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The Legacy of The Wheatland Riot

It was 83 years ago this month. It was blistering hot. Dust rose in lazy, steady swirls from a barren field near the northern California town of Wheatland, where some 2,000 hop pickers had gathered tightly around a makeshift platform to hear radical organizers from the Industrial Workers of the World urge them to strike.Within minutes they and the IWW organizers -- Wobblies, they were called -- would be plunged helter-skelter into what soon became known as the Wheatland Riot, an event long forgotten but still one of the most dramatic and significant in California history.The strike they were debating would be a bold, dangerous act, but it seemed the only way to better the truly abominable conditions on the Durst Ranch, the state's largest single employer of agricultural workers.The workers lived crowded together in a treeless, sun-baked camp a mile from the hop fields. They slept, many without blankets, in the open or in ragged tents rented to them. There were only nine shallow, doorless privies. Garbage was tossed into nearby irrigation ditches. The wells that supplied their drinking water were contaminated.They and their children went off at 4 a.m. to the fields, where temperatures soared to more than 100 degrees by noon and heat prostration was common. There were no toilets there, and there was nothing to drink except a sour concoction of water and acetic acid sold to the workers for five cents a glass. Pay varied according to how much they picked, but no worker ever made more then $1.90 for the 12-hour day. And 10 cents of every dollar was held back as a "bonus" to be paid only if the worker lasted the entire harvest season -- or wasn't fired.Up on the platform, Wobbly Richard "Blackie" Ford was raising the strike call once again when a dozen members of a sheriff's posse -- hastily summoned from nearby Marysville by the ranch owner and his attorney, who also happened to be the local district attorney -- bounded from their cars. They rushed toward the platform, intent on arresting Ford and the other IWW leaders for trespassing.A deputy sheriff grabbed at Ford, a platform railing collapsed, and the crowd surged forward. On the edge of the crowd, a deputy fired a shotgun blast into the air -- "to sober the mob," he later said. Suddenly there were more gunshots -- "a hideous racket," as one eyewitness described it, "that sounded as if someone had thrown a box of cartridges into the fire."As panic-stricken workers and deputies flailed about in confusion, a young man dashed from a tent, clubbed several deputies, seized a gun, and began firing. Deputies returned the fire.The shooting lasted 30 seconds, maybe a minute. When it stopped, four people were dead -- the young worker, the district attorney, a deputy sheriff, and a boy who had been passing by the edge of the crowd carrying a bucket of water.Although there had been no rioting until that "sobering" shot was fired by the deputy, authorities blamed it all on the IWW, arresting hundreds of Wobblies throughout the West for allegedly being involved in the riot and other "subversive" activities.Blackie Ford was a special target. He had been unarmed during the riot and had in fact counseled nonviolence, but a coroner's jury demanded his arrest on the grounds that the district attorney's death had come from a "gunshot wound inflicted by a gun in the hands of rioters incited to murderous anger by IWW leaders and agitators."Ford and another IWW leader, Herman Suhr, who hadn't even been present at the riot, eventually were arrested. Authorities admitted that Ford and Suhr had not taken any part in the violence but argued that they were guilty because they were members of an organization that had sent men to Wheatland to provoke workers into dangerous and ultimately fatal action. The two men were convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.The trial was highly publicized throughout the country, as were attempts afterward to free Ford and Suhr, who became martyr figures to the labor movement. But the riot and its aftermath also drew public attention to far broader issues.For the first time the severe plight of farmworkers was exposed to general view through newspaper reports and government probes that led to passage of more than three dozen state laws to improve workplace conditions. They included an act that created a commission that investigated farms statewide. Finding conditions generally not much better than those on Durst Ranch, the commission began enforcing regulations that set strict standards for sanitation and living accommodations.It's true that the reforms were largely temporary, and that even today farmworkers are in need of firm legal protections and, above all, strong unions that would enable them to improve their still generally abysmal conditions on their own.But anything that will be done by and for those vital workers who harvest our food, just as anything that has been done by and for them in the past, must draw inspiration from the foundation laid down in Wheatland on that hot, dusty, terror- filled afternoon of Aug. 3, 1913.

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