Whatever it is that happened in Centralia in 1919 and whatever it is that's happening there now, one thing is fairly certain: come November, 2023, there will be a new, town-sanctioned IWW plaque in Centralia Square.
For Industrial Workers of the World wonks like me and a lot of my friends, certain place names immediately evoke powerful images and iconic moments in history. Mention cities like Winnipeg or Seattle, and the words General Strike will come right to mind. Mention towns in the state of Washington like Everett and Centralia, and different, more tragic pictures are evoked.
All over the US, wherever there was an IWW presence, in the fall of 1919 union halls were being looted and burned by patriotic mobs consisting largely of returned veterans from the First World War, under the protection of police, and under the very direct influence of the new national secret police force known as the FBI, formed for the express purpose of destroying the radical labor movement.
Two years after the Russian Revolution, the propaganda against the Bolshevik Threat was at a peak. Combine that with the prejudice that could be whipped up among some returning war veterans against an organization that was very openly opposed to participating in what they identified as a Bosses' War, and you have the formula that was needed for the kind of widespread repression against the Wobblies that happened in 1919 and 1920 to take the extremely violent forms it took.
Seeing the armed standoffs punctuated by the occasional deadly shooting that characterized a lot of protests in Portland and other towns across the US circa 2020, trying to imagine how the shooting began in Centralia on November 11th, 1919 is not difficult.
The last time there had been a similar patriotic parade through town, the IWW hall had been ransacked and badly damaged, and IWW members beaten and brought to the edge of town. Now the Wobblies had a new hall, and they were determined to keep it. They mistakenly believed they had the right to stand their ground and defend their union hall.
Who fired the first shot depends on who you ask, and whether they were part of the American Legion march, or one of the union members defending their union hall from them. The image of IWW organizer, Wesley Everest, hanging by his neck beneath a bridge, brought there by the patriotic mob whose efforts were once again facilitated by the local authorities to be tortured and killed, is the image that comes to mind for most labor history nerds when we hear the name of the town in which Everest was lynched.
The events of November 11th, 1919 were memorialized five years afterwards with a statue unveiled in 1924 of a single, proud Legionnaire, called The Sentinel. Much later came a great mural about the day on a wall facing the park where The Sentinel stands, but for the past century The Sentinel has been the only three-dimensional memorial to the events of 1919 in Centralia.
Why this would be the case, after all this time, is at this point not hard to surmise.
Departing from Centralia for a moment: in 2015 I was invited to Salt Lake City to participate in an event commemorating the 100th anniversary of the execution by firing squad of another martyr of the IWW, who was known to most as Joe Hill.
Joe Hill was a songwriter as well as an organizer, and wrote some of the classics of what was a very musical and theatrical movement. He became quite a bit more well-known well after his death, his memory popularized by a song performed by well-known artists like Paul Robeson and Joan Baez. He became the most recognizable human symbol of the IWW, and the very image of the unfairly convicted and executed.
At least that's true among the labor history geeks and the left/liberal types in New York and San Francisco. It's certainly true among all the campers and counselors at the hippie summer camp I went to in western Massachusetts. But not necessarily among a lot of the long-time residents of Salt Lake City.
In Utah, there are many people who consider the history "controversial," and will admit to the possibility that the trial wasn't perfect. But there are also many who still believe Joe Hill was the guy who killed shopkeeper, John Morrison, as I discovered on that visit. Some of them are Morrison's descendants and other members of his extended family.
Centralia also still has a chapter of the American Legion, and relatives of the Legionnaires killed there in November, 1919 still live in the area.
A fine, upstanding little group of union members, history buffs and other folks have been patiently campaigning for a long time now to have the Centralia town council approve a plan to have a memorial to Wesley Everest, and for the IWW members given exceptionally draconian sentences of 25-40 years in prison, for defending their union hall, or, according to the words inscribed at the base of The Sentinel, for killing Legionnaires while they were "on peaceful parade."
There was first disagreement among various interested parties about whether the Legion should have a say in what goes on the plaque. There is still disagreement about whether the events of November 11th, 1919 should be called "the Centralia Tragedy" or "the Centralia Massacre." Ultimately the town council voted to approve the IWW's plaque, and its unveiling will be this coming November.
I was in Centralia a few days ago, because some of the folks I met there on another Joe Hill centenary-related tour in 2015 wanted to organize a little concert, which took place outside the ballroom in front of the Wesley Everest mural, the occasion being a little celebration of the successful completion of the crowdfunder for the plaque.
I don't know if there were any members of the American Legion at the gig, but among those who attended were people who had been on different sides of different arguments around the plaque over the years, and even decades. I was told by a couple participants that it was especially good that at least some of the different sides of the long conversation around the plaque came together to celebrate that it was finally going to exist, in reality, there in Centralia Square.
Unfortunately, not only are there still some local folks unhappy about the plaque, but there are evidently some members of the local Wobbly branch, who made a point of not showing up to the concert, who are upset that anyone was involved with bringing me to Centralia, since they were informed by my cancellation campaigners that I "platformed" a deplorable person on my YouTube channel, and am thus a deplorable person myself -- an antisemitic, holocaust-denying Nazi, even, who is not "safe" to be in a left "space."
Some people come together, others fall apart. My songs are in the modern editions of the IWW's venerable Little Red Songbook. The most recognizable name among IWW members and aficionados in the late 20th-century, Utah Phillips, was both a friend and a fan, and the woman Utah called "the best labor singer in North America," Anne Feeney, was a regular touring partner of mine. Separately and together, we played for IWW branches all over the US and other countries. I've written so many songs against fascism, and about IWW history, and none in favor of fascism, or in favor of the ruling class in any other form.
But some young folks are especially vulnerable to whatever some self-appointed guru says on Twitter, they become indoctrinated, and are no longer open to discussion. It's a huge problem these days, as you may have noticed, if you spend much time on social media, in particular platforms like Reddit and Twitter. IWW chapters today, despite the union's longstanding philosophical opposition to this kind of sectarianism, is not at all invulnerable to this kind of madness, although it does have the clear advantage over many other groups of having the aforementioned long history.
My attackers deliberately misquote me, and some of these impressionable young IWW branch members in Centralia apparently believe the quotes are real. The internet is more real for some people than reality is, and apparently history doesn't matter, whether my history of the history of the union these folks ostensibly joined. Among the other things that don't matter, or evidently have no legitimacy, are alternative views on the whole concept of "platforming" people by communicating with them. And by "alternative" in this case, I mean views that are consistent with the IWW's ecumenical orientation towards organizing the entire working class, and not consistent with the "no-platforming" sectarian crowd that is much too busy kicking people out of groups for their transgressions than doing anything that could be considered organizing. That is to say, those engaging in this nonsense are dis-organizers, in truth.
What's sure is the whole orientation of vetting people for their supposed political transgressions and campaigning against them incessantly for having a heretical viewpoint on some political question has very little to do with anything involved with actually building any kind of union, let alone One Big Union. What's also sure is these campaigners are a seriously toxic bunch, who spread misery and disinformation in whatever online "spaces" they inhabit.
These days, it's really easy to be a Nazi, apparently. In any case, long live the old IWW, and here's to the day when we have a lot more Wobbly chapters that would make Wesley Everest proud, rather than make him roll over in his grave. It's a good thing dead people can't be on Reddit.