Exactly fifty years after police turned high-pressure fire hoses on a group of singing demonstrators seated on San Francisco City Hall’s rotunda floor, singing echoed once more Thursday under the high domed ceiling as participants in what is now known as “Black Friday” gathered to commemorate the historic incident.
“My life changed as a result of May 13, 1960,” said Burton White, an activist who was arrested at the demonstration against the House Un-American Activities Committee.
The House Committee had been conducting anti-communist investigations around the country, specifically targeting teachers, journalists, salespeople, writers and others to question them about their loyalty to the U.S.
When the House Committee announced public hearings at San Francisco’s City Hall, local student demonstrators planned to rally at Union Square and march to City Hall to picket the hearings.
On the second day of the hearings, police turned high-pressure fire hoses on protesters in the rotunda, washing some of them down the staircase and dragging them out of the building.
Thursday, White and a few others of the 64 demonstrators who were arrested that day spoke about what it was like to take part in an event that is recognized as launching the protest movement of the 1960s.
“My kids sometimes ask me what I did during the ’60s,” said Bob Meisenbach, who was the only demonstrator who went to trial after the incident. “I tell them I started the ’60s.”
A white-bearded Meisenbach described the events of the day in vivid detail, recalling that demonstrators had been sitting on the rotunda floor and singing “We Shall Not Be Moved” when police began spraying them with hoses. He said that after that there was a lot of screaming, slipping and sliding.
“Kind of like a hockey game,” he joked.
Meisenbach also talked about what it was like to go to jail with Albert Einstein’s granddaughter, Evelyn Einstein, who was also arrested at the protest and was in attendance at Thursday’s event.
Meisenbach went to trial for felony assault on a police officer, and was later acquitted of all charges.
The demonstration and its aftermath are recognized as contributing to the protest movement of the 1960s and prompting the demise of the House Committee, which was abolished in 1975.
In 1990, the San Francisco Human Rights Commission recognized May 13 as the anniversary of the incident, and then-Mayor Art Agnos issued an official apology to the demonstrators.
Many of Thursday’s speakers, although perhaps a bit older now, described still being just as politically active as they were 50 years ago.