Chapter XVI: A Beating by Baltimore
I would have been content to stay on the New York waterfront, close to the historic events shaping up there, but some Party wheels had other ideas. I was called to a meeting of Party functionaries. It was the party's feeling that the strike would take on a major share of the American shipowners in confrontation, and that this was the time to intensify Party work among the maritime workers. From the discussion some decisions were made. I was assigned to Baltimore.
When the militant Marine Workers' Industrial Union had gone out of existence, much of the militant spirit that it engendered had left with it. The seamen's relief system that the MWIU had fought for and created for that port had disappeared. Now the port was controlled by arch-reactionaries of the ISU, and their job was to prevent any seamen from joining the strike of their New York brothers.
My job was to keep the seamen in the port informed of what was happening and to do everything possible to get them to join forces with the strikers in New York. Working through the Party office I had use of typewriters and mimeographs whenever I needed them. Several other Party seamen were on the beach in Baltimore when I arrived.
While crews in some ports were receptive to joining the strike, in a smaller port like Baltimore we encountered great reluctance to "hit the bricks." It took us ten days before we found a crew ready to join the ranks of the strikers. The SS Floridian was a small freighter that carried fertilizer and other bulk cargoes up and down the coast. A few dollars were collected from some Party sympathizers in Baltimore to rent an empty storefront right on the waterfront. It served as strike headquarters and a rallying center for the seamen in Baltimore. The Floridian crew was an enthusiastic one, made up mostly of young men. Over his protest, the boatswain, a man from Kentucky, was made chairman of the strike committee. We set up various committees to keep the crew active trying to extend the strike.
As the days passed, fewer and fewer ships entered Baltimore. In New York some 15 to 20 ships were tied up, their crews on the picket line. The shipowners now had to face reality. They had a strike on their hands. Hurriedly improvements were being made to keep other ships from joining the fast-growing ranks of strikers. Some crews found themselves sitting down to first-class meals in the mess room, while on other ships the "donkey breakfast" straw mattresses were being replaced by more comfortable cotton mattresses. The character of "Captain Bly" was quickly and quietly changing on board many ships as the crews were finding officers using new tactics in human relations. This had a big effect for many seamen, although they recognized that changes were a direct result of the strike. Only the strong-willed and militant crews took the big step and walked off.
Probably no other strike in the previous 20 years in New York had given such a shot in the arm to the Communist Party. Directives had been sent out to branches in the area to do everything possible to assist the strike. Some Party groups volunteered to canvas their neighborhoods and collect food and blankets for the strikers, while others filled strike headquarters with typewriters, desks, chairs, stationery and printing materials. In every Party publication, mention was made of the strike. Articles were written by trade union professionals about the strikers' need of trade union backing. It was only natural that, with hundreds of men and women engaged in the everyday class struggle, Party members were able to recruit many new supporters. The Communists made no attempt to hide themselves. On every committee Communists were elected to serve and they distinguished themselves by working zealously to make their contribution felt.
In Baltimore, we acted in the same manner. I contacted a liberal teacher from Johns Hopkins University who agreed to teach members of the strike committee better English and how to speak in public. My only error was that I failed to include myself in the class.
Still, after seven days of keeping the Floridian strike-bound, the shipowners, with the help of the gangster officials of the ISU, remanned the Floridian with scabs and sailed her in the middle of the night. Our ace in the hole was gone. She had been a symbol of man's courage to buck the odds and strike for the good of all seamen. Now we had lost our symbol in Baltimore. Our literature had to be changed. Our proud leaflet that read "There she lays!" had to be discarded. The sailing of the Floridian had a profound effect on some of the former crew members. They sank into a state of demoralization and moroseness.
In New York, the strike was reaching its zenith as the 25th ship's crew joined the strike. Of the 25 ships that were strike-bound, more than half had been crewed with scabs and returned to the high seas. It was only a matter of time before the rest of the struck ships would hire creeps, derelicts and scabs and head to sea. This was a high priority on the shipowner's list: keep the ships sailing at any and all costs to discourage other crews from joining the striking ranks and to show them that they could not win.
Since it was springtime in the East, the seamen named their strike, "The Spring Strike." It would involve some 7,000 seamen and succeed in collecting thousands of dollars from the public in its support. Hundreds of thousands of meals were served through our soup kitchens; millions of leaflets were distributed. In addition to picket line duty, the striking seamen took their case to the public via radio and demonstrations throughout the affected areas. Despite the support the strike received from trade unions throughout the country, the top leadership of the AFL did not abandon their attacks on the strike. Daily, via the press and radio, they continued to call the strike a Communist plot and the strikers all Communist dupes.
The strike was now in its eighth week. A meeting was called to evaluate it: where we had been, where we were at the moment and where we were going. This involved just the top leadership of the strike committee. The meeting continued throughout the day. There seemed to be a consensus that the strike had reached and passed its full effect. Nothing more could be gained by prolonging it. Over the previous eight weeks more than ninety ships' crews had participated. The rank-and-file movement to reform the ISU had involved thousands of seamen who never before had come face-to-face with the issue of building a strong rank-and-file union. The majority at the meeting were convinced that now these hundreds of seamen had to be gotten back on board ships. In this way future organization could be achieved.
When these decisions were reported to a general meeting, some greeted it with applause and others booed. Men took the floor and voiced their opinions regardless of how popular or unpopular they might be. A vote was taken. The majority had decided to terminate the strike. What remained now was to get a dialogue going between the ISU officials and the leaders of the rank and file to obtain assurances that there would be no retaliation or discrimination. After a few days of negotiations a pledge was given by the ISU executive board that gave assurances that most of the men would be allowed to return, with the exception of Curran and a few others. They were to remain expelled. (Included among the expelled members were several men of the Left who would play prominent roles in the future of the maritime industry, men like Blackie Myers, Ferdinand Smith, Joe Stack and Howard MacKenzie.)
The Party suggested setting up a permanent skeleton organization. A Seamen's Defense Committee was formed, to be headed by Curran and a few other leaders. The objectives of the committee were to keep in touch with the rank and file, to supply them with literature and to encourage them to organize their ships for the future, when another blow could be struck for honest unionism on the waterfront.
Down in Baltimore I greeted the decision to return to the ships with enthusiasm. Most of the crew of the Floridian had left town, heading for southern ports. Only a half dozen men stayed around to carry out the mandate of the New York Seamen's Defense Committee: prepare for a strike in the future. The Baltimore police who patrolled the Thames Street section of the waterfront made sure we understood that our presence was not something desired. We had been singled out by the officials of the ISU as radicals who deserved nothing better that to be driven out of town. Just a few years earlier, when the MWIU was strong in the port, the police had kept their distance from the waterfront. They recognized that any intimidation or strong-arming against the seamen would bring about a demonstration. However, with no strong union around to defend the seamen's rights, the police were now in a better position to push their weight around. They cornered drunken seamen, first rolling them of what money they carried, then clubbing them in the bargain. There was no limit to what the cops could do, and we knew we had to be extremely vigilant not to make a mistake which would give the police a chance to crawl on us.
Late one night, five of us were returning from a party meeting to our waterfront lodgings. We stopped in for a cup of coffee at a restaurant just a few feet from our rooming house. One of us had been nursing a pint of whiskey throughout the evening and was fairly out of it by the time we entered the restaurant. As fate would have it, sitting at the counter was the agent of the Baltimore branch of the ISU, Blythe, a reactionary bastard. We saw him, and he saw us. Unfortunately, our half-drunk companion saw him, too. He shouted a curse at him. The ISU agent said nothing but continued eating his meal. The man sitting next to him got up and left the restaurant. We tried to shut up our boisterous friend, and for a while we were successful. We continued drinking our coffee with relative peace of mind, but serenity was something too good to ask for. With the fury of alcohol taking the place of reason, our friend got up, walked behind the counter, picked up a long bread knife and moved toward the ISU agent. I jumped up, grabbed the knife from his hand and turned when I heard the door open. In walked six policemen who wasted no time in getting to me. Quickly we were hustled outside, then prodded with nightsticks to move across the street toward a dark section where the call box was located. "Looks like we caught you just in time, before you sliced off everyone's head," said a short, brutal-looking cop who faced me.
"I was not intending to use the knife," I said.
"You hate us, don't you?" the cop asked. I knew right then and there that the sidewalk was due to spring up and hit us in the face. There was silence as I pondered the predicament. "Well, don't you?" the cop said threateningly.
"I don't know what this is all about," I said. "We would like to continue on our way home."
"Now, isn't that nice. You want to continue on home. How come you're not talking like you were last week on that soapbox? How come? You're talking very quiet. I almost can't hear you. Last week you were shouting your Communist head off, calling the police all sorts of names. Remember? You like calling us names, huh?" He gripped the nightstick in the center and aimed straight at my face. The blow hit me right on the bridge of the nose. I winced, then watched him draw back and strike again. This time the blow caught me on the left side of the jaw. I could feel the jaw crack against the club. My nose was on fire. I could feel blood oozing down around my lips when the third blow struck, this time on the side of the nose. Now the blood really started to flow. Everything seemed to swirl around me, and as much as I wanted to raise my hands to protect my face from more blows, I could not transmit the signal from my brain to my hands. I heard another cop say, "For Christ's sake, hold it. He's got enough." Then another blow struck the side of my head. Another cop protested, "Don't kill him."
"Okay, sonofabitch. If you think you've been worked over now just wait until you get to the station house," said the club-wielding cop.
The wagon arrived and we got in. I was so numb from the blows that I knew that no matter what they would do to me at the station house, it could be no more devastating than what had already been done. As miserable as I felt, I was elated that as hard as he had belted me with that club, I did not fall down or plead with the bastard. It made him the smaller man. There was no way to stop the bleeding; it ran down the front of my pants and into my shoes, and when the wagon pulled in and we walked toward the booking desk, I could feel and hear the squish-squish of blood in my shoes. By now both eyes were closing up and my face was turning blue. It was difficult to breathe through my nose and I couldn't close my mouth against the broken, painful jaw.
When the desk sergeant looked down at me for the first time, he said in a tone bordering on panic, "For God's sake, get this man below and sponge his face." Two station house cops, treating me like a long-lost brother, escorted me to the lower cell block in the basement. For the next 20 minutes they laid sponges on my face, wiping off the blood, stopping the bleeding and trying to bring down the swelling. My companions settled down in one cell together, but I was given a cell to myself. There was no sleep that night as pain engulfed my head, nose and jaw.
I staggered out of my bunk in the morning feeling punch drunk. Now my eyes were really closed; I peered out through little slits. My face felt like someone had run a rasp file across it. Several loose teeth sent throbs of pain through my head. To endure the pain, I focused my thoughts on the great Russian revolutionary heroes who had undergone all sorts of torture by the Czarist police and still triumphed. I would do the same. The more I thought of a revolutionary like Karmal, the less I could feel the pain. A guard opened the door. "Here," he said, handing me a new white shirt. "Put this on; you'll feel better." I was not in the proper frame of mind to think and accepted the shirt, even allowing him to help put it on. My old shirt was stuck to my body with dried blood.
We stood before the judge in a small room devoid of chairs or benches. "So you are the troublemakers?" he said sarcastically, peering down at us from his bench.
"That's them, your honor," said the cop who had wielded the club. "A fine lot of troublemakers they are. Fomenting strikes and trouble on the ships and piers in our city."
"And which of the five of them was about to use the knife?" asked the judge.
"That tall one, sir," replied the cop, pointing at me.
"And these other four? What were they doing?"
"They were sitting down, encouraging the big one," the cop said.
"Very well. The four of you are given a thirty-day suspended sentence. But you," said the judge as he stared me straight in the face, "you seem to be the real troublemaker. Sixty dollars, or thirty days in the Baltimore penitentiary. That's all; clear the room."
The huge Baltimore penitentiary was something new to me. It was bigger than the New York Tombs. Every day at a certain hour the cell block door opened and newly-arriving prisoners walked through it. They were met by a large gathering of prisoners standing in a circle, looking for a friend or a face they knew. I could imagine what Quasimodo, the hunchback of Notre Dame, must have felt like with his distorted face. When I walked through the ranks of the prisoners, there were sounds of shock. No one attempted to look me in the eye. My jaw was by now hanging open, and I was gasping for air.
Word had gotten out rather fast that the cops had beaten me up, and that I was no thief, but a radical. The guards in the prison took a sympathetic view toward me. At the dining room table, the rule was that whether you liked it or not, all food on your plate had to be eaten. Many prisoners stuffed their shirts with bread or other food they couldn't eat, then dumped it later. My plate was full of stew. I was sitting on the aisle seat, the guard only inches from me. I made several attempts to eat, but I concluded that it was less painful to risk more time in the slammer than to eat. I looked at the guard, waiting for a negative response. He saw the rough time I was having. He nodded his head that it was okay for me to leave the food on my plate, but I could remove the bread by stuffing it in my shirt.
I asked the guard if I could see the doctor. The doctor was a nasty bastard. The first thing he did was admonish me for wearing a button that read, "Striker." "Do you think that's all there is to life, striking?" I couldn't answer, but made a grunting sound. He sat me down in a chair, then, grabbing my chin, he quickly pushed the jaw upward. As steeled as I tried to be, the pain was overwhelming and I let out a terrible moan.
"Now it pains you, huh? Well, you should have thought about that before you went around striking. Here are some aspirins. The dentist will be in next week. You can see him."
Late that afternoon I was bailed out. My companions had visited a West Coast ship, one of the Weyerhauser Line. They told about my arrest and how urgent it was to get $60. The crew dug into their pockets. I was bailed out.
For weeks after the incident, I did not come across the cop who worked me over, though he was constantly on my mind. I had devised dozens of ways of doing away with him. But if my luck ran true to form, the creep would most likely die peacefully in bed at a ripe old age.
Things were quiet now in Baltimore. My jaw had healed. A sympathetic dentist worked on my loose teeth. With the exception of finding it hard to inhale through my nose, I started to feel okay. I got permission form the Party to move back to New York.
There was some talk of training me to take over a section of the Brooklyn waterfront as Party section organizer. Brooklyn handled a lot of the port of New York's shipping and was a heavy concentration point for longshoremen. For a few weeks I worked with the district organizer, following him to meetings and sitting in on conferences that seemed to go on day and night. I found myself seeing less of the waterfront and more of meeting rooms and postal workers or shirtmakers or newspaper peddlers, hearing their problems and possible solutions. It was all worthwhile, but darn it, I was a seaman. I felt homesick for the sight of a ship's mast. I was unhappy with my present assignment and I knew I would be a lot sadder if I were to be shackled to working in the job they had planned for me. In addition, there was talk about a pending West Coast maritime strike.
I took off one day and visited the Seamen's Defense Committee, the storefront headquarters of the permanent committee that was to prepare for the next East Coast strike. A West Coast ship had arrived in Jersey City and needed some men. They called and asked specifically for West Coast seamen who might be on the beach. It came at an ideal time. I took one of the jobs and headed for Jersey City and the President Garfield of the Dollar Steamship Line.
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book Two