Sunday, April 2, 2017

Olive Blackburn, The Summer of 1934: Art and Struggle in San Francisco

The city became a camp, a battlefield, the screams of ambulances sent the day reeling, class lines fell sharply—everywhere, on streetcars, on corners, in stores, people talked, cursing, stirred with something strange in their breasts, incomprehensible, shaken with fury at the police, the papers, the shipowners... going down to the waterfront, not curious spectators, but to stand there, watching, silent, trying to read the lesson the moving bodies underneath were writing, trying to grope to the meaning of it all, police “protecting lives” smashing clubs and gas bombs into masses of men like themselves, papers screaming lies. — Tillie Lerner Olsen1
When I think of the term ‘post-crisis poetics’ or aesthetics more broadly, my mind turns not to our current conjuncture but to the United States during the 1930s. This period has profound lessons for both revolutionaries and artists committed to a radical political framework. I am particularly interested in one episode in San Francisco during 1934: the Coit Tower mural project and its simultaneity with the San Francisco General Strike. In reflecting on these events and their relationship to leftist cultural milieux, we can note a divide between the artistic work generated during the Great Depression and the forms of struggle that cut through this period. Taking the Coit Tower murals alongside the General Strike can illuminate both the affiliation and distance between communist art and working class struggle, relevant to both the 1930s and the present.

The Coit Tower mural project was an artistic project that adorned the inside of the Lillian Coit Memorial Tower (located on Telegraph Hill and completed in 1933) with communist and populist imagery. Leading this mural project was Bernard Zakheim (1896-1985), an artist, muralist, and a key figure within the leftist artistic milieux in San Francisco in the 1930s. A Jewish émigré from Warsaw, Zakheim arrived in California in 1920 and fell into a community of Jewish labor activists and artists.2 He was a student of Diego Rivera, traveling to Mexico to study with him in 1930. Zakheim, along with poet Kenneth Rexroth and anarchist Frank Triest, founded a San Francisco chapter of the John Reed Club to organize artists who were committed to communist and socialist politics. In 1933, many of those involved in the John Reed Club formed a group called the San Francisco Artists’ and Writers’ Union to advocate for the economic needs of artists. Responding to their efforts, the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), a New Deal program that employed artists from December 1933 until June 1934, sponsored a project to paint murals inside of the newly constructed Coit Tower, for which Zakheim and fellow artist Ralph Stackpole assembled a group of artists to complete. For his contribution to the Coit Tower murals, Zakheim painted Library, whose radical politics were apparent. The mural depicts a group of workers reading leftist newspapers as well as artist John Langley Howard reaching for a copy of Marx’s Das Kapital. The overt communist symbols triggered the wrath of Walter Heil (director of the de Young Museum) and Herbert Fleishhacker (board member of the San Francisco Art Association, president of the London and Paris National Bank), who oversaw the PWAP in San Francisco and moved to postpone the opening of the Tower in order to censor the murals.3 Zakheim later recalls Fleishhacker’s word to him: “You know we are on the threshold of war and we cannot tolerate what you have painted in the Coit Tower.”4 The closure of the tower took place in July 1934, coinciding with the San Francisco General Strike that erupted the same month.

What escalated into a citywide shutdown began as a struggle of San Francisco’s longshoremen against the conditions of their exploitation and disenfranchisement. International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) had come into existence towards the end of the 19th century but was largely dormant and incapacitated by the strangling of union organizing by employers. It was not until June of 1933 and the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), which provided federal recognition and protection for independent unions as employee representatives, that unionization efforts by San Francisco longshoremen could gain any momentum.5 Longshoremen deserted the blue book union to join the ILA, which at the time was under the leadership of national president Joseph Ryan and west coast president William Lewis. Ryan and Lewis ran the ILA as a top-down organization, often going into backroom negotiations with employers or taking payoffs that ultimately would sell out the interests and demands of the rank and file.

Harry Bridges, an Australian seaman and young Wobbly who had arrived in the United States in 1922, emerged as an internal dissident within the ILA, gaining the respect and loyalty of a large portion of rank and file longshoremen. During the summer of 1933, Bridges, along with Communist Party district organizer Sam Darcy, formed an organizing contingent known as the Albion Hall group (named after the hall located in the Mission district where they met), which brought together longshoremen and several members of the CP. Bridges and his militant faction coordinated a ten day convention in February of 1934 in San Francisco for longshoremen in all west coast port cities. Together, they arrived at a list of demands including a union-run hiring hall and safer working conditions. When the shipping bosses dismissed their demands, the longshoremen already had in place a network of solidarity and launched the west coast Maritime strike on May 9, 1934. By May 11, over 12,000 workers had blocked ports up and down the west coast, paralyzing the shipping industry. Ship owners went on the offensive using their connections to politicians and newspapers, including William Randolph Hearst’s anti-labor San Francisco Examiner, to paint the strike as violent mob action. The shippers recruited scabs as strikebreakers, which pitting unionized and non-unionized workers against each other. Union men formed flying squads to protect striking workers from incursions by scabs and policemen, who treated ILA organizers with intimidation and brutality.

The standoff came to a head on July 3, 1934 when San Francisco’s Industrial Association, representing waterfront employers, attempted to forcibly move cargo through the port using strikebreakers, the San Francisco Police Department, and vigilante goon squads. This move erupted into violent confrontations all over the waterfront between the police and thousands of striking workers. July 5th became known as “Bloody Thursday” when police attacked the ILA union headquarters with tear gas and bullets. Two men were killed, and approximately thirty other striking workers were wounded in the day-long skirmishes and combat. In the evening, Governor of California Frank Merriam called in two thousand National Guardsmen who occupied the Embarcadero and set up machine gun nests along the waterfront. The Guardsmen and the San Francisco police along with gangs hired by business leaders raided union and communist party offices, harassing and arresting strike leaders.

Bloody Thursday became a pivotal moment within the longshoremen’s struggle, as it heightened the public’s attention and provoked the solidarity and wider participation of San Francisco’s working class. The Teamsters union initiated a sympathy strike, and every other union in the city soon followed suit. By July 16, 127,000 workers stayed at home in a general strike that shut down the city for four days. San Francisco Mayor Angelo Rossi, who supported the shipping bosses, declared the city under martial law and deployed an addition three thousand National Guard troops.

This swelling of labor insurgency at San Francisco’s waterfront throws into relief what the mural projects up on Telegraph Hill amounted and did not amount to. In his account of Coit Tower murals, art historian Anthony Lee observed a disjunction between San Francisco’s leftist artists and the city’s union organizers and militants. While leftist painters had adorned Coit Tower with murals sympathetic to communist and labor politics at exactly the same time as the Maritime Strike, Lee notes that he could not find a single article about the murals in leftist press or any evidence of labor groups responding to the work.6 In Lee’s analysis, the mural project ran parallel to rather than directly intersected or supported the labor movement.7 This may be instructive regarding the connection or non-connection between artists and the labor movement, the extent to which San Francisco’s workers cared about or engaged with artistic representations of their struggles. Lee argues that if radicalism was to be found, it was in the streets, the murals being subsidiary to the movement and physicality of the strikes themselves.8 Following Lee, the representations of revolt may prove lackluster in relation to the dynamism of the strike itself. An artistic investment in working class organizing may not be consonant with direct participation in a cycle of struggles.

When I interviewed Ruth Zakheim (the daughter of Bernard Zakheim who is depicted in her father’s mural and is now 93 years old) about her life during the 1930s, she lit up when talking about her memories of the General Strike. Her father, who she described as enormously intuitive about what was important, took her on a long walk from their home in the hills above the Haight Ashbury at 1541 Shrader Street all the way to 3rd and Market Streets in downtown San Francisco. He told her, “you have to see what the city looks like under a general strike.” Ruth remembers that the grocery stores and street cars were shut down; the streets, deserted and ghostly. When they arrived at the waterfront, she recollects seeing the open truck beds filled with national guardsmen. She recounts how active and varied the left was at the time and how powerful the Longshoremen’s Union was, referring to them as the lifeblood of the city. Ruth’s account is suggestive of the effects of living through a general strike. Most things, including art and poetry, would pale in comparison to watching capitalism grind to a halt, the working class take over a city, the dance that unfolded in the streets.

1 Tille Lerner, The Strike,Partisan Review 1, no. 4 (September-October 1934): 39.
2 Anthony W. Lee, Painting on the Left: Diego Rivera, Radical Politics, and San Franciscos Public Murals (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 96.
3 Ibid., 134.
4 Ibid., 154.
5 Chris Carlsson, The Progress Club: 1934 and Class Memory,” in Reclaiming San Francisco: History, Politics, Culture, eds. James Brook, Nancy J. Peters, and Chris Carlsson (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1998), 69.
6 Lee, Painting on the Left: Diego Rivera, Radical Politics, and San Franciscos Public Murals, 160.
7 Ibid., 161.
8 Ibid.

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