Where the “Western Breakers Beat”: the Vigilante Impulse in San Diego, Then and Now

by on August 15, 2011 · 9 comments

in Civil Rights, History, San Diego, Under the Perfect Sun

June 1912 cover of Mother Earth, an anarchist magazine, highlighting the free speech fight in San Diego. Public domain via Wikipedia Commons

“Out there in San Diego
Where the Western Breakers Beat
They’re Jailing Men and Women
For Speaking on the Street”

2012 will mark the 100 year anniversary of the San Diego Free Speech Fight when workers from the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) along with allies from the rest of labor and the community at large defied a city ordinance designed to prevent them from standing on a soapbox at the corner of 5th and E in downtown San Diego and speaking.  As I explain in Under the Perfect Sun, street speaking was part of a larger strategy for the IWW:

[W]hen the IWW came to San Diego, they sought to turn “bums” into men by transforming the attitude of the town’s small disposable labor force from individual shame and defeatism to solidarity and class anger.   Their method was street speaking.  In We Shall Be All, Melvin Dubofsky explains that, “For the Wobblies free-speech fights involved nothing so abstract as defending the Constitution, preserving the Bill of Rights, or protecting the civil liberties of American citizens.” They were interested in “overcoming resistance to IWW organizing tactics” and demonstrating that “America’s dispossessed could, through direct action, challenge established authority.” The aim was to show workers who were dubious about legal and political reform “the effectiveness of victories gained through a strategy of open yet nonviolent confrontations with public officials.”

The IWW sought to win Free Speech fights in order to preserve and enhance their recruitment efforts as well as their ability to educate unskilled workers about how anti-union employers and the turnover of common laborers keep wages down . . . The IWW claimed that the real reason for the street speaking ordinances that banned public speeches was the business elites’ fears of their efforts “to educate the floating and out-of work population to a true understanding of the interests of labor as a whole.” The Anglo booster oligarchy could be tolerant of a weak, craft-based AFL and it was fond of using unskilled Mexican and other workers for cheap labor as long as they remained docile, but the thought of a unified, openly rebellious, class-conscious, multi-racial working class sent chills down their spines.

Hence when the IWW organized Mexican workers in John D. Spreckels’ streetcar franchise and struck, it was as if their worst nightmare had come true.  There were only 50 members in Local 13, but the efforts to go after the poorest workers in the mill, lumber, laundry, and gas industries were a profound threat to the symbolic order as was the location of the Wobblies’ oratory, Heller’s Corner, at the corner of 5th and E Streets, in the heart of the Stingaree.   The Stingaree which sprawled southward from E Street toward Market, was where the majority of working class whites, white-ethnic immigrants, blacks, Chinese, and Mexicans lived. Full of shops, saloons, cheap hotels, gambling houses, opium dens, and prostitutes, this district was at the center of the Anglo elite’s sordid racist and classist imaginary.   It represented the exotic and the debased, vice, violence, and the unruly others who did not fit the Mission fantasy picture . . . In the midst of crowds of such men, the Wobblies would stand on soapboxes, denounce the boosters, and try to educate and organize San Diego’s working class. The prospect of the Stingaree’s combination of lumpenproletariat and unskilled laborers finding common interests across racial and ethnic lines against the boosters was a horror to be avoided at any cost.

Emma Goldman Festivities on May 12, 1912

Hence, the war on free speech went hand in hand with a war on public space.  As Foner points out, “San Diego had plenty of room for her traffic and no one believed that this little town in Southern California would suffer a transportation crisis if street meetings continued.” The fact that the “restricted district” encompassed 49 blocks in the city’s working class core was clearly an effort to eliminate the possibility of San Diego’s “undesirable elements” coalescing into a unified group.  Indeed, even indoor spaces like Germania Hall were made off limits by local police.  This left the IWW and their sympathizers with two choices: resist or be utterly silenced and erased from the map of the city.  The ban on public expression was so complete that it did not stop at radical politics but included the enunciation of more moderate ideas as well as religious ones, making San Diego’s law the most restrictive in the country. Hence, the Free Speech fight was not just a war on the IWW, but on the entire San Diego working class and anyone else who dared dissent.

While many other San Diegans did not share the IWW’s aims, they supported the fight for free speech because they realized that if the Wobblies’ rights could be taken away, everyone’s rights were at risk.  Nonetheless, the response of San Diego’s elites was brutal, including both legal and extralegal violence that injured many and left some dead.  The politicians and business elites did not do the work themselves; they left that to others:

The vigilantes were backed by many of San Diego’s most prominent citizens, praised by the press, and left unmolested by the police so that they were, in effect, an unofficial arm of the city’s power structure.  Prominent businessmen and Exposition directors such as San Diego’s own robber baron John D. Spreckels, banker Julius Wangenheim, sporting goods manufacturer Frank C. Spalding, as well as lawyers and realtors John and George Burnham, and other booster elites John Forward, Jr., Carl Ferris, Percy Goodwin, W.F. Luddington, and Colonel Fred Jewel were the driving force behind the vigilantes. Kevin Starr argues that the “oligarchs did not take to the streets,” but the “threatened middle and lower middle classes,” as he characterizes the vigilante thugs, would not have been able to operate with such impunity if not for the encouragement and support of the elites in both the city government and the private sector . . . [The Spreckels’ owned Tribune] openly endorsing the lynching of Free Speech fighters: “Hanging is none to good for them and they would be much better dead; for they are absolutely useless in the human economy; they are waste material of creation and should be drained off in the sewer of oblivion there to rot in cold obstruction like any other excrement.” Following Samuel Johnson’s maxim that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, the supporters of extra-legal violence proclaimed their love of country, exhorting the opponents of free speech to wear American flags on their labels and associating their beloved terrorism with other great battles in American history.  As the Union put it, “Let every loyal citizen of San Diego wear the little flag on his lapel.  It is the flag of Yorktown and Gettysburg.  No American citizen need be reluctant to wear it, and wearing it his neighbors and fellow citizens will know just where he stands on a question that just now is of vital importance to San Diego.”

Some protesters were beaten in jail, others were kidnapped by vigilantes, forced to run the gauntlet, and tortured.  In the face of this treatment, the Wobblies filled the jails and flooded the city with 5,000 people in resistance to the ban.  While the right to protest and public assembly was eventually won, the Free Speech Fight stands as a grim reminder that there will always be those who will resort to intimidation and violence when reason fails them.

Today, the assault on labor has taken the form of dubious ballot measures funded by corporate interests, affluent right-wingers, and vigilantes in loafers and business suits armed with unlimited cash thanks to the Citizens United decision.  But, after the recent failure of several reactionary efforts,  (such as Carl DeMaio’s last initiative drive and the ill-fated San Diegans for Greater Schools’ attempt at coup by ballot measure), a new form of vigilantism has raised its ugly head.  Recently, several activists involved in “decline to sign” activity urging voters not to sign the anti-labor petitions (see Wisconsin of the West, parts 1-3) have been threatened and followed home by thugs.  People have been told “I know where you live” and “I know what your children had for breakfast this morning.”  They have been digging through people’s garbage to find dirt on them, looking for anything to soil their reputations.  Those threatened have not just been labor activists but citizen volunteers, students, and young women being told they were “being watched” by men who tailed their cars as they left the storefront or campus.  In the most startling example, rocks were hurled through the window of Lorena Gonzalez’s home.

If the police ever arrest these assailants they will most certainly be minor players, underlings, or fringe characters.  The companies that pay their employees to misrepresent the issues or lie for signatures will, of course, deny any knowledge of the more disturbing criminal behavior. They will have plausible deniability, as will the people who funded the anti-pension initiative or the other anti-worker measures.  But those of us who know our history well understand that the likes of Carl DeMaio and his friends in the mean-spirited right are in the shadows behind the thugs, smirking and doling out money for San Diego’s new vigilantes just like the Robber Barons of old.  They are out to silence working people, period–by any means necessary.  While the level of violence is not yet at the level of the Free Speech fight of old, the vicious vigilante impulse is still, sadly, alive and well.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar doug porter August 15, 2011 at 10:01 am

thank you for putting our modern day vigilantes into a historical context. in the 1960’s and 70’s those of us who worked in the underground press and antiwar movements were subjected to regular threats, acts of vandalism and even terrorism while the local authorities stood by and smirked that we were just doing these things to ourselves to gain sympathy. Even today, there are groups working for immigrants rights that operate out of unmarked storefronts, because they know that attracting attention to themselves will result in threats, vandalism and harassment from right wingers of the nativist persuasion. And then there are the videos of right wing goons harassing Rep. Filner after he was victorious in the last election….(For that reason, there may well not be any more post election public gatherings in the future….)


avatar Marilyn Steber August 16, 2011 at 10:25 am

Yes, sadly, those days are Not behind us. I have bumper stickers on my car that offend certain people on the road. I have been harrassed on the freeways by a man with a marine corps sticker, another in a big a** pickup with a woman in the passenger seat gesturing and yelling etc. If one is brave-foolish enough to have a sticker on their car, it can be expected.
ps they are still there.


avatar Frank Gormlie August 16, 2011 at 12:30 pm

Marilyn – what did the bumperstickers say? BTW, have you checked out my post on bumperstickers?


avatar john December 14, 2011 at 4:06 pm

“Baby on board”?


avatar Goatskull January 20, 2012 at 1:54 pm

It’s happened to me. Back in ’98 I had a vote yes on Prop. B (The Rural Heritage and Watershed Initiative) sticker on my truck. I was driving through Campo to visit some friends of my wife at the time and a bigger truck was tailgating me screaming and yelling about my sticker and eventually made contact with my vehicle and ultimately I was forced off the road (Old HWY 94), and then the other vehicle just sped off. Unfortunately, this is a risk of having controversial political stickers on one’s vehicle, especially if the stickers are expressing a liberal viewpoint.


avatar 37 ways August 15, 2011 at 11:20 am

Awesome! Thanks for the history lesson!


avatar Steve Trunk August 15, 2011 at 12:29 pm

So the Union-Trib’s support of the right wing and their anti-worker stance have some pretty deep roots. Of course now with the Internet, the UT editorial staff doesn’t have to blatantly call for the assassination of union activists, the readers do that for them.


avatar Dan December 14, 2011 at 2:49 pm

Stumbled upon this looking up some history on Spreckels. With all the schools and buildings named after this goon you’d think he was a saint, but he seems to be in the same league as Henry Frick. Anyway, wonder how many San Diegans know about the free speech fight, probably next to none since labor history in general is more or less ignored, let alone local history. It would be great if some group could organize an event to commemorate it with a soap box, fiery speeches and radical signs. Bet it would get news coverage and educate locals about their history.


avatar ken keegan January 20, 2012 at 12:54 pm

Thank you, O.B. Rag1 You make me proud… and I will return someday (when ever I move from Santa Cruz) to the town that gave me my start. Hopefully, San Diego will realize that Ocean Beach is the cradle of freedom in the city and recognize the great contributions of the little town “that could”. Absolutely, positively.


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