Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Murder and the Wobblies

Wobblies (members of the IWW) used street speaking as an effective tool of persuasion.  The corner of SW 6th and Stark was often crowded with transient workers during the "rainy season" who made up large, rowdy audiences for street speakers. University of Washington Library Special Collection.
            The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) were a new kind of labor organization for the twentieth century.  After the harsh bloody fighting between labor and management in the 1880s and 1890s, it was time for a militant, confrontational group to take on the issues of the most oppressed workers in the country, women, children, transient workers and the unemployed. The racist, exclusionary policies of American labor unions of the nineteenth century had limited the power of labor and provided a divided front that could be easily sidetracked and defeated by management.  The IWW scrapped those old ideas and was an inclusionary group that organized across the lines of race and gender; anyone who identified as working class could become a Wobbly, as IWW members were known.
            The IWW represented only a small part of the working class, but their militant tactics of “cultural resistance,” use of popular music and slogans to get across their simple message of class consciousness and solidarity and their commitment to direct action made them highly visible.  Because of these tactics they became the most visible targets of anti-union feeling.   The IWW represented an important trend in the labor movement in Portland; pulling the lower levels of the working class to the left they helped labor leaders like Will Daly and Mayor Allen Rushlight to build power closer to the center of the political spectrum.  It was the alliance of the labor movement and the Progressive Party, symbolized by Daly’s career, which allowed them to create a highly organized labor movement in Portland.  Labor support helped William U’Ren, and other progressive leaders, push through the Oregon System and expand democracy to the working class.
            As the most visible and radical elements of the labor movement the IWW drew the attention and the anger of employers like a lightning rod.  Because of the power and organization of Portland’s Central Labor Council, even the most intransigent employers in Portland found it expedient to appear to be pro-union.  The radical IWW, who were even seen by average union members as too far to the left, made an easy target that the employers could hit repeatedly in an effort to drive a wedge between the upper levels of the working class and the lower levels.  The main tactic that employers used against labor was “divide and conquer.”  The employers were constantly pointing out the differences between the various elements of the working class and giving advantages to select groups, such as men with white skin as a way to keep the working people distrustful and competitive with each other.  It was a common practice for employers to use race as a wedge, often hiring Japanese, Hindu or Black workers as strikebreakers to keep the working class divided along racial lines.  A very clear example of this tactic is the 1910 strike at the St Johns Lumber Mill.  In February 1910 the lumber mill imported 200 Hindu workers as strike breakers, leading to several violent confrontations, the forcible expulsion of the Hindus from St Johns and an even more racially divided working class.
            Between 1910 and 1914 the labor movement in Portland reached the height of its power. With Oregon Federation of Labor president Will Daly as the city’s most popular commissioner and likely next mayor, it seemed as if the coalition of union members and small business owners that dominated the east side of Portland was on the verge of taking power.  The radical IWW saw that hope as a chance to pull things even further to the left and they capitalized on the opportunity by supporting a series of strikes and instituting a “free speech movement” in Portland.  Free Speech Movements were militant fights over public speaking laws in an effort to build IWW power and reduce the power of the city in which the fight was held.  Street speaking was the standard method that political activists and candidates had to get their message in front of voters in these days before TV and radio.  Most cities had limits on where and when such speaking was allowed.  IWW free speech fights were campaigns of civil disobedience against such restrictive laws.  Their usual tactic was to break the law openly and get their activists arrested in an effort to “fill the jails” and overwhelm the city.  Such fights had taken place all over the west by the time Portland’s turn came in 1913.
            Allen Rushlight, an eastside plumber, union supporter and progressive politician, was elected mayor in 1910 to replace Joseph Simon, the longtime leader of Oregon’s Republican Party Machine.  Simon, although he did a lot for the development of Portland as a city, had become the symbol of corrupt “ward politics” government and as such was as responsible as anyone for the adoption of the commission government that took over the city at the end of Rushlight’s term of office.  Rushlight, elected with high hopes by union members, proved a disappointment.  His progressive plans for the city were not achieved and he spent most of his time reacting to criticism and trying to suppress vice and the radicals of the IWW.  Rushlight like most of Portland’s mayors used the police force for political purposes: one of their most effective political uses was as a weapon of propaganda.  It was standard practice to use police raids for various crimes to divert public attention or to direct it into a specific channel.
Enoch Slover, Portland Police Chief was accused of being on the payroll of North End brothel owners.  He was always happy to use police raids to divert public attention.  In 1913 he tried to frame IWW organizer Gordon Napier for the murder of John A. Brown. Portland Police Historical Society.
            Enoch Slover, who served as chief of police for Rushlight’s entire term of office, became a symbol of the corrupt institution that the Portland Police Bureau had become.  Slover joined the Police Bureau in 1903 and distinguished himself as an officer during the Lewis & Clark Exposition, where his first beat was located.  He rose through the ranks quickly, promoted to sergeant before the end of 1903 and becoming Captain in 1905. Slover was accused of corruption and bribery many times in his career, the earliest recorded accusations against him came in 1904.  After serving as chief between 1911 and 1913, Slover intended to continue as a Police Captain, but he was fired from the Police Bureau for “conduct unbecoming a police officer.” Slover had been identified as the leader of a ring of corrupt cops who were on the payroll of brothel owners in the North End.  More than a dozen officers were fired at the beginning of Mayor H. Russell Albee’s term of office.  The mass firing was used as evidence that the Police Bureau had been cleaned up; once again Slover served a theatrical roll in a propaganda performance.
            All through the spring of 1913 the Wobblies were building power and agitating among the women workers who dominated the canning industry on the east side.  Mayor Rushlight and Chief Slover, responding to pressure from downtown merchants and eastside factory and mill owners, went after the IWW. The first propaganda police attack came when the wobblies were accused of killing John A. Brown, teamster foreman for the C.J. Cook Co.  The Cook Co. was one of the biggest excavation and demolition companies in the city and had been capitalizing on Portland’s growth as the crumbling old buildings downtown were replaced by new buildings.  The second propaganda attack against the wobblies came a few months later with the raids on the Monte Carlo Poolroom and the Fairmont Hotel, meeting places for homosexual men, and the resulting Greek Scandal.  The homosexual scandal, in the aftermath of the 1912 YMCA Scandal which created a strong anti-gay feeling in Portland, was used to harass and breed mistrust of immigrants and migrant workers, who made up a large percentage of IWW membership.
            The murder investigation, although unsuccessful, was used to discredit the wobblies and to try and discover the names of its members.  Murder was a typical weapon that was used against the IWW in two ways: some IWW organizers and members were murdered outright; others were framed for murder; either way effectively destroyed the leadership of the IWW. From the attempted frame up of IWW leadership for the murder of Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg in 1905 to the execution of Joe Hill for a murder he didn’t commit in 1914, frame ups were an effective weapon against the IWW.  In 1913 Chief Slover tried to frame Gordon Napier for murder.
            It started with an argument in the Elkhorn Café on NW 6th & Davis.  The café was next door to Wobblie Hall, the IWW headquarters and was frequented by IWW members as well as Teamsters and other union members.  Over the previous decade, as Portland unions fought employers on the issue of the “open shop” – a work place that allowed union members and non-union members as part of the workforce, conservative AFL unions such as the Teamsters and the International Longshore Association had grown more radical in their demands and methods and built solidarity with the IWW.  The “open shop” is a method that employers use to dilute the strength of unions and pit workers against each other – Portland unions and employers have still never settled this issue conclusively.  The Elkhorn was a place that you could always find support for the “Revolution.”  It is curious that John A. Brown, foreman for the C.J. Cook Co. and an outspoken opponent of unions would stop there for a drink.
            He did just that on the evening of March 24, 1913.  His companion on that occasion was Alfred Carter, a man who claimed to be a close friend of Brown’s.  Carter, who also worked for C.J. Cook on the excavation for the new Pittock Building, claimed that he and Brown stopped in at the Elkhorn for a couple of drinks after work and that he got into an argument with wobbly Gordon Napier.  According to Carter, Napier left the café and when Carter and Brown came out he led a group of wobblies who attacked them on the sidewalk.  During the fight Brown received a blow, possibly from a heavy salt cellar, which fractured his skull and killed him the next day.  Napier and Carter both got away after the fight, most likely with help from the wobblies, but several IWW members were arrested.  None of them would admit anything and stayed in jail rather than talk.  Carter was quickly found and although he was the original murder suspect, he accused the wobblies and the police went along with it.  Napier was picked up in The Dalles a couple of days later and returned to Portland to face a murder charge.
IWW demonstrations were often met by violent oppression, as seen in this photograph from San Diego.  During the Portland Free Speech Fight Dr. Marie Equi became enraged at the brutal methods the police used to clear the streets.  She often credited that experience for her commitment to political radicalism. University of Washington Special Collection.
            It seemed like an open and shut case, Napier confessed to the argument with Carter and the fight on the sidewalk, but he said that he had been after Carter and hadn’t fought with Brown at all. One of the witnesses, Ernest Lindsay, a Teamsters’ union member, was identified as the man who hit Brown, but he denied that he had been involved with the fight.  Lindsay’s testimony was so unbelievable that he was charged with perjury.  Napier was charged with assault with a deadly weapon, but police couldn’t get enough evidence to charge him with murder. The Grand Jury didn’t buy any of it and they returned “not true” bills on both Lindsay and Napier’s charges.  With no other suspects, the police dropped the investigation.  Solving the murder was less important than discrediting the IWW.
            A quick check of the history of Alfred Carter, the main witness against the wobblies, points to a different theory of the crime.  Carter, who sometimes was a union member and sometimes scabbed, was part of a burglary ring that stole building supplies and tools from construction sites. When Carter was arrested in 1910 for stealing tools police thought they had finally captured the ring that had been operating in Portland for a couple of years.  Carter and his nephew, Fred Haynes admitted that they were working for prominent contractor Edward M. Neylor.  Suddenly the investigation was dropped and no charges were brought against Carter, Haynes or Neylor.  The abrupt end of the case suggests that protection was involved, as it often kicked in before criminal cases could go to trial.  Haynes’ involvement with local burglary and bootlegging rings for the next two decades also provides a clue that the family had connections in the underworld.  Carter claimed to have been close friends with John Brown, but no one ever backed him up on that fact and there is no evidence that the two men were close.

            The basic question of the John Brown murder is: what were Brown and Carter doing at the Elkhorn Café?  Carter was not a union supporter and was a “known scab,” Brown was the foreman of a construction company that had been fighting with the Teamsters’ Union for at least the last two years.  Why would these two men choose a bar frequented by radical union members, right next door to Wobbly Hall, for a couple of drinks after work?  It is not surprising at all that Carter got into a loud argument with Napier.  Napier, who had a long record for radical activity in both Oregon and British Columbia, would have been a natural enemy of both Carter and Brown.  Carter would have been certain of finding a fight at the Elkhorn and he could easily have provoked a wobbly enough to get him to go for reinforcements, as Napier seems to have done.  Is it possible that Carter chose the Elkhorn because of the possibility of a fight and he used the fight as cover to kill Brown? Brown could have discovered Carter’s illegal activities, or he could have been involved in a deal with him, either situation could have provided a motive for murder.
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