History Lesson: Wobblies Free Speech Fights

(2 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

  It was bound to happen sooner or later – somebody realized that exercising free speech in this country can get you arrested.

 Two local attorneys and the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee filed a lawsuit in federal court Monday morning to stop nightly arrests of Occupy Nashville protesters on grounds that the state is violating their First Amendment rights…

  “Here, the government has sought impermissibly to prohibit the political speech at issue rather than enforcing the criminal law,” the motion for a temporary restraining order states.

 On various levels, this crushing of unpopular speech is being repeated all over the country. Some are already comparing the OWS to the Free Speech Movement of the 60’s.

 However, I think the current battle over the right of free speech more resembles a forgotten legacy in American history from a century ago. When leftists with unpopular political ideas willingly allowed themselves to be arrested in the defense of freedom.

  When Mario Savio said in his famous speech in 1964 about putting “your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all,” he was talking about what a group of leftists actually did 54 years earlier. While his speech was spectacular, his idea was not original.

  Wednesday marks the 102 Anniversary of the Spokane Free Speech Fight.

 On November 2, 1909, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies) formally begins the Spokane free-speech fight. This is a civil disobedience action mounted in public defiance of a Spokane City Council ordinance banning speaking on the streets, an ordinance directed against IWW organizing. On this day, one by one, IWW members mount a soapbox (an overturned crate) and begin speaking, upon which Spokane police yank them off the box and take them to jail. On the first day, 103 Wobblies are arrested, beaten, and incarcerated. Within a month, arrests will mount to 500, including the fiery young Wobbly orator Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.

 By 1909, Stevens Street was a tinderbox of working class discontent.

  The lumber companies were using employment agencies (also known as ‘sharks’) to hire workers. The workers would be charged a dollar to get the job, but with no promise for the duration of work. Thus the employment agencies kicked money back to the lumber companies so that workers would be fired as soon as a new batch were hired. It was free market corruption.

 The nature of these employment agencies made rapid turnover of the workforce more profitable. A number of the employment agencies entered into ‘agreements’ with the employers to maintain a constant status of ‘one crew coming, one working and one going’. Workers often found themselves fired after a single day.

Stevens Street

 I.W.W. organizer James H. Walsh came to Spokane in 1908 to find Stevens Street (a.k.a. Slave Street) teaming with thousands of angry men. At one point on January 18, 1909, Walsh personally stopped a worker riot with an appeal to reason.

 Hurling rocks and chunks of ice through the windows of the Red Cross Employment Agency, 224 Stevens St., several members of a noisy mob of between 2,000 and 3,000 idle men were about to attempt to wreck the place about 6 o’clock last evening, when James H. Walsh, organizer of the IWW, mounted a chair and pacified the multitude. In the opinion of the police had it not been for the intervention of Walsh, a riot would surely have followed, as the rabble was worked up to such a pitch that its members would have readily attempted violence. Walsh discouraged violence and summoned all members of the IWW to their hall at the rear of 312 Front Ave. The police dispersed the rest… At the hall Walsh warned the crowd against an outbreak. “There were a lot of hired Pinkertons in that crowd,” he said. “All they wanted you fellows to do was to start something and then they would have an excuse for shooting you down or smashing your heads in… You can gain nothing by resorting to mob rule.”

 – Spokesman-Review

Walsh and other IWW members began speaking on street corners.

 Their message? “Don’t buy jobs.”

 The workers began to listen, and that threatened the employment agencies and hurt their business.

In response, they pressured the corrupt city government to pass a law against political speech on city streets. Spokane Mayor N. S. Pratt, a prominent wholesale lumberman, did not object.

  The law was later amended to make an exception for the Salvation Army (known to the Wobblies as the Starvation Army).

 “This is why the Industrial Workers are denied the streets. The ruling class recognizes that the education the I.W.W. is giving the working class, will, in a very short time, put the employer out of business.”

  – November 17th, 1909 Industrial Worker

 In response, the I.W.W. put the word out all over the country: “Wanted-Men to Fill the Jails of Spokane.”

  “Nov. 2, FREE SPEECH DAY-IWW locals will be notified by wire how many men to send if any… Meetings will be orderly and no irregularities of any kind will be tolerated.”

 By the end of the first day the city jail was filled up. The city then converted the dilapidated Franklin School to be a makeshift prison. Within a few days that was filled up too.

  At this point the federal government stepped in…on the side of the people trying to suppress the First Amendment. The War Department made Fort Wright available for local prisoners, thus helping to subsidize local bosses.

 Anyone could speak. Most were arrested immediately so there was no need for talent.

However, when one man mounted the soap box for his turn to be arrested, and all the police were currently busy, all he could think to say was, “Where are the cops?!”

  At this point Elizabeth Flynn chained herself to a lamppost. Later from prison she gave an account of the filthy conditions and accused the sheriff of using the women’s section as a brothel. The Industrial Worker published these accusations. The police tried to suppress the newspaper, but some managed to make it into circulation.

Elizabeth Flynn

 By this point public sympathy had turned to favor the Wobblies. Conservative taxpayer groups were in an uproar about the mounting costs of housing all the non-violent prisoners. Even the local newspapers began favoring the leftists.

 “The constant arrests; the police brutalities; the appearance of men in court matted with blood; the disrepute into which Spokane had fallen in the more enlightened portion of the nation’s press; the widely-known evil practices of the employment sharks; the mounting cost to tax-payers; the boycott on Spokane merchants by men in many camps — all these made it harder for city fathers to continue. Feeling was for the prisoners. On the rare occasion when they were marched through the streets to where they could get a bath, citizens showered them with Bull Durham, apples and oranges”

 On March 4, 1910, the Spokane City Council cried uncle and revoked the ordinance. The I.W.W. was specifically mentioned as having the freedom of assembly.

  Shortly after, all 19 employment agencies had their licenses revoked.


 The I.W.W. was on a roll. They went on to win Free Speech Fights in Missoula, Montana, Kansas City, Missouri, Fresno, California, and Aberdeen, Washington, Duluth, Minnesota, Portland, Oregon, and one extremely lengthy fight in Denver, Colorado in 1913.

  However, when the Wobblies tried the same tactic in San Diego they ran into a group of fascists that simply weren’t going to back down.

  They had been organizing successful strikes and agitating in San Diego since 1910. In response the San Diego Common Council banned all public speaking in a 49-square block area on January 8, 1912. This was the trigger that began a year long Free Speech fight with the Wobblies.

  Wobbblies arrived from all over the state to speak on street corners, where they were arrested. Or if there were too many protestors, then firehoses would be turned on the crowds for the crime of speaking in public.

 “For a full hour hundreds packed themselves in a solid mass around Mrs. Emerson as she stood upon the speakers stand. Bending themselves to the terrific torrent that poured upon them they held their ground until swept from their feet by the irresistible flood.

   An old gray haired woman was knocked down by the direct force of the stream from the hose…A mother was deluged with a babe in her arms.

   An awestruck American patriot wrapped himself in the flag to test its efficacy against police outrage, but he was knocked down and jailed and fined $30.00 for insulting the national emblem.”

 – The Oakland World, 1912

By 1912 the Wobblies were experienced in these free speech fights. The idea was to overwhelm the local court systems so that they were unable to process anything but free speech arrests. It became a war of attrition. The Wobblies suffered the jail time and beatings, while the local government spent money and time in wasteful police enforcement. Eventually the local citizens would yell “Uncle” when they got tired of spending all their tax money on these 1st Amendment arrests. Usually the Wobblies won these fights.

 When the police failed to stop the disobedience in San Diego paramilitary groups were formed. Sometimes vigilantes would be waiting for them to leave prison where they were made to run through double rows of men armed with clubs, whips and guns.

 Emboldened by the support and approval of some of the leading San Diego daily newspapers and its leading commercial bodies, members of the so-called vigilance committee became so reckless in their contempt of the law and for the provisions of the Constitution that, antagonized by his bold and, to them, distasteful, utterances, A. R. Sauer, editor of the SAN DIEGO HERALD, was kidnapped by the so-called vigilantes. Sauer who was on the way home from his office in the evening, before darkness really had fallen, was accosted by a number of men, placed in an auto and hurried out of town. Arrived at the outskirts, the editor was compelled to descend, followed by his captors, who placed a rope about his neck. The other end of the rope was flung over the limb of a tree, and Sauer was hauled clear of the ground. In view of which treatment he was constrained to promise that he would leave San Diego and never return. The threat was made, according to Sauer’s story, that if he divulged the names of his captors he would suffer the penalty of death.

 Sauer returned to San Diego, but never revealed the names of the vigilantes.

 Despite the excesses of the vigilantes, there was no outcry from the middle class of San Diego.

“in this day and land of initiative, referendum and recall there is no excuse for organized disobedience and defiance of the enforcement of law.”

 – Superior Judge Sloane, 1912

 Eventually the vigilantes won. The Free Speech movement had been crushed and the Wobblies were driven from San Diego.


Skip to comment form

    • gjohnsit on November 1, 2011 at 04:59

    Free Speech is something that has to be won in every generation.  

  1. After nearly dissapearing totally at one point, they are one of the few growing and organizing unions these last ten years or so.  They’ll organize all sorts of non-traditional workers, too, and you never needed to be part of an old boys club.


    They were the first I think to support OWS, and they support the Oakland general strike (although I don’t know who they have in Oakland right now)

    • TMC on November 2, 2011 at 09:56

    Occupy Nashville protesters plan for the future

       Occupy Nashville is back and settling in for the long haul.

       Now that a federal judge has ordered the state to stop arresting and ousting the protesters from their encampment every night for violating a state-imposed curfew, tents and protest signs have sprung up on Legislative Plaza once again.

       But this time, protesters say, things will be different.

       “We definitely want to present a much nicer image than before,” said Devin Pena, part of a team working on logistics and security for the group.

       State officials and civil rights attorneys are working on a compromise of their own that would let the Occupy Nashville protests continue even as Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration insists that last week’s 55 arrests – which included a Nashville Scene reporter and an MTSU student journalist – were justified.

       The American Civil Liberties Union and the Haslam administration are trying to develop ground rules meant to maintain sanitary conditions and protect public safety on Legislative Plaza, where protesters first set up an encampment in early October. The rules could be in place before the two sides meet again in federal court Nov. 21.

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