On Saturday, January 6, 1912, R.J. Walsh steered his car into a crowd gathered at Soapbox Row. A man had allegedly slashed Walsh’s tire. Reacting to shouts of “Shoot the police,” detective Joseph Myers hurled George Washington Woodbey to the sidewalk and clubbed Louis Grant in the face. Police arrested two protestors.
San Diego’s notorious Free Speech fight of 1912 had begun.
The next night, at 7:30 p.m., a large group — the curious and the committed — assembled in front of the Fox-Heller Building at 867 Fifth. Free-speech advocates kept the sidewalks clear of pedestrians.
San Diegan Laura Payne Emerson spoke for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) from a wooden crate: When the workers take action, “they will no longer beg for some master to give them enough to live on, they will take what belongs to them.”
Attorney Ernest Kirk spoke for the socialists. The upcoming Free Speech fight, he vowed, would be “waged with vigor, but in a dignified manner.”
Though often accused of violence, the IWW stressed passive resistance. As they had in Spokane, Fresno, and elsewhere, their song-filled protests preferred the “mental dynamite” of direct action: flood the jails, and, in effect, sabotage the judicial system with sheer numbers.
January 8, 1912
The Common Council began its session at 10:45 a.m. At issue: an anti-street-speaking ordinance. Commissioner John L. Sehon declared that Soapbox Row, along E Street a block south of Broadway, was a “central congested district.” The council should ban speaking and singing — even the Salvation Army — from C Street south to F, and from Fourth to Sixth streets. Penalties would range from a $35 to $100 fine, or 30 days imprisonment, or both.
“A snap judgment,” shouted attorney Kirk. “The council’s railroading the ordinance without a vote of the people!”
“There’s a limit to everything!” Sehon shot back. “The council must take immediate action!”
Sehon’s firm stance surprised many. A retired military captain, the 49-year-old had become mayor of San Diego in 1905. His platform, writes Warren Diehl, included “Socialists, Democrats, Independents, and liberal Republicans.” And he won a “major victory over the [Joseph] Spreckels-dominated political machine.”
Though he favored free speech, Sehon said he didn’t want another incident like Saturday’s, “when something serious might have happened.”
Speakers could always use a public hall outside the forbidden zone, someone offered.
“Too small,” countered a man named McKinley: “The city should give the plaza to the public for open-air meetings.”
McKinley: “Once again, the council has showed its inability to deal with the unemployed.”
Sehon rose. He protested “such criticism” and ordered McKinley silenced.
Cheers and hisses shot through the council chamber.
Although Kirk insisted on a public hearing for the ordinance, at 1:00 p.m., the council voted unanimously in favor. They also passed an emergency clause: forget the 30-day waiting period. Start the ordinance today.
City attorney Charles Andrews raised an objection. Though Los Angeles had a similar ban, Andrews worried that the rush job might not hold up in court.
Chief Wilson said he’d wait two days, then arrest everyone who spoke or sang in the forbidden zone.
The San Diego Sun: “This ordinance, affecting a large area containing many streets where there is almost no traffic at night, was not intended primarily as a traffic ordinance. It was meant to curb, if not stop, street speaking here. The Sun is against it, and will work in every honorable way it can to have it repealed.”
Near midnight on January 9, 18 free-speech advocates met at Kirk’s office in the Union building. They included socialists, Wobblies, single-taxers and religious leaders. Kirk was “comrade chairman.”
Chief Wilson vowed to arrest every speaker on the January 10, so the group planed a detailed scenario.
They chose 12 “martyrs” to “mount the corner rostrum, bait the cohorts of Captain Sehon,” and go to jail gladly. Among those chosen for the “sacrificial altar”: socialists, George W. Woodbey and Kasper Bauer; Wobblies, Laura Payne Emerson, Wood Hubbard, and Jack White.
The group not only decided the order of the arrests, but at what intervals they would occur.
Then they named “disinterested witnesses” from the community. Sheriff Jennings, Councilman Woods, Judge Sloane, Rabbi Erlinger, and three ministers would report how the police behaved.
Kirk proposed a ban of the businesses that petitioned for the ordinance. And the group even chose to invite their ongoing foe the Salvation Army — Joe Hill called them the “Starvation Army” — to join the struggle.
Above all else, Kirk concluded, “Violence, unless necessary in self-defense, will not be offered by the speakers. [We are] emphatically against that.”
January 10, 1912
All of San Diego knew that the clash — what the Union labeled the “big noise” — would begin at 7:00 p.m.
Seen from above, through webs of thick black telephone and streetcar wires, Heller’s Corner at Fifth and E looked like a canyon of concrete and brick. A block south of Broadway, the First National Bank loomed three stories above the paved street on the northwest corner; the Bank of Commerce and Trust building stood across the intersection. Catty-corner, the 11-story Watts-Robinson building would begin construction in the fall — and become the San Diego Savings Bank. Two other banks did business nearby. In effect, Fifth and E was the hub of the city’s financial district.
On the southeast corner, Lion Clothiers had a sign on the roof boasting “Lion Clothes Are Better” in ten-foot letters. Heller’s popular grocery store was one door down at 847 Fifth. When feeling naughty, local children gave the “credit and delivery” establishment free advertising: they’d shout, “Go to Hell-ers money-saving store!”
On January 10, imitation gaslights — white glass balls like giant pearls — came on at 5:00 p.m. A crowd grew steadily at Fifth and E.
At 6:00 p.m., Kirk and the 12 “martyrs” met at his office. They had witnesses in position and $30,000 ready for bail. At 6:45 p.m., they would parade arm-in-arm down E to Heller’s Corner and test the ordinance at 7:00.
Also at 6:00 p.m., attorney Andrews met with Sehon and Wilson. Andrews had “grave doubts” about whether the emergency clause was legal. He advised Wilson not to enforce the ordinance.
Wilson and his staff had planned a major campaign. But instead of 30 club-waving policemen at Soapbox Row, he sent 6, with orders only to keep traffic open.
By the time the officers arrived, 3000 people had assembled around a single wooden crate. Movement was almost impossible. Every time police cleared a passageway down the middle of Fifth, it sealed up behind them.
“The handful of police,” wrote the Sun, “were plainly disgusted. They had been led to believe that about half the men in the department would be sent to curb the speaking, make the crowds ‘move on,’ and arrest the principals.” Instead, “They were forced to stand around, hands off, and listen to the nice little compliments paid policemen in general.”
No one told the gathering, or the speakers, that Sehon had postponed the ordinance.
The parade of “martyrs” had to squeeze through the mass of onlookers. Kirk stood next to the rostrum and introduced George Washington Woodbey.
A black man who drew large audiences for his sermonlike orations, Woodbey expected to be arrested the instant he stepped on the soapbox. But when he did, no blue coat moved. So Woodbey shot from the hip: Sehon and the police were “dogs.”
Puzzled that he hadn’t been cuffed and carted off to jail, Woodbey upped the ante. In the future, the “citizens of San Diego will be naming their children after the street-speakers — and their cats and dogs after Sehon!”
When Woodbey stepped down, word spread through Heller’s Corner that police wouldn’t enforce the ordinance. Harry H. McKee, a socialist, stood on the crate. He denounced Sehon and taunted the police. Many bystanders followed suit. Shouts and fists pierced the cold night air.
Chief Wilson, six-foot-three with a drooping mustache, looked on in silence. A week before, he’d told the press that instead of arresting a man for vagrancy, he’d find him a job. But San Diego’s most respected lawman — maybe ever — didn’t like what he was seeing. This was new. Something inside him shifted.
“Members of the police force were in gloom today,” wrote the Sun on January 11. “Almost every wearer of a badge seemed to think he had been humiliated by the action of his superior officers.” They resented the accusation that they had “cold feet.”
Attorney Andrews postponed the ordinance until February 8. In the interim, the coalition of demonstrators formed the California Free Speech League. The 2500 members included trade unions, church groups, socialists (some from the Little Landers colony at San Ysidro), the AFL, liberals, and the IWW. They vowed to “take a stand against the free-speech restrictions by holding up the Constitution and defending the rights of non-property-owning people.”
The Union announced that the coalition had already declared victory. A line had been drawn on the street. ■
- Jack Miller (in Solidarity Forever): “Direct action means you gain all your objectives on the job rather than through the ballot box.”
- Patrick Renshaw: “In the hands of this floating army, the ‘free speech fight’ was a formidable weapon — indeed, it was the most significant contribution to the Syndicalist armory.”
- F.C. Spalding (president, Chamber of Commerce): “If you give them anything at all, it would only encourage them.”
- 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.
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.
Renshaw, Patrick, The Wobblies, New York, 1967.
Shanks, Rosalie, “The I.W.W. Free Speech Movement, San Diego, 1912,” Journal of San Diego History, Winter, 1973, vol. XIX, number one.
Articles in the San Diego Union, the San Diego Tribune, the San Diego Sun, and the San Diego Herald.
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