district” in the center of downtown San Diego where street speaking would be illegal. The council’s reasoning was that street speakers “blocked traffic,” and the ban was for the “immediate preservation of public peace, health, and safety.” Failure to comply would be punishable by 30 days in jail or fines of $25 to $100 or both. The ordinance also contained an emergency clause, which put the law into effect immediately, bypassing the usual 30-day delay for enacting ordinances.

The ordinance was immediately put to the test by Wobblies and Socialists, who climbed onto the soapboxes that same night. Surprisingly, they were allowed to speak freely. No police action was taken because, while city officials concluded that the ban itself would stand up in the courts, the city attorney believed the emergency clause might not be so legally sound.

Debate raged over the free speech issue for the next month. The points of view taken in that debate are preserved mostly in newspapers of the day and represent the words of prominent citizens and editors. They indicate that for the most part, civic leaders did not object to free speech in principle and were willing to set aside a place in the city for a new Soapbox Row. But they usually qualified this support by excluding public speakers like Wobblies who were hostile to the status quo.

Many local citizens, not radicals themselves, actively opposed the ordinance, and on January 16 they formed what they called the California Free Speech League. At their standing-room-only meetings, representatives from all political points of view swore to fight the ordinance, ridiculing the idea that those who did not own property had fewer rights than those who did.

In past battles against free speech restrictions, the IWW had honed ingenious tactics to respond. Their most successful strategy involved a call for all Wobblies in the area to descend upon a town en masse, line up behind the illegal soapboxes to volunteer their arrest, and thereby flood the town’s jails and courts until the administrative machine couldn’t take the strain. In previous free speech fights, governments either capitulated completely on the bans or were willing to reach a peaceful settlement with the Wobblies on where they could speak and when.

On February 8, when the ordinance went into effect, local Wobblies lined up at the soapbox. They were accompanied by a number of the reported 5000 San Diegans, about a tenth of the population, who had marched that day in support of the California Free Speech League. One hundred policemen met the protestors and arrested 41 people who dared to speak from the soapbox that day. After being held for 24 hours without being charged, the protestors were told they would be prosecuted not for breaking the new ordinance but for the more serious charge of conspiracy, since they had planned their crime in advance. Bail was set at an impossibly high $750.

Over the next two days, 44 more soapbox speakers were arrested. They were charged with an entirely new and more restrictive ordinance that authorized police to arrest persons who blocked or impeded traffic, even outside the 49-block restricted zone.

The battle lines were soon clearly drawn by dictatorial city leaders. Within the next few days, San Diego’s district attorney, H.S. Utley, declared that “any man who has no work ought to be put in jail, especially if he wants to talk about it.” Editorials in Spreckels’s Union and Tribune on February 10 and 11 attempted to reframe the dispute over free speech into a need to uphold “law and order.” The willingness of people to defy authority and challenge the ordinance was labeled a step toward anarchy itself. The editorials lamented the “weak-kneed compromises” other cities had made in response to similar conflicts with labor and, assuming to speak for everyone, added that the people of San Diego expected their authorities to take a “firm stand.” Police Chief Wilson asserted that “every anarchist in San Diego will be arrested.” City leaders were successful in vilifying the IWW because of the union’s own radical ideologies and tactics and the stereotypical images of violent revolutionaries already held by the American public. The IWW’s fervent anticapitalist sentiments, direct-action tactics, and sabotage were continually played up in the press.

Ominously, a small article in the Union of February 10 quoted former park commissioner Clark Bailey as calling upon the men of San Diego to form a “horsewhip vigilante committee” to deal with the hordes of Wobblies that would soon “invade” from the north. He graciously added that whips alone would be enough to drive the invaders back, so guns wouldn’t be necessary. As justification for this suggestion, he said, “San Diego is approaching an important period in her history, and with development and progress going on, we can’t afford to take any chances with those lawless troublemakers and get the disagreeable notoriety that they have brought to other cities.”

Of course, the Wobblies’ strategy very nearly depended on the desire of cities to maintain a good image. San Diego would compromise, they believed, if only to prevent the bad publicity arising from civil unrest. This, along with an unwavering faith in their mission, made the Wobblies cocky, almost reckless. They seemed to revel in being “lawless troublemakers.” Even an occasional whipping couldn’t keep them from riding the rails in boxcars so they might end up in an overcrowded jail where they could sing revolutionary songs with their fellow prisoners.

In San Diego, however, their bravado may have cost them dearly. In late February, District Attorney Utley offered to release the remaining prisoners if the IWW would agree to terminate street speaking within the restricted area. While not much of a compromise, it could have been the basis for a negotiated solution.

At the same time, Chief Wilson, frustrated at the number of IWW members entering town and ending up in his jails, began offering jobs to the newly arrived L Wobblies, hoping to keep them from street S speaking. The Wobblies refused, telling Wilson they would keep his jails full until the city restored their Constitutional rights. Confident of eventual victory, the Wobblies refused all compromise offers. Making matters evermore confrontational, IWW General Secretary Vincent St. John sent a wire to San Diego Mayor James Wadham vowing to continue the fight, even if it took 20,000 Wobblies and 20 years.

Actually, only about 5000 Wobblies are believed to have turned up in San Diego during the nearly three-month-long struggle, but St. John’s exaggerated threat probably damaged the efforts of those who did show up. When the telegram was released to the public, mass hysteria began to spread through the city.

One of the first responses was taken by the County Board of Supervisors, upon the recommendation of the grand jury. The board authorized a mounted force to patrol the Orange County line and drive back Wobblies attempting to reach San Diego. On March 4, the police department hastily deputized 500 men for the battle, and the common council passed an anti-picketing ordinance, making all demonstrations illegal. An editorial in the Evening Tribune of that day stated, “Hanging is none too good for [the Wobblies] and they would be much better off dead; for they are absolutely useless in the human economy; they are the waste material of creation and should be drained off into the sewer of oblivion there to rot in cold obstruction like any other excrement.”

Given such growing sentiments, the Wobblies’ treatment at the hands of police and jailers became increasingly harsh. Perhaps because they could sense hearts hardening and reason disintegrating, the Wobblies offered a compromise to city officials on March 8. If the anti-free speech ordinance were repealed, they promised to refrain from any further street speaking on Soapbox Row. Though it was an offer similar to deals struck with other cities, it was rejected by recalcitrant city officials.

Two days later, an estimated three to five thousand Wobblies and free speech sympathizers assembled in town, with some diehard supporters assembled outside the city jail to protest conditions inside and to rally in support of the prisoners. In response, the police and fire department attempted to break up the assembly by turning a hose on the crowed including one patriot who had wrapped himself in the American flag. Protesters stood their ground until the force of the water cannon dispersed them; then they would regroup on an adjacent street and begin the process again. The contest of wills lasted three hours.

In their effort to preserve law and order, authorities also attempted to curtail the press. They arrested hawkers of the San Francisco Bulletin and San Diego Herald, which sympathized with the free speech cause and criticized police tactics. On March 11, a young man, a resident of the city, was arrested for selling the Labor Leader, a small local paper that reported the Wobblies’ side of the dispute. He was taken off to Sorrento Valley by Police Chief Wilson, where he was beaten then told to leave the county or he would be killed and his body thrown into the bay.

Through the remainder of March and into April, as more Wobblies joined the fight in San Diego, law-enforcement tactics became more undisciplined and brutal. To avoid the increasing drain on city finances, fewer and fewer people were arrested and brought to trial. Instead, if someone addressed a crowd, sold the wrong kind of newspaper, or even appeared to be a vagrant, he would be driven north to Sorrento Valley or San Onofre and handed over to the vigilantes for unofficial processing. On March 18, the San Diego Union even carried a front-page article boasting that 1000 vigilantes had been organized by local businessmen to create order in the city. The police publicly denied that they were in cahoots with the vigilantes, and the vigilantes denied that they did anything but lecture the agitators, then tar and feather them. But the testimonies of many Wobblies are similar to this letter sent to the San Diego Local 13 of the IWW:

We write to let you know what happened to us yesterday. Twenty-one men arrested; ten were put through the third degree. We were held in the station till about 10 p.m., then, in bunches of fives, were kidnapped by vigilantes. Some were loaded into autos and ditched twenty-eight miles off, without a bite to eat. Then, in bunches of five, we were unmercifully assaulted with clubs and guns, and in the darkness were cornered and driven through a barb-wire fence. Several shots were fired, and some of the men are badly scratched and bruised. Two of the men were very nearly killed and may not survive. Out of the twenty-one arrested, eleven are at this place (Encimitas) [sic], and the two dangerously wounded are on their way to the hospital; five are still missing. Our hats are still in the ring, and we will be there with bells. Yours to win. Victim No. 13.

Such testimonies spurred the IWW to request that Governor Hiram Johnson open an investigation into the treatment of prisoners in San Diego jails. In accounts given to the investigating committee, Wobblies detailed both brutality and humiliation:

Arriving at Sorrento, 15 or 16 autos were found lined up along the road, with lights burning low.... In front of a small building a flag pole had been erected, while at its base were arranged dry goods boxes in the form of a platform. Wallace was compelled to mount the platform and kneel and kiss the flag. As an incentive to quicken action, he was “slapped” over the head and that, he says, was the signal for the general clubbing of his companions.... He was told to sing the national anthem, and when, as he says, he forgot the tune, he was pounded until he remembered it, which he did.

The San Diego Herald openly deplored this vigilantism and began printing articles sympathetic to the Wobblies. Soon after, the Herald's publisher, Abram R. Sauer, was kidnapped from his home by a group of men who drove him out to the desolate Mission Valley, staged his mock hanging, and told him to leave town. Threatened with death if he ever divulged the identify of his captors, Sauer never named them publicly but did later say that “the personnel of the vigilantes represents not only the bankers and merchants but has as its workers leading church members and bartenders. The 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.”

San Diego officials desperately tried to keep their image clean when 65-year-old Wobblies sympathizer Michael Hoy died in jail. The coroner’s jury ruled he had died from tuberculosis of the lungs and valvular disease of the heart. This finding was in spite of the fact that Hoy had been examined by a prison doctor after police had kicked him repeatedly and was declared to have suffered the rupture of an organ, after which he received no treatment for weeks.

Hoy’s death brought stories of the brutality of San Diego’s free speech fight to newspapers across the country. This first officially recognized death of an IWW sympathizer helped to galvanize the growing national criticism over the city’s methods of maintaining law and order. The town’s vigilantes are thrown on the defensive, and California’s governor appointed a special commissioner, Colonel Harris Weinstock, to hold public hearings on the matter. In an editorial titled “San Diego’s Right to Protect Itself,” the April 7 San Diego Union declared, “To those persons and newspapers that are censuring the San Diegan citizens who are taking steps to prevent the anarchists from overrunning the city and doing the devil’s own work,” those citizens are only “exercising their inalienable rights of protecting property and obtaining safety.” Objecting to the governor’s investigation because it was city ordinances, not state laws that were being upheld, the editorial defended the admittedly extralegal means as “heroic measures,” adding finally that “if this action be lawless, then make the most of it.”

Weinstock arrived in San Diego on April 16 and went about his investigation despite uncooperative local officials. In public meetings the following day, Weinstock amassed evidence that corroborated the accounts of both sides of the free speech fight and concluded about the vigilantes:

Men such as these, backed by the support and approval of the commercial bodies and the leading daily newspapers, representing as they do, much of the intelligence, the wealth, the conservatism, the enterprise, and presumably also the good citizenship of the community, felt impelled to play the part, as they believed, of patriotic heroes, and, in the name of law and order, ended up committing the very crimes against law and order with which the alleged invading offenders were charged.

He added that:

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 tyrannic Russian authorities. Your commissioner is frank to confess, that when he became satisfied to the truth of the [Wobblies’] stories, as related by these unfortunate men, it was hard for him to believe that he was still not sojourning in Russia, conducting his investigations there, instead of this alleged “home of the free and land of the brave.”

While Weinstock also concluded there were no acts of violence that could be directly charged to the IWW, his report very nearly justified their repression, stating:

It is the organized and deliberate purpose of the IWW to teach and preach and burn into the hearts and minds of its followers that they are justified in lying, in stealing, in trampling underfoot their own agreements, in confiscating the property of others, in disobeying the mandates of the courts and in paralyzing the industries of the nation. If all men and women were to accept and follow these teachings, it would make society impossible. It would simply mean a nation of thieves, liars and scoundrels.

Weinstock also wrote, in general despair and frustration over the entire conflict, “The question naturally arises, therefore, who are the greater criminals; who are the real anarchists; who are the real violators of the Constitution; who are the real undesirables — these so-called unfortunate members of the ‘scum of the earth,’ or those presumably respectable members of society?” Little came of the report to the governor, save for recommendations to collect information on vigilante leaders for possible criminal proceedings and a vague call for legislation that would eliminate the threat of worse conflicts, perhaps even civil war, posed by the IWW menace. The report was on the governor’s desk by late April but was not released to the public until mid-May, after California’s primary elections and any political danger to the governor had passed. Vigilante terror continued in the weeks after Weinstock left town, though it abated as fewer Wobblies seemed willing to challenge San Diego’s new system of justice.

The death knell for the free speech movement came on May Los Angeles Wobbly Joseph Mikolash was killed at San Diego’s IWW headquarters during a gunfight with police. The Wobblies claimed Mikolash died after being shot four times as he tried to defend himself with an axe. Official police reports said Mikolash fired the first shot and the police responded in self-defense. The police also claimed that firearms were found in IWW headquarters, bolstering their objections to Weinstock’s conclusion that the Wobblies were still committed to their philosophy of passive resistance.

On May 9, the San Diego Union claimed that the city’s troubles with the IWW were coming to an end. But by that time, politically correct San Diegans were wearing lapel pins printed with the slogan “Anti-IWW” and the American flag. When anarchist Emma Goldman and her male escort arrived in town in mid-May to support the free speech struggle, they found themselves besieged by angry mobs and required police protection. While Goldman discussed matters with police, her escort was kidnapped from the U.S. Grant Hotel, taken north, tarred, and, in the absence of feathers, decorated with chaparral, and beaten. Emma Goldman wisely left town soon after.

In the late summer of 1912, John Spreckels and Harrison Grey Otis attempted to further exploit the hysteria they had instigated by conspiring to involve the federal government. San Diego Police Commissioner Sehon fueled local support for this campaign by purportedly uncovering an IWW-devised assassination plot against leading political figures. Representatives of a local committee of 500 citizens went to Washington to meet with President Taft to warn him that 10,000 Wobblies were organizing a “conspiracy to overthrow the United States government” and create a new revolutionary government in Southern California. A review of the evidence by the Department of Justice failed to reveal sufficient grounds to indict IWW leaders.

By now the free speech movement was all but over. Through the course of that summer, the remaining prisoners were tried and fined; some were sent to prison. The majority of the Wobblies drifted out of San Diego, though some stayed and found

themselves employable by exploiting their notoriety as a promotional gimmick “for local businessmen. But one prisoner named Jack Whyte, having his final say in court, seems to indicate the lingering sentiments of most IWW members:

The prosecuting attorney, in his plea to the jury, accused me of saying on a public platform at a public meeting: “To hell with your courts, we know what justice is.” He told a great truth when he lied, for if he had searched the innermost recesses of my mind, he could have found that thought, never expressed by me before, but which I express now. “To hell with your courts, I know what justice is,” for I have sat in your courtroom day after day and have seen members of my class pass before this, the so-called bar of justice. I have seen you, Judge Sloan, and others of your kind, send them to prison because they dared to infringe upon the sacred right of property. You have become blind and deaf to the rights of men to pursue life and happiness, and you have crushed those rights so that the sacred rights of property should be preserved. Then you tell me to respect the law. I don’t. I did violate the law, and I will violate every one of your laws and still come before you and say: “To hell with your courts,” because I believe that my right to live is far more sacred than the sacred right of property that you and your kind so ably defend.

By the fall of 1912, nine months after the start of the free speech fight, the streets of San Diego’s downtown were quietly vacant at night. Though within two years, the IWW was holding street meetings once again, without interruption from police. All the conflict, all the brutality seemed for naught. The Wobblies would claim that they had finally won the free speech fight, but it was a hollow victory. The original principle that made free speech an important issue for the IWW, that of uniting the masses into one big union to overthrow their capitalist oppressors, didn’t have the appeal they had hoped. The IWW died of internal dissension and governmental repression during the era of the Russian Revolution and World War I, and with it died the dream of a postcapitalist utopia.

And today on those downtown street-comers where revolutionaries once mounted soapboxes to declare the death of capitalism, San Diegans go about their business, oblivious to the wide range of political opinion that was once passionately shouted there. Jaded by recent events in the communist world, the well-heeled are too busy with commerce and consumption and the dispossessed few with their own immediate survival to give any serious thought to what a post-capitalist world might offer them.

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IWW demonstration, 1911. On March 4, 1912 the police department hastily deputized 500 men for the battle, and the common council passed an anti-picketing ordinance, making all demonstrations illegal.
IWW demonstration, 1911. On March 4, 1912 the police department hastily deputized 500 men for the battle, and the common council passed an anti-picketing ordinance, making all demonstrations illegal.

Nearly 400 men gathered along the rails just below the San Diego-Orange County line and waited as they had on many damp spring nights in that year of 1912. Each wore a white handkerchief tied to his right arm, the deputy badge of the 1000 or so vigilantes acting in the name of their fellow San Diegans. Organized by the city’s power brokers, the group had recently declared war on the Industrial Workers of the World, & America’s infamous revolutionary union, vilified as “enemies of law and order.” Clutching guns and clubs, the vigilantes passed around bottles of whisky to fortify their will to repel the invasion due on the next train from Santa Ana.

Group of San Diego policemen, ready for IWW demonstrations. The board of supervisors authorized a mounted force to patrol the Orange County line and drive back Wobblies attempting to reach San Diego.

As the men anticipated, about 150 Wobblies, as IWW members and sympathizers were known, had hitched a ride on the train that night. The mob forced the unarmed stowaways off the train, ran them through a gauntlet of clubs, then coerced them to kiss the American flag and sing the national anthem, beating them all the more if they refused. If Wobblies’ claims are to be trusted, the bodies of a few of those pitiful anarchists and syndicalists lie in unmarked graves near what is now the San Onofre nuclear power station. After driving the Wobblies north across the county line, the vigilantes bedded down for the night in an encampment set up for them by the County Board of Supervisors.

IWW prisoners, 1911. Wallace was told to sing the national anthem, and when, as he says, he forgot the tune, he was pounded until he remembered it, which he did.

The incident on that night in 1912 was just one example of the wider struggle between capital and labor that characterized tum-of-the-century America, when vast amounts of wealth were accumulated through industrialization and concentrated in the hands of a few and when utopian ideologies openly challenged the wage-labor system and promoted the redistribution of wealth.

Police Chief Keno Wilson loaded officers into the departments’ lone black touring car and chugged down to Fifth and E to break up the meeting.

According to the IWW, all it would take to achieve a labor utopia would be the organization of all working people or their local unions into a single workers’ syndicate. A general strike then would cripple the world economy and bring down capitalist empires. Unlike other unions and Socialists, the IWW felt this could be best achieved through direct action in the form of nonviolent civil disobedience and sabotage that would cripple the machinery of capitalism.

San Diego’s “free speech fight,” as the conflict of 1912 is known, was only one among some 20 or so similar struggles that occurred around the United States during the same era. Like other more famous sites of antiunion violence, the use of vigilantes in San Diego on behalf of conservative men of property was the result of the failure of legal methods to silence union agitation.

San Diego was an unlikely breeding ground for the kind of discontent the IWW could harness. The Wobblies’ promises of the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and an end to the exploitation of wage laborers largely appealed to minorities, migrant workers, loggers, miners, factory workers, and unemployed drifters and outcasts. In contrast, 1912-era San Diego was a sleepy port town of 50,000 or so that lacked any major industry that might make a town vulnerable to radical labor organizing. So as the free speech fight went into full swing in San Diego, some in the IWW recognized the folly of concentrating their efforts here. As IWW bard Joe Hill lamented during one fight, “There is too much energy going to waste organizing locals in jerkwater towns of no industrial importance. A town like San Diego, for instance, where the main industry consists of catching suckers, is not worth a whoop in hell from the rebel’s point of view. Still, there has been more money spent on that place than there ever was on Pittsburgh, Detroit, and other manufacturing towns of great industrial importance.”

But by 1912, the fight had become more a matter of principle and honor than one to further union organization.

The Wobblies had first come to San Diego in 1911, a time of regional rebellions along the border with Baja California during the Mexican Revolution. Exiled Mexican anarchist Flores Magon raised a ragtag army hoping to capture Baja and thereby influence the ideological direction of the revolution. The IWW threw what organizational support it could behind Magon in hopes of forming the first anarchist nation. As individuals, Wobblies volunteered to fight for Magon and perhaps, if successful, obtain a parcel of Mexican land. Though his campaign ultimately failed, Magon and his men had some early successes in battles against Mexican federal troops at Tijuana, Mexicali, and Tecate.

When Magon’s troops defeated the federates at Tijuana, San Diegans came to fear that the revolutionary chaos instigated by the Magonistas and the Wobblies would spill across the border. Local gun shops were said to have done a booming business in those days. One San Diegan in particular, C&H sugar king and financier John Spreckels, worried more than his share, but he had more than his share of power and wealth to worry about. At the time, he was building a railroad link with the agricultural empire in the Imperial Valley on lands granted to him by deposed Mexican president Porfirio Diaz. The Magonistas had harassed his workers and hijacked his trains, as Spreckels tried in vain to get Washington to send troops to protect his interests. Spreckels also used his newspapers, the San Diego Union and Evening Tribune, to rail against the revolutionaries. Once the Magonistas were defeated, the activities of the remaining few Wobblies who chose to stay in San Diego kept alive the memory of the revolutionary threat. They continued to harass Spreckels by attempting to organize streetcar conductors and motormen employed by one of his companies.

In November of 1911, Spreckels was brought together with fellow empire builder Harrison Grey Otis at a businessmen’s meeting in San Diego. Otis, ultraconservative owner of the Los Angeles Times, in addressing the San Diego businessmen, urged the city to fight unionism by restraining free speech as Los Angeles had through restrictive city ordinances. These men of capital in Otis’s audience believed the enemies of private property were moving in for the kill, given that 1911 was the year that the membership rolls of the Socialist Party in California hit their peak and the nation’s press was warning of a “rising tide of Socialism,” as 73 Socialist mayors were voted into office. Any pre-existing fears of radical unionism in the minds of San Diego’s businessmen were only heightened by Otis’s rhetoric.

The first planned action by the businessmen was to hamper the ability of radical unions to spread their messages by shutting down San Diego’s Soapbox Row. On this downtown stretch of E Street, between Fourth and Fifth avenues, Wobblies, Socialists, Holy Rollers, “Single Taxers,” and other citizens had traditionally vented their various frustrations without harassment from city officials. As one IWW organizer put it, because these groups had no access to the mainstream press, “the streetcorner was their only hall, and if denied the right to agitate there, then they must be silent.”

On December 8, 1911, 85 “citizens and property owners” of San Diego submitted a petition to the San Diego Common Council, similar to today’s city council, urging that they pass an ordinance prohibiting street speaking within a seven-square-block area of downtown. In their words, Soapbox Row was “a nuisance and detriment to the public welfare.” Their petition was bolstered by a recommendation by the San Diego Grand Jury to ban street speaking from the city entirely. They claimed IWW members had threatened the jury members after the indictment of two Wobblies arrested for resisting a police officer. But the common council also received a counter-petition signed by 250 persons, including many of the 100 or so of the city’s resident Wobblies.

The council was initially cool to the proposed speech ban. But rather than taking a politically dangerous stand, they decided to put the issue to a public vote. Before that could happen, a disturbance on Soapbox Row pushed the council toward passing the ordinance. On the night of January 6, 1912, real estate dealer and deputy constable R.J. Walsh reportedly drove his automobile toward a jammed Soapbox Row, sounded his horn, and attempted to drive through the crowd. Once in their midst, he was stopped by a group of men who refused to step aside. Someone stuck a knife into one of his tires, and Walsh’s car limped to the police station, where he reported the incident. Rather than chastise Walsh for his driving stunt, Police Chief Keno Wilson loaded officers into the departments’ lone black touring car and chugged down to Fifth and E to break up the meeting.

Two days later, the common council passed City Ordinance No. 4623, creating a 49-square-block “restricted district” in the center of downtown San Diego where street speaking would be illegal. The council’s reasoning was that street speakers “blocked traffic,” and the ban was for the “immediate preservation of public peace, health, and safety.” Failure to comply would be punishable by 30 days in jail or fines of $25 to $100 or both. The ordinance also contained an emergency clause, which put the law into effect immediately, bypassing the usual 30-day delay for enacting ordinances.

The ordinance was immediately put to the test by Wobblies and Socialists, who climbed onto the soapboxes that same night. Surprisingly, they were allowed to speak freely. No police action was taken because, while city officials concluded that the ban itself would stand up in the courts, the city attorney believed the emergency clause might not be so legally sound.

Debate raged over the free speech issue for the next month. The points of view taken in that debate are preserved mostly in newspapers of the day and represent the words of prominent citizens and editors. They indicate that for the most part, civic leaders did not object to free speech in principle and were willing to set aside a place in the city for a new Soapbox Row. But they usually qualified this support by excluding public speakers like Wobblies who were hostile to the status quo.

Many local citizens, not radicals themselves, actively opposed the ordinance, and on January 16 they formed what they called the California Free Speech League. At their standing-room-only meetings, representatives from all political points of view swore to fight the ordinance, ridiculing the idea that those who did not own property had fewer rights than those who did.

In past battles against free speech restrictions, the IWW had honed ingenious tactics to respond. Their most successful strategy involved a call for all Wobblies in the area to descend upon a town en masse, line up behind the illegal soapboxes to volunteer their arrest, and thereby flood the town’s jails and courts until the administrative machine couldn’t take the strain. In previous free speech fights, governments either capitulated completely on the bans or were willing to reach a peaceful settlement with the Wobblies on where they could speak and when.

On February 8, when the ordinance went into effect, local Wobblies lined up at the soapbox. They were accompanied by a number of the reported 5000 San Diegans, about a tenth of the population, who had marched that day in support of the California Free Speech League. One hundred policemen met the protestors and arrested 41 people who dared to speak from the soapbox that day. After being held for 24 hours without being charged, the protestors were told they would be prosecuted not for breaking the new ordinance but for the more serious charge of conspiracy, since they had planned their crime in advance. Bail was set at an impossibly high $750.

Over the next two days, 44 more soapbox speakers were arrested. They were charged with an entirely new and more restrictive ordinance that authorized police to arrest persons who blocked or impeded traffic, even outside the 49-block restricted zone.

The battle lines were soon clearly drawn by dictatorial city leaders. Within the next few days, San Diego’s district attorney, H.S. Utley, declared that “any man who has no work ought to be put in jail, especially if he wants to talk about it.” Editorials in Spreckels’s Union and Tribune on February 10 and 11 attempted to reframe the dispute over free speech into a need to uphold “law and order.” The willingness of people to defy authority and challenge the ordinance was labeled a step toward anarchy itself. The editorials lamented the “weak-kneed compromises” other cities had made in response to similar conflicts with labor and, assuming to speak for everyone, added that the people of San Diego expected their authorities to take a “firm stand.” Police Chief Wilson asserted that “every anarchist in San Diego will be arrested.” City leaders were successful in vilifying the IWW because of the union’s own radical ideologies and tactics and the stereotypical images of violent revolutionaries already held by the American public. The IWW’s fervent anticapitalist sentiments, direct-action tactics, and sabotage were continually played up in the press.

Ominously, a small article in the Union of February 10 quoted former park commissioner Clark Bailey as calling upon the men of San Diego to form a “horsewhip vigilante committee” to deal with the hordes of Wobblies that would soon “invade” from the north. He graciously added that whips alone would be enough to drive the invaders back, so guns wouldn’t be necessary. As justification for this suggestion, he said, “San Diego is approaching an important period in her history, and with development and progress going on, we can’t afford to take any chances with those lawless troublemakers and get the disagreeable notoriety that they have brought to other cities.”

Of course, the Wobblies’ strategy very nearly depended on the desire of cities to maintain a good image. San Diego would compromise, they believed, if only to prevent the bad publicity arising from civil unrest. This, along with an unwavering faith in their mission, made the Wobblies cocky, almost reckless. They seemed to revel in being “lawless troublemakers.” Even an occasional whipping couldn’t keep them from riding the rails in boxcars so they might end up in an overcrowded jail where they could sing revolutionary songs with their fellow prisoners.

In San Diego, however, their bravado may have cost them dearly. In late February, District Attorney Utley offered to release the remaining prisoners if the IWW would agree to terminate street speaking within the restricted area. While not much of a compromise, it could have been the basis for a negotiated solution.

At the same time, Chief Wilson, frustrated at the number of IWW members entering town and ending up in his jails, began offering jobs to the newly arrived L Wobblies, hoping to keep them from street S speaking. The Wobblies refused, telling Wilson they would keep his jails full until the city restored their Constitutional rights. Confident of eventual victory, the Wobblies refused all compromise offers. Making matters evermore confrontational, IWW General Secretary Vincent St. John sent a wire to San Diego Mayor James Wadham vowing to continue the fight, even if it took 20,000 Wobblies and 20 years.

Actually, only about 5000 Wobblies are believed to have turned up in San Diego during the nearly three-month-long struggle, but St. John’s exaggerated threat probably damaged the efforts of those who did show up. When the telegram was released to the public, mass hysteria began to spread through the city.

One of the first responses was taken by the County Board of Supervisors, upon the recommendation of the grand jury. The board authorized a mounted force to patrol the Orange County line and drive back Wobblies attempting to reach San Diego. On March 4, the police department hastily deputized 500 men for the battle, and the common council passed an anti-picketing ordinance, making all demonstrations illegal. An editorial in the Evening Tribune of that day stated, “Hanging is none too good for [the Wobblies] and they would be much better off dead; for they are absolutely useless in the human economy; they are the waste material of creation and should be drained off into the sewer of oblivion there to rot in cold obstruction like any other excrement.”

Given such growing sentiments, the Wobblies’ treatment at the hands of police and jailers became increasingly harsh. Perhaps because they could sense hearts hardening and reason disintegrating, the Wobblies offered a compromise to city officials on March 8. If the anti-free speech ordinance were repealed, they promised to refrain from any further street speaking on Soapbox Row. Though it was an offer similar to deals struck with other cities, it was rejected by recalcitrant city officials.

Two days later, an estimated three to five thousand Wobblies and free speech sympathizers assembled in town, with some diehard supporters assembled outside the city jail to protest conditions inside and to rally in support of the prisoners. In response, the police and fire department attempted to break up the assembly by turning a hose on the crowed including one patriot who had wrapped himself in the American flag. Protesters stood their ground until the force of the water cannon dispersed them; then they would regroup on an adjacent street and begin the process again. The contest of wills lasted three hours.

In their effort to preserve law and order, authorities also attempted to curtail the press. They arrested hawkers of the San Francisco Bulletin and San Diego Herald, which sympathized with the free speech cause and criticized police tactics. On March 11, a young man, a resident of the city, was arrested for selling the Labor Leader, a small local paper that reported the Wobblies’ side of the dispute. He was taken off to Sorrento Valley by Police Chief Wilson, where he was beaten then told to leave the county or he would be killed and his body thrown into the bay.

Through the remainder of March and into April, as more Wobblies joined the fight in San Diego, law-enforcement tactics became more undisciplined and brutal. To avoid the increasing drain on city finances, fewer and fewer people were arrested and brought to trial. Instead, if someone addressed a crowd, sold the wrong kind of newspaper, or even appeared to be a vagrant, he would be driven north to Sorrento Valley or San Onofre and handed over to the vigilantes for unofficial processing. On March 18, the San Diego Union even carried a front-page article boasting that 1000 vigilantes had been organized by local businessmen to create order in the city. The police publicly denied that they were in cahoots with the vigilantes, and the vigilantes denied that they did anything but lecture the agitators, then tar and feather them. But the testimonies of many Wobblies are similar to this letter sent to the San Diego Local 13 of the IWW:

We write to let you know what happened to us yesterday. Twenty-one men arrested; ten were put through the third degree. We were held in the station till about 10 p.m., then, in bunches of fives, were kidnapped by vigilantes. Some were loaded into autos and ditched twenty-eight miles off, without a bite to eat. Then, in bunches of five, we were unmercifully assaulted with clubs and guns, and in the darkness were cornered and driven through a barb-wire fence. Several shots were fired, and some of the men are badly scratched and bruised. Two of the men were very nearly killed and may not survive. Out of the twenty-one arrested, eleven are at this place (Encimitas) [sic], and the two dangerously wounded are on their way to the hospital; five are still missing. Our hats are still in the ring, and we will be there with bells. Yours to win. Victim No. 13.

Such testimonies spurred the IWW to request that Governor Hiram Johnson open an investigation into the treatment of prisoners in San Diego jails. In accounts given to the investigating committee, Wobblies detailed both brutality and humiliation:

Arriving at Sorrento, 15 or 16 autos were found lined up along the road, with lights burning low.... In front of a small building a flag pole had been erected, while at its base were arranged dry goods boxes in the form of a platform. Wallace was compelled to mount the platform and kneel and kiss the flag. As an incentive to quicken action, he was “slapped” over the head and that, he says, was the signal for the general clubbing of his companions.... He was told to sing the national anthem, and when, as he says, he forgot the tune, he was pounded until he remembered it, which he did.

The San Diego Herald openly deplored this vigilantism and began printing articles sympathetic to the Wobblies. Soon after, the Herald's publisher, Abram R. Sauer, was kidnapped from his home by a group of men who drove him out to the desolate Mission Valley, staged his mock hanging, and told him to leave town. Threatened with death if he ever divulged the identify of his captors, Sauer never named them publicly but did later say that “the personnel of the vigilantes represents not only the bankers and merchants but has as its workers leading church members and bartenders. The 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.”

San Diego officials desperately tried to keep their image clean when 65-year-old Wobblies sympathizer Michael Hoy died in jail. The coroner’s jury ruled he had died from tuberculosis of the lungs and valvular disease of the heart. This finding was in spite of the fact that Hoy had been examined by a prison doctor after police had kicked him repeatedly and was declared to have suffered the rupture of an organ, after which he received no treatment for weeks.

Hoy’s death brought stories of the brutality of San Diego’s free speech fight to newspapers across the country. This first officially recognized death of an IWW sympathizer helped to galvanize the growing national criticism over the city’s methods of maintaining law and order. The town’s vigilantes are thrown on the defensive, and California’s governor appointed a special commissioner, Colonel Harris Weinstock, to hold public hearings on the matter. In an editorial titled “San Diego’s Right to Protect Itself,” the April 7 San Diego Union declared, “To those persons and newspapers that are censuring the San Diegan citizens who are taking steps to prevent the anarchists from overrunning the city and doing the devil’s own work,” those citizens are only “exercising their inalienable rights of protecting property and obtaining safety.” Objecting to the governor’s investigation because it was city ordinances, not state laws that were being upheld, the editorial defended the admittedly extralegal means as “heroic measures,” adding finally that “if this action be lawless, then make the most of it.”

Weinstock arrived in San Diego on April 16 and went about his investigation despite uncooperative local officials. In public meetings the following day, Weinstock amassed evidence that corroborated the accounts of both sides of the free speech fight and concluded about the vigilantes:

Men such as these, backed by the support and approval of the commercial bodies and the leading daily newspapers, representing as they do, much of the intelligence, the wealth, the conservatism, the enterprise, and presumably also the good citizenship of the community, felt impelled to play the part, as they believed, of patriotic heroes, and, in the name of law and order, ended up committing the very crimes against law and order with which the alleged invading offenders were charged.

He added that:

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 tyrannic Russian authorities. Your commissioner is frank to confess, that when he became satisfied to the truth of the [Wobblies’] stories, as related by these unfortunate men, it was hard for him to believe that he was still not sojourning in Russia, conducting his investigations there, instead of this alleged “home of the free and land of the brave.”

While Weinstock also concluded there were no acts of violence that could be directly charged to the IWW, his report very nearly justified their repression, stating:

It is the organized and deliberate purpose of the IWW to teach and preach and burn into the hearts and minds of its followers that they are justified in lying, in stealing, in trampling underfoot their own agreements, in confiscating the property of others, in disobeying the mandates of the courts and in paralyzing the industries of the nation. If all men and women were to accept and follow these teachings, it would make society impossible. It would simply mean a nation of thieves, liars and scoundrels.

Weinstock also wrote, in general despair and frustration over the entire conflict, “The question naturally arises, therefore, who are the greater criminals; who are the real anarchists; who are the real violators of the Constitution; who are the real undesirables — these so-called unfortunate members of the ‘scum of the earth,’ or those presumably respectable members of society?” Little came of the report to the governor, save for recommendations to collect information on vigilante leaders for possible criminal proceedings and a vague call for legislation that would eliminate the threat of worse conflicts, perhaps even civil war, posed by the IWW menace. The report was on the governor’s desk by late April but was not released to the public until mid-May, after California’s primary elections and any political danger to the governor had passed. Vigilante terror continued in the weeks after Weinstock left town, though it abated as fewer Wobblies seemed willing to challenge San Diego’s new system of justice.

The death knell for the free speech movement came on May Los Angeles Wobbly Joseph Mikolash was killed at San Diego’s IWW headquarters during a gunfight with police. The Wobblies claimed Mikolash died after being shot four times as he tried to defend himself with an axe. Official police reports said Mikolash fired the first shot and the police responded in self-defense. The police also claimed that firearms were found in IWW headquarters, bolstering their objections to Weinstock’s conclusion that the Wobblies were still committed to their philosophy of passive resistance.

On May 9, the San Diego Union claimed that the city’s troubles with the IWW were coming to an end. But by that time, politically correct San Diegans were wearing lapel pins printed with the slogan “Anti-IWW” and the American flag. When anarchist Emma Goldman and her male escort arrived in town in mid-May to support the free speech struggle, they found themselves besieged by angry mobs and required police protection. While Goldman discussed matters with police, her escort was kidnapped from the U.S. Grant Hotel, taken north, tarred, and, in the absence of feathers, decorated with chaparral, and beaten. Emma Goldman wisely left town soon after.

In the late summer of 1912, John Spreckels and Harrison Grey Otis attempted to further exploit the hysteria they had instigated by conspiring to involve the federal government. San Diego Police Commissioner Sehon fueled local support for this campaign by purportedly uncovering an IWW-devised assassination plot against leading political figures. Representatives of a local committee of 500 citizens went to Washington to meet with President Taft to warn him that 10,000 Wobblies were organizing a “conspiracy to overthrow the United States government” and create a new revolutionary government in Southern California. A review of the evidence by the Department of Justice failed to reveal sufficient grounds to indict IWW leaders.

By now the free speech movement was all but over. Through the course of that summer, the remaining prisoners were tried and fined; some were sent to prison. The majority of the Wobblies drifted out of San Diego, though some stayed and found

themselves employable by exploiting their notoriety as a promotional gimmick “for local businessmen. But one prisoner named Jack Whyte, having his final say in court, seems to indicate the lingering sentiments of most IWW members:

The prosecuting attorney, in his plea to the jury, accused me of saying on a public platform at a public meeting: “To hell with your courts, we know what justice is.” He told a great truth when he lied, for if he had searched the innermost recesses of my mind, he could have found that thought, never expressed by me before, but which I express now. “To hell with your courts, I know what justice is,” for I have sat in your courtroom day after day and have seen members of my class pass before this, the so-called bar of justice. I have seen you, Judge Sloan, and others of your kind, send them to prison because they dared to infringe upon the sacred right of property. You have become blind and deaf to the rights of men to pursue life and happiness, and you have crushed those rights so that the sacred rights of property should be preserved. Then you tell me to respect the law. I don’t. I did violate the law, and I will violate every one of your laws and still come before you and say: “To hell with your courts,” because I believe that my right to live is far more sacred than the sacred right of property that you and your kind so ably defend.

By the fall of 1912, nine months after the start of the free speech fight, the streets of San Diego’s downtown were quietly vacant at night. Though within two years, the IWW was holding street meetings once again, without interruption from police. All the conflict, all the brutality seemed for naught. The Wobblies would claim that they had finally won the free speech fight, but it was a hollow victory. The original principle that made free speech an important issue for the IWW, that of uniting the masses into one big union to overthrow their capitalist oppressors, didn’t have the appeal they had hoped. The IWW died of internal dissension and governmental repression during the era of the Russian Revolution and World War I, and with it died the dream of a postcapitalist utopia.

And today on those downtown street-comers where revolutionaries once mounted soapboxes to declare the death of capitalism, San Diegans go about their business, oblivious to the wide range of political opinion that was once passionately shouted there. Jaded by recent events in the communist world, the well-heeled are too busy with commerce and consumption and the dispossessed few with their own immediate survival to give any serious thought to what a post-capitalist world might offer them.

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