1960 — Students protest HUAC hearings in San Francisco

HUAC history in California prior to 1960 

The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was created in 1938 to investigate and hold public hearings into "Communist influence" in American education, entertainment, civil rights and peace organizations and labor unions.  Unable to uncover evidence of Communists committing crimes, HUAC concentrated on holding Party members and sympathizers up to widespread media exposure and public embarrassment, often resulting in the loss of jobs and community standing.  In addition, the Committee published numerous reports which emphasized the testimony of "friendly witnesses" (including paid FBI informants) who had furnished the Committee with ficticious Communist "conspiracies" to control student protests, brainwash young minds in the classroom and take over otherwise loyal American organizations.

Hundreds of progressive citizens were hounded by the FBI for years after they were subpoenaed to appear before several HUAC hearings in California between 1947 and 1956.  The Hollywood film industry was a major target, with allegations of Communist membership and sympathies costing writers and directors their jobs and reputations, as major film companies kowtowed to Committee pressure.

The 1960 hearings

 

HUAC held hearings in San Francisco that started on May 14, 1960.  I was subpoeaned to testify, a fact that was made public by the UCB student newspaper, the Daily Cal, the Berkeley Daily Gazette and other Bay Area papers.  SLATE, the left-liberal UCB campus political party, formed a Committee For The Abolition of HUAC and organized a protest for the first day of hearings.  The hearings were held in a courtroom in San Francisco's imposing, baroque City Hall.  Several hundred students from Cal, Stanford and other Bay Area colleges and universities showed up on May 14 for a picket line in front of City Hall.  About 100 of these demonstrators attempted to enter and attend the hearings, which they believed would be open to the public.  I testified that day and refused to answer the Committee's questions about Communist Party membership and other political activities, citing the first and fifth amendments to the Constitution. 

White passes, barricades and fire hoses the "police riot"

 

Prior to the hearings the Committee had issued "passes" to members of local ultra-conservative groups, giving them preferred admission to the hearings.  On the first day, only a few anti-HUAC people were allowed in the hearing room.  On the second day of hearings, Friday, May 15,  Sheriff Mathew Carberry announced to the large anti-HUAC group waiting outside the hearing room that he was working to let more people without passes into the hearing.  He then left, and soon after, the San Francisco police placed street barricades at the entrance to the hearing room.  My father had also received a subpoeana , and was scheduled to testify that day.  I waited at the barricade, hoping to get in.  Without warning, the police brought out fire hoses and blasted us with high-pressure water, then dragged us down the marble steps of City Hall, arresting 68 and hospitalizing four. 

 

The next day, Friday, May 16 ("Black Friday"), several thousand demonstrators showed up in a peaceful sidewalk protest against Thursday's police violence (also known as the "police riot").  At our arraignment, charges against all but one of the arrested demonstrators from Thursday, May 15 were dropped.  The San Francisco hearing debacle was widely publicized and marked the beginning of a steady decline for HUAC, which was disbanded in 1975.

 

 

 

Personal consequences 

 

The hearings led to my being fired from a succession of jobs between 1960 and 1964, as the FBI visited my employers and worked to deprive me of my livelihood.  Unbeknownst to me at the time, the FBI recruited my college roommate, Milan Melvin, as a paid informant.  The combination of the succession of job firings, my roommate's betrayal and the embarrasment of being publicly hauled before HUAC at the age of 18 were traumatic for me, with serious negative effects on my personal relationships and career path.  I did not fully heal from that experience until I sought support and psychotherapy later in life.

HUAC's propaganda efforts and subsequent decline

 

After the 1960 hearings, HUAC made a "documentary" film falsely linking the Communist Party with the growing progressive student movement and the so-called "HUAC riots." "Operation Abolition" was distributed widely, at government expense, in America's public schools.  It is estimated that 15 million people saw this film.  This highly inaccurate propaganda effort had the unintended effect of recruiting many recent high school graduates and college students from all around the country to enter UCB, seeking to enjoy what they saw as a non-conformist, politically enlightened, anti-establishment campus atmosphere. 

To counter the lies of "Operation Abolition," HUAC opponents issued "Operation Correction," an ACLU-narrated documentary film using much of the same footage as "Abolition," but countering its lies with the facts of independent student organizing against HUAC and the unprovoked police attack at the 1960 HUAC hearings. 

Early on the first day of hearings, May 14, 1960, a picket line begins to form in front of San Francisco City Hall.

Anti-HUAC protestors gather on the City Hall rotunda steps, hoping to gain entrance to the 1960 hearings.

The crowd in the City Hall Rotunda grows around Sheriff Carberry 

Protesters gather outside the HUAC hearing room.  Lacking HUAC's "white passes," most are denied entrance.

Sherrif Mathew Carberry tells the protesters that he will try to get the Committee to let some of them into the hearing room.  KPFA-FM reporter Fred Haines, on the left, records.

The crowd, waiting to hear if they are going to be let into the hearing chambers, gathers around Sherrif Carberry.

The crowd of protesters outside the hearing room grows, singing freedom songs and chanting "Let us in, Let us in!"

Sheriff Carberry reneges on his promise as San Francisco police place street barricades between the hearing room entrance and the protesters.

That's me in front, well hydrated, yelling something at the police - newspaper photo

City cops and county sheriffs forcefully escorting us down the flooded marble steps of City Hall - newspaper photo.  68 people are arrested and jailed, released hours later.

Still demanding entrance to the hearing room, anti-HUAC demonstrators sing protest songs.

Protesters sing in front of the police barricade, just before the fire hoses are brought out.

Without warning, San Francisco police turn fire hoses on the HUAC protestors outside the hearing room--newspaper photos.

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Thorougly drenched, anti-HUAC protesters get vocal at the police and the firehoses.  That's me, cupping my hands to yell, before we were dragged out of City Hall to the waiting paddywagons--newspaper photo.

Traffic jam on the City Hall rotunda steps, as protesters are dragged, arrested and hustled to waiting paddy wagons--newspaper photo.

This photo of cops dragging protesters down the City Hall steps was on the front page of newspapers across the country.

On Saturday, May 16, several thousand people showed up at City Hall to protest HUAC and Friday's police violence and arrests.

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Hundreds of protesters and curiosity seekers mill about at City Hall, the day after "bloody Friday."  Note the mounted San Francisco police.

Big, peaceful picket line on Saturday along the side of City Hall.

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HUAC protesters arrested on Black Friday, at their arraignment, represented by noted civil rights and civil liberties attorney Beverly Axelrod.  All charges are dropped against the 68 arrestees, except for Robert Meisenbach, who later went on trial and was found innocent of violence against a SF police officer.