How a 1933 Milk Strike Set the Stage for OC’s Eternal War Against Dissent

This June marks the 80th anniversary of the 1936 Citrus War, one of the most crucial—and unknown—events in OC history. For a full month, a veritable civil war occurred in the county’s groves between thousands of Mexican orange pickers who wanted to form a union and the lords of Orange County: police, the sheriff’s department, the district attorney’s office, California Highway Patrol, farmers, captains of industry—all of them. They so brutally crushed the strike, illegally arresting hundreds and letting vigilantes loose on local barrios, that legendary progressive historian Carey McWilliams described law enforcement’s treatment of naranjeros as “fascism in practice.”

The Citrus War set back labor in Orange County for generations and forever cemented OC’s distrust of Mexicans. But lost to moldering microfilm reels is the story of how and why county government and business was so thoroughly prepped to put down the unrest. Just two years earlier, an attempted strike by a handful of dairy workers whipped up the powers that be into a frenzy and got law enforcement, farmers and the press together to craft an attack plan that ensured pesky workers would face their full, collective wrath next time. The mastermind: Sheriff Logan Jackson, who was to the office in 1930. He’s mostly forgotten in the annals of local law enforcement—there’s no jail named after him, there was no crippling scandal during his terms, there isn’t even a plaque somewhere honoring him. But Jackson proved a pioneer in a favorite Orange County sport: using made-up threats to justify an expansion of government power to suppress dissent.

A man who publicly portrayed himself as pious to the point that he’d take out ads in local newspapers urging people to attend church, Jackson originally ran on an anti-alcohol platform during the last days of Prohibition. But he quickly realized that what constituents feared most wasn’t boozehounds, but rather the specter of workers demanding better pay. And in the early years of the Great Depression, strikes across the country led to the formation of unions, improved working conditions and strengthened poor people—all anathema to Orange County. Local businessmen demanded that elected officials not only respond to any demonstrations, but also stop leftist thoughts from ever spreading here.

Jackson obliged. In 1931, he created a strike force that would be on call at all times—all a farmer had to do was complain to them about grumbling employees, and the sheriff would visit the worksite himself, accompanied by dozens of deputies. Jackson’s squad put down movements in San Juan Capistrano and Stanton, as well as among berry pickers and citrus fumigators, encountering few problems.

But in 1933, an unlikely new front emerged: dairies. Throughout the year, cow farmers nationwide went on strike demanding higher prices for their milk, with riots and even deaths as a result. The Jackson-friendly Santa Ana Register breathlessly reported on the milk troubles, with headlines such as “Why the Strikes,” “Farmers Dump Milk and Halt Livestock Shipment,” and “One Man Killed in Farm Strike.” It even ran a photo of bat-wielding strikers at blockades—journalistic cues warning OC of the violence bound to happen if local radicals had their way.

Orange County had a relatively small dairy industry, but the fear campaign worked. In July of that year, the Board of Supervisors made it a misdemeanor to picket based on Jackson’s assertion that “striking Mexicans” shot at a white rancher during another tussle. Jackson also announced he was deputizing members of the American Legion, in case any troubles reached here.

At the beginning of 1934, a strike finally hit OC’s dairy farms: A grand total of 21 milkers walked off their jobs in Los Alamitos, Costa Mesa and Santa Ana, demanding increases in wages from $40 to $90. About the most radical thing organizers did was leaving pamphlets in cow pens that classified their struggle as a “class fight” against “capitalists” and hanging signs that stated, “This dairy on strike; do not scab.”

It didn’t matter: Jackson went into overdrive. At the Raitt Dairy Ranch in Santa Ana, armed deputies transported milk from Riverside County to the plant, lest strikers attack them. The Orange County Farm Bureau and multiple chambers of commerce organized milkers to work as scabs at dairy farms in Los Angeles. Jackson sent 14 deputies to confront two strikers and had a deputy stationed outside his home around the clock, claiming he had received threatening notes. “Sheriff Jackson,” the Register reported, “said he is determined to protect life and property in Orange County and is making active preparations to meet any emergency which might arise.”

Four men were eventually arrested for picketing, one of them shotgunned by a dairy farmer; after getting treated at the hospital for injuries to his hand and legs, the striker went to jail, while the farmer wasn’t charged. Summoned before a judge during a hearing on a writ of habeas corpus against the arrested strikers, Jackson was unapologetic. “The county could not afford to let the milk strikers gain a foothold,” he was quoted as saying, “because enthused with any success in that attempt, they might spread to the citrus industry and other trades.”

A judge gave the four workers suspended sentences, and that was the extent of the milk strike. But the tiny action so spooked Orange County that Jackson was able to solidify his anti-leftist tactics. Two weeks later, the Board of Supervisors heard from Santa Ana constable Jess Elliott—a former Ku Klux Klan member who succeeded Jackson as sheriff—on a plan to organize peace officers countywide in the event of a future strike. Included in the plan was for “newspaper publicity to inform agitators that the police are ready to handle the emergency” (as though a seal barking its approval, the Register followed with an editorial urging prospective strikers to be content with their low wages, saying, “There must be an infinitely greater satisfaction in working, even for less money, to produce and to carry on the natural orderly processes of useful work”).

Months later, Jackson, while announcing his re-election campaign, boasted that “attempts to include labor troubles [in Orange County], such as the milk strike, were promptly stamped out before they could gain headway.” In ads, the Logan Jackson Club boasted that its man “was ready for the agitator here and he didn’t get in. He was nipped and nipped hard.” Another ad was composed of nothing but press clippings from OC’s many small dailies, all praising Jackson’s handling of the milk strike.

Jackson won re-election in November and was given free reign to further his power. In June 1934, the Orange County Peace Officers Association, under the watch of the sheriff, sponsored a weapons event in which gas grenades and shells, along with a Tommy gun, were set off at sunset on the beach at San Clemente; the Register reported, “These are available in case of need in any part of the county.” The arsenal would be used to intimidate striking orange pickers during the Citrus War, with tear gas being tossed into buildings and strikers being marched into court by marshals hawking Tommy guns. Again, we go to McWilliams, who described the sheriff and DA “ordering Mexicans around as though they were prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp.”

The more things change . . .

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