Jack Withington, Guest Blogger
Throughout history Communists have been portrayed by the media, the government and certain politicians as “Boogeyman “and were accused by the late FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover of orchestrating the civil rights movement.
Were there communists in Petaluma and Sonoma County? Yes! 1934 voter registration rolls listed 25 Sonoma County residents as members of the Communists party; eleven of those resided in the south county. The Federal Bureau of Investigation was rumored to have more than one agent on duty to keep tabs on locals suspected of being communists and or sympathizers.
1935, in the midst of the “Great Depression”, Sonoma County residents, who were aware of the migrant’s plight, helped organize an “apple worker’s union” and supported the strikers involved in the Sebastopol Apple Strike. The migrants cause was publicized in books such as John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath”, and helped make Americans aware of the conditions that they worked and lived under.
At the time, a very hostile apple industry, trying to stave off bankruptcy and barely able to pay their own expenses due to depression era financial conditions was pitted against a fledging migrant worker union, supported in part by local labor unions, sympathizers, and local Communists.
Labor rallies were held at various locations in the county only to be broken up by, business community sponsored, Vigilantes. The striker’s pleas for police protection fell on deaf ears. The striker’s demand included a pay increase of fifteen cents per hour that would raise their pay from twenty-five cents per hour to forty cents per hour; an increase of four cents per box picked and time and a half for hours worked over eight hours per day.
Rancor and passions were deep seated and culminated when the Vigilantes made a late night raid on the home west Petaluma poultry rancher, Sol Nitzberg. He was taken by gun point, along with four other strike activists to a location in Santa Rosa to an awaiting mob. There, the five were given an ultimatum, immediately stop their union activities, kiss the American Flag, and swear allegiance to the United States or suffer the consequences. Three of the strikers capitulated and acquiesced to the Vigilantes demands. The other two, Sol Nitzberg and Silva (Jack) Green stood fast with their beliefs and were undressed and covered with a noxious and toxic oily combination of tar and chicken feathers, paraded through town, and marched to the city limits with orders to leave the county. The evening’s events made national news including The Nation and Time magazines, and newspapers worldwide.
Sonoma County officials refused to prosecute the Vigilantes and were replaced with officials from the State of California Attorney General’s office who then, under state Criminal Case # 2030-C prosecuted 23 defendants. A trial was held in Santa Rosa, the Vigilantes including the Sheriff of Sonoma County, Harry Patterson, Fredrick C. Cairns, Secretary of the Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce and Sydney Elphick, a Petaluma area rancher were found not guilty by a jury comprised of Sonoma County residents.