For more than a century, protesters in San Diego have paid a price for speaking out. They’ve been drenched by fire hoses, beaten by vigilantes and spied on by the FBI. Historians say some were even killed.
In 1912, in fact, the little town of San Diego became a national symbol of unconstitutional government overreach. That’s when city officials got tired of mouthy radicals in their midst. They declared a huge chunk of downtown to be off limits to free speech, cracked down violently – and got away with it.
As protests over the killing of George Floyd continue in San Diego, here’s a look back at times in the 20th century when activism spurred abuse in America’s Finest City.
Battle Royale Over a Free Speech Ban
In 1911 and early 1912, rabble-rousers stood at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and E Street, now home to bars and nightclubs, and said their piece. The speakers at “Soapbox Corner” included radical-minded “Wobblies” from the Industrial Workers of the World labor union who advocated a direct attack on capitalism.
At the time, the city wasn’t a hotbed of radicalism like Milwaukee, home to a socialist mayor. Nor were we a center of bitter anti-unionism, like Los Angeles, where the L.A. Times publisher led a vicious movement against labor and a union member bombed the newspaper building in 1910, killing 21).
In fact, our city’s tolerance annoyed our neighbors to the north, writes historian Rosalie Shanks in the Journal of San Diego History: “an intense rivalry existed between San Diego and Los Angeles in their efforts to become Southern California’s leading city. Los Angeles had surged ahead and both patronizingly and contemptuously referred to San Diego as its ‘little sister.’ San Diegans, said the Los Angelenos, had perversely approved of unions if for no other reason than to irritate their northern neighbors.”
But by early 1912, the Mexican revolution, its ties to American radicalism and mayhem in Tijuana had scared local leaders. It didn’t help that the Wobblies touted anarchy as a cure for society’s (and San Diego’s) ills, with one speaker telling a Baptist church committee that “we propose to overthrow the whole system and give every man a chance.”
Inspired by a similar move in Los Angeles, the San Diego City Council declared a six-block section downtown, centered on Soapbox Corner, to be off limits to meeting, singing or lecturing. As the city delayed enforcement, suffragettes, socialists and other free-speech advocates rushed to town. Then all hell broke loose as cops and vigilantes cracked down in what historian Kevin Starr calls a “small-scale civil war” in a 1997 book about California history.
The police shot and killed a protester, and another was beaten to death in jail, Starr wrote. The San Diego Union reported that authorities unleashed high-pressure water from hoses on protesters, including a little girl, as thousands watched the spectacle.
The San Diego police chief, who dismissed Wobblies as “worse than animals,” declared “now you get yours” and commanded that a well-dressed protester be sprayed with water, the Union reported. The paper also declared that unionists planned to assassinate the police chief and other local officials.
Meanwhile, hundreds of San Diego vigilantes rustled protesters off southbound trains and sent them back north, sometimes beating them first. In a letter to the New York Times, union leader William “Big Bill” Haywood claimed that hundreds were “driven to the county line, terribly maltreated and left in the desert to die.”
The radical leader Emma Goldman and her lover Ben Reitman said they barely escaped the county alive. Reitman said a mob kidnapped him at knifepoint from the U.S. Grant Hotel and taken to the desert, where men tried to ram an American flag down his throat. He said was stripped naked, burned and then tarred and covered with leaves, the New York Times reported. “We’re Americans, and we’ll teach you to keep away from San Diego,” one man reportedly said.
The abuses eventually ended as city leaders pulled back. “The San Diego establishment had unleashed a force which it now began itself to fear,” Starr writes.
It wasn’t just the protesters who were bad for business, Starr writes. Out-of-control vigilantes weren’t good for the city’s reputation either, especially with an international exposition looming in 1915 and a massive cleanup of downtown vice on the way.
Who won the “Free Speech Fight”? Historian Shanks gives the victory to the city, while historian Starr calls it a draw. The losers: the protesters who were deprived of their rights, their dignity and even their lives.
Downtown’s Bloody Smackdown: Communists vs. Cops
Things went haywire in downtown on May 30, 1933, when the city ignored the First Amendment once again and a bloody battle broke out.
A few weeks earlier, a band of young Communists asked for a permit to rally and march. But, as historian Richard Crawford wrote in a 2013 Union-Tribune article, the city refused, apparently because the protesters wouldn’t agree to not carry “red flags.”
The protesters showed up anyway, including a young woman who dared to speak while wearing pants. They crashed the city’s Memorial Day parade and denounced the recently inaugurated Franklin D. Roosevelt as a “Wall Street president.”
Cops grew tired of the marchers as they neared Balboa Park and a fight broke out. Police sprayed tear gas, according to Crawford’s account, and nine police officers were sent to the hospital with injuries. Nine protesters were arrested, and many more were hurt.
“The disgraceful riot could have been prevented by the city council” if it had just allowed the protesters to march, the San Diego Sun proclaimed. Prosecutors went after three protesters on charges of attacking cops, but the defense accused police of “a deliberate and shameful frame-up” and only one, a black man, was found guilty.
FBI Targets Nixon-Era Radicals in Grim, Silly Ways
The tumult of the late 1960s hit San Diego with protests and unrest just like the rest of the country, and the FBI fought back through spying and bizarre forays into manipulation. Their targets: local black activists and student leftists.
First, the FBI tried to divide two black nationalist groups: the US Organization and the Black Panthers. Rivalry developed between the two groups, and the FBI sought to make things worse, according to “The Suppression of Dissent,” a 2006 book by historian Jules Boykoff.
According to accounts gathered by Boykoff, the FBI repeatedly sent insulting cartoons to local Black Panther leaders aiming to make them think the US Organization was responsible. They did, especially after agents posted them throughout black neighborhoods.
In 1969, local FBI agents boasted to national headquarters that “shootings, beatings, and a high degree of unrest continues to prevail in the ghetto area of southeast San Diego.” The agents said their “counterintelligence action” may be responsible.
FBI files reveal that the agency’s illegal COINTELPRO program also targeted local leftist groups with spying and more. In 1971, it tried to smear the Young Socialist Alliance at San Diego State University as overly gay-friendly, potentially hurting its membership drive, by creating realistic-looking fake fliers.
“Attention Gay Set,” one set of fliers said. “YSA Is Now Accepting Gay Membership,” followed by the names and phone numbers of “love-brother” YSA members. Another set of “Attention Gay Set” fliers declared that the YSA was now accepting “Les’ membership” and listed the names and phone numbers of “love-sister” YSA leaders.
An FBI memo declared that the fliers couldn’t be traced to the agency “and no embarrassment to the Bureau will result from this counterintelligence activity.”
Guess they were wrong about that.
Our Own Era Hasn’t Been Free of Protest Havoc
In 2011, Occupy San Diego protesters speaking up against corporate America set up a mini-community in the Civic Center. Police lost patience, declared a sanitary emergency and removed the camping protesters, arresting more than 50.
“The detainees — 37 men and 14 women — were held on buses for hours without access to restrooms (yes, some urinated and defecated where they sat) before being hauled off to jail,” CityBeat reported. Several women who said they were chained for hours filed lawsuits, and the Reader reported in 2015 that some received settlements and others were still suing.
Last week, NBC San Diego reported that “a woman who was at the protest Saturday in La Mesa is in a medically induced coma and may lose one of her eyes after reportedly being hit with a ‘less lethal’ projectile by a police officer, according to her family.”