One of the best days of my life.
A few days ago my partner Abbi Samuels asked what I had eaten.
“Your eyes are watering and you have black stuff on your cheeks again. You must not be eating well.”
She was right. Fruit, wheat and oil can cause bacteria to block my tear ducts. An injury that still affects me 25 years after I was clubbed between the eyes during the San Francisco Rodney King uprising.
This is what I remember as one of the best days of my life.
April 30, 1992 is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Rodney King Uprising. Most people know about the riots in Los Angeles that took the lives of at least 60 people, but there were protest and riots against police brutality in many American cities, including San Francisco.
The protest started in the Mission District as the sun forced it’s rays through the light Mission District mist. A growing crowd was building at 24th and Mission Streets in the late afternoon of April 30, 1992.
News spread of the acquittal by a mostly white jury of Los Angeles police Sgt. Stacey Koon and officers Theodore Briseno, Laurence Powell and Timothy Wind on charges stemming from the March 3, 1991 video taped beating of black motorist Rodney King. The 81-second amateur videotape taken by George Holliday of the 56 baton swings smashing into King’s body and head was televised over and over again by the major networks. For the first time, evidence of the epidemic of police violence was visible to all of America.
This was a watershed moment that might be hard to understand today, when so many cases of brutality are shared over social media, but in 1991 seeing video proof of what many people experienced out of public view was both a shock and a vindication of what many of us knew to be true.
The police violence in San Francisco against poor people (especially black and Latino poor people) and the homeless was just as bad as it was in Los Angeles.
Not only was the day-to-day brutality horrific, there were three recent major police attacks against peaceful protesters that helped inspire that day’s protest. The beatings and arrests of Food Not Bombs volunteers for sharing vegan meals, the police beatings at the Castro during the October 6, 1989 Act-Up protest for AIDS funding and the near murder of United Farm Worker co-founder Dolores Huerta during a protest at Union Square against President H.W. Bush on September 16, 1988, all helped fuel awareness of what the police actually did, versus the sanitized image they presented to the public.
That afternoon in April 1992, Latino youths in groups of five or six arrived at the 24th & Mission intersection, and began taking over the street, while older residents stood there talking with one another in hushed Spanish. Several of my activists friends joined me from the Valencia Street side of 24th. Traffic on Mission and 24th had to find its own way. Distant honks of frustrated motorists rang out above the rumble of conversations.
As people filled Mission and 24th, a faint chant could be heard coming from the South.
“No Justice No Peace! Fuck the Police!”
“No Justice No Peace! Fuck the Police!”
My friend, Peter, joined me, all smiles and almost out of breath.
“We marched out of City College minutes after learning of the verdict and blocked I-280.” he told me as a young woman yelled over a bull horn about been smashed to the ground and kicked in the head by the Mission Station police.
“It happens every day here. We have to unite and stop these police ourselves.”
After half an hour, the crowd started to move north down Mission, then south on 16th Street. Four of my friends helped unfurl our giant Food Not Bombs banner and joined me in carrying it through the city. People cheered from the windows as the march pulled in people on the sidewalks like a magnet.
The march had grown to several thousand people as kids from the projects joined the protest in waves. It arrived at Van Ness and McAllister at about 5:00 pm. Someone standing on the steps of the State Building was yelling through a bull horn to hundreds of people standing in the intersection. One third of the crowd was made up of black people, another third was brown and about a third was white of every age and background stood together. Dozens of Asians also participated. This alone made it one of the greatest days of my life.
My friends and I stood at the back of the crowd holding our “three lane” Food Not Bombs banner facing towards Market Street. I couldn’t make out a word of what the speakers were yelling.
After three or four more speakers, lines of riot police appeared at Market Street marching down Van Ness towards our demonstration. They were met at Grove by a couple dozen teenagers throwing rocks.
The gathering of several thousand stopped listening to the speeches and turned to witness the show of police. Young people started to break car windows. Some threw rocks through the windows at City Hall and surrounding buildings.
San Francisco State student Van Jones yelled out to those close to him that we should take the march west to the Western Addition.
“Lets go this way,” he said. He was holding a colorful STORM banner showing solidarity with his group Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement.
“That’s a bad idea” I argued.
“No.” he fired back. “The riots in the ’60s were in the ghettos. Let’s march towards Fillmore.”
“Black people own those homes.” I yelled back. “ We don’t want the people in the Western Addition to lose their homes. We should march to Pacific Heights. The police work for them not us! Take the riot to them.”
A woman with a KQED mic stopped in her tracks.
“What did you say?”
“I said we should march to Pacific Heights. The police work for the rich not for us.”
The crowd didn’t go for it, and instead headed east on McAllister toward Polk, as we headed east, near the front, with our banner. Rocks were bouncing off the court house. The shattering of breaking glass and ringing sound of cement chunks against cars was mixed with chants of “No Justice, No Peace, Fuck the Police!” as things started to get violent. I came upon my then wife Andrea standing next to a light pole using it for protection from the flying debris.
Our friend and pirate radio reporter Richard Edmondson found us and told me, “I’ll stay back here with Andrea.”
I was happy to hear it, because it was important that someone in the family stay out of jail so our two dogs, Bear and Pluto, would be fed and walked.
We continued toward Jones and Market, as concrete, rocks and an occasional tree limb smashed through windows of cars and office buildings.
As we arrived at Jones Street, several lines of riot police stood outside the Tenderloin Police Station less than 100 yards from McAllister. We rotated, turning our huge banner toward the police. Big mistake. Several dozen people used it as cover and start chucking bricks and chunks of concrete over the banner at the police.
“Lets move to Market. This isn’t safe.” I yelled to my friends holding the banner. We turned south on Jones heading toward Market Street. Two lines of police cars sped north on 7th Street towards Market and the United Nations Plaza, but come to an abrupt stop before entering Market.
A young shirtless white man rushed up to the first patrol car holding a pallet over his head. He jumped on to the hood and smashed the pallet through the car’s windshield. Newly hired Police Chief Richard Hongisto climbed out of the passenger seat covered in glass and staggered to his feet. The kid with the pallet jumped to the street and tried to smack him, but Chief Hongisto retreated to the passenger seat.
A hunk of concrete smashed against the roof of Hongisto’s car. Bricks and more concrete slammed against the patrol car to Hongisto’s left. Dozens of angry people ran towards the line of police cars, some swinging two by fours, rebar, or chunks of pavement. Hongisto’s driver put his car in reverse, backing up into the patrol car behind it. The car next to Hongisto’s also smashed into the patrol car behind it as the crowd advanced, pelting the police with any object they could find. Ripping out parking meters, tearing down traffic signs. One patrol car after another tried to back down 7th Street, often smashing into one another. Some officers fled, abandoning their vehicles.
We took the banner down Market towards the Ferry Building. Several men were filling pillow cases with jewelry from a shop next to Payless Shoes. The windows of Payless had been smashed and people were running into Market Street, holding looted shoes like trophies above their heads.
“It’s not worth going to jail for stealing cheap shoes from Payless. You should get your shoes from Macy’s up the street! Now that might be worth some time in jail,” I yelled to the happy looters.
One woman looked at me and yelled back. “You’re right, lets go!” tossing her Payless shoes into the air.
The crowd smashed windows at the liquor store and pizza place next door to Payless, tore signs from their bases and tossed them through the windows of a used clothing store. Thousands of people were moving down Market Street, many still chanting “No Justice No Peace, Fuck the Police!”
“To the top of the hill, to the top of the hill.” I yelled.
The Food Not Bombs banner was still towards the front of the crowd. We took a left up Taylor and the riot followed. After crossing Eddy we came upon Glide Memorial Church’s Reverend Cecil Williams standing on the sidewalk waving his arms.
“Come on in to Glide everyone. Air your grievances here. Come on in. Being in the streets won’t help anything.”
We marched right past him to O’Farrel and up to the top of Nob Hill.
Even with the adrenaline pumping, the march straight up Taylor was exhausting so we stopped and held the banner along California Street standing outside the Pacific Union Club. Once rested, we marched down Mason pass the Fairmont Hotel to Sacramento Street.
It wasn’t long before people were tipping over black stretch limousines parked along California and Mason streets. One limo looked like a giant turtle tipped over on its shell.
The May 1st edition of the Stanford Daily reported that, “As people marched up the street toward Huntington Park on Nob Hill, the violence increased. Some protesters hurled stones at windows and cars, tried to kick in doors and overturned newspaper stands.”
“But not all of the protesters supported the violent actions. As a group of young black men attempted to overturn a light-blue BMW, another black man shouted at them, “No, don’t do this. Stop! Get the fuck outta here!”
“Police declared everyone blocked by the barricade under arrest. Although armed and dressed in riot gear, some police officers wore frightened expressions as demonstrators advanced on them.”
We came across a crowd tipping over an old Roils Royce Limousine on the Sacramento side of the Fairmont. A very old man and woman stood on the sidewalk with a young girl, maybe their granddaughter. They trembled in fear, eyes as huge as saucers.
“Here just stand in this doorway as the march passes by and you will be safe.” I told them as I gently guided the three terrified people into a recessed doorway to the staff entrance of the Fairmont. The grandmother nodded with a look of relief and they followed my instructions.
When we arrived at Powell Street we came to a man waving a pistol.
“Stay away from my store or I will shoot. Stay away. I am serious. I will kill you.”
The march rushed past his convenience store down to Kearny where several dozen people lobbed chunks of concrete at the Bank of America windows. Lines of guards stood behind the thick glass as the rocks and concrete bounced to the sidewalk.
Than it was down Kearny to Market. A group of businessmen ran out of Habitat Leather, an upscale clothing store, carrying hangers of expensive leather coats in both hands. They knew where the best value in looting was.
When we arrived at Market with our banner, it was clear that the crowd had splintered into a dozen or more groups. We stood at the corner for ten minutes when my father’s coworker George Stevens walked up.
“Keith what are you doing here?”
“I’m attending a riot. What are you dong here?” I asked.
“I came to a conference on architecture and the police came into the restaurant we were eating at and told us to evacuate because of the riot.”
After a moment he added, laughing, “Well, enjoy the rest of the riot,” and off he went.
We moved down Market to Ellis, and then decided to hold a Food Not Bombs meeting at our regular meeting space.
We rolled up the banner and started to walk down Ellis when I heard someone yell. “Hey McHenry!”
I turned and bam!
A cop smashed the tip of his club right between my eyes. He struck me between my legs, then I blocked his third strike with my right arm and crack!
I thought he had broken my arm.
Just than a motorcycle burst into flames in the center of Market Street, distracting the officer who was beating me. He raced off after the arsonist.
There were still a lot of riot police there, so my friends and I were arrested.
We were loaded into a police van and driven to the abandoned Pepsi warehouse in the Mission District where we joined over 900 prisoners.
The warehouse ceilings were low. The cavern of rooms were lit by old, dusty 25 watt bulbs. I waited in line for hours until I came to a line of folding tables staffed by police administrators and members of the Police Commission. San Francisco Police Commissioner Dorian Nelson asked me if I wanted to go to the hospital. I was covered in blood and my arm was throbbing.
I told her “yes,” and she had an officer lead me out to a waiting EMT that looked like ZZ Top’s brother.
“Watch your head” he said as he guided me into the back of the ambulance.
I joined three black men dressed in black leather jackets decorated with quotes carefully lettered in white paint.
Wow, how come you have quotes by Emma Goldman, Mikhail Bakunin and other anarchists painted on your coats?”
“That’s because we’re anarchists.”
“I never have seen you around before.”
“That right. We don’t come out unless there is something important to do. Our anarchist collective has been around Hunters Point for over 15 years but we keep it low profile.”
They showed me a tool that they made for breaking windows. A metal ball on the end of a bicycle inner tube.
Our ZZ Top lookalike EMT climbed in and closed the back doors.
“This ambulance is going to the emergency room where the police will be expecting you. If you don’t want to spend the week in jail I suggest you jump out at the next traffic light when I open the back doors. You should go to the emergency room on your own and don’t mention you were at the riot. Got that?”
A few blocks later the doors opened and everyone jumped out.
My trip to the emergency room determined that I didn’t have a broken arm.
We continued to protest against police brutality, gathering in the Mission every night.
“The loss of free speech is regrettable, but it is a cheap price to pay,” Chief Hongisto told reporters after his department made 380 arrests on May 1, 1992 at a protest calling for the end of the State of Emergency and the lifting of the 9:00 PM Curfew.
The Board of Supervisors lifted the State of Emergency and curfew, but Hongisto had his officers make more than 570 arrests on charges such as unlawful assembly and failure to disperse shortly after 7:00 PM on May 8th.
My arm wasn’t broken, but being struck between the eyes caused eye troubles that required two surgeries and the reconstruction of my tear ducts.
This week’s eye infection is a fitting reminder of the Rodney King uprising. A reminder of that amazing day in April 1992 when for the first time in my life I participated in an uprising that included near equal numbers of black, brown, and white working class people. A reminder of that moment when thousands of us seemed to realize we shared a common experience at the hands of the police.
These events inspired the founding of the October 22nd No Police Brutality Day protests and the Stolen Lives Project. This movement continues today with Black Lives Matter and the Sanctuary Movement.
Keith McHenry, co-founder of the Food Not Bombs Movement and the October 22nd No Police Brutality Coalition
Author of Hungry for Peace and The Anarchist Cookbook published by See Sharp Press
Here is a Stanford University Student newspaper report on the April 30th riots in San Francisco that features a good photo of the burning motorcycle.
Violence rages across Southland; S.F. state of emergency declared
Looting in City leads to curfew
By Julia Sobrevilla and Elise Wolfgram Staff writers
The Stanford Daily, Volume 201, Issue 50, May 1, 1992
SAN FRANCISCO – What started as a peaceful protest rally yesterday soon
erupted into a widespread, multiracial riot in which hundreds were arrested and vandals destroyed stores throughout the city. Protesters gathered in response to the Rodney King beating trial verdicts and set out from the California State Building, marching to the Nob Hill area and heading down to the Financial District.
Another group of demonstrators closed the San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge and shut down major highways into the city for a time, according to the Associated Press.
The AP estimated that 500 people were arrested in the city and 400 at the bridge. Mayor Frank Jordan declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew last night after protesters began looting, starting fires and smashing windows throughout the city. “I think the protest was good at first, but then it got violent and looting started, and then it was pointless,” said Chad Nicely, 19.
Police first stopped about 1,000 protesters at the intersection of Taylor and Ellis streets. As officers tried to disperse the crowd, protesters started running up the street, shouting, “To the top of the hill, to the top of the hill.”
As people marched up the street toward Huntington Park on Nob Hill, the violence increased. Some protesters hurled stones at windows and cars, tried to kick in doors and overturned newspaper stands.
But not all of the protesters supported the violent actions. As a group of young black men attempted to overturn a light-blue BMW, another black man shouted at them, “No, don’t do this. Stop! Get the fuck outta here!”
As three helicopters hovered overhead, police blocked off the area at the top of the hill and trapped many protesters.
Police declared everyone blocked by the barricade under arrest. Although armed and dressed in riot gear, some police officers wore frightened expressions as demonstrators advanced on them.
“Unlike war protests, the anger is directed at [the police], so I think they’re scared,” said John O’Rourke, a freshman at San Francisco State.
In Huntington Park, a police officer hit a woman in the forearm with a night stick. “He hit me because I was standing there, and I told him to let go of a woman he was holding to protect himself from the rest of the people that were threatening him,” the woman said.
Amy Henson, 24, said, “I think the world’s gone crazy. I live in the neighborhood and in the past two weeks I’ve had the windshield of my car smashed, the top ripped and the tires slashed. I moved to Nob Hill because it was a safe place.”
An officer preventing a man from passing the barricade told him, “You have no way of doing anything, there are no comebacks, no anything. The only people that can have a comeback are us.”
As the crowd marched down Sacramento Avenue toward the Financial District, some demonstrators broke the windows of a white limousine heading uptown, scratched cars parked in the street, overturned an Audi and smashed more car windows. Police were stationed at an intersection as the crowd approached. But just before it reached the police line — on the corner of Grant and Sacramento — two black men dressed in white robes joined hands and blocked the way.
“Turn around. Turn around,” they shouted. Marchers obeyed and avoided any confrontation. One of the men, Monty Flippin, said he had been beaten by police officers, and displayed his bleeding hands.
“We just want to have a peaceful demonstration of the justice system,” he said. “We want people to know this is an unjust acquittal.” The other man, Zackery Brown, said, “This goes to show you that anything can start out peaceful, but people are angry and they want to show the way they feel.”
The march proceeded to the Bank of America building, where protesters hurled rocks at the large glass windows and spraypainted anti-police graffiti on the marble exterior. On Market Street, police chased the crowd — which had shrunk to about 200— after some started looting and setting small fires.
At the intersection of Market and Powell streets, police surrounded and arrested a crowd of about 70 people. One block down, at the other side of a police barricade, more people had arrived. But protesting by then had given way to vandalism and looting, both in the Market Street and Union Square areas. Habitat Leather, an upscale clothing store, was one of the stores robbed by protesters.
“We were just walking. I didn’t see anything unusual, when all of a sudden a bunch of people came running out with jackets in their arms,” said Clara Boyden, 23.
“A girl about 17 had a baby in her arm and her bottle in her mouth. Her other arm was stuffed with leather jackets.” Moments later, a man set a police motorcycle on fire.
“A guy ran over, knocked the motorcycle over, set it on fire and some cop grabbed him and beat his ass,” said a woman who had witnessed the act. The motorcycle burned as the crowd cheered and celebrated. A previously tense but calm situation turned chaotic, and police dispersed the crowd and blocked every intersection in the area. A 50-year-old woman said she was outraged at the police, who she claimed had hit her three times with their night sticks. “This is not the country I grew up in,”the woman said. “I want to be exported. Fuck this place.”
BART stations were closed in the downtown area and in Berkeley. Looting continued in some places throughout the Union Square and Market Street areas.
Rajiv Chandrasekaran contributed to this report.
Rajiv Chandrasekaran — Daily A San Francisco Police motorcycle burns on Market Street last night after protesters set fire to it and looted several stores in the downtown area. Police said at least 900 people were arrested in San Francisco, and five police officers were injured.
Associated Press A National Guardsman stands watch in a burned-out Los Angeles business district during the second day of rioting in the city.
Ernest Villanueva — Daily Protesters and San Francisco police officers in riot gear face off yesterday afternoon in the Nob Hill area of the city.
Rajiv Chandrasekaran — Daily The owner of an electronics store talks on the telephone after the store was severely damaged by looters last night. The store is located near Union Square in San Francisco. San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan responded to the looting by declaring a curfew that was to last from 9 p.m. last night to 6 a.m. today.