“I have concerns about some of the language that is being used because I saw this, myself, in the late ’70s in San Francisco,” a choked-up Nancy Pelosi remarked in reference to Congressman Joe Wilson’s “You lie!” interruption during Barack Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress. “This kind of rhetoric was very frightening, and it created a climate in which violence took place.”
The specific violence the Speaker amorphously alluded to, as confirmed by her office, was the murder of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, the gay politician recently depicted in Gus Van Zant’s biopic starring Sean Penn, by Dan White, an unstable former supervisor driven to murder by his bitterness over his failure to be reinstalled in the supervisor post from which he had just resigned.
As Senator Dianne Feinstein, then president of the board, explained, “This had nothing to do with anybody’s sexual orientation. It had to do with getting back his position. Dan White was a troubled man under a lot of pressure.” Indeed, before White turned his gun on Milk, he had murdered San Francisco Mayor George Moscone — not because the mayor was a heterosexual, but because, like Milk, he had blocked White’s return to the board of supervisors.
“A really neat thing is how supportive some people around here have been, Dan White in particular,” observed Milk’s legislative aide prior to the murders. “He’s supported us on every position, and he goes out of his way to find out what gay people think about things.” Such support included funding a Pride Center for homosexuals and officially recognizing a lesbian couple’s silver anniversary. White hired a gay campaign manager and contributed money to defeat the anti-gay Briggs Initiative, which would have made homosexuality grounds for firing school teachers. White, like Nancy Pelosi and Harvey Milk, was a San Francisco Democrat, after all. But Hollywood (and Washington, D.C. for that matter) has never let the facts get in the way of a good story.
Yet the Speaker of the House is right. The Bay Area was indeed a mecca of political violence during the 1970s. But the violence exclusively came from people whose outlook more closely resembled Nancy Pelosi’s, not Joe Wilson’s. In almost every case, the bombings and murders came from people or groups explicitly committed to violence, and not from peaceful protesters or from the right, à la the tea party or town meeting participants.
On February 16, 1970, in the Haight district of Pelosi’s adopted hometown, a bomb allegedly constructed and planted by Weathermen tore through police sergeant Brian McDonnell’s brain and jugular. That same year, the Black Liberation Army exploded a bomb at St. Brendan’s Church during the funeral of a San Francisco police officer. The next year, BLA soldiers stormed the Ingleside neighborhood’s police station, killing Sergeant John Young with a shotgun blast. Between 1973 and 1974, a group of African-American men known to themselves as the “Death Angels” murdered more than a dozen San Franciscans in the infamous Zebra Killings. A subgroup within the Nation of Islam, the Death Angels believed whites to be nonhuman devils whose slayings earned their killers points toward heaven. Even the Black Panthers, the Oakland-based political gang whose heyday had been in the previous decade, continued its murderous spree into the 1970s. In January of 1975, for instance, police found Betty van Patter, a Black Panther bookkeeper who had stumbled upon accounting irregularities, floating in San Francisco Bay.
In 1973, the Symbionese Liberation Army gunned down Marcus Foster, the first African American superintendent of the Oakland public schools, with eight cyanide-laced bullets. The group later kidnapped Patty Hearst and engaged in several “fundraisers” at California banks, including one that resulted in the murder of a mother of four. In 1975, Sara Jane Moore, a housewife so inspired by the Symbionise Liberation Army that she joined its “People in Need” offshoot, tried to assassinate President Gerald Ford in San Francisco. “The government had declared war on the Left,” Moore reflected from prison. “Nixon’s appointment of Ford as his vice president and his resignation making Ford president seemed to be a continuing assault on America.”
The climax of Bay Area violence took place thousands of miles southwest, ironically aided and abetted by Harvey Milk and George Moscone, the two men murdered in the dénouement of the city’s decade of political violence. Before Jim Jones orchestrated the deaths of more than 900 people in the jungles of Guyana, he was the darling of the San Francisco Left.
Indeed, Pelosi’s own brother-in-law served on the San Francisco board of supervisors when it unanimously awarded a “certificate of honor” for Jim Jones. Mayor Moscone had appointed Jones to chair the city’s housing commission. After Jones had kidnapped a six-year-old boy, Milk petitioned President Jimmy Carter (whose wife and running mate had held meetings with Jones during the 1976 campaign) not to intervene. Milk wrote, “Not only is the life of a child at stake, who presently has loving protective parents in Rev. and Mrs. Jones, but our official relations with Guyana could stand to be jeopardized, to the potentially great embarrassment of our State Department.” Milk’s missive proved prescient, just not in the way its author envisioned. The boy’s life indeed was at stake. John Stoen was killed in Jonestown by the man whom Milk had praised to the president as “a man of the highest character.”
Nancy Pelosi was wrong to liken fellow Democrat Dan White with Republican Joe Wilson, not just because White killed two human beings and Wilson merely spoke out of turn. The anti-gay rhetoric that Pelosi remembers sweeping San Francisco during the late 1970s may have motivated Josh Brolin’s silver-screen Dan White, but it didn’t motivate the real Dan White, who was a somewhat reliable vote for the concerns of homosexuals in his brief tenure in public life. Rather than a martyr dying at the hands of a homophobe just as Martin Luther King died at the hands of racist, Harvey Milk’s death had to do with an unhinged coworker upset over losing his job.
Compounding the outrageousness of Pelosi’s insinuation is that she projects the “frightening” rhetoric that fueled “a climate in which violence took place” in the Bay Area during the 1970s upon the very people at whom that rhetoric was initially targeted. Rather than condemn the violence of such groups as Weatherman and the Black Panthers, liberal Democrats instead assimilated them into their ranks.
Nancy Pelosi rails against political violence that she imagines might result from Joe Wilson’s “You lie!” remark. The real political violence that terrorized her city for a decade she continues to sweep under the rug.