RED BOYLE HEIGHTS: Raids and Riots on Brooklyn Avenue

On a February morning in 1919, a group of citrus growers and law enforcement officers decided to meet inside a packing house in the agricultural town of Charter Oak, 24 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, because of their concerns over a looming problem that threatened the region’s highly profitable citrus industry. Specifically, it was to discuss plans to suppress a farm worker’s strike being organized throughout the orange groves of the San Gabriel Valley by members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, Wobblies).

L. A. Times article published on 2/6/1919, about members of the IWW who were “deported” to Boyle Heights by San Gabriel Valley farm growers and local law enforcement. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Historical Archives, Los Angeles Public Library.

According to a Los Angeles Times article on 2/6/1919, a so-called Citrus Belt IWW Squad led a “committee of growers and hundreds of citizens” to a “Russian ranch house” in Covina where authorities confronted IWW members and their spokesperson, described as a “vigorous, Russian-Jewish woman.” With a large crowd “that meant business and were deadly earnest” surrounding the house, police officers ordered all its occupants to board a large truck parked outside or be immediately arrested. Once on board, the Times informed its readers that as the truck drove away, “IWW members began to sing The Workers’ Marseillaise, a favorite IWW song that can be found on page five of the IWW songbook.”    

The article went on to report, “The truck left for Los Angeles at 3 o’clock and reached the east side of the city in Boyle Heights after 6 o’clock, where the Russians were unceremoniously dumped out.” It’s left unexplained why Covina police chose to leave the IWW organizers in Boyle Heights, but it wasn’t entirely surprising.

By 1919, a Yiddish-based socialist movement had been stirring in Boyle Heights since the early 1910s. In 1911 many in this nascent movement even supported socialist candidate Job Harriman, who came close to winning the Los Angeles mayoral race that year. Exactly one year before the raid on the Covina ranch house, the L.A. Times published a preposterous “note of warning” that essentially claimed all Boyle Heights Russians were officially merging into a single “Bolshevik Society.”

Los Angeles Times, 2/24/1918. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Historical Archives, Los Angeles Public Library.

In the early 1920s, the Wobblies and some of their Boyle Heights supporters also took their labor organizing campaign to the waterfront docks of San Pedro, CA.  In 1923, during the IWW-led longshoreman strike, a socialist and Missouri native named William Hynes joined the San Pedro Wobblies as their secretary and newsletter editor. Facing off against club-wielding police officers and hired strikebreakers (deputized muscle), Hynes and others were repeatedly arrested and held at the scandalously overcrowded and decrepit Lincoln Heights Stockade, a common destination for IWW members during the early 1900s. (In 1931 it was replaced by the equally notorious Lincoln Heights Jail, which closed in 1965.) 

Despite support from socialist and author Upton Sinclair, who was arrested while reading the Bill of Rights in front of 3000 people on a San Pedro bluff, Hynes and the other longshoremen soon realized the strike was seriously stalling by late spring of 1923. By that time a number of the strike leaders were in jail because the Los Angeles Police Department had been receiving crucial inside intelligence information on IWW members. During their trial in 1924, these Wobblies heard testimony from the man who provided most of the intelligence information – William Hynes. Hired by the LAPD as a patrolman in 1922, Hynes was reassigned to the San Pedro docks a year later to infiltrate the maritime strike operations as a spy.

In 1927, Hynes was assigned the very public role of commanding officer of the department’s intelligence bureau, commonly known by their moniker the Red Squad since the San Pedro dock strikes. Tasked to use whatever was necessary to suppress the activities of union activists and political radicals, this LAPD task force was an especially violent outfit. It was a unit that essentially operated on behalf of the city’s oligarchs, the chief proponents of the open shop, and according to the Los Angeles Record (10/17/28) they conveniently operated out of a downtown building they shared with the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.

Commanding the high-profile unit over the next ten years, Hynes was supposedly answerable only to the city’s mayor. Vaguely operating outside the LAPD hierarchy, Hynes even used his position and influence to earn some side money as an “independent consultant.” But that wasn’t particularly surprising since many of the city’s governing agencies, from the police department, the city council, and up to the mayor’s office were mired in noir-level graft and corruption during most of the 1930s.  

A photo of the Cooperative Center schoolroom on Brooklyn Avenue in Boyle Heights, and its teacher Sam Glusman appeared on the front page of the L.A. Times on 10/16/1928. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Historical Archives, Los Angeles Public Library.

After taking command, it didn’t take long for Hynes and the Los Angeles Times to move against the Cooperative Center leftists in Boyle Heights. With a large front-page photo, the Times reported on October 16, 1928, that Detective Hynes and his officers moved in to disrupt an after-school program for local Jewish children. Without citing specific violations, Hynes “charged” that the “principles of communism daily are being instilled into the minds of children between 7 and 12 years of age, and the classroom filled with red banners and flags, (seen in the photo) and a well-stocked library of communistic, inflammatory and seditious literature.” The 28-year-old Russian-born teacher, Sam Glusman was arrested along with the co-manager of the Cooperative Center, Frank Spector, both booked “on suspicion of illegal entry into the United States.” 

Hynes and his officers also raided Glusman’s nearby rented room on Pennsylvania Avenue, as well as the N. Evergreen home of Sam Kadish, the secretary of the Cooperative Center’s school who hired and paid Glusman’s salary. Officers also raided the Blanchard Avenue home of Frank Spector. Declaring that a “considerable amount of communist literature,” was seized at each residence, the men were all charged with “entering the United States Illegally.” For many Boyle Heights leftists with similar charges, deportation proceedings were often unsuccessful, although they were routinely held in a downtown jail for a few days before being fined and released, which their supporters viewed as part of the police department’s deliberate harassment campaign.

Los Angeles Times, 12/6/1929. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Historical Archives, Los Angeles Public Library.

Active in radical politics, Frank Spector was arrested and jailed several times by the LAPD. According to the L. A. Times on 12/6/1929, an International Labor Defense attorney filed a “police cruelty,” complaint against the LAPD, charging that several police officers beat Spector while in custody at the Boyle Heights Police Station. (Other local activists claimed similar experiences.)  But the police commission, and the LAPD’s own “thorough investigation,” found no evidence to substantiate the charges.

By the early 1930s, the former Cooperative Center co-manager was serving time in San Quentin for his organizing activities among farm workers in the Imperial Valley, an agricultural region where the owners of the Los Angeles Times owned vast amounts of land. In 1930, Spector wrote about the communist-led organizing campaign in a 32-page booklet titled, Story of the Imperial Valley with an introduction by author John Dos Passos. A fervent socialist all his life (he left the communist party in 1968), Spector died in Los Angeles in 1982.

In 1930, Frank Spector, former co-manager of the Cooperative Center, wrote about his experiences when he and other local communists attempted to organize farm workers in the Imperial Valley. The International Labor Defense was the legal arm of the U. S. Communist Party.  

But Hynes and his Red Squad unit didn’t hesitate to take their tactics for suppressing leftist free speech and assembly into the streets. On January 3, 1930, the Miller-Abramson Hall, located on the second floor of a furniture store at 2111 Brooklyn Avenue, hosted a lecture by a Russian member of a faction that had fallen out with Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Viewed scornfully by Boyle Heights communists as an opponent of Russia’s socialist revolution, his appearance ensured there would be a good opportunity for many locals to voice their hardy denunciations against the speaker. According to published reports, the crowd was immediately loud and raucous, but there was hardly an opportunity for the LAPD to make it an arresting offense.

Front page of the L.A. Daily News on 1/4/1930. Along with names and home addresses, (listed on page 2) the race or ethnicity of those arrested was also published, a common practice used by many newspapers. Courtesy of    

But according to the L. A. Daily News (1/4/1930) “three hundred packed into the hall” while Hynes “posted 45 men in the crowd.” When an officer attempted to remove a “disturber,” (a heckler, presumably) the officer was reportedly struck by a so-called agitator, setting off a 30-minute melee, where “officers dragged screaming men and woman from the hall and into squad cars below.” According to the Los Angeles Record, a total of “sixteen were arrested, four of them women. Four Red Squad policemen were recovering from painful injuries, with Hynes painfully beaten about the body, and bitten by a woman in the battle.”

While the L. A. Record published the names and the ages of all those arrested, the Daily News also published their home address and even included their race or ethnicity. During this era, it wasn’t unusual for local newspapers to publish the home address of a victim or the alleged criminal, but the inclusion of race or ethnicity, while not uncommon, was blatantly selective.

Surprisingly, in 1931 the L. A. Evening-Post Record published Captain Hynes’ own Eagle Rock home address. The salacious story described Hynes’s attempt to commit his 25-year-old wife to the county hospital’s psychiatric ward after she was reportedly found drunk with a man in a parked car in the mid-city area. Citing cruelty and threats of harm, she divorced Hynes in 1937.  

A more brazen and violent example of the tactics used by Hynes and his Red Squad unit against Boyle Heights leftists occurred a year later. On the evening of February 18, 1931, William Foster, a national communist leader, was scheduled to speak at the Walker Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles. When people arrived, “radicals found Captain Hynes and his men blocking the entrance. All were refused admission,” according to the L. A. Evening Express (2/19/31) while citing no other specific violations and leaving a frustrated crowd of about two thousand milling outside.

According to newspaper accounts, information soon spread “by word-of-mouth,” and later “placards appeared” among the crowd that invited them to immediately go to the Cooperative Center in Boyle Heights for a “mass meeting.”  Alerted to this, the L. A. Evening Express reported that, “Captain Hynes and a detail of 30 officers rushed to the Eastside address and found a defense squad of the radicals in charge.” Hynes and his unit routed several hundred people from inside the Cooperative Center, “with the interior of the place wrecked.”

These four newspaper headlines about the Brooklyn Avenue riot in Boyle Heights were published on 2/19/1931. From left to right, the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Record, Los Angeles Evening Express, and the Daily News. Courtesy of

With the L. A. Daily News reporting that arriving police officers found “communists and their sympathizers showering them with rocks from the roofs of nearby buildings,” the Times reported “3000 reds and sympathizers battled with scores of police,” forcing them to hurl “little bombs of tear gas” to disperse the crowd.  The Los Angeles Record reported one officer “drove 150 persons out of a restaurant (inside the Cooperative Center) by hurling a bomb into the building,” describing the people outside as, “a huge crowd of east side residents, many of them sympathetic with the efforts of the communists to hold a meeting in their own quarter.”

As well as the local newspapers, a description of the Boyle Heights riot also appeared in the February 28th edition of the Open Forum, the newsletter for the Southern California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

This article appeared on page one of the ACLU’s Open Forum newsletter on 2/28/1931. Courtesy of the California Historical Society Digital Library.

After the air literally cleared, one officer struck by a rock was taken to a hospital, while eight men were arrested for “suspicion of criminal syndicalism.” Both the L. A. Times and the L. A. Evening Express published the names and home addresses of those arrested, with the Express summarizing, “Most of those who participated in the riot, police said, were foreign-born.” Despite constant complaints by Eastside citizens that the Red Squad unit was routinely violating their right to free speech and assembly, Detective Hynes was defiant, declaring any declarations of police brutality as, “gross misrepresentations,” and red-baited anyone who made such charges.

Southern California ACLU newsletter the Open Forum. Courtesy of the California Historical Society Digital Library.

In response to the constant raids, arrests, and property damage at the hands of the LAPD, the L. A. Times reported on 7/21/1932, that a group led by author Upton Sinclair, which included the Cooperative Consumers League and the Friends of the Soviet Union, was headed to court to seek a restraining order against the LAPD to prevent them from, “Illegally interfering with meetings of the Co-operative Consumers’ League building at 2700 Brooklyn Avenue.” The group was represented by attorneys from the Southern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

In 1932 author Upton Sinclair was one of the principals in a lawsuit against the LAPD on behalf of the Cooperative Center in Boyle Heights. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Historical Archives, Los Angeles Public Library.

On July 27, 1932, a U. S. District Court granted a one-time injunction against the LAPD, directing them not to interfere or disrupt a scheduled meeting taking place at the Cooperative Center that same evening. That was followed by a critically important ruling in favor of the Cooperative Center on August 6, 1933. The case was centered on the fact that Captain Hynes had sent two officers to immediately shut down a meeting at the Cooperative Center before it started because he was anticipating the nature of the meeting would be a violation of the Criminal Syndicalism Act, which the judge ruled to be immaterial and a violation of the right to free speech. This victory for the plaintiffs representing the Cooperative Center (simply referred to as the “Brooklyn Avenue hall” in the L.A. Times) was a pivotal moment for the years-long fight for free speech by leftists in Boyle Heights and throughout the city of Los Angeles.

L. A. Times 8/7/1933. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Historical Archives, Los Angeles Public Library.

In a column in the ACLU’s newsletter Open Forum (8/12/1933), the ACLU noted the broader significance of the court’s August 7th ruling in favor of the free speech rights for speakers at the Cooperative Center.

Southern California ACLU newsletter the Open Forum, Aug. 12, 1933. Courtesy of the California Historical Society Digital Library.

Prolific muckraking author Upton Sinclair (The Jungle, Oi!) helped establish the Southern California chapter of the ACLU in 1923 after moving to Pasadena around 1915, and eventually living in Monrovia from 1942-1966. During his unsuccessful run for California governor as a Democrat in 1934, Sinclair’s EPIC (End Poverty in California) campaign drew some of its strongest local support from the working-class residents of Boyle Heights. When Sinclair previously ran for governor in 1930 as a socialist, Eastside activist Chaim Shapiro ran for Lt. governor on the same ticket. A graduate of USC law school, the Russian-born Shapiro was instrumental in establishing several socialist-oriented Boyle Heights organizations such the Workmen’s Circle, and the Labor-Zionist Soto Street Folkshul. 

An Upton Sinclair for Governor banner hangs in Boyle Heights in 1934. The location is confirmed by the wooden framed sign slightly obscured by the vehicle to the right. A close look reveals the sign is an advertisement for three Boyle Heights-area movie houses, the Wabash, the Meralta, and the Joy. Courtesy of the Seaver Center for Western History online digital collection.

The next blog post will be up in a few days, sooner than usual because it’s a good companion to this post. It will mostly feature little-seen photographs of the Cooperative Center and the surrounding area taken by the LAPD Intelligence Unit in 1928 while they conducted photographic surveillance.