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.”
District Attorney Utley, police chief Keno Wilson, John Sehon, and prosecutor D.F. Glidden reacted immediately: Weinstock only interviewed the other side, they claimed. He had no subpoena power and didn’t take statements from city officials.
Controversy spread statewide. The report was “lame and impotent,” wrote the San Francisco Call. In his first public statement, Weinstock noted that John D. Spreckels owned the Call and the San Diego Union, which “stands committed to the cause of the vigilantes, right or wrong, making its opinion…not free from bias.”
Weinstock pointed his most accusatory finger at Spreckels, the shipping magnate who wanted to turn San Diego into a “one-man town,” and at Utley, the district attorney “deaf and blind to the lawless acts” of the vigilantes.
In conclusion, the report urged the governor and attorney general to “take an active part” in criminal proceedings.
The threat of state and even federal intervention forced both sides to rethink their tactics.
A week later, Weinstock read a letter at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. An unnamed San Diegan had written that the report defamed “our class of citizens,” who “have an understanding with the powers that be and will be protected in all that we do.” If Weinstock ever returned to San Diego, the author warned, he might “get a taste of the Ben Reitman episode.”
Weinstock told the gathering: “It seems as though the ordinarily good citizens of San Diego have lost their heads.” He added that local authorities would never “molest” the vigilantes.
With one exception, they never did.
By the end of May, a federal grand jury convened in Los Angeles to hear evidence about IWW allegations and to prevent another “Reitman episode.” Governor Hiram Johnson also sent Ulysses S. Webb, state attorney general, and Raymond Benjamin, chief deputy, to San Diego to see if the local police could enforce the law by themselves.
“News of Webb’s pending arrival, with orders to ‘mete out equal and exact justice for all,’” writes Robert Warren Diehl, “frightened the vigilantes. For the first time since the extra-legal body had formed, it was faced with a sober reflection of its misdeeds. Webb, unlike Weinstock, was coming with full powers to enforce the law.”
In a private conference, Webb told Chief Wilson and Captain Myers: “If there is a repetition of past offenses, the state must intervene.”
Wilson assured Webb that the police could do the job without outside help and would “arrest violators of the law, irrespective of person or class.”
After the meeting, Wilson told San Diegans to stop taking the law into their own hands. They should “avoid congested districts and follow their ordinary avocations.” In case anyone missed the point, he added that they should refrain from “night work.”
Webb was pleased with the “harmonious” discussion. He was less pleased when the local grand jury, currently in session, refused to investigate the vigilantes. Webb wanted to impanel a special grand jury. But the foreman, John Forward, called it intimidation of the current one, an indictable offense. Soon after, Webb left town.
The only “citizen” put on trial, J.M. Porter, was held in contempt of court. Sixteen vigilantes had abducted and threatened the lives of IWW lawyers Fred Moore and Marcus Robbins. Porter, who had cursed them on the streets, may have been the leader.
In testimony, Porter denied that there was a formal committee. He claimed that there were no officers and no oath of membership. It was just an “association of citizens,” who “banded together” for the “welfare and protection of the city.”
“I may be heading for San Quentin,” Porter suddenly announced, “but if I go, a whole lot of good men will go along to keep me company, and they will have to build an addition to the prison. I admit that I, in company with a great many other men, have done a few little things in the way of ridding the town of undesirables, but everything that has been done needed to be done.”
Moore saw his opening. He made a motion to produce evidence against the vigilantes. But judges Guy, Lewis, and Sloane denied it. Porter’s lead attorney, state senator Leroy Wright, had the case dismissed.
As he left on the train, Wright echoed Chief Wilson: it was time for “an era of daylight activities” in San Diego, as opposed to the “nocturnal industry of certain individuals.”
On May 30, IWW leaders in Los Angeles announced that they were abandoning the San Diego campaign. Instead of sending people south, they would launch a movement for an eight-hour day in Los Angeles.
Between June 7–15, a smallpox epidemic broke out in the jail. The 15 remaining prisoners pleaded guilty and received a $100 fine and a suspended sentence.
The free-speech fight wound down slowly. By October, nine months after it had begun, Laura Payne Emerson stood at the vacant Soapbox Row. “The sacred spot where so many IWWs were clubbed and arrested last winter,” she wrote, “lies safe and secure from the unhallowed tread of the hated anarchist, and in fact, from all other human beings. The winner,” she added, has “the courts, the jails, and funds.”
A month later — as if on a roll — Sehon, Wilson, and the health department began a three-year purge-demolition of Chinatown and San Diego’s red-light district, the Stingaree. Over 100 buildings below Market Street were razed or burnt to the ground.
By 1914, the IWW could hold street meetings at Soapbox Row. Although several newspapers claimed that the fight was over, Agnes Smedley, studying at the Normal School, said — along with several others — that “patriotic” people still harassed them.
“The free-speech fight was won in San Diego,” Carey McWilliams wrote in 1946. His reasoning: Emma Goldman had come to town again in June 1915. She gave lectures throughout the city “and no disturbances were reported.”
The day before Goldman spoke, however, an anonymous letter arrived at police headquarters. The writer assured Chief Wilson that if Goldman or her followers made incendiary remarks, the “old vigilante crowd” still stood at the ready. ■
— Jeff Smith
- Dan Georgakas: “The IWW planned to carry out its program at a time when American capitalism was at its most unbridled stage of development, and when the working class, native and foreign born, was still adjusting to urbanized society.”
- Melvyn Dubofsky: “In San Diego the IWW learned the limits of passive resistance, as well as the folly of concentrating its limited power on tangential causes.”
- “Codger” Lewis: “Don’t write this out like it’s all past and done. Freedom’s like corn, it’s something that ain’t always gonna be there unless ya keep replanting it.”
- Basney, Dana Alan, “The Role of the Spreckels Business Interests in the Development of San Diego,” master’s thesis, SDSU, 1975.
Bird, Stewart, et al, Solidarity Forever: An Oral History of the IWW, Chicago, 1985.
Diehl, Robert Warren, “To Speak or Not to Speak: San Diego, 1912,” master’s thesis, University of San Diego, 1976.
Dubofsky, Melvyn, We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World, Chicago, 1969.
McWilliams, Carey, Southern California: An Island on the Land, New York, 1946.
Miller, Grace, “The IWW Free Speech Fight: San Diego, 1912,” ms. at San Diego History Center.
Olin, Spencer C., California’s Prodigal Sons, Berkeley, 1968.
Smedley, Agnes, Daughter of Earth, New York, 1987.
Villalobos, Charlotte, “Civil Liberties in the San Diego Free Speech Fight,” master’s thesis, SDSU, 1966.
Weinstock, Harris, “A Report of Harris Weinstock…to his excellency Hiram W. Johnson, Governor of California, 1912.”
Articles from various newspapers.
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