The Hunters Point Riot

From FoundSF

Unfinished History

by Chris Carlsson

The San Francisco Police Department deployed at Newcomb and 3rd Streets, Sept. 28, 1966.

Photo: Shaping San Francisco collection

On September 27, 1966 a riot broke out in San Francisco's Hunters Point, a black neighborhood, when a white police officer shot and killed a seventeen-year-old black as he fled the scene of a stolen car. Arthur Hippler wrote a book called Hunters Point: A Black Ghetto in which, among other things, he attempts to debunk the police account of the riot (which was published as a pamphlet called 128 Hours). This account closely follows his:

For two hours after the shooting, a large, angry crowd milled about the site along Navy Road. The police, meanwhile, were hurrying the blacks on the city's Human Rights Commission over to the scene.

A meeting was held between these middle-class blacks and some of the angry young men at the nearby Economic Opportunity Center. The rioters pressed their demands that the cop be charged with murder, a key demand that was incomprehensible to the assembled authorities. The police switched to the head of Youth for Service, a sputtering group of ex-gang members, but he made no impression on the young men, who were for the most part outside any gang structure.

By the time Mayor Shelley promised a crowd at 3rd near the Bayview Community Center that Patrolman Johnson had been suspended, it was too late. The lone black supervisor, Terry Francois, known as a NAACP and civil rights defense lawyer, was jeered and pelted with rocks when he appeared. Hippler quotes a young man:

"That cocksucker forget he's black, but when we put them fuckers on the run, they sure let him know at City Hall right away. Shit, man, who the fuck he think he's fooling?"

That night saw sporadic looting, rock-throwing and petty arson. "Community leaders" tried to calm the situation the next day, but the cops issued an ultimatum: calm by noon Wednesday or massive force would be introduced. The leaders, mostly part of the middle-aged matriarchy and/or their ministerial allies, had nothing to offer the rioters and their pleas for calm went unheeded.

Around six in the evening, a few hours after calling in the National Guard and Highway Patrol, the police responded to alleged gunfire by opening up on the Bayview Community Center and surrounding buildings. After riddling it with hundreds of bullets the police found no gunmen or weapons but only several pre-teen kids huddling in the corner.

This broke the "holiday mood" and the riot became a simple race confrontation, as the community had every reason to assume the police were trying to kill them, and the police could no longer distinguish friend from foe except on racial terms. The long suppressed anger over the abysmal status imposed on black Americans was uncontainable, but even still the riot was for the most part not terribly violent.

The next three days, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, Sept. 29-Oct. 1 saw the riot continue with a decreasing incidence of violence, and then finally peter out. The property damage (several hundred thousand dollars) compared with riots in comparably sized cities was minimal, as were the casualties (ten civilians reported victims of gunshot wounds, no casualties among the police or other antiriot personnel)... Like its counterparts in Watts, it consisted - with few exceptions - of attacks on the property of whites (but also of nonwhites), shows of bravado calculated to frighten and cow police, and enough running around and breaking windows to give the participants a feeling of real potency while actually not confronting white power in any significant way.

Perhaps the best indication of both the essentially passive character of the response of black males in Hunters Point and the unreasonable magnitude of white fears is the fact that, aside from long-range brick throwing, less than a half dozen assaults by blacks against whites were recorded in the course of five days of rioting... Also, the fact that the riots took part in all parts of the city with sizeable black populations (the Mission district, the Potrero Hill area, the huge Fillmore district) and yet resulted in so few injuries indicates the presence of some restraining factor other than the police. I suggest it was the black rioters internalized fear of whites, so difficult to break down, coupled with a holiday mood. [Emphasis added]

The police had, until the early sixties, dealt with black youth from Hunter's Point by isolating them there. One officer is quoted by Hippler on his technique:

"Get back upon the hill where you belong, nigger. If I see your black ass down here again, I'll shoot it off!"

At the outbreaks of the riots, in spite of their being city-wide, the same tactic was used. Blacks, no matter who they were or what their reason for being in the area of Third Street, were either arrested or herded back up the hill. Hippler claims that it was commonly held, even among more mainstream middle class blacks in the area, that they were being herded onto the hill to be bombarded by Navy vessels in the Bay!

As has proven common in SF riots, the police rank-and-file assumed a war footing, heavily framed by their essentially racist outlook. While the brass made various mediation attempts, the cops on the street saw an undifferentiated mass of hostile enemies and behaved accordingly.

Immediately after the riot, many Hunter's Point residents hoped that it would lead to greater solidarity among community groups. Actually the opposite occurred: greater community disintegration resulted. The general belief that "nobody cares" and "it's too late to do anything" became widespread. Some came to see the apparent opening to white society as another case of white hypocrisy and double-dealing. Automatic weapons, portable artillery, and federal troops, i.e. military occupation, offered a vivid demonstration of to what lengths society would go in the attempt to contain black rage. Very few community organizations continued functioning in Hunters Point immediately after the riots, though they began to re-emerge in the following years. Meanwhile, the riot itself has disappeared down the memory hole and few remember it and fewer discuss it as a meaningful event in the history of San Francisco.

Image:aframer1$1960s-leaders.jpg

Dr. Nathaniel Burbridge, Rev. G.L. Bedford, and Mr. Bill Bradley at a press conference during the civil rights movement in the mid-1960's.

photo: courtesy of African American Historical and Cultural Society, San Francisco, CA

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