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Monday, February 26, 2024

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News + PoliticsA police riot in 1967 has echoes today

A police riot in 1967 has echoes today

A party for a new John Ross book leads to some amazing tales of the old Mission, rent control, police harassment, tear gas, and a beating that caused the late, great rebel reporter to lose an eye

UPDATED: Got some new information from Steve Morse, who was there, and the story reflects that now

John Ross, the brilliant, shit-disturbing rebel reporter, died five years ago this week, and Hamilton Books has just published a collection of his lectures to journalism students. About 100 of his old friends and fans got together at Café La Boheme Sunday to hear a few excerpts, tell old stories, and celebrate his life.

John Ross waves goodbye shortly before his death
John Ross waves goodbye shortly before his death

The book, like all Ross works, is wonderful (even though in one of his lectures he insults the Bay Guardian, the paper I edited for years and one of the few publications that regularly ran and paid for his work. I was one of the few editors who put up with John, who, like many of the best writers, was a serious pain in the ass. He hated all editors, even the ones who supported him. It’s okay; I got used to it.) You can buy a copy here.

Mary Jo McConahay and I spoke about our crazy old friend, who always went where the story was, often a great peril to himself, who fought for the poor and the oppressed, and who said that good journalism was about figuring out who was getting screwed, who was doing the screwing – and how to reverse the equation.

And I ran into Steve Morse, who was there in the old days, and had saved some old Chronicle clips about the police riot that ultimately cost Ross one of his eyes, and the trial of the Mission 7, and some San Francisco history that I didn’t know very well and that’s well worth repeating. Here goes:

It was 1967, and Ross has just recently been released from federal prison, where he served a little more than two years for resisting the draft. He was busy organizing anti-war events and is the chair of the Mission Tenants Association, which was helping lead the battle for rent control citywide.

(At one point, when city officials refused to acknowledge cockroach contamination in a bunch of Mission buildings, he collected a jar full of the bugs and released them at the Department of Public Health.)

Ross was also a candidate for supervisor, running on a pro-rent-control and anti-war platform.

So there was a party in a second-floor apartment on 15th Street, a benefit to raise money for the Draft Resistance Union. And it got loud and someone called the police. What the press never reported was that many of the party-goers had protested incidents of police brutality in the Mission at a picket line at the Mission Police Station in the early afternoon of Saturday, Aug 5th,. just hours before the party.  And that a plainclothes cop there had heard one picketer tell another the address of the party


The next day’s Chron had a giant front-page banner headline proclaiming “Six cops hurt in bloody brawl.” The Aug. 7, 1967 story goes as follows:

“Six policemen were injured and ten persons were arrested – one a candidate for the Board of Supervisors – when a benefit for the Draft Resistance Union erupted into a bloody affray early yesterday. …. Among 40 partygoers had donated funds to support the Draft Resistance Union, which a member described as “definitely not nonviolent.”

“…. The officers [called to respond to a noisy party at 1 am] gave the following account:

“As they stepped from their squad car, they said they were greeted with a string of obscenities from John S. Ross, 29, of 145 Julian St, the Progressive Labor Party’s Candidate for supervisor.

“Ross allegedly disregarded the officers’ warning to quiet down and told them the partygoers would “make all the —— noise they wanted.”

They cops said they attempted to arrest Ross on charges of Disturbing the Peace, but “the four policemen said they were jumped by 20 males, beaten and hurled down the stairs.”

Eventually eight squad cars arrived and started hauling the partygoers away. Later, the Chron interviewed some people who escaped “and the story they told included tear gas attacks, random bludgeoning, random pistol shots, and snide remarks from the police about Ross’ candidacy. …

“Ross, his head covered with purple welts and his cheeks caked with dried blood, said in jail that he darted down the back stairs when he heard the police enter. ‘I came out through the basement door and was jumped by a least six policemen who hit me with flashlights, billy clubs, and fists. I must have lost consciousness because I don’t remember anything after that until I arrived at the hospital. I refused treatment. I knew they would try to cover up this case and I had sure evidence that they do these things. In the paddy wagon on the way to the police station they said to me, you’ll never make it, you’ll never get a smell of that public office.’

“Ross contended that the police at the Mission Station has started to harass him after he interceded for three youths who were ‘beaten badly by two policemen for suspicion of glue sniffing.’”

The underground press erupted with denunciations, and the Socialist Party candidate for mayor signs a statement of solidarity.

The case went to trial 11 months later, and the lawyer for Ross and his co-defendants – “The Mission 7” – promptly got into a fight with the judge and refused to accept the jurisdiction of the court. The Chron, which hadn’t quite learned the lessons of the emerging women’s movement, reported thus:

“Sonja Sandeman, the pretty young lawyer defending seven men arrested at an anti-draft benefit party, spend another day yesterday jousting with Superior Court Judge Joseph Karesh. She lost.”

Karesh, who would go on to oversee the Zebra killings trial and the trial of Huey P. Newton, held everyone – lawyer and clients – in contempt of court. Undaunted, Sandeman, who would go on to a successful career as a criminal defense and family practice lawyer, argued that the jury can’t be fair because it lacks “persons of the working class and young people.”

Karesh: “I think the generation-gap is over-rated.”

As Steve Morse reports:

The Mission 7 defendants each faced one-to-ten years for battery on a cop.   After a three-week trial, Eric Johnson was found guilty and served more than seven months in county jail. One defendant was acquitted.  The other 5 defendants had hung juries; Judge Karesh, in a highly unorthodox and punitive move, ordered them to retrial in less than a week. They needed to change lawyers to postpone their trial date; however, after a difficult time with a couple lawyers, the five decided to be their own attorneys and spent evenings and weekends going over the 2,000-page transcript and preparing their defense based on widely varying accounts in the cops’ testimony.

On the day the trial was supposed to start, in April, 1969, the defendants passed out the leaflet “Peoples’ Court” on the steps of 850 Bryant St, and were ready to act as their own lawyers. The courts apparently balked at Ross and the others ready to give ‘em hell in the courtroom, and so let Eric out of jail and slapped the 5 on their wrists!  A victory for direct action, but only after a long slog through the court system and a jail term for one of them.

Wild times in the old city. Gee, how things have changed.

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Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.

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