By Kendra Atleework | SDUN Reporter
In honor of the 100th anniversary of the fight for free speech in America, Centro Cultural de la Raza, located at 2004 Park Blvd. in Balboa Park, will feature the San Diego Free Speech Fight 100-Year Anniversary Exhibit. Running through Feb. 12, this exhibit will feature photos from the 1912 movement, as well as first-hand accounts and media reports.
Other highlights include an exploration of California’s labor history, as well as work by local artists. Lorena Gonzalez, Secretary, Treasurer, and CEO of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, said the exhibit “truly is a must see for all San Diegans.”
The 1912 movement began when city officials banned free speech and assembly for 49 square blocks in downtown San Diego. Jim Miller, author and professor of labor relations at San Diego City College, said at the time, the ordinance was one of the most severe free speech bans to have occurred in the United States.
Miller said the ordinance targeted the Gaslamp quarter, which was frequented by working class people from many ethnic backgrounds and was ripe organizing territory for progressive activists. The activists most feared by San Diego’s government and ruling class, Miller explained, were union organizers promoting Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
Miller said the IWW was unique because it embraced workers of all ethnicities. IWW members, also called “wobblies,” organized workers by delivering public speeches, which often pointed out the excess wealth of large San Diego corporations, compared to the relative poverty of many workers.
Although there were only 50 IWW members in San Diego in 1912, Miller said this small group met with intense repression at the hands of the ruling class, due to the changes they posed to the city’s economic and cultural future. Miller said, “The free speech fight was a strong indicator that the city’s elite did not want an unruly, organized working class population.”
Gonzalez said certain photos featured in the exhibit stand out in her mind, which portray “police using water hoses to spray protestors, and protestors being chained together and marched out of town to be tarred and feathered,” she said.
Miller said when famous anarchist Emma Goldman visited San Diego to speak, her partner Ben Wrightman was kidnapped, tortured, beaten, branded with the letters IWW, and tarred and feathered.
Many unsung members of the working class were killed in attacks enacted against demonstrators by police and vigilantes, Miller said. The list of victims includes a 60-year-old IWW organizer who was badly beaten and died in jail.
Although free speech and assembly rights were restored in San Diego within the year, Miller pointed out that the fight of 1912 is still underway, and he explained similarities to today’s political climate. “The local right wants to make San Diego the Wisconsin of the West by attacking unions and ensuring that folks in low paying service sector jobs stay passive and unorganized, while the elites run the show,” he said.
Miller said there is “an obvious and striking parallel” between the political climate, actions of dissent and methods of repression that occurred during the free speech fight, and which are currently taking place surrounding Occupy San Diego. “We have moved back to a situation of massive economic inequality in this country, much like a century ago,” he said, “and people are beginning to fight back.”
Gonzalez agreed, saying, “The Occupy movement brings back vivid memories of civil disobedience with issues of free speech and freedom of assembly that took place in San Diego 100 years ago.”
Both Miller and Gonzalez stress the lessons they hope viewers take from the exhibit. “If something like banning free speech by an overzealous city council can happen once, then it can happen again if we aren’t careful,” Gonzalez said.
Miller added, “The lesson is those rights we think of as fixed and eternal can and have been taken away. We need to fight to preserve them.”
The exhibit will be at Centro Cultural de la Raza; Tuesdays through Sundays through Feb. 12 from noon to 4 p.m. Call 619-235-6135 or visit centroculturaldelaraza.org for more information.