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The San Diego Free Speech Incident

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I.W.W. logo
"Join the One Big Union"
CONTEXT: The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a militant labor union that sought to organize all workers regardless of their level of skill into "One Big Union" to foster workers' control of industries, was prevented from organizing in many cities. Local governments passed ordinances denying IWW leaders the right to speak in public places. In San Diego in 1912, the union held a mass public rally to challenge the ordinances. In the first week 150 "Wobblies," (the popular name for members of the IWW) were jailed. Private vigilante groups terrorized IWW members and sympathizers, and drove them out of town. Emma Goldman and her road manager, Ben Reitman, joined the San Diego free speech fight.

Excerpt from Living My Life
by Emma Goldman
(Volume 1, pp. 494-501)

Vigilante activity in San Diego

When I arrived with Ben [Reitman] in Los Angeles in April [1912], San Diego was in the grip of a veritable civil war. The patriots, known as Vigilantes, had converted the city into a battle-field. They beat, clubbed, and killed men and women who still believed in their constitutional rights. Hundreds of them had come to San Diego from every part of the United States to participate in the campaign. They travelled in box cars, on the bumpers, on the roofs of trains, every moment in danger of their lives, yet sustained by the holy quest for freedom of speech, for which their comrades were already filling the jails.

The Vigilantes raided the I.W.W. headquarters, broke up the furniture, and arrested a large number of men found there. They were taken out to Sorrento to a spot where a flag-pole had been erected. There the I.W.W.'s were forced to kneel, kiss the flag, and sing the national anthem. As an incentive to quicker action one of the Vigilantes would slap them on the back, which was the signal for a general beating. After these proceedings the men were loaded into automobiles and sent to San Onofre, near the county line, placed in a cattle-pen with armed guards over them, and kept without food or drink for eighteen hours. The following morning they were taken out in groups of five and compelled to run the gauntlet. As they passed between the double line of Vigilantes, they were belaboured with clubs and blackjacks. Then the flag-kissing episode was repeated, after which they were told to "hike" up the track and never come back. They reached Los Angeles after a tramp of several days, sore, hungry, penniless, and in deplorable physical condition.

In this struggle, in which the local police were on the side of the Vigilantes, several I.W.W. men lost their lives. The most brutal murder was that of Joseph Mikolasek, who died on May 7. He was one of the many rebels who had attempted to fill the gap caused by the arrest of their speakers. When he ascended the platform, he was assaulted by the police. With difficulty he dragged himself to the socialist headquarters, and thence home. He was followed by detectives, who attacked him in his house. One officer fired and severely wounded him. In self-defence Mikolasek had picked up an ax, but his body was riddled with bullets before he had a chance to lift it against his assailants.

Mother Earth cover
"Patriotism in Action"
June, 1912

I go to lecture in San Diego...

On every tour to the Coast I had lectured in San Diego. This time we were also planning meetings there after the close of our Los Angeles engagements. Reports from San Diego and the arrival of scores of wounded Vigilante victims decided us to go at once. Especially after the killing of Mikolasek we felt it imperative to take up the free-speech fight waged there. First, however, it was necessary to organize relief for the destitute boys who had escaped their tormentors and had reached us alive. With the help of a group of women we organized a feeding-station at the I.W.W. headquarters. We raised funds at my meetings and collected clothing and food-stuffs from sympathetic store-keepers.

San Diego was not content with the murder of Mikolasek; it would not permit him even to be buried in the city. We therefore had his body shipped to Los Angeles, and prepared a public demonstration in his honour. Joseph Mikolasek had been obscure and unknown in life, but he grew to country-wide stature in his death. Even the police of the city were impressed by the size, dignity, and grief of the masses that followed his remains to the crematorium.

Some comrades in San Diego had undertaken to arrange a meeting, and I chose a subject which seemed to express the situation best--Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People.

...and am warmly greeted on my arrival

On our arrival we found a dense crowd at the station. It did not occur to me that the reception was intended for us; I thought that some State official was being expected. We were to be met by our friends Mr. and Mrs. E. E. Kirk, but they were nowhere to be seen, and Ben suggested that we go to the U.S. Grant Hotel. We passed unobserved and got into the hotel autobus. It was hot and stuffy inside and we climbed up on top. We had barely taken our seats when someone shouted: "Here she is, here's the Goldman woman!" At once the cry was taken up by the crowd. Fashionably dressed women stood up in their cars screaming: "We want that anarchist murderess!" In an instant there was a rush for the autobus, hands reaching up to pull me down. With unusual presence of mind, the chauffeur started the car at full speed, scattering the crowd in all directions.

At the hotel we met with no objections. We registered and were shown to our rooms. Everything seemed normal. Mr. and Mrs. Kirk called to see us, and we quietly discussed final arrangements for our meeting. In the afternoon the head clerk came to announce that the Vigilantes had insisted on looking over the hotel register to secure the number of our rooms; he would therefore have to transfer us to another part of the house. We were taken on the top floor and assigned to a large suite. Later on, Mr. Holmes, the hotel manager, paid us a visit. We were perfectly safe under his roof, he assured us, but he could not permit us to go down for our meals or leave our rooms. He would have to keep us locked in. I protested that the U.S. Grant Hotel was not a prison. He replied that he could not keep us incarcerated against our will, but that, as long as we remained the guests of the house, we should have to submit to his arrangement for our safety. "The Vigilantes are in an ugly mood," he warned us; "they are determined not to let you speak and to drive you both out of town." He urged us to leave of our own account and volunteered to escort us. He was a kindly man and we appreciated his offer, but we had to refuse it.

Mr. Holmes had barely left when I was called on the telephone. The speaker said that his name was Edwards, that he was at the head of the local Conservatory of Music, and that he had just read in the papers that our hall-keeper had backed out. He offered us the recital hall of the conservatory. "San Diego still seems to have some brave men," I said to the mysterious person at the other end of the telephone, and I invited him to come to see me to talk over his plan. Before long a fine-looking man of about twenty-seven called. In the course of our conversation I pointed out to him that I might cause him trouble by speaking in his place. He replied that he did not mind; he was an anarchist in art and he believed in free speech. If I were willing to take a chance, so was he. We decided to await developments.

Towards evening a bedlam of auto horns and whistles filled the street. "The Vigilantes!" Ben cried. There was a knock at the door, and Mr. Holmes came in, accompanied by two other men. I was wanted downstairs by the city authorities, they informed me. Ben sensed danger and insisted that I ask them to send the visitors up. It seemed timid to me. It was early evening and we were in the principal hotel of the city. What could happen to us? I went with Mr. Holmes, Ben accompanying us. Downstairs we were ushered into a room where we found seven men standing in a semicircle. We were asked to sit down and wait for the Chief of Police, who arrived before long. "Please come with me," he addressed me; "the Mayor and other officials are awaiting you next door." We got up to follow, but, turning to Ben, the Chief said: "You are not wanted, doctor. Better wait here."

I entered a room filled with men. The window-blinds were partly drawn, but the large electric street light in front disclosed an agitated mass below. The Mayor approached me. "You hear that mob," he said, indicating the street; "they mean business. They want to get you and Reitman out of the hotel, even if they have to take you by force. We cannot guarantee anything. If you consent to leave, we will give you protection and get you safely out of town."

"That's very nice of you," I replied, "but why don't you disperse the crowd? Why don't you use the same measures against these people that you have against the free-speech fighters? Your ordinance makes it a crime to gather in the business districts. Hundreds of I.W.W.'s, anarchists, socialists, and trade-union men have been clubbed and arrested, and some even killed, for this offence. Yet you allow the Vigilante mob to congregate in the busiest part of the town and obstruct traffic. All you have to do is to disperse these law-breakers."

"We can't do it," he said abruptly; "These people are in a dangerous mood, and your presence makes things worse."

"Very well, then, let me speak to the crowd," I suggested. "I could do it from a window here. I have faced infuriated men before and I have always been able to pacify them."

The Mayor refused.

"I have never accepted protection from the police," I then said, "and I do not intend to do so now. I charge all of you men here with being in league with the Vigilantes."

Thereupon the officials declared that matters would have to take their course, and that I should have only myself to blame if anything happened.

Los Angeles Times article
The Tarred Anarchist,
Comes In"
May 16, 1912

Ben is abducted

The interview at an end, I went to call Ben. The room I had left him in was locked. I became alarmed and pounded on the door. There was no answer. The noise I made brought a hotel clerk. He unlocked the door, but no one was there. I ran back to the other room and met the Chief, who was just coming out.

"Where is Reitman?" I demanded. "What have you done with him? If any harm comes to him, you will pay for it if I have to do it with my own hands."

"How should I know?" he replied gruffly.

Mr. Holmes was not in his office, and no one would tell me what had become of Ben Reitman. In consternation I returned to my room. Ben did not appear. In dismay I paced the floor, unable to decide what steps to take or whom to approach to help me find Ben. I could not call any person I knew in the city without endangering his safety, least of all Mr. Kirk; he was already under indictment in connexion with the free-speech fight. It had been brave of him and his wife to meet us; it was sure to aggravate his situation. The circumstance that the Kirks did not return as they had promised proved that they were being kept away.

I felt helpless. Time dragged on, and at midnight I dozed off from sheer fatigue. I dreamed of Ben, bound and gagged, his hands groping for me. I struggled to reach him and woke up with a scream, bathed in sweat. There were voices and loud knocking at my door. When I opened, the house detective and another man stepped in. Reitman was safe, they told me. I looked at them in a daze, hardly grasping their meaning. Ben had been taken out by the Vigilantes, they explained, but no harm had come to him. They had only put him on a train for Los Angeles. I did not believe the detective, but the other man looked honest. He reiterated that he had been given absolute assurance that Reitman was safe.

Mr. Holmes came in. He corroborated the man and begged me to consent to leave. There was no object in my remaining any longer in town, he urged. I would not be allowed to lecture and I was only endangering his own position. He hoped I would not take undue advantage because I was a woman. If I remained, the Vigilantes would drive me out of town anyhow.

Mr. Holmes seemed genuinely concerned. I knew there was no chance of holding a meeting. Now that Ben was safe, there was no sense in harassing Mr. Holmes any further. I consented to leave, planning to take the Owl, the 2:45 A.M train, for Los Angeles. I called for a taxi and drove to the station. The town was asleep, the streets deserted.

I had just purchased my ticket and was walking towards the Pullman car when I caught the sound of approaching autos--the fearful sound I had first heard at the station and later at the hotel. The Vigilantes, of course.

"Hurry, hurry!" someone cried; "get in quick!"

Before I had time to make another step, I was picked up, carried to the train, and literally thrown into the compartment. The blinds were pulled down and I was locked in. The Vigilantes had arrived and were rushing up and down the platform, shouting and trying to board the train. The crew was on guard, refusing to let them on. There was mad yelling and cursing--hideous and terrifying moments till at last the train pulled out.

We stopped at innumerable stations. Each time I peered out eagerly in the hope that Ben might be waiting to join me. But there was no sign of him. When I reached my apartment in Los Angeles, he was not there. The U.S. Grant Hotel men had lied in order to get me out of town! . . .

At ten o'clock I was called on the long-distance phone. A strange voice informed me that Dr. Reitman was boarding the train for Los Angeles and that he would arrive in the late afternoon. "His friends should bring a stretcher to the station." "Is he alive?" I shouted into the receiver. "Are you telling the truth? Is he alive?" I listened breathlessly, but there was no response.

The hours dragged on as if the day would never pass. The wait at the station was more excruciating still. At last the train pulled in. Ben lay in a rear car, all huddled up. He was in blue overalls, his face deathly pale, a terrified look in his eyes. His hat was gone, and his hair was sticky with tar. At the sight of me he cried: "Oh, Mommy, I'm with you at last! Take me away, take me home!"

The newspaper men besieged him with questions, but he was too exhausted to speak. I begged them to leave him alone and to call later at my apartment.

While helping him to undress, I was horrified to see that his body was a mass of bruises covered with blotches of tar. The letters I.W.W. were burned into his flesh. Ben could not speak; only his eyes tried to convey what he had passed through. After partaking of some nourishment and sleeping several hours, he regained a little strength. In the presence of a number of friends and reporters he told us what had happened to him.

Ben relates details of his torture

"When Emma and the hotel manager left the office to go into another room," Ben related, "I remained alone with seven men. As soon as the door was closed, they drew out revolvers. `If you utter a sound or make a move, we'll kill you,' they threatened. Then they gathered around me. One man grabbed my right arm, another the left; a third took hold of the front of my coat, another of the back, and I was led out into the corridor, down the elevator to the ground floor of the hotel, and out into the street past a uniformed policeman, and then thrown into an automobile. When the mob saw me, they set up a howl. The auto went slowly down the main street and was joined by another one containing several persons who looked like business men. This was about half past ten in the evening. The twenty-mile ride was frightful. As soon as we got out of town, they began kicking and beating me. They took turns at pulling my long hair and they stuck their fingers into my eyes and nose. "We could tear your guts out," they said, "but we promised the Chief of Police not to kill you. We are responsible men, property-owners, and the police are on our side." When we reached the county line, the auto stopped at a deserted spot. The men formed a ring and told me to undress. They tore my clothes off. They knocked me down, and when I lay naked on the ground, they kicked and beat me until I was almost insensible. With a lighted cigar they burned the letters I.W.W. on my buttocks; then they poured a can of tar over my head and, in the absence of feathers, rubbed sage-brush on my body. One of them attempted to push a cane into my rectum. Another twisted my testicles. They forced me to kiss the flag and sing The Star Spangled Banner. When they tired of the fun, they gave me my underwear for fear we should meet any women. They also gave me back my vest, in order that I might carry my money, railroad ticket, and watch. The rest of my clothes they kept. I was ordered to make a speech, and then they commanded me to run the gauntlet. The Vigilantes lined up, and as I ran past them, each one gave me a blow or a kick. Then they let me go."

Questions on the San Diego Free Speech Incident:
  1. Describe the events in the San Diego incident.

  2. Summarize the mayor's position and Goldman's position on her free speech rights in San Diego. How were these viewpoints in conflict with each other?

  3. Did the mayor and town authority behave responsibly in this situation?

  4. What happened to Ben Reitman according to the Los Angeles Times report?

  5. What was the reporter's opinion of Reitman, Goldman and the anarchists? How do you know?

  6. How was the San Diego incident portrayed on the cover of Mother Earth? What is happening in the drawing? Who are the men? What symbols are used to make a political point? What does the title mean?

General Questions on This Exhibit:
  1. Do you think criticism of American government is unpatriotic? Why?

  2. What, in your opinion, are the most controversial issues of the day? Which elicit the most violent responses?

  3. What price might a person pay when they advocate a cause that falls outside of the "mainstream"?

  4. What groups in America's past have used vigilantism to achieve their goals? What groups practice vigilantism in today's society?

  5. When and why do you think groups resort to vigilante activities?

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