San Diego’s Joan of Arc

The year was 1912 and revolution was in the air. The California Free Speech League, a newly formed coalition of socialists, single-taxers, church organizations and left-leaning labor groups, including the International Workers of the World (aka the “Wobblies”) was ready for action.

The CFSL planned a large parade in San Diego to protest a city 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.” The Wobblies used Soapbox Row for impromptu speeches exhorting class struggle and railing against capitalism. Juanita McKamey, a local manicurist, was one of the organizers of the parade.

Juanita took up her position at the front of the parade 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. The group was escorted by a contingent of more than 100 San Diego police officers. No one would be arrested as long as the parade kept moving.

A police blockade waited for the marchers at Sixth and E Streets. When they reached the blockade, instead of stopping, 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 next and she too was pulled down and arrested. Juanita was the third person to make the attempt—she was forcibly taken into police custody.

Juanita McKamey’s police identification card. (author’s collection)

The crowd surged forward chanting “Free speech, show that you are Americans.” All thirty-eight men and three women who tried to mount the box and speak that evening were arrested and charged with criminal conspiracy. Not one of them got a chance to speak.

Three days later Juanita, who’d 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 that she “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 Wobblies and sentenced to the local detention home for juveniles. While it was true that she was young, at 20 years old she was not a juvenile, so juvie was a puzzling choice for her place of incarceration.

Juanita, who the press dubbed the “modern Joan of Arc,” had no intention of following the court’s orders. She planned to continue what she claimed was her “calling”: agitating for freedom of speech. She organized an escape from a window of the detention facility using a rope she’d fashioned from blankets. 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 the prisoners were beaten up.

Soon Juanita was out on bail and demonstrating on the streets 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.”

Police use a fire hose on a man on March 10, 1912, during the San Diego free speech fights. (University of Michigan Library, Special Collection Library, Joseph A. Labadie Collection)

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 and the jail population swelled again.

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 found that the protesters had committed no acts of violence.

Juanita attended the state investigation hearings, but this was the last time her name came up in protest-related news. The Wobblies announced their departure from the San Diego campaign at the end of May 1912. 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.

Harry Kizer’s Folsom Prison mugbook photo. (Department of Corrections, Inmate Photograph, ID#8822, California State Archives)

After the San Diego 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 and eventually Juanita married Harry Kizer. It’s possible she met Harry during the free speech protests when, like her, he was arrested as a protester. In 1913 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. She didn’t, however, completely eschew capitalism: 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, and she died there in 1975. Her ashes were scattered at sea.

9 thoughts on “San Diego’s Joan of Arc

    1. You have a great visual memory, Brad! (Not surprising, given your blog). I posted this story a couple years ago but was unhappy with it. I removed it, rewrote it and reposted. Juanita McKamey’s ID card is one of my favorites from my collection. I also had a chance to buy the ID card of Emma Goldman on eBay a couple years ago. I passed and will regret that decision forever.

      Liked by 2 people

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