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THE SECRET HISTORY OF L.A.’s FIGHT FOR FREE SPEECH

by By LIONEL ROLFE Friday, Sep. 15, 2000 at 11:59 PM
calclass@earthlink.net

It’s often said that L.A. is a city without a history, but it’s not. It’s a city without a memory. And that can definitely be changed, as this article by Lionel Rolfe so clearly shows. As we recover our collective memory, we discover ourselves to be part of a proud and illustrious tradition. -- IMC Editor

Secret History Lionel Rolfe is a co-author with Nigey Lennon and Paul Greenstein of Bread And Hyacinths:The Rise And Fall Of Utopian Los Angeles from which this is extracted. His two most recent books include Fat Man On The Left: Four Decades in the Underground http://silverlake.magicplace.com/rolfe.htm and his newest, an e-book, Death And Redemption In London & L.A. which can be obtained at: http://deadendstreet.com/r6.html

===========================

Los Angeles has never been a friendly place for those fighting for social change -- but that fact gives the lie to those who say that the city has no radical past.

Pershing Square was the focus of protesters at the Democratic National Convention of 2000, and that was entirely appropriate.

In the 1950s, my friends and I used to go down to Pershing Square, and there under the frowning visage of Beethoven, we'd enjoy what was then L.A.'s Hyde Park. Over in one corner people would be playing chess. In another corner somebody would be yelling out to everybody and nobody in particular that "you need Jee-sus to wash away your sins." And in yet another corner, a socialist would be pontificating on the need for the working class to throw off its shackles.

But the powers that be were never comfortable with having a Hyde Park, especially across from so important a hotel as the Biltmore. So it was redesigned so that it would be uncomfortable for free speech and recast in the image of a place comfortable only as a back drop for the exchange of goods and not of ideas.

When during the DNC protests a judge told Mayor Riordan that free speech was a far more pressing enterprise than business convenience, the decision had a lot of historical resonance.

Shortly after the turn of the last century, Los Angeles was home to a powerful radical, socialist movement. In 1911 its mayoral candidate, Job Harriman, won in the primary and would have won in the finals but for a last minute spectacular staged by General Otis, publisher of the Los Angeles Times. Part of Harriman's slate included a black city council candidate. Not only on general philosophical reasons but for financial reasons did Otis get concerned. He was worried about Harriman's opposition to the Los Angeles aqueduct, for reasons outlined in the movie Chinatown, which might have cost Otis dearly had Harriman gotten into power.

Harriman had been Eugene Deb's vice presidential candidate in 1900. When the city had perhaps 100,000 people, 40,000 of them marched down Broadway behind Harriman on the eve of the election in 1911. But Otis had worked out a plan to have two defendants represented by Harriman and attorney Clarence Darrow plead guilty to bombing the Los Angeles Times building the year before, even though all the evidence indicated the whole thing was masterminded by Otis himself. That cost Harriman the election a few days later -- and even at that, by only a few votes.

A devotee of Nietzsche, Otis had already won the circulation wars in Los Angeles not by putting out a better product, but by using thugs to control circulation territory. He was a devotee of strong arm tactics and bombast and untruths. Not only did 21 of his own workers die in the explosion that destroyed the Times building (never fear, he had another plant secreted close by to get the next morning's papers out and had just upped his insurance on the destroyed building), he blamed trade unionists and socialists for what had happened.

Things were happening in the old town that since even before the turn of the last century were providing a sense that Otis was right. There was a revolution afoot. On a street level, socialists and trade unionists would argue. Some of the trade unionists were quite conservative and had actually been registered Republicans. But they also worked together, a fact that Otis, of course, found very threatening.

Not only that, there were millionaire socialists all around him. Gaylord Wilshire, who built the city's main street, was a socialist. The Bradbury building but only two or three blocks from the Times was designed and constructed so as to reflect the socialist utopian ideas of Edward Bellamy.

And every Tuesday night, Socialists assembled at First and Los Angeles streets to listen to speeches and discuss issues. It didn't take long for the city to start demanding that they obtain police permits. This cramped the Socialists' style for a few months, but then they began meeting at Sixth Street Park, known today as Pershing Square.

There a blind socialist orator from Denver named J.B. Osborne, who had been warned not to continue speaking there, and he was arrested when he continued speaking there. Harriman had taken up Osborne's defense. Harriman lost the case when a judge ruled that the city had a constitutional right to outlaw free speech. The Southern California Civil Liberties Union came into existence about a decade later in a similar case involving writer, socialist and politician Upton Sinclair at Liberty Hill at the port.

*       *       *

Otis and the city fathers were content with suppressing the speeches by insisting on a city permit for any group desiring to assemble publicly. When, for example, socialists couldn't get permits for a rally in Pershing Square, whereas Christian evangelical groups could, Harriman was the Socialists' first choice to handle the case. By 1908, Harriman's legal services for the socialist community had earned him considerable respect, even if many still regarded the socialist-labor fusion which was Harriman's idea as class collaboration.

By the end of that year, Harriman was becoming widely known as the free-speech socialist lawyer in Los Angeles. And with socialism increasingly in the air, the more it had to be defended from the powers that wanted to suppress it.

One particular case helped Harriman achieve his credibility with his more militant socialists colleagues. He took on the case of the Mexican revolutionary Ricardo Flores Magon, who in 1907 was living in Los Angeles in exile from the corrupt and brutal American-supported Porfirio Diaz dictatorship.

Otis, of course, supported the regime of President Diaz. Not so incidentally, Otis and business partner Harry Chandler's business interests included 850,000 acres in Mexico. The Los Angeles police helped harass enemies of the Diaz regime living in Los Angeles; an enemy of Diaz was an enemy of Otis, and Otis would pull the strings at the LAPD for many years.

Los Angeles had been a haven for some of the most prominent members of the Mexican Revolution. Magon had come to Los Angeles in July, 1907, and continued publishing the newspaper Regeneracion, which Diaz had suppressed in Mexico. Magon had many followers, and the Mexican Consulate worked hand-in-hand with local authorities wherever he tried to settle to keep him from publishing the newspaper. In no town, however, did he have the troubles he had in Los Angeles.

Several other wealthy Los Angeles citizens also had investments in Mexico and political connections to Diaz. they included T.E. Gibbon, publisher of the Herald, who owned stock in Otis's Mexican ranch company (indeed, Otis also was his secret partner as publisher of the Herald); William Randolph Hearst, who had large landholdings in Mexico; and, most important of all, Edward M. Doheny, who owned the Mexican Petroleum Company.

Hearst's case was particularly illustrative of the times. In 1905 in Los Angeles, labor approached Hearst, who had presidential ambitions and was thus going through a radical phase and courting the working class. Representatives of organized labor asked Hearst to start a a paper against Otis, so Hearst began publishing the Examiner that year, and initially, at least, the new paper featured union news on its front page. But by 1907, the same unionists who had fought hard to get Hearst to publish a paper against General Otis had become disillusioned with Hearst and his newspaper. In 1907, the Los Angeles Citizen was founded, and at the same time a seven-story Labor Temple was erected on Maple Street, where there developed a briefly lively and vibrant scene of proletarian culture and politics. Hearst's newspaper remained blue collar in readership but grew more and more reactionary politically.

After Magon's arrival in Los Angeles, three Mexican-American detectives with the Los Angeles police, Felipe Talamantes and Tom and Louis Rico, kept Magon and other Partido Liberal Mexicano members under surveillance; they were acting in direct concert with the Mexican embassy, which was also paying them a salary on the side. (Not necessarily incidentally, one of these three men, detective Thomas Rico, was later to become famous for finding dynamite planted by labor on strike sites, particularly in the McNamara case. Rico's specialty was planting "evidence" at strike sites -- or so every good union man in Los Angeles believed.)

On August 23, less than a month after Magon's arrival in Los Angeles, he was "arrested" when the three detectives, at the instigation of the Mexican consulate, swooped down on the small house where he was staying. Magon and his small group of revolutionary cohorts resisted because they feared they were being kidnapped for deportation back to Mexico. The Mexican embassy said that Magon was wanted for murder and treason. He was also charged with inciting a strike even though he had been in Canada at the time of the murder he was wanted for. If taken to Mexico, Magon would have been sent before a firing squad. The Los Angeles police declared that charges would be filed against Magon to keep him in jail until the federal government could decide what was to be done in his case.

Harriman argued that the charges were "trumped up," and few rational people disagreed. Magon's defenders, and they were legion, were sure that the whole thing was a plot to kidnap him and send him back to Diaz in Mexico. The resulting hue and cry attracted the attention of the Socialists. Job Harriman was hired as Magon's lawyer since the Mexican revolution was a popular cause with many Socialists.

The Magon case probably brought Harriman under the keen political eye of Otis. Magon quickly became a hero to the local Mexican population and that infuriated Otis and the Times, and the city's other newspapers. The Times, as usual, led the pack. They reported that the Mexican revolutionaries spoke to crowds of Mexicans "not of the better kind," referring to them as "greasers" and thundering that the only Americans who supported Magon were "wild-eyed anarchists with smoking bombs in hand."

Harriman, in turn, painted Magon and his revolutionary companions as innocent patriots who had been thrown into jail on a variety of bogus charges as part of a plot by Diaz and his American mercenaries. To Harriman, Detective Talamantes and the two Rico brothers should be the ones in jail. According to the Times's account of the meeting, someone shouted that Talamantes was in the audience. "Scores of cholos jumped to their feet and started for the spot where the officer was supposed to be sitting. If he had been there nothing could have prevented a vicious assault and possible bloodshed," the Times reported. Under later cross examination, Talamantes and the Ricos were revealed to be cops on the take, evidence being uncovered that they could be bought for relatively small favors.

The war between labor and management took on a new quality, quality of desperation on both sides during the last few months of 1910. Each side felt as if it was playing for keeps. Part of the reason was that the San Francisco labor movement had targeted Los Angeles for organizing drives. Labor had become particularly entrenched in San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake, since it was organized labor that rebuilt the town. San Francisco was rich enough help out its weak brethren in Los Angeles, and more to the point, there were compelling economic reasons to do so. Wages were very low, 30 to 40 percent lower in Los Angeles than San Francisco-- an important part of Otis's plan for building a great city. The San Francisco labor movement feared -- and rightly so -- that ultimately San Francisco would lose work to Los Angeles because of its lower labor costs. The only answer was to organize Los Angeles to make the weapons competitive.

The mood became more dire when an anti-picketing ordinance had been passed by the City Council. By 1910, nearly every trade had gone on strike -- the butchers, the trolley car operators, the painters, the printers, the brewers, and, of course the metal workers who built the bridges and the early skyscrapers beginning to rise all over the city.

On June 1, there was a metal-trades lockout, which led directly to the City Council ban on picketing. Since the metal workers were starting to win the strike, the anti-picketing ordinance was conceived as a way to slow them down. Harriman pointed this out and also that until the ordinance was passed, there was very little actual violence by the strikers.

The City Council had heard Harriman declare that the law clearly violated free speech and individual liberty at its July 1 meeting at which it was first presented. The City Attorney had spoken out against the anti-picketing law on the same grounds. But the law, written by Merchants & Manufacturers attorney Earl Rogers, was already being considered for the books. It became law on July 18. Rogers, a confirmed alcoholic, had once been a brilliant lawyer. But he certainly was never known as a lawyer with a social conscience.

As a result of the new law, Harriman and his partner, J.H. Ryckman, were kept very busy. (Ryckman would later become one of the founders of the American Civil Liberties Union's Southern California branch, along with Upton Sinclair during a strike and free speech fight in the L.A. harbor a decade later at a place called Liberty Hill). Hundreds of protesters against the anti-picketing ordinance were jailed and other union men went to visit them. The Los Angeles Times "reported" that the police went after the would-be visitors "stick in hand." They described the anti-picketing legislation as putting "the ruffians on the run."

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