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Civil Disobedience and Unrest

The forgotten and unforgotten protest movements that shaped the Bay Area 

Vigilance Committee

The discovery of gold seemingly brought people to San Francisco overnight. What had been a small city, quickly boomed to several thousand.  The city was not prepared to handle the mass movement. There were little in the way of police, judges, or really any form of working criminal justice system. Adding to problem was the formation of several violent gangs, making San Francisco quickly a very lawless place. Although crimes were committed all over California, San Francisco seemingly had an “alliance” between the criminals and the local politicians, ensuring that the people with the right connections were never guilty of anything. This ultimately allowed San Francisco to turn into a lawless land. The formation of the Committee of Vigilance brought some semblance of order to this period of unrest. Though they were not elected, nor even asked, several hundred men came together to form this group that enacted vigilante justice for several months in 1851 and against 1856.  They brazenly sent a message to any criminals residing there, that they would be brought to justice one way or another.

The best-known gang at this time was the Sydney Ducks. Many of its members were criminal exiles of Britain by way of Australia, known for their arson crimes. However, not all of the immigrants from Sydney were criminals and many actually found respectable jobs. The most notorious of the group, though, were criminals and gamblers. It was largely due to the actions of this gang, that the first Committee of Vigilance was founded in 1851.The turning point was when the Sydney Ducks set San Francisco ablaze. Several of the Sydney Ducks had boasted that they would start even worse fires than their previous ones in the years before. According to The Barbary Coast by Herbert Ashbury, there was a man known to live in Sydney Town who was seen running from a paint shop minutes before the shop caught on fire. Other buildings nearby caught on fire as well. The Sydney Ducks used the fire and the ensuing chaos to loot from the stores. Unsurprisingly, the crime rate spiked in the area. This ultimately led to the formation of the first Committee of Vigilance in 1851. The members wrote in their constitution, “The name and styling of the association shall be the ‘Committee of Vigilance’ for the protection of the lives and property of the citizens and residents of the city of San Francisco. 

Their methods were definitely unconventional, highly illegal, and fed into lynch culture; but they were able to become the police in a place where it was needed the most. The city began to grow after the second Committee of Vigilance disbanded and eventually transformed into one of the most important ports in the US.

Gordon, Abigail. "Committee of Vigilance." Dominican University of California. 2020. 

Play like a kid and party like a grown-up


Unknown. 1856. Execution of Brace and Hetherington by the Vigilance Committee of San Francisco,

California, Robert B. Honeyman, Jr. Collection of Early Californian and Western American Pictorial

Material, 1963.002:0614--A, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

Oral History: Committe of Vigilance

Jones, Pirkle. “Black Panthers in Marin City, CA, #58 from A Photographic Essay on The Black Panthers.” Accessed November 8, 2020. 

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“Black Panther Party Belongings.” Calisphere. Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection.

The Black Panther Party

While Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X are seen as the primary civil rights activists of the 1960s, another important part of the movement to mention is the Black Panther Party—especially when it comes to Bay Area history. The Black Panther Party was founded in Oakland on October 15, 1966 by Bobby Seale and Huey P Newton. The party was initially founded as the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, and focused on protecting Black communities from police harassment, often in a very militant style. The Party would go through periods of reorganization over the years, but it stands as one of the best examples of an organization that embodies the description of political protest and unrest.

The Black Panther Party was formed in the latter half of the 1960s, a decade that was ripe with civil activism, including both Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X preaching—albeit in different ways--about systemic inequality in America

The Black Panther Party grew quickly within black communities in the Bay Area, attracting activists such as Eldridge Cleaver, a black writer best known for his 1968 book Soul On Ice, a collection of essays detailing the struggle of African Americans.

Shortly after the party’s inception, they created the Ten Point Program, a document that detailed their demands towards the U.S. government. Their points include autonomy of black communities, increased employment and housing opportunities, and a reform in the education system regarding the history of black people in the U.S.

Ronald Reagan, California’s governor at the time, responded by signing the Mulford Act into law in 1967, combatting armed “copwatching” by the party.  The fact that these party members were armed no doubt raised already high tensions between the protestors and the police. While there is no case of a shootout at any major rally, there were numerous shootouts between the police and the Panthers. According to Bobby Seale, the shootouts were instigated by the police, although many police claim otherwise.  Nevertheless, the Panthers made it a point to publicly state that they would not shoot first.  The Panthers called this “policing the police,” and was the first consistent activity that the party engaged in.

During its first four years, the organization “policed the police” across black neighborhoods around Oakland and throughout the Bay Area, trying to stop police brutality.  Afterwards, the party shifted to focus more on community change by setting up various programs that served the locals of these neighborhoods better than most of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty policies and programs. During this time, they were often confronted by local police and were largely criticized by the media.  Many media outlets regularly published negative articles against them.  Due to the amount of violence, the FBI also ran an operation to try and shut them down. Their call for direct action and autonomy within black communities drew a lot of attention, both positive and negative, and it’s for this reason that they are the most remembered black nationalist and civil rights promoting organizations in the Bay Area.

Leonhardt, Peter. "The Impact and Importance of the Black Panther Party." Dominican University of California. 2020.

Click here for an interview with Bobby Seale!

The Third World Liberation Front

The Third World Liberation Front was an organization created to remedy the lack of representation of ethnic groups in the curriculum at UC Berkeley. The climate of social unrest, specifically the Chicano and Black Panther movements, substantially impacted the Front and their path to achieve their intended goals. The Third World Liberation Front was initiated in 1968 and was formed by Native American, Chicano and Latino, Filipino-American and Black Student Union students. The Front’s goal was for more ethnic studies support, diversity integrated within the broader curriculum, and a general increase of support across all parts of UC Berkeley. They made a list of demands pursuing these goals.  The Third World Liberation Front “demanded courses to emphasize the experiences of people of color, and Berkeley start one of the first ethnic studies departments in the country.” As the strike took place, members of the Third World Liberation Front and supporters were met with clouds of tear gas and violence from the police. Regardless of the initial strike and peaceful protest, some students faced beatings. Not only were the students facing police brutality, but so were some news reporters as well: “...police made further arrests and embroiled themselves in a brutality case by severely beating a Black news reporter in sight of several secretaries in the basement of Sproul Hall." The claims of violence led to a debate over first amendment rights.  The most ‘violent’ day of these strikes was Thursday, February 20th, 1969.  “About 3:30 p.m., the police suddenly began to clear strikers and onlookers from Sproul Plaza by hurling tear gas  canisters into the crowd. Some students responded by hurling the canisters back, along with stones and chunks of cement. Police repeatedly charged at the students, using tear gas and riot batons to roust them.”  Despite such circumstances and beatings from the police, the students and strikers continued to demand change. From such violent interactions between the police and the strikers, Governor Raegan declared a state of extreme emergency, sending over 2,700 national guards to maintain order, as well as enacting a 10p.m. curfew.



[1] That a School of Ethnic Studies for the ethnic groups involved in the Third World be set up with the students in each particular ethnic organization having the authority and control of the hiring and retention of any faculty member, director, and administrator, as well as the curriculum in a specific area of study. [2] That 50 faculty positions be appropriated to the School of Ethnic Studies, 20 of which would be for the Black Studies Program. [3] In the Spring semester, the college fulfills its commitment to the non-white students in admitting those that apply. [4]

In the Fall of 1969, all applications of non-white students be accepted. [5] That George Murray and any other faculty person chosen by non-white people as their teacher be retained in their position

On March 20th, 1969, the strike came to an end after negotiations with the administration

which ended with UC Berkeley agreeing “ accept virtually all nonwhite applicants for the fall 1969 semester, and establish a College of Ethnic Studies, the first in the country, with classes geared towards communities of color.”  This may seem as a victory for the Third World Liberation Front; however, as we examine some of their initial demands, it is certain that not all of them were met. Even though not all of them were met, their initial and overall goal was for ethnic studies to be incorporated at their institution of higher education, as opposed to only learning about European ideologies and history. The Third World Liberation Front used their first amendment rights to hold their university accountable, they believed that courses in history and literature were essential to preserving and representing their background, identity, and culture.

Renteria, Aisleen. "The Third World Liberation Front Strike at UC Berkeley" Dominican University of California, 2020.


Revolution, The Berkeley. “The TWLF Marching on Sproul Plaza,” The Berkeley Revolution A digital archive of the East Bay's transformation in the late-1960s & 1970s, June 17, 2017, as found in the Ethnic Studies Library, University of California, Berkeley. Marching on Sproul, 1969, CES ARC 2015/1, Location 1:69 TWLF box 1 Folder 69.

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Revolution, The Berkeley. “Campus in Clouds of Tear Gas.” The Berkeley Revolution A digital archive of the East Bay's transformation in the late-1960s & 1970s, June 12, 2020, found in the Ethnic Studies Library, University of California, Berkeley. Police on campus photo, 1969, CES ARC 2015/1, TWLF box 1, Folder 69.

Click here to listen to the TWLF Strike at Sproul Plaza


California, University of. “Four People Sitting around Campfire on Alcatraz Island during Native American Indian Occupation, 1969.” ttps:// 

Click here to view the: "After Alcatraz: American Indian


The Occupation of Alcatraz

There are many groups in the United States who face oppression and are underrepresented, lacking a chance to have their stories told.  For a very long time, and arguably even still, this is the case for Native Americans.  Their stories

have been told in our history textbooks through the eyes of the people who colonized their land.

The stories have been told to make it look as though their battles ended long ago, but this is not the case.

In 1969, the Indians of All Tribes group, occupied some federal land, starting a movement to get the voices of these marginalized peoples heard across the nation. In order to understand the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz from all perspectives, we must first examine the historical mistreatment of Native Americans by the Federal Government.  Most important here are the broken Treaties of Fort Laramie in 1851 and 1868. 

Through this few hundred years’ worth of mistreatments of the Lakota tribe, we can now focus our lens to discuss the Occupations of Alcatraz and specifically the nineteen-month occupation in 1969-71. Generations later, the Native American population is still living on the land given to them by the United States. Even though these are the populations native to this land, Congress was trying to take away the land that was selected and parceled as reservations.  This happened in 1953, by stopping federal recognition of certain tribes and opening reservation lands for federal development.


While doing this, the government was also heavily promoting a reservation Native American urban relocation program. More than one hundred thousand people were relocated during this program. This program promised vocational training, adequate housing, financial assistance, and the relocation from reservations to urban areas. This program was perhaps idealistic, but it was not quite as good as advertised: training was for only three months, minimalist government housing, one job referral (at best), and the financial assistance would run out even before the vocational training started. The Bay Area was one of the largest relocation areas in the country. Here, the tribes banded together and formed their own organizations to provide communal support to each other to make up for what they lost from the government. The Bay Area native community was active and vocal in the university protests popping up around the Bay. In September of 1969, student activists at San Francisco State started to plan an occupation of Alcatraz. These activists were led by Richard Oakes, who was a member of the Mohawk Indian tribe from the East Coast. The occupation, for them, was a sign of Indian self-determination and call for unity. The tipping point for the group to act was the San Francisco Indian Center burning down in October of 1969. The San Francisco Indian Center was the home and major meeting place to the Native American organizations that rose out of the urbanization movement, as well as the United Bay Indian Council headed by Adam Fortunate Eagle. Adam Fortunate Eagle and other members of the Council first tried to get Alcatraz as their approved new center, but this request was quickly rejected.


The council joined forces with the student organizations, including Oakes, and planned an occupation in the name of the Indians of All Tribes. This is the second occupation of Alcatraz. This took place on November 9th and was originally supposed to just be circling the island to symbolically claim it. During the circle around the island, Richard Oakes and four other student activists jumped off the boats and swam up to the island where they climbed on the land and claimed it in the name of the Indians of All Tribes. That night, Richard and fourteen others came back with supplies and stayed until morning. After realizing that occupation seemed much more in reach that previously thought, a much longer occupation was planned. The occupation grew and attracted media attention from far and wide, even coming off the lips of Hollywood stars. Once on the Island, Oakes was the leader, but there was an elected council put into place and everyone was assigned roles. They banned alcohol and drug use, although a fire of unknown origin did destroy numerous buildings on the island and graffiti and other signs of vandalism did occur. They also started a radio broadcast called the “Radio Free Alcatraz” where they would broadcast 30-minute programs around 40 times a day through local radio stations. This was one of their primary means of getting attention and information for their cause to the public. 


Eventually, President Richard Nixon greenlit a removal plan for Alcatraz. On June 10, 1971 Federal Marshals, the FBI and the U.S. Coast Guard swarmed the island, (fully armed) and removed the occupants. Though the Indians of All Tribes did not get the negotiations they were looking for when they occupied Alcatraz, they still did more than they could have imagined for the Native American community. They opened up the floodgates for many movements after them such as the American Indian Movement or AIM and occupations around the country of federal sites. After this movement, Nixon during his Administration alone introduced 26 pieces of legislature to improve the lives of Native Americans.  The Occupation of Alcatraz certainly brought national attention to the historical abuses and critical issues of Native Americans.

Larson, Madeleine."The Occupation of Alcatraz." Dominican University of California. 2020.

Aids: Fighting for Equality

The election of Harvey Milk onto the Board of Supervisors and his direct impact, the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, and the political effects and aftermath of the epidemic are all key events that took place in San Francisco that helped shape the overall climate in San Francisco regarding this disease.  “I fully realize that a person who stands for what I stand for, an activist, gay activist, becomes a target or the potential target for somebody who is insecure, terrified, afraid, or very disturbed themselves. Knowing that I could be assassinated at any moment or any time, I feel it’s important that some people know my thoughts, Milk said on his final tape.”  The impact that Harvey Milk had on the LGBTQ community resonated with those that experienced or remembered the AIDS epidemic, especially gay men living in San Francisco during the 1980s.  The AIDS pandemic that swept over the Bay Area in the early 1970s was a huge turning point, the apex of a very large chain of events that helped lead to another series of protests in the area. When it was first discovered in metropolitan areas such as San Francisco and New York, it was commonly known as the “gay disease” because it was said to have come from homosexual men.

Early on, it was also known as GRID (Gay-Related Autoimmune Disease) which emphasized the connection between AIDS and homosexuals. Not only was AIDS associated with gay men, but also with drug injection users and immigrants, who were also highly impacted. During the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 80’s and 90’s, there was a major call for more efficient needle exchanges, promotion of safe sex practices, and figuring out a more efficient method of dealing with the negative stigma surrounding the disease. Beginning in 1987, the AIDS Walk was established, where people from the community gathered together and walked from the Castro Center to the Civic Center in hopes for greater government funding on AIDS research and education.

Stewart, Simon. "Aids: Fighting for Equality." Dominican University of California. 2020.

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UC San Francisco. “People Marching with San Francisco AIDS Foundation Banner in Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration,” January 1, 1986. y.

Resources for Unrest and Protest 

DUOC Public History Students designed lessons plans for both 8th and 11th grade students, incorporating California's Academic Standards and interactive features for added student engagement.  Find below the associated lesson plans for Bay Area's history of social and political unrest.

The video below is a summation of each protest movement described, i.e. the Vigilance Committee, The Black Panther Party, The Third World Liberation Front, The Occupation of Alcatraz, & Aids: Fighting for Equality.

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