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The History of Free Speech in San Diego, or Can't Jail the Spirit!

by deedee Wednesday, Jun. 20, 2001 at 4:33 AM

In 1912, the IWW (the Wobblies) were brutally suppressed in a struggle to maintain a freespeech area in downtown San Diego.

San Diego has an interesting history in terms of labor and free speech struggles. In 1912, Southern California elites tried to suppress freespeech by cutting off access for speakers and demonstrators to an area in downtown (E Street between Fourth and Fifth Avenues) which had been a gathering place for a variety of political parties and causes. The prohibition was later extended to a destricted district "49 square blocks in the center of town in which street corner meetings could not be held...Failure to comply was punishable with a thirty day prison sentence or to 0 fine or both."

Harrison Gray Otis, editor of the LA Times, called for the city to restrain the right of free speech. The LA Times building had been bombed in October 1910. He owned a piece of land in Baja and worried about the impending Mexican Revolution and the potential for cross border collaboration.

The IWW took the challenge and union members from all over the West Coast came to SD to challenge the suppression of the First Amendment. It has been estimated that over 5,000 union members from all over the country turned up during the free speech fight. Hundreds were jailed and many were beaten. Water cannon were used to rout the thousands of demonstrators who showed up at the jail to protest the brutal conditions under which prisoners were held. (The location of the jail was right around the corner from the current San Diego IMC)

One of the things that most riled the authorities was the lively optimism of the union. Police Chief Wilson complained "I cannot punish them. Listen to them singing. They are singing all the time and yelling and hollering and telling the jailors to quit work and join the union. They are worse than animals."

The San Diego and Los Angeles business establishment encouraged gangs of quickly "deputized" thugs to take revenge on the demonstrators. There was a fear that the workers--who declared themselves internationistas in their very name (International Workers of the World)-- would connect up with Flores Magon, and other Mexican rebels to endanger US business holdings in the South West and in Baja. Spreckles of the sugar fortune (the downtown theater is named for him) owned extensive land in Baja which he wanted to develop and he planned a railroad line from Yuma,through Baja to San Diego.

Emma Goldman and her lover, Ben Reitman, came around to help out with the cause. Before her scheduled speech, Reitman was taken into the desert in North County and brutalized, sent through a gauntlet, tarred (feathered with sage brush and cactus), and even had an Abner Louima style rape with a stick, later confirmed by doctors in Los Angeles. Goldman fled to LA without speaking publicly.

President Taft supported any measures to suppress the radicals. He said: "There is not any doubt that that corner of the country is a basis for most of the anarchists and the Industrial World Workers (sic) and for all the lawless flotsam and jetsam that proximity to the Mexican border thrusts into those two cities...We ought to take decided action....It is our business to go in and show the strong hand of the U.S. in marked way so that they shall undertand that we are on the job."

The Free Speech fight was later won through the courts and Emma Goldman returned to San Diego in 1915 to speak to the Open Forum, a group which had been organized to protect freedom of speech in 1912.

This is taken from an article by Grace Miller, "The IWW Free Speech Fight: San Diego, 1912 in The Journal of the Historical Society of San Diego.Thanks to Dan Schiller for pointing it out to me. DeeDee Halleck

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Reference info deedee Wednesday, Jun. 20, 2001 at 8:51 AM
fascinating story Guy Berliner Wednesday, Jun. 20, 2001 at 11:37 AM

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