SAN FRANCISCO, California, Dec 27 2006 (IPS) — It may seem like an unlikely place to look, but those concerned with stopping the spread of terrorism would be advised to check out “The Zebra Murders: A Season of Killing, Racial Madness and Civil Rights”, a new book about a string of murders in 1970s San Francisco written by the city’s first black police chief, Earl Sanders, and co-author Bennett Cohen.
As 1973 turned into 1974, a group of young black men operating out of the city’s Nation of Islam temple killed a series of more than a dozen white people, totally at random, in the hope of starting a race war.
The city’s white establishment, lead by Italian-American Mayor Joe Alioto, responded by undertaking massive sweeps directed solely at the city’s African American population and demanding that all black people register with the government to get special “Z-card” IDs to “clear” them of being the killers.
“We’re going to stop a lot of people,” Alioto told the press in explaining his policy. He went on to reassure blacks, asserting that it was not “a racial issue”.
At the time, the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) was almost entirely white. The leadership of both the department brass and police union was dominated by Irish Americans.
“We’re not going to stop very young blacks or big fat blacks. We’re not going to stop seven-foot blacks or four-foot blacks,” declared the city’s Police Chief Donald Scott.
In the streets, though, the mayor’s words remained hollow.
“Cops began to act like they had a licence to do anything,” explains Earl Sanders, who was a lead detective in the case. At the time of the so-called Zebra Murders, dubbed for the “Z” radio frequency used by the detectives on the case, Sanders was also party to a lawsuit by officers of colour alleging racial discrimination at the SFPD. The book tracks both his efforts to solve the Zebra case and the “Officers for Justice” case against the department.
Alioto’s policies threatened to ignite the race war the killers themselves were trying to start.
“What had happened was exactly the sort of thing we were afraid of,” Sanders says in the book. “Some blacks who got stopped tried to resist, and a fight broke out between them and the white cops who’d stopped them. We got a call for assistance, and we were able to calm the situation pretty fast. But just when we thought it was over, a squad car came tearing around the corner and two more cops rushed out and began laying into the black guys with their billy clubs, starting an even bigger fight than the one we’d just stopped.”
“The Zebra Murders” is written both as a true crime novel – a kind of quick read you might bring to the beach – and a political tract with implications for present policy. The book is narrated by Cohen, a writer for television and film, with Sanders as the most frequent source, his statements inside quotation marks.
“It doesn’t take a genius to see that ever since 9/11, we’ve been caught up in a cycle of terrorism, both abroad and at home,” Sanders says. “Just like then, the whole world seems to going crazy, with bombings and insurgencies and a feeling that every time you step outside there’ll probably be one cataclysm or another.”
In the early 1970s, the Zebra murders were just one example of a series of never-before seen political violence that terrified the white establishment. The Symbionese Liberation Army snatched the heiress Patty Hearst and killed Oakland Superintendent of Schools Marcus Foster. The Weather Underground was bombing police stations and government offices. The Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army were calling for revolution.
“Some people wanted to lump all these folks together as terrorists or radicals,” Sanders told IPS. “But each of them were different, different groups with different ideas. If you wanted to solve those crimes and stop the killing you had to approach each group in a different way.”
A critical notion for law enforcement officials to understand, then as now, says Sanders, is not to blend all the attacks and movements together. Two keys to solving the Zebra murders were community connections and the murder weapon. Though the shootings were committed by different men, they used the same gun.
“The parallels aren’t just in the problems,” Sanders says in the book. “They’re in the solutions, too. And the lack of them. This really came home during the terrorist bombings in London. One of the London police officers went on TV soon afterward and appealed to the public saying that although one in every 10 Londoners was Muslim, they only had 300 Muslim officers in Scotland Yard, which was a fraction of what they needed… It’s the same situation we were in during Zebra.”
The only way we’ll have a chance of protecting ourselves, Sanders told IPS “is if the community it comes from has already been made to feel included in the whole of society. It’s about jobs. About opportunity. About having that piece of the pie.”