10 days that shook S.F.

San Francisco Chronicle/November 16, 2008

Thirty years ago, two unimaginable tragedies jolted San Francisco in less than a fortnight.

On Nov. 18, 1978, more than 900 men, women and children - many of them poor African Americans from San Francisco - died after drinking a cyanide-laced potion in Peoples Temple founder Jim Jones' compound in the jungles of Guyana.

Then, while San Francisco struggled to grasp the enormity of that tragedy, on Nov. 27 a fiercely conservative ex-supervisor named Dan White assassinated Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, one of the nation's few openly gay politicians.

White was a former police officer and firefighter who had campaigned against the city's "social deviates." With the bullets he fired, White wrought changes he could never have imagined.

By killing Milk, he energized the gay movement worldwide. By killing the progressive Moscone and making Supervisor Dianne Feinstein mayor, he sent the city down a path of political moderation for years. Feinstein, now a U.S. senator, was a centrist mayor, friendly to business. Under her watch, dozens of skyscrapers were built and the city's skyline was transformed. The mass suicides in Jonestown also had a fallout - the disturbing lessons learned about how Jones rose to power and the stark pain that the deaths caused people whose relatives or friends perished there.

For some, the assassinations and the Jonestown deaths underscored a perception that the city - long an enclave of protest - was a metropolis on the brink, beset with violence and disorder.

"These two events built on a reputation of San Francisco as a bastion of far left politics combined with a certain amount of kookiness," said Chester Hartman, an expert on San Francisco urban renewal. "It was a trauma then, and I think it still is."

'Revolutionary suicide'

Three decades ago on Nov. 19, the Guyanese government dispatched troops to Jonestown, the agricultural settlement Jones and his followers had established in South America's northeast corner. There they found the catastrophic result of Jones' suicide order: More than 900 bodies lay scattered on the ground. About a third of the dead were under 18.

Jones had ordered his followers to kill themselves after Rep. Leo Ryan, D-San Mateo, visited the compound on a fact-finding trip and left with a group of Temple members who wanted to defect. For Jones, those defections were shattering. A Temple security squad followed Ryan's group and fired on them, killing Ryan and four others.

When people recall Jonestown, they usually remember the suicides. They know less about the man. Jones was born in 1931 into a poor family in Lynn, Ind. He was the son of a disabled World War I veteran. By the 1950s, he had become a pastor in Indianapolis, and in 1956, he opened his own church, Peoples Temple.

In the mid-1960s, Jones and more than 100 followers moved to Redwood Valley, about 125 miles north of San Francisco. In his sermons, Jones preached social justice and promised that he - "Dad" - would care for his people.

In 1972, Jones moved his church to an auditorium at Fillmore Street and Geary Boulevard in San Francisco. The city he settled in was in transition.

Manufacturing plants were moving out of town. Waves of Asian and Latino immigrants, along with gays and lesbians, were transforming areas that had been home to the working-class Irish and Italians. In the Fillmore District, affluent whites were buying homes that African Americans had owned or rented. In this city of the '70s, Jones' church attracted hundreds of new members.

It was an only-in-San Francisco phenomenon, said U.S. Attorney Joe Russoniello, who later successfully prosecuted Temple follower Larry Layton on conspiracy charges in connection with Ryan's murder. "I don't know of any other place in the country where Jones could have gone as far as he did," Russoniello said.

In his church, Jones gave sermons advocating liberal ideals - pushing integration, attacking sexism, urging care for the poor. But behind the scenes, there was another, darker world: Jones, who was married, had many affairs with female and male followers and bragged about his conquests. He staged healing "miracles" by touching the ill and injured. And when church members committed relatively inconsequential misdeeds, such as not listening closely enough to Jones' sermons, there were public beatings with a belt or paddle.

In public, Jones formed close ties with leaders who valued his ability to turn out hundreds of volunteers during election campaigns. Much that he did looked praiseworthy. His congregation included many poor blacks, and he offered social programs to help them.

Many credited Jones' followers with helping to elect Moscone, who edged out his opponent, Realtor John Barbagelata, by about 4,200 votes in the 1975 mayor's race. Moscone named Jones to the Housing Authority Commission, and District Attorney Joe Freitas hired a Jones follower, Tim Stoen, as a deputy prosecutor.

In September 1976, Jones gave a testimonial dinner for himself at the church. Seated at the head table with Jones were Lt. Gov. Mervyn Dymally, Assemblyman Willie Brown, Mayor Moscone, District Attorney Freitas and others.

Jones' alliance with the city's Democratic leaders was "a quid pro quo," said Agar Jaicks, who was chair of the San Francisco County Democratic Central Committee at the time. "Jones wanted power, and he provided Democratic candidates with volunteers to help win elections."

Jaicks said he eventually grew "very disturbed" by Jones' mix of "Marxism, faith healing and bodyguards with guns." But he said Jones was also seen by many "as propping up African Americans, giving them opportunities. No one wanted to see the negatives. No one wanted to see this as a cult."

Jones also curried favor with the media. In 1977, The Chronicle's Marshall Kilduff wanted to write a story about Jones, but City Editor Steve Gavin rejected the idea. With freelance reporter Phil Tracy, Kilduff began working on an article about Jones for New West magazine. One day he went to attend a Temple service. Gavin was sitting in the front row.

The New West article began to turn public opinion against Jones: It detailed defectors' accounts of beatings and fake cancer healings and told how Temple members had given Peoples Temple the deeds to their homes. A barrage of negative news coverage followed.

Fleeing the publicity, Jones moved with hundreds of followers to Guyana, a former British colony in South America. The Jonestown settlement included cottages, dorms and a vegetable garden. Some followers found it a place of peace. But defectors said there were armed guards, public beatings and mass suicide drills.

The ghastly finale came the following year. Rep. Ryan had heard from families worried about relatives living at Jonestown. He agreed to visit Jonestown. He also pledged that if he found any people who wanted to flee, he would bring them out with him.

With several reporters, Ryan flew to Guyana on Nov. 14, 1978.

During Ryan's visit, dozens of Temple members pleaded to leave with him. Jones became extremely agitated. On the second day of Ryan's visit to the settlement, a Temple follower attacked Ryan and had to be restrained. Ryan, his group and some defectors left and gathered on an airport runway about 6 miles away. Temple guards arrived and fired on them. Five, including Ryan and San Francisco Examiner photographer Greg Robinson, were slain; 10 others, including Ryan aide Jackie Speier, Chronicle reporter Ron Javers and San Francisco Examiner reporter Tim Reiterman, were wounded.

Back at Jonestown, Jones was speaking to his followers, instructing them to kill themselves. Word spread that Ryan had been killed. "The congressman is dead," Jones said, according to a tape of the sermon. Referring to cyanide, he said: "Please give us some medication. ... There's no convulsions." On the tape, babies are heard crying. Jones' last words were: "We committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world."

The next day, arriving soldiers identified the 47-year-old Jones' body. He and a top aide had died from bullet wounds. More than 900 others succumbed after drinking punch dosed with cyanide.

Today there is no unanimity over the lessons of Jonestown.

Some, like retired Judge Quentin Kopp, who was a supervisor at the time, view Jonestown as "a horrifying blip" in the city's history. Others say it is a story of good intentions gone awry.

People who joined Peoples Temple could not see at the start how it would end, says Fielding McGehee of the Jonestown Institute at San Diego State University, which was established to document the tragedy and its aftermath.

"People did not join Peoples Temple so they could go down to a jungle and drink cyanide and die," said McGehee, whose wife, institute co-founder Rebecca Moore, lost two sisters and a nephew at Jonestown. "They joined wanting to make a better world, but in order to fulfill their dreams they made compromises and mistakes along the way that they shouldn't have."

The Rev. Cecil Williams of Glide Memorial Methodist Church says Jones was able to blind people with his charisma, and the catastrophe that occurred at Jonestown "opened our eyes. We won't go along today with anyone who will run over poor people." Gunfire at City Hall

On Nov. 27, 1978, White took his gun and headed for City Hall.

White grew up in San Francisco. A conservative Irish Catholic, he was elected to the Board of Supervisors in 1977 by campaigning as a defender of traditional values. An intense, rigid man, White revealed how he saw the city in a message to voters: "You must realize there are thousands upon thousands of frustrated, angry people such as yourselves waiting to unleash a fury that can and will eradicate the malignances which blight our city." The city was in danger from "splinter groups of radicals, social deviates and incorrigibles," he said.

After 11 months in office, he impulsively resigned, citing financial problems. White's backers wanted him back on the job, and they persuaded him to ask the mayor to reappoint him. At first, Moscone agreed. But he changed his mind after lobbying from Milk and others who saw the resignation as an opportunity to remove a political foe.

Moscone had been raised in the city and was a star on the St. Ignatius high school basketball team. As a city supervisor and state Senate majority leader in Sacramento, he had wielded considerable power through his combination of brains, wit and charm.

At City Hall that day, White climbed through a basement window and avoided the building's metal detectors. He went to Moscone's office and shot him. He then found and killed Supervisor Harvey Milk. Moscone was 49, and Milk was 48.

Initially, some feared that a rumored Jonestown hit squad might have done the deed, but White ended that speculation when he surrendered to police.

With Moscone's death, Board of Supervisors President Feinstein became mayor. She served for nine years. In 1992, she was elected to the U.S. Senate.

The year after the assassinations, White was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, not murder, after his lawyers argued he had been suffering from depression at the time of the crimes.

But the verdict enraged many who felt it was far too lenient, and crowds of protesters burned police cars and stoned City Hall in the so-called White Night Riots.

White served five years, one month and nine days in prison. Less than a year after his parole ended, White committed suicide, using a hose to funnel carbon monoxide into a car in his garage in San Francisco. He was 39.

Years later, former homicide Inspector Frank Falzon said that while on parole White confided that he had planned to kill Moscone, Milk and two other officials. White didn't locate his other targets, Assemblyman Willie Brown and liberal Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver. To White, the four were most responsible for destroying the old San Francisco he loved.

Today many agree that Moscone's place in history has been eclipsed by Milk, whose assassination and role in the gay movement are the topic of books, documentaries and the recently released movie "Milk," in which Sean Penn plays the role of the supervisor.

"Harvey had a social movement that he became the symbol of," said John Mollenkopf, director of the Center for Urban Research at the City University of New York. "And what George represented - a kind of urban liberalism that worked across race, class, gender and sexual orientation boundaries - doesn't have the same natural constituency.

"But at the end of the day, you have to come around to see the great value of what Moscone was attempting to do," he said.

Gays feel forever in Milk's debt.

Harry Britt, who after the assassinations replaced Milk on the Board of Supervisors, said Milk often spoke of the violence in America toward those outside the mainstream - including gays. Before he was slain, Milk taped several versions of his political will.

One included the sentence: "If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door." Britt said Milk's assassination had just that sort of effect on many gays.

"All our denial of being gay was shattered by that bullet that claimed Milk's life," Britt said. "And we were confronted with the urgency of accepting being gay, and the only way to be gay was to be powerful."

Richard DeLeon, a professor emeritus from San Francisco State University and an expert on the city's politics, said the memory of Moscone should be kept alive.

Moscone "included the excluded" in city government, DeLeon said. "His sheer ability to form an alliance with Milk and be inclusive of gay values was very distinctive." Moscone "allowed Harvey to achieve the stature of a leader in a way that might not have been possible with another mayor," he said. Motives and impacts

Whether White's motive for the assassinations was to settle a personal score with Moscone and Milk or to target liberal politicians he despised on principle, the effect of the assassinations was to change the political climate.

By assassinating Moscone and Milk, White nudged the city's politics toward the middle of the road. On this subject, Feinstein herself has said, "I do think I brought the city to the center."

To some, the most visible result of Moscone's death is San Francisco's skyline of high-rises.

During the Feinstein years, the city approved construction of more than 22 million square feet of office space, equal to almost 13 Bank of America buildings. That is about 29 percent of the city's total high-rise square footage today.

Under Moscone, it wouldn't have happened - at least not to that extent, some analysts say.

"Moscone was one of the first slow-growth leaders who began to take a stand against this untrammeled, unregulated growth downtown, and he never had a chance to follow through," said DeLeon, author of a book on San Francisco entitled "Left Coast City."

"Developers desperately wanted to transform San Francisco," DeLeon said. "And Moscone would have used that as bargaining leverage to extract more community benefits, such as preservation, affordable housing and a whole range of things we now take for granted."

But others see the new city skyline as inevitable.

"The change from manufacturing to finance, high-rise development, the switch to a city where your kids can't afford to buy a house, shifting immigration patterns, the fact the city is no longer the white, European city it was then - all of that would have happened without the killings," said Richard Sklar, who was hired by Moscone to run the city's massive sewer rebuild and served as the Public Utilities Commission's general manager under Feinstein. The legacy

In San Francisco today, the city's convention center and a Marina playground bear George Moscone's name, and Harvey Milk's name is on many facilities, including a Eureka Valley library.

Moscone's grave is at Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma. Milk's friends say they put his ashes in the Pacific Ocean off the Marin Headlands. And at Oakland's Evergreen Cemetery, hundreds of bodies from Jonestown are buried.

Beyond preserving the names of the dead on monuments, DeLeon says, the city should "continue to struggle to interpret" the mark that the era of the assassinations and Jonestown left on San Francisco.

"The forces at work with Moscone and Milk, progressive and utopian in many ways at the time, have slowly become accepted as established politics in the city and in some cases the nation - with the emerging gay movement, community power outside City Hall, downtown plans managing growth," he said.

"And Jonestown showed San Francisco that if the force for change is allowed to run amok ... it will implode - even when some of the motives behind it were for social justice."

Monday: Rep. Jackie Speier, who as a young congressional aide was badly wounded at the airstrip, recalls the Jonestown attack.

Tuesday: Former Chronicle reporter Duffy Jennings describes the chaotic scene after the City Hall murders. Moscone-Jonestown timeline

Nov. 14, 1978: Rep. Leo Ryan, D-San Mateo, travels to Guyana on a fact-finding mission to determine what is occurring at Jonestown after he hears from families worried about their loved ones at the settlement in the former British colony in South America. Ryan is accompanied by several reporters and photographers.

Nov. 17, 1978: Ryan and his group make their first visit to Jonestown, meet with Peoples Temple founder Jim Jones and talk to some of his followers.

Nov. 18, 1978: During Ryan's second visit to Jonestown he is attacked by a knife-wielding Temple follower, who is subdued before he can stab Ryan. As Ryan, his group and some Temple defectors gather on the airstrip at Port Kaituma prior to departure, gun-toting Temple guards arrive, kill Ryan and four others, and wound 10 people. Word of Ryan's death reaches Jonestown as Jones is speaking to his followers, telling them to commit "revolutionary suicide." They do so by consuming a grape-flavored drink mixed with cyanide.

Nov. 19, 1978: The Guyanese government orders troops to fly to Jonestown after learning of Ryan's death. At the isolated settlement, the troops find hundreds of bodies. It takes days to count all the dead. About one-third of the 909 dead at the site are under 18.

Nov. 27, 1978: Former Supervisor Dan White takes his gun and climbs through a basement window at San Francisco City Hall. He goes to Mayor George Moscone's office and kills him; then he finds Supervisor Harvey Milk and kills him. White turns himself in and later is convicted of voluntary manslaughter.

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