By Paul Gilmore
“Every city is full of ghosts, and learning to see some of them is one of the arts of becoming a true local.”—Rebecca Solnit
Why in the last couple of months have thousands of people throughout the United States demonstrated and been arrested and beaten? Why Occupy Wall Street? Why Occupy Oakland? Why Occupy Fresno?
Perhaps the following quote might offer some idea of an answer:
One cause, perhaps the greatest, is this: Enormous wealth in the hands of a few—produced by the hands of toil. The government at Washington was being controlled in the interests of a comparative few…In their maddened rage for wealth they were prostituting the machinery of government for private ends. What is the meaning of this great revolution through which we are passing? It is a protest against the rich becoming richer at the expense of the common people. The people have risen up and swept the decks. The few were getting enormously rich at the expense of the common people…Wealth is going into the hands of the rich, and the men who made possible the great accumulations of the rich have only a dog’s portion thrown them.
Here we have a clear statement of the basic injustices that resonate with millions and have inspired thousands of demonstrators to participate in occupations in support of the 99%. Who said it? Well, I must confess that a ghost spoke these words to me. It’s the ghost of Reverend Thomas Boyd, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church right here in Fresno. The ghost is from Dec. 11, 1910.
Perhaps I should back up and explain a little bit. Every community, whether a small town, a huge metropolis or a great nation, often reveals more about itself not by what it celebrates, but by what it chooses to forget. It’s hard work to forget.
That which a community discards and buries in the rubble of its past has a way of returning, ghost-like. And that’s what happened the other day when I received the visit from Reverend Boyd. I didn’t invite him. Occupy Fresno did. They invited not only the reverend, but a whole mob of Wobblies and their Fresno Free Speech fight of 1910‒1911 into the here-and-now. You see, present-day events sometimes cure our collective amnesia and give new importance to what seems like the distant, trivial past.
The history of the Fresno Free Speech Fight has cropped up from time to time but mostly it has remained buried, part of the forgotten counter-history of our supposedly conservative Valley. Most of my students have never heard of it. It is, I think, a dangerous history—dangerous to those who defend the status quo. It shows what organized people can do to challenge those ills identified above.
So. What happened?
Simply, in 1910, the Wobblies came to town and demanded the right to speak, to advocate on behalf of their beliefs and to organize. The powers-that-be in Fresno said no.
Wobblies are members of the Industrial Workers of the World, or the IWW. Formed in 1905, the IWW called for radical change in the industrial system. Their militant rhetoric of class conflict was born in the history of brutal miners’ strikes throughout the west in the previous decade. From these bitter strikes, in which the forces of the government had sided with the mine owners, the IWW developed a theory of politics that eschewed the “proper channels” and focused on direct action to get their demands.
The IWW denounced the conservative language and tactics of their union counterparts in the American Federation of Labor (AFL). And where the AFL organized according to trade or skill, the IWW called for industrial unionism—every worker, skilled or unskilled, should fight together in One Big Union. Where the AFL accepted the capitalist system, demanding a fair deal within it, the IWW offered a radically romantic vision in which the workers, through a general strike, would abolish wages, dump the bosses and take control of the economy.
In Fresno, where any union was suspicious, the Wobblies were beyond the pale. The Wobblies organized among the poorest members of the working class—those lumberjacks and miners, immigrant workers, day laborers and agricultural workers who were totally ignored by the mainstream unions and political parties. And as if their radicalism weren’t enough, the Wobblies also accepted any worker. At a time when virulent racism was the norm, when anti-Chinese riots were not unusual, the IWW was the only union that accepted African-Americans, Mexicans, Filipinos, Japanese and even the hated Chinese as equals with Whites.
So when organizer Frank Little came to Fresno in 1910 to breathe some life into IWW Local 66, no one rolled out the red carpet for him. Little was trying to organize the bindle stiffs, the homeless migrant farm workers who, with their bedding on their backs, moved up and down the Valley with the seasons.
One effective method of organizing was soapbox speeches in parks and on downtown street corners, where the poor workers would often gather. Little and other Wobblies gathered and spoke at Mariposa and I. As Fresno’s IWW grew, that corner began to draw the attention of the authorities. Though Mayor Chester Rowell was a pioneering California reformer—one of the most significant founders of the California Progressive movement—he had no sympathy for the IWW. Rowell, police chief William Shaw and the city’s leaders wanted these rabble-rousers out of town.
The confrontation began in the spring of 1910 when the IWW stopped work on a dam just outside of the city. The police arrested IWW organizers for speaking, banned further street meetings and ordered that those without work would be arrested for vagrancy. Through the summer the situation escalated, with Little himself arrested and jailed.
In October, Shaw again jailed Little and several more Wobblies for speaking on the corner. It looked for a while there in the fall of 1910 that they would be run out of town. But they held on, and as fall moved into winter, a ragtag army of Wobbly supporters throughout the West were converging to support what was now the Fresno Free Speech fight.
The Wobblies, jailed for speaking in public, offered the perfectly reasonable defense that there was no law against public speaking in Fresno. It turns out that Shaw was making up the law as he went, giving permits to speak publicly and revoking them when he felt that the words were the wrong ones—like words complaining about Shaw. Little pointed this out to a judge and was even acquitted.
But this didn’t stop the authorities in Fresno. They kept arresting the free speech fighters for vagrancy. According to the Fresno Morning Republican, the Wobblies were a bunch of bums who couldn’t deliver a speech anyway. They were fake “workers,” a band of filthy ne’er-do-wells and petty thieves. On Dec. 9, 1910, they were attacked by a vigilante mob, eliciting Reverend Boyd’s attempt to at least understand the IWW’s grievances. But though the pastor offered understanding of the cause, he still condemned the Wobblies. It was clear that free speech would have to be won by the IWW alone.
By late December, with 80 Wobblies in jail, the City Council finally passed a law banning outdoor meetings.
In response, the Wobblies pioneered some of the civil disobedience tactics of more recent movements and the Occupy people today. The Wobblies demanded jury trials, a tactic that was promptly condemned by the Fresno authorities, and efforts began to jettison this centuries-old right.
In the jail, Little chose solitary rather than work for his jailers breaking rocks. Others joined him. They were given short rations and dark cells. Some refused to defend themselves in court, offering a silent rebuke to a system that would deny the right to speak. Others sang Wobbly songs in prison, keeping up such a racket that their jailers called in the fire department to assault them with high pressure water in the winter cold. The tortured Wobblies kept up their spirits though, fashioning a sign in their flooded prison: “No duck shooting on this lake.”
And still the Wobblies came, mostly from the Northwest—a contingent from Portland was forced to hoof it over the mountains and into California after being removed from the trains. Once here, they set up makeshift encampments, first on Belmont, then Olive Avenue, then to the Kings River and Herndon. They kept up their fight all winter.
Finally, in March 1911, Fresno’s leaders capitulated. Their jail, courts and town jammed with agitators, they rescinded the ordinance and released the Wobblies. The Fresno Free Speech fight was won.
It would seem that the Fresno Free Speech fight left no real legacy. Fresno’s IWW office was destroyed by the “authorities” unleashed by President Woodrow Wilson in the hysteria surrounding World War I—the same hysteria that hanged Little at the end of a pro-war lynch mob’s rope in Butte, Mont. And in 1919, the state of California passed the Criminal Syndicalism Act, a far-reaching attack on civil liberties that was used for decades to imprison labor organizers for the crime of thought.
But legacies are decided by people in the present—they are made by what people do. And a few people are making that legacy again down at Courthouse Park. As the Occupy Fresno folks were being arrested over the last couple of weeks, they were also waking up ghosts that have been buried for a century but have now returned to haunt the 1%.
Paul Gilmore teaches history at Fresno City College. Contact him at email@example.com.