Thursday, October 6, 2011

This Day In History: Martial Law in the Castro

I had my phone on silent last night so I missed the text telling me about the midnight raid (actually, it was about 10:50 pm) on the Occupy SF camp. Otherwise, I would have been very tempted to rush over there, as the occupiers were requesting that supporters do, but I’m actually not sorry I got a little more sleep. I dropped by on my way to work with a donation to help replace the tents, food and equipment the cops stole (they call it “confiscated”). Even the usually less-than-enthusiastic-about-protest San Francisco Chronicle seemed chagrined by the level of force deployed by the San Francisco Police to get rid of some theoretically illegal camping equipment that had been coexisting with downtown business for nearly a week.

These great photos are from Patrick Clifton's album.

It put me in mind of another infamous SFPD action, 22 years ago today. On October 6, 1989, ACT UP/San Francisco, the San Francisco chapter of the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, held a demonstration that started at the San Francisco Federal Building on Golden Gate.

ACT UP, in case anyone does not remember or never knew, was another hell-raising movement that started in New York and spread around the country. But contrary to the myth told in the infinitely missable new movie “We Were Here” – which is supposed to be about AIDS in San Francisco but as far as every AIDS activist I know goes should be called “We Weren’t Here” – AIDS activism did not begin with ACT UP, “a group of creative young people from New York.” With all love and respect for our comrades in New York, I believe militant AIDS activism began right here in San Francisco, growing up in tandem with the “San Francisco service model,” affectionately known in some circles as the AIDS service industry. The first AIDS action group was called Citizens for Medical Justice (CMJ); it was an affinity group of about 20 or so people, including my friend Lisa, who did sit-ins at state and federal offices protesting mandatory testing of prisoners, closure of bathhouses, and FDA foot-dragging on approving treatments.

In late 1986, Lyndon LaRouche put an initiative on the California ballot calling for mandatory testing and various repressive measures against people with HIV/AIDS, possibly including quarantine. At the same time the racist group US English put the “English as the Official Language” initiative, known unofficially as “English-Only” on the ballot. While the mainstream Bay Area gay organizations, under chairmanship of Chris Bowman of the Log Cabin Republicans, were focusing myopically on the LaRouche initiative, a bunch of more left-leaning queer folks started a coalition called Stand Together, which worked to defeat both initiatives. As part of that effort, the AIDS Action Pledge was born. Taking its approach from the Pledge of Resistance, which organized thousands around the country to do civil disobedience in response to U.S. aggression against Latin America, AAP collected signatures on a pledge that began, “I pledge to join others in fighting for all our lives and liberties during the AIDS crisis.” Soon after the LaRouche initiative was defeated (English-only, sadly and not surprisingly, was passed), AIDS Action Pledge staged the first protest at the South Bay headquarters of Burroughs Wellcome (now part of GlaxoSmithKline), the manufacturer of the sole AIDS treatment, AZT, demanding that they lower the price of the drug. A few months later, after meeting with members of ACT UP (then only in New York) and other AIDS activists from around the country at the 1987 March on Washington, the AAP changed its name to ACT UP/SF.

Flash forward two years, and ACT UP/SF had probably 70-100 active members in three working groups: Treatment Issues, Local Issues and State and Federal Issues. There were also a women’s caucus, the Bayard Rustin Anti-Racism Collective and the People With Immune System Disorders (PISD) Caucus. Each group had organized a number of very successful actions, educational events, fundraisers and outreach efforts. Friday night, October 6, was to be our biggest street protest – each working group planned an action for somewhere along the route of the march, which was to go from the Federal Building to City Hall to the State Building, calling out the ways that part of the government was failing to stop the dying. It would end at Market and Castro, where Local Issues had planned a grand finale – spraypainting silhouettes on the sidewalk of the Castro to create what they called the “Permanent Quilt,” a subtle dig at the Names Project which many of us felt had gone from a powerful protest to a kind of a feel-good way of beautifying the epidemic.

I can’t remember what my group, State and Fed, had planned at the Federal and State Buildings. I do remember that I was worried the demonstration was not going to be interesting enough to keep people engaged. I was also worried no one would come. When I got near the Federal Building, I was excited because I could see there were a lot of people there already. As I got closer, I saw that half of them were cops. Cops in riot gear. My friend Ken Jones, who was director of the Stop AIDS Project, was sitting on a low wall at the edge of the building, smoking. When I greeted him, he said, “I think every one of us will have our own personal pig.” (I’ve never liked that word, but Ken was from the Vietnam generation – about ten years older than me.)

We did whatever we did at the Federal Building. I have this feeling it might have involved hanging a banner on the doors and a die-in on the plaza. Someone made a speech. We headed out to Van Ness. The energy was high. We chanted and banged on drums. I was happy because my responsibilities were done and I could relax and have fun. As we stepped into the street on Van Ness, the police captain started droning, “Obey all traffic laws.” The light turned red. People were still in the street, crossing slowly toward the State Building. The cops lowered their shields and started swinging at people. One of the organizers, Bill Haskell, turned to argue with them, saying that we were just trying to get across the street. They grabbed him and threw him to the street, kicked him, cuffed him and threw him in a van.

The rest of the march was like that. Any time anyone stepped into the parking lane or took too long crossing the street, they got hit. All the way to the Castro we were hemmed in on the sidewalk, with motorcycles on one side and lines of foot cops on the other. When we got there, some of us decided to sit down in the street, making an old-fashioned blockade. It seemed like the only way to de-escalate without just giving up and going home, which we were not going to do. A few dozen of us sat down and linked arms and chanted. Local Issues started painting the Permanent Quilt.

We were sitting there, waiting to be arrested, and suddenly we saw cops running and swinging batons at people. We, the blockaders, were already surrounded and couldn’t go to help or see what was happening. We heard people screaming, and I saw someone fall. He ended up being taken to the hospital and needing stitches. He, along with a few others who were injured, ended up winning $250,000 in a lawsuit against the City. One blockader, Frank, went limp and accidentally kicked one of the cops. They beat him up and charged him with battery; it eventually turned out he had an outstanding warrant and he would be in jail for several months. I didn’t see the rest because I was arrested, but I heard about it from some of the people who were arrested later, and from incredulous friends when I got out.

The cops declared martial law (seriously, they called it that). According to an article in the Bay Area Reporter written two years ago on the 20th anniversary, “As the police began to arrest those blocking the street, someone knocked over a police motorcycle and the situation quickly escalated.” That was the first I heard of the motorcycle theory, but something had to explain it. The police captain told people to get inside and announced that anyone on the street would be arrested. The Castro Theater and some businesses like Orphan Andy’s diner on 17th opened their doors so refugees could get in. Others locked their doors to keep out the riffraff. People were hurled into the street, beaten and arrested. A woman’s arm was broken when she tried to write down a cop’s badge number. A few people who never had anything to do with the protest, who were just going to dinner or to get a video were busted. It was hardly the first time that had happened – it happened all the time in the eighties, but it was the first time in a long time it had happened in the Castro, and usually it was when we were protesting a high powered event, like the Democratic Convention in 1984, Henry Kissinger’s speech at the Hilton Hotel or a visit from president bush. This was just your basic night in the Castro.

ACT UP finally regrouped and took back the street. In this video, you can hear the cops announcing martial law and then you can hear my friend Deeg giving a speech and leading a march out of the Castro.

We never knew why they did it. We speculated that it was retaliation for an action a few weeks before, when another AIDS action group briefly (and gloriously) disrupted the opening night at the Opera. That action was organized by Stop AIDS Now Or Else, which had some overlapping membership with ACT UP, but most people thought it was ACT UP. Some people thought the motivation for the crackdown was that ACT UP had taken a stand against building a new stadium in downtown San Francisco with taxpayer money, which was favored by Mayor Art Agnos. We did hear later that the local gay beat cop, nicknamed “Pig in a Wig” because of his hairstyle, had gone around to all the businesses that day and told them that “ACT UP was coming into the neighborhood to make trouble,” and that the cops were going to protect them. We never found out, and probably never will, if any of the businesses gave their approval to the crack-down.

The next day, a few of us from ACT UP were invited to meet with the police chief, Frank Jordan, who became mayor two years later, and his new LGBT liaison, Lt. Lea Militello. They hemmed and hawed and said the attack was a mistake.  That night, we held a triumphant march through the Castro. This time, it was the media that nearly outnumbered the marchers, who numbered in the thousands.

A lot of things have happened on October 6 over the years. “The Jazz Singer” (first talkie) opened, Bette Davis died, Milosevic resigned as president of Yugoslavia, Babe Ruth set a record for home runs in a World Series, Louis XVI returned to Paris from Versailles after being confronted by the Parisian women, the 13 Martyrs of Arad were executed after the Hungarian war of independence (who knew?). Maybe in future years October 6 will be known all over the world as the day the U.S. Tahrir Square began in Liberty Park in Washington, D.C. But for me, like many Bay Area activist queers, October 6 will always mean martial law in the Castro.

We Were Also Here!


  1. Thanks for the memories, Kate. I wasn't a blockader, so I got a way-too-close-up view of a group of riot cops beating people back onto the sidewalk, chasing one guy so fast and furious he fell backward over a cluster of newspaper boxes in his attempt to get away. I didn't see how badly hurt he was afterward. A scary night in the Castro.

    Wasn't that night the genesis of the group Bad Cop, No Donut?

  2. great first hand account kate! xo Waiyde

  3. The police master communications tapes from that night disappeared, never to be found, but it was pretty clear from comments on the police radio that police commanders decided to retaliate against AIDS activists that day for humiliating the police by repeatedly chasing the Tac Squad out of the Castro, as well as for the opera disruption. In a last minute meeting right before the demo began, SFPD commanders elected to mobilize more than 170 cops to the smallish demo, virtually stripping the City of police. Strict orders were given that this demo, unlike some previous AIDS demos, would be tightly controlled. At the Castro, not only did this turn into a police riot with multiple injuries, but hundreds of people were imprisoned in bars and restaurants over six full blocks of Castro Street while the police swept the streets ordering everyone to "leave the area" or be beaten. The Police Commission pretty much failed to take significant disciplinary action; after three years of litigation the City agreed to pay approx. $250,000 to 20 people who had been injured and/or detained; $75,000 of this was donated to AIDS service organizations.

  4. thanks for keeping the history alive. I can hardly remember a thing except a feeling of 'wtf is going on' with the heavy police presence. something changed that night. we had been seen in the queer community as trouble makers up to that point. I remember constantly being asked did we have to cause so much trouble? but after that night the community rallied around. I remember going into the next ACTUP meeting and the room was packed. Lulu