The supervisors of San Luis Obispo County tried to attack free speech this week. I happened to be in town to witness it.
The crux of the problem, according to county supervisors, was the Occupy movement. The county’s chief administrative officer, Jim Grant, claimed that the Occupy encampment presented a hazard to public health and safety, though he didn’t clarify exactly how. He suggested an ordinance that required any group assembling on public or vacant lands to obtain a permit from the county before doing so.
As he should have expected, a shit storm followed.
I wasn’t involved in the shit storm. I just happened to be doing some work in San Luis Obispo County that day. I was in and out of my truck a lot, and my radio was tuned to the public station. I listened to meeting of county supervisors addressing the issue. This may sound like a dorky thing to do—listen to a county supervisors’ meeting on public radio—and maybe it is, but the meeting was exciting on this day. A couple dozen people came to the meeting to scold the supervisors and Jim Grant in particular. Each person had an opportunity to speak for a few minutes. The beauty of this came in numbers. As a citizen, we can all speak at public meetings like this. We’re all allowed somewhere between three and five minutes. When twenty-four people come to the meeting and use all five of their minutes, supervisors have to hear about this shit for over two hours. Suddenly, you have an effective protest on your hands.
The protestors struck me as interesting. Sure, there were a couple from the Occupy movement who spoke. They were the ones being targeted. They needed to be there. But also members of the Tea Party spoke against the ordinance. They realized, of course, that if Occupy has to get a permit, so does the Tea Party. One former Republican congresswoman from the area approached the podium to say that, sure, she knew what it was like to be protested. She wished everyone agreed with her all the time, but democracies are built on dissent. One incredibly nervous guy from a former Soviet bloc country stood up to say that, prior to immigrating to the US, he’d been imprisoned for ten years for speaking out against the government. “Free speech is the most beautiful thing in America,” he told the supervisors. His anxiety seemed to be stealing his breath, but he found enough air to add, “Don’t touch it, for God’s sake.”
Finally, after two dozen people from across the political spectrum castigated the supervisors, they voted to toss out the ordinance. Jim Grant apologized.
The whole debacle gave me the urge to write a column about one of the greatest moments in American history: the Wobblie free speech protests in Missoula, Montana.
In 1909, a team of organizers from the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies) traveled to Missoula, Montana in an attempt to organize the workers in the lumber and logging industries there. As part of their organizing strategy, the Wobblies set up soapboxes or other makeshift stages on corners in the business district of Missoula and just started talking. Passersby would sometimes stop and listen and sometimes not. From a contemporary perspective, the Wobblies may seem a bit crazy. At least, from my perspective, when someone is standing on the corner of the street speaking to no one in particular, I assume the person has a mental illness. In the early twentieth century, this type of soapbox preaching was common. Think of it as a direct action blog. The Wobblies weren’t the only ones preaching on corners. The Salvation Army had their own soapbox in downtown Missoula, as well as a couple of other organizations. The speaking on the corner wasn’t exactly the problem. The listening was.
According to a few accounts, the first wave of Wobblie speakers didn’t generate much interest. That changed when a woman who called herself “Gurley” came to town.
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was nineteen years old and six months pregnant when she hit Missoula. She’d been agitating for workers’ causes since she was a little kid and her parents took her to socialist meetings in Brooklyn. In her autobiography, The Rebel Girl, she traces her activism back to her four great-grandfathers, who’d all taken up arms to fight the British occupation of Ireland. Her presence in Missoula was one more incident in a long heritage of actions geared toward social justice.
Even at nineteen, Gurley was famous among the workers. She did two things differently than other speakers. First, she drew a crowd. This shouldn’t be ignored. People in power will always let you say whatever you want as long as no one is listening. When others gather around to hear what you have to say, those in power lend an ear to hear if their power is being threatened. And it was. In particular, Gurley attacked the local employment agencies. These agents were in cahoots with various lumber and logging companies to hire migrant workers for a week or so, charge them a finder’s fee for the job, split the fee between the agency and the company, fire the worker after a week, and hire a new sucker. Not only did Gurley criticize this, she set up her soapbox in front of the three most prominent employment agencies and criticized them to their faces. The migrant workers, hearing how the scam worked, hesitated at the doors of the employment agencies.
The second thing Gurley did was attack the soldiers from Fort Missoula. They walked past during one of her speeches. She accused them of being hired thugs for corporate interests. They went to city leaders and threatened to “clean out the whole bunch” of Wobblies. The sheriff intervened to keep the peace.
The peace didn’t last for long.
Under pressure from employment agencies and local industry leaders, the City Council passed an ordinance restricting free speech. Three Wobblies—including Gurley’s husband, Jack Jones—were arrested. A fourth man who wasn’t a Wobblie was also arrested. A guy named Herman Tucker was working in the U.S. Forestry Department office upstairs from the soapbox when one of the Wobblies was pinched for reading the Declaration of Independence. Tucker was so incensed at the Missoula police that he came downstairs, got on the stage, picked up the copy of the Declaration that the Wobblie had dropped, and started reading where the last guy left off. Tucker went to jail with the rest of them.
At this point, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and her fellow Wobblies developed a strategy that they would employ in free speech battles throughout the western US for the next decade. They put out word for all “foot-loose rebels to come at once” and aid in the fight for free speech. Loggers, miners, migrant workers, and other activists hopped on trains from all over the country (though mostly from Butte and Spokane) to join the orators in Missoula. Gurley picked several spots throughout the town’s business district and sent speakers to all of them. The sheriff and his men chased them all down and nabbed them. When one speaker got arrested, the next one took his place. The Wobblies were careful to give their speeches before dinner time at the jail so the City would be forced to foot the bill for feeding them. The City, for their part, made sure to release the Wobblies before breakfast time.
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was arrested at this time. For some reason (perhaps because she was so young, famous, and pregnant), she wasn’t housed with the other inmates. She demanded a jury trial. Charges were dropped. This triggered the next step in the rebellion. When speakers were arrested, they started demanding jury trials. This meant that the City would have to foot the bill to prosecute dozens of “disturbing the peace” cases. They’d have to populate dozens of juries. The activists added to this problem by refusing to leave jail—even when the jailors tried to kick them out—until their trials. Suddenly, the City had to foot the bill for housing and feeding these protestors.
Meanwhile, the Wobblies kept up their speeches. Before long, the Missoula jail was overcrowded. Speakers were imprisoned in the basement of a downtown building. The Wobblies, never a quiet group, spent so much time in jail singing, arguing, yelling out the window, and generally raising a ruckus that local businesses started pressuring City officials to resolve the situation. The mayor first tried diplomacy. He sent the chief of police to meet with Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. He offered to stop harassing the speakers provided they just stay off a couple of downtown streets. The Wobblies refused. They had the City against the ropes. There was no reason to back off. The next day, city officials gave up. All of the charges were dropped. The orators were all released. The Wobblies were able to continue speaking and organizing.
This became the pattern for larger free-speech fights in a handful of cities from San Diego to Spokane. A whole host of anti-free-speech ordinances were defeated. Workers were able to organize to bring about social changes that built the American middle class: the eight-hour workday, the five-day work week, employer-sponsored health care, minimum wage, child labor laws, overtime compensation, Social Security, equal rights for women and minorities in the workplace, disability insurance, unemployment insurance, collective bargaining, employer-sponsored pension plans, etc.
Perhaps this is why, when we study American history in high school, we all spend so much time studying Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the Wobblies, and the freedoms that unions have earned for us. Perhaps this is why, when we talk about heroes who have fought for our freedom, we talk about activists like Gurley and the twenty-four San Luis Obispans who showed up at the county supervisors’ meeting. Perhaps this is why I always see bumper stickers that say, “If you value your freedom, thank a protestor.”
Okay, maybe I’m being a little facetious with that last paragraph.
I do want to take a few seconds, though, to recognize that sometimes activism does work. Sometimes, we do affect positive change in our lives. Sometimes it only takes twenty-four people to do it. Sometimes those twenty-four people couldn’t sit down and have a conversation about politics for three minutes without wanting to strangle each other, but if they can recognize when they do agree and focus on that one specific thing, they can get something done.
It’s easy to feel jaded about contemporary politics. It’s okay to feel that way. I look at my whole list of freedoms that American workers earned during the twentieth century, and I can’t ignore that most of those things are being threatened today. It bums me out. I also recognize when cynicism becomes a dead-end street. At those moments, it’s helpful to consider the paths people have blazed out of that cul de sac.
Author’s note: This is the twenty-fifth and final chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote. It originally ran in Razorcake #70. For more information about the collection, read this post. If you enjoy reading my Razorcake columns, please consider subscribing to the magazine.