James Baldwin's San Francisco & the Hunters Point Uprising
Unknown to many outside the greater San Francisco Bay area, a historical event took place 55 years ago, with all too many similarities to modern day headlines and hashtags. On the afternoon of Tuesday September 27, 1966, Matthew "Peanut" Johnson, Jr., an unarmed, 16 year-old, Black teenager, was fatally shot by white police officer Alvin Johnson. After which an uprising ensued and continued until Saturday, October 1st, 1966.
Matthew Johnson Jr., known to friends and family as "Peanut", lived in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood of San Francisco.
The neighborhood was featured in a 1964 documentary called Take This Hammer, in which James Baldwin documented the community's marginalization. The film was originally produced by KQED (public broadcasting system of Northern California) for National Educational Television (NET), and first aired on February 4, 1964. The film's opening scene describes itself as "a video report on the visit to the city of San Francisco, by the novelist, essayist, and playwright James Baldwin."
During the spring of 1963, KQED's mobile film unit followed James Baldwin around the city of San Francisco, as he met with and interviewed members of the local Black community. The documentary footage offers first hand accounts of the everyday experiences of Black, San Francisco residents. As much as we can try to convey the themes of the film, no one can say it better than Baldwin himself. It's freely offered below via YouTube, or you can watch the remastered, Directors Cut version here.
To put the film in some historical context, it was shot as Alcatraz was closing it's doors as an operating prison. It aired a few months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, one year before the Voting Rights act of 1965 was passed, and four years before the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
The film's white director, Richard O. Moore, was one of the founders of KQED's documentary film unit. It was Moore's intention to make an entire KQED series on the Black American experience amidst the backdrop of the heightening Civil Rights Movement. In the 2012 documentary titled The Making of Take this Hammer, he said "... not to pay attention to the dominant themes of one's era is immoral." When he heard James Baldwin would be visiting San Francisco, the idea for the film evolved naturally.
The film became an exposé on the reality of San Francisco, which presented itself as a modern, liberal, cosmopolitan city. Behind the façade was a very real Black American experience, that was not much different than the experience of being Black and living in the American South at the time. In the film, Baldwin states,
"There is no moral distance- which is to say no distance- between the facts of life in San Francisco and the facts of life in Birmingham. [It was the] San Francisco, America pretends does not exist".
The film exposed very real anger felt by young Black residents surrounding unjust human struggle, lack of opportunities, and the fight to survive- particularly in the Hunters Point neighborhood. KQED's all white board of directors cut 15 minutes of the film because they were afraid to show the level of unrest that was so evident. From the Director, Richard O. Moore's, point of view, "this was a violation of the first amendment", However, Moore ultimately knew the footage had to be cut in order for the film to even air. Baldwin was infuriated by loss of footage, and he was insistent that the film focus on the anger and frustration felt the Black youth. Unable to see eye to eye, the difference in opinion affected the friendship between Moore and Baldwin, and ended their correspondence entirely.*
Despite the lack of full footage, the anger felt by those living in the Hunters Point neighborhood was undeniable. Their common struggles revolved around inhuman housing conditions, unemployment, discrimination and racial profiling.
In 1966, the national unemployment rate was 3.9 percent, but it was 5 percent in San Francisco. In the city, Black American males were estimated to be unemployed at three times the rate of their white counterparts and Black American Women were double the rate.* This in turn left many young Black men to fend for themselves on the streets, frustrated with the reality of racial discrimination.
A former Hunters Point resident, James Lockett, told the San Francisco Chronicle, “I turned to robbing to feed my family and the community". He went on to say, "My mom was a single woman with four children. As we got older and hungrier, we decided we were going to eat like everyone else. We stole a quarter cow from James Allen’s slaughterhouse and dragged it to the car. We fed about 30 families. What we did wasn’t really crime as crime is today. It was survival".
Hunters Point residents also suffered from poverty and isolation. Most residents lived in temporary housing that was built during World War II to house shipyard workers. Many of those wartime shipyard workers were Black Americans trying to escape the Jim Crow South. The US Navy offered to hire workers from across the nation, so thousands of Black Southerners made the journey to seek better employment. The problem was that after the war ended the jobs disappeared. "The housing stock, most of it intended to be temporary, deteriorated, and the already-isolated neighborhood was marooned when the Bayshore Freeway was built in 1958."*
In January of 1966, Hunters Point residents created the Bayview -Hunters Point Joint Housing Committee, in an attempt to have a say in what was happening to their community.
"Those of us who represent the people of the area are determined to have a say in how this blighted neighborhood is planned and rebuilt to serve us".*
The 1966 publication Collaborative Planning at Hunters Point, was joint effort between Ruth Williams, Chairman of the Bayview-Hunters Point Joint Housing Committee, and Justin Herman, Executive Director of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency. In it, they disclosed just how terrible the living conditions were in Hunters Point. Not only was the area "devoid of amenities" (where one had to travel long distances to find a basic grocery store), but the "run-down housing" suffered from "leaking roofs, sagging foundations, rotting plumbing, rodents and vermin."
On March 9, 1966 residents from the Hunters Point community, including members of the newly formed Committee, attended a San Francisco Housing Authority meeting and engaged in non-violent protest tactics to make their voices heard. After a Housing Authority spokesman declared, "this meeting was called for a bond issue. We're not going to discuss the Hunters Point problem today!", the Hunters Point community members locked arms, blocked the exits and insisted the officials listen to a statement that was read by George Earl.
"We have long complained and long been ignored. We again rehearse our complaint. Number one: evictions can no longer be done in the high handed manner which has become routine. We protest any evictions which is done without exalting all methods of resolving the principle problems involved."
The group continued to list countless ways the Housing Authority and the City of San Francisco had failed them, and even began to sing "We shall Overcome", during the event (singing starts at 7:25 here).
In a newscast interview later that night, the Housing Authority official stated, "In the long run, these people … can't look to the Housing Authority to cure the economic and social ills implicit in our society. The problem is one of jobs."* Residents were being evicted because they couldn't pay their rent, which they couldn't pay because they couldn't get hired, and the Housing Authority wouldn't do anything about it because they needed the rent money to continue their work.
Little changed in the next six months. The escalating tension of life in Hunters Point hit it's boiling point when, on the Afternoon of September 27, 1966 SFPD patrolman Alvin Johnson shot and killed 16-year old Matthew Johnson, Jr.
Note: Most of the information and images below come from the official police report, 128 hours : a report of the civil disturbance in the City & County of San Francisco, which Arthur Hippler, author of Hunter's Point : A Black Ghetto, and others have critiqued as heavily biased in favor of police actions. The report left out several important details which we have tried to fill in, using archival footage and first-hand accounts.
Trigger Warning: the details below include those of police misconduct and police violence resulting in death.
It was around 2:30 pm, when SFPD Patrolman Alvin Johnson came across a stalled 1958 Buick at the intersection of Griffith and Oakdale. As Officer Johnson approached the car, two young men, Matthew Johnson Jr. (16) and Clifton Bacon (15), abandoned the car and started running. The car's third occupant, Darnell Mobley, (14) was able to escape the vehicle and hide without Officer Johnson spotting him,
Officer Johnson followed Matthew and Clifton on foot, shouting at them to come back and talk to him- and if they didn't stop he would shoot. The Officer got back in his car to catch up with them quicker but once out of the car again, he continued to yell at the boys to stop or he would shoot. When they kept running, he fired three "warning shots" in the air, and a fourth shot towards Matthew Johnson, Jr. as he was at the top of a slight hill. When Matthew did not come up after the fourth shot, Officer Johnson approached to find him face down with blood coming out of his mouth. Officer Johnson had shot the 16 year old, in the back.
Officer Johnson's statement, featured on a newscast later that evening, can be seen here.
A witness report later stated that all four shots Officer Johnson took, were fired directly at Matthew, and that the interview was carefully scripted to rouse maximum sympathy for the police.*
Those who worked nearby, at The Economic Opportunity Center, were some of the first bystanders at the scene. Mrs. Louise Williams, a registered nurse working at the center, immediately administered first aid, until she could no longer sense a pulse. It was she who announced Matthew was dead.
According to the original police report, the Coroner's Office was requested to respond around 3:30 pm, and Matthew Johnson Jr's body was removed from the scene at 3:50 pm. All the while, close to 150 people had gathered around the scene to see what had happened. Although they disbursed of their own accord, by 4:15 pm tensions were definitely rising.
The Economic Opportunity Center was the San Francisco headquarters for the Office of Economic Opportunity. It was the agency responsible for administering most of the War on Poverty programs, created by US President, Lyndon B. Johnson's, Great Society. It was here outside the center that a group of approximately 40-60 young adults had gathered and were overheard talking about storming the Potrero Police Station. Police Captain Harry Nelson was requested to come address the crowd.
Captain Nelson met the with large group on the second floor the Economic Opportunity Center. The attitude of this meeting was described in the police report, as "boisterous and tense" and even "hostile" as Captain Nelson was met with shouted questions that we are often still asking today:
What was being done to the Officer who killed the unarmed youth?
Was he being arrested for murder?
Was he in Jail?
Captain Nelson communicated that an investigation was being conducted, but at the time insufficient information had been gathered to answer all the questions being asked of him. He told the group that he would do everything possible to have an answer for them by midnight, and he left the meeting around 6:45 pm. The youth, unsatisfied with the meeting, spilled into the streets, and began taking out their anger and frustration. They started in the Rexol Drug store, where they smashed several displays, and continued along the street breaking storefront windows.
Further down the street at the Bayview Community Center, Mr. Orville Luster, Director of the Youth for Service, was organizing young men and some of the center's employees, for what was later called the Peace Patrol*. Mr. Luster had advised the Police Department of the group's headquarters location, and requested the use of several Police Department bullhorns, to which the police obliged*. It can be assumed that the group's initial aim was to help deescalate the unfolding situation. However, as the events of the next few days continued to unfold, Youth for Service's aim became patrolling the Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood - and other heavily marginalized areas in the city - to help residents avoid getting hurt by the police and National Guard.
Large groups of frustrated and curious youth continued to gather at various points throughout the entire city that first evening. The police officially declared a "riot" was in progress at approximately 7:35 pm.
As all events were unfolding, San Francisco Mayor John F. Shelley, was in contact with Police Chief Thomas J. Cahill. They established a temporary Command Operations Center in Cahill's office at Potrero Police Station at 7:50 pm and afterwards, headed to the Bayview Community Center where a "large, unruly mob was massed."* Mayor, John F Shelley addressed the large crowd gathered outside the center. According to the original police report, Mayor Shelley tried to plead for peace but "the mob was so unruly that, in addition to the verbal abuse being offered, a brick was hurled, narrowly missing the Mayor."
Mayor Shelley moved inside the Bayview Community Center, where he informed the group that "Officer Johnson had been suspended from duty pending a complete investigation." It was clear that no further communication with the crowd was going to be successful, so the Mayor, Police Chief and their staffs left the center and returned to the police station at 9:30 pm.*
While Mayor Shelley was meeting with the group at the Community Center, the owner of the 1958 Buick, Mrs. Ida Scurlock, called to report the vehicle as stolen. Later testimony of Clifton Bacon, identified the vehicle as being stolen at 11:36 am because he remembered hearing the fourth period lunch bell. Mrs. Scurlock reported the vehicle late, because she thought her husband may have come and picked up the vehicle while she was working.*
Back at the police station, units were equipped with riot gear. The units were addressed by Chief Cahill and Mayor Shelley, and instructed to avoid any unnecessary incidents and uses of force. They were then moved to their designated staging places in the 3rd Street Area. The California Highway Patrol, was also alerted of the growing tensions at this time.
By 10:25 pm, the Office of the Governor was notified of the situation.
By 11:00 pm, reports of incidents (frustrated juveniles smashing windows) were coming in from the Northern Police District.
At 11:39 pm Mayor Shelley had contacted Governor Brown and officially requested support from 2,000 National Guardsmen and a State of Emergency was declared. The National Guardsmen were ordered to duty at 11:45 pm. Under the State of Emergency Proclamation, a curfew was established in pre-designated areas from midnight until 6 am.
It was the largest police mobilization in San Francisco since the end of World War II.*
By 3:30 am, the Police reported that conditions were under control and the staff at Headquarters was reduced to a minimum.
"We cannot have revolution in this country and I can assure the people of my State that I will do everything within my power to see that law and order is observed and the rights of person and property are carefully protected. And I'll tell you this - we're going to meet force with force." -Governor Pat Brown*
The next morning, there were several reports of new disturbances in the Fillmore district. When one of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)'s The Movement staff went to check out the scene, they "reported that only a few windows were broken and that all the streets leading into the Fillmore" district were completely cordoned off by the Highway Patrol, and "all was quiet."*
Luster's Peace Patrol, requested to have a meeting that morning with Mayor Shelley, Governor Brown, Assemblyman Willie Brown, Assemblyman John Burton, and Congressman Phil Burton in Hunters Point. Only one of the Burton's obliged and met with them.
The official police report noted that information was received from a patrol unit, that a crowd started gathering that morning near 3rd Street and Mendell in the Bayview-Hunters Point area. Sargent Marelli and all available Protero units responded to the location where they conferred with community leaders (most likely members of the Peace Patrol). The community leaders were given the opportunity to deescalate the situation themselves, which they were able to do for a short time.
The police report goes on to claim that a group of around 200 people, started to gather, using the off-street facilities of the Bayview Community Center at 3rd and Mendell. The report claimed that "Molotov cocktails and rocks were thrown" from this group, who had apparently grown to 700 people in a very short time period. The report reasoned "tempers were being fueled by alcoholic beverages, looted previously, which poured freely."*
According to SNCC, the Peace Patrol had pleaded for the police to block off 3rd street, and so they could help deescalate the situation and deal with the amassed crowd themselves. The Police refused, and the turbulent youth ended up harming passing vehicles with thrown rocks.
Later that afternoon, reports were still coming in that vehicles were damaged by thrown debris, and the police finally established a traffic blockade in the 3rd street area around 4:15 pm.*
This is where the narratives split...
According to the police report*:
Information was received from Field Operation Commanders that additional looting was occurring, Molotov Cocktails and rocks were being thrown, and the sound of gunfire could be heard in the 3rd Street area.
At 5:43 pm, a report was received that one of the patrol car unit officers had been hit by thrown debris, and all patrol units were requested to respond to the Bayview Community Center. "Simultaneously to their arrival at this location, firebombs were thrown at them from the windows of the Bayview Community Center." Additionally, gunfire was directed at them from the Center, and also from under a parked car across the street.
"In order to protect themselves and regain control of the situation, the squads were ordered to fire. The first 2 volleys were fired into the air in a warning gesture. This proved fruitless as the officers were still targets of additional gunfire and Molotov Cocktails. The next volleys were directed at the points from which fire emanated. The Bayview Community Center was quickly emptied and the situation was brought back under control of the Police."
After searching the area near the parked car, a jacket was discovered with 60 seconal capsules, and an expended 22 cal. cartridge.
There were a total of seven injuries from the shooting, none of which were critical.
According to eyewitnesses as reported by The Movement*:
An officer in a passing patrol car was hit by a thrown rock, after witching yelling "I'm hit, I'm hit!" The driver of the patrol car called into headquarters, saying "My buddy is hit", but did not clarify how or what injuries were sustained.
When the extended police force arrived at the Community Center, one officer yelled, "There's a gun in there somewhere, they're firing at us!" Thus the squad fired upon the Center. Images of the shooting appeared on television and in newspapers.
More than 200 children were in the Bayview Community Center at the time. This fact, was not reported by any of the main news media outlets (or referenced in the police report).
The Movement was one of only three media outlets that interviewed Harold Brooks, Director of the Bayview Community Center, who was inside the Center at the time of the shooting. He said the shooting lasted around 7 or 8 minutes, and the kids were in the windows just minutes before the shooting began. "The police must have known they were in there".
Brooks went on to say, "the children didn't expect the police would fire. When the firing broke out, bedlam followed, until I got them to lie down. I went out the front door to get them to stop firing and let the kids out".
Brooks continued, "after the kids got out, the police came looking for cocktails and guns. They didn't find anything".
Six of the seven injured parties, were Peace Patrol members, that were clearly marked by their black armbands and police issued bull horns. Adam Rogers, was one of the injured Peace Patrol members. He was standing a block off off 3rd Street and was telling people to get off the streets with his bull horn, when he was shot in the back. He was overheard screaming, "why did they shoot me?"
A curfew continued to be put in place each evening. According to SNCC's The Movement, several middle-class students and hippies in the Haight-Asbury district, demonstrated against the 8pm curfew and the presence of the National Guard in the city. They demanded the withdrawal of the police and National Guard from the Fillmore and Bayview-Hunter's Point districts.
It was SNCC who later pointed out that the curfew areas were gerrymandered around areas with a large Black population. St. Francis Square, was a mostly white middle-class housing project, and it was excluded from the curfew area, even though it was right in the middle of the Fillmore District.*
One resident said, that it would be impossible to move around the area without a map. "Step across the wrong street and you're under arrest."
Much like many of the smaller organizations and personal fundraisers today surrounding similar tragedies, SNCC collected donations to help those who were arrested during the uprising. In total, 146 people were arrested, two police officers were hurt and 42 Black civilians were injured (10 from gunshot wounds).
The official status of Youth for Service's Peace Patrol was not recognized until Thursday September 29th around noon, following a meeting held at the Council of Civic Unity. The meeting was attended by Mr. Orville Luster, and a proposal was made to Mayor Shelley, in a attempt to further the means that the community members could help restore order. The Youth Peace Patrol were issued official and more distinct armbands from the Police Department and their purpose was officially recognized to establish and maintain contact with community members by community members, in an attempt to restore order. The new distinct armband would allow the Peace Patrol members freedom of movement into and within curfew areas.
During the KNTV newscast on the evening on September 30, 1966, it was announced that "a group of San Francisco employers pledged to create two thousand jobs as quickly as possible" in an effort to help quell some of the overarching societal ills that impacted the Bayview-Hunters Point areas.
It wasn't until the evening of Saturday, October 1, 1966 that the police and National Guard finally left the Hunter's Point neighborhood.
The fatal shooting of Matthew "Peanut" Johnson was ruled an "excusable homicide" on October 20th, 1966.
The entire event left a traumatic stain on the city and lives of San Francisco.
Extracts from a special report made by the KQED "Aftermath Camera Team" in early 1967, featuring street interviews with San Franciscans in the downtown area at the Stonestown Mall and in the Mission District, can be seen here.
San Francisco native Darrell Rogers (b. 1945 in the Fillmore) describes the Hunter's Point uprising as he remembers it. Video: Shaping San Francisco