Thursday, November 20, 2008

San Francisco's Most Tragic November Ever, Part II: Assassination at City Hall

Already Reeling From the November 18, 1978 Massacre of More Than 900 People in the Jonestown Mass Murder-Suicide in Guyana, San Franciscans Are Shocked Again Nine Days Later By the Twin Assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Gay City Supervisor Harvey Milk

Before November 1978, the deadliest event to rock San Francisco was the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906. But over a ten-day period that began 30 years ago this week, more than 900 people from the San Francisco Bay Area lost their lives in two back-to-back tragedies -- one of which occurred thousands of miles away, the other right inside San Francisco City Hall. On November 18, hundreds were killed in a mass murder-suicide at the People's Temple compound at Jonestown, Guyana. Nine days later, George Moscone (pictured above, right), the mayor of San Francisco, and Harvey Milk (left), a first-term member of the city's Board of Supervisors who was the nation's first openly gay elected official, were assassinated in their City Hall offices. At first, there were suspicions that the City Hall murders were related to the People's Temple massacre, but no evidence has ever surfaced to link the two tragic events. (File photo by the San Francisco Chronicle)

(Posted 5:00 a.m. EST Thursday, November 20, 2008)


San Francisco Chronicle

(Part II of a two-part series.)

SAN FRANCISCO -- On November 27, 1978, Dan White took his gun and headed for City Hall.

Within 24 hours, a city already reeling in shock over a deadly tragedy that killed hundreds of San Franciscans nine days earlier at a religious compound in far-away Guyana would be plunged into an even deeper trauma.

White grew up in San Francisco. A conservative Irish Catholic, he was elected to the city's Board of Supervisors in 1977 by campaigning as a defender of traditional values.

An intense, rigid man, White revealed how he saw the city in a message to voters: "You must realize there are thousands upon thousands of frustrated, angry people such as yourselves waiting to unleash a fury that can and will eradicate the malignances which blight our city." The city was in danger from "splinter groups of radicals, social deviates and incorrigibles," he said.

After 11 months in office, White impulsively resigned, citing financial problems. White's backers wanted him back on the job, and they persuaded him to ask Mayor George Moscone to reappoint him. At first, Moscone agreed. But he changed his mind after lobbying from Supervisor Harvey Milk and others who saw the resignation as an opportunity to remove a political foe.

Moscone had been raised in the city and was a star on the St. Ignatius High School basketball team. As a city supervisor and state Senate majority leader in Sacramento, Moscone had wielded considerable power through his combination of brains, wit and charm.


At City Hall that day, White climbed through a basement window and avoided the building's metal detectors. He went to Moscone's office and shot him. He then found and killed Milk, the nation's first openly gay elected official.

Moscone was 49 and Milk was 48.

Initially, some feared that a rumored People's Temple hit squad might have done the deed, as the twin assassinations came just nine days after the Jonestown massacre in Guyana where more than 900 San Franciscans -- most of them African-Americans -- were either shot to death by armed guards or died from poisoning after being forced to drink fruit punch laced with cyanide.

White ended that speculation, however, when he surrendered to police.

With Moscone's death, Board of Supervisors President Dianne Feinstein became mayor, the first woman to hold the post. She served for nine years, winning a second term in a landslide after easily turning back a recall attempt in 1983. In 1992, she was elected to the U.S. Senate.

The year after the assassinations, White was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, not murder, after his lawyers argued he had been suffering from depression at the time of the crimes.

But the verdict enraged many in the city's large and politically influential gay community, who felt it was far too lenient, and crowds of protesters burned police cars and stoned City Hall in the so-called "White Night Riots," the most violent outburst of rage by gays since New York's Stonewall Riots a decade earlier that is credited with launching the modern gay rights movement.

White served five years, one month and nine days in prison. Less than a year after his parole ended, White committed suicide, using a hose to funnel carbon monoxide into a car in his garage in San Francisco. He was 39.

Years later, former homicide Inspector Frank Falzon said that while on parole White confided that he had planned to kill Moscone, Milk and two other officials. White didn't locate his other targets, Assemblyman Willie Brown and liberal Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver. To White, the four were most responsible for destroying the old San Francisco he loved.


Today, many agree that Moscone's place in history has been eclipsed by Milk, whose assassination and role in what was then known as the gay liberation movement are the topic of books, documentaries and the recently released movie "Milk," which stars Sean Penn in the title role of the slain supervisor.

"Harvey had a social movement that he became the symbol of," said John Mollenkopf, director of the Center for Urban Research at the City University of New York. "And what George represented -- a kind of urban liberalism that worked across race, class, gender and sexual orientation boundaries -- doesn't have the same natural constituency.

"But at the end of the day, you have to come around to see the great value of what Moscone was attempting to do," he said.

Gays feel forever in Milk's debt.

Harry Britt, who after the assassinations succeeded Milk on the Board of Supervisors, said Milk often spoke of the violence in America toward those outside the mainstream -- including gays. Before he was slain, Milk taped several versions of his political will.

One included a sentence that many today consider his epitaph: "If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door." Britt said Milk's assassination had just that sort of effect on many gays.

"All our denial of being gay was shattered by that bullet that claimed Milk's life," Britt said. "And we were confronted with the urgency of accepting being gay, and the only way to be gay was to be powerful."

Richard DeLeon, a professor emeritus from San Francisco State University and an expert on the city's politics, said the memory of Moscone should be kept alive.

Moscone "included the excluded" in city government, DeLeon said. "His sheer ability to form an alliance with Milk and be inclusive of gay values was very distinctive." Moscone "allowed Harvey to achieve the stature of a leader in a way that might not have been possible with another mayor," he said.


Whether White's motive for the assassinations was to settle a personal score with Moscone and Milk or to target liberal politicians he despised on principle, the effect of the assassinations was to change the city's political climate.

By assassinating Moscone and Milk, White nudged the city's politics toward the middle of the road. On this subject, Feinstein herself has said, "I do think I brought the city to the center."

To some, the most visible result of Moscone's death is San Francisco's skyline of downtown high-rises.

During the Feinstein years, the city approved construction of more than 22 million square feet of office space, equal to almost 13 Bank of America buildings. That is about 29 percent of the city's total high-rise square footage today.

Under Moscone, it wouldn't have happened -- at least not to that extent, some analysts say.

"Moscone was one of the first slow-growth leaders who began to take a stand against this untrammeled, unregulated growth downtown, and he never had a chance to follow through," said DeLeon, author of a book on San Francisco entitled Left Coast City.

"Developers desperately wanted to transform San Francisco," DeLeon said. "And Moscone would have used that as bargaining leverage to extract more community benefits, such as preservation, affordable housing and a whole range of things we now take for granted."

But others see the new city skyline as inevitable.

"The change from manufacturing to finance, high-rise development, the switch to a city where your kids can't afford to buy a house, shifting immigration patterns, the fact the city is no longer the white, European city it was then -- all of that would have happened without the killings," said Richard Sklar, who was hired by Moscone to run the city's massive sewer rebuild and served as the Public Utilities Commission's general manager under Feinstein.


In San Francisco today, the city's convention center and a Marina playground bear George Moscone's name, and Harvey Milk's name is on many facilities, including a Eureka Valley library.

Moscone's grave is at Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma, a suburb south of San Francisco. Milk's friends say they put his ashes in the Pacific Ocean off the Marin Headlands north of the city. And on the eastern side of San Francisco Bay, at Oakland's Evergreen Cemetery, the bodies of hundreds of Jonestown victims are buried.

Beyond preserving the names of the dead on monuments, DeLeon says, the city should "continue to struggle to interpret" the mark that the era of the assassinations and Jonestown left on San Francisco.

"The forces at work with Moscone and Milk, progressive and utopian in many ways at the time, have slowly become accepted as established politics in the city and in some cases the nation - with the emerging gay movement, community power outside City Hall, downtown plans managing growth," he said.

"And Jonestown showed San Francisco that if the force for change is allowed to run amok ... it will implode - even when some of the motives behind it were for social justice."

# # #

Volume III, Number 76
Special Report Copyright 2008, The Hearst Newspapers.
The 'Skeeter Bites Report Copyright 2008, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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Monday, November 17, 2008

A 30-Year Look Back at San Francisco's Most Tragic November Ever -- Part I

On November 18, 1978, Over 900 People From San Francisco, Most of Them African-Americans, Lost Their Lives in the People's Temple Massacre at Jonestown, Guyana -- One of the Worst Religion-Related Tragedies in Modern Times

Before November 1978, the deadliest event to rock San Francisco was the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906. But over a ten-day period that began 30 years ago Tuesday, more than 900 people from the San Francisco Bay Area lost their lives in two back-to-back tragedies -- one of which occurred thousands of miles away, the other right inside San Francisco City Hall. On November 18, more than 900 people were killed in a mass murder-suicide at the People's Temple compound at Jonestown, Guyana (pictured above). Nine days later, George Moscone, the mayor of San Francisco, and Harvey Milk, a first-term member of the city's Board of Supervisors who was the nation's first openly gay elected official, were assassinated in their City Hall offices. At first, there were suspicions that the City Hall murders were related to the People's Temple massacre, but no evidence has ever surfaced to link the two tragic events. (File photo by the Associated Press)

(Posted 5:00 a.m. EST Monday, November 17, 2008)


San Francisco Chronicle

(Part I of a two-part series.)

SAN FRANCISCO -- Thirty years ago, two unimaginable tragedies jolted San Francisco in less than a fortnight.

On November 18, 1978, more than 900 men, women and children -- many of them poor African Americans from San Francisco -- perished after drinking a cyanide-laced potion at People's Temple founder Jim Jones' compound in the jungles of Guyana.

Nine days later, while San Franciscans struggled to grasp the enormity of that tragedy, Dan White, a fiercely conservative former member of the city's Board of Supervisors, assassinated Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, the nation's first openly gay elected official.

White was a former police officer and firefighter who had campaigned against the city's "social deviates," as he branded San Francisco's large and politically powerful gay community. With the bullets he fired, White wrought changes he could never have imagined.

By killing Milk, he energized the gay movement worldwide. By killing the progressive Moscone and making Dianne Feinstein the city's first female mayor (as the then-president of the Board of Supervisors, she was first in line of succession to the mayor's office), he sent the city down a path of political moderation that would last for nearly a decade.

Feinstein, now a U.S. senator, was a centrist mayor, friendly to business. Under her watch, dozens of skyscrapers were built and the city's skyline was transformed.

The mass suicides in Jonestown also had a fallout -- the disturbing lessons learned about how Jones rose to power and the stark pain that the deaths caused people whose relatives or friends perished there.

For some, the assassinations and the Jonestown deaths underscored a perception that the city -- long an enclave of protest -- was a metropolis on the brink, beset with violence and disorder.

"These two events built on a reputation of San Francisco as a bastion of far left politics combined with a certain amount of kookiness," said Chester Hartman, an expert on San Francisco urban renewal. "It was a trauma then, and I think it still is."

[The City Hall assassinations will be reviewed in greater detail in Part II of this series on Thursday.]


Three decades ago on November 19, the Guyanese government dispatched troops to Jonestown, the agricultural settlement the Reverend Jim Jones and his followers had established in the South American country's northeast corner. There they found the catastrophic result of Jones' suicide order: More than 900 bodies lay scattered on the ground. About a third of the dead were children under 18.

Jones had ordered his followers to kill themselves after U.S. Representative Leo Ryan (D-California) visited the compound on a fact-finding trip and left with a group of People's Temple members who wanted to defect. For Jones, those defections were shattering. A People's Temple security squad followed Ryan's group to a nearby airport and opened fire on them, killing Ryan and four others.

Ryan, who represented the suburban communities of San Mateo County just south of San Francisco, became the first -- and, to date, the only -- member of Congress to die in the line of duty.

When people recall Jonestown, they usually remember the suicides. They know less about the man. Jim Jones was born in 1931 into a poor family in Lynn, Indiana. He was the son of a disabled World War I veteran. By the 1950s, he had become a pastor in Indianapolis, and in 1956, he opened his own church, which he dubbed the People's Temple.

In the mid-1960s, Jones and more than 100 followers moved to Redwood Valley, California, about 125 miles north of San Francisco. In his sermons, Jones preached social justice and promised that he -- "Dad" to his followers -- would care for his people.


In 1972, Jones moved his church to a former Masonic auditorium located in San Francisco's Fillmore District. The city he settled in was in transition.

Manufacturing plants were moving out of town. Waves of Asian and Latino immigrants, along with gay men and lesbians, were transforming neighborhoods that had previously been home to working-class Irish and Italians.

In the Fillmore District, affluent whites were buying homes that African Americans had owned or rented. In this city of the 1970s, Jones' church attracted hundreds of new members.

It was an only-in-San Francisco phenomenon, said U.S. Attorney Joe Russoniello, who later successfully prosecuted People's Temple follower Larry Layton on conspiracy charges in connection with Ryan's murder. "I don't know of any other place in the country where Jones could have gone as far as he did," Russoniello said.

In his church, Jones gave sermons advocating liberal ideals -- pushing integration, attacking sexism, urging care for the poor. But behind the scenes, there was another, darker world: Jones, who was married, had many affairs with both female and male followers and bragged about his conquests.

He staged healing "miracles" by touching the ill and injured. And when church members committed relatively inconsequential misdeeds, such as not listening closely enough to Jones' sermons, there were public beatings with a belt or paddle.

In public, Jones formed close ties with municipal leaders who valued his ability to turn out hundreds of volunteers during election campaigns. Much that he did looked praiseworthy. His congregation included many poor African-Americans, and he offered social programs to help them.


Many credited Jones' followers with helping to elect Moscone, a liberal who edged out his opponent, a conservative real-estate agent named John Barbagelata, by about 4,200 votes in the 1975 mayoral election. Moscone named Jones to the commission that oversees the city's Housing Authority, while San Francisco District Attorney Joe Freitas hired a Jones follower, Tim Stoen, as a deputy prosecutor.

In September 1976, Jones gave a testimonial dinner for himself at the church. Seated at the head table with Jones were California Lieutenant Governor Mervyn Dymally, state Assemblymember Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), Mayor Moscone, District Attorney Freitas and others.

Jones' alliance with the city's Democratic leadership was "a quid pro quo," said Agar Jaicks, who was chair of the San Francisco County Democratic Central Committee at the time. "Jones wanted power, and he provided Democratic candidates with volunteers to help win elections."

Jaicks said he eventually grew "very disturbed" by Jones' mix of "Marxism, faith healing and bodyguards with guns." But he said Jones, who was white, was also seen by many "as propping up African-Americans, giving them opportunities. No one wanted to see the negatives. No one wanted to see this as a cult."

Jones also curried favor with the local media. In 1977, San Francisco Chronicle reporter Marshall Kilduff wanted to write a story about Jones, but then-City Editor Steve Gavin rejected the idea.

With freelance reporter Phil Tracy, Kilduff began working on an article about Jones for New West magazine, the now-defunct West Coast sister to New York magazine, which at the time were both owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch. One day Kilduff went to attend a People's Temple service -- and was surprised to find Gavin sitting in the front row. Gavin was a member of Jones' church.


The New West article began to turn public opinion against Jones: It detailed defectors' accounts of beatings and fake cancer healings and told how members had given over to the People's Temple the deeds to their homes. A barrage of negative news coverage followed.

Fleeing the publicity, Jones moved with hundreds of followers to Guyana, a former British colony in South America. The Jonestown settlement included cottages, dormitories and a vegetable garden. Some followers found it a place of peace. But defectors said there were armed guards, public beatings and mass suicide drills.

The ghastly finale came the following year. Congressman Ryan had heard from families worried about relatives living at Jonestown. He agreed to go on a fact-finding visit to the compound. He also pledged that if he found any people who wanted to flee, he would bring them out with him.

With several reporters, Ryan flew to Guyana on November 14, 1978.


During Ryan's visit, dozens of Temple members pleaded to leave with him. Jones became extremely agitated. On the second day of Ryan's visit to the settlement, a People's Temple follower lunged to attack Ryan and had to be restrained. Ryan, his group and some defectors left the compound and gathered on an airport runway about six miles away.

Temple guards arrived and fired on them. Five, including Ryan and San Francisco Examiner photographer Greg Robinson, were slain; ten others, including Ryan aide Jackie Speier, Chronicle reporter Ron Javers and Examiner reporter Tim Reiterman, were wounded.

Back at Jonestown, Jones was speaking to his followers, instructing them to kill themselves. Word spread that Ryan had been killed. "The congressman is dead," Jones said, according to a tape of the sermon. Referring to cyanide, he said: "Please give us some medication. ... There's no convulsions." On the tape, babies are heard crying. Jones' last words were: "We committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world."

The next day, arriving soldiers identified the 47-year-old Jones' body. He and a top aide had died from bullet wounds. More than 900 others succumbed after drinking fruit punch laced with cyanide.

Today there is no unanimity over the lessons of Jonestown.

Some, like retired California Superior Court Judge Quentin Kopp, who was a member of the city's Board of Supervisors at the time, view Jonestown as "a horrifying blip" in San Francisco's history. Others say it is a story of good intentions gone awry.

People who joined the People's Temple could not see at the start how it would end, says Fielding McGehee of the Jonestown Institute at San Diego State University, which was established to document the tragedy and its aftermath.

"People did not join the People's Temple so they could go down to a jungle and drink cyanide and die," said McGehee, whose wife, institute co-founder Rebecca Moore, lost two sisters and a nephew at Jonestown. "They joined wanting to make a better world, but in order to fulfill their dreams they made compromises and mistakes along the way that they shouldn't have."

The Reverend Cecil Williams, pastor of San Francisco's Glide Memorial Methodist Church, says Jones was able to blind people with his charisma, and the catastrophe that occurred at Jonestown "opened our eyes. We won't go along today with anyone who will run over poor people."

# # #

THURSDAY: Part II: A Double Assassination at San Francisco City Hall.

# # #

Volume III, Number 75
Special Report Copyright 2008, The Hearst Newspapers.
The 'Skeeter Bites Report Copyright 2008, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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