[Chapter 06] The Right Not to Remain Silent: Dissent

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Mae SundstedtMae SundstedtOn Liberty Hill, near the Port of Los Angeles, an official California landmark monument reads, "In 1923 the Marine Transport Workers Industrial Union 510, a branch of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), called a strike that immobilized 90 ships here in San Pedro. The union protested low wages, bad working conditions and the imprisonment of union activists under California's Criminal Syndicalism law. Denied access to public property, strikers and their supporters rallied here at this site they called Liberty Hill."

In 1923 an extended and bitter strike gripped the docks in San Pedro. Police and company goons assaulted strikers, and scores were injured, including thirteen-year-old Mae Sundstedt, whose legs were scalded by boiling coffee when hired thugs broke up a union meeting. The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) prohibited the striking longshoremen, many of them members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or "Wobblies," from holding public meetings. In one night, six hundred men were jailed for the offense of "manifesting their sympathy with the strike" by cheering and singing.

"Cut out that Constitution stuff"

Upton SinclairUpton SinclairAs in other IWW strikes, workers traveled from afar to walk the picket line. One supporter who was moved to join them was Upton Sinclair. The renowned novelist and journalist mounted Liberty Hill and started to read aloud the First Amendment of the Constitution in support of the workers' right to free speech and assembly. A police captain warned Sinclair to "cut out that Constitution stuff." Author Louis Adamic described the powerful scene:

The patriots and their police chief longed for a riot, which, no matter what the truth of it, would be laid to the unrighteous Wobblies; while the latter were determined to avoid violence.

Sinclair stepped upon an improvised platform.…Someone lit a candle and held it up to him, that he might see the sacred texts. [He] was interrupted by a police sergeant and informed that he was under arrest--"suspected of criminal syndicalism."

A gust of wind blew out the candle and the author of Corydon and Thyrsis walked down the dusty hill between two policemen, while the somber eyes of the stevedores flashed and the inarticulate crowd let out a cheer.

Criminal Syndicalism Charge

The future Nobel Prize–winning novelist was hauled off to jail. The charge against Sinclair, "criminal syndicalism," was commonly used against strikers, Wobbly organizers, and other political dissidents. The criminal syndicalism law grew out of the post–World War I Red Scare that generated the 1919 Palmer Raids, in which the federal government rounded up hundreds of anarchists, socialists, and communists and deported many of them to Eastern Europe. Sinclair described the result of his encounter with police on Liberty Hill: "I was arrested with three friends and held in jail 'incommunicado' for eighteen hours, for the offense of having attempted to read the Constitution of the United States, while standing on private property in San Pedro, with the written permission of the owner and after due notice to the mayor of the city and to the police authorities."

"I intend to do my duty by my country"

On his release, Sinclair wrote a public letter to the police chief, which was published in The Nation on June 6, 1923:

All I can say, sir, is that I intend to do what little one man can do to awake the public conscience, and that meantime I am not frightened by your menaces. I am not a giant physically…I freely admit that when I see a line of a hundred policemen with drawn revolvers flung across a street to keep anyone from coming onto private property to hear my feeble voice, I am somewhat disturbed in my nerves. But I have a conscience and a religious faith, and I know that our liberties were not won without suffering, and may be lost again through our cowardice. I intend to do my duty to my country.

Sinclair wrote a play called Singing Jailbirds to spread the word about the Wobblies and the San Pedro strike. But an even more lasting legacy came out of Sinclair's action and arrest that night. Almost as soon as he was released from jail, Sinclair joined other free speech advocates to establish the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

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