Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Life of Emma Goldman Part IV: In Which a Revolutionary's Life is Like a Roller Coaster Full of Sex, Violence, and Jail

We've been plugging away at the life of Emma Goldman for a few weeks now, and she's now in her forties, and still going strong. Catch up by reading chapter one, chapter two, and chapter three before you move on!

She was in a relationship with Ben Reitman last time we checked, which seems to have brought her orgasms and heartaches in more or less equal quantities. See, Ben was a good guy, but he was beyond incapable of monogamy. That was fine by Emma, at least, on an intellectual level; she was all for free love. The problem was that it was a lot easier for Emma to have ideological support for free love than it was for her to watch her boyfriend screw around all the time, which holy shit, he did a lot. Ben Reitman was, as I may have mentioned, the Matt Damon of the anarchist movement (it makes sense! I promise. Go back and check.) but he was also kind of an unapologetic horndog, whereas as much as Emma liked free love, she tended to stick to one fellow at a time. This led to clashes. Fortunately, they were really, really enjoying themselves in bed, which I guess makes up for it. Fun fact: I have now done so much reading about Emma Goldman that I know the pet names she and Ben Reitman used, in their utterly filthy love letters to each other (all of which were most likely read by police, which is pretty funny when you think about it) for each others' sexual organs. I'm not telling you, though; that's something you'll have to research for yourself.

Anyway, after a lot of traveling, lectures, and awesome sex, Emma and Ben went to California to join in the San Diego Free Speech Fight, a struggle for free speech rights for unions, socialists, and all the other people Emma Goldman so enjoyed hanging out with. She went there in April of 1912, with Ben, and was heavily involved with the Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies there. They were going up against a group of vigilantes who creatively called themselves the Vigilantes. Seriously, that was like, the name of their vigilante organization. They were like “we are the Vigilantes. We are vigilantes, who do vigilante violence, and so we call ourselves the Vigilantes.” Do you think that’s weird? I think that’s weird. I guess that people who typically do vigilante violence aren't all that creative? (Sorry Batman. I didn't mean you. You're a very creative vigilante. Stop glaring at me. Or...maybe that's just your regular face. sorry again. This is getting awkward, Batman, I'm going to go back to talking about Emma Goldman.)

Anyway, the brilliantly-named Vigilantes had been raiding the IWW headquarters, harassing and attacking people, and even kidnapping IWW leaders, all in an attempt to preserve the idea that free speech really shouldn’t apply to people like socialists and union leaders. Emma’s arrival in San Diego was met with a lynch mob, but fortunately she was in a car, and they weren’t, and the driver basically just drove at the crowd, and they scattered, allowing her to get where she was going.

The Vigilantes kept on forming mobs to try and intimidate those fighting for free speech, and it seemed to be working. The mayor of San Diego actually showed up with a bunch of other officials and told Emma that the mob that had surrounded the hotel where she and Ben were staying was so dangerous that all he could offer her was protection if they decided to leave town. Emma said she’d stay, because she spit in the face of fear on a regular basis, and pointed out that the anti-free speech laws that were currently keeping IWW members, anarchists, socialists, and union members from gathering didn’t seem to be stopping the Vigilantes, and wasn’t that interesting? “I have never accepted protection from the police” she told them. “And I do not intend to do so now. I charge all of you men here with being in league with the Vigilantes.” because telling a bunch of assholes you suspect may be in league with an angry mob that wants to kill you that you suspect they may be in league with an angry mob that wants to kill you is totally a survival skill.

They told her it would be her own fault when she got murdered, and left. It was then that Emma discovered that while she had been talking to these sketchy-ass officials, Ben had disappeared from the hotel. Someone came by hours later, and told the understandably panicked Emma that Ben had indeed been taken by the Vigilantes, but that they hadn’t hurt him, had just put him on a train out of town. Not really believing them, but not knowing what else to do, Emma headed to the train station herself. She was met by the Vigilantes, who tried to get at her once she was on the train, but failed, which is good for this blog, because otherwise the whole story would have ended with a lynching in San Diego.

She reached Los Angeles safely, because Emma Goldman was immune to angry mobs. This was a really useful superpower for her. Most people could live their whole lives without such a power ever becoming relevant, but for her it made itself known quite often. Anyway, once she got to LA she became convinced that she had been lied to, and that Ben was dead; he was nowhere to be found. She got a call much later that day, though, telling her that Ben would be on the ten o’clock train from San Diego. The voice on the phone told her to bring a stretcher.

The identity of the caller remains unknown, but whoever he was he gets an A+ for ominous.

Ben eventually showed up. He was not in a good way. What had happened was this: as soon as Emma was off talking to the mayor, men came into his room with guns, and dragged him out of the building. A uniformed police officer watched them throw him into a car. He was beaten, and driven to a deserted place outside of town, where he was stripped, beaten again, and branded, with a burning cigar, with with the letters IWW. He was tarred, and violently sexually assaulted with a walking stick, though they stopped that form of abuse so as to spare women in the mob from seeing him naked. The twisted morality of that is something to think about the next time you’re bored. Ben was then forced to run a gauntlet, during which he was beaten by every member of the Vigilantes, who claimed to have promised the Chief of Police that they would leave him alive at the end of the night. They did, but only barely.

Emma, of course, went straight into political mode; the attack on Ben Reitman had gained them a lot of sympathy. Its effect on Ben was less positive; even once he had recovered physically, it seems likely that he was suffering from PTSD, which makes sense, given the circumstances. He became obsessed with the idea of returning to San Diego, the site of his attack. A lot of his and Emma’s friends thought that was a terrible idea, because they somehow thought that going back to a place where people had kidnapped him at gunpoint, beaten, branded, and sexually assaulted him was, like, unsafe or something. Emma just thought that going back to San Diego would be a great opportunity to keep fighting for free speech, and she believed that it would help free Ben from his trauma. She refused to let him go there alone. A lecture was booked in San Diego, and they headed over.

Ben began to panic on the train, but they arrived safely, only to be arrested as soon as they stepped onto the platform. Emma recognized at least one of the people involved in their arrest as being with the Vigilantes. This trip was starting to look exactly as awesome as the last one.

Emma and Ben spent the night in jail, and woke up to a howling mob demanding Reitman. The police offered to get them both out of town under protection. Emma wanted to stay, but wanted Ben to go, since it seemed he was the main target of the Vigilantes, and besides, Emma pretty much automatically assumed she could handle herself. He told her that if she was going to stay, he would too. Remember, if you’re going to hang out with Emma Goldman you have to be at least seven kinds of awesome. Emma, though, decided she couldn’t let him risk another attack, and they consented to being escorted out of town. As they left, Emma watched and listened to the mob in fascination as people screamed for their blood and spat on them. She decided that she would have to come back again, but that she would leave Ben behind next time. Basically, she decided that she was willing to face down this mob, but that she needed to protect her boyfriend. Did I mention that she was awesome?

So, she and Ben went back to New York. There, Emma went back to work, and began fighting with Ben, due mostly to his aforementioned inability to keep it in his pants, as well as the general tendency of Emma's life to be high drama all the time. Their relationship was rocky. Like Shakespeare said, the course of anarchist free love never did run smooth. He said that, right? Something like that.

More traveling and lecturing with Ben, and an arrest for distributing information about birth control, and the relationship eventually ended. Emma did a little time for daring to tell people how to not have babies, but she was always kind of ok with jail. It gave her a chance to connect with those truly shat upon by society, for whom she never had anything but sympathy, no matter their crimes. And hey, she could read, in between the exploitative prison labor system that forced her to sew a quota of clothes every day. And of course, she could work for prison reform. Which was handy, because quite soon, she would be back in jail, but that, I think, is a tale for the next entry.

Man, a lot of bad things happened in this entry! Let's cheer up with a few olde timey political cartoons! These will be cartoons in support of our intrepid Emma, and I will provide translations, because the one place you could consistently find positive portrayals of Emma Goldman was the Yiddish press.

This is from a satirical Yiddish newspaper, and depicts Emma Goldman’s struggle for free speech.

The caption reads “Emma Goldman, the grogger, and free speech in America.” A grogger is a noisemaker traditionally used to celebrate Purim, seen here in Emma’s right hand. Since the grogger works by being spun, the police officer is trying to silence it by holding onto the moving part. I think this is actually one of the more sympathetic contemporary portrayals of Emma out there. By identifying Emma Goldman with the grogger, the Jewish newspaper emphasizes her Jewishness, thus claiming her as one of their own. It definitely pokes fun at her, but it is the police officer, drawn short, stout and ugly relative to Emma, and with key and club prominently displayed, who is the real target of the cartoon. Traditionally, the grogger is used to drown out the name of the anti-Semitic villain of the Purim story. By placing it in in Emma’s hands, the cartoonist symbolically depicts her as a champion of the oppressed, and as a hero to the Jewish community. So, that’s why I love this cartoon. Also, kindly note Emma’s shit-kicking boots. Those rock. They rock epically. I want those boots. Her hat is pretty cute too, and it looks like the same one she wore in her first mug shot.

So, here's another one:

The heading on this one is "Emma earns her punishment." At her feet is a sign advertising a lecture on "how protect from too many children." Note again how unsympathetic the policeman is in relation to Emma; his caricatured mustache obscures most of his face, and his club is prominently displayed. The figure at the right, who honestly looks like how I told you all to think of Henry Clay Frick a few chapters ago, only with some kind of weird...pocket watch(?) hanging from his belt is labeled "Sweatshop Boss," who is saying "hear this scandal! I need kids to work, and she preaches against children! To prison with her!"

What's cool about this one, I think, is that it not only depicts Emma Goldman as an innocent victim of repression, it suggests a financial, rather than a moral motive behind that repression. Which is kind of awesome, since it calls the authorities out on their bullshit. They can claim that they want to protect public morals from the dangerous sex-having Emma Goldman, this cartoon seems to say, but what they really want to do is preserve poverty and an exploitative system of underpaid child labor. Which is probably a pretty fair assessment of the situation.

Ok, that's it for today. Next week will be our final entry on Emma, and will include lots of sad stuff, but also some discussion of her legacy, gay rights advocacy, etc. So that'll be fun! And sad! And fun!

(Read the fifth and final entry here!)

Specific Lessons for Modern Activists: Sometimes oppression of free speech will happen rather selectively. On that note, you may hope that you, like Emma Goldman, are immune to violent mobs, but it's best not to assume that you are.


  1. In the second cartoon, the thing hanging out of the Sweatshop bosse's trousers is a watch fob, a short ribbon with a medallion at the end. It was used to help extract one's watch from the pocket.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Thanks for clarifying! My readers are so knowledgeable.

  4. also it's Industrial workers of the world, not international.

    i say this with love and respect, and for future use