RED BOYLE HEIGHTS: Radical Voices and the Free Speech Fight Move to La Placita

While an influx of East European emigrants with socialist inclinations began moving to Boyle Heights by the second decade of the 1900s, a powerful and organized Los Angeles coalition of fervent open shop proponents (“a union against unions”) were busy waging a war to crack down on a growing militant labor movement from establishing a stronghold in Los Angeles. Central to their suppression strategy was using the resources of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Description of a violent response by the LAPD after two Mexican women refused to surrender their “emblem of anarchy.” Note that the Times printed the Mexican Revolution cry, Tierra y Libertad above the heading. Los Angeles Times 1/6/1913. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Digital Archives, L.A. Public Library.

But there were also acts of resistance. They included strikes by streetcar traqueros, a waterfront strike in San Pedro led by the Industrial Workers of the World (including musical troubadour, Joe Hill), and the social justice ministry of the multi-racial Church of All Nations in downtown Los Angeles. Revolutionists and socialists like Emma Goldman, the Magon brothers, Job Harriman, and a broader coalition of radical voices were delivering oratories in Spanish, Italian, and Japanese to crowds at the Italian Hall.

Some revolutions were even exported. In 1905, visiting Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the revolutionary “father of modern China,” visited the Los Angeles Plaza several times to publicly exhort Chinatown residents to support his revolutionary cause. (Chinatown was located where Union Station stands today.) Along with support from local Anglo-American military writer Homer Lea, they raised funds, formed an insurrectionist army, and operated a local military academywith students training in the hills of Eagle Rock and elsewhere. In 1911 over 2, 000 Chinese sailed to China to join the revolution that would overthrow the Manchu dynasty.

With revolution in the air as early as 1900, the public forum for radical speech in Los Angeles was downtown’s Central Park (renamed Pershing Square in 1919), despite an ordinance against public oratory in city parks without a permit. An unlikely tandem of socialist “soapboxers” who defied the ordinance during the first decade of the 1900s, and arrested several times for it, was African American minister and author George W. Woodbey, who once led a free speech march to the downtown police station, and wealthy real estate investor and socialist gadfly Henry Gaylord Wilshire. (The Wilshire Blvd. corridor bears his name; he published several socialist magazines, ran unsuccessfully for office as a socialist, and for a time was married to Welsh anarchist Hanna Owen.)

The entire front page of the Los Angeles Times on 12/26/1913 was dedicated to the deadly episode known as the Christmas Day Riot at the Los Angeles Plaza. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Digital archives, Los Angeles Public Library.

But open-shop hard-liners, who were able to get a compliant city council to pass an anti-picketing ordinance in 1910, took their most extreme measure against radical open speech following the so-called Christmas Day Riot of 1913 at the Los Angeles Plaza (commonly referred to as La Placita by the Spanish-speaking populace) located between the Pico House and the south end of Olvera Street.

On that day hundreds of Mexican members of the IWW and the Partido Liberal Mexicano (Magonistas) clashed with hard-charging LAPD officers during a protest rally demanding government action against unemployment and hunger. During the melee a protester named Rafael Adames was shot and killed. While the Los Angeles Times vowed the “city will suppress riotous anarchists,” the city council declared that “open speech has its limits,” and passed several ordinances over the next several years that eventually designated the entire metropolis a “forbidden zone” for public oratory and crowd gathering without a permit, except for one small area. A year after the Christmas Day Riot a front-page article in the L.A. Times also made clear that by that time Mexican members of the IWW (described as “swarthy loafers”) were now considered a politically subversive menace to the city.

Los Angeles Times, 4/26/1914. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Digital Archives, Los Angeles Public Library.

By 1923 the Los Angeles Plaza was the only legally sanctioned free speech area in the entire city. City officials were confident it was an ideal location to suppress, control, and monitor the city’s radical elements because it was removed far enough from the city’s business core but close enough to LAPD headquarters.

Los Angeles Evening Post-Record, 3-16-1923. Courtesy of

But as early as 1914, to further ensure the idea that the area was the city’s official “free speech zone,” (no permit required, in theory), the Los Angeles City Council authorized the Board of Public Works to construct two concrete “rostrums” for public use. One rostrum was on the south end of the Plaza, facing the Pico House, and the other at the east end, facing what is today Union Station. They remained a fixture of the Plaza until the late1930s.

In 1914 the L.A. City Council authorized the construction of two concrete rostrums at the Los Angeles Plaza. By 1923 the Plaza was the only designated free speech area in the city. The rostrum on the south end can be seen in this photo at the edge of the sidewalk. Courtesy of the California Historical Society Digital Collection.   
The Los Angeles Plaza in the 1930s. The concrete rostrum located on the east side of the Plaza can be seen at the bottom left-corner, although it’s slightly obscured by the white blemish in the photo. Courtesy of the California Historical Society Digital Collection. The sketch of one of the rostrums appeared in the Los Angeles Times on 4/14/1939. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Digital Archives, Los Angeles Public Library.

Nevertheless, by the early 1920s, the city’s militant movement was considerably weakened during the so-called first Red Scare era, which included the multi-state Palmer raids by the DOJ and the passage of the broadly defined California Criminal Syndicalism Act, both taking place in 1919. As early as 1914, after losing a surprisingly close race as a socialist candidate for L. A. mayor in 1911, attorney Job Harriman (who defended Ricardo Flores Magon and the McNamara brothers) established an ambitious but flagrantly racist (“only Caucasians are admitted”) socialist-style commune called Llano del Rio near Palmdale CA. Largely because they were unable to secure water rights, it was abandoned in 1918. By the early 1920s, the leftist movement had also entered a period of turbulent factionalism following the Bolshevik revolution in 1917.  

After moving to the Arroyo Seco area of Pasadena in 1915, novelist Upton Sinclair (who moved to Monrovia in the 1940s) became a supporter of both the San Pedro dock strike and the ongoing free speech battles on behalf of the city’s political radicals, becoming a co-founder of the Southern California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 1923. Although Sinclair himself was no fan of the communist doctrine, he was a noted defender of the fervent voices of the radical left emanating from the Cooperative Center in the now bustling Jewish enclave of Boyle Heights.

Photo of an automobile parked near the Cooperative Center on Brooklyn Avenue in Boyle Heights. This photo appeared in the Fish Committee’s congressional report investigating communist propaganda, published in 1930.

And it would be those Eastside voices—organized, neighborhood-based, and sometimes representing several generations of socialists in a single household—who would lead the city’s new wave of militant street protests in the late 1920s, demanding labor reforms, racial justice, government relief for the needy, and the right to open free speech. And the city’s ongoing street “war” between labor and capital would be centered where a previous generation of multiracial socialists and unionists stood their ground—the Los Angeles Plaza.  

An example of the commitment by the Cooperative Center-based leftists was on public display in 1927. On May 1st, a motorcade to protest the scheduled execution of Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti was broken up by the LAPD before a line of vehicles could get underway from the L. A. Plaza area. Twenty-eight men were arrested and booked for “unlawful display of banners and parading without a permit.” The names and home addresses of the men arrested were published in the Los Angeles Times the following day, clearly showing the majority of the motorcade participants resided at various Boyle Heights streets that included Boyle, Evergreen, Malabar, Soto, Brooklyn, Blanchard, Winter, St. Louis, and a few others.

Los Angeles Times, 5/2/1927. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Digital Archives, Los Angeles Public Library.

By the summer of 1927, the Boston trial and imminent execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (they were executed on August 23) was now a cause célèbre throughout the radical world, including Boyle Heights. And by that summer, LAPD Lt. William Hynes was now commander of the LAPD’s Red Squad unit.

On Monday, August 8th the L. A. Times and the Daily News reported of an LAPD operation to suppress an August 9th “Save Sacco & Vanzetti” protest rally by arresting almost a dozen organizers during an arrest sweep at their homes in the mid-city and Boyle Heights area over the weekend. Although guilty of nothing more than organizing a public demonstration, it was enough to charge them for violating the California Criminal Syndicalism Act. For the LAPD, it was used mostly as an excuse to remove people off the streets for a few days since it routinely involved a few days in jail, a fine, and a suspended sentence. The L.A. Times also reported the weekend sweep included the Cooperative Center on Brooklyn Avenue, where “large quantities of ‘red’ literature was confiscated,” and two communist party members, Sidney Bush, a young organizer from Canada, and Sam Globerman, a former candidate for the L. A. School Board, were arrested at their Boyle Heights home.

With a predictably smaller crowd in attendance, the Daily News published a headline on 8/10/1927, declaring “Police Riot Guns Prevent ‘Red’ Plaza Meeting.” They further reported the rally was suppressed by “hundreds of police officers who surrounded the plaza area and the streets leading to it.” They also reported four “agitators” were arrested at the Plaza – Nat Prager, Homer Bartchy, A. Fineberg, Frank Spector, and Rose Rubin, all shareholders at the Cooperative Center, “which is looked upon,” the newspaper added, “as a headquarters for the radicals.

Los Angeles Daily News, 8/10/1927. Courtesy of

But the most disturbing feature about the Daily News coverage was a photo of a heavily armed LAPD “gun squad” with the headline, “Waiting for Trouble to Happen.” It’s an extraordinary display of public intimidation by city elites against a suddenly roused radical movement and a warning the city’s suppression against raucous political nonconformists could go beyond ordinances banning picketing and open speech but would be reinforced with rifles and Thomson submachine guns, or Tommy guns.

Los Angeles Daily News, 8/10/1927. Courtesy of

One of the first episodes in a series of violent street clashes between demonstrators and the police in depression-era Los Angeles occurred at the Los Angeles Plaza on February 26, 1930. Planned as a communist party-led protest to highlight growing unemployment, hundreds of people (the L. A. Times reported it was “thousands”) gathered at the Plaza. Once the crowd moved out of the Plaza to continue the protest at the steps of city hall as planned, the police moved in with “sap sticks” (a punishing 10” hand-strapped leather blackjack, illegal today.) When the crowd grew belligerent after police pulled down two speakers, Cooperative Center shareholders Frank Spector and Carl Sklar, from the top of a flatbed truck, the police immediately deployed tear gas, turning the crowded Plaza into a scene of tear gas-shrouded mayhem. According to newspaper reports, about 20 individuals were arrested, with almost half residing in Boyle Heights.

The two photos on the left, taken during the violence at the L. A. Plaza, appeared in the L.A. Times on 2/27/1930. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Digital Archives, LAPL. The top left photo of the tear gas-shrouded Plaza later appeared on the cover of a 1933 Federal Government Laboratories catalog showcasing law enforcement equipment like gas grenades and the Thomson submachine gun. Courtesy of the University of Pittsburgh Digital Collection.
Communist protester arrested by LAPD offices just outside the L. A. Plaza area on 2/26/30. Photo published in the Herald Examiner on 2/27/30.  Courtesy of the UCLA Photo Archives.

A week later, on March 6, 1930, socialists from Boyle Heights again gathered at the Plaza for International Unemployment Day, as was declared by the Executive Committee of the Communist International in Moscow. Rallies took place in various cities around the country, organized by local branches of the communist party which also included a directive for rally participants to march to the local city hall. Significantly, these rallies also featured multiracial crowds and an open declaration by the protesters of the connection between racism and capitalism. In Washington D.C. a seemingly baffled New York Times reporter wrote, “Spectators were treated to the unusual spectacle of several white girls walking with colored men during the ‘picketing.’”

Again, the LAPD initiated another sweep the night before the March 6 rally, with officers fanning out throughout Boyle Heights to arrest local “reds.” According to the L. A. Evening Express, club-swinging officers broke up what was termed, a “fiery meeting” at the Cooperative Center on Brooklyn Avenue and arrested seven “Soviet sympathizers” as the crowd fled into the streets. House raids and arrests also took place in the nearby neighborhood streets of Britannia and Fickett. But this was a tame operation compared to the suppression strategy the LAPD employed the following day at the Plaza.   

Headline and portion of an article that appeared in the L. A. Evening Express on 3/6/1930. Courtesy of

As described in the L. A. Evening Express on 3/6/30, police officers, aware of the intentions of the protesters to march to city hall, didn’t wait for the march to begin before they moved in: “The police clubbed their way to the center of the radical group. The police charge occurred at 3 P. M. – the hour set for the demonstration.” Four men were reportedly knocked unconscious. According to the L. A. Times on 3/7/30, “Blackjacks and nightsticks worked effectively in settling those who boiled over with radicalism. They always resisted enough to get a few belts from a blackjack in some officer’s hand.” Describing one of those arrested, the Times reported it was, “Carl Sklar of 229 Boyle Avenue, said to be one of the ring leaders in the local Communistic movement.”

Photo of a woman being arrested by two officers and a second photo of a large crowd moving towards the downtown area after fleeing the Plaza area. L.A. Times 3/7/1930. Courtesy of the L. A. Times Digital Archives, LAPL

A particular focus of the L. A. Times coverage was the spirited resistance put up by several of the women (repeatedly referred to as “Bolshevixens) against the hard-charging police officers, with the Times proclaiming, “The most obdurate of the radicals were the women.” They also reported that a 40-year-old woman named Rose Padilla, who resided on Camulos Street in Boyle Heights, was arrested for “blocking the sidewalk at First and Main.” At her arraignment, she defiantly pleaded not guilty and asked for a jury trial. Also arrested were two female juveniles from Boyle Heights, 15-year-old Mary Hawkin, and 14-year-old Mariam Brooks.

Brooks was a graduate of Theodore Roosevelt High School and her father, Isidor, was a shareholder at the Cooperative Center. Isidor died in 1935 from injuries related to a beating suffered at the hands of the LAPD’s Red Squad unit. Mariam made front-page headlines in the 1950s as a member of the Los Angeles Ten after they refused to answer questions from an L.A. grand jury about communist affiliation. A blog post devoted to Mariam Brooks will be featured in the near future. 

Protester dragged away by four LAPD officers after breaking up a communist-led rally at the Los Angeles Plaza on 3/6/1930.. Photo courtesy of the UCLA photo archives Collection.

On May 1, 1930, a May Day rally at the L. A. Plaza was organized by Boyle Heights communists, including members of the Young Communists League who regularly met at the Cooperative Center on Brooklyn Avenue. For communist party members from Boyle Heights May Day events were family affairs; parents would routinely send their children back to school the next day with an excuse note explaining the child was at a May Day rally with their family.  

Excerpt from a 1930 May Day flyer that was published in the report by the Fish Committee Investigation of Communist Propaganda, October 1930.

Seemingly unconcerned with constitutionally granted rights of assembly and free speech, Lt. Hynes, according to the Daily News of 5/2/30, decided the Plaza rally simply wouldn’t be allowed to take place: “In preparation for the show, [Hynes] had cleared the plaza shortly after 12:30 p.m. and had herded the crowd back onto Main Street and as far as Commercial Street before the zero hour of 1 o’clock.”


This article appeared in the front page of the Los Angeles Times on 5/2/30. Courtesy of the L.A. Times Digital Archives, LAPL.

Forced out of the Plaza area, organizers tried to resume the rally a few blocks away with speeches, leafleting, hoisting banners, and singing.  When broken up by the LAPD, they would try again at another nearby location. To control the “series of disorders” the LAPD moved in, creating a situation described by the Daily News as, “sporadic ‘red’ riots.” According to the L.A. Times, “Night sticks, blackjacks, and tear bombs were brought into play by the police in quelling the disorder.” The L.A. Evening Express of 5/1/30 reported that after the police had forced the crowd east on Aliso Street, “they rounded up more than a dozen school girls and a half-dozen boys, all under 17 years of age when they gathered to sing Communist songs and jeer the officers.”  

Excerpt from an article published in the Daily News on 5/2/30. Courtesy of

The Daily News also reported a police officer “sent in a riot call” at the corner of Alameda and Commercial Streets. When a squad of officers arrived, “Seven of the children were arrested, and the others, surrounded by policemen, were started on a long, long march to the Boyle Heights district, where many of them lived.”

This photograph of young Boyle Heights communists being dispersed, or detained, by LAPD officers was published on page 2 of the L.A. Times on 5/2/30. Courtesy of the L.A. Times Digital Archives, LAPL.

Another significant day for protest was Labor Day. Again, a network of the city’s labor activists and socialists, many from Boyle Heights, organized a Labor Day rally to take place on 9/1/1930 at the Los Angeles Plaza. According to the L.A. Times, “The oratorical fireworks were scheduled for 2 p.m.” but, the LAPD “spiked the communist’s plan to hold a Labor Day demonstration at the Plaza” when they cordon off the entire Plaza beforehand, keeping protesters constantly moving with baton-swinging police officers. The L.A. Times also added that protesters, “including children who were members of the Junior Communist League, were displaying inflammatory banners and distributing literature with the advice, ‘Don’t Starve – Fight!’”

The three photos and an excerpt of a contemptuous report of the protesters at the L. A. Plaza were published in the Los Angeles Record on 9/2/30. 

The Daily News reported that during the demonstration, “Some objected when four husky policemen clutched Emma Cutler, 22, about the neck until she was sufficiently chastened to be carted away.” According to the L.A. Times, Cutler resided on Cummings Street in Boyle Heights.

This photo of an unidentified woman arrested during an attempted Labor Day demonstration by local communists at the Los Angeles Plaza appeared in the L.A. Herald Examiner on 9/2/30. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection.   

Among the reasons the Red Squad unit enjoyed little accountability from the outset was the uncritical support they received from the Bible-quoting, one-term mayor of Los Angeles (1929-1933) John C. Porter. In 1997 the L.A. Times described his campaign as “a unique mixture of reform politics and xenophobic Protestant populism.” He was endorsed by radio preacher, “fighting” Bob Schuler, (Los Angeles Evening-Post Record, 4/18/29) a Klan-admiring minister from El Monte, and T. S. Moodie, (Los Angeles Times, 6/1/29) the Grand Dragon of the local Ku Klux Klan chapter, although Porter denied he asked for the endorsement. Not surprisingly, they all shared the bigoted reasoning that conflated their virulent antisemitism with anticommunism.   

But a week before the mayoral election, and with Klan affiliation rumors circulating (there was a KKK resurgence in Southern California during the 1920s), the Daily News publicly asked the front-running Porter, and his chief rival William Bonelli, if they were members of the Klan. While Bonelli asserted he “was not, had never been, and would never be a member of the Klan,” Porter never replied.

But on May 31, the newspaper reported Porter admitted his membership with the Klan during a May 25 public meeting with the City Employee’s Association. The report stated the mayor simply said he was not now a member without elaborating further, hardly sounding like someone who had convincingly severed their ties with the Klan. The Daily News item, which was jointly published in the Black-owned newspaper, the California Eagle, also extended an invitation to Porter to amplify or comment on the report, but he chose to remain silent.

California Eagle, 5/31/1929. Courtesy of

But there was precedent for Klan affiliation by local city officials several years before Porter ran for mayor, as was revealed after the L. A. County District Attorney’s office executed a search warrant on the Klan’s headquarters at the Hass Building at 7th and Broadway on April 26, 1922. On May 10, the L.A. Times published a Klan membership list that included the names of Los Angeles Police Chief Louis Oakes, and Los Angeles County Sheriff William Traeger. On June 7, the Times reported Los Angeles City Council President Ralph Criswell was also on the list. After the revelation, the common explanation by these men was that they believed they were simply signing up as members of a patriotic citizens group at the time.

Ultimately, with no follow-up by the local press, who seemed more concerned with so-called “Boyle Heights Bolsheviks,” the story of Porter’s affiliation quickly faded, and the city’s mayoral campaign came to its inevitable conclusion—a member of the Ku Klux Klan was elected mayor of Los Angeles by a wide margin on June 4, 1929.

The next post will continue to look at the ongoing protests at the Los Angeles Plaza amid the Great Depression, while Hitler comes to power and an organized local Nazi movement begins to spread antisemitic propaganda.