Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

20 years ago, police
shut down the Castro


A single activist sits down in the middle of Castro Street as San Francisco police march in riot formation down the street during the Castro Sweep, October 6, 1989. Photo: Rick Gerharter
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By San Francisco standards the evening of Friday, October 6, 1989 started off like any other, with a cool sea breeze buffeting the city and residents welcoming the start of the weekend. In the Civic Center area, AIDS activists had gathered to protest the lack of federal funding to deal with the deadly virus that was decimating the gay male community at the time.

But what many had expected to be another routine rally organized by ACT UP would instead result in a violent takeover of the gay Castro District that rocked the police department and reverberated throughout City Hall. The incident would become known as the "Castro Sweep" and prolong a rift between the city's law enforcement and LGBT community that had began a decade earlier with the White Night riots sparked by a lenient sentence for the killer of the city's first openly gay supervisor, Harvey Milk, and Mayor George Moscone.

Before the night was through, the police had shut down an entire city neighborhood and arrested 53 people and injured 10. Four police officers also were injured during the several hours-long occupation of the Castro.

The headline in the following week's Bay Area Reporter screamed "Castro Held Hostage." A photo showed a bleeding Michael Barrett lying on the ground, having been injured by a police officer wielding his baton.

As reporter Brett Averill described the incident, he wrote that what had started "as a bland plea for more AIDS funds ended five hours later with bloodied heads, mass arrests, and the specter of fully armed riot police marching through the heart of the Castro sweeping demonstrators and confused passersby from the streets and sidewalks."

Recalling that evening in an interview with the B.A.R. this week, Brian Bringardner, an out gay man who had joined in the ACT UP protest that night, described the incident as "a military occupation of the Castro." 

"I just remember how terrifying and surreal the whole thing was," said Bringardner, who now works as an assistant district attorney. "They took over the entire Castro neighborhood, which had never happened before."

Gerard Koskovich, who at the time was a freelance journalist and recent Stanford University graduate, also had decided to take part in the AIDS protest, which began at the federal building a few blocks from City Hall. He said the rally had only drawn about 150 people and the plan was to march to the Castro, making stops along the way at City Hall and then the Mint building, before ending at Harvey Milk Plaza at Castro and Market streets.

During past ACT UP marches, the police had always assigned a handful of officers to help block traffic and facilitate the safety of the protesters, said Koskovich, an openly gay man who now works as an editor and queer rare book dealer. But early on during the October 6 protest it was clear the police had changed their tactics, he said.

"The march turned non-routine the minute it left the federal plaza. Hordes of San Francisco police officers on foot and on motorcycles emerged as soon as the protesters started marching on the street. They attempted to force the march to stay on the sidewalk," said Koskovich, who wrote an essay about the Castro Sweep in the 2002 anthology Out in the Castro: Desire, Promise, Activism . "The first arrest happened a block away from the federal building. The tactical coordinator for ACT UP stepped out into the street to talk to the commanding officer and he was immediately grabbed, thrown face down on the asphalt, handcuffed, and then taken away. No one had seen anything like this at a queer protest in San Francisco for a number of years."

By the time the rally reached the Castro, the marchers were met by hundreds of police officers. It was a sign of how the night would end.

"When I got there I saw the single largest mass of San Francisco police officers I had ever seen at that point. The entire intersection of Castro and Market streets was filled with officers standing in rank," said Koskovich. "At this point it was still a peaceful march of people staying on the sidewalk. It was completely perplexing why the police force brought out a horde of officers."

Unable to hold their planned rally, the ACT UP protesters instead held a sit-in in the middle of Castro Street and drew into the pavement their own version of the AIDS quilt. Another group of protesters held a die-in on the street. People coming home from work or headed out to dinner in the Castro soon filled up the sidewalks to observe the demonstration.

Some in the crowd chanted "SFPD racist, sexist, anti-gay. SFPD go away." As the police began to arrest those blocking the street, someone knocked over a police motorcycle and the situation quickly escalated.

"That seemed to unleash the full fury of the SFPD. Officers came running out en mass onto the street and began running wild, clubbing people," said Koskovich. "I had never seen anything like it."

By 8 p.m. the police had declared the protest an unlawful assembly and tried to clear the streets. They lined up shoulder-to-shoulder along the entire stretch of Castro Street and began marching in unison toward 18th Street, sweeping the crowd along as they proceeded.

The police also ordered those inside the Castro's stores, restaurants, and bars to remain in place. Many people found themselves trapped inside the businesses and the Castro Muni station for 40 minutes.

"After having dinner on 18th Street I walked on to Castro Street and up toward Market. It was at that time that the police announced a sweep of Castro Street and the arrest of anyone on the street or sidewalk. I was forced to enter a business on the west side of the street as police descended Castro Street," wrote the Reverend Jim Schexnayder, then the director of AIDS/HIV services for the Catholic Diocese of Oakland, in a letter sent to the city's Office of Citizen Complaints, which deals with police grievances. "We were told we could not leave the building for some time by a police officer who had a belligerent tone."

At 10 p.m. that night the police had cleared out of the area. A small group of ACT UP members gathered in a circle to officially bring their protest to an end. But the incident and its ramifications were far from over.

Incident had lasting effect

The next night 1,500 people took to the streets in the Castro to reclaim the neighborhood. Then-Mayor Art Agnos issued a statement to the B.A.R. stating that "what I have heard is deeply disturbing and if even 25 percent of the allegations turn out to be true then what happened October 6 is unacceptable."

The police chief at the time, Frank Jordan, moved to demote his brother, Deputy Police Chief Jack Jordan, for his handling of the incident. But in November Jack Jordan abruptly resigned from the force.

Also reprimanded for their involvement were then-Deputy Chief Frank Reed, head of the patrol bureau, and Captain Richard Fife, who was sent to the traffic bureau. Captain Richard Cairns, who was the tactical squad commander the night of October 6, was put on administrative duty after he was accused of beating several protesters with his baton.

According to documents at the GLBT Historical Society's archives, Cairns insisted Barnett's injuries were due to his falling off a newspaper box and that he used his baton against two women who were "screaming and lunging at me" and that both reached into their pockets causing him to believe they had weapons.

Cairns was eventually suspended from the force and sued the city over how his disciplinary case was handled. He insisted in his lawsuit that "bottles and rocks were thrown at the police officers and several officers were struck" and that he was "instructed to order the crowd to disperse."

A group of citizens, including Bringardner and several of the people injured that night, sued the city and eventually settled for $200,000.

"All I ever wanted was an apology and for the mayor, chief of police, police commissioners, and Board of Supervisors to say this was wrong and should never have happened and no one would say that so we had to sue for money," said Bringardner.

Lieutenant Lea Militello, an out lesbian who chairs the department's Pride Alliance for LGBT officers, was a patrol officer on the force 20 years ago and had just been assigned the department's liaison to the LGBT community the weekend of the Castro Sweep.

"The department during the White Night riots was at a very different place than where the department was at during the Castro Sweep. We had moved to a place of opening lines of communication with the community even at that point, but we still weren't anywhere near where we needed to be," she said in an interview with the B.A.R. this week. "I think our department grew quite a bit from the White Night riots to the Castro Sweep. What the Castro Sweep did was open a wound that was already there."

The sweep incident was the impetus for the department to seriously examine its relationship with the LGBT community and change its procedures, she said.

"I think what is important about it for the community is the night was not a good one for people in the community, without question, but I think looking back on it now I think that night jump started where we are today," she said. "It forced our police department to open lines of communication with this community across the board."

Rather than have the Mission Station be responsible for forming ties with the LGBT community, all stations were ordered to reach out and develop relationships with gay residents in their areas of town, said Militello.

"It got us there a lot quicker," she said.

Militello said she also oversaw the implementation of training on LGBT issues all new recruits were required to take before joining the force.

"As awful a night that was for some people, also I think a lot of good came out of what occurred after. We are so much better a police department," said Militello, who pointed to how the police took a gingerly approach to the protests this year and last over the passage of Proposition 8, the same-sex marriage ban. "Twenty years ago we didn't utilize our LGBT cops the way that we do now. With the Prop 8 protests we had an entire squad of LGBT cops within that circle of people who communicated with the organizers."

While Militello stated emphatically that she could not conceive of another Castro Sweep occurring today, Koskovich disagreed and said it is important for the LGBT community and other citizens to remember what happened that night.

"The important thing to remember is there will always be tension between the mission of a police department and the free speech rights of angry citizens," said Koskovich, who spent three years of his life pursuing the matter through the OCC process and the courts. "People should not be lulled into thinking this could never happen again. Those of us there that night were stunned this could happen in San Francisco. Queers must know when they go marching in the streets they might encounter an angry police officer."

The historical society will present a panel discussion about the Castro Sweep from 6 to 8 p.m. November 4 at its offices in Suite 300 at 657 Mission Street.

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