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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.”

No response.

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. ■


  1. Jack Miller (in Solidarity Forever): “Direct action means you gain all your objectives on the job rather than through the ballot box.”
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.

Part 1 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8

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Prosperina June 3, 2012 @ 12:17 p.m.

even these days it is so difficult to separate the good guys from the 'bad guys' - especially when it comes to our rallys and the role that law enforcement might play -- I say might, because the lines are always so vague in the heat of the moment -- do they act? react? - what is free speech when it comes to situations in which people may well be inciting a riot just for the sake of a reaction from the lawmakers (not the law enforcers per se) -- such a somber and sobering note to this part of the story.


Javajoe25 June 5, 2012 @ 8:31 a.m.

Things are so different now, it is difficult to even comment on this story. By that I mean, there is none of the worker organization comparable to what existed back then, and the corporations and law enforcement are so tightly entwined, it seems almost impossible to object to any corporate policies without risking arrest or worse. There is virtually no prosecution of the police when they go completely berserk and beat demonstrators senseless or taze or pepper spray them. Heck--they don't even get prosecuted when they shoot civilians dead!
Years ago, the police would have been held to task or there would have been riots in the streets. Today, nothing happens. No one seems to mind that their rights are slowly being eroded, and law enforcement acts as the corporate dogs. Workers are being squeezed into being minimum wage slaves and the masses get conned into believing it is all necessary in order to lower taxes. The dupes are even lead to believe that what is needed is to deprive public sector employees of their pensions when in fact those pensions pale in comparison to what has been taken by the CEO's and politicians. Everyone is now being trained to keep their heads down and their faces buried in their iphone so as to notice even less of what is being ripped off. And the masses go to the movies and the masters go to their mansions in the tropics. Yea, we've really come a long way. Where is Big Bill Hayward when you need him? Who is our Mother Jones of today? And Eugene Debs? Etc., etc.


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