One Hundred Years and Counting of the Free Speech Movement in San Diego

by on February 9, 2012 · 4 comments

in Civil Rights, Organizing, San Diego

Lorena Gonzalez - head of the San Diego Labor Council - up on a soapbox and speaking about the commemoration of the Free Speech Fight - drawing parallels with today's experiences by the Occupy San Diego movement with current day police. Photo by Marcia Patt.

5th and E Street. The Exact Corner Where It All Started Is Site of the 100th Year Commemoration of the Free Speech Fight – And It’s Still Going On

By Nadin Abbott / Special to the OB Rag / February 9, 2012

Last night members of Labor, Occupy Women San Diego, and San Diego Occupy celebrated the hundred years of the Free Speech Movement at 5th and E by recreating some of the events that happened a hundred years ago. There were plenty of soap boxes where speakers stood and gave speeches on the nature of the anniversary, and the state of Free Speech today. At the height of the event there were about two hundred people at the corner listening to Wobbly music, and speeches by activists.

(EDITOR: The event was marred by the arrest and citation of Damien Tyrone, a union activist, for apparently not moving fast enough when police cleared the intersection after about an hour of speeches and music.)

Union presence was strong, with members of the Laborer Union, the AIFT, the Teamsters, the UFCW, the Building Trades, the Boiler Trades. the Letter Carriers, the Machinist Union, and watching everybody’s safety, the Police Officers Association. The latter closed traffic and made sure things staid safe for all.

According to Bobby Pineda, President of the Laborers Local 89, they came to support free speech. They believe it is critical to all.

Once Lorena Gonzales of the Central Labor Council got started, by stepping on a Soap Box, built by local Union Carpenters, she told the assembled crowd “we are here because a right wing newspaper owner got his lackeys at the city council to stop those who at this corner told people to organize.” At her question whether this sounded familiar, she got a quick and loud answer of “yes!”

Lorena Gonzales also pointed out that tonight the officers were helpful, by blocking traffic so they could speak in the middle of the street. A hundred years ago San Diego Police did not act in such a manner and instead arrested people for exercising their right to free speech. Though some things have not changed, as most of the owners of the Gaslamp Quarter in San Diego are members of the National Restaurant Association and still are against labor organizing, just as their predecessors were a hundred years ago.

One of the participants – Judy Forman of the Big Kitchen – stood on a box after some music, and started reading from Emma Goldman, an anarchist activist who a hundred years ago was kicked from San Diego, for being too radical. As Emma Goldman put it a hundred years ago, “It is organized violence at the top that begets individual violence at the bottom.” She also said something else that applies today, since we do have a social movement in our mist. “I believe in process, not in a finality.”

Jim Miller of the AFT is fired up. Photo by Marcia Patt.

Jim Miller of the AFT Local 31 gave a fiery speech reminding people of the role of unions and closed with a plea, in the Wobbly tradition… “Fellow workers and friends, it is time to join the big union.” He also had petitions for the Millionaires Tax Petition, that were circulated among the crowd.

Rainey Reitman - great-granddaughter of Ben Reitman. Photo by Marcia Patt.

Rainey Reitman from the Electronic Frontier Foundation reminded the crowd that a hundred years ago women went to jail, six months in prison, for speaking about abortions. She told the crowd about the treatment Ben Reitman – her great-grandfather – suffered at the hands of the city elite. He was arrested the night he arrived in San Diego, and driven to the desert. As a member of the crowd reminded us, he was also sodomized by those who did take him away with his own walking cane.  He was then branded with the “IWW” initials on his buttocks. And “while he left San Diego that day, he went to have a long life as a free speech activist.”

Rainey explained that the Electronic Free Speech Foundation fights “for our rights to be on the web. And they were behind the fight against SOPA. It takes the people to keep the fight going. And they are trying to pass ordinances to criminalize free speech, not just in San Diego, but also at the national level.”

Kevin Keenan, Executive Director of the ACLU went next. He reminded us that back a hundred years ago “free speech was as valuable as the paper it was written on. You could be locked up for talking about talking about birth control, just as Margaret Sanger was. You could be locked up, as Upton Sinclair was, just for reading the First Amendment, as we are about to do.” He reminded us that the fight has not stopped, and that it continues. We finally ended up repeating the First Amendment. Virginia, from the Shipbuilders trade took off where Mr. Keenan left off, reminding us that she wakes up to fight every day, and fight for justice at the work place. Finally James Bartilli, an Occupier and Graduate Student in History at USD, read from the historical accounts of those caught in the Free Speech movement in 1912.

It is clear that the fight has not stopped. Indeed, due to some of what has happened over the last few months over the Occupy San Diego movement, we do have, ironically, come back to the same fight over free speech. Any rights we have, need to be asserted every generation.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Nadin Abbott February 9, 2012 at 4:53 pm

Only down side, is I am tired!

It was one of the coolest, if chaotic, events I have attended in a long time.


Lois February 9, 2012 at 5:36 pm

I totally agree. But tell me about the chaos.


Lois February 9, 2012 at 7:12 pm

Doug. We want you to feel better. Hear?


Shelly Schwartlander February 12, 2012 at 5:33 pm

Free Speech event on Wednesday was great and felt good. Great info from Occupy, Lorena(?) G. and Ms. Portman who read stuff of Emma Goldman’s that is so timely even now. Music was fine too. Too bad there was an arrest. I guess police only allowed about two hours free speech in the street. I’m surprised noboty from Hollywood Hustler appeared. Larry Flynt is such a proponent for free speech and his store is right near there. I bet he’d have attended if he’d known or would have sent somebody. He did a good thing and is still reporting, I saw him on an interview recently and he’s trying hard to find THE dirt on GOP candidates.


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