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How Upton Sinclair's 1923 Arrest For Reading The Bill Of Rights Led To The Founding Of The ACLU SoCal

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Photo illustration by Julia Wick/LAist (Base images of Upton Sinclair and the Port of Los Angeles courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)
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On May 15, 1923—94 years ago today—muckraking author Upton Sinclair was arrested in San Pedro as he tried to read the Constitution and the Bill of Rights to a group of striking dockworkers, leading to the founding of the ACLU's Southern California branch. The national American Civil Liberties Union had been founded three years earlier, in 1920.

Back in 1923, the LAPD had banned the striking dockworkers from holding public meetings. The Marine Transport Workers Industrial Union 510, a branch of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), had called a strike in protest of low wages, bad working conditions, and the imprisonment of union activists under California's Criminal Syndicalism Law, immobilizing 90 ships.

Sinclair and five friends marched up what was known as “Liberty Hill” at a rally protesting the ban and tried to read the First Amendment aloud in support of the workers' right to assemble. The novelist and activist continued even after the police chief warned them to "cut out that Constitution stuff," according to the ACLU's website. Sinclair got no further than the words guaranteeing "freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and the right of the people to peaceably assemble" before he was arrested and charged with criminal syndicalism, or agitating to overthrow the government.

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The L.A. Times reported in a 1973 article that Sinclair's brother-in-law Hunter Kimbrough then got up and started to read the Declaration of Independence before he too was arrested. A third man was arrested after he tried to speak, "saying that he and two preceding speakers did not intend to incite anyone to violence," according to the Times. A fourth man, Hugh Hardyman, then ascended to the platform, where he proclaimed that "This is a most delightful climate." He too was arrested. The four men were held "incommunicado" for 18 hours before their attorney was able to find out where they were.

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Undated picture of author and journalist Upton Sinclair, middle, Hunter Kimbrough and Hugh Hardyman. (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)
The Times reports that more than 600 strikers were arrested in total at the Port of Los Angeles, with many of them contained in "a specially constructed stockade at the Lincoln Heights police station near downtown Los Angeles."

The stand taken by then-LAPD Chief Louis D. Oaks in arresting Sinclair "was that Sinclair's action had an ulterior motive behind it and that the manner in which he was delivering his reading was evidence enough that the radical author was endeavoring to stir up strife and discontent," according to a 1923 L.A. Times article published two days after Sinclair's arrest. Chief Oaks told the Times that Sinclair was "more dangerous than 4000 Wobblies," and that he considered the author to be "the worst radical in the country."

Sinclair and "a delegation of well-to-do radicals from Pasadena" had visited Chief Oaks and then-Mayor George E. Cryer earlier in the day of his arrest to try and obtain permission to legally address the crowd of strikers in their role as members of the American Civil Liberties Union (Sinclair was already part of the recently founded ACLU New York) but they were denied. Police at the time identified the ACLU as "a defensive branch of the [international labor union] IWW," according to an L.A. Times piece published the day after his arrest. Here's how the meeting was described in the May 16, 1923 article:

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When the visitors started to talk about the constitutional rights of the strikers, Mayor Cryer pounded on his desk and in emphatic tones gave them a short, but eloquent lecture on real Americanism. "Too many of the foreigners who come here yap about their constitutional rights and forget their constitutional duties," said Mayor Cryer.

After his arrest, Sinclair pledged to donate a year's salary "for a director to organize a local ACLU branch to help monitor the notoriously problematic Los Angeles police force," according to The American Civil Liberties Union & the Making of Modern Liberalism. The Southern California branch was the ACLU's first permanent affiliate.

The Liberty Hill site where Sinclair was arrested, near the intersection of 5th Street and Harbor Boulevard in San Pedro, is now designated as a California Historical Landmark. The dockworker's union wouldn't secure a contract with the San Pedro canneries for more than a decade, with it finalized in 1934.

"The mood of the state and the nation in 1923 was one of decided unfriendliness to aliens and immigrants and to many labor unions," according to that 1973 L.A. Times article (written on the event's 50th anniversary). "A newspaper report of the day carried a headline warning that aliens from China, Mexico and Europe were sneaking into the country. Samuel Shortridge, a U.S. senator from California, was quoted as saying 'The time has come when we must shut the doors of the Atlantic to the incoming of revolutionary men and women,'" the Times continued.

"For nearly a century since Sinclair's unlawful arrest, which led to the founding of the first ACLU affiliate, we've remained steadfast in our mission to speak truth to power and to help empower the ultimate check on government: we the people," Hector Villagra, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California, told LAist.