Joe Hill, songwriter and icon of labor, couldn’t understand why the Industrial Workers of the World chose San Diego for a Free Speech fight in 1912. “One of those jerk-water towns of no industrial importance,” San Diego had a population of around 40,000, and “the main industry consists of catching suckers” — tourists. From an IWW point of view, said Hill, “it is not worth a whoop in Hell.”
What began with a slashed tire at a street meeting created, in the words of historian Kevin Starr, “a small civil war.”
“Indeed,” writes Melvin Dubofsky, “never did the number of Wobblies in San Diego exceed a few hundred. Yet those few goaded authorities and the populace into a hysterical frenzy…a condition of lawlessness so pronounced that travelers feared to visit the city.”
Almost every evening in 1911, you could walk down E Street in San Diego, between Fourth and Sixth streets, and have free entertainment. Men wearing straw or bowler hats, and women in floor-length dresses, clustered under imitation gaslights: balls of white glass, lit electrically. The people listened to speakers who stood on wooden crates or short, jittery ladders.
From afar, the scene looked like a carnival. But the barkers were deadly serious. They shook their fists and shouted scorching accusations. They heckled their listeners and were heckled in return.
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a legendary soap-boxer, recalled in 1955: “I often wonder how modern audiences would receive the fervid oratory popular then. Styles of speech have changed. [Radio and television] have eliminated action and calmed down the approach.” Back in the Free Speech days from 1907–1916, she says, “we paced the platform, we appealed to the emotions. We spoke loudly, passionately, and swiftly.”
Women advocated suffrage. Atheists debunked God. Health gurus extolled wonder diets. All blazed away not just to be heard but to attract passers-by, who strolled from group to group like window-shoppers sampling the wares.
A block south of Broadway, E Street stood in “the entertainment and shopping district,” a buffer zone between moneyed San Diego and its notorious red-light district, the Stingaree (the “deadline” was Market Street). For at least 20 years, E Street was “Soapbox Row.” And until December 1911, "jawsmiths" could argue their hearts out — even call officials “incompetent nincompoops,” as George Washington Woodbey became famous for doing, without fear of reprisal.
Many shared a common idea: the capitalist system had split the country. Even wage-earners lucky enough to land a job lived in misery. A song summed it up: “We go to work to get the cash to buy the food to get the strength to go to work to get the cash to buy the food to get the strength,” and so on.
Single-taxers demanded “economic rent” of the land: the more you owned, the more you paid, and if you didn’t own property, you wouldn’t pay a cent. Socialists — San Diego had over 1000 registered at the time — advocated changes from evolutionary to revolutionary. Anarchists wanted to abolish government altogether.
The Industrial Workers of the World — also known as Wobblies — met three times a week at Heller’s Corner. Named after the Fox-Heller building at the southeast corner of Fifth and E, the intersection was the center of Soapbox Row. Unlike other groups, the Wobblies had male and female speakers of various races and nationalities. They stumped in English and Spanish.
They also did something that seemed strange, given that they advocated a general strike of every worker in America. They sang.
Joe Hill’s song explained their strategy:
- If workers took a notion
- They could stop all speeding trains
- Every ship upon the ocean
- They can tie with mighty chains
- Every wheel in the creation
- Every mine and every mill;
- Fleets and armies of the nation,
- Will at their command stand still.
Hill and the Wobblies relied on music, he explained, because “a pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once, but a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over.”
Along with street minstrels who passed the hat, two kinds of music competed at Heller’s Corner: the Wobblies’, and the Salvation Army’s. Begun in 1865 in England, the Protestant “army” called itself the “worker’s religion.” Soldiers avoided the upper classes and went to a city’s tenderloin district. In some ways the Salvation Army was the Wobblies’ biggest competitor. Both preached salvation: the Wobblies in this life, the Salvation Army in the next.
The Salvation Army called the Wobblies “heathen devils.” The Wobblies called the Army “sky pilots.”
Late in 1911, when a Wobblie began a speech, the Salvation Army would strike up the band across the street. Men and women in blue serge uniforms with red trim would sing a hymn, accompanied by trumpets, tambourines, and a banging bass drum.
The Wobblies would also break into song. If the Army sang “In the Sweet Bye and Bye,” the Wobblies would counter with Joe Hill’s parody, “The Preacher and the Slave”:
- Long-haired preachers come out every night
- Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right;
- But when asked how ’bout something to eat
- They will answer with voices so sweet:
- You will eat, bye and bye,
- In that glorious land above the sky;
- Work and pray, live on hay,
- You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.
Hill wrote the song after the Spokane free-speech fight. In October 1909, the IWW began a “Don’t Buy Jobs” campaign in Spokane, Washington. They protested the scams of “labor sharks” demanding money for work that, more often than not, didn’t exist.
Hill parodied the tactic in song: “Nearer My Job to Thee.”
When the city council passed an ordinance banning street meetings in downtown Spokane, over a thousand Wobblies swarmed into the city. They deliberately had themselves arrested. When in jail — 12 jammed into a cell built for 4 — they sang, many with blackened eyes and broken teeth.
By March 1910, the legal system became so gridlocked, the Spokane City Council repealed the ordinance and freed the prisoners.
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.
By then the slashed tire had become a rallying cry for retaliation.
On January 10, the Sun announced: “The chances are strong that this ordinance will start a fight that will last a long time. Maybe there will be an invasion by the IWW and the advertisement of San Diego as a place against free expression of thought.”
Prophetic words. ■
- Melvin Dubofsky: Free Speech fights “were instigated primarily to overcome resistance to I.W.W. organizing tactics” and “to demonstrate that America’s dispossessed could…challenge established authority.”
- Chief Keno Wilson: “We will do our full duty. Every member of the police department has been ordered to enforce the new law to the letter.”
- Attorney Ernest E. Kirk: “We will fight the validity of the law to the limit. It is a class ordinance, not a traffic regulation!”
- Adler, William M., The Man Who Never Died, New York, 2011.
Castanian, Pliny, To Protect and Serve: A History of the San Diego Police Department and Its Chiefs, 1990–1989, San Diego, 1993.
Diehl, Robert Warren, “To Speak or Not to Speak, San Diego, 1912,” master’s thesis, University of San Diego, 1976.
Dubofsky, Melvin, We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World, Chicago, 1969.
Flynn, Elizabeth Gurley, The Rebel Girl, New York, 1955.
Foner, Philip S., The History of the Labor Movement in the United States, vol. 4, New York, 1965.
Miller, Jim, Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See, New York, 2003.
Renshaw, Patrick, The Wobblies, New York, 1967.
Shanks, Rosalie, “The I.W.W. Free Speech Movement,” Journal of San Diego History, Winter, 1973, vol. XIX, number one.
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