San Diego Free Speech Fights: Then and Now

by on October 31, 2011 · 3 comments

in Civil Disobedience, Civil Rights, Culture, Education, History, Popular, San Diego, Under the Perfect Sun

As we watch the Occupations from New York to San Diego fight for the right to exercise free speech and occupy public space, it is worth noting that we have been here before.  Recently, it was my pleasure to do a small teach-in at Occupy San Diego with the OB Rag’s own Frank Gormlie on the history of civil disobedience in San Diego.  For my part, I outlined the story of the San Diego Free Speech Fight in 1912 when the Industrial Workers of the World and other local labor and community activists struggled against the San Diego’s elite for the right to speak on a soapbox at the corner of 5th and E downtown. As the homepage of the San Diego Free Speech Fight 100 Year Anniversary website notes:

2012 is the 100-year anniversary of the San Diego Free Speech Fight, one of the most important moments in the history of the city of San Diego.  During the winter and spring of 1912, members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and their allies in labor and the community engaged in a pitched battle against a city ordinance that banned public speaking in the area around 5th and E Streets in downtown San Diego.

During the course of this struggle, many were arrested, beaten, and even killed for asserting their rights to public speech and assembly—for the simple right to stand on a soapbox and speak. The response to what started as an organizing drive for the local IWW turned into a national cause to defend the rights of ordinary working people and citizens of all classes to free speech, with thousands of people flooding into San Diego, defying the ban, and filling the jails in protest.

Emma Goldman

The enemies of free speech at the time included many in local government, business, and the press, and free speech fighters were the victims of violence at the hands of the local police as well as torture by vigilantes.  Perhaps the best known incident in the free speech fight was when the famous anarchist, Emma Goldman, came to town and was nearly attacked by a mob at Santa Fe Station before being escorted to the US Grant Hotel, where her lover, Ben Reitman, was kidnapped by vigilantes, driven north, tortured, tarred and feathered and sent to Los Angeles.  This was, perhaps, the most glaring example of how flimsy American “rights” were for those who held unpopular political opinions at the time.

While the repression shut down the soap-boxers at 5th and E temporarily, the right to free speech was eventually restored to San Diegans in 1915 when the ban was overturned and legal picketing was established as a basic right.  Today, anyone who enjoys the right to assemble, protest, and speak in public in San Diego has the Free Speech League of the Progressive Era to thank for fighting to maintain basic rights for all San Diegans.  The legacy of this time lived on in every labor and civil rights fight that followed.

The 100-year anniversary of the San Diego Free Speech Fight is a celebration of the legacy of local labor and civil rights activism and a reminder that if we are not vigilant in the protection of our rights, we can certainly lose them.

For those interested in learning more about this history, the San Diego Free Speech Fight site offers links to original historical documents as well as contemporary accounts of the struggle and links to resources on the IWW, Emma Goldman, and more.  In the Gallery you can see original photos from the fight and you can go to the Links page and listen to recordings of Wobbly songs from the era.

While there will be formal events to celebrate and commemorate the anniversary of the San Diego Free Speech Fight, it could not be more fitting that Occupy San Diego is taking over the streets a century after the IWW came to town.

In a column several weeks ago, I compared the vigilante impulse in San Diego’s past and present with reference to this history.  Now it’s good to see its antidote on display in front of banks, in the Civic Center Plaza, and on the campuses.  I can’t think of a better way to honor the legacy of the Free Speech Fight than to support this battle however you can.

Whatever the fate of OccupySD and Occupy Wall Street, it’s inspiring to see young people, so many of whom have been thrown under the bus by our society in recent years, standing up and speaking out against the murder of their futures.

As I prepare to teach Henry David Thoreau this week to my American Literature class at City College, I’m struck by the fact that some of the young Wobblies on soapboxes as well as some of the folks in the Civic Center, might have both decided against living lives of “quiet desperation” like so many of “the mass of men,” as Thoreau puts it in Walden.

Melissa Vega shows us the wounds inflicted on her by police during her arrest at the Civic Center early Friday morning.

History holds lessons about avoiding factionalism, building a movement to last, thinking carefully about tactics and strategy, but it is the fierce urgency of the present that the young can bring to the old.  So if young activists are met with resistance or disdain, perhaps they should respond with another piece of wisdom from Thoreau:

“The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well? You may say the wisest thing you can, old man — you who have lived seventy years, not without honor of a kind — I hear an irresistible voice which invites me away from all that. One generation abandons the enterprises of another like stranded vessels.”



Call for Artwork for Free Speech Fight Exhibition

For those interested in participating in putting together the central exhibition celebrating the anniversary of the San Diego Free Speech Fight see the following call for submissions from Fred Lonidier, chair of the Free Speech Fight’s Exhibitions subcomittee of the Labor Council’s History Committee:

San Diego Artists,

The San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, AFL-CIO, is organizing a Centennial for the world-renowned Free Speech Fight, which was conducted by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) also known as Wobblies and many local allies.  These struggles occurred in a number of cities around the country but the one in San Diego became the biggest and most notorious.  And the forces for speech and assembly eventually won.

To carry this forward, the Labor Council has constituted a “History Committee” with other groups and individuals in our community and I am Chair of the Culture Subcommittee.  Much of what will happen will fall under “culture” which is why I am reaching out to the art community here.

This is the CLC History Committee Mission Statement

The purpose of our celebration of the 2012 100th anniversary of the free speech movement is to recognize and make broadly known a significant historical event in the history of the labor movement in San Diego.  The “Free Speech” fight by the Industrial Workers of the World and supporters across the country was part of many struggles in our history to affirm the rights of all citizens under our Constitution.  In this case, the central rights were, and are, those of assembly and speech. This struggle left an important legacy for labor, civil rights, women’s rights, and immigrants’ rights activists as well as the free speech rights of all Americans.

Although a number of activities are being planned at the SDCC, USD, UCSD and the streets of San Diego, the only exhibition site will be at the Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park.  The whole Centennial will open with a reception January 6, 2012 at the Centro.  This first call, then, is for artworks dealing in some way specifically with the Free Speech Fight which started off with a City Ordinance in 1912.  Later we will be interested in considering to exhibit art about other local labor, social and political movements up to the current struggles for our democratic rights which followed the Free Speech Fight (such as the “Occupy…” movement).  The exhibition will close February 12, 2012.

There will probably be no commissions nor funds for materials so artists will have to do work for the opportunity to exhibit and because we support this Centennial.  This is pretty much a volunteer effort.  Submissions for our committee to consider must be in by Thursday, Dec. 1 as digital files on a CD or DVD.  The selection committee will notify artists by Dec. 7.  Work accepted must be at the Centro by January 4, 2012.

Mail submission:

Fred Lonidier
UCSD Visual Arts
9500 Gilman Dr.
La Jolla CA 92093-0084

(858) 534-2524

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar herb folks October 31, 2011 at 9:50 am

This is great local reporting, with national implications. Thanks!


avatar Frank Gormlie October 31, 2011 at 1:12 pm

Let’s take soap boxes into the Plaza and exercise freedom of speech. Will the police take the soap boxes?


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