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Excerpt from The Culture of Make Believe

IWW (p. 469)

From chapter "Resistance"

The long-term goal of the IWW was to take over industries, and have workers profit from their own labor. In the shorter run, they simply wanted to keep workers out of bondage. Chattel slavery was by this time long since illegal in the United States, but so long as the poor did not have full access to land and so long as rules for relationships between employers and laborers were made and enforced by the rich, there were always ways for the rich to obtain the free labor of the dispossessed. In Spokane, Washington, for example, as an IWW organizer wrote, “Over three thousand men were hired through employment sharks for one camp of the Somers Lumber Co. (Great Northern) last winter to maintain a force of fifty men. As soon as a man had worked long enough to pay the shark’s fee, the hospital dollar, poll tax, and a few other grafts, he was discharged to make room for more other slaves, so that the fleecing process could continue. These different fees are split, or cut up with the bosses. In most cases these fees consumed the time of several days’ labor, when the men were then discharged and paid off with checks ranging from 5 cents and upwards. The victim of the shark in the most cases gets his check cashed at the first saloon, and takes a little stimulation. Why not? What is life to these men? What is there in life for them? The strong, barbed-wire whiskey makes things look bright for a while. Then the weary tramp goes to town with his bed on his back. Back to Spokane, the slave market of the Inland Empire. He hears the IWW speakers on the street. The glad tidings of a great revolutionary union. An injury to one is an injury to all. Workers of the world, unite, you have nothing to lose but your bed on your back. You have a world to gain. Labor produces all wealth, and those who produce it are tramps and hoboes. This gets to him. He will go through hell for such a union with such principles. He has gone through hell in Spokane, and has given his last cent. He is soon coming back, and then again and again if necessary, until the truth can be told on the streets.”

The response by authorities in Spokane—and this pattern was, unsurprisingly, repeated in town after town—was to pass laws prohibiting political speechmaking on the streets (although Spokane, and other cities, made exceptions for the speech of those more valuable, as when President William Howard Taft delivered a two-hour speech (written for him by the Chamber of Commerce) on the streets of Spokane). Consequently, thousands of Wobblies hopped freight trains to come give speeches, sometimes simply stepping onto soap boxes to recite the Declaration of Independence. Hundreds were arrested, beaten, jailed. Many died in jail because of the intentionally inhuman conditions. Still more Wobblies poured in to speak in favor of the poor. One man from Oregon sent the following note: “A demonstration meeting was just held in Sheep Camp No. 1, there being three present, a herder and two dogs. The following resolutions were adopted: Resolved, that we send $10.00 for the free speech fight in Spokane. Yours for liberty, Thomas J. Anderson. PS. Stay with it. I’m coming.”

All of this is to say that the IWW was strongly anti-White, which is to say that it was very much hated.

Corporate newspapers responded to, expressed, and fueled this hatred. The Los Angeles Times stated, “During a visit of the Industrial Workers of the World they will be accorded a night and day guard of honor composed of citizens armed with rifles. The Coroner will be in attendance at his office every day.” The Fresno Herald stated that “a whipping post and a cat-o-nine tails well seasoned by being soaked in salt water is none too harsh a treatment” for Wobblies. The San Diego Evening Tribune got right to the point, in purple prose that would have done Hitler proud on both literary and vituperative counts: “Hanging is none too good for them, and they would be much better dead; for they are absolutely useless to the human economy; they are the waste material of creation and should be drained off into the sewer of oblivion and there to rot in cold obstruction like any other excrement.” A California representative made clear the reason for the hatred: The Wobblies were no longer White, and failure to eradicate them would cause everyone to become like they are (not a bad thought, really), to become “like the aborigines of darkest Africa, without law or any sense of justice or human rights, as are the beasts which inhabit its jungles.”

On occasion, different opinions of Wobblies or treatment of them slipped past the linotypes of the mainstream presses, as when The San Diego Sun reported, “Murderers, highwaymen, cut-throats of the blackest type, porch-climbers, burglars, wife-beaters and all kinds of criminals in jail in the past have been treated like royalty in comparison to the manner in which the street speakers are being handled.” But these opinions—and even simple facts—were quickly suppressed, either by the internalized necessity of newspapermen fulfilling their social function as boosters for capitalism, or, when self censorship failed, by outright violence, as in the case of The San Diego Herald, which presented the Wobblies’ side of the story until some one destroyed their type forms, then kidnapped and attempted to murder the editor. A gun to the head often works wonders on the editorial stance, not only of that newspaper, but of other publications with editors who wish to see tomorrow.

The day after the Herald’s editor was kidnapped, the Evening Tribune laid out clearly what free speech means in a culture based on R. D. Laing’s three rules of a dysfunctional family: “If there are any citizens of San Diego who sympathize with these anarchists, they should rid the city of their presence. They are not wanted here, and if they go so far as to insist upon the ‘free speech’ of anarchy and disloyalty, they will not be tolerated. This is San Diego’s ultimatum: We claim the right to defend ourselves against these confessed outlaws, and we claim the right to choose our weapons of defense.” My dictionary’s first definition of loyal is “faithful to the constituted authority of one’s country.” What this means is that you may say anything you like, so long as it’s faithful to the dictates of those in power, that is, so long as it pleases them (or at least does not displease them too much). In other words, you may say anything you like, so long as it’s faithful neither to humanity nor reality. If you displease those in power, they claim the right to choose their weapons of defense. Before you dismiss this as the ravings of one cranky newspaper editor, remember the Espionage Act of 1917, the thousands of blacks lynched for their perceived insolence, the Indians whose mere existence is enough to cause those in power to “choose our weapons of defense,” the Filipinos whose resistance caused—allowed is a better word, although both impart too much responsibility to the Filipinos for the atrocities done to them, when the truth is that the atrocities were well-nigh inevitable—Whites to put into action the “burn and kill the natives” policies (also known as “benevolent assimilation”) under which, as a general stated, “the more you kill and burn the better you will please me.”

In town after town, Wobblies received the same treatment they received in Spokane, or worse. Citizens lined up to help firemen and policemen turn water hoses on them. Wobblies had hot tar applied to them. They were forced to participate in humiliating and painful rituals, sacraments to patriotism and production: “The first thing on the program was to kiss the flag. ‘You son of a B——–, Come on Kiss it, G—Damn You.’ As he said it I was hit with a wagon spoke all over, when you had kissed the flag you were told to run the gauntlet. 50 men being on each side and each man being armed with a gun and a club and some had long whips. When I started to run the gauntlet the men were ready for action, they were in high spirits from booze. I got about 30 feet when I was suddenly struck across the knee. I felt the wagon spoke sink in splitting my knee. I reeled over. As I was lying there I saw other fellow workers running the gauntlet. Some were bleeding freely from cracked heads, others were knocked down to be made to get up to run again. Some tried to break the line only to be beaten back. It was the most cowardly and inhuman cracking of heads I ever witnessed.” Wobblies were kidnapped, imprisoned (both with and without judicial stamps of imprimatur), had their meager belongings stolen or destroyed. They were dragged behind cars. They were hanged by their necks until dead. They were killed.

Frank Little was a Wobbly organizer lynched in Montana. He’d been there to support a strike of the United Metal Mine Workers for higher wages and better safety standards. The strike had begun in response to a fire in one of the mines that had killed about 160 workers— human beings. The death toll had been so high because, in violation of state law, the company had built solid concrete bulkheads without providing manholes. A witness testified that he “viewed several of the charred corpses at the morgue in Butte, and that their fingers were worn to the second joint, showing a protruding bone, the result of the men having clawed at the granite doors which were locked.”

As I read about the role of newspapers in this strike, and the role played by journalists in general in our culture, I keep thinking about Nazi newspaperman Julius Streicher, and I keep hearing in my head the words of the Nuremberg prosecutor, who said, “It may be that this defendant is less directly involved in the physical commission of crimes against Jews. The submission of the prosecution is that his crime is no less the worse for that reason.” Substitute any other human group you would like for Jews. Indians. Filipinos. Chinese. Irish. Wobblies. Anarchists. Substitute the nonhuman world. Salmon. Mountains. Spotted owls. The prosecutor continued, “No government in the world . . . could have embarked upon and put into effect a policy of mass extermination without having a people who would back them and support them.” This was true in the case of the Nazis, and it is true in our own case. “It was to the task of educating people, producing murderers, educating and poisoning them with hate, that Streicher set himself.” Modern propaganda serves the same function. “In the early days he was preaching persecution. As persecution took place he preached extermination and annihilation…. [These crimes… could never have happened had it not been for him and for those like him. Without him, the Kaltenbrunners, the Himmlers . . . would have had nobody to carry out their orders.” I’m reminded of the words of one journalist writing about the gauntlet Wobblies were forced to run in San Diego: “Thus did San Diego, having given its money to mark the historic highway [El Camino Real] with the symbols of love and charity, teach patriotism and reverence for the law to the travelers thereon.”

At a later trial of I.W.W. members in Chicago (on something not related to the strike in Montana), an attorney for the Wobblies questioned a reporter for the Butte Evening Post:

Q: What is the attitude of your paper on the labor issue in Butte? Did it support the strikers during the recent strike?

A: Oh, no, sir, no.

Q: Who reported the fire in the Speculator Mine?

A: There were three or four of us. I was up there.

Q: Did you report that there were concrete bulk heads in that mine with no manholes and it trapped the men and were responsible for their deaths, to the number of about two hundred?

A: No, sir.

Q: You did not?

A: No, I did not.

Q: Were you there when the bodies of those miners were brought out?

A: I was there part of the time.

Q: You never colored anything you wrote to fit what you understood to be the policy of the paper?

A: I might have colored things. I might have toned down things, and I did repeatedly.

At three in the morning of August 1, several men seized Frank Little from his boardinghouse. He had already been beaten many times, already been imprisoned many times. But this time they tied him to the bumper of their car and dragged him through the streets until his kneecaps were scraped off. Then they hanged him from a railroad trestle.

That same reporter was asked by the same attorney in the same trial:

Q: Did you ever try to find out who the occupants of that car [behind which Frank Little was dragged] were?

A: No, sir.

Q: If I give you the names will you publish them?

A: No, sir.

Q: You won’t?

A: No, sir.

Q: If I give you the name of the boy that drove that car, will you publish it in your paper? . . .

A: No!