by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
PHOTOS, top to bottom (11):
Judy Forman reading Emma Goldman
Sean Bohac and Eric Isaacson
Fund Our Future
Officer R. Pajita (the man who shut down the demonstration)
Women Occupy 1
Women Occupy 2
“It shall be unlawful for any person to address any assemblage, meeting or gathering of persons or hold or conduct any public meeting or make or deliver any public speech, lecture or discourse or sing any song or songs or take part in any public debate or discussion in or upon any public street or alley within that certain district [now known as the Gaslamp District] in the City of San Diego… ”
— San Diego City Ordinance 4623, passed January 8, 1912
In 1912, the San Diego City Council declared free speech illegal in the city. They passed a law banning public speakers from putting up soapboxes in what is now the Gaslamp District on Fifth and “E” Streets downtown. The ordinance also banned public singing and the passing out of leaflets. The main purpose of the law was to keep the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a radical nationwide labor organization whose goal was to bring all workers together into one big union and thereby bring down capitalism, from being able to organize in San Diego.
The ordinance took effect on February 8, 1912, one month after it passed, and 100 years after that date a group of about 500 people gathered together in the intersection of Fifth and “E” for a combination re-enactment of the Free Speech Fight IWW waged to challenge the law and rally around modern-day progressive causes. Though the city has not treated Occupy San Diego protesters with anything approaching the systematized brutality the IWW was met with 100 years ago, in which IWW members (“Wobblies,” as they were called, a slang term inspired by the two “W”’s in their initials) were kidnapped, openly beaten, branded and sexually assaulted by police and vigilantes, the Occupy protesters have had to deal with a maddeningly arbitrary series of police orders, and a number of them have been arrested or physically abused by law enforcement.
One of the most grim stories of the original Free Speech Fight was the fate of Dr. Ben Reitman, anarchist doctor and partner of the famous activist Emma Goldman. In what turned out to be the emotional highlight of the February 8, 2012 event, Dr. Reitman’s story was told by his great-granddaughter, Rainey Reitman, a staff member with the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) in San Francisco and a member of the steering committee of the Bradley Manning Support Network. “I was incredibly glad that the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) in San Diego brought me down here from San Francisco to talk to you today, because I love San Diego,” Rainey Reitman said. “This is something that I don’t think my great-grandfather would have felt.”
According to his great-granddaughter, Ben Reitman’s ordeal began when he and Goldman arrived in San Diego to support the Wobblies in the Free Speech Fight, their challenge to the city’s anti-speech ordinance. “Ben was a free-speech advocate,” Rainey recalled. “He would go out, and wherever he would see a crowd, he would run to the crowd with a soapbox and a megaphone. He would speak about contraception and birth control, and as a doctor he would actually perform abortions, at a time when even talking about birth control and abortion was illegal. He spent six months in prison for this, just for speaking out.”
When Dr. Reitman and Goldman arrived in San Diego to protest the city’s anti-speech law, Rainey explained, “On his very first night in his hotel, he was met by an angry mob, and while Emma was able to escape, Ben was not. He was abducted by this mob, driven out into the desert and beaten. He was kicked and covered in tar, and then they rolled him in sagebrush because they didn’t have any feathers.” Then, she said, they branded his buttocks with the letters ‘I.W.W.’ and sodomized him with his own walking cane. “He left San Diego that day but he didn’t stop speaking out. He went on to have a long life as an activist and a free-speech advocate.”
Rainey also talked about her own activism with the EFF, which defends freedom of speech in an arena her great-grandfather probably couldn’t have dreamed of: the Internet. “We’re fighting for your right to access content on the Internet, to be able to get to Web sites, your right to speak out,” she explained. Recently, EFF was part of a coalition that was able to block the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a House bill pushed by giant media companies that would have given corporations almost unlimited power to use the courts to shut down so-called “rogue” Web sites and block online donations to them. SOPA and its still-living counterpart in the Senate, the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA), would force Internet service providers and payment services to do what they already “voluntarily” did, under U.S. government pressure, to put the WikiLeaks site out of business by choking off its funding.
Violence and Repression Then …
While Ben Reitman was represented at the 100th anniversary commemoration by his great-granddaughter, Emma Goldman was represented by Golden Hill restaurateur Judy Forman, who stood on her own soapbox and read quotes from Goldman’s writings. “Life under our present system is not so ideal that he who loves freedom and liberty should not be willing to part with it,” Goldman said in an article she wrote about San Diego’s free speech struggle at the time. “I cannot believe that the number of intelligent people in the United States is so small that they cannot bring moral pressure on that city to stop its atrocities. It was the intelligent minority that forced the Southern planter to stop his murderous treatment of the Black minority. Surely the same can be done today.”
The crowd had a “the more things change, the more things stay the same” moment as Forman read Goldman’s statement about who was behind the brutal suppression of free speech in San Diego in 1912: “the thugs, with the connivance of the police and the Union and Tribune newspapers.” The version of Goldman portrayed in the quotes Forman was reading was a surprisingly elitist one — “Every effort at progress for enlightenment, for science, for religious and political liberties, emanates from a minority, not the masses … The majority cares little for ideals and integrity. What it craves is display” — with a pre-Gandhi, pre-King conviction that the only way to achieve social justice is by meeting the violence of the state with violence. “If San Diego is entitled to violence, why not its victims?” Goldman wrote. “It is organized violence on the top that creates individual violence on the bottom.”
Forman also read some of Goldman’s controversial statements attacking marriage and monogamy — which sat oddly with some of the protesters who had been in the streets of Hillcrest the day before celebrating the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling that California’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. “Love, the strongest and deepest element of all life, the harbinger of joy and ecstasy; love, the defier of all laws and all conventions; love, the freest and most powerful molder of human destiny,” Goldman said. “How can such an all-compelling force be synonymous with that poor little state- and church-begotten institution, marriage? … Jealousy is the very reverse of understanding, sympathy and generous feeling. Never has jealousy added to character. Never does it make the individual big and free.” (According to their biographers, when Reitman started dating other people, Goldman’s reaction was far different from the anti-jealousy message she was preaching.)
Other participants in the 100th anniversary action read testimonies and comments by people who’d been involved in the original Free Speech Fight. Kelly Mayhew, professor of labor studies at San Diego City College and wife of teachers’ union leader Jim Miller, read a commentary by Agnes Smedley, who taught at San Diego College from 1913 to 1916 (when she was fired because of her politics) and is best known today for the reporting she did in China in the 1930’s and 1940’s. “The opponents of free speech were like the land speculators I had known,” Smedley wrote. “I heard my friends called unspeakable names, saw them imprisoned and beaten, and saw water and fire hoses turned upon their meetings. I escaped arrest, but the fight released much of the energy dammed up in me.”
Another participant read from the affidavit Henry Burr, one of the original Free Speech fighters, filed in 1912. “In San Diego, on the morning of April 3, 1912, a detective arrested me,” Burr wrote. “I was taken to the police station and held there with about 14 others until 4 the next morning. Detective Shepard called me out and asked me how long I had been in San Diego and what I had come there for. I told him I came here to help fight for free speech. The next morning, I was taken with the 14 others in the police patrol to Escondido.”
There, Burr said, they were met by a so-called “Vigilance Committee” who were “armed with clubs, revolvers and shotguns. We were herded together before an American flag, which they ordered us to kiss. We were clubbed before the flag. They rushed us up against each other and knocked us down. Then they marched us up the road between two men armed with pick handles and invited them to take a whack at us. Most of the Vigilance Committee members showed signs of intoxication. We were then ordered to kneel down at the fence and sing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner. We stood that for a little while and then they took us into autos. I was knocked on the head when I was getting into the machine.”
In an account that ironically showed what an exotic technology the private car was then — especially to working-class activists who couldn’t dream of affording one — Burr dispassionately described the additional horrors he and his fellow arrestees had to deal with. “We were jammed into the bottom of the machine to keep our heads down, and every time I raised my head I was struck,” he wrote. “They hauled us to San Onofre. Here we were put in with the rest of the men. I waited for perhaps half an hour before it was my turn to run the gantlet. We were taken out in fives. I was first ordered to take off my coat, and then they started to kick. The gantlet was composed of about 30 men on each side. As I passed through the line, I was clubbed. One man dropped his club and struck me with his fist on the left side of my face. My body was beaten.”
… and Now
While some of the speakers focused on the horrors of 1912 — often by reading accounts of original participants in the Free Speech Fight — others made the inevitable parallels to Right-wing political movements and police suppression of activists today. Lorena Gonzalez, CEO and secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO Central Labor Council of San Diego and Imperial Counties (and therefore, ironically, representing a group that in 1912 had portrayed itself as the “responsible” labor movement and refused to support openly anti-capitalist unions like the IWW), said that what the IWW members had been targeted for in the first place was telling people “going to their jobs in the retail and restaurant industries about their right to organize into a union … [because] the restaurant and shop owners were badly treating their workers, without giving them a voice, without a decent wage, without any ability to make it into the middle class.”
According to Gonzalez, the restaurant and store owners in the gentrified Gaslamp District are treating their employees today much the way their predecessors did in 1912. “Most of the restaurants in the Gaslamp District are members of the California Restaurant Association (CRA), and here in San Diego the CRA is the number one faction that spends money against labor — even though we’re not in there trying to organize — because if organized labor had the right to talk to their employees at work and tell them they have the right to make more than tips, that they should have paid sick days, then their profits will go down and the picture in San Diego might actually change,” Gonzalez said. “Not a lot has changed, has it?”
Jim Miller, teachers’ union leader and husband of Kelly Mayhew, drew a parallel between the IWW and the Occupy movement of today. “The Wobblies didn’t stand on soapboxes just to defend the First Amendment,” he explained. “They were standing up and giving speeches like this: ‘Why does [sugar magnate Adolph] Spreckels have everything and you have nothing? It’s time you got smart and joined the One Big Union.’ … They knew we were a city run by a narrow plutocracy, the rule of the dollar, where those who had the money to buy the city’s newspaper did. Sound familiar?”
Though the San Diego City Council had passed a resolution the day before the February 8 event repudiating the 1912 ordinance, the Free Speech Fight anniversary came to a bizarre end that revealed members of the San Diego Police Department have little more sympathy for unbridled Left-wing speech than their forebears did in 1912. At about 7:20 p.m., a uniformed police officer named Pajita moved into the crowd and announced that the police were breaking up the demonstration in the intersection so traffic could start moving again.
Pajita and other officers present said they wouldn’t stop the Free Speech Fight re-enactors from remaining on the sidewalks and speaking from there, but the police order to move away from the center of the street pretty much ended the demonstration. A few people made attempts to continue it, including one man who led a mic-check reading of the official declaration of Occupy Wall Street. (In a mic-check reading, a form of street speech pioneered by Occupy Wall Street when they were not allowed to use amplification, one person says or reads something and then the crowd around him or her repeats it so that everyone can hear.) At least one participant was arrested when he refused to leave the intersection, but with the crowd generally unwilling to resist arrest, the police successfully cleared the streets and the action came to a quiet, ambiguous end.