The International Workers of the World was a labor union founded in 1905 in Chicago. It was One Big Union, for all industrial workers. As a union it was radically decentralized and unhierarchized. One of the IWW's great successes in the Pacific Northwest was in Spokane, Washington, where ordinances had been passed forbidding speaking in the street, with the exception of the Salvation Army. In protest of this, hundreds of IWW Wobblies descended upon the city and began speaking on soapboxes. Each time someone would get up and start speaking, the police would seize them and immediately arrest them, however another Wobbly would already be speaking. Eventually Spokane's jail was full of IWW members, and yet the speakers kept coming. The city relented, and the ordinance was repealed.
In Everett, a continuing strike by the Shingle Weaver's Union was proving to be ineffective. The union's power appeared to be weak in Everett, which prompted the IWW to move in. The IWW sent orators and officers up into Everett from Seattle, in an attempt to increase the power of the IWW in Everett, and (hopefully) to lead the workers in a successful movement. Resistance to the IWW was immediate in Everett, both because of their reputation as radicals and from a fear of outsiders. The IWW was marched out of town by sheriff McRae and his deputies. The more they were repulsed, the more intent the IWW was to force its way into town and do its business. Their aim was to accomplish more or less what they had done in Spokane; by means of numbers and perseverance to more or less peacefully insist that they be allowed to speak openly, recruit, and organize. Soon something of a blockade had developed around Everett: any group of Wobblies found in the city would be arrested, possibly violently, and run out of town.
The climax of a series of increasingly nasty encounters between the IWW and sheriff McRae was a plan to bust open the blockade once and for all by boarding two passenger ships, the Verona and the Calista, and making something of a real landing in Everett. A call was sent out for 2000 Wobblies to converge on the city on November 5th, which brought some 250. The event was planned and publicized beforehand. Sheriff McRae and his deputies prepared to repel the landing with a show of force. It was probably his intention to simply intimidate the workers into going away. With the deputies, the sheriff, a large crowd of curious onlookers, and two ships heavily laden with passengers, there was a fervent mess of human activity.
As the Verona came in to dock at the pier, McRae asked boldly who's your leader? The response was we're all leaders! McRae then shouted you can't land here! to which the response was the hell we can't! At this moment someone fired a shot (it is unknown who). What specifically caused this individual to shoot is unknown, but the effect was clear. Men both on board the vessel and on shore were armed. The deputies began firing upon the boat, and the Wobblies on the boat fired back. All in all, 5 on the boat were killed, and 27 were wounded. Some of the wounded and dead tumbled out of the boat and into the water, rising the death toll as high as 12. On shore, at least 2 were killed, with 20 more injured.
The surviving IWW members were charged with murder, although these charges were later dropped after a highly publicized trial. Like many events involving large numbers of only loosely organized people, discovering what happened and who was responsible is very difficult. The event occurred because of a convergence of social, political, economic, and informational forces, tracing the precise trajectories of which can be very difficult.