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To Speak or Not to Speak: San Diego, 1912

San Diego's bloody free speech fight

I.W.W. riot, 1912
I.W.W. riot, 1912
  • “You 50,000 unemployed in San Francisco, come to San Diego,
  • You 50,000 idle men in Los Angeles, come to San Diego.
  • Come to San Diego a hundred thousand strong. Roads into San Diego guarded by armed deputies.”

Robert Warren Diehl Master's Thesis USD, 1976

During the Free Speech Fight of 1912, crowds would gather in the evening— estimates range from 3000 to 4000—on Soapbox Row, and police would make arrests. “Hundreds of Wobblies [Industrial Workers of the World] poured into the city, getting themselves thrown in jail and refusing bail or work details,” and each prisoner demanded a separate trial. By the end of February, 200 protesters filled the local jail. “Overflow” prisoners got shipped to jails in Orange and Riverside Counties. The San Diego Union predicted that the city would win the fight even if authorities had to utilize every county jail in the state. But “underneath this bold talk the city knew that such a measure could mean bankruptcy, because the city had to pay for the privilege of using these jails.”

Another threat of even greater magnitude: Vincent St. John, national secretary of the I.W.W., said the San Diego struggle might last 20 years. “Would people from across the nation come to the Exposition in 1915 if the city were still embroiled in a free-speech fight?”

One of the protesters’ intentions was to disrupt the city’s system of government. Having more than twice as many prisoners in a jail was one way. Yet even though conditions were “deplorable”— meager food, no blankets or water, and frequent charges of police brutality — the inmates “had expected arrest when they came to San Diego and had lived through such inconveniences before.” Rather than complain, they sang songs of protest Police Chief Wilson, who threatened to hose them down, exclaimed: “They’re singing all the time, and yelling, and hollering, and telling the jailers to quit work and join the union. They are worse than animals.”

Even though Wilson thought “less than one tenth” of the crowds were sympathetic to the Free Speech Movement, superintendent of police John Sehon declared martial law. Police could arrest anyone, even two people chatting on the street. “Authorities also dispatched a detail of policemen to Sorrento with orders to drive back all men walking or attempting to come into the city aboard freight trains.”

Police began using nightsticks to make arrests. “We have tried to treat them with forbearance,” said captain of detectives Myers, “now they can move on or look out ”

Several times, the police opened fire. Joseph Mikolasek, who may have charged police with an ax, was shot in the stomach and the legs. A policeman kicked 63-year-old Michael Hoy in the groin so hard he died in city jail seven days later. “Over Hoy’s funeral bier,” in a vacant lot at Seventh and B Street, “was placed a red flag. When police, who were standing a short distance away, saw the flag, they moved in with swinging clubs to break up the ceremonies.”

At the height of the protests, John Spreckels, Harrison Otis (publisher of the Los Angeles Times), and “the prominent 500” businessmen from California sent an envoy to President William Howard Taft. The envoy claimed at least 10,000 Wobblies were headed to San Diego “with the intention of setting up a government in Southern California.”

Taft replied it was “our business to show the strong hand of the United States, so they shall understand that we are on the job.” When the Department of Justice told Taft there was no way to display the governments “strong hand,” local vigilantes took things into their own.

At San Onofre, deputy constables searched every freight train and arrested all suspects. “The deputies handed these men over to vigilantes, who forced each captive to kneel and kiss the flag. All prisoners were beaten and compelled to sing‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ as they marched back to the county line.” Until the end of the Free Speech Fight, every train to San Diego met a similar reception.

Before they could make their way north up the railroad tracks, suspects had to “run through a gauntlet of club-swinging vigilantes.” When they reached Los Angeles, “Some told stories of beatings, others told stories of being shot at, and a few told stories of witnessing deaths.”

The Industrial Worker reported, on April 18, that more than 40 men were missing “and at least two had been beaten to death” In the city, vigilantes worked side-by-side with police. A dozen officers cornered Thomas Kilcullen at Seventh and B Streets and beat him so severely “a shopkeeper came out of his store and admonished the police for their brutality”

The police “reacted no differently than the law-enforcement officers in the cities that had previously clashed with the Wobblies.... The hostile atmosphere generated at the street meetings night after night, plus the long hours each patrolman had to work”—14- to 16-hour days—“most certainly had an effect in shaping the mean temper of the police.” It was the “mean temper” of the vigilantes, combined with police, that prompted outrage.

On April 5, six men abducted Abraham R. Sauer, 65-year-old publisher of the San Diego Herald and an outspoken opponent of the police’s “Cossack” tactics. Just south of Escondido, they slipped a noose around Sauer’s neck, looped the rope over a tree branch, and told him if he wrote one more negative word about them he was a dead man. They let Sauer go. He fled to Los Angeles. “He did return to San Diego but never divulged the names of his tormenters.”

When Emma Goldman came to town, six men kidnapped her manager, Ben Reitman: “I was in an automobile,” he wrote. “As soon as we were out of the business district, these Christian patriots put their fingers into my nose; kicked, pounded, bit me, and subjected me to every cruel, diabolical, malicious torture that a God-fearing respectable businessman is capable of conceiving.” This included burning “I.W.W.” on his buttocks with a cigar.

The vigilantes broadened their sights, harassing anyone who looked “in sympathy with the free-speech movement.” I.W. Markwith sent a telegram to California governor Hiram Johnson: “Vigilantes working in the open now, no safety for any member of organized labor.”

Johnson received thousands of letters and telegrams about the brutality in San Diego. “The Governor, running for vice president of the United States on the Progressive Party platform under Theodore Roosevelt, realized the political ramifications if he did not act” He appointed Harris Weinstock, a businessman from San Francisco, to investigate the charges. The “Weinstock Report” and the “Reitman outrage” appeared in every major newspaper. Both called for further investigation.

And incited backlash. Vigilantes acted in self-defense, many argued. The San Francisco Call Spreckels’s press, claimed that “the people of San Diego have been making a fight for the whole nation.” The San Diego Union, also owned by Spreckels, stood “committed to the cause of San Diego vigilantes, right or wrong.”

The backlash also changed the image of the I.W.W. Instead of pacifists risking their lives through nonviolent means, the press depicted them as anarchists “ready to use dynamite and assassination to destroy the political and economical foundations of the city.” It became common practice, in the 20th Century, for the press to demonize dissenters. Labeling the Wobblies as anarchists may have been the first use of this tactic. “Ironically, the Wobblies and Anarchists of America, to which Reitman belonged, had little love for one another.”

In the end, the Wobblies won the fight, “but it was the kind of victory the British won at Bunker Hill during the Revolutionary War. The I.W.W. suffered heavy casualties, at least two dead, hundreds beaten, and many missing in action. After the fight was over, it hobbled away, badly mauled.”

Vigilantes whipped people, tar and feathered them, shot and hung them. But who were the vigilantes? By the end of the Free Speech fight, they numbered around 2000. People knew their favorite meeting places — the Grant Hotel and Grotto’s Saloon—but refused to identify individuals. Weinstock reported they were part police officers, part constables, part private citizens. “There are indications that the county district attorneys office, the city prosecutors office, and the fire department were at least partly involved” Some believe a high percentage of “real estate operators” were vigilantes. Others point to thugs and city fathers. The San Francisco Bulletin declared that John D. Spreckels, who led such a group in the 1870s, was “the greatest vigilante of them all.”

“One thing appears certain, if there were voices in local government opposed to vigilante activity, the apparent abundance of people in high places dictated that these voices remain silent.”

Diehl sees a combination of forces behind the suppression of free speech: capital at large, civic pride, Otis and Spreckels. He adds that “not one vigilante ever spent one day in jail for their brutal misdeeds.”

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I.W.W. riot, 1912
I.W.W. riot, 1912
  • “You 50,000 unemployed in San Francisco, come to San Diego,
  • You 50,000 idle men in Los Angeles, come to San Diego.
  • Come to San Diego a hundred thousand strong. Roads into San Diego guarded by armed deputies.”

Robert Warren Diehl Master's Thesis USD, 1976

During the Free Speech Fight of 1912, crowds would gather in the evening— estimates range from 3000 to 4000—on Soapbox Row, and police would make arrests. “Hundreds of Wobblies [Industrial Workers of the World] poured into the city, getting themselves thrown in jail and refusing bail or work details,” and each prisoner demanded a separate trial. By the end of February, 200 protesters filled the local jail. “Overflow” prisoners got shipped to jails in Orange and Riverside Counties. The San Diego Union predicted that the city would win the fight even if authorities had to utilize every county jail in the state. But “underneath this bold talk the city knew that such a measure could mean bankruptcy, because the city had to pay for the privilege of using these jails.”

Another threat of even greater magnitude: Vincent St. John, national secretary of the I.W.W., said the San Diego struggle might last 20 years. “Would people from across the nation come to the Exposition in 1915 if the city were still embroiled in a free-speech fight?”

One of the protesters’ intentions was to disrupt the city’s system of government. Having more than twice as many prisoners in a jail was one way. Yet even though conditions were “deplorable”— meager food, no blankets or water, and frequent charges of police brutality — the inmates “had expected arrest when they came to San Diego and had lived through such inconveniences before.” Rather than complain, they sang songs of protest Police Chief Wilson, who threatened to hose them down, exclaimed: “They’re singing all the time, and yelling, and hollering, and telling the jailers to quit work and join the union. They are worse than animals.”

Even though Wilson thought “less than one tenth” of the crowds were sympathetic to the Free Speech Movement, superintendent of police John Sehon declared martial law. Police could arrest anyone, even two people chatting on the street. “Authorities also dispatched a detail of policemen to Sorrento with orders to drive back all men walking or attempting to come into the city aboard freight trains.”

Police began using nightsticks to make arrests. “We have tried to treat them with forbearance,” said captain of detectives Myers, “now they can move on or look out ”

Several times, the police opened fire. Joseph Mikolasek, who may have charged police with an ax, was shot in the stomach and the legs. A policeman kicked 63-year-old Michael Hoy in the groin so hard he died in city jail seven days later. “Over Hoy’s funeral bier,” in a vacant lot at Seventh and B Street, “was placed a red flag. When police, who were standing a short distance away, saw the flag, they moved in with swinging clubs to break up the ceremonies.”

At the height of the protests, John Spreckels, Harrison Otis (publisher of the Los Angeles Times), and “the prominent 500” businessmen from California sent an envoy to President William Howard Taft. The envoy claimed at least 10,000 Wobblies were headed to San Diego “with the intention of setting up a government in Southern California.”

Taft replied it was “our business to show the strong hand of the United States, so they shall understand that we are on the job.” When the Department of Justice told Taft there was no way to display the governments “strong hand,” local vigilantes took things into their own.

At San Onofre, deputy constables searched every freight train and arrested all suspects. “The deputies handed these men over to vigilantes, who forced each captive to kneel and kiss the flag. All prisoners were beaten and compelled to sing‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ as they marched back to the county line.” Until the end of the Free Speech Fight, every train to San Diego met a similar reception.

Before they could make their way north up the railroad tracks, suspects had to “run through a gauntlet of club-swinging vigilantes.” When they reached Los Angeles, “Some told stories of beatings, others told stories of being shot at, and a few told stories of witnessing deaths.”

The Industrial Worker reported, on April 18, that more than 40 men were missing “and at least two had been beaten to death” In the city, vigilantes worked side-by-side with police. A dozen officers cornered Thomas Kilcullen at Seventh and B Streets and beat him so severely “a shopkeeper came out of his store and admonished the police for their brutality”

The police “reacted no differently than the law-enforcement officers in the cities that had previously clashed with the Wobblies.... The hostile atmosphere generated at the street meetings night after night, plus the long hours each patrolman had to work”—14- to 16-hour days—“most certainly had an effect in shaping the mean temper of the police.” It was the “mean temper” of the vigilantes, combined with police, that prompted outrage.

On April 5, six men abducted Abraham R. Sauer, 65-year-old publisher of the San Diego Herald and an outspoken opponent of the police’s “Cossack” tactics. Just south of Escondido, they slipped a noose around Sauer’s neck, looped the rope over a tree branch, and told him if he wrote one more negative word about them he was a dead man. They let Sauer go. He fled to Los Angeles. “He did return to San Diego but never divulged the names of his tormenters.”

When Emma Goldman came to town, six men kidnapped her manager, Ben Reitman: “I was in an automobile,” he wrote. “As soon as we were out of the business district, these Christian patriots put their fingers into my nose; kicked, pounded, bit me, and subjected me to every cruel, diabolical, malicious torture that a God-fearing respectable businessman is capable of conceiving.” This included burning “I.W.W.” on his buttocks with a cigar.

The vigilantes broadened their sights, harassing anyone who looked “in sympathy with the free-speech movement.” I.W. Markwith sent a telegram to California governor Hiram Johnson: “Vigilantes working in the open now, no safety for any member of organized labor.”

Johnson received thousands of letters and telegrams about the brutality in San Diego. “The Governor, running for vice president of the United States on the Progressive Party platform under Theodore Roosevelt, realized the political ramifications if he did not act” He appointed Harris Weinstock, a businessman from San Francisco, to investigate the charges. The “Weinstock Report” and the “Reitman outrage” appeared in every major newspaper. Both called for further investigation.

And incited backlash. Vigilantes acted in self-defense, many argued. The San Francisco Call Spreckels’s press, claimed that “the people of San Diego have been making a fight for the whole nation.” The San Diego Union, also owned by Spreckels, stood “committed to the cause of San Diego vigilantes, right or wrong.”

The backlash also changed the image of the I.W.W. Instead of pacifists risking their lives through nonviolent means, the press depicted them as anarchists “ready to use dynamite and assassination to destroy the political and economical foundations of the city.” It became common practice, in the 20th Century, for the press to demonize dissenters. Labeling the Wobblies as anarchists may have been the first use of this tactic. “Ironically, the Wobblies and Anarchists of America, to which Reitman belonged, had little love for one another.”

In the end, the Wobblies won the fight, “but it was the kind of victory the British won at Bunker Hill during the Revolutionary War. The I.W.W. suffered heavy casualties, at least two dead, hundreds beaten, and many missing in action. After the fight was over, it hobbled away, badly mauled.”

Vigilantes whipped people, tar and feathered them, shot and hung them. But who were the vigilantes? By the end of the Free Speech fight, they numbered around 2000. People knew their favorite meeting places — the Grant Hotel and Grotto’s Saloon—but refused to identify individuals. Weinstock reported they were part police officers, part constables, part private citizens. “There are indications that the county district attorneys office, the city prosecutors office, and the fire department were at least partly involved” Some believe a high percentage of “real estate operators” were vigilantes. Others point to thugs and city fathers. The San Francisco Bulletin declared that John D. Spreckels, who led such a group in the 1870s, was “the greatest vigilante of them all.”

“One thing appears certain, if there were voices in local government opposed to vigilante activity, the apparent abundance of people in high places dictated that these voices remain silent.”

Diehl sees a combination of forces behind the suppression of free speech: capital at large, civic pride, Otis and Spreckels. He adds that “not one vigilante ever spent one day in jail for their brutal misdeeds.”

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