Summer 2010 Newsletter: 50 Years Since HUAC Protests

By NLGSF Board Member Matthew Rinaldi

May 1960. The culture of McCarthyism lived on, the Cold War continued. The House Un-American Activities Committee ("HUAC") came to town, scheduling hearings in San Francisco to ferret out communist influence in the schools, the local media and the labor unions.

The hearings were held on the second floor of S.F. City Hall. Over 30 "unfriendly" witnesses, suspected of being reds or "red" dupes, were subpoenaed to testify. HUAC issued 150 "white passes" allowing the bearer and a guest to attend the "public" hearings. Since the hearing room could only seat 200, the many hundreds of students and activists who came to see HUAC in action were left in the hallway, blocked behind a wooden barrier near the Rotunda steps.

Inside, in contrast to the fear and cooperation prevalent at McCarthyite hearings in the 50s, witnesses like Archie Brown and KPFA's William Mandell were openly defiant. Shouts of "open the doors" erupted from unfriendly witnesses, while outside demonstrators chanted and sang, insisting on admission. When the police began unrolling fire hoses to clear the corridor, demonstrators sat down, singing the song of the emerging civil rights movement, We Shall Not Be Moved.

What followed was called a "riot." Police claimed student Robert Meisenbach seized a policeman's club and began beating him with it. Demonstrators were swept by water from the hoses, seized by police and dragged down the rotunda steps to paddy wagons. Over 60 were arrested, charged with inciting to riot, disturbing the peace, and resisting arrest.

Meisenbach was further charged with felonious assault. Refusing a plea bargain, he was represented at a jury trail by an NLG team, which included Charles Garry. The jury promptly acquitted him of all charges.

HUAC took the extraordinary step of making a film about the demonstrations, Operation Abolition, meant to warn the country about the communist plot to abolish HUAC. Complete with footage of soaking wet students being dragged down the City Hall steps, it had the opposite effect. Widely shown by the John Birch Society and other right wing groups, it was met by hostile questions from the emerging student left. It was called "raucous" and "boffo" by Time Magazine on 5/17/61, which added, "Operation Abolition stirs up some kind of trouble nearly everywhere it goes."

May 13th 2010. Over 150 people marked the 50th anniversary of the anti-HUAC "riot." Sponsored by the NLG, the ACLU, the California Federation of Teachers, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, demonstrators gathered at City Hall, as the SF Chronicle put it, "to remember the day the police turned fire hoses on them, clubbed them and drove them down the building's grand marble staircase."

That evening NLGSF screened Operation Abolition at Hastings Law School, followed by a panel discussion titled The US Government and the FBI's History of Attacks on Civil Liberties: From HUAC to Islamophobia."

The panel was moderated by NLG Executive Board member Rai Sue Sussman. It included

demonstrators Becky Jenkins, Marshall Krause (now with the ACLU), Irving Hall and NLG member Zahra Billoo of CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Becky Jenkins discussed what brought her to the demonstration in 1960 - parents who struggled for workers' rights and against racism, who along with Becky herself were members of the Communist Party. She expressed the need to openly state that part of the struggle against HUAC was a struggle to support the right of the U.S. Communist Party to exist and function without constant fear.

Marshall Krause was a research attorney for the California Supreme Court when he went to the demonstration during a lunch break. He recalled being arrested by the police for no apparent reason. Until that point in his life he "had no idea these representatives of the law could be so lawless," an insight which changed his politics and his life.

Irving Hall also addressed the issue of fear, and noted that U.S. society has always needed and used an "enemy" to mobilize patriotism and conformity, whether that enemy was "reds" in the past or Muslims today.

Zahra Billoo brought the question of fear to the present day, and discussed how over 3 million Muslims have lived in fear in the United States since the 9/11 attacks. She pointed out that Muslims are now profiled and targeted in almost every aspect of their lives, are interrogated frequently without lawyers because "they are even afraid to have a lawyer." She compared the Muslim community in the U.S. today to the experience of Japanese-Americans during WW II, profoundly distrusted but "not yet" interned.

A lively discussion period concluded with Victor Garlin noting that the 1960 demonstration succeeded because it unified many different groups with the call to defend the civil rights of everyone.

Download a pdf copy of the newsletter to see more of this issue, including:

  • May Day, Immigrant Rights and the Work Ahead for the NLG
  • Sussman Defends Military Mom
  • Q&A: Salena Copeland on Being Creative and Fostering Community
  • Meet Our Interns

and more!