For six months, straddling late 1973 and early 1974, the city had 14 random killings. Most of the victims never saw it coming, shot in the back or the back of the head, execution-style, in what came to be called the Zebra murders.
The shootings were racially motivated and usually happened at night along the Divisadero Street corridor. Here are three that were out of the norm but crucial to the case.
On the evening of Oct. 19, 1973, Quita and Richard Hague came out of their four-story Victorian apartment building at 399 Chestnut St., at Stockton Street. They went west, downhill toward North Beach, maybe in front of Francisco Middle School one block down, when a white van pulled alongside with three men inside. The body of Quita Hague, 28, was found the next day on the railroad tracks across town. Her husband survived. The spree had begun.
Two months later, on Dec. 13, 1973, the killer struck again, at the corner of Wisconsin and 23rd streets, on Potrero Hill. Social worker Art Agnos, 35, had left a meeting and was walking to his car when people started fleeing from a loud popping noise. The future mayor tried to calm them before realizing he had been shot twice in the back.
On Jan. 28, 1974, Jane Holly, a 45-year-old Wells Fargo clerk, went into the Lightning Coin Launderette at 1440 Silver Ave., just off San Bruno Avenue. Her back was to the door. She was pulling clothes out of the dryer as a gunman walked toward the rear of the 24-hour wash-and-dry.In our recent discussions about gun violence, Django Unchained, and America's gun culture, I have learned a great deal. Several commenters have offered up interesting bits of information, such as this reference to Robert Charles, a black man who shot 27 white people in the year 1900 during the height of Jim and Jane Crow.
I have also had an interesting discussion about black mass shooters and the argument that such crimes by African-Americans are somehow under-reported. Such a claim is fascinating because of how it stands against volumes of evidence about the racialized nature of crime reporting in the United States, and how stereotypes about black criminality are integral to the prison industrial complex, and the school to prison pipeline.
I may not always agree with folks here on WARN--which is part of the fun of our honest conversations--but I always learn something from the exchange.
In the spirit of seeking new information and knowledge, I also enjoy reading white nationalist websites. As I have said many times before, one must understand their enemies as not to be ambushed by them. Their waters are toxic and befouled; they are pure to the supplicants and white nationalist troglodytes.
During the Right-wing media's online fit about Django Unchained, and the prospect that a black man may actually want to kill white slave owners and other white racists during the 19th century (and Hollywood may dare to present such a fantasy in the form of a major motion picture), I came upon repeated references to the "Zebra Murders."
These were common White deflections where white racists search high and low for examples of black "racism," criminality, or violence in order to balance the centuries-long historical record of white supremacy's barbarisms against people of color--and also against white folks who did not follow the dominant script. The false equivalence is glaring; nevertheless, it is still instructive.
As a person of a certain age, I had never heard of the Zebra Murders. As a child of the hip hop generation and the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut area who was born in the 1970s, I was too young and geographically distant from California to have ever encountered any information about a murder spree that was supposedly committed by Nation of Islam members against whites (and others) in the Bay area from 1973 to 1974.
Color me fascinated by this tale of interracial murder, police corruption and racism; resentment towards Earl Sanders, the black Police Chief of the San Francisco police department; and what is a fascinating story that has been optioned for a movie by Brad Pitt and starring Jamie Foxx and Will Smith.
Here are some details about the Zebra Murders:
The murders lasted 179 days and traumatized San Francisco in ways that few cities have experienced before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The killings were random, carried out by a faction of Black Muslims associated with the Nation of Islam and calling themselves the Death Angels. They were out to kill white people with the intent of starting a race war.
The first victim, Quita Hague, was abducted while out for a stroll with her husband near Telegraph Hill. She was hacked to death with a machete; he survived. Another victim, a male whose identity was never determined, was butchered so badly that police referred to him as the Christmas Turkey victim. His torso was found on the beach near the Great Highway on Christmas 1973.
All of the other murder victims were shot to death — by various assailants using the same .32-caliber pistol.
The mayhem didn't end until an accomplice-turned-informant named Anthony Harris, motivated by a $30,000 reward, came forward to give up the names of several fellow members of the Nation of Islam. By then, the harm could be measured beyond the violence. At the peak of the killing spree,Mayor Joseph Alioto issued stop-and-search orders that made almost every black male over 6 feet tall a possible suspect. A federal judge declared the sweeps to be unconstitutional only after hundreds of innocents were detained.
By consensus, it was an ugly time.These paragraphs/observations are widely cited by white nationalists and their allies, I am not willing to vouch for the veracity of their claims or interviews:
The increased police presence had the effect of angering the black community. Twenty years before the Los Angeles riots and O.J. Simpson trial, blacks were already making statements to the press that showed a stunning lack of remorse for what was happening to their white neighbors. Howard quotes from interviews conducted by the San Francisco Examiner in 1974. Among the responses by blacks were, "I don’t feel comfortable with all the police around. But then, I never have felt safe around them."
A young housewife stated, "I’m really glad the police are concerned for a change. I just wonder if they would be as much concerned if it were black people getting killed." A black lawyer added, "I commend the police for their beefing up of the force, but I hope it’s not just directed at blacks. I hope blacks aren’t being harassed."
Still other blacks blamed "unemployment" and "oppression" for the attacks. One man said, "the madness that drives black men to kill innocent people . . . involves a sickness that is as American as apple pie." Black Panther leader Bobby Seale declared, "every black man in the Bay area is in danger of losing his life." The Reverend Cecil Williams claimed that the entire black community was "under a police state that could erupt into a racial war." Howard observes, "although they were responding only to a question about Operation Zebra, it was curious that none of the blacks interviewed took the occasion to condemn the unknown street killers or express sympathy for the victims."We have a wide readership here at We Are Respectable Negroes. What really went down? What is the evidence? Do you have any links to reliable reporting on the subject? For those of you alive during that time period, or from that area, what is the vibe like on the ground?
In my writings about white masculinity and mass shootings I have never suggested that there is something unique to Whiteness and White Men that leads to these types of outcomes. I am interested in how race as a social construct, may over-determine why certain cohorts are more likely to be over-represented among such murderers and what this tells us about gun violence.
Race, power, and violence are intimately related. Black Americans never formed our own revenge possies or guerilla groups to take a pound of flesh from whites who benefit materially, personally, and psychologically, from slavery, Jim and Jane Crow, or contemporary colorblind racism.
While we were "niggerized," black Americans have only sought our rightful freedom, civic inclusion, full fruits of citizenship, and yes the right to be left damn well alone if we so chose, in the United States. Given the scale of our historic suffering at the hands of White America, our peaceful nature and yearning to only be loyal and fully valued citizens in this country has been a historical anomaly of sorts. We have asked little from the United States; yet, Black Americans have given everything.
Black people like the Zebra Murderers are, in the African-American folk tradition, best described as "bad niggers." As such, they are important--and symbolically powerful--outliers in the African-American cultural and historical tradition. For that reason, such men are imminently fascinating and worthy of discussion. Do teach me something about them if you would, and are so inclined.