“It was a new and serious problem for the people of San Diego, for which they were not in any way prepared,” Hiram Weinstock reported to the governor of California. Even so, he added, there was “no justification whatever on the part of…law-abiding citizens to become lawbreakers. Who are the greater criminals, who the real anarchists?”
The San Diego Free Speech Fight began officially on February 8, 1912. An ordinance that banned street-speaking in a six-square-block “congested” area went into effect.
The recently formed Free Speech League — an unlikely coalition of socialists, IWWs, single-taxers, trade unions, church groups, and businessmen — planned to test the ordinance. Starting near the city jail, at Second and G, protestors would march north to Third and F, from F to Sixth, then up Sixth to B. The parade permit ordered them to disband in a vacant lot at the northeast corner of Seventh and B.
Approved by commissioner John L. Sehon, the route navigated around Heller’s Corner, the center of Soapbox Row at Fifth and E. At dusk, a large crowd expecting fireworks had already assembled at Heller’s Corner. All San Diego knew the parade wouldn’t stop at a vacant lot.
At 7:30, Wood Hubbard, secretary of the Free Speech League, gave the order to move. Mounted police led the procession. The clomp of hooves cleared the street of pedestrians and stray dogs. Joseph Penbrook headed the protesters on horseback. Hubbard came next, waving a sign that read “Liberty and Justice Live, 1776–1912.” Laura Payne Emerson and Juanita McKamey walked beside him.
A “mass of humanity” followed, wearing hats and heavy coats. They marched four abreast with slow, steady steps. Some carried banners. Along the way, they encouraged onlookers to “fall in line, boys” — join the protest. When one did, the throng cheered.
At Sixth and E, the entrance to Soapbox Row, 20 police formed a dark-blue wall at the western crosswalk: arms crossed, long nightsticks in hand. The marchers continued up Sixth and across Broadway to B.
When they reached the vacant lot, instead of disbanding, they broke into Joe Hill’s “We Will Sing One Song” (to the tune of “My Old Kentucky Home”):
- We will sing one song of the meek and humble slave,
- The horny-handed son of the soil,
- He’s toiling hard from the cradle to the grave,
- But his master reaps the profits of his toil.
They kept marching.
They turned back down Sixth to E, where police, joined by reinforcements, still blocked the crosswalk. If protesters stayed in the street, they would “congest” it. Mass arrests would follow.
So, they formed two lines and walked single-file down both sidewalks to Fifth. “The police could not legally prevent this,” wrote the Sun the next day, “but they laid in wait at Fifth and E.”
There were two soapboxes: a small one halfway between Fifth and Sixth, and a larger one at Heller’s Corner.
At least ten policemen surrounded the small box. Holding his “liberty” sign high above a sea of hats, Wood Hubbard squeezed through the blue cordon and stood on the rostrum.
“Fellow workers,” he began, “the working class and the employing class have nothing in common.”
Two policemen yanked him down. Although Hubbard did not resist, the officers locked their arms in his and tugged him off to jail.
Laura Payne Emerson stepped on the box. Before she could open her mouth, bluecoats pulled her off.
Seventeen-year-old Juanita McKamey went third. Recently engaged to a local dentist — who later tried unsuccessfully to bail her out of jail — McKamey submitted to the arrest. But officers handled her so roughly that onlookers, writes the Union, “began to stir angrily.”
More police elbowed through the crowd to the soapbox. Waving nightsticks, they ordered an estimated 3000 people to back off. In reply, several shouted, “Free speech — show that you are Americans!”
A boy jumped on the box. He did a dance, got a laugh, and jumped off. Other boys began kicking the box.
“Don’t break that box!” a man yelled, with, according to the Union, “a tone of horror, as though a desecration was taking place.”
Casper Bauer, a socialist, stepped up. “Here I am,” he said. “Arrest me. I’m doing no wrong. I am a free-born American citizen who has something to say: I want to go to jail.”
Two officers jerked him down so abruptly, the box slid from under his feet and skidded along the sidewalk.
Attorney E.E. Kirk wasn’t scheduled to speak. A dapper dresser — slick hair and starched white collars his trademark — Kirk was supposed to hold back and become the prisoners’ legal counsel.
Infuriated by Bauer’s treatment, Kirk became “a monument of rage” (Sun). He stood on the box and glared at the crowd, which stretched for several blocks. Before Kirk spoke a word, captain of detectives Myers nabbed him.
“It wasn’t in the program,” Kirk said later. “After they pulled Bauer from the box, I just couldn’t help taking his place.”
Myers — six-foot-two and well over 200 pounds — pummeled Kirk on the way to jail. The next day, wrote the Sun, Myers was “congratulating himself” for the arrest. “Myers and Kirk have not been friendly since Kirk threatened” to have Myers discharged.
Burly Harry McKee, a prominent socialist, went next. As policemen carted him off, Officer Kirkland threw his full weight against McKee’s back and almost knocked him over.
“An enormous crowd witnessed the arrests,” wrote the Sun. “Whenever a speaker arose, there was loud cheering. When a speaker was arrested, he was cheered and the police were hissed. The police flourished clubs continually.
“The men and women who were arrested seemed to glory in it. They were acting as martyrs and that the police were the guilty ones.”
Chief Wilson and a dozen officers waited at headquarters, Wilson at the entrance, a club in his hand. A slow, steady parade of officers and prisoners came to the station. Two clerks worked nonstop. They took names as others frisked for weapons.
Although Wilson gave orders against rough treatment “unless necessary” (San Diego Herald), many saw a man “running around covered with blood from a great gash in his head. He declared a mounted policeman had struck him.”
That night, police arrested 38 men and three women. The charge: conspiracy to commit a crime.
Refused bail, the men went to the newly built jail’s “sobering-up room” and soon filled it beyond its 60-person capacity. Women went to the “female ward.”
When the clerks processed him, an unnamed man had only 15 cents in his pocket. Asked why, he said, “I have money all right, but I left it at home. I knew better than to have money after the police got me.”
As with the others, a clerk told the man to remove his shoes, to see if he concealed a saw or other weapon. No prisoner was armed, but two, the Union reported, “were intoxicated.”
Those two must not have been Wobblies. The IWW was firmly against alcohol: “You can’t fight booze and the boss at the same time.”
Some protesters weren’t without vanity: Kirk demanded to keep his comb, so he could look presentable to reporters in the morning; Laura Payne Emerson, who refused to give her age, became indignant when she learned the jail wouldn’t provide nightgowns for women prisoners.
Overloading jails and the legal system were tactics the Wobblies used elsewhere. The next day, Kirk announced that these weren’t the original aim of the demonstration. The Free Speech League wanted to test the ordinance in court. But the arrests were for conspiracy, a violation of state law, not the ordinance. So the league changed tactics. And IWW Local #13 vowed a “fight to the finish.”
On the morning of February 9, an estimated 1000 people gathered outside the jail. They stood within the law, since they weren’t in the restricted zone. They heard the strangest thing: the prisoners, who had slept on a cold, concrete floor without blankets, were singing. “The voices of the women in another part of the prison,” wrote the Sun, “blended in with the gruffer tones of the men…and the crowds cheered.”
Though not all. The Wobbly version of “Onward Christian Soldiers” alienated potential supporters:
- Onward, Christian soldiers! Duty’s way is plain:
- Slay your Christian neighbors, or by them be slain.
- Pulpeteers are spouting effervescent swill,
- God above is calling you to rob and rape and kill.
Armed policemen formed a ring around the station. Rumors of a plot to storm the building kept all on close watch. Then, around midmorning, came talk of dynamite. Within the past year, someone had bombed the Los Angeles Times building. Was San Diego next?
Anyone emerging from the crowd became a threat.
A man with white whiskers came forward. Alerted officers closed in. But the man’s hands were empty. He climbed the station steps and held his hands out. “Arrest me,” he said.
“You’re too old,” said a policeman.
“Just imagine I’m 24,” he replied. He was ordered to move along.
The entire police force — 60 regulars and 40 reserves — prepared for an unprecedented siege.
Chief Wilson had never seen the like. “These people do not belong to any country, no flag, no laws, no Supreme Being,” he told the Union. “I do not know what to do. I cannot punish them.”
After a pause, he added: “Listen to them singing. They are singing all the time, yelling and hollering, and telling the jailors to quit work and join the union. They are worse than animals!”
That night, police arrested 15 more at Soapbox Row, and 12 the next. Crowds estimated in the thousands appeared every evening at Fifth and E. By week’s end, 84 inmates crammed the jail, including, for the second time, Laura Payne Emerson and Juanita McKamey.
Police began moving prisoners to the county jail where conditions, many reported to the press, were more favorable.
In the city jail, wrote Robert Warren Diehl, “charges of police brutality were made almost daily: beating prisoners, confiscating tobacco and handkerchiefs, depriving nearsighted inmates of their glasses, and refusing drinking water to the incarcerated.” Other reports mention a foul odor and illnesses spread from such close contact. “The room in which the street speakers are confined,” wrote the Sun, “is the only part of the jail where such disgraceful conditions exist.”
Newspapers took sides. The Union and the Tribune, both owned by J.D. Spreckels, demanded immediate action. “This is a time when friends of San Diego should stand shoulder to shoulder to avert a menace to the city’s welfare,” wrote the Union.
Spreckels’s papers alleged that E.W. Scripps, publisher of the Sun, sided with free-speechers because he owned the vacant lot at Seventh and B. The Sun, which later withdrew support for the protesters, printed a vehement denial.
A call went out to the IWW’s “knights of the road.” Word spread to “hobo jungles”: go to San Diego; a fight was on. Wobblies arrived in autos, “rattlers” (freight cars), the beds of trucks, even boats. They sang:
- We’re coming by the hundreds, will be joined
- By hundreds more.
- So join at once and let them see the
- Workers are all sore.
They came to get thrown in a jail stuffed in with other protesters, fed bad food twice a day, and possibly beaten.
During that first week, Commissioner Sehon ordered all male vagrants rounded up. Detective Myers claimed that at least 150 Wobblies had been spotted on their way from Los Angeles — and that countless others were coming from around the country.
Indignant members of the Wide Awake Club demanded that more police be sworn in immediately.
On February 11, Clark Braly, the former park commissioner, told reporters, “I don’t want to cast any reflection on the police. They have done their work splendidly. They have shown they can handle the situation as it exists at present.”
But with rumors of many thousands of Wobblies headed to San Diego, Braly proposed a “vigilance committee” to stop “the godless rabble” at the county line and horsewhip them back to where they came.
“San Diego is approaching an important period in her history” — the Panama-California Exposition of 1915 — “and can’t afford to take any chance with these lawless trouble makers and get the disagreeable notoriety they have brought other cities.”
Guns and bloodshed wouldn’t be necessary, Braly added. “Horsewhips are enough to deal with these fellows.” They “believe in popular government. Now let’s give it to them!” ■
- Stewart Bird (in Solidarity Forever): “In pre-World War I America, the itinerant workforce numbered in the millions, poorly paid, treated harshly by employers, usually males in their teens and twenties.”
- Irving Abrams (in Solidarity Forever): “I.W.W.s were Socialists who didn’t believe in political action. They say casting a vote was like going to the toilet.”
- J. Edward Morgan, industrial worker (in Adler): San Diegans “threaten to make an example of these men. They swear they will show Spokane [and] Fresno how to handle the ‘Damn Tribe’ that ought to be wiped out of existence.”
- Adler, William M., The Man Who Never Died, New York, 2011.
Bird, Georgakas, and Shaffer, Solidarity Forever: An Oral History of the IWW, Chicago, 1985.
Conlin, Joseph Robert, Bread and Roses Too: Studies of the Wobblies, Westport, 1969.
Diehl, Robert Warren, “To Speak or Not to Speak: San Diego, 1912,” master’s thesis, University of San Diego, 1976.
Miller, Jim, Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See, New York, 2003.
Mills, James, “When You Couldn’t Talk at Fifth and E,” San Diego Magazine, September, 1950; “Comes the Revolution: San Diego, 1912,” San Diego Magazine, October, 1959.
Winters, Donald E. Jr., The Soul of the Wobblies: The I.W.W., Religion, and American Culture in the Progressive Era, 1905–1917, London, 1985.
IWW Songbook, Songs of the Workers: To Fan the Flames of Discontent, 34th edition, Chicago, 1973.
Articles in the San Diego Union, the Tribune, the Sun, and the Herald.
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