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It's War in Youngstown
By Rose M. Stein
July 3, 1937
Vol. 145, No. 1, P. 12-13
Youngstown, Ohio, June 24
Monday night, June 21, was a crucial night in the life and history of Youngstown, Ohio. All factions agreed that nothing short of a miracle would prevent serious trouble. Few people went to sleep. Near the mills, and away from them, people were gathered in groups and talked of only one thingthe strike. It had become more than a strike. War was in the air. The weeks of preparation were bound to bear fruit this night. There would be bloodshed and murder. Some time between midnight and seven the next morning the forces opposing the C. I. O. were scheduled to go "over the top," and to break through the union lines. The union people carried signs reading "They Shall Not Pass" and gathered in large numbers to guard the gates. The city and county increased their respective police forces and added to their store of munitions.
A preliminary battle had taken place two nights before. Some union men say that it was deliberately staged in an effort to test the probable extent of union resistance in the real fight. This trial skirmish took place on Saturday, June 19. Late that night, without warning or serious provocation, deputies fired upon a crowd of people, mostly workers' wives, at the Poland Avenue Republic gate. Across from that gate there is a cinder-covered empty lot where strikers not engaged in active picket duty, their families, and sympathizers were accustomed to gather. The company rented this lot and plastered "no trespassing" signs all over it. On this particular Saturday evening a number of the men were called to attend a special meeting at a spot some 200 feet away from the gate, and the women were asked to help with the picketing. A few of the women got tired and sat down to rest upon the boxes bearing "No Trespassing" signs. The police began to chase them and an argument ensued. "We'll show you," growled one of the officers, and began to shoot tear-gas. There were screams, shouts, turmoil, and in the midst of this excitement bullets began to fly. The crowd rushed down from the meeting, was greeted with more bullets, people began to fall, among them Mary Heaton Vorse, who received a bad blow in her left temple. The toll of this attack was two dead, thirty-one wounded. Scores were thrown into jail in an effort to pin the blame upon the workers, although any number of eye-witnesses saw that the gunfire came from deputies beyond the railroad tracks.
Feeling ran high. The workers were enraged by this unwarranted attack, knew that the one scheduled for Monday would be worse, and were determined to resist the onslaught, come what might. Company partisans, which included Youngstown city and Mahoning county officialdom, were equally determined to make this a decisive blow, for to them this determined resistance was not just a strike, it was organized rebellion. There is not even a pretense of impartiality in Youngstown. Tom Girdler and Frank Purnell hate the C. I. O., and are openly at war with it. Sheriff Ralph Elser and Mayor Lionel Evans just as frankly hate the C. I. O., and are just as openly waging war upon it. Then just as everything was in readiness for what was expected to be a decisive battle, word came of Governor Davey's declaration of martial law and his order to keep the mills closed. City and county officials felt outraged. All their plans and maneuvers were demolished like a house of blocks. They had to take it out on somebody, somehow. What better way than to clamp into jail all the workers they could possibly lay hands on?
If on this night of June 21 you happened to drive into Youngstown in a car bearing other than an Ohio state license, you were regarded as an undesirable foreigner, full, no doubt, of evil intentions. If you happened to have a Pennsylvania license, you were particularly suspected because, as every cop and official in Youngstown will tell you, Pennsylvania has gone Bolshevik, and no one knows from one day to the next what radical action its Governor may take. But if in addition to having a Pennsylvania license you happened to come from Aliquippa, then you were regarded as a red, a criminal, an enemy of the state, and were subject to immediate arrest. The reason for this attitude is not far to seek.
Tom Girdler spent fourteen years converting Aliquippa into the blackest hell on this side of the Mason and Dixon line. Then, seven years after his departure, Aliquippa became a free town, its workers organized, and the company recognized their organization. This was an out-and-out defeat of Girdler's terrorist policies, a defeat which plagues him privately and is cast up to him publicly. Little wonder that he hates Aliquippa workers, one and all, and wants none of them to come to Youngstown, as they had, for instance, the preceding Sunday, bringing two truck loads of food to the strikers and making public speeches about how they licked Girdler's methods in their own town. Whomever Girdler hates, the Youngstown police hate. It was not altogether surprising, therefore, that these same police should stop a car driven by an official of the Aliquippa steel workers' union, and arrest all six occupants of the car, even though two of them were Pittsburghers, one of them myself.
At 4:00 a. m. on Tuesday, as we were passing through the downtown section, on our way home, we were stopped by a police car, searched, and ordered to drive to the police station. The station ante-room was mobbed with people who had just been arrested, so that we had to wait our turn outside, just at the foot of the stairs. While we were waiting, we saw a police officer shove a man toward the basement cells. "Don't shove me," the man pleaded, "I'll walk down." The officer knocked him over and the man rolled down with a heavy thud. At the bottom of the flight another officer picked him up, dragged him away, and the moment he was out of our sight we heard a piercing cry of pain.
Up to this time the whole thing had seemed like something of a joke. I had credentials. None of us had done anything. Surely they would dismiss us with apologies. But the treatment of that man cast a new light upon the situation. As we were lined up in front of the desk to give our names to the clerk, a husky officer called over two matrons and ordered them "to search this woman real good." They each grabbed me by an arm and dragged me upstairs to a private room. One of them examined my purse minutely, while the other pulled away at my clothes, and in earnest surprise turned to her companion saying, "She's clean, all right." Then in a more stern voice to me, "So you thought you'd pull a fast one, just before the militia got here."
Two officers escorted me to the county jail. I learned afterwards that this was a concession, as the city jail is a real hell hole. "Humph," said one of the escorting officers, "so you pick up five men; not just one, but five." I said nothing. "I know you, all right," he continued, "I saw you in Aliquippa." I was tempted to ask how he had happened to see me in Aliquippa while serving on the Youngstown police force, unless perchance he was one of Girdler's "gas-pipe gang" sent down to Aliquippa during the Jones and Laughlin strike.
At the county jail the belligerent officer turned back and the other guarded me until the sheriff's office could record my name. I thought this might be an opportunity to plead my case. "There must be some mistake," I said to the officer. "I am a reporter, and would like to know by what right you arrest me." "Oh, so that's what you are, a reporter. Well, it's too bad you got mixed up with these Bolsheviks," and after a pause, again, "it's too bad." I thought for a moment that he was genuinely sorry I had gone so far astray. When the sheriff's clerk recorded my name, I again pleaded that I was a reporter, but all he said was "I know nothing about it," and the first thing I knew I was in the hoosegow.
It was a medium sized room, with two barred windows, rather airy and tolerably clean. There were four cots, three of them unoccupied and without sheets. A woman was sleeping in the fourth cot. She seemed delighted to have company, and invited me to share her cot, since it alone had sheets. I assured her that I was not sleepy. In that case neither was she sleepy. She was wide awake in a moment. "You know why I am here?" she asked. "I'm safer here than anywhere else because the C. I. O. is after me. They want to kill me." She got up, began to rush around and shout. For five hours I was subjected to this nightmare. The woman was a raving maniac. As she related the various fights she had had with the police, with hotel proprietors who had tried to oust her and who were "nothing but dirty foreigners," she would rush at me as if I were the object of her wrath. I retreated carefully, politely, pleaded with her to get some sleep, only to make her all the more angry because nobody ever wants to hear her story when in reality it was worth $500 to any magazine. I succeeded in pacifying her for about fifteen minutes while she took my pencil and paper and proceeded to write out her life's story. "When you write about me," she said, "don't call me Harriet, call me Marie. I don't want the C. I. O. to recognize me, they'll get after me again." I promised anything and everything.
The five men arrested with me were kept in the city jail and during the morning were questioned separately or in pairs. Clifford Shorts, union official and driver of the car, and Frank Fernbach, a teacher for the Workers' Schools, were called out together. "Good morning, comrades," snorted the plainclothesman who escorted them into the office of the district attorney, "how are the rest or the Russians today?" The boys let that pass. "What were you doing in Youngstown?" asked the district attorney. "Sightseeing," the boys replied. "Sightseeing, eh? Back to the hoosegow with you."
"Wise guys," said the officer who led them back to their cell, "you need to have your ears knocked in, then you'll talk." Many ears have been "knocked in," and many eyes almost knocked out. Several hundred have been arrested in Youngstown alone since the strike began May 26. A number of men were picked up during the Saturday night riot; some of these have wounds which have received no medical attention, and the men are being held incomunicado, and without trial. It is impossible for the union to keep track of all the arrests or to take proper care of them. As it is, the amount of bail furnished by the union is reaching staggering proportions.
Twelve hours after our arrest, and after pressure had been brought by a number of influential people, all six of us were released without hearing. The district attorney was apologetic. "We are simply going crazy here," he explained. "I'll tell you frankly," he said, "I'm afraid of the C. I. O. I am very much afraid of it. I am afraid that if this keeps up, in another year or two people like me will be put up against the wall and shot." Mayor Daniel Shields of Johnstown, and the Chamber of Commerce officials, who backed him in his shortlived attempt to incite a riot against the "greasers" and "hunkies," were equally worried when Governor Earle ordered the Bethlehem plant closed. Officials who do the dirty work for the Girdlers, the Schwabs, and the Purnells fear for their own heads. It is no longer a question in these towns of enforcing the law, of doing what is right or what is one's duty. Non-partisanship does not exist. They are all partisan. If someone is discovered carrying a club or a gun, he is arrested and beaten not because he has violated a specific statute, but because he belongs to the enemy side. Sides have been definitely chosen. On the one hand is the C. I. O., fighting desperately to maintain and to augment the phenomenal strength and power it has so far attained; on the other are the enraged employers and frightened, muddle-headed, subservient officials, whose absolute power is being curbed. The war of resistance is in full swing.