The year was 1912 and revolution was in the air. The California Free Speech League, a coalition of socialists, single-taxers, church organizations and left-leaning labor groups, including the International Workers of the World (The “Wobblies), was ready for action in San Diego.
The group planned a large parade to protest a San Diego ordinance that banned public speech in a seven-square block area. The area, described by city leaders as “congested,” included a section known as “Soapbox Row” often used by Wobblies for impromptu speeches exhorting class struggle and railing against capitalism.
Juanita McKamey, a local manicurist, was one of the organizers of the parade. She took up her position at the front of the group with the other organizers. Standing four abreast, they marched slowly forward. As they picked up speed they sang, waved banners and encouraged the three to five thousand onlookers to join them. Escorted by a contingent of more than 100 San Diego police officers, the parade organizers had been promised that no one would be arrested as long as they kept moving.
A police blockade waited for the marchers at Sixth and E Streets. Instead of stopping, when they reached the blockade they moved through it to Soapbox Row. Wood Hubbard, one of the leaders, tried to mount a soapbox that had been hastily set up for the speakers. He was immediately pulled down and roughly arrested. Another organizer tried to mount the box, and she too was removed and arrested. Juanita was the third person to make the attempt. Like the others, she was forcibly taken into police custody.
The crowd surged forward chanting “Free speech, show that you are Americans.” Thirty-eight men and three women tried to mount the soapbox box to speak that evening. Not one of them got the chance; All were arrested and charged with criminal conspiracy.
Three days later, Juanita, who had been bailed out of jail, was arrested again after she spoke at another rally. This time she was charged with being “incorrigible.” The officer who prepared the card wrote on the back of it that Juanita “was speaking on the corner of 5th and E sts whick is against the law.”
She was put on probation, ordered to drop her association with the CFSL and sentenced to the local detention home for juveniles. While it was true that, at age 20, she was young, she was not a juvenile, so “juvie” was a puzzling choice for her incarceration.
The press dubbed Juanita the “modern Joan of Arc.”
Juanita had no intention of following the court’s orders. Instead she planned to continue what she deemed was her “calling”: agitating for freedom of speech. She planned her escape from a window of the detention facility, using a rope she’d fashioned from blankets. But the plan was uncovered before she had a chance to put it into action. She was transferred to the city jail to await trial with the other organizers.
The city and county jails overflowed with people arrested for violating the ordinance. Conditions were unsanitary and some of the inmates got sick. There was also mounting opposition to the free speech movement among many locals. When a group of inmates was transferred to the jail in another county, some local vigilantes intercepted the trucks and beat the prisoners.
Before long Juanita was out on bail and demonstrating again. In March she was part of a group of more than 300 protestors sprayed by police in front of the City Jail with water from four hundred pound-pressure fire hoses while jail inmates serenaded the demonstrators with the French fight song, “The Marseillaise.”
In the wake of public protest meetings and vigilante violence, the city fought back with a new ordinance, referred to as the “move-on law.” The new law expanded the area where public speech was prohibited and sanctioned the arrest of anyone who “shall seem likely to obstruct and impede” passage along a city street. The law proved to be disastrous, thanks to the fact that if someone even looked like they might make a speech, they were arrested. Again the jail population swelled.
The Wobblies demanded a state investigation of the protest and the police response. The investigation uncovered no mistreatment of the prisoners. Even the hosing of protesters by police was considered acceptable because no one was seriously injured. The investigation also determined that the protesters had committed no acts of violence.
Juanita attended the investigation hearings. This was the last time her name came up in protest-related news.
At the end of May, The Wobblies announced their departure from the San Diego campaign. In mid-June, after a smallpox epidemic broke out in the jail, the last 15 free speech prisoners pleaded guilty, paid their fines and were released.
The revolution that had started with a bang ended with a fizzle.
What happened to San Diego’s Joan of Arc?
After the free speech fight ended, Juanita married a carpenter named Steve O’Donnell. They had a son in 1914 and a daughter came along in 1919. The couple later got divorced. Eventually Juanita married a man named Harry Kizer. It’s possible they met during the free speech protests, when Harry, also a demonstrator, was arrested. The following year he did a 3.5-year stint in Folsom State Prison for grand larceny.
Juanita remained a member of the Socialist Party until at least 1928, but never appeared in the news again. Despite her political leanings, she didn’t completely eschew capitalism: according to city directories, she worked in real estate and owned a “Tia Juana” beer garden. She lived for 60 years in Chula Vista, a city south of San Diego near the border with Mexico. After her death there in 1975, her ashes were scattered at sea.