RED BOYLE HEIGHTS: Cooperative Center Court Victories a Win for Open Public Speech

As discussed in the previous post, the Los Angeles Plaza, or La Placita was the site of sporadic but violent and deadly clashes between capital and labor since the early 1900s, years before Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. In the late 1920s, especially after the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929, a more organized and sustained radical movement began to assert itself with open protests and demonstrations within the Plaza area. Many of these demonstrations, in large part, were organized by groups of Yiddish-based socialist organizations based in Boyle Heights, particularly the Cooperative Center at 2700 Brooklyn Avenue. And these Plaza protests would continue up to the mid-1930s.

In late December 1930, communist members from the Cooperative Center in Boyle Heights agreed to participate in a hunger march from the Los Angeles garment district to Sacramento, beginning January 3, 1931. A few days before the march the LAPD Deputy Chief granted a permit to the organizers to host a pre-march banquet to be held at the Cooperative Center. That decision, as reported by the L.A. Times, clearly showed that action didn’t sit well with the Cooperative Center’s biggest foe, Lt. William Hynes, commander of the LAPD’s Red Squad Unit.

Los Angeles Times, 12/30/31. Courtesy of the L. A. Times Digital Archives, Los Angeles Public Library.

On the morning of the march send off, when LAPD officers moved in to stop one of the organizers from addressing the crowd, the rally turned into a literal fight for free speech. Blaming the sudden clash on “red propaganda,” the L.A. Times reported “Police were forced to use their sticks in restoring order,” while “Hand-to-hand battles between mob members and the officers ensued.” Two women received head injuries during the melee and were taken to a local hospital for treatment. One of the women lived in the downtown district and the other resided on Brooklyn Avenue in Boyle Heights. Despite the violent start that erupted after the LAPD began “restoring order,” it was reported a dozen marchers were able to proceed on their journey later that day.

Los Angeles Times, 1/4/1932. Courtesy of the L.A. Times Digital Archives, Los Angeles Public Library.

One of the most noted communist activists in Los Angeles in the1930s was a Glendale-born Japanese American named Karl Yoneda, who often went by Karl Hamas. Yoneda led a remarkable life as a lifelong labor organizer in Los Angeles and San Francisco, as well as editor for Rodo Shimbun, a newspaper for the Japanese wing of the Communist Party, USA (CPUSA).

In his 1983 autobiography, Ganbatte, Yoneda wrote about a multi-city fundraising campaign for Rodo Shimbun, with the inaugural effort taking place in Boyle Heights in 1933, which included an appearance by a young socialist and movie actor named Will Geer:

The first took place in Los Angeles on February 4 at the Cooperative Center Auditorium on Brooklyn Avenue. Eight hundred heard Will Geer’s poetry reading and enjoyed other features. I was a keynoter and collection maker: $125 was cleared.”

Photo of Karl Yoneda on the front page of the L.A. Evening Express, 2/10/1931, after he was struck unconscious by a “blackjack sap” by an LAPD officer. Courtesy of

On February 10, 1931, Yoneda took part in a downtown demonstration protesting President Hoover’s refusal to sign the Worker’s Unemployment Insurance Bill; Hoover considered it charity and a disincentive for people to seek employment. According to newspaper accounts, Yoneda was knocked unconscious after he was struck by a blackjack-wielding police officer. (L.A. Evening Express.) The L.A. Times reported: “Some sort of Asiatic unfurled a red-paint banner and started a harangue. A blow silenced him, and he was carried away unconscious with blood streaming from his scalp. An ambulance took him to Receiving Hospital. He was identified as Karal Hama, 25 years of age, 805 East First Street.” He was later jailed after he was treated at the hospital.

Photos of Karl (Hama) Yoneda before and after he was knocked unconscious by a police officer. According to Elaine Black, the man seen helping him up was a French seaman who was also arrested and soon deported for participating in the protest. L.A. Times 2/11/1931. Courtesy of the L.A. Times Digital Archives, Los Angeles Public Library.

Later that day, Elaine Black, a communist representative for the International Labor Defense arrived to post bail for Yoneda. It was also the beginning of a life-long partnership in political activism, as they would marry a few years later. When Yoneda was sent to Manzanar, Elaine refused to leave his side and joined home him there, which is recounted in her own biography, The Red Angel.

In that same year 1931, state and local officials also started using the Los Angeles Plaza to round up Mexicans as a part of the Mexican Repatriation Program. Supposedly a voluntary-only program, authorities, nevertheless used coercion and threats, if not outright arrests, to pressure many of them to “go back to their homeland” as they were scapegoated as immigrants who were using scarce resources or taking jobs from needy Americans.

Los Angeles Times, 4/24/1931.
La Opinion, 2/27/1931.

With crowded demonstrations and hard-charging responses by the LAPD continuing to roil the downtown area in the early 1930s, one of the largest protest gatherings ever held at the Plaza, officially called the Hunger and Unemployment Protest, took place on October 2, 1933. It was organized by the United Front Conference Against Hunger (UFCA), a group of a half dozen neighborhood organizations from around the city, including Boyle Heights. As was now routine, Lt. Hynes claimed the organizations were all communist fronts.

Although the crowd size was estimated to be as large as 4,000, there was a significant difference compared to previous Plaza protests: there was no violence, and protesters were allowed to speak out and carry signs and banners without police disruption. The crowd even gathered at the Plaza despite the fact the mandatory city permit for the event was denied.

According to the October 7, 1933 ACLU newsletter, The Open Forum, on September 29, the Los Angeles City Council voted to revoke the permit initially granted to UFCA organizers after getting pressure from Lt. William Hynes. On the morning of the planned demonstration, ACLU lawyers were in front of a superior court judge seeking an injunction against the city council’s selective use of the permit ordinance, arguing “it was unconstitutional because it was passed [the vote to cancel the permit] solely because of the political and economic beliefs of the marchers.” The judge “ruled that he was doubtful as to the constitutionality of the ordinance but was compelled to resolve its doubt in favor of its constitutionality.” After the morning ruling, ACLU lawyers advised the UFAC organizers that the event should be canceled.  

The Daily News, 10/2/3. Courtesy of

On Monday morning, the day of the hunger protest, the Daily News reported that during the weekend LAPD Chief James Davis, with Lt. Hynes at his side, held a press conference to announce that the department would discontinue “Capt. Haynes’ former system of breaking up radical assemblages,” and were now more focused in “gathering information” and “targeting leaders for arrest.” The LAPD’s tactical shift appeared to be the result of a superior court’s favorable ruling on behalf of several Cooperative Center plaintiffs just a few months prior.

In July, the court ruled the LAPD’s Red Squad unit violated the guaranteed right to free speech when they shut down a meeting at the Cooperative Center in Boyle Heights. (This was discussed in more detail in the third blog post of this series, Raids and Riots on Brooklyn Avenue.) That ruling now seemed to be influencing the LAPD’s long-standing confrontational policy towards public demonstrations by “political radicals.”

A protest hunger rally at the Los Angeles Plaza on October 2, 1933. Photo taken by a photographer for the Daily News. Courtesy of

Despite the official cancellation of the demonstration because it would be an unlawful assembly without the required city permit, huge groups of people continued to arrive all that morning. By 1:00 p.m., when a three-hour speaking program began, the Plaza was filled with about 4,000 people. Carried over by a loudspeaker system, the crowd listened to a program of speakers, singers, and a poet. Many in the crowd carried signs and banners with messages demanding tax relief, milk for children, and a ban on evictions and utility shutoffs, while the L.A. Times reported banners were seen demanding freedom for the Scottsboro Boys, and “signs against Hitlerism and fascism.”

According to the ACLU’s Open Forum, “the hunger demonstration was held without any arrests or broken heads,” while the Daily News reported that a demonstration organizer took to the loudspeaker at the end of the day to advise the crowd to go home peaceably and “not give the authorities any excuses for attacking us.”

This photo appeared on page 2 of the Los Angeles Times on 10/3/33. Courtesy of the L.A. Times Digital Archives, Los Angeles Public Library.

As part of my research for this event, I decided to examine the University of Santa Barbara’s extensive online aerial photography collection, a collection that dates to the 1920s. While using the site’s FrameFinder tool, I noticed there was a 1933 aerial photo of the Los Angeles Plaza area available for download. In a stroke of good fortune, the photo’s catalog information gave the date as October 2, 1933 – the same day as the hunger demonstration! In the photo below, the crowd can be seen gathering at the Plaza.

This aerial photo shows a crowd of people gathering on the south side of the tree-shaded Los Angeles Plaza on October 2, 1933. Olvera Street can be seen to the right of the Plaza. A cluster of buildings seen in the lower half of the photo, from center to left, is the original Chinatown district. Union Station, opened in 1939, now occupies this site. Courtesy of the University of Santa Barbara Aerial Photography Collection.  

One of the last and largest communist demonstrations in 1930s Los Angeles occurred at the Plaza on May 1, 1934, with the crowd estimated by the LAPD to be around 2,000. Like the 1933 Plaza demonstration, there were no reports of violence and injuries. According to the Los Angeles Times, Lt. Hynes and 150 police officers were stationed around the area but kept a hands-off approach. They also reported that the speeches were delivered in several languages – English, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese, while communist members were busy distributing “inflammatory handbills.” The Times further reported the following scene took place:

Several resolutions, one demanding political prisoners of Germany be released outright, were proposed, and adopted. It was reported that a committee of five, chosen to present a resolution to the German Consulate, found the offices of the Consulate locked on their arrival.”    

This photo of the May Day rally at the Los Angeles Plaza appeared on page 2 of the Los Angeles Times on 5/2/34. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection.

It was no surprise that protesters at these Boyle Heights-dominated Plaza rallies were declaring the dangers of Hitlerism and fascism, or demanding Germany release all political prisoners. In the mid-1930s a local pro-Nazi movement, part of a larger domestic movement, began to assert itself in and around Los Angeles. In particular, two organizations were at the forefront—the Friends of the New Germany, and the Silver Shirts.

On November 22, 1938, two weeks after the violent events of Kristallnacht, Jewish organizations throughout Los Angeles gathered with a crowd as large as 10,000 on Brooklyn Avenue in Boyle Heights to protest the antisemitic actions of the Nazi regime. It was the largest anti-Nazi protest ever held in the city. The event was chaired by Russian-born socialist and lawyer Chaim Shapiro, who founded the city’s first branch of the Workmen’s Circle (in Boyle Heights) and ran for lieutenant governor on the socialist ticket in 1930.   

The Daily News, 11/23/1938. Courtesy of

But six years before that November evening, in an improbable series of events, it would be a prominent member of the local Nazi movement who would, unintentionally, be responsible for establishing one of the city’s most iconic, communist-inspired public statements ever produced. And it would be located only a few yards from the Los Angeles Plaza.

Born in Austria in 1889, Franz K. Ferenz immigrated to New York City in 1914, working as an art dealer and art book editor before moving to Los Angeles in 1928. In 1931 Ferenz opened the Plaza Art Center at the former Italian Hall on Olvera Street, showcasing the city’s first serious exhibit of contemporary Mexican art. In 1932 he commissioned visiting Mexican muralist and ardent communist David Alfaro Siqueiros to paint a tropical-themed, tourist-friendly Fresco on the exterior of the old Italian Hall. As well as helping to secure painting material and scaffolding for the project, Ferenz reportedly suggested a title—Tropical America. But to Siqueiros, América Tropical suggested something far more daring and complex.   

Los Angeles Times, 10/10/1932. Courtesy of the L.A. Times Digital Archives, Los Angeles Public Library.

With Ferenz introducing Siqueiros at the official dedication on October 9, 1932, attendees gasped at the striking images of the expansive fresco, a tropical-themed but politically charged work, far from what Ferenz or conservative city boosters envisioned. Seen as subversive, un-American, and crucially, a threat to local commerce, the entire mural was whitewashed within three years.

Initially, only the portion of the fresco that can be seen from Olvera Street visitors below was whitewashed. Taken by a photographer of the Los Angeles Times.

By 1935 Ferenz was no longer operating the Plaza Art Center but running a pro-Nazi bookshop called the Continental Bookstore near MacArthur Park. By this time, the formally well-regarded Los Angeles art patron had now emerged as a Hitler-admiring antisemite and member of the Friends of the New Germany organization. In the pre-war years Ferenz became a major distributor of Nazi propaganda on the West Coast, and for two years operated the Continental Cinema in the West Adams district (near the USC campus) where he screened Nazi-produced propaganda films. (The theater is now the Velaslavasay Panorama.) Up until the early 1940s, whenever Ferenz encountered problems booking local venues to host Nazi-friendly presentations, or had his bookstore raided by authorities, he commonly blamed it on the efforts of “communistic Jews.”       

In his 2017 book, Hitler in Los Angeles, USC professor Steven J. Ross reveals that when a resourceful citizen activist and Nazi party infiltrator attempted to warn LAPD Police Chief James Davis about the growing danger of the local Nazi movement, Davis replied that communists were a bigger menace, with Ross noting that Davis “left no doubt that the greatest threat to democracy emanated from the Jewish-dominated Boyle Heights area.” Ross further reveals that meetings even took place among several Nazi members (with Ferenz present) where they discussed scenarios of violent action against several Jewish Hollywood notables, as well as against the residents of Boyle Heights.

Los Angeles Times, 6/5/1942. Courtesy of the L.A. Times Digital Archives, Los Angeles Public Library.

By 1944, Ferenz and sixteen other Nazi cohorts were defendants in a Washington D.C. courtroom, charged with violating anti-sedition laws. A chaotic and complicated trial, the government’s case ended in a mistrial and charges were dropped. Released from jail, Ferenz returned to operate his Los Angeles bookshop, reportedly selling mostly phonograph records, until he died in 1956.     

The next blog post will look at the final years of the radical activism of the Cooperatives Center as the 1930s come to an end, and the venue soon transitions into the long-running Paramount Ballroom. The post will also look at a, literally explosive event in Boyle Heights that signaled the end of the Red Squad unit.