The Big Noise: The Free Speech Fight of 1912, Part Three

Dapper local attorney E.E. Kirk became “a monument of rage” on the soapbox.
  • Dapper local attorney E.E. Kirk became “a monument of rage” on the soapbox.

“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.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8

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It's hard to imagine any of this happening without Joe Hill's lyrics. They cut deeply and simply into the heart of the fight, drawing friends and making enemies.

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