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The Fire Last Time

Fifty years ago, Hunters Point exploded after a white policeman shot a black teenager. What, if anything, has changed since then?


Protesters with a wounded man during the uprising. (Handwritten notes are by the photographer.)

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Police draw their guns on residents in front of the Bayview Opera House, Sept. 28. (Small proof inset is by the photographer.)

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Screaming women flee during the uprising, which left 161 people injured, including 58 policemen, 27 firemen, and 69 civilians—10 from gunshot wounds.

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Two frightened children look out their door during the disturbances.

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Residents assist a wounded man. Remarkably, no one was killed during the uprising.

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John Smith, 67
Smith, 17 at the time, says many protesters didn’t know exactly what to do when the uprising broke out, and modeled their behavior on TV coverage of riots in Watts and Chicago. “We had a thought pattern based on what we’d seen on the news in other places,” he says. “My folks said, ‘You ain’t goin’ out, boy,’ but there was eight of us in the house.” Smith recalls seeing military vehicles and National Guardsmen on the streets. “Once they brought the military in, that was the heavy day. They said, ‘We’re not going to let this become Los Angeles.’”

Photo: Kari Orvik

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Essie Webb, 98
Essie Webb moved to Hunters Point in 1944 to join her husband, Olin, a shipyard welder. She says interactions between her family and the police were generally respectful. “[The police] looked after them because they knew that I didn’t go for a whole lot of messing with kids,” she says. “The difference was that people didn’t train their children to respect the police. That was the biggest problem we had with a lot of the young mothers.”

Photo: Kari Orvik

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Oscar James, 70
“I couldn’t even go home,” says James, then 20. “I crossed Third Street and a National Guard put a gun up to my head and told me to turn around. I had to go back to my girlfriend’s house and stay in a separate room with her brother.”

Photo: Kari Orvik

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Griffith and Oakdale Streets. Tuesday, September 27, 1966, about 2:30 p.m.

It was Indian summer in San Francisco, and Hunters Point, the hilly peninsula in the extreme southeastern corner of the city, was sweltering. Like most San Franciscans, the mostly black residents of the area’s impoverished housing projects—Hunters View, Hunters Point, Westbrook—had no air-conditioning. People in the boxy buildings tried to stay cool while their kids played outside.

For two years, Harlem, Watts, Philadelphia, and other urban black communities had given white America a glimpse of the anger and frustration brewing in the nation’s inner cities. Today, it would be San Francisco’s turn.

At 2:30 p.m., SFPD patrolman Alvin Johnson, a white officer with 23 years on the job, was driving south through the Hunters Point housing project on Griffith Street when he noticed a stopped car facing northward at the intersection of Griffith and Oakdale Streets. As he drove downhill toward the vehicle, two black teenagers—Matthew “Peanut” Johnson, 16, and Clifton Bacon, 15—bolted out of the car and into an open field to the east. (A third, 14-year-old Darrell Mobley, hid behind a parked car and wasn’t seen by Johnson.) The car they were in would not be reported stolen until 8:20 that night, but Johnson immediately suspected foul play.

“I jumped out and I yelled for them to stop,” he said during an impromptu press conference later that day. “I pulled out the gun and said, ‘Listen, fellas, stop or I’m gonna shoot!’” The boys ran uphill toward Navy Road as Johnson gave chase in his car. The officer drove west on Navy, saw Matthew flee around the corner of a building, and followed him. When he came upon the suspect at the end of the building, the youth began sprinting downhill. The officer jumped out of his car and drew his revolver.

Recounting these actions to reporters in a hallway at Potrero Station that evening, patrolman Johnson looked down, not at the microphones or cameras. He seemed older than his 51 years. “I had the gun in my hand and I said, ‘Hold it, or I’ll shoot.’” Johnson said he fired three warning shots in the air, a common practice at the time. By now, Matthew was 250 feet away and 56 feet downhill from the officer, zigzagging as he ran. Just as the boy sprinted up a short rise, Johnson fired a fourth shot. The youth pitched forward into a depression, out of sight. Alvin Johnson’s bullet had entered Matthew Johnson’s back and penetrated the boy’s heart.

The rest of the officer’s story spilled out in a stream of guilty conscience. “I expected to find the boy kind of scared down there, and I ran down there, and saw the boy lying flat on his face and…blood out of his mouth and I saw some woman and yelled at her to get an ambulance, call the police, get some help, and the woman came over and I said, ‘Do you know anything about helping this boy?’ ’cause the boy was gasping for air, and she said, ‘I’m a nurse,’ and I said, ‘Well, do whatever you can for him.’ There wasn’t very much you could do. It was all…I don’t feel so good.” And with that, Johnson ended the interview and headed across town to the Hall of Justice, where Police Chief Tom Cahill suspended him without pay.

Five decades later, Oscar James, a 70-year-old Hunters Point native, shares a much different remembrance of the killing of Matthew Johnson. Over a plate of fish and chips at Auntie April’s Chicken, Waffles, and Soul Food Restaurant on Third Street, James claims that the officer, surrounded by the media, expertly reshaped the shooting in the most positive possible light. “He was lying his ass off,” James tells me, shaking his head. “And then he walks away like he’s getting ready to cry. He wasn’t shaken up. It was a normal thing back then.”

That Tuesday, James was 20 years old and hanging laundry on the clothesline outside his fiancée Pat’s brother’s house on Navy Road. When Johnson started firing at the receding boy, James was six blocks away from the officer. “There was three of them, and they all ran in the same direction,” says James of the fleeing teenagers. “Matthew was behind them, and when [Johnson] got out of his car, he just drew down like that.” James imitates a pistol with his right hand, crossing it over his left wrist as he squints down an imaginary barrel. “And then, pow!” 

As more police responded to the scene of the shooting, as many as 200 residents gathered, recalls Tyrone Primus, who was 16 at the time. “It started small, and then the crowd kept growing,” Primus tells me over the phone. After a coroner removed Matthew’s body, the crowd headed west to the Economic Opportunity Center at Palou Avenue and Third Street. Enraged by the shooting of the boy, the crowd began to simmer.

Approximately 90 minutes after the shooting, Chief Cahill called the California Disaster Office in Sacramento to let them know that he might be facing a situation. Two black executives from the city’s Human Rights Commission arrived at the EOC building just after 6 p.m. with Captain Harry Nelson of Potrero Station to find that a heated meeting of about 60 young black men had already started without them. Attempts by both sides to communicate were largely futile. Nelson conveyed that an investigation was being conducted and promised the crowd that he’d have more answers for them by midnight. By 6:45, he was on his way back to the station house, and the hostility that had filled the hot, angry room had spilled outside. 

On Third Street, young men began to hurl rocks, bottles, and other debris at police cars. A few seized reporters’ cameras. A group of youths moved down the commercial strip, breaking windows and then ransacking a Rexall drugstore. Marie Harrison, then 16, had just moved from Kansas City with her mother and eight siblings. That day, she was hanging out on Third Street with friends. “A bunch of cars went zooming past us, and the next thing we heard, someone was screaming, ‘Those motherfuckers just shot Peanut!’ That’s when it got very scary for me,” she says.

James, who was a member of a gang called the Egyptians, was ready to act: “We were going to tear up downtown,” he says. But Muni officials suspended service on lines entering and leaving the Bayview. Realizing that they were blockaded, James and his fellow gang members met to plan their next move. (James prefers the phrase “club members,” but 67-year-old John Smith, a friend of his whom I also meet at Auntie April’s, uses “club” and “gang” interchangeably.) “There was an order to things,” says James. “It may not have been society’s order, but it was an order.”

“The members of the older clubs gave younger members sanction to do what we were going to do,” James says. “We weren’t going to burn down our community, we were going to go downtown.” “There were others like us, who were going to do something, get something,” Smith says. “It wasn’t about this boy being killed at this time in our minds. We wanted something changed.”


Griffith and Oakdale Streets. Friday, July 8, 2016, 3:15 p.m.

Fifty years later, the intersection where three boys abandoned a stolen car and fled from Patrolman Johnson looks largely the same. The Hunters Point public housing project still stands on the northwest corner, but it’s getting completely new buildings and management as part of a $1.7 billion overhaul of the city’s troubled public housing system. The rocky, open field where Matthew Johnson died is now fenced off and overgrown, and the house on Navy Road where Oscar James was hanging laundry is gone. From the top of the hill at Navy and Griffith, you can see the San Mateo Bridge, the airport hotels to the south, and the empty space once occupied by Candlestick Park.

In realtor speak, Bayview–Hunters Point is a neighborhood in transition. The T line that bisects Third Street offers the fastest mass-transit trip to downtown that this remote neighborhood has ever seen. The $55 million Willie L. Brown Jr. Middle School recently opened, as have a gourmet bakery and a brewery; a Starbucks is on the way. The vast former shipyard on the south side of the squarish Hunters Point peninsula, where an army of black and white workers labored side by side to build ships during World War II, is being transformed into a 12,000-unit, $8 billion miniburg with townhomes and office space. The dilapidated Hunters View and Alice Griffith housing projects will soon be torn down and replaced with new projects under new management. The historic Bayview Opera House just reopened after a $5.7 million restoration.

For the area’s shrinking number of black residents, however, many of these improvements have not trickled down. Bayview–Hunters Point is still one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Although a few stalwarts like Universal Martial Arts Academy and Surfside Liquors remain, the number of black-owned businesses continues to decline. The area’s notorious public housing projects, physically decrepit and plagued by predatory, drug-dealing gangs, were classified as “severely distressed” by a congressional commission in 1992; HOPE SF, a public-private partnership, is spending $450 million to replace just one 267-unit project, Hunters View.

Three generations have now grown up in the projects, often amid violence and in single-parent homes. The consequences are sadly familiar. Even though it’s home to less than 5 percent of the city’s population, Bayview–Hunters Point accounted for nearly a third of its homicides last year. Only 25 percent of students at Bayview’s Thurgood Marshall Academic High School meet grade-level standards for English, and just 16 percent meet math standards. In public housing, nearly everyone knows someone who’s died a violent death, and tensions with police flare up regularly—most notoriously in December 2015, when police killed a black man named Mario Woods, who was wielding a knife and had allegedly stabbed a man.

To stand today at the corner that 50 years ago ignited one of the two worst explosions of racial violence in San Francisco history (the other was the anti-Chinese riots of 1877) is to feel a sense of overwhelming futility. The September 1966 uprising forced the city, for the first time, to pay attention to the black ghetto it had created on its margins and fenced off with freeways. Blue-ribbon commissions were formed to analyze what had happened. Policy recommendations were issued. Federal, state, and city money poured in. Progress was made, but some of the incoming resources were siphoned off via corruption and cronyism, and in the ensuing decades much of the funding dried up. For most black people in the neighborhood, depressingly little has changed. 

There are a multitude of reasons for this stasis, and there’s plenty of blame to go around. Many have tried to address the dysfunction informing so many aspects of black life in Bayview–Hunters Point, and many have failed. Others have simply left, part of an exodus that is draining San Francisco of its black residents. In a country once again riven by racial tension, the search for answers is as urgent today as it was a half century ago, when Matthew Johnson’s death broke the heart of San Francisco’s black community and exposed an ugly reality that the city did not want to see. 

The Making of a Ghetto

Marie Harrison arrived in San Francisco in 1966, just two days after her 16th birthday. Her father, a construction worker, had moved to Hunters Point for a shipyard job in 1962. But by then the facility was already a shadow of what it had been during the 1940s, when jobs were ample and the population of African Americans in San Francisco had swelled almost tenfold, to 43,502. (There were very few blacks in the city before World War II, topping out at 4,846 in 1940.) When the shipyard jobs vanished, white workers took jobs elsewhere and departed for the suburbs, but black workers had fewer options. Racial covenants and de facto segregation prevented blacks from moving; prejudice and lack of opportunity prevented them from finding work.

Harrison lived with her father in the Bayview, near the shipyard. The loss of the shipyard jobs devastated African American families, Harrison says. “When I came to visit before we moved here, everybody I met had jobs, and everybody was buying homes. But by the time we started to move here, there was a lot of tension, and no work. I never knew in Missouri that there were households that were run with just a woman at the head. When I moved to California, it seemed to be the norm.”

Some relief was provided by the recently opened Economic Opportunity Center. The EOC building “was like a community union hall,” says James. “Some of our fathers who were unemployed would get jobs there, taking materials off of trucks and that type of thing.” But work was scarce, and it got scarcer when thousands of people who had been displaced by the disastrous “urban renewal” of the Fillmore poured into Bayview–Hunters Point. In 1950, African Americans constituted 20 to 25 percent of the Bayview–Hunters Point population; by 1960, that number was about 50 percent. Ten years later, the neighborhood was 69 percent black, and a ghetto by any definition: a minority-occupied, geographically isolated slum with an 11 percent unemployment rate, compared with the citywide average of 6.4 percent. The median family income of the neighborhood’s nine census tracts in 1970 was $8,912, significantly less than the citywide average of $12,507.

In the wake of disturbances in 1965 in Watts, and earlier in 1966 in Cleveland and Chicago, among many other cities, Bayview–Hunters Point was another American powder keg, and some black San Franciscans were more than ready for it to go off. The simmering rage of many young blacks, and the media’s less than enlightened reaction to it, were revealed in a July 19, 1966, article in the Chronicle with the scaremongering subhead “Two Young Men Who Hate Whitey.” The page 5 story featured the head shots of two young black men who’d been booked for disorderly conduct, Larry Scott and Leon Beck, both 20. Scott and Beck had been arrested in a disturbance after a policeman wounded a robbery suspect in the Fillmore.

The Chronicle reported that “within minutes, bands of young men roamed the Fillmore district, shouting ‘Kill whitey.’” The paper quoted Scott as saying, “That was just a warm-up.... You know what happened in Watts and Chicago, man? Well, that’s gonna happen here too. We can get guns.” At this, the Chronicle reported, Beck said, “What do you mean we can get guns? We’ve got guns, baby.” Scott clarified, “Not all whiteys are bad. Just most of them.” The paper informed its readers that “Larry Scott hates whitey for many reasons” and that “Leon Beck hates whitey because he says he can’t find a job.” At the end of the article, Scott was quoted as saying, “That’s the only thing whitey understands. Power. And violence. Whitey will see that too. All over his streets.”

The Uprising

“I think it just took that one more incident to say we’d had enough and would start acting crazy,” Tyrone Primus recalls. “I can’t say how it exploded, but it just happened.” Around 9 p.m. on September 27, 1966, Mayor John Shelley and Chief Cahill arrived at the Bayview Community Center, located in the Bayview Opera House, with a group including Supervisor Terry Francois, who had become the city’s first African American supervisor when Shelley had appointed him in 1964. The delegation was met by what police described as a “large, unruly mob” that hurled insults, as well as a brick that struck a motorcycle cop in the face.

After Shelley confirmed that Patrolman Johnson had been suspended, the downtown delegation was shouted down. When someone threw a brick at Shelley and Cahill, their entourage rapidly withdrew. Unsure exactly what to do next, John Smith and several friends hit the streets. Smith says they had no idea how to loot: “[People] were going into stores poking at TVs, just trying to mimic what they were doing in other parts of the country.” Over the next few hours, smashed storefronts, scattered fires, and isolated looting were called in from all over Bayview–Hunters Point, along with reports of gunshots and several riot calls. By 11:30, unrest had spread to the Fillmore, where angry crowds broke windows, looted, and swarmed the streets. By 3 a.m., police and the highway patrol had pacified the district.

Putting a lid on the Bayview, however, was more than the cops could handle. Just before midnight, Shelley called Governor Edmund “Pat” Brown to officially request that he declare a state of emergency and dispatch the National Guard. Next, the mayor set a curfew in the Fillmore and Hunters Point. A roadblock near Third Street may have exacerbated the problem by inadvertently preventing many young people from going home. Overnight, National Guard troops began gathering in San Francisco stadiums. By sunrise, more than 1,500 soldiers were bivouacked or on their way to Candlestick Park and Kezar Stadium. “You could go up on the hill and look down and see them at Candlestick,” Smith says. “They were driving up and down Third Street with jeeps towing .50-caliber machine guns.” Just after 11 a.m. on Wednesday, approximately 700 people gathered in 86-degree heat at Third and Newcomb, near the Bayview Opera House. Police gave community leaders several opportunities to disperse the crowd, but their pleas fell on deaf ears. 

Across town, wherever there were sizable groups of young people of color, trouble flared. At lunch, every floor of Mission High School reported riot conditions; an hour later, Horace Mann Jr. High was in an identical state. After both schools were excused early, hundreds of unsupervised teenagers, many of them Muni-marooned, created mayhem for storekeepers and drivers. In the Bayview, Smith and his friends were fortifying their courage with booze stolen from Spot-Lite Liquors, across the street from the Community Center. A group of ex–gang members who had formed an impromptu peace patrol tried unsuccessfully to calm down the crowd outside the opera house.

The Community Center remained open during the daylong upheaval. Some witnesses said that children were inside, but Primus and Smith say that plenty of angry young men were as well. By late afternoon, police had decided to disperse the crowd, which still numbered in the hundreds. Reports of thrown rocks and Molotov cocktails, as well as gunshots, were coming in. When a unit radioed in that an officer had been “hit” by debris, some officers assumed that meant he had been shot. Police moved down Third Street to disperse the crowd. According to the city’s official report, Molotov cocktails were thrown and gunshots directed at the squads from the Bayview Community Center and a nearby parked car.

In response, police fired two volleys into the air as a “warning gesture” before firing at the building. Smith was on the second floor facing the oncoming cordon with a fellow gang member. “The jeeps are going by, and [the other gang member] starts shooting. He had a .25 automatic, and they took the machine guns, and brrap!” The police sprayed the whole front of the opera house with bullets. Seven people were shot at the scene, including members of the peace patrol who were trying to calm the situation. After ambulances evacuated the wounded, the National Guard marched north on Third Street with fixed bayonets, clearing the streets. The fusillade had pocked the building’s facade with bullets and shotgun pellets; every window was broken. 

Although violence and unrest continued to flare over the next few days, the uprising had peaked. “A lot of parents told their kids it was too dangerous to go out there after the opera house shooting,” Smith says. After footage of the shoot-out aired on TV, Shelley met the next morning with antipoverty workers to try to hash out a way to give the peace patrol legitimacy. A few hours later, 75 young men hit the streets wearing armbands distributed by the SFPD’s Community Relations Board. The streets began to quiet down. By 5 a.m. on Sunday, the last 280 National Guard soldiers were on their way out of the city. At 11 p.m. on Sunday, five days after Matthew Johnson was killed, Shelley lifted the state of emergency.

“An Excusable Homicide”

After the coroner determined that “accident and misfortune” were responsible for the killing of Matthew Johnson, the boy’s death was ruled an “excusable homicide,” essentially clearing Patrolman Johnson, who was reinstated with back pay. The victim’s family’s attorney, Johnnie L. Cochran (later to defend O.J. Simpson), said he “was not overly surprised at the verdict.” The Chronicle’s editorial board was “delighted” that the officer’s good name was restored, calling the decision “the only proper verdict.” (In 1970, the city reached an out-of-court settlement with Matthew Johnson’s parents, who had filed a wrongful death lawsuit for $1,005,000. The city agreed to pay them $10,000, less than 1 percent of that amount.) 

In all, police arrested 457 people for involvement in what was described as the “civil disturbance.” Of that total, 325 were adults and 132 were juveniles; 287 were African American. (A number of whites were also arrested in the Fillmore and the Haight, charged with curfew violations or inciting to riot.) There was approximately $45,000 in damage to property and $90,000 in inventory losses from looting, for a total of about $135,000—a little over $1 million in 2016 dollars. 

Compared to the widespread civil unrest that rocked Watts in 1965 and Cleveland earlier in 1966, the Hunters Point uprising was mild. Matthew Johnson was the only person who died. In Watts, 34 died and $40 million in property damage was sustained; in Cleveland, 4 people died. But much of the damage done could not be measured. There is no way to put a price tag on the fear, pain, and anger left in the wake of the uprising—or the lingering sense of injustice that gave rise to them in the first place. After the disturbances, Harrison says, her father would ride the bus to pick her up and drop her off at her mother’s place. “My baby sister wasn’t even allowed to go to Bayview for a very long time,” she recalls. 

But the unrest also created a new social cohesion, Harrison says. “A lot of the young folks who used to have difficulties with each other, that stuff went away. I remember Oscar [James] saying that this was the time for us to be coming together as community to let these folks know what it is we want and what we need.” 

For a time, at least, the city listened. Joe Alioto, who was elected mayor in 1968, moved to address problems in the neighborhood, announcing that the city would apply for two grants through Model Cities, one of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty programs. Alioto consciously put more African Americans on commissions and boards than previous mayors, says veteran San Francisco politician Quentin Kopp. “You had that poverty money coming in from the federal government, and Joe was riding high with that.” 

James was one resident who seized the opportunity provided by the new federal programs. Before the unrest, James had had several violent run-ins with the police: He was almost killed once when a cop’s bullet grazed his skull. But James drifted away from the streets when he started attending community meetings. “It started having an impact on some of the other club members,” he says, “and they would start coming to the meetings.”

As we head down the hill and back toward Third Street, James enumerates some of the opportunities Bayview community organizers like him helped secure: jobs at Muni and the post office, desegregated union halls, set-asides for minority contractors, and 50 percent community employment on redevelopment projects. Victims of urban renewal even received reparations in the form of a relocation benefit (James’s was for $4,500) and a certificate of preference that residents could use to jump to the front of the line for public housing—benefits that were extended to former Fillmore residents, many of whom had been displaced years earlier. “Hunters Point did a whole lot of things that benefited the whole city,” James says, saying that he combined his relocation allowance with his own savings in order to purchase the house on Maddux Avenue that he lives in today.

But the city’s efforts had their limits. In November 1968, voters rejected a $6.8 million bond measure that would have raised money for parks and recreation in Hunters Point. And the money that did flow in also attracted opportunists: By 1970, the Chronicle was reporting that redevelopment officials were complaining of organized shakedown efforts. As Nixon began cutting the Model Cities program in 1969, most of the community development funds dried up, causing a loss of job-training programs. 

Because of these factors and the onset of new ones, the neighborhood’s problems persisted and eventually grew even worse. Heroin usage soared in the late ’60s, and the 1980s crack epidemic exacted a terrible price. Despite the addition of more black officers and community-based policing, residents’ relationship with law enforcement remained fraught, and still does to this day. Jessica Williams, a 29-year-old mother of five, was gunned down by an SFPD officer this May in the Bayview, allegedly while fleeing in a stolen vehicle.

Today, Bayview–Hunters Point contains 22 percent of the city’s public housing stock and is a locus for much of its gang activity. In the census tract where Matthew Johnson was killed, 47.5 percent of residents are living below the poverty line. 

“What really did change? Not a hell of a lot, in my view,” Harrison says over the phone during the two-hour commute from her environmentalist job in the Tenderloin to her new home in Stockton. She bought there when she couldn’t afford to keep up her Bayview house after her husband died of cancer in 2013. “Here we are, all these years later, and jobs are still an issue. Our young folks are not in school like they should be, because in their own words, ‘We have to eat.’” And by “eat,” Harrison means “earn.”

Five decades after the uprising, James says Hunters Point has little community cohesion; few people turn out for meetings addressing core issues like housing, crime, or redevelopment. “The Joint Housing [Committee] meetings we used to have back in the day, we’d have the buildings filled with people voicing their opinions,” he says. The ’60s-era Economic Opportunity Commission has been replaced today by advocacy groups and individuals squabbling over the same pools of money. “The majority of the time, they go to the same group of pastors, heaven must forgive me, who are total sellouts,” Harrison says. “For every group that’s doing the work, there’s 10 or 12 pastors out there saying, ‘I’ve got the answer,’ and trying to get a grant.”

Relations with the police, residents believe, are better than they were 50 years ago, although how much is a matter of perspective. “I talk to my grandkids, and they say the cops are still harassing them,” James says. “But I tell them, ‘They’re still much better than when I was coming up.’”

Unmaking of a Ghetto

Of all the problems facing Bayview–Hunters Point, the most pressing may be an exodus of black people that has left many community members wondering, Will there be any of us left in 30 years? San Francisco’s African American population has plummeted. In 1970, blacks made up 13.4 percent of the city’s population; today they make up less than 6 percent. The area where Oscar James was hanging laundry when he saw Matthew Johnson’s shooting was 90 percent black in 1970. Today it’s 63 percent. 

As of 2013, half of all Bayview–Hunters Point residents own their homes, but James says that, ironically, the area’s high homeownership rates make gentrification more likely. He regularly gets pitches from banks for reverse mortgages. “If I live off the equity in my house and I die and my kids can’t pay the loan back, white folks get my property,” he says. He notes that many residents have already sold out to home buyers seeking San Francisco’s last bargain. Says Harrison, “The best outcome a black family can hope for is to sell their house for a fortune and buy someplace else.”

At this moment, the San Francisco Shipyard is poised to further alter the complexion—literally—of the neighborhood. Lennar Corporation’s $8 billion project is transforming a 775-acre Superfund site into a mixed-use development with 12,000 new units of housing and three million square feet of office space. Once complete, the project will bring an estimated 25,000 new residents to Hunters Point. Some of those residents will no doubt be African American, but it’s hard to imagine much social cohesion between old and new residents. The San Francisco Shipyard will have its own places to shop and recreate and is cut off from the rest of the neighborhood by geography and class. (To get the Shipyard approved, Lennar pledged to spend $35.8 million on community benefits by 2017, but because of infighting among the groups charged with allocating the funds, only $3.3 million has been released to date.)

Harrison says it isn’t about newcomers, whatever color they may be; it’s about the fact that 50 years after the uprising, the neighborhood’s black community still lags behind. “Everybody isn’t angry because there are new people coming into the community,” she says. “They’re angry because Bayview–Hunters Point is still set aside from the rest of the world.”

Shall We Overcome?

The erosion of San Francisco’s black population may be irreversible, but the fate of its community is still in play. How can Bayview–Hunters Point reach parity with the rest of San Francisco? It’s a conundrum that everyone, from federal officials to residents, has been studying for half a century. Supervisor Malia Cohen, who represents the neighborhood, says the city needs to “continue to develop a stronger relationship with [Bayview] residents, many of whom do feel neglected.” Cohen is working on numerous solutions, including a first-time home buyers’ program, a housing assistance center, and African American cultural projects like the renovation of the opera house.

But beyond these politically-driven fixes, James believes personal morality must be part of the solution. “Change comes from within,” he says, “but you have to have something inside you to make that change.” Because of church traditions and tighter family units, his generation—even gang members—was more accountable to the community, he says. Today, “I don’t think some of these young people have any convictions or even care about their fellow brothers.” As a senior citizen, James says he doesn’t fear the police; it’s certain young men of his neighborhood who give him pause. “I’m scared of them,” he admits, noting that he still does outreach via a street ministry. “We’ve had brothers tell us, ‘Y’all better go, ’cause we don’t want to hear that.’ And if you still try to talk to them, they do this number,” he says, lifting his shirttail, “and you see a piece. Then you know it’s time to go. 

Essie Webb, a revered community activist (and Oscar James’s mother-in-law) who moved to San Francisco in 1944, rejects the idea that the challenges facing residents can’t be overcome. It’s all about finding strength within yourself, she says. “If you want to walk straight down a line, mark it off and walk straight down the line yourself.” Oba T’Shaka, former head of the Black Studies Department at San Francisco State University, says Bayview–Hunters Point needs economic justice: “The one thing that gets people out of gangs is a job.”

Harrison says the underlying problem is despair. “A lot of the folks who live here, they’ve gotten hopeless,” she says. “They’ve given up. Somebody needs to step in and try to help them build that back.” But before sustainable change can take root, “something terrible has to happen,” she predicts.

Might another uprising like in ’66 occur today? It absolutely could, Harrison says, and if it does, it won’t be the sole fault of the participants. The society that has not done enough to help its most oppressed minority must bear the brunt of the responsibility. The long-neglected, long-suffering residents of the Bayview, she laments, may once again “have to tear down and destroy something before the rest of San Francisco says, ‘Oh, damn, we better do something.’”


Originally published in the September issue of San Francisco

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