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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. ■

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7

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Twister Aug. 19, 2012 @ 11:08 p.m.

When Americans get their backbone back, it will happen again.


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