Rumors of a Cult: Black Radicalism, Violence, and Policing in 1970s San Francisco

Sunday, January 7, 2018: 11:20 AM
Virginia Suite B (Marriott Wardman Park)
Christine Lamberson, Angelo State University
In 1973 and 1974, a series of murders plagued San Francisco. Nicknamed the Zebra Murders, all the victims were white and witnesses reported the perpetrators were black men. By early in 1974, rumors abounded that the murderers were part of a radical black cult, called the Death Angels, often linked to the Nation of Islam.

When police still had made no arrests by mid-April, they implemented a high profile "stop and question" search, with the support of San Francisco’s law and order mayor. Though ostensibly a focused search from a composite sketch, in practice, the police stopped nearly any black man for questioning. A lawsuit ruled the operation unconstitutional, but there was, nonetheless, a significant amount of public support. The manhunt ended when an informant came forward with a sensational story claiming the cult was real and widespread. Operation Zebra, its support, and reports about the Death Angels occurred within the context of a city facing contemporary, sometimes-violent radicalism from groups such as the Symbionese Liberation Army and Black Panther Party, and in the context of national fears surrounding a violence.

This paper examines the relationship between police tactics, public opinion, violence, and black radicalism during the 1970s using San Francisco and the Zebra murders as a case study. It argues the public association between radicalism and violence in the context of a larger violence problem helped bolster support for unconstitutional policing tactics in this case. Finally, the presentation will examine the role of the sensational and unsubstantiated rumors of a murder cult. Even after the emergence of the informer, evidence of such a large cult was extremely thin, yet they persisted. The paper uses this case study to consider the larger relationship between perceptions surrounding violent black radicalism, whether real or imagined, and urban policing in the 1970s.

See more of: Policing Black Radicalism
See more of: AHA Sessions