- Reporters Desk
Remembering Liberty Hill and the Irony of it all
James Preston Allen, Publisher
Each year, on the morning of July 4th at an often overlooked stone monument a few hundred feet off Harbor Boulevard on Fifth Street in San Pedro, a handful of citizens gather to commemorate the 1923 incident at Liberty Hill. You see, it was 91 years ago during a waterfront strike that the notorious International Workers of the World, or Wobblies as they were generally known, called for a maritime strike in San Pedro.
It was effective in that 90 ships were backed up at anchor as far as you could see. The shipping bosses called on the Los Angeles Police Department to help break the strike. The department willingly complied, rounding up and jailing union activists for violating “criminal syndicalism” laws or for simply holding an International Workers of the World union book.
In those times, it was a criminal offense to organize for better working conditions or publicly promote an eight hour work day, advocate for child labor laws and many more ideals once labeled “radical” in an ardently anti-union city. These basic labor laws are now considered commonplace.
The incident that perhaps became better known than the strike that precipitated it involved progressive activist and noted American author of “The Jungle,” Upton Sinclair came to San Pedro in support of the striking dock workers. Los Angeles Mayor George Cryer threatened Sinclaire with arrest if he spoke at the well publicized rally atop a small hill near Beacon Street.
It was called Liberty Hill because it was on private property and was supposedly the only place the Wobblies could gather without being arrested. Sinclair came with a posse of wealthy socialists. And what did they have to say to this crowd of surly dockworkers when they got up to speak? It was the U.S. Bill of Rights, starting with the first Amendment– you know the one that states clearly about not abridging the rights of free speech, or of the people to peaceably assemble?
Sinclair and his followers were promptly arrested and held incommunicado for several days, without bail or appearing in front of a judge to face charges. The complete irony of the arrest and the hypocrisy exposed by the actions of the authorities caused a maelstrom of news coverage that resulted in Sinclair’s eventual release and exoneration. The Wobblies’ strike was eventually put down and their union hall busted up by the Klu Klux Klan with help from the LAPD.
This however was not the end, but the beginning of what would eventually re-emerge as the struggle for workers rights on the entire West Coast and the creation of the International Longshore Workers Union a decade later in another bloody strike.
On this July 4th, before the rocket’s red glare started over at Cabrillo Beach, the small Liberty Hill group was treated to a reading by Matt Hart, a labor studies graduate from Cal State University, Dominguez Hills. He pulled out the iconic “little red IWW book” and quoted from its preamble. Here in quite simple language, predating the ILWU were the words “an injury to one, is an injury to all.”
Hart continued on to give a quite informed history of how these words crept into the organizing of Local 13 via one of the mother’s involved during this strike who was an ardent IWW supporter and organizer.
Now I bring this to your attention out of my own sense of irony. A few days after this event as I stood on sidewalk in San Pedro, I found myself in an “engaging” discussion with a man who coincidentally had the same given name and surname as myself. He called me a lefty socialist and argued that Obama’s Affordable Care Act was going to turn us into a European style socialist state and that the whole country was swirling down the toilet bowl. I listened. I argued. And then I asked, “So what do you do for a living?”
“I’m a clerk at Local 63”, he muttered.
I didn’t say it then, but I should have said this:
What is that you don’t get about the very motto of your union? “An injury to one, is an injury to all,” was not just meant for ILWU members alone! It is a universal declaration of human rights not unlike “All men are created equal” from the Declaration of Independence–a phrase that we sort of celebrate every year but forget to read.
How is it that I am standing on this street corner arguing with a man who owes his complete livelihood to his union forebearers, who sacrificed blood and sweat, and even died for this cause? Why is it that I, one of the few San Pedran’s who doesn’t hold a ILWU casual card, or ever worked on the docks (except for a brief stint as a merchant marine), a member of the San Pedro Chamber of Commerce, a business owner that makes his living in the free market economy, have to explain what this means? Probably because I care to see things in historical context.
There seems to be a form of collective amnesia amongst those who have “made it in life.” Those who have comfortably made it into the upper middle class who then turn their backs on either their roots or the less fortunate, saying “I’ve got mine!” Then somewhere along the way they get the idea that their success had to with some specially endowed talent or gift and that they can just shut the door behind them on anyone else.
I see this in the interactions between panhandlers and customers at the San Pedro Post Office or the fear people have of the crazy or homeless sleeping on the streets. The idea that an injury to one is an injury to all simply doesn’t apply to these who are not represented by collective bargaining. Or does it? The concept that a civil society is judged not by how well off its wealthiest citizens are, but how well we treat our least, comes to mind.
In the early days of the union movement here in San Pedro, the Wobblies gathered in a local bar that they called the “Bucket of Blood.” I am sure this was a metaphor of their frequent experiences of being beaten, bloodied and abused by the establishment at the time. They fought for their liberties and the right to organize. Yet that same name could actually symbolically represent the common experience of all those who have fought and died for the same liberties over the last 238 years since the founding of this nation. From abolitionism to civil rights, from sea to shining sea, it continues to be a not always civil dispute over what liberty means.