Journalism noir meets San Diego’s labor history in “Flash” by Jim Miller

by on April 28, 2011 · 5 comments

in History, Labor, Media

Jim Miller is a professor who practices what he teaches.

Each semester, Miller guides dozens of students through his English and Labor Studies classes at San Diego City College. He has played key roles in literary projects such as the school’s International Book Fair as well as the San Diego Writers Collective. He serves as a political action vice president and does community outreach for the American Federation of Teachers Local #1931.

And as if he wasn’t busy enough already, Miller also finds the time to crank out the occasional book.

The cover of "Flash" by Jim Miller, a San Diego City College professor of English and labor studies

His latest novel, “Flash,” tells the story of a modern-day San Diego journalist who realizes he might be related to a participant in the city’s Free Speech Fight of 1912 and 1913.

“Flash,” which is available from vendors such as Amazon, is a fascinating blend of historical fiction, investigative reporting, and noir. As its newsman protagonist searches like a private eye for clues about an Industrial Workers of the World member named Bobby Flash, the book provides an in-depth look at the labor struggle that erupted in America’s Finest City about 100 years ago.

Bobby Flash is a fictional character, but his life story and his experiences in the Free Speech Fight are based on Miller’s extensive research.

“The thing about fiction — you’re lying like the truth,” Miller said. His book even contains some autobiographical touches, including references to modern-era menial work in warehouses and factories.

“I am not the narrator, (but) I had a long series of those kinds of jobs,” Miller said.

The main payoff in “Flash” is its deep dive into San Diego’s Free Speech Fights. Through glimpses into the life of a hypothetical rank-and-file IWW member from that era, Miller transports the reader to a time when the Gaslamp Quarter was known as the Stingeree and police would crack down on anyone who got up on a soap box and called for workers to unite.

“(The book) looks back at the many parallels between then and the present,” Miller said.

With labor-related issues getting more and more press today, Miller’s timing couldn’t be better. He calls recent workers-rights protests in Wisconsin “the single most hopeful” political development in the last few years, and his respect for working men and women shines in “Flash.”

The book describes the Stingeree in 1912 as a diverse, working-class neighborhood “full of shops, saloons, cheap hotels, gambling houses, opium dens, and prostitutes … it sounded a lot more fun back in the day than it is now — unless you’re looking for a bad cover band or an overpriced cheese plate.”

In another section, back in the present day, the narrator rides the bus home, noting “the tired, after-work faces of cashiers, janitors, secretaries, security guards, and the homeless men who rode the link like Bartleby the Scrivener, preferring not to leave until they were kicked off at the end of the route.”

DG Wills Books in La Jolla hosted a reading of Jim Miller's "Flash" on December 4, 2010

Miller, with his wife Kelly Mayhew as well as Mike Davis, co-authored “Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See.” The authors call that book a “radical history of San Diego.” San Diego Magazine deemed it “a left-leaning, fascinating history of San Diego that debunks the notion of America’s Finest City.”

Miller described the dramatized, bottom-up approach in “Flash” as “an inside-out, more personal way to tell the history.”

One section describes the jailhouse antics of Free Speech Fight protesters who had volunteered to be arrested.

“They very effectively filled the jails and drove the cops crazy,” Miller said of the jailed men, who would sing for hours and would jump in unison, shaking the entire building each time they landed.

As the narrator of “Flash” searches for clues, he also laments the hard times facing the newspaper industry. Miller, noting that at least one media company recently experimented with outsourcing local reporting to India, called the newspaper commentary “a small thread” that highlights “how tough it is” for journalists to make a living today.

“Flash” takes some intriguing side roads. For instance, the book touches on the issue of activist burnout through a friend of the narrator who “started saying stuff like ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’ and ‘hope is a moral obligation.’”

Miller said he saw “a real nobility” in people who stay committed to working for justice despite limited resources and limited success.

That nobility burns in the title character in “Flash,” who barely survives some of the abuse he endures as an early 1900s laborer and labor activist. While Bobby Flash never gains financial independence, he seems to draw sustenance from fighting the good fight.

“I lived the way I lived and I’ll die that way — with nothing and everything,” he says.

Available from vendors such as Amazon, “Flash” was published in late 2010 in a run of several thousand by AK Press, an “anarchist” print shop with its main headquarters in Oakland.

“They’ve been really great to work with,” said Miller, a fan of the printing house’s collective approach to operations.

“I basically donated all the profits back to AK,” Miller added. “They said it’s doing pretty good.”

Bobby Flash, in his own words, from Jim Miller’s “Flash”:
“I worked as a timberbeast; I worked in the fields; I washed dishes; I hauled rocks at construction sites; I loaded ships on the waterfront; I worked on a boat or two; I worked on a ranch; I picked just about anything that can grow on a tree; I saw the worst a man can do to another man.
“After about two years of ramblin’ about I had seen just about enough of workingmen getting their teeth kicked in time after time.”

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Alissa April 28, 2011 at 1:11 pm

Wow. This sounds like something I’m going to need to get. Thanks!

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avatar Andy Cohen April 28, 2011 at 2:16 pm

Wow! I learned something here! I had no idea that the Gaslamp was called the Stingeree. And I’m even more impressed that the owners of the club were savvy enough and knowledgeable enough of San Diego history to choose that as the name.

Interesting stuff! Does this story bear any resemblance to Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle?” That book was critical in starting the labor rights movement, and this one could very well be an excellent reminder of what it was like before the labor movement, and what we could be headed back to.

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avatar Dixon Guizot April 28, 2011 at 2:31 pm

I haven’t read The Jungle (shame on me) but from what I know, it takes an inside look at conditions in a meat-packing plant, right?

“Flash” definitely provides an inside look at San Diego’s Free Speech Fight, from a participant’s perspective. And as the book describes, those participants went through some rough stuff, largely at the hands of law enforcement, not to mention vigilantes financed by San Diego’s robber baron set. Some amazing stuff, straight from San Diego’s not-so-distant past.

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avatar Andy Cohen April 28, 2011 at 2:47 pm

Yeah……it chronicled the working conditions in the meat packing plants in Chicago, the living conditions and the horrid wages they earned, and the shameful way that landowners took advantage of workers in “selling” them homes……it also played a key part in creating food safety laws that we have now. The things Sinclair described are absolutely unthinkable by today’s standards. It’s what unregulated business was able to get away with.

I’m just thinking that “Flash” could serve as a reminder of where we come from and why it’s important to protect the rights that those before us fought so hard to secure. Not to be overly partisan in this comment, but if the Republicans have their way, we’re headed for a more dictatorial form of government where our rights and freedoms as individuals are severely curtailed; where elections are effectively meaningless. Just look at what’s happening in Michigan today and you’ll get an idea of what I mean.

We need to be reminded every once in a while of how bad it was, since none of us was actually around to see it first hand. And it would be really easy to allow our society to slip back towards those days. “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it!”

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avatar Patty Jones April 28, 2011 at 5:42 pm

Thanks Shane for this, and thanks Jim, for a thoroughly enjoyable book! I was truly sorry that it ended so soon.

I was already somewhat familiar with the plight of the Wobblies and the Free Speech fight in San Diego, but the character of Bobby Flash drove it home.

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