This year, we commemorate the 100-year anniversary of a city ordinance that banned public speaking and assembly in the area around 5th and E Streets in downtown San Diego and the subsequent battle that followed. During the course of this struggle, many people were arrested, beaten and even killed for asserting their rights to simply stand on a soapbox and speak. 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 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.
Please join us at the final big event in the San Diego Free Speech Fight 100-year anniversary, which will be this Wednesday, at 6:00 PM at 5th and E downtown, where we will commemorate the events of 1912 at the original site of the 1912 protests with music, performances, speech, and special guests.
It was there, at Heller’s Corner where members of the Industrial Workers of the World stood and tried to organize, perhaps citing their creed:
The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.
Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth!
When the city responded by banning free speech and singing in a 49 square block area of the Stingaree, the Wobblies and their allies flooded San Diego with thousands of protesters and filled the jails. The result was a long and bloody struggle between the powers that be and those who believed, whether they were in the IWW or not, that anyone had the right to free speech and public assembly. As Agnes Smedley remembered, it was war in the streets:
The opponents of free speech were like the land speculators I had known. . . I heard my friends called unspeakable names, saw them imprisoned and beaten, and streams of water from fire hoses turned upon their meetings. I escaped arrest, but the fight released much of the energy dammed up within me . . . It was in this struggle that I felt the touch of a policeman for the first time.
Before me in a small group, two policemen walked deliberately pushing against a workingman who walked peacefully with his hands in his pockets. One of the policemen shoved him until he was hurled against the other policemen; the second policeman then grabbed him by the collar and, shouting that he was attacking an officer of the law, knocked him to the pavement. “That’s a lie!” I screamed, horrified, thinking they would listen to me. “That policeman shoved him . . . I saw him . . . the man had his hands in his pockets.” The policemen were already upon the man blow after blow they beat into his upturned face, and I saw blood spurt from his eyes.”
Despite this brutal treatment and a wave of vigilante violence, the ban on speech was eventually overturned and freedom prevailed, but the heroism of the largely nameless citizens who shed blood and, in some cases, died for the right to free speech, should be remembered.
Be there this Wednesday to hear speeches and music from the period and jump on a soapbox yourself. The event will include music by Gregory Page and the Proles and a special appearance by Rainey Reitman, great granddaughter of Ben Reitman, who came to San Diego with Emma Goldman and was forced to run the gauntlet by the vigilantes. Her visit here, 100-years later, is an exemplary, redemptive moment in San Diego’s history.
So come on out to 5th and E downtown this Wednesday, bring a flashlight, a long memory, and your voice!