Arrests Resurrect 1971 S.F. Murder Case

Arrests in a decades-old murder have resurrected memories of turbulent times in San Francisco. In 1971, members of the Black Liberation Army, an offshoot of the Black Panthers, allegedly gunned down a police officer there.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeleine Brand.

In a few minutes, newly-discovered evidence that helps explain how England's legendary Stonehenge was built.

CHADWICK: First, in San Francisco, police have made arrests in an old murder case that's rekindled memories of the city's turbulent past. Eight people were charged in the shotgun murder, 36 years ago, of a police sergeant. The suspects are former members of the Black Liberation Army that's described as a militant offshoot of the Black Panthers.

The murder, which happened inside a police station, became a symbol of the deadly racial tensions of that era. Here is NPR's Richard Gonzales.

RICHARD GONZALES: I'm standing near the Ingleside Police Station on the southern edge of San Francisco. This mission-style stucco and red tile building was the site of a brazen attack back in the summer of 1971. At least three men entered the lobby of the station and stuck a shotgun through the hole of a bulletproof glass window. The blast killed sergeant John Young and wounded a civilian clerk.

Mr. TONY RIVERA (Former Police Chief, San Francisco): Certainly, you look back and you try to make sense out of it. And you can't make sense out of it.

GONZALES: Tony Rivera is a former San Francisco police chief. He says in the early '70s, three officers were killed and several more were wounded in unprovoked attacks by suspected militants. In the communiqué, the Black Liberation Army claimed responsibility for Sergeant Young's death. Rivera says it was an uneasy time for the police.

Mr. RIVERA: It was difficult not to be paranoid at the time. It was difficult to go out and interact with the community. I mean, many officers had the feeling that they had a target on their back.

GONZALES: Yet when you talk with former members of the Black Panther Party -men now in their 50s and 60s - they say they were the ones being targeted by the police.

Terry Collins was a student back in the late '60s when he joined the Black Panther Party. He recalls one night attending a movie with a group of fellow panthers.

Mr. TERRY COLLINS (Member, Black Panther Party): So we come out the back of the theater, so the first thing I saw was this Examiner newspaper headline that J. Edgar Hoover said that the Black Panther Party is the most dangerous threat to national security ever - something like that. And then what - do you see what happened after that?

GONZALES: The FBI, under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover, launched a campaign to neutralize the Black Panther Party - so says a 1976 Special Senate Committee report on the infiltration of radical groups by law enforcement.

(Soundbite of typing sounds)

GONZALES: One former panther wants to make sure people remember that history.

Mr. BILL JENNINGS (Member, Black Panther Party): Now, the Black Panther Party was started because bad things were happening to black people, because the whole nation was suffering on the police brutality and wretched conditions.

GONZALES: Bill Jennings taps on the keys of his computer, tending to a Web site about the history of the Black Panther Party. He joined the party as a teenager and worked in the central headquarters in Oakland.

Mr. JENNINGS: So, back in the days, if you were called the Black Panther Party, I would've picked up the phone and would have said this is central headquarters of the Black Panther Party. May I help you?

GONZALES: Today, Jennings calls it perhaps the best time of his life, as the party provided free breakfasts for kids, testing for sickle cell anemia and registered people to vote. But by the early '70s, there were also tensions between party leader Huey Newton and other militants, says Jennings.

Mr. JENNINGS: At that time, Huey had gotten (unintelligible), and he was trying to push the party more in a community-based organization. And there was different members of our organization thought that we should be going on a more military viewpoint. So at that point, various members of our organization quit. And eventually, they started something called the underground, or what America knows as the Black Liberation Army.

GONZALES: But law enforcement didn't see much difference between the Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Army, says David Bancroft. He was a federal prosecutor, tracking violent radical groups in the '60s and '70s.

Mr. DAVID BANCROFT (Former Federal Prosecutor): They function as, in fact, one being the executing arm, if you will, which permitted the Black Panther Party on the other hand to posture itself - at the very least - as a social movement of some kind and seek some legitimacy in the liberal community.

GONZALES: But Panther historian Bill Jennings disputes that, saying the party was always a separate and aboveground organization. Nevertheless, the split foretold the slow disintegration of the Black Panther Party. And 36 years after the murder of Sergeant John Young, the arrests of the suspects in that case underscore the tempestuous tenor of that time.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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