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San Diego's Free Speech Fight Centennial

January 10, 2012 1:17 p.m.


Jim Miller, teaches labor relations at San Diego City College and author

Related Story: San Diego Free Speech Fight Centennial


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. The right to free speech, to stand up and say what you think is basic to our view of what it means to be an American. So to hear that 100 years ago, the San Diego City Council voted to ban free speech in an area downtown is astounding. But even more astounding is the fight put up by laborer unions, progressive activists, and ordinary citizens against the restriction. An exhibit honoring San Diego's free speech fight just opened in Balboa Park. Joining me with more on this 100th anniversary event is my guest, professor Jim Miller of San Diego City college. He is also the author of Flash, a novel based on the San Diego free speech fight. And Jim, welcome back to the program.

MILLER: Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: This is an event that I would bet many San Diegans have no knowledge of, have never heard of. So could you give us a brief over view of what started the free speech fight?

MILLER: Well, it doesn't fit that tourist postcard image of San Diego that many of us like to have it, so it's not well remembered. But I think it's centrally important. There were negative things that happened, but there was a lot of heroic acts that happened in defense of free speech. What started it was a few years before the exposition in 1915, in 1911, the IWW was engaging in organizing. And what we think of now as the Gaslamp district. And that was important because it was the center of the multiethnic working class district of San Diego. So the wobblies were initially interested in soap boxing, giving speeches, not so much in defense of free speech or making some abstract point, but for organizing. They would stand on a soap box and say, hey! Fellow workers and friends! How come you've got nothing, and Spreckles had has got everything? Come join the one big union! The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. And one of the things that's remarkable is that there were only 50 members of the IWW in San Diego in 1912. So you could say, well, you can just ignore them and perhaps they would go away. But the response of a portion of the city's elite was so disproportionate, almost hysterical, that it caused one of the most brutal free speech fights in the history of the progressive era.

CAVANAUGH: I want to spot you there. You used the term wobblies, that's a slang term?

MILLER: The industrial workers of the world.


MILLER: And they were a militant laborer organization in the progressive era. They were notable because they organized everyone, people of all races, classes, genders, they went after workers in migratory work, the people who were thought of in many ways by the boosters of San Diego in this period as undesirable citizens, not the people they wanted to come to San Diego. And they were also very important because they engaged in direct action. They had a slogan "direct action gets the goods." And one of the ways to do that was to stand on a soap box and organize in the middle of the street in San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: Why were the powers that be back in 1912 so threatened by these speakers?

MILLER: It's important to make a distinction. There were people who like Spreckles, who was the elite most supportive of the vigilante action. He owned the union at the time, and they published editorials in support of the vigilantes. But other people who like Marston and Scripps were more tolerant, and proposed having a free speech zone somewhere where people could stand on soap boxes and speak. But unofficial, the people who won the day were the forces of intolerance, and that was Spreckles, and the City Council passed an ordinance banning not just speaking on the street in this 49 square block era, but also singing. And even people preaching. So driving a Bible. It was the most restrictive ban on speech in public assembly in the United States at the time.

CAVANAUGH: And it caught people's attention across the nation too. This became a cause celebre of just about every union activist, progressive activist in the country at the time.

MILLER: Right, right and it became something that was covered in New York, internationally, and there was an incident of people arresting people for street-speaking on January 6th, and it went into effect on February 8th. And they filled the jails with people, and a call went out for five thousand people to flood into San Diego, and the wobblies effectively filled the jails with their allies in the community. It wasn't just people in the IWW, but people who maybe didn't share their politics like religious folks and other community leaders who said if they can do this to these people, they can do it to quarterback. And that's what made it a national cause. Because beyond the politics of the IWW, it became something to say this is the United States, we're supposed to have free speech rights, rights of public assembly, and these clearly were taken away.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with professor Jim Miller of San Diego City college. And we're talking about San Diego's free speech fight, 100 years ago. And it's being honored in an exhibit that's open right now in Balboa Park. And I'm wondering, just to give everyone back in 1912 their due, what were the arguments to ban speech in that big section of downtown?

MILLER: Well, I think, you know -- the first answer is that these were these kind of undesirable people who were engaging in anti-American rhetoric because it was a kind of class-based unionism that IWW was engaged in. And they were unpleasant for ladies to walk by, and listen to people speak on soapboxes. But the real agenda of the elite at the time that wanted to shut this down was that this was not the future of San Diego that they wanted. They didn't want a rowdy, industrial working class. You wanted to have a different kind of city than, say, some of the big cities back east. So it was really, I think, much more about the future shape of the city, and a battle over what kind of city you wanted to have. And unfortunately for this period, the forces of intolerance won out.

CAVANAUGH: What is your sense of how an average San Diegan, most San Diegans might have looked at this whole thing? Whose side would they have been on?

MILLER: I think it was clearly split. You had people who were not particularly sympathetic to the IWW, like Scripps whose paper, the Sun, ran an anti-Spreckles editorial entitled put this in your pipe and smoke it. Saying you don't own the city, you don't have the right to do this. You had people like Marston, who led to the eventual, formation of the ACLU come in and say hey, this is unacceptable. You had people in religious groups come in and say this can't happen. But at the same time, you also had people in San Diego who were so vehemently against the IWW that they became the vigilantes. And there was an editor at the time of the Harold, a different people in San Diego at the time, who was actually kidnapped and taken to Los Angeles for publishing the names of prominent citizens who were supportive of or were vigilantes themselves, and some of the vigilantes were off-duty policemen. So it's an event that split the city in many ways.

CAVANAUGH: So the vigilantes were against the people who were organized, and the laborer unions and also the people who wanted to see the free speech restored in that area of downtown. And the -- tell us -- you just told us an amazing tactic of kidnapping. What other tactics were used?

MILLER: Perhaps one of the most famous is when the famous anarchist, Emma Goldman, came to San Diego. She was met by a crude where Santa Fe station is right now, driven by escort up to the US grand hotel, and wanted to speak to a mob across the street in that park. And she came with her partner, Ben Wrightman, who as she was negotiating with the mayor and chief of police, was kidnapped, driven to PeÒasquitos, forced to run a gauntlet, where you're brutally beaten with clubs, ax handles, tortured in a way that's not polite to say over the radio, and had the letters IWW burned into his backside, tarred and feathered, and subject back to Los Angeles. That's perhaps the most famous incident of this. But there was also an IWW years old who was 60 years old who was beaten and died in jail. Another organizer who was shot. And nameless people by the dozens, perhaps hundreds, who were severely injured, beaten, or perhaps killed that we may not know about because, of course, the kind of people the IWW organized were migratory workers with no family, no means, and it's not the era of Facebook. People weren't posting this up there. I think there were a lot of nameless people who paid in blood for the rights many of us take for granted.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is fierce, very serious stuff that happened on the street was San Diego 100 years ago. What eventually happened? How was this ordinance finally reversed?

MILLER: Well, after this entire thing, there was actually a commission, and they sent a commissioner named Winestock to study in, and the vigilantes threatened him as well. So no one was really ever brought to justice for the excesses of the vigilantes. And what happened was there were criminal syndicalism laws which made it illegal to be a member of the IWW in the United States and many parts of the country. And many of the members of the IWW were jailed rather than the people who committed these atrocities. But I think the brutality of that episode was so horrifying that by 1915, the ordinance was overturned, and things like picketing and public assembly again became accepted activities in San Diego. But it was a long, brutal struggle, and many people paid a great cost

CAVANAUGH: Is it true that the ACLU, the idea for that grew out of this particular struggle?

MILLER: If you go to the free speech right anniversary website and look at the historical document section, you'll find that one of the things there is the archive, from the archives of the ACLU, and the first thing in that file is the press coverage, the local and national press coverage of the San Diego free speech fight. Clearly people like the Marstons were involved in this, and it was one of the seminal events that head to the formation of the ACLU.

CAVANAUGH: Amazing. And I also want to let our listens know they can find these links at as well. Do you find any links between the free speech fight 100 years ago, and our occupy San Diego movement today?

MILLER: Well, yeah, I think there are really important parallels that are going on. A, I think you have this unprecedented level of inequality, which is bringing us back to levels that we saw at the beginning of the last century. You have a movement challenging in a very class-based way, saying 1% against the ninety-nine%. And also struggling for rights of public assembly and free speech, in ways which I think are important. And just as you had things like criminal syndicalism laws, and the first red scare in the teens, you have things that are scary to the many libertarians, like the president's signing of the authorization bill, which has concern be with the ability to detain citizens that many are concerned about. So I think unfortunately there are a lot of parallels to the present. And adding to that, the kind of national assault on laborer from Wisconsin with Governor Walker to the west here in San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: I'm thinking specifically about an occupier who was arrested recently for setting up a voter registration table downtown or the people who want to set up the tents because they are directly challenging an ordinance as well, a city ordinance the way the people who were fighting for free speech back in 1912 were doing as well. But I wonder if we're talking about a time in 1912 that is quite different from our own. Do you see it as different?

MILLER: Well, I guess it's not my job to ask you questions. When I say different in what way?

CAVANAUGH: In the sense that I don't think people feel militarized perhaps in the way they did back in 1912.

MILLER: Yeah, I think that -- I'd say yes and no. I think that in some sense, you know, the occupy movement has been incredibly successful and changed the dialogue about things. But I think that in an era of media saturation, there's always the tendency to -- what's the next subject? To turn the page. So it's a different kind of political and social landscape than it was in 1912. Although I would still argue that the struggle to maintaining freedom of speech and public assembly is crucially important. And the central lesson of the San Diego free speech fight, and the fights that went on across the western United States during this era are that the things we think of as unchangeable, fixed rights in American life, if you know your history, have been taken away, can be taken away, and we've only main trained them if we insist on the maintenance of those rights. And I would say even people who have radically different ideology than occupy or the IWW in 1912, need to know you can't be a member of the tea party and yell at your representative unless you have the same public assembly and free speech rights. Is this something that I think is a crucially important history for anybody who cares about those American rights to know.

CAVANAUGH: The exhibit honoring the one had been year anniversary of San Diego's free speech right is at the Centuro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa. Park. Thank you very much.

MILLER: Thank you.