Free Speech Fight, Sunday 28 January 1912
A century ago this week, Vancouver was in the midst of a Free Speech Fight after city council passed a bylaw banning the outdoor meetings of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Similar Free Speech Fights occurred in Victoria, Toronto, Missoula, Patterson, and other locales, as well as a previous attempt in 1909 to silence Vancouver’s IWW soap-box orators.
Pioneering tactics that would later be adopted by the Civil Rights Movement, the IWW put out a call for its members elsewhere to come to town and help fill the jails until local resources needed to enforce the ban were overwhelmed. The authorities did their best to close off the border and monitored traffic on the Interurban trains to prevent agitators from flooding into Vancouver. Nevertheless, thousands came out to a meeting at the Powell Street Grounds (Oppenheimer Park) to listen to speeches and to challenge the new anti-free speech bylaw on 28 January 1912. According to historian Mark Leier,
The deputy chief signalled to a waiting line of policemen. Mounted and foot patrolmen waded into the crowd, swinging clubs and horsewhips. The reporter for the Province newspaper noted that “those not fortunate enough to get out of the way went down like ten-pins before irresistible onslaught of the officers … The Powell Street Grounds looked something like a battlefield.” Nearly thirty people were arrested, and bail was set at five hundred dollars a piece.
Other meetings followed, and police harassment and arrests of “vagrants” skyrocketed. Eventually moderate union leaders negotiated a truce that allowed for free speech in parks but not on street corners. The more militant IWW wasn’t happy with the agreement, but many of its members had already moved on to the larger and bloodier Free Speech Fight that was shaping up in San Diego.
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