22 Slices
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15. When Work Hits Home

Davis, Belva Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

• • •

We felt fortunate that our family emerged relatively unscathed from the 1970s—which is rather ironic to say, considering we were driven from our home after a biker gang of white supremacists plotted to kidnap our teenage daughter.

Nonetheless we fared better than many others in the San Francisco Bay Area who paid a far greater price during what was to be a harrowing decade, drenched in a senseless violence that seemed to seep toward the edge of apocalyptic: The Zebra murders. The Symbionese Liberation Army abductions, armed robberies, and shootings. The cult exodus and mass suicides of Jonestown. The assassination of San Francisco’s mayor and first openly gay supervisor. Real life too often resembled the melodramatic movie trailer “In a world gone mad...”

For six months beginning in the fall of 1973, San Francisco and its environs were unnerved by faceless assailants who unleashed random yet deadly attacks on everyday people doing everyday activities. Homicide inspectors who worked the case would characterize it as “the opening of the gates of hell”—it was, indeed, one of the most ruthless and prolonged cases of domestic terrorism in U.S. history.

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19. Special Reports

Davis, Belva Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

• • •

In the beginning, almost no one noticed the ominous oddity. But in the early 1980s the clues were laced through San Francisco’s obituary pages, where week after week reports told of young men dying of pneumonia, skin cancer, or a vague “prolonged illness.” These men were seldom survived by spouses or children. Many of them called the city’s Castro District home.

My friend Randy Shilts was the first to draw my attention to an unnamed plague surreptitiously sweeping through the gay community. The two of us had worked at PBS station KQED—in fact, I anchored the election season panel there at which conservative state senator John Briggs publicly “outed” Randy, scorning his questions by declaring he expected as much from “a homosexual like you.” We fumbled our way through the rest of the newscast without addressing the subject again, but the minute we were off the air, Randy, who talked in rapid-fire spurts, uncorked a barrage against Briggs. Most of the rest of us didn’t know quite what was appropriate to say.

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18. Going Global

Davis, Belva Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

• • •

In the world of television news, nothing is more tantalizing than the big “get”—an interview with a source that everyone else wants but only you have. In 1977, few “gets” were as elusive or desirable as Fidel Castro. Cuba’s enigmatic communist dictator was the archenemy of the United States—in fact, the CIA had been out to “get” Castro as well, secretly targeting him in hundreds of assassination plots that contemplated everything from an exploding cigar to a fungus-tainted scuba-diving suit. Demonized by the right and romanticized by the left, the cigar-chomping guerrilla was based only ninety miles off our shores.

And he hadn’t given a TV journalist an interview in sixteen years.

I can’t say I had any aspirations to land Castro—to do so seemed beyond the wildest of possibilities. After all, I worked as a junior reporter at a local station on the West Coast; I spoke no Spanish; I never had covered any overseas story; and I was well aware that only a network’s chief foreign correspondent or primetime anchor could ever hope to garner such a coveted assignment. But at a social gathering in the East Bay, I was chatting with Barbara Lee, who would eventually be elected to Congress herself but in those days was an aide to then representative Ron Dellums.

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16. White Night and Dark Days

Davis, Belva Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

• • •

We knew her only as Miss Glover, a heavyset middle-aged woman with cropped hair and ebony skin—but what distinguished her from our previous housekeepers was her ability to move throughout our house without making a sound. She left our rooms spick-and-span. But in retrospect, her stealth should have been a clue that there was more to Miss Glover than met the eye.

I always made a point of establishing a rapport with anyone who worked for us. Miss Glover was my greatest challenge. She kept herself tightly buttoned up and answered my questions with trepidation, as though she suspected my innocuous chatter concealed traps.

Over time, I learned that she had no family left and was selling the house she once owned in California’s Central Valley. “Are you sure you want to do that?” I asked her. “You know, it’s always good to have a place of your own to go home to someday.”

“No ma’am,” she said firmly. “We need the money for the work of the church.”

Her church was called Peoples Temple, and by the mid-1970s it was attracting hundreds of followers. Its leader was a charismatic reverend who preached an amalgam of utopian Christianity, racial harmony, communal socialism, megalomania, and paranoia. Temple members called him “Father.” To the rest of the world, he was the Reverend Jim Jones.

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1. "What the Hell Are You Niggers Doing in Here?"

Davis, Belva Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

• • •

I could feel the hostility rising like steam off a cauldron of vitriol: floor delegates and gallery spectators at the Republican National Convention were erupting in catcalls aimed at the press. South of San Francisco, people were sweltering inside the cavernous Cow Palace, which typically hosted rodeos. In July of 1964 it offered ringside seats for the breech birth of a right-wing revolution.

My radio news director, Louis Freeman, and I lacked credentials for the press box—actually we knew that some whites at this convention would find our mere presence offensive. Although Louis was brilliant and had a deep baritone voice and a journalism degree, his first boss had warned Louis he might never become a radio reporter because Negro lips were “too thick to pronounce polysyllabic words.” But Louis, whose enunciation was flawless, eventually landed an on-the-hour news slot on KDIA-AM, the Bay Area’s premier soul-gospel-jazz station; and he was determined to cover the convention. It was said that the national press was flocking to the GOP confab to “report Armageddon.” Louis wanted to be at the crux of the story, relaying to our black listeners all the news that white reporters might deem insignificant. I was the station’s intrepid ad traffic manager, a thirtyone-year-old divorced mother of two, who had no journalism training. No question Louis would have preferred a more formidable companion: I’m delicately boned and stand merely five foot one in stockings. But I was an eager volunteer. More to the point, I was his only volunteer. And I was, in his words, “a moxie little thing.” He had finagled two spectator passes from one of the black delegates—they made up less than 1 percent of convention participants. So there we were, perched in the shadows under the rafters,scribbling notes and recording speeches, mistakenly presuming we had found the safest spot to be.

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