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A century ago, the nation’s eyes turned to bitter, violent
battle between city and union protesters.
In that town called San Diego when the workers try to talk,
The cops will smash them with a sap and tell them “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
So we’re bound for San Diego, you’d better join us now
If they don’t quit, you bet your life, there’ll be an awful row,
We’re comin’ by the hundred, we’ll be joined by hundreds more,
So join at once and let them see the workers are all sore.
— “Bound for San Diego,” union song, 1912
Today, Wisconsin holds the national stage as ground zero for labor revolt. Nearly a century ago, it was San Diego in the spotlight as leaders fought leftist union protesters with violence, vigilantism and a brazen attack on constitutional rights.
The free speech battle of 1912 brought out the worst in the governor, the police chief and local newspaper editors while shaking the reputation of a city eager to show itself off to the world a few years down the line.
The fracas started downtown at the corner of Fifth Avenue and E Street, a block east of modern-day Horton Plaza. Back in the early 1900s, people called it “soapbox corner” because the centrally located intersection was a prime place to get people’s attention.
Nobody seemed to mind until the few dozen local members of the Industrial Workers of the World — the “Wobblies” — started recruiting workers and ripping into American support for a dictator in Mexico. The IWW had formed a few years earlier and supported strikes by miners, bakers, lumber workers and others.
The union supported socialist revolutionaries in Tijuana, unnerving the business community in Southern California. There were fears of violence too: Just two years earlier, union members were implicated in a bombing at the anti-labor Los Angeles Times that killed at least 20.
City leaders decided they’d had enough. After all, San Diego’s big international exposition was planned for just three years down the road in 1915. “While in preparation for her debut as an important cultural and seaport city, San Diego could not afford to allow radicals to disrupt her labor force and flood her streets with inflammatory speakers of questionable ‘moral’ character,” writes Rosalie Shanks in The Journal of San Diego History.
In January 1912, city leaders unanimously banned speeches downtown in a six-block area around Fifth and E. Ordinance No. 4623 outlawed public meetings, singing, lecturing, and even the making of “discourses.”
The penalties were a fine of $25-$100 or up to 30 days in jail or both.
Within days, hundreds of men and women gathered at Fifth and E, at least one armed with a dry-goods box to stand on, with an eye toward breaking the law by speaking in public. Dozens landed in jail where they sang “La Marseillaise,” a labor favorite, and shouted “Long live free speech!” and “Keep up the fight for liberty!”
As labor organizers and socialists called for reinforcements from across the West Coast, the city calmed things down a bit by saying it would put the law on hold for a month. Then the battle began again.
Police Chief Keno Wilson told citizens to stay away from Fifth and E after 6 p.m. to avoid encouraging the resisters and warned that “anarchists of the worst kind” were headed to town from the East. The county set up patrols at the county line to keep union sympathizers out. Free-speech protesters filled the jail and made a racket with their shoes until jailers took them away.
“Mass hysteria descended upon San Diego,” Shanks writes. “Governor Hiram Johnson refused an appeal by the city for state troops. Political opposition to Johnson in San Diego had been intense, and the Governor decided that if San Diego had got itself into the mess, it could ‘damn well’ get itself out.”
There was more violence: the police chief turned fire hoses on protesters and observers. He trucked prisoners to the Sorrento Valley area and left them there to be beaten by vigilantes. Famed anarchist Emma Goldman (once called “the most dangerous woman in America”) visited to support the protesters and faced an angry crowd at the train station: “We will strip her naked; we will tear out her guts,” they screamed.
Goldman left town. Her manager Ben Reitman said he was kidnapped by vigilantes and ordered to sing. (“You won’t kiss the American Flag, eh? By God, we’ll make you; we’ll ram it down your throat. Sing ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’ With feeling.”) Then they drove him to the county line past Escondido:
They tore my clothes from me and in a minute I stood before them naked. When I lay naked on the ground, my tormentors kicked and beat me until I was almost insensible. With a lighted cigar they burned I.W.W. on my buttocks, then poured a can of tar over my head and body, and in the absence of feathers, rubbed sage brush on [me]. When these businessmen tired of their fun, they gave me my underwear for fear I should meet some woman … and my vest, in order that I might carry my money, railroad ticket and watch. The rest of my clothes they stole from me in highway fashion.”
Newspaper editors weren’t sympathetic to the protesters, even when they were arrested for serious charges like conspiracy.
“Hanging is none too good for them, 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,” wrote the Evening Tribune.
The New York Times wasn’t very sympathetic to Reitman, either, saying his story was exaggerated: “He got a mild coating of cold pine tar, with a few leaves in it, it is said,” but no beating.
By the spring, the protesters began to lose sympathy thanks to their own violence, including what appeared to be an attempt to kill a policeman, Shanks writes. One night, “riot whistles” from a power plant drew 1,500 citizens to help law enforcement corral the protesters. By the middle of the year, the free speech battle was over. The city had won.
Ultimately, the victory “belonged to the stronger of two violent mobs,” Shanks writes. “The IWW never developed an organization effective enough to control its own members. What had started out as only an exercise in civil disobedience, had aborted into uncontrolled riots.”
A precedent had been set too. By 1919, the Red Scare began and the federal government began muzzling anarchists, Communists and labor organizers. Historians say they went about it by shredding constitutional rights, just as San Diego had done.
NOTE: Sources for this story include 1912 newspaper accounts (from The San Diego Union, Evening Tribune, The New York Times), the article from The Journal of San Diego History, PBS.org and the IWW website (for details about the organization).