Today marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the Spokane Free Speech fight, one of the first, and by far, one of the most successful of the Industrial Workers of the World’s campaigns to protect and preserve the right to speak freely, and publicly, about the real conditions of the working class in the United States.
What is a Free Speech Fight? Activist-scholar John Duda explains it quite well in his introduction to the new collection Wanted! Men to Fill the Jails of Spokane: Fighting for Free Speech with the Hobo Agitators of the IWW (published by Charles H. Kerr Company, and distributed by AK Press!):
The premise of the free-speech fight is simple: the bosses would very much like to prevent the I.W.W. message from being spread, so they get the city governments, conveniently in their pocket, to declare it against the law to do so, and they get the police (who of course are also in their pocket) to throw anyone who dares to mount a soapbox in jail. In response, the I.W.W. floods into town, and gives the bosses and their police and their courts and their jails more free speech than they can handle, until they eventually capitulate and the right to speak out on the streets is restored. It’s not precisely an act of symbolic civil disobedience—the point of the free speech fight wasn’t so much to make a point, as it was to throw one’s own body together with hundreds or thousands of your comrades into the gears of the legal and penal machine enforcing injustice, until that machine ground to a halt. It wasn’t a matter just of speaking truth to power as a matter of principle, but speaking it so loudly and so insistently that power had no choice but to concede.
The fight in Spokane, which began on November 2, 1909, wasn’t unique in its methods or in its politics. But it was a victory. These were the glory days of the scrappiest, fightingest, most irrepressible union of workers, hobos, and agitators the United States has even known. And Spokane, as John notes, is a critical part of that history:
Spokane and the other fights weren’t a defense of a fetishized image of free speech, an abstract “god-given” right which an individual could exercise independently of every other power relation in society. Rather, the Wobblies had in mind an alternate conception of the right to free speech, one which refused to separate this right from the rights of workers to exert control over production. As Peter Linebaugh emphasizes in his excellent Magna Carta Manifesto, there’s a hidden history of “constitutionality” in which contrary to the received interpretation of “musty pieces of parchment,” civil liberties and economic justice go hand in hand. Linebaugh focuses on the right to the commons, unearthing the legacy of the “Charter of the Forest” which accompanied the Magna Carta, but the I.W.W.’s struggle in Spokane is cut from the same cloth—“Labor is entitled to all it produces.” It’s not just that Wobblies were demanding the right to speak, or even the right to organize, but the right to win. As the editorial in the Industrial Union Bulletin of August 22nd, 1908 put it: “no real political freedom is possible for the workers without economic security over their means of life and subsistence, but economic security implies the abolition of wage slavery.” The men and women who in Spokane and elsewhere went to jail for free-speech weren’t requesting that their freedoms be respected, but defending speech that was dangerous precisely because it was entirely too effective. The authorities wanted to silence the Wobblies not so much because their ideas were abstractly dangerous, but because people were listening. As Chas. Grant put it in his article “Why Free Speech is denied the I.W.W.” in the November 17th, 1909 Industrial Worker: “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.”
This is perfectly clear in the Spokane fight, where the economic issue boiled down to the “job sharks,” dishonest labor brokers selling fraudulent jobs to itinerant timber workers. The rallying cry “Don’t buy jobs!” worked not because it appealed to some sort of moral justice, but because by speaking out in front of the hiring halls of the “sharks,” the Wobblies were able to directly contest their power and disrupt their operations. So it’s no surprise that when a compromise was floated by some members of the city government, to allow the Wobblies all the free speech they might want in a vacant lot some blocks away from Stevens Street where the sharks had their offices, they of course refused. This refusal should be absolutely familiar to everyone who’s refused to enter a so-called “free speech zone,” the recent fashion in the marginalization of dissent. The Wobblies’ approach, one hundred years ago, to the defense of civil liberties points towards a new way of thinking about rights, from below and to the left, where it’s not a matter of the rights of isolated individuals to impotently say what’s on their mind within the framework of a more or less liberal capitalism, but the right to collectively build a more just society. As we continue to struggle with the legacy of the Bush administration’s preemptive strikes against civil liberties, this is a lesson worth remembering.
Wanted! Man to Fill the Jails of Spokane explores the lessons of Spokane, and the legacy of early I.W.W. agitation in the United States. It really is a phenomenal book, and well-worth reading, both for John’s introduction, and for the scores of primary-source documents, articles, accounts, and images reproduced in the collection. Of particular note is one of the few published communiques of Agnes Thecla Fair, female hobo, roving poet, and possibly one of the coolest women in the history of the Industrial Workers of the World! Plus, photos of the very first radical marching band!
Below you’ll find an excerpt from Richard Brazier’s account of the Spokane Free Speech Fight, documenting the lead-up to the Fight, and the opening day’s activities. We find the soapboxing decoy strategy particularly appealing. And, consider grabbing a copy of the book for yourself or any other Wobbly you know!
Then the city began to search for a law they could use against the I.W.W. that would ban them from using the streets for their meetings. Evidently the employment sharks had been digging into the “slush fund” they had raised—as they said, to protect their interests—and had found the right hands that could be greased. It was no surprise that some of the City Fathers had been reached by the employment sharks, for graft was common there. With pimps, gamblers, prostitutes and rascally saloon keepers paying protection money to every cop and to higher-ups, graft had become a way of life in Spokane and everyone knew it.
The City Fathers not being able to find a law they could use to keep us off their streets simply concocted something of their own they called a City Ordinance. In drawing up this ordinance they were careful to point out that it was aimed at the I.W.W. alone, and that religious bodies were exempted. So, not only were we banned, but also discriminated against. But, strange to say, no mention was made about our hall meetings. Presumably, we could holler our heads off in our hall, but did not dare to whisper on their sacred streets. Thus, we had the rights of free speech and assemblage inside our hall, but the moment we stepped outside into the street we lost those rights and became criminals. No wonder Fred H. Moore, then a young lawyer in Spokane, said that the City Ordinance did not have a leg to stand on and that any unbiased court would throw it out as unconstitutional. But there were few unbiased courts in those days. There were none at all in Spokane.
Although this ordinance had not yet been passed, and was only being discussed, it was obvious it would be enacted despite many protests. So we notified the general membership through the Industrial Worker, then printed in Spokane, to be ready when the call came to descend upon Spokane in large numbers in order to test the validity of that city ordinance on the streets, and to be prepared to fill the jails from top to bottom.
In reply to the sharks’ charges that we were hurting their business, we gladly admitted that we were doing just that. But, we said, it was the city’s place to regulate the employment agencies and to see that they were run honestly. We pointed out that the business as operated was an evil which the city knowingly supported and did nothing to eradicate; that instead of passing an ordinance to ban dishonest practices of the agencies, the city council now proposed to deny free speech to their I.W.W. critics. It all proved that city officialdom and that the rotten ingredient was graft. We showed that it was the city council and the sharks who were conspiring to silence us with their infamous anti-free speech ordinance. But we declared that if a free speech fight was forced on us we would go through with it to the bitter end.
In the early part of October 1909 the ordinance was passed despite protests from taxpayers, socialists and labor unions. The enforcement date was set for November 1. Though nothing had been said in prior attacks on us about closing our meetings in the hall, we were surprised that the new ordinance made no mention of our hall activity. It prohibited only our street meetings.
We had thought they would try to close the hall on a phony pretext in order to deprive us of a meeting place. When no such move was made we concluded that the police wanted the hall to remain open as a place where we could be rounded up more easily than if we were scattered all over town in a hundred different places.
Whatever the motive might have been, we took full advantage of it and used our hall as a rallying point for the free speech fighters coming to Spokane from far off places. That was where we planned our strategy in the free speech fight.
Our first move after the passing of the ordinance was to wire all I.W.W. branches in the Northwest, California and elsewhere to get all the footloose wobblies to begin the trek “over the Hump” to Spokane. The time for a test of strength had come.
From letters and wires received at headquarters it was clear that there would be a splendid response to the call and that we would have no difficulty making good our threat to fill their jails.
The Spokane City Fathers treated with contempt our threat to fill their jails to overflowing if they persisted in their plan to stop our street meetings. It was they said, idle talk and just hot air. But it was noted that they had taken over an old dilapidated schoolhouse and were rushing repairs on it. It was the Franklin Schoolhouse, long condemned as a fire hazard. This was to be used as an emergency jail in case need for more jail space arose.
The old building had long been empty. It was an eyesore which neighborhood kids had thoroughly vandalized. It was in such shape that, despite the hasty repair job, it still was unfit for human habitation. Despite their alleged contempt for the Wobblies, it was clear the “Fathers” had their little fears and doubts.
Their fears were well grounded. Later, when the Free Speech fight waged hot, they found that the city jail and the schoolhouse together were not enough to house the prisoners and they had to ask the Government for use of the Military Prison at nearby Fort Wright where a Negro regiment was quartered.
No one ever learned why the Federal Government should have butted into a purely local issue to help the side that was trying to deny the right of free speech to its citizens, and to oppose those who were fighting for rights that the Government is supposed to guarantee. It remains a mystery, for no explanation was ever given. Of course, this was a time when the Robber Barons were still openly robbing the country of its natural resources.
Meanwhile, in the period of preparation for the “opening date,” November 1, 1909, when the anti-free speech ordinance was to go into effect, the I.W.W. call for footloose volunteers was heard throughout the land. The I.W.W. promise to flood the city and its jails brought on further threats from the city bosses. They would, they said, put all their prisoners to work blasting and crushing rock. They claimed they already had contractors to buy the crushed rock for road-surfacing jobs.
The Wobblies sarcastically invited the City to go ahead. It would take the men out of the stinking jails into the fresh air. “So go ahead and buy the equipment for your rockpiles,” they said. “But don‘t forget,” they added, “if you expect to get work done, you’ll have to pay union wages and provide good and suitable living quarters.” Also, “why don’t you get the employment sharks to foot the bill it is their fight you are waging?”
Needless to say, the “Fathers” made no reply to these suggestions, but neither were there any rockpile operations set up. About this time a proposition was conveyed to us in a roundabout way by a friend of two of the councilmen who evidently were not happy about their role of catspaw for the employment sharks, whose chestnuts they were expected to pull out of the fire. This friend of the councilmen wanted to know if we would be willing to hold our street meetings in a street away from the Slave Market where the sharks carried on their business. We refused even to discuss the offer. We turned it down with an emphatic “NO.”
During this period we did not slacken our efforts to build organization. We continued to expose the gypping methods of the sharks. We had our pickets with “Don’t Buy Jobs” placards out every day. In addition, we distributed handbills exposing the job-selling racket, giving many case histories showing how workers were swindled.
November 1st, 1909 was the day when their law banning Free Speech became the law in fact, and the Free Speech fight began in earnest [on November 2]. We had so many men on hand then that we decided to play “cat and mouse” with the cops for the first day.
The cops were massed in full force all through the Slave Market section and, evidently were expecting us to gang up in front of the Employment Offices and do our spieling there. But we had many Wobblies infiltrating the crowds and sizing up the positions the cops had taken. Their layout was reported back to the Wobbly Hall and then, instead of sending our speakers out to where the cops were waiting, we sent them two or three blocks away. Soon the cops were running helter-skelter in all directions. The Wobblies in the crowds knowing exactly were their speakers were, headed and herded the crowds in the right direction.
For this occasion we had selected as a kind of a bellwether to draw the crowd, a chap noted for his stentorian voice. We frequently had used him as the first speaker at our meetings to gather the crowds. He had a voice so powerful and penetrating that anyone within a radius of five or six blocks could hear him. If any human voice could raise the dead he had the voice to do it; and, best of all, he could make quite a good talk. But on this day his mission was to gather the crowd for the speaker he had with him. Once the crowd had assembled he introduced the other speaker, then moved on to another spot where another speaker was to do his stuff, and there repeat his stentorian call to arms until another crowd had assembled. Of course the other speakers would all get picked up and run in. But it was quite a while before they nailed him.
But this man was in Spokane to be jailed and he got a great kick out of giving the cops the runaround. Some of the very old timers may remember. He was a Londoner who, so he said, got his training in Hyde Park, where you had to learn to shout long and hard to be heard. His name was Jim Patten—a good old Wobbly. Other Free Speech fighters were sent out at intervals by ones and twos on that first day, and occasionally in larger groups, to say their little pieces. The individuals sent out first were to scout the slave market area. Wherever there was a crowd of workers, they commenced to talk, best they could, in the manner of regular speakers.
If there was no cop nearby some of the boys were able to make a short, snappy talk before being arrested. Others were tongue-tied or had stage fright and could only holler, “We want free speech”; or, being entirely without skill in public speaking, they called out, “Where’s the cops?”
But whether they could talk or not, the speakers always had the audience on their side. This was to be expected for the crowds were infiltrated with Wobblies who led the cheering for the speakers and also the baiting of the cops when the latter arrived. Pushing his way through a tight-packed crowd, a cop would hear the customary remarks about his depraved ancestry, along with questions such as: “Have you ever read the Constitution?” “Don’t you believe in free speech?” “What is this, Czarist Russia or free America?”
It happened on a few occasions that a speaker managed to slip away while the cop, having had a tough time pushing his way to the middle of the crowd, found himself at last facing an amused audience and without a speaker to arrest. Of course, the speaker had not really run away from the fight. He was still on the firing line, remembering the adage, “He who fights and runs away will live to fight another day.” It was the avowed intention of all those enlisted in the fight to fill the jails of Spokane to overflowing. Eventually and in good time all made the “can.”
This preliminary scout action, as it may be called, tested the sympathy of the workers on the streets and the vigilance of the police. Before the day was over and later at night we were to send out speakers with larger escorts of members. Meanwhile we kept the individual fighters moving to all parts of the slave market. This somewhat mystified the police who had figured that we would do all our talking in front of the Employment offices. But we had no intention to neglect the sharks. We had plans for later on.
As the day wore on, the police, thinking they had solved our strategy, began to scatter their forces the same way we had scattered ours. When we learned that, we moved a large contingent down to the main stem of the slave market where the sharks had their offices and set up our soap box for the first major engagement in the Spokane Free Speech Fight.
The first speaker to mount the box was an old soap-boxer who wasn’t tongue-tied and who was immune to stage fright under any conditions. His loud sonorous voice soon brought a crowd who cheered his every word. This brought the cops on the run. But it took them ten minutes or more to get through to the speaker. He had done his bit. He had made a fine speech and was content to go to jail.
With the arrest of the first speaker, the Wobblies melted into the crowd, but as soon as the cops with their prisoner got out of sight, another Wobbly speaker got on the box and continued from where the first speaker had left off.
The police came again, this time in larger force and made another arrest. The process was repeated several times more and the police, now with greater force and expertise, cut down speaking time of each new soap-boxer to about five minutes. Even so it took them more than an hour to round-up this particular contingent of Wobbly Free Speech Fighters. I was one of this first group.
Later that night, we sent out the largest group of the day. We had held this crew until late in order to cause the police as much inconvenience as possible, and to make them work a double shift if we could.
Over one hundred Free Speech Fighters were arrested in that day and night. We showed the City Fathers that our promises were not idle boasts.
From Richard Brazier’s “Spokane Free Speech Fight, 1909,” which originally ran in the Industrial Worker, serialized in the December 1966 and February 1967 issues. Also of interest is Richard Brazier’s account of the genesis of the Little Red Songbook in Spokane, which has been reprinted in The Big Red Songbook.