Tenderloin San Francisco

Hard-boiled stories from San Francisco's 1960s and 1970s Tenderloin

Tenderloin San Francisco

Hard-boiled stories from San Francisco's 1960s and 1970s Tenderloin

Compton's Cafeteria Riot

August, 1966

     Compton’s Cafeteria at the corner of Turk and Taylor was a popular hangout for the night people in the Tenderloin.  A 24 hour eatery which held around 80 people, it was almost a ‘Who’s Who’ of the Tenderloin night scene.  Cops came into Compton’s often.  They’d harass the trannies and queens, but were never seen harrassing anyone else.  They’d usually arrest one or two, sometimes amid some scuffling.  Once in the wagon the queens and trannies were shoved, punched, kicked, had clothing ripped off, and in general suffered regular abuse at the hands of law and order.  This became an all-too-often occurrence.  The night people in Compton's were especially easy targets for SFPD, so much so, San Francisco’s finest made Compton’s a regular stop.  Tonight was going to be different – more than anyone could imagine.

     The usual assortment of Tenderloin people was there; trannies, queens, hustlers, tough guys, addicts of all sorts, and just everyone – a typical crowd.  Tripper Bob, Gary, and Phil were sitting in Compton’s taking a break from their usual routine - it was a time out for them.  Phil was having a meal before he started his shift as doorman at Kenny's Upstair's club.  Gary and Tripper Bob, hardcore addicts and tough guys, were washing down bennies with coffee talking about last night's big score.  They were on the Turk Street side towards the back, but all three were facing the front door and windows.  People were doing what people usually do – eat, drink, laugh, gossip, have a good time.  Just another night in Compton’s . . .

     Two cops came in the front door almost side-by-side, one walking purposefully towards a queen sitting at a table, while outside a black and white was pulling up.  You could tell one cop knew her by the way he targeted her - words were exchanged for a few seconds.  The cop appeared to be telling her to get up, but she ignored him.  Agitated, he pulled out his club and tapped her on the shoulder with it, but she still ignored him.  Now visibly angered, he grabbed her shoulder to force her to get up.  She stopped everything in Compton’s when she let out an ear-splitting scream, while at the same time throwing her coffee in his face.  For a split second time stopped as everyone looked in disbelief.

     The cop in shock and surprise, throwing his hands up to his face stumbled backwards over a chair, tripped, and fell.  A tranny sitting at the next table started to get up when the other cop got his club out and swung at her.  A coffee cup was thrown, and another, then a sugar container and other things.  The first cop was scrambling, trying to get up, as a queen swung her purse at him knocking him back down.  The cops outside piling in were met with flying silverware, plates, and napkin holders - it stopped them at the door.  A chair flew through the air smashing a window.  From there it got worse as more cops pulled up - flashing lights, police sirens, and screams louder than the sirens filled the air.  Meanwhile a crowd was building outside.  People from Rossi's arcoss the street were outside as several nearby clubs were emptying onto the street - people began gathering and yelling. 

       During the crucial first few seconds Gary, Tripper Bob, and Phil watched, transfixed by what was happening in front of them.  They were inside, but away from the immediate action.  The skirmish began to spread quickly – and grow.  Gary was holding some balloons and his fit.  Tripper Bob had his balloons, a fit, and his gun.  The two were carrying enough to guarantee them at least a year in the slammer.  Although Phil had nothing on him he knew the thing to do was to be away from there.  Before things got worse they managed to slip out the side door onto Turk street.  As soon as they got outside they saw more windows being smashed.  The people inside were throwing things through the windows at the cops outside.  The three hastily walked up Turk as if there was nothing going on behind them. 

      Half a block away the three glanced over their shoulders briefly and saw a lot of night people in the street around Compton’s.  Phil had seen and been in things like this before in other parts of the city and across the bay.  He knew the difference between a bust and a riot and this wasn’t a bust, this was a riot.  “C’mon guys, let’s head up to Ringside.  This shit’s gonna get a lot worse.  We don’t need to be here.”

     A block later the three stopped and using the excuse of lighting a cigarette, turned to see what was going on.  It was a mess.  More flashing lights and sirens than any of them cared to be around.  There were five or six black and whites, two wagons, and a dozen cops they could see with more on the way.  There were a lot of people on the street yelling - some seemed to be throwing things.  The three continued up Turk, rounding the corner at Leavenworth, heading up to Ringside.  

     On the way up, Gary to Phil, “What the fuck is all that about?  I never seen a queen fight like that and all of them at once.  She hit a fuckin’ cop with her bag and knocked his ass back down.  I saw it, but I don’t believe it.  Queens fighting cops.”  Laughing to himself, “They were fuckin’ up the cops – pretty good too.”

     Phil: “That wasn't a fight.  That's something different.  That was a riot.  I’ve been through things like this here and across the bay.

     Gary with a smug laugh: “You mean like that hippie shit?  This is a bunch of queens.  This isn’t any of that hippie riot shit.”

     “Gary, man, listen, I’m only guessing but that’s what happens when you get a lot of people pissed off.  That wasn’t one queen, that was a lot of queens and it was all about the same thing.  She was pissed off and they all were - they're tired of getting pushed around by cops and everyone else.  That’s how shit gets started – when you got a lot of people, in one place, all pissed off about the same thing.”

     Next night on the corner of Turk and Leavenworth a small group of the Kenny's Upstair's regulars were looking down the street two blocks towards Compton's, watching another angry crowd grow.  Gary, obviously annoyed, to Phil: “Compton’s is all fucked up and the heat’s on all over lower Turk.  They burned down the news stand.  Are they going to do this every fuckin’ night - how long is this shit gonna go on?”

     Phil: “I don’t know, this could go on for a while.  I think there’s something going on, I just don’t know what - but you got a lot of angry people there.  This isn't just a few queens throwing coffee cups.  Last night was a riot and tonight there's a lot of people getting together out there.  If they ever get organized like up in the Haight, or over in Berekely, this is going to be something - this could become a movement.

     Gary shaking his head firmly, “Naw.  Ain’t nothin’ gonna come out of this.  Bunch’a queens gonna get their asses kicked and do some time in the county.  That’s all.  Ain’t shit ever gonna come out of this.”  

     Without knowing it at the time Phil had the prophetic last words in this exchange, “I don’t know Gary, I wouldn’t be too sure . . .”