'70s in the SF Bay Area; an era of radical violence

By Michael Taylor, Chronicle Staff Writer
The San Francisco Chronicle

San Francisco police Sgt. John Young's death in August 1971 was the second time in as many years that a San Francisco officer was killed in a radically tinged attack.

A few years later, an FBI terrorism expert would describe the Bay Area as "the Belfast of North America," comparing local bombings and shootings to the violence in Northern Ireland.

Before Young became a casualty, it was police Sgt. Brian McDonnell. He died in a bombing at the Park Station that authorities have always suspected was part of the era's home-grown terrorism.

The Young killing was the Black Liberation Army's response to the death just eight days earlier of Black Panther leader George Jackson, who was killed in a failed escape attempt from San Quentin State Prison. A year before, Jackson's brother, Jonathan, had died in a bloody shootout with authorities at the Marin County courthouse after he and others tried to kidnap a judge, jurors and a prosecutor.

In a letter to The Chronicle a couple of days after Young's death, the "George L. Jackson Assault Squad of the Black Liberation Army" claimed responsibility for the killing, arguing that it was an act of "revolutionary violence" because of the "recent intolerable political assassination of Comrade George L. Jackson."

The fact that the Young case allegedly involved members of the Black Liberation Army doesn't surprise many of the people who have written or taught about black radicalism in America.

The group emerged from a split in the Black Panther Party in spring 1971, said Charles Jones, chairman of the Department of African-American Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

One faction followed founder Huey Newton and felt that community activism -- not armed struggle -- was the best direction for the group. The other side, led by Eldridge Cleaver, wanted a "more radical approach" to fight what they felt was "massive repression being levied against the party," Jones said.

But the Black Liberation Army didn't spring suddenly from a fractious meeting at Panther headquarters in Oakland.

"Some argue there was always an underground shadow group in the Black Panther Party," Jones said.

San Francisco attorney David Bancroft, who led the anti-terrorism office for the U.S. attorney's office in San Francisco from 1971 to 1978, is convinced the BLA never left the Panthers.

"It was our sense, because of the kinds of cases we had, that the BLA was the military or paramilitary affiliate of the Black Panthers," said Bancroft, now in private practice.

"We'd get cases where (the BLA) would have significant amounts of guns, ammunition, explosives, passports, birth certificates and false identity material, and this permitted the Panthers to posture as a political or social movement while the paramilitary affiliate unabashedly did the dirty work."

Bancroft said the BLA was an important adversary because, as with modern terrorists, the government never knew what the next target might be.

"There was that awful sinking feeling of the indeterminacy of it all, and so much of the BLA was a way for people to rationalize their own criminal instincts. These were killers, robbers and arsonists," he said.

Others see the Black Liberation Army as an example of the larger turmoil then consuming the country: President John Kennedy's assassination (1963); the assassination of U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. (1968); the Vietnam War; and ongoing racial turmoil that, despite passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was eating up the country in flaming, caustic and frequently fatal demonstrations.

"The turn to violence, bombings and arson grows out of the frustration that the left felt, in particular after 1968, with the (Democratic National) convention and presidential politics," said Kirkpatrick Sale, 69, who wrote "SDS," a book about Students for a Democratic Society, one of the major anti-war groups of the 1960s.

In December 1969, when Black Panther leader Fred Hampton was shot to death by police in his Illinois apartment, it was one more spark for an already agitated bunch of young people.

"The reaction is: 'The pigs are killing us. Look at Fred Hampton!,' " Sale said. "It makes the establishment seem truly evil, that it will go to any attempt to put down protest."

Then in May 1970, four Kent State students in Ohio were fatally shot by the National Guard during a demonstration protesting the U.S. invasion of Cambodia.

"That gave a strong kick to the idea of violence and the rhetoric of revolution. Protest hadn't worked, now is the time to kick it up a notch," Sale said.

Mark Rudd, one of the SDS leaders, said Tuesday from his New Mexico home that the tenor of the times back then, was that "the U.S. government was murdering millions of people in Vietnam and was murdering black militants here. There was a war going on in this country. Mass riots in the streets, ghetto uprisings, the FBI targeting black militants. At some point, it seemed like kill or be killed. That was the tenor of the times."

Yet Jim Lassart, who spent more than 10 years as a San Francisco prosecutor, said there is another way to think of the BLA. If they were operating today, they would simply be branded as "classic domestic terrorists. They were just another set of killers," he said.

Copyright 2007 San Francisco Chronicle
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