Quite the World, Isn't It?

On labor rights, civil liberties, and violence

April 16, 2014

Tags: history, books

Part of the interesting and engaged crowd at the La Veta Public Library. Photo by Margaret Mercier-Martelle.
I’m midway through a week of speaking engagements in Colorado, and as is usual with such things, I’m probably getting more out of the audiences than they are getting from me.

In two talks so far (one at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, the other at the La Veta Public Library) we wandered down a new avenue: What was the role of the easy availability of weapons in the escalation of the violence here in southern Colorado 100 years ago? Was the ability of the striking coal miners to amass rifles and use them against the corrupted National Guard an example for the pro-gun lobby’s argument that the Second Amendment enables citizens to defend themselves against a tyrannical government? Or was easy access to the weapons the reason so many people – at least 75 – died in the conflict?

I think the second is the answer. For those not familiar, in September 1913 thousands of southern Colorado coal miners walked out on strike after coal operators refused to negotiate over a list of workers’ demands, topped by recognizing the United Mine Workers as the miners’ union. In that era, the coal operators wielded incredible political and economic power in the state, and as the strike evolved the coal operators and the government seemed, from the perspective of the strikers, to have merged into one force arrayed against them (the local courts were corrupt; constitutional protections against search and seizure and other basic liberties were usurped; state laws governing mine safety and wages were ignored, etc.).

So the miners walked out, a strike that began in an atmosphere of violence (one union organizer was killed before the strike even began) that surged and ebbed until the April 20, 1914, Ludlow Massacre, in which eleven children and two mothers died in a fire that swept through the Ludlow tent colony. Those deaths launched ten days of revenge by rampaging union supporters who attained control of most of the Front Range from the New Mexico border to near Denver. The miners and their supporters didn’t stand down until President Woodrow Wilson sent in the U.S. army as a peacekeeping force, and the irredeemably compromised National Guard retreated from the field.

In my view (which I argue in my book, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West), the miners were freedom fighters standing up against the corrupt political and economic system. But as we've been discussing this week, in the end the violence achieved no tangible gains. Life in the mines continued, and the strike concluded with a whimper in December without achieving the main goal: Union recognition. Ultimately, the state court ended the corruption in Huerfano County, one of two centers of the worst of the strike violence, and voters ousted the incompetent governor who had lost control of the National Guard and the state, in an election that shifted the base of political power away from the coal operators.

So it was democracy, not the availability of guns, that ultimately prevailed.

And that was only one slice of the discussions we’ve been having. The Colorado Springs Independent posted/published a Q&A with me about Ludlow, which also lists the rest of the week’s talks. If you’re in Colorado, come join us.

My favorite day to open the mail

April 1, 2014

Tags: personal, books

When the newest book comes in from my publisher.

Copies of The Admiral and the Ambassador: One Man's Obsessive Search for the Body of John Paul Jones should start shipping to stores and online retailers soon, ahead of the official May 1 publication date. Click over to the events page for details on a couple of D.C.-area events coming up in mid May, one at Politics & Prose, and the other at the Annapolis Bookstore.

Also, for you Coloradoans, I'll be in the state in a couple of weeks for a series of events marking the centennial of the Ludlow Massacre, the subject of my first book, Blood Passion. I'm hoping to see a lot of old friends and acquaintances on both trips - and, of course, to sell a few books.
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About me

A third-generation journalist, I was born in Scarborough, Maine, and grew up there and in Wellsville, New York, about two hours south of Buffalo. My first newspaper job came at age 16, writing a high school sports column for the Wellsville Patriot, a weekly (defunct), then covering local news part-time for the Wellsville Daily Reporter.

After attending Fredonia State, where I was editor of The Leader newspaper and news director for WCVF campus radio, I worked in succession for the Jamestown Post-Journal, Rochester Times-Union (defunct), The Detroit News and the Los Angeles Times, where I covered presidential and other political campaigns, books, local news and features, including several Sunday magazine pieces.

An active freelancer, my work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Sierra Magazine, Los Angeles magazine, Orange Coast magazine, New York Times Book Review (books in brief), Buffalo News, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Teaching Tolerance (Southern Poverty Law Center), Solidarity (United Auto Workers) and elsewhere. I teach or have taught journalism courses at Chapman University and UC Irvine, and speak occasionally at school and college classes about journalism, politics and writing. I've appeared on panels at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and the Literary Orange festival, moderated panels at the Nieman Conference in Narrative Journalism and the North American Labor History Conference, among others, and been featured on C-SPAN's Book TV.

I'm also a co-founder of The Journalism Shop, a group of journalists (most fellow former Los Angeles Times staffers) available for freelance assignments.

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