50 years since the 1966 Hunters Point Uprising and ‘Black Lives [Still Don’t] Matter’

by African-American Studies Department Chair Aliyah Dunn-Salahuddin, City College of San Francisco

On Sept. 27, 1966, 16 -year-old unarmed Matthew “Peanut” Johnson was shot in the back and killed while fleeing from veteran officer Alvin Johnson. The youth fled from a car that was reported stolen more than four hours after he was killed, and the pursuit was initiated based on the suspicions of the officer.

The fatal shooting took place on the hill of Navy Road in plain view of the housing units that encircled the ravine where Matthew fell. Community members gathered at the scene and in the streets as the night fell wanting answers, wanting to know why. Once a storefront window was smashed, three days of conflict followed that came to involve SFPD, the CHP and 1,200 National Guard troops.

On Sept. 28, 1966, the day after police murdered Matthew “Peanut” Johnson, 16, Mayor John Shelley called Gov. Pat Brown, father of current Gov. Jerry Brown, and asked for the National Guard – and here they are, “clearing” Third Street. Tanks were sent too – military tanks that rumbled up and down Third Street for days – all for the purpose of terrorizing Hunters Point, which some called the Bay Area’s fiercest Black neighborhood, into silence.
On Sept. 28, 1966, the day after police murdered Matthew “Peanut” Johnson, 16, Mayor John Shelley called Gov. Pat Brown, father of current Gov. Jerry Brown, and asked for the National Guard – and here they are, “clearing” Third Street. Tanks were sent too – military tanks that rumbled up and down Third Street for days – all for the purpose of terrorizing Hunters Point, which some called the Bay Area’s fiercest Black neighborhood, into silence.

Hundreds were arrested and many injured, including by bullet wounds. The community was traumatized, the Bay View Community Center closed shortly after these events, storefronts remained boarded, and Bay View Hunters Point was stunned.

One of the most prominent Black communities in the country was left shaken. The next decades would force BVHP to grapple with the impact of the Vietnam War abroad and the War on Drugs at home. This is the fog of war I came to be born into.

I grew up in Bay View Hunters Point and always felt there was some historical force that had left my community defeated. I was proud of my aunt Mozzell’s restaurant and have fond memories of Mr. Taylor, my principle at Martin Luther King Middle School, who made us all believe that we were more than our circumstances, and of Linda Brooks-Burton, who gave us a space after school off the street to engage in a world of ideas.

It was not until I was researching for a paper in graduate school at San Francisco State University that I stumbled upon a news clipping from 1966 that read, “Riot in Bay View Hunters Point.” The images of national guard soldiers with bayonets drawn marching down the streets I walked every day as a youth baffled me.

The community was traumatized, the Bay View Community Center closed shortly after these events, storefronts remained boarded, and Bay View Hunters Point was stunned. One of the most prominent Black communities in the country was left shaken.

How could I have not known about this? Why didn’t anyone in my family tell me that this happened? It was then I realized this event left a wound on the community so great that I felt it without even having knowledge of the event itself.

2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the 1966 Uprising. It is important that we make distinctions between “riot” and “uprising.” An uprising like that of 1966 in BVHP was a political action in response to the unjust killing of an unarmed youth as opposed to irrational violent disturbance of the peace.

Fifty years later, with news headlines mirroring our recent past, it is imperative that we begin to see that these types of urban uprisings are not only about the singular tragedies that spark them, but more so the systemic and institutionalized forms of racial and economic oppression that placed Matthew Johnson in that stolen car. He like many of the young Black men and women who have been killed at the hands of police have a right to due process as well as a right to adequate housing, employment and to feel safe in their communities.

2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the 1966 Uprising.

Fifty years later, the citizens of BVHP are fighting the same fight: access to housing and against displacement, employment opportunities in a city with one of the fastest growing economies in the nation, and to be seen and treated as humans by those espoused with the duty to protect them. Currently, the tragic killings of both police officers and Black citizens all over the country highlight the deep wound we as a nation and community can no longer ignore.

Join us Sunday, Sept. 25, 1-3 p.m., and Tuesday, Sept. 27, 3-5 p.m., at the Linda Brooks Burton Library, 5075 Third St., at Revere, San Francisco, to honor the life of the many Black men and women whose lives were taken too soon and to learn more about the happening of 1966. We must, as Arthur Schomburg challenges Black Americans, “dig up our past in order to remake our future.”

Aliyah Dunn-Salahuddin, African American Studies Department chair at City College of San Francisco, can be reached at adunn@ccsf.edu.

Editor’s note: The Bay View wants to publish YOUR recollections of the 1966 Hunters Point Uprising in the September paper. Please send them as soon as you can to editor@sfbayview.com or SF Bay View, 4917 Third St., San Francisco CA 94124-2309.