San Francisco 1987: Would You Believe It?

Submitted by ludd on January 20, 2010


She glared down at the fancily-dressed woman sitting next to where she was standing on the streetcar.

"What right do you have to complain about being crowded? You only paid 14 cents" sneered back the seated woman, who had overheard the younger woman's explanation to her friend about how most drivers didn't count pennies.

"Look lady, I don/'t care if you're proud of paying, it's none of your goddamn business how I got on this streetcar, so just keep your fuckin' spiked heels away from my feet!!"

Willie Moreland felt the tension building in the streetcar as it whisked along underground. The two antagonists were separated as the crowd surged out and back into the car at each stop, rearranging the mass of sweating, work-bound bodies. Willie could see people choosing sides by the expressions of interest or fear that flickered across their faces. Those who were interested eagerly craned their necks to see the latest outburst of a conflict that had been simmering for some time.

A couple of young Latino women stood in the back, their voices suddenly rising above the buzz of conversation: ""You! You never even gave us a minute! It was just non-stop data entry all day, everyday! You wouldn't even let us go to the bathroom except on our breaks!"

The businessman, his eyes darting about for a sympathetic face, turned ghost-white as he backed into the surrounding crowd trying to escape the wrath of his ex-employees.

"Look, I'm sorry you had a bad time at our company, but we have a business to run and we must get the most from our employees."

"The MOST!! Shit, by the time you were finished with us everyday, we were too tired to do anything but go home and watch TV or fall asleep!"

"Kick his ass!" someone shouted.

"Yeah, let him have it!"

Willie felt his mind racing. Everything seemed so different since the Bank of America office workers and taken over their buildings two days ago.

"I hope Fred, Jenny, and the others are OK in there" he thought to himself. Since he was unemployed he had time to carry a sack of canned foods down to the occupiers, as well s the outside press and 25 copies of the latest issue of their own paper.

SPLAT! One of the women spit in her ex-boss' face. As he swung to strike here he was pummeled to the floor by the blows of five surrounding passengers. They shoved the humiliated executive into the corner. Where a few weeks ago people had ridden to work sullenly, oblivious to the shared misery around them, today the tension reverberated among the tightly-packed bodies.

For a brief moment Willie remembered the past years' organizing efforts, the apathy and hopeless cynicism that seemed to pervade most white-collar workers' attitudes. The lack of enthusiasm during the unionization drives in '84-85 had really depressed him for awhile.

After the unions had gotten in it was a short time before Willie realized there was good reason to be unenthusiastic about them. Except during the couple of months before a contract expired, all the union officials ever did was enforce the work rules agreed to in the contract and exhort workers to increase their productivity. Even when there was a strike, the union would just pull their members out on to a picket line where they had very little leverage. Taking control over the data banks, machinery, and offices was outside of the legal limits set on union activity by the Federal government, and no "sensible" union leadership would risk the fines and jail terms that would follow any real militant activity by their membership.

Now, for the first time in memory, there was a direct challenge to the status quo by hundreds of white-collar workers, acting on their won. Bank of America workers were holding most of the executive staff hostage in the World Headquarters downtown, and controlled the administrative/data processing center at 11th and Market.

Jenny was exultant on the phone yesterday when she told Willie about the spontaneous walkout in one of the data processing centers, and how they had been joined by others throughout the building as they paraded through with the captured executives.

"Fred blew up at the supervisor when he kept hanging around behind. him. He and two others grabbed her and threatened to beat her up if she didn't back off. Terrified, he agreed to everything and soon everything was being demanded--things she had no power to agree to. That's when everyone walked out! It was fantastic!" she excitedly recounted.

In the past two days they and already erased or transmitted a substantial percentage of the records held in the building's massive computer memory banks (covering B of A's operations worldwide). Transcripts of the broadcasts were being made as quickly as possible, printed, and distributed over the area by the network. The broadcasts were coming over a shortwave radio transmitter put upon the 22nd floor, made by a couple of programmers and a maintenance man.

Willie found the details of the Bank of America's international counterinsurgency funding efforts interest, but he was really excited by what his friends we doing. For almost 45 hours they had been destroying or erasing all records pertaining to personal and/or corporate wealth.

He remembered a certain cunning gleam in Jenny's eyes at the last meeting when she said "one of the best things we could do is destroy a big chunk of the records held in the bank. If we eliminate all those 'vital' numbers that provide the illusion of a 'real' basis for the status quo it's going to be a lot harder for anyone to retake power based on this system. We have to figure out a way to directly challenge the money/wage-labor society, beyond our rather limited efforts to acquire free goods, housing, and transportation."

The train came to a halt at Powell Street and people poured out, boisterous and full of frenzied relief. From Hallidie Plaza where they came out, up to the Civic Center in one direction and to the Embarcadero in the other, Market Street throbbed with people. Hundreds of groups of ten to several hundred milled around, with the people moving freely from one group to the next, discussion, arguing, screaming at each other.

Willie and the other fresh arrivals from the subterranean artery were met by people from all walks of life: financial district clerks and secretaries, retail sales clerks, construction workers, truck and bus drivers, cabbies, Tenderloin winos, teachers, students, hippie street people, etc.

Willie entered a nearby circle of people.

"...2500 National Guard troops are on the way from Edwards Air Force Base near Los Angeles!"

"Aren't they the same ones who were in East Los Angeles an Watts last summer? Why are the coming here?!? There aren't any riots!"

"They'll use 'em on the Bank of America buildings and anyone who tries to defend them. And they'll go through the neighborhoods just to show people who's in charge!"

Faces tilted abruptly toward the distinct wap-wap-wap of an olive green military helicopter overhead. Leaflets fluttered down:

[font=Courier]June 9, 1987[/font]


All citizens are hereby instructed to return to their dwellings until further notice. The State of California is preparing forceful action against the terrorists and criminals who are seizing buildings in downtown San Francisco. All honest and patriotic citizens are advised to return home immediately to avoid unnecessary destruction of property and life.

Mayor Carol [font=Courier]Rude Sliver, S.F.[/font]
[font]Governor Thomas Broadley, Ca.[/font]

The police who had been all over downtown the past day and half were nowhere to be seen the SWAT teams had gone back to the Hall of Justice.

Willie knew now that people had not bought yesterday's interpretation of events by the big dailies and TV stations in town.

San Francisco Examiner: June 8, 1987 (Editorial)

Attempts to negotiate with the terrorists in the Bank of America buildings have thus far been futile. No one inside seems to be able to speak for everyone and no specific demands have been issued.

There has been, however, a great deal of communication between the terrorists and the outside world via telephones a shortwave radio station which they have commandeered...

...these communists are calling for something completely unrealistic and impossible to achieve- (from their broadcasts) "a world without the state-administered, capitalist austerity of the 'Free World' or the bureaucratic tyranny of the 'Communist countries'... a world where people co-operate freely in providing for each others' needs and desires without the constraints of wage-labor, money, or any kind of institutional authority." - Imagine the foolishness!

...We hope this hostage seizure can be settled peacefully, though the agitated, rash behavior exhibited thus far leads us to fear the worst...

...Utopian visions have been around for as long as human society has existed. They are no more realistic today than they were at the time of Jesus Christ.

Terrorism is unjustified whatever the cause, it cannot coexist with a free society, and must be thoroughly suppressed.

Some people began leaving down the side streets after the leaflet came down, but thousands remained, buzzing with anticipation. Some groups attacked the stone garbage receptacles. Fragmented pieces of stone, empty bottles, and various other objects were visible in the people's hands. Here and there handguns glinted in the morning sun.

Barricades sprang up at nearly every intersection along Market and in many surrounding streets. Telephone booths toppled over, cars and buses were overturned, office furniture was brought out of various buildings.

"...and the Bechtel building, too!" exclaimed an elderly secretary, her eyes gleaming with excitement. "y'know I've been dreaming of this for 32 years!"

"What didja say?" asked a young fellow from the Sunset who had just entered the circle.

"the Standard Oil building, the PG&E building, and the Bechtel building at First and Market have all been occupied!!" she repeated proudly.

A big smile came across his face.

"My father called home from work and told us that they've occupied Hunter's Point and Bethlehem shipyards. The radio reported that PG&E workers are sitting in at substations and the generating station on the By. I got a free ride here on the K-Ingleside. McAteer, Galileo and Mission high schools have been taken over by the students, and so had USF and San Francisco State!!"

Feverishly excited, Willie yelled "GODDAMN! It's a GENERAL STRIKE!!"

* * *

Arriving at her job at 8:57 AM, as usual, Frieda Johnson didn't realize what was going on just a few blocks away. She parked her car and went into the Pacific Telephone building at Third and Harrison. She knew about the Bank of America building occupations but she hadn't heard any of the shortwave broadcasts or seen any transcripts, so she believed the TV and radio news reports about terrorists who had infiltrated the BofA staff. She had been a bit frightened about driving form the safety of her suburban home into work, only a mile from the B of A World Headquarters siege, but she was more afraid of losing her chance at the promotion to division manager which she knew would be decided soon.

As she entered the building she noticed several executives in the lobby, glancing furtively toward the entrance, urgently discussion something. Frieda always made it a point to discreetly ignore her superiors unless they spoke directly to her. She hadn't lasted this long or come this far only to blow her chances for further career advancement by butting into her boss' conversations.

"Oh Frieda, could you come over here, please?" called Frank Martin, her boss. "I'd like to introduce you to Seymour Taylor. You know John Gilles, our general manager."

"Yes, good morning Mr. Gilles, how do you do Mr. Taylor."

"Ms Johnson, Mr. Taylor here is an agent of the FBI. They are requesting our help in dealing with the terrorist siege at the Bank of America buildings. You will help him with whatever he needs" said Gilles.

"Of course" she replied coolly, though she felt apprehensive as she always did when working around law enforcement officials. This wasn't the first time she helped out in such a way. The San Francisco Police Dept. and a series of small booths in which they carried out wiretaps. She had felt justified in helping them since they were primarily used to bust drug rings, but more and more in the past 3-4 years they served as listening posts on political communications between different people and groups. This made her feel uncomfortable since it was difficult for her to believe in the government's claims about the dangerousness of these "subversive organizations." She still remembered the lies of Vietnam an Watergate, and the stories about McCarthyism her parents told her.

She took Mr. Taylor of the FBI up to the 7th floor. As they walked out of the elevator (it was now about 9:15 Am) Frieda noticed immediately that there were only about 20 of the usual 53 data entry operators at their terminals. She decided to get Mr. Taylor settled before dealing with the apparent sick-out.

They walked down the corridor and when they turned the corner they both started at the sign.

"What's the meaning of this?" demanded Frieda of the group of data entry clerks who were gathered around a desk which had a radio transmitting on it.

Taylor tried to bolt as soon as he saw the group standing around the desk, but he and Frieda were grabbed by several of the workers and put into chairs.

"Listen!" they commanded.

This is the voice of Free San Francisco, broadcasting from high atop the former Bank of America building, renamed the Tower of Power!. . . And for now, we have the power here in our city. There are now 12 buildings under workers' control, the shipyards and Hunter's Point are occupied, the PG&E workers have risen and electricity and gas are assured us. Muni workers are operating buses and streetcars for free, and we have reason to believe that supermarket and restaurant workers along with truck drivers are bringing in provisions from the Safeway distribution center in Richmond. Ten different high school and university campuses have been taken over by students. There are thousands of people out on Market Street and we've just been handed a Martial Law decree that has been dropped on the crowds -- forceful action is being prepared -- (A FEMALE VOICE CUT IN, URGENTLY)

Listen, everybody who can help! Organize yourselves at your workplaces and in your neighborhoods. Arm yourselves! Gather together food, water, and weapons. Prepare to defend yourselves against National Guardsmen who will be here soon. We will never stand alone, call your friends and relatives and tell them what's gong on! . . . Don't get killed trying to be friendly, but remember fraternization is probably our best weapon. We must reach and win over these troops. . .

Taylor squirmed as he tried to figure out a way to escape. Frieda didn't know what to make of it all -- who were these terrorists and was it true what they said about all the new occupations? "Oh, why didn't I stay home today?" she wondered to herself.

"Well, Ms. Johnson, whose side will you be on?" asked Joan Chang, an employee of about 8 months in the data entry center. "His?" gesturing with disgust at Taylor. "Or ours?"

"You'll never get away with this" said Frieda.

"Don't be ridiculous, we are deciding who's getting away with what now" said Walter Fortune, a black man with three children who had ended up here after being laid off from his job as a teacher in San Francisco for the second time.

"He's got a point there, at least for now" she thought to herself. Fried had always been "pragmatic" (that is, sensitive and responsive to power) so she said "I guess you're right about that. I can say quite honestly that I'm not with him and will never be with the FBI or the government, though I'm not sure if I'm really with you either."

Walter, Joan, and the others broke into smiles. The plain truth was that they weren't exactly sure if they all agreed with each other. They had only been together as a work group for a short time. The longest anyone had been there was a year and a half, but most people only lasted few months before they went on to something else.

The common feeling of isolation (which they all shared, each alone) was rapidly disappearing and a new sense of power was present among them. the realized something very important was going on and that they could be part of it. Many felt an almost child-like enthusiasm.

"Let's go make sure they haven't cut off the phones! said Walter, and most of them hurried off to see what they could do.

"You'll pay for this, Johnson!" threatened Taylor.

They left him handcuffed to the toilet in the men's room on the 7th floor.


"All right men! Our job is to clear the streets and seal off downtown. The San Francisco Police Department SWAT teams will be making the actual assaults on the buildings held by these commie, anarcho-terrorists. We are going to assist them as necessary, but no shooting unless you are ordered. Your officers have been carefully briefed on what circumstances justify the use of firearms-- you will have to rely on your crowd control techniques."

Jimmy Radile listened as the colonel tersely outlined their mission. He had only joined the National Guard about five months ago, and already he found himself in this important anti-riot unit. During his nineteen years growing in Fresno, he had heard about riots on TV and they had seemed so distant. Now there were riots in San Francisco, somehow connected to those terrorists in the Bank of America buildings, and he was going to help restore order.

After his basic training and a few months on weekend-only duty, he was called to active duty for this special unit. A lot of the guys in the outfit were involved with putting down the riots in East Los Angeles and Watts last summer. Jimmy vaguely remembered something about Guardsmen shooting unarmed citizens and burning some houses down with incendiary grenades.

"But everyone was acquitted and anyway, those people were going crazy! Somebody had to stop them before they destroyed the city. It was too bad about the excesses, but violence can only be stopped by stronger violence" he remembered his father telling him.

The briefing ended and the Guardsmen went out to the airfield and boarded the nine C5-A's which would carry them northwest to San Francisco. Jimmy's unit, code named ''Red-eater' was scheduled to helicopter from Cruise Field on the north edge of San Francisco. From there, fifteen platoons of 50 each with a machine-gun on a jeep would fan out through Fisherman's Wharf, Chinatown, Polka Gulch, and over Nob Hill towards downtown.

"Hey! Look at that!" shouted one of the soldiers, just as they passed over the Bay Bridge in Sikorsky helicopters. Jimmy and the others craned their necks for a view of downtown San Francisco to see what the fellow was gesturing at.

From the top of Transamerica Pyramid, the Bank of America building, and a few others were enormous colorful banners flapping in the wind. Along the waterfront thousands of people milled about. AC Transit buses headed out onto the Bay Bridge and parked broadside, already about six rows deep and growing fast. "'Black-bouncer' (unit 2) would have a tough time breaking through that logjam even with tanks and bulldozers!" thought Jimmy.

"Look at all those people!" exclaimed one soldier.

"And check out that bus blockade on the bridge!" yelled another.

"Silence!!" bellowed Major Bricknell, field commander for the mission.

"Back to your seats!" he commanded.

His stern demeanor was briefly animated by the strength of his delivery, but he immediately lapsed back into the bland grayness characteristic of career military men.

Jimmy's eyes quickly scanned the others to see if they felt as intimidated and fearful as he did. Most seemed sullen, but few looked as nervous as Jimmy felt. His nervousness was greatly increased by his certainty that 'Black-bouncer' would never get through the bus blockade on the bridge. "I wonder what those color banners were for?" he thought. "I hope they were right when they told us in anti-riot training that most people will go home when we get there" thought Jimmy, as he contemplated the sight of thousands of people around the waterfront.

A few minutes later they were disembarking at Cruise Field at the northern edge of San Francisco near the Golden Gate Bridge. It was now about 11 o'clock in the morning. After about 20 minutes they all assembled, and set out one platoon at a time. Jimmy's platoon was the second to the last of the fifteen that stretched out eastward on Bay Street from Funston Field past Van Ness to Ghiradelli Square.

They encountered no resistance, only a few curious onlookers from windows and a few people scurrying down side streets as they passed by. "All honest and patriotic citizens should go home and tune in the TV to Channel 7 for further information and instructions" blared the public address system on each jeep. "Clear the streets! Martial Law is in effect! Clear the streets or you are subject to arrest!"

Jimmy walked about 20 feet ahead of his jeep, his automatic rifle resting in his arms. He felt like he was in a dream -- somehow he had gotten into a WWII movie but the scene was San Francisco. The streets were almost deserted while he thought about the warm sun on his helmet, the cool wind on his face, and the blaring speakers form the jeep.

"Hey, I heard there's a bunch 'o gooks in this town! My brother told me he met up with three Vietnamese he used to know in Saigon in 1970 in a back street south of Market. They were gonna rip 'im off but then they recognized each other so they settled for the half gram of coke he had." Jimmy's consciousness was invaded by the nervous babbling of another recent recruit, an 18 year old kid from Modesto.

"Fuck you! Shut up!" said another fellow, even more uptight, in the other side of Jerry from Modesto.

On they went, turning up Van Ness, past Lombard and Broadway. As they cleared the top of the hill at Washington Street they came to a sudden halt. Ahead of them from one side of Van Ness across to the other was a solid line of people, arms linked, shoulder-to-shoulder. And behind the front line were thousands more, as far as they could see, and they were slowly advancing down Van Ness toward platoons 14 and 15 of 'Red-eater.'

Jimmy was struck by the crowd -- their earnest, excited expressions. These sure didn't seem like the raving commie, anarcho-terrorists they had been briefed about.

"'This is 'Red-eater'- 14/15 to 'Log Cabin', come in 'Log Cabin.' Facing thousands on Van Ness, please advise course of action." The platoon sergeant was frantically radioing in to the major the situation of his troops but aid and orders were not forthcoming. The Major was too busy with the other units who were facing similarly overwhelming odds. Platoons 41 and 2 had already been overrun and had surrendered without a shot down on the waterfront.

The 100 National guardsmen and two jeeps with machine guns, stretched across Van Ness, couldn't withstand the onslaught of these thousands, though they could exact a terrible price if the platoon sergeant gave the order to resist and fire. As the crowd came within a half a block their yells were clearly audible: "Don't shoot! We are not your enemy! Talk to us! Don't shoot! We have no arms! We won't hurt you! We are people just like you, not terrorists or rioters!"

Jimmy felt utterly confused, he was not prepared for this. Jerry from Modesto started crying to his right. "I don't wanna kill nobody" he sobbed.

The platoon sergeant yelled the orders "Use your rifles to hold back the crowd -- don't let them pass." The crowd drew nearer, Jerry and six other young recruits threw down their guns and ran off to the rear, stripping off their uniforms as they ran. Jimmy, sweating profusely, clutched his rifle in front of him.

There was no more than 10 ft. separating the line of Guardsmen from the crowd. Jimmy found himself face to face with hundreds of people.

"Listen you guys, we want to be free!" said a middle-aged fellow with thick glasses.

"Why are you here? Who are you defending?!? demanded a blond man with an earring in his left ear.

"Wouldn't you like to live in a world where you don't have to worry about how you're gonna make a living, in a world where you have the freedom to experiment with life?" asked a young woman in overalls and a green turtleneck.

"Wouldn't you like to grow up without having to go through ten years of traumatic adolescence full of insecurity, fear, and sexual frustration?" asked a young man, not long past his own adolescence, only a year or two older than Jimmy.

By now the crowd was within arms reach.

THWACK!! 44-year-old Don Emory, a fireman from Visalia, smashed his rifle into the jaw of a leather-clad gay man. Immediately the crowd surged forward and shots rang out. Screams came from all around. Jimmy tried to hold the crowd back with his gun and began swinging it at the people who were rushing all around him.

BAM! BAM! more shots from the other side of the crowd. Blood was everywhere as Jimmy went down, choked from behind and pummeled by people all around him.

37 people died in the battle of Van Ness Ave. including 23 Guardsmen. 115 more were injured, including most of the captured Guardsmen who were severely beaten before being brought to City Hall.

The San Francisco Commune lasted for five and half weeks before the city was successfully retaken by the U.S. Marines at a horrible cost in human lives: thousands dead and injured. Severe civil disturbances rocked twelve other cities during 1987, but none went quite as far in advancing a vision and a social experience of a world without institutional power, where people worked together without bosses and shared everything without prices or money, and where the very idea of Property actually began to lose meaning.

Jimmy Radile joined the defense of the city and had a significant role in seizing Cruise Field, the battle of Tank Hill in the Haight, and the battle of Russian Hill. He was killed on the 4th of July when the building he was living in Polka Gulch was hit by an air-to surface missile.

Frieda Johnson was a changed woman for three and a half weeks. She didn't return to the suburbs but stayed on and played a vital role in the phone maintenance group, and also helped out on shore watch, But as the government commandos slowly tightened the noose around the liberated zone downtown, her temporary residence was raided and she immediately surrendered, begging to be allowed to go home to her husband in Belmont.

The Bank of America buildings were retaken finally without firing a shot. They had been completely gutted by fire and vandalism. As the city joined the revolt, the B of A employees abandoned the buildings to help in the more general efforts. When the commandos arrived they were met by some sniper fire from a few buildings nearby but the Bank of America buildings and the surrounding blocks in the Financial District and near City Hall were deserted. Soiled and torn banners hung limply from rooftops, and signs everywhere proclaiming "Free San Francisco" were ripped down by the troops.

Most of the workers (including Fred, Jenny, and their friend Willie Moreland) survived the pacification and were never discovered as "The" Bank of America rebels. They all came to play important roles in the following years in the snowballing movement for social liberation.