November 1978: The month San Francisco unraveled

headlineMost anyone familiar with Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City can relate to the character Mary Ann Singleton, the naïve, wide-eyed young woman from Ohio who found herself immersed in 1970s San Francisco. On a normal day in the counterculture capital, life could be a surreal experience, but natural disasters excepted, there was arguably no more turbulent month in the city’s history than November 1978.

I once worked with a woman who moved to the city from Kansas on the 18th of that month, which was the day prominent San Franciscan Jim Jones and nearly a thousand others from the area, including 276 children, died in an act of mass suicide/murder at his Jonestown compound in Guyana. The Jonestown Massacre was the most deadly single non-natural disaster in U.S. history until September 11, 2001, and also remains the only time in history in which a U.S. congressman was killed in the line of duty.

Less than ten days later, shots rang out at city hall and reporters gathered to learn what happened. Diane Feinstein, then president of the board of supervisors, delivered the unimaginable news that Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were assassinated by former Supervisor Dan White.

The San Francisco of the sixties and seventies was a great experiment. The people who gravitated to that place did so with a purpose, often to be part of a movement, to forge new territory and reimagine reality. Like any other experiments, some of the results were wonderful and some were disastrous.

November 1978 was a month that would change the course of history, ending lives, launching political careers and galvanizing a movement.

Jonestown and the Milk/Moscone assassinations aren’t often remembered together, but they were products of that unique time and place, and each year around this time I remember my own Mary Ann Singleton and her remarkable first month in San Francisco.

Chris Andoe
Chris Andoe is an author and seasoned activist. After meeting John Aravosis at a Chicago “StopDrLaura.com” protest in 2000, Chris was inspired to organize his own major demonstrations in St. Louis, which drew national attention. Since then, his activism has revolved around LGBT, affordable housing, and mass transit issues. In 2011 Andoe made headlines taking on the amorphous hacker group Anonymous for publishing nude photos of a Bay Area Rapid Transit spokesperson, saying “Puritanical shame-based tactics have no place in the capital of sexual liberation”, and he extensively covered San Francisco's jarring gentrification, from mass evictions to the nudity ban. Andoe was on the ground in Ferguson at the height of the unrest, recording events as they unfolded. Always in the fray, Andoe’s been interviewed by NPR, CBS, and has been quoted from CNN to The St. Louis Post Dispatch.

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  • seanmartin

    The irony about White was that he actually thought he could return to SF after his time in prison and make a living there. He opened a fast-food hot potato stand down in Fisherman’s Wharf, which failed pretty magnificently. Shortly after that, he ended his own life. Pretty inglorious end to a man who was, at one point in time, the poster boy for the conservatives who wanted to take back SF.

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  • SkippyFlipjack

    Why do you spell it Mayor “Li”?

  • T.

    Blaming? I have to wonder if you can read. There’s nothing “blaming” anyone in this article.

  • Chris DaEmperor Andoe

    I don’t see where you get I’m blaming people.

  • GreenEagle

    Yeah, I agree completely, and Harvey Milk was my supervisor. Dan White was the exact opposite of the people who you are blaming- he was a right wing ex-policeman who hated the new culture in San Francisco; and Jim Jones had far more in common with Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson than he did with hippies.

  • hiker_sf

    I highly recommend “Season of the Witch” by David Talbot. It is an engaging book that shows a interesting side of history of SF starting with the 1960s through the early 1980s.

  • 2karmanot

    Who knows, maybe Daily City will become San Francisco’s eleventh arrondissement.

  • Chris DaEmperor Andoe

    Just as living in central cities fell out of fashion in the fifties and sixties (for the mainstream) I can see the tech workers deciding in unison they were over it.

  • nicho

    Pretty soon, it will be just a boring — but glitzy — bedroom community, until the next tech bust. Companies, as we speak, are trying to find ways to run without so many employees. I can foresee a day when the baby millionaires won’t find it worth their time to ride the bus all the way up the peninsula to spend the night in “Condo City,” where there will be nothing but expensive condos, chain stores, and overpriced restaurants, and will prefer to socialize and sleep closer to work.

  • nicho

    Milk moved to the city to “pursue revolutionary goals?” Do you have citations for that? That’s not how I remember it, but maybe I misremember it.

  • 2karmanot

    So true Chris.The City we so loved as been destroyed by Techi trolls like the current Mayor Li and gay uptight neo-liberal sell outs like Supervisor Scott Wiener. That wonderful conglomerate of mini towns and diverse cultures within a city has virtually disappeared as seniors, funks, artists, poets and other old timers are driven out by greedy developers, money bags rich techies, ruining Noe Valley, the Castro, The Mission and South of Market.

  • 2karmanot

    Dear Muriel: Eat S**T and die, the sooner the better. Lovingly yours, Cool Cat

  • Chris DaEmperor Andoe

    I certainly didn’t intend to imply hippies were to blame. Milk and Jones both came to the city to pursue revolutionary political goals and I was pointing out that the city was an incubator for experimentation. I’ve often lamented the end of the city’s role as the counterculture capital.

  • nicho

    It was those damn beatniks and hipsters.

  • I was a couple of blocks away from City Hall, taking my test for a P.U.C. moving license when all hell broke loose. (I scored 100% on the test, and the official said that was the first time he had seen that.)

    This passage, which seems to blame the hippies for the problems, needs to be addressed:

    “The San Francisco of the sixties and seventies was a great experiment.
    The people who gravitated to that place did so with a purpose, often to
    be part of a movement, to forge new territory and re-imagine reality.
    Like any other experiments, some of the results were wonderful and some
    were disastrous.”

    Dan White and Jim Jones were not at all part of the “hippie experiment.” Dan White was a straight, Catholic firefighter from a conservative family. Jim Jones was the darling of the political establishment, because he could deliver thousands of votes… for anything.

    Hippie punching, it’s not just for conservatives any more.

  • NotHardly

    The above is a great start to an article … I anxiously await the rest of it.

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