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San Francisco: A City Shaped Through Dissent
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San Francisco: A City Shaped Through Dissent

Picture of Yoojin Shin
Updated: 24 April 2017
San Francisco is celebrated for a culture of diversity shaped by a history of dissent, uprising, and protest. The city was, and remains, at the forefront of the LGBT liberation movement, and is a hub of racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity. A metropolitan jewel of the state of California, San Francisco’s trademark progressivism was achieved through its own share of struggles to accept and embrace the heterogeneity of the city’s growing population. A brief and cursory tracing of San Francisco’s riots and protests through the decades illuminates this struggle and serves as a window to what came to be larger social and cultural undercurrents of California today.
Police watching over the Proposition 8 protest on November 7th, 2008
Police watching over the Proposition 8 protest on November 7th, 2008 | © Christopher Layne/Flickr

The Anti-Chinese Riot of 1877 was the first manifestation of San Francisco’s struggle to come into terms with its growing racial diversity. Plagued with a severe economic depression, the city’s majority white population waged violence against city’s Chinese immigrants, who had become the scapegoat for the city’s high unemployment rate. This two-day riot claimed four lives and resulted in $100,000 of loss in Chinese-owned property; the Pacific Mail Steamship Company’s docks were set on fire, as its ships were a primary mode of transportation for Chinese immigrant workers from China to the United States.

This episode marked the beginning of the anti-Chinese sentiment in California and throughout the United States, which gave birth to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 — a federal law that prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers. Thus began the American racial discrimination against the Chinese, which would last for decades to come.

A mural dedicated to the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot
A mural dedicated to the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot | © Giovanni Damiola/Flickr

In 1966, Compton’s Cafeteria Riot occurred in the city’s Tenderloin district, which marked one of the first recorded transgender and transsexual riot in the United States’ history. At a time when transgender, transvestite, and transsexual individuals were openly prosecuted, harassed, and mistreated by the police, the Compton’s Cafeteria in the Tenderloin was one of the only places where these individuals could congregate in public without police interference.

However, when a cafeteria worker called the police on some unruly transgender customers, a violent conflict ensued between the police and the café’s patrons, which quickly spiraled out of control. Queer historian Susan Stryker describes the riot as ‘the first known incident of collective militant queer resistance to police harassment,’ which served as a turning point for San Francisco’s LGBT liberation movement. A citywide network of transgender support and advocacy groups was formed, giving the movement wider solidarity and greater momentum.

San Francisco’s struggle for racial equality continued with the Hunters Point Riot of 1966. The police had mistaken a seventeen-year-old black male, Matthew Johnson, for a car thief; when Johnson, in fear of the police, attempted to flee the scene, a white police officer shot and killed him. Johnson’s death served as a breaking point for the African American community of Hunters Point, which had suffered discriminatory police violence for years. Exhausted and angered by high unemployment rates and ongoing police brutality, the community gathered to protest, which led to a collective uprising.

The community’s youth leadership and the city representatives negotiated an agreement to bring the riot to a stop. The youth leadership became the Young Men for Action, and the group went on to demand other benefits, such as job training and job opportunities, which continues to impact the community today.

In 1969, the San Francisco’s chapter of the Gay Liberation Front and the Society for Individual Rights staged a protest against the San Francisco Examiner, which issued a series of disparaging stories against the city’s burgeoning LGBT movement. Despite the peaceful nature of the protest, the Examiner’s employees reacted by dumping purple printers’ ink out the window onto the protesters. The activists, shocked, chose to document the media’s hostility and antipathy towards the LGBT movement by placing purple handprints on buildings of downtown San Francisco. The police were called, and violence ensued.

From the purple handprints, the 1969 protest became one of the most visible and symbolic protests of San Francisco’s LGBT liberation movement. About a year later, in 1970, about thirty transsexuals marched down Polk Street, which was followed by the occupation — or a “Gay-In” — of Golden Gate Park by several hundred people. Police arrests were made at the park. This march and occupation gave birth to the annual San Francisco Pride Celebration and Parade.

A Scene from San Francisco Gay Pride 2014
A Scene from San Francisco Gay Pride 2014 | © Bruce Alexander/Flickr

The White Night Riot of 1979 followed the lenient sentencing of Dan White after his premeditated murder of two elected officials of San Francisco, George Mascone and Harvey Milk. Mascone, who was San Francisco’s Mayor at the time, was unpopular with the police due to his appointment of Charles Gain, who implemented lenient and conciliatory policies towards gays and African Americans, as his Chief of Police. Milk, who was a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, was one of the first openly gay elected officials.

White, a former police officer and a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, had resigned from his position as a Supervisor due to his dissatisfaction with city politics and personal financial difficulties. However, White had decided shortly afterwards that he wanted his position back; and when Mayor Mascone chose not to reappoint White, the latter assassinated Mascone and Milk in their offices with a revolver. White was convicted of voluntary manslaughter with parole; the leniency of the punishment angered San Francisco’s LGBT community. Led by activist Cleve Jones, people gathered and marched through Castro Street in a protest that eventually escalated to an extremely violent riot.

San Francisco’s municipal elections were held months after the riot, electing Dianne Feinstein as Mayor. Feinstein went on to appoint Cornelius Murphy as the new Chief of Police, who vowed to maintain the progressive policy towards gays that Charles Gain had previously implemented.

Through its history of dissent, San Francisco has come to embody a culture of diversity, equality, and progressivism today. To maintain and further this legacy, it is important to remember San Francisco’s past, which has been replete with people’s struggles for greater freedom.

By Yoojin Shin

Yoojin is an economics student at the University of California, Berkeley, in a constant pursuit of happiness and good vibes. Someday, she hopes to make a living out of thinking and writing about important social issues. Until then, she has made it her mission to chronicle every single boba place in the Bay Area. For artsy snapshots of her explorations, follow her on Instagram @yoojinshin1.