The combination of direct action and passive resistance became the template for over 30 Free Speech fights. But none like the one in San Diego 100 years ago.
Harrison Gray Otis, owner of the Los Angeles Times, hated San Diego almost as much as he hated unions. He saw both as competitors: San Diego as a rival to L.A., unions as “traitors” to free enterprise.
In November, Otis met with 85 prominent San Diegans at the U.S. Grant Hotel. Pointing to potential turmoil — the Times building had been bombed; revolution in Mexico — Otis urged the group to do what Los Angeles had done: stop rabble-rousers from recruiting new members and enact an ordinance forbidding street meetings.
On December 6, even though the grand jury and common council had yet to decide, the Times reported that San Diego’s top officials were “determined to rid the street corners of the Socialists, IWWs, and other agitators, who each night congregate and exhort to a curious throng.”
San Diego had a bombing to the north, and revolution to the south. American Wobblies had fought with La Bandera Roja — the Red Army — in Mexico’s social revolution, at one point raising the red flag over the Customs House in Tijuana. After federales recaptured the town in the Second Battle of Tijuana — June 22, 1911 — over 100 Wobblies returned to California.
The U.S. Army met them at the border and herded them into custody at Fort Rosecrans. They didn’t remain long. “We were ordered to release the people,” said Colonel George Ruhien, “so we just turned them loose on San Diego — which was a dirty trick.”
The move doubled the number of Wobblies in town. Another magnet: the Panama-California Exposition of 1915 promised high-paying construction jobs, which never panned out.
December 8, 1911
For decades, Soapbox Row had an unwritten rule: at night no streetcars went down Fifth Avenue, nor did the growing number of automobiles or even horse-drawn wagons. Many stores, like Lion Clothiers at the southeast corner of Fifth and E, relished the foot traffic and stayed open on Saturday nights until 10:00 p.m.
On December 8, the grand jury, urged on by 85 businessmen, said street-speaking “congested the heart of the city” and must be prohibited. Five days later, the common council decided to “go slow with any kind of street legislation” (San Diego Sun). “For the present,” they would do “nothing which would cause trouble or deprive any man of his rights.”
January 6, 1912
Soap-boxers attracted a crowd so large it spilled into the intersection of Fifth and E. As if expecting an incident, police chief Keno Wilson and commissioner John L. Sehon looked on from a distance. They later estimated the gathering to be over 1000 people. “Black Maria” — the department’s touring car — cruised a block away.
Around 9:30 p.m., E.J. Lewis, an IWW organizer, began speaking. A horn honked on E, halfway between Fifth and Sixth. At first, it sounded like the driver wanted to drown out Lewis. Then the honking came closer. The car eased into the thickest part of the throng.
The driver was R.J. Walsh, a real-estate developer. Though off duty and not wearing his badge, he was also a deputy constable. His wife sat next to him.
Walsh kept punching the horn with his fist to clear a path. The crowd surged forward. Some threw debris. Others began to rock the car back and forth.
From his soapbox, Lewis urged everyone to pull back: the driver was obviously trying to create an incident.
A man — the only unnamed person in all the reports — jumped onto the running board and began to hassle Walsh. When Walsh said, “Take a ride with me” — to the police station — the man hopped down. He allegedly pulled a knife and slashed the left rear tire. Then he vanished into a maze of dark winter coats and hats.
Walsh honked again. The crowd cleared a lane. He drove to the police station and filed a report.
One of the most popular soap-boxers was George Washington Woodbey. A black man, he preached socialism like a religious revival, “as if his life blood was ebbing forth in a hemorrhage of words” (Union). After Lewis finished his talk, Woodbey jumped up on the soapbox.
Chief Wilson arrived in a touring car full of plainclothesmen. When the auto made a beeline for the crowd, Woodbey hopped down. He spread his legs and defiantly blocked its path, shouting, “Use the other side of the street!”
Detective Joseph Myers burst out of the car. He hooked Woodbey by the arm and hurtled him to the sidewalk. Woodbey rolled and rolled and banged his head on the curb.
Onlookers became incensed. “Shoot the police!” several shouted. One of them, W. Prottengler, was arrested and charged with inciting a riot.
Myers billy-clubbed Charles Grant on the skull. Grant later swore he was just trying to leave the scene.
Wilson and 20 officers and detectives ordered people to “move along,” and the angry multitude dispersed. By 11:30 p.m., Heller’s Corner was empty.
If the powers that be needed a trigger event to speed up the process, Walsh gave them one. Two days later, the common council passed Ordinance 4623, which banned street meetings with speaking and singing (“demonstrations of an oratorical or musical nature”) in the area. The ordinance was to go into effect immediately.
During those two days, rumors turned the slashed tire into slashed tires, and Mrs. Walsh, in some accounts, became the harried driver. The crowd grew to a “riotous mob,” eager to demolish downtown San Diego.
Speaking before the council, attorney Ernest E. Kirk called the incident a “put-up job,” adding, “It’s impossible to cut a heavy automobile tire with a knife.”
Buried on page two of a long article published in the Sun on January 11, Walsh made a puzzling confession. He didn’t think “any of those connected with the street meetings did it,” the Sun reported. It must have been “some hoodlums.” Why he changed his tune remains a mystery.
Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8