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The Guns of August
Barbara W. Tuchman, Robert K. Massie

The Zebra Murders: A Season of Killing, Racial Madness, and Civil Rights

The Zebra Murders: A Season of Killing, Racial Madness, and Civil Rights - Prentice Earl Sanders, Bennett Cohen No terror seemed more biblical, however, than Zebra. It was like Revelation 11:8 come to life: “Dead bodies shall lie in the street of the great city.”

Terror without end.


Terrorists killing citizens in a great American city.

Islamic terrorists killing US citizens at random in San Francisco

Black Islamic terrorists killing white US citizens at random in SF over a 6 month period

Nation of Islam terrorists shoot or hack to death with machetes – at least 15 dead, 6 wounded—all white

Add in a racist white SFPD trying to defend its’ historical prerogatives against minority challenges.

Plus two black homicide detectives (the only two in the SFPD) go all out to help solve the killings.

And the same two black detectives are suing the SFPD to end discrimination in hiring and promotions

The world is going crazy all-around. Arab terrorists hijacking planes, attacking airport terminals; IRA terrorists setting bombs in London, attacking the royal family; Yom Kippur War in the Middle East; US VP resigning for tax evasion; US president’s closest advisors indicted; Vietnam War ending in defeat; Patty Hearst kidnapped by terrorist SLA; Black Panthers ; Black Liberation Army; Weather Underground bombings… Got your attention yet?

[b:The Zebra Murders: A Season of Killing, Racial Madness, and Civil Rights|157258|The Zebra Murders A Season of Killing, Racial Madness, and Civil Rights|Prentice Earl Sanders|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1348786526s/157258.jpg|151762] is a true story, a crazy tale in a crazy time. Honestly, I thought the book would just be a cheesy true-crime tale. It was so much more. I had never heard of this terrorist killing spree…40 years ago a small group of Nation of Islam followers tried to start a race war by randomly killing whites in San Francisco. This book tells that story but also a parallel story of two brave, black homicide detectives –Prentice Earl Sanders and Rotea Gilford--who simultaneously try to solve the crimes while being party to a lawsuit against the SFPD to end racial discrimination. This book covers the racial tensions in the SFPD and how it impacts the investigating process as the inevitable conflicts occur.

If you are familiar with the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s in the US, then you will appreciate this book. If you aren’t familiar with the times, this book will give you a small window into the times.

So many interesting aspects to the case and the times. The Nation of Islam is suspected early on but they have First Amendment protections, the police are constrained in what they can look at. At the same time, the FBI’s COINTELPRO has come to light, making investigation more difficult. The membership is tightly controlled and they do not talk. The killers do not ever claim credit or make statements. However, the killers are visible at the killing sites so everyone knows the racial makeup of who is killing who. The simultaneous terrorism of the Symbionese Liberation Army, SLA, is thought to be part of the same events for a time.

Mayor Joseph Alioto, (D), was running for governor of California (against Jerry Brown). This chaos in San Francisco is a drag on his campaign—but he also has concern for his citizens. He wants action on the Zebra killings and he wants it NOW! He signs off on a police operation to flood the African-American and mixed sections of the city with law enforcement. Racial profiling is the order of the day:

Thursday, April 18, was to be the first night of Joseph Alioto’s Zebra sweeps. The department issued a vague array of criteria by which to stop men who were loosely being termed “suspects.” They were adult black males, twenty to thirty years old, although they could be older than thirty. They were anywhere from five-nine to six feet. They were of slender to medium build. They “may” have a small mustache on their upper lip, although it was also noted that the mustache “may” extend down the corners of the mouth and therefore not be small at all. In practice, this description would prove so elastic as to provide almost no limit at all to the officers’ discretion, giving the police the license to stop virtually any African-American male they saw.

There was a joke among black cops that the parameters of the sweeps were “eight to eighty, blind, crippled, or crazy.” Sanders was neither blind, nor crippled, nor crazy, but looking in his rearview mirror as he drove, he could see in himself one of the thousands of African-American males who fit the search criteria perfectly.


There is a reason we have the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Sometimes it seems so easy to just disregard those rights in the interest of “public safety”. Sanders and Gilford warned against the searches, to no avail. The Zebra sweeps and stops grow more intrusive and antagonistic:

The tensions of the first night increased dramatically on the second night of the sweeps. As promised by the SFPD brass, even more cops filled the streets, but other promises they made were broken. Chief Scott stated that the officers making stops were interested only in evidence having to do with the Zebra attacks, and that lesser offenses would be ignored. As Sanders recalls, when the sweeps grew, restraint went out the window.

“Cops began to act like they had a license to do anything. Instead of just stopping people and questioning them, they were spread-eagling them against walls and busting them for anything they found: a joint, a pen knife that was too long, even unpaid traffic tickets. It got to the point where Gil and I had to get into it with some of the cops, telling them to back off for fear they’d start something they couldn’t stop.”


The sweeps are stopped by a Federal judge as unconstitutional. But thinking about it, could this same disregard for Constitutional rights happen today? You only have to look at the question of whether the police actions taken in Waterford, MA after the Boston bombing crossed a line or not.

I do have a couple of criticisms. Most important, there are no notes, references, index or appendices to go back and look at. That is not good. I also thought the backgrounds of the victims are given short shrift. The victims get a very brief introduction before the killers strike. Additionally you don’t learn what happens to any who survived except one.

Despite those criticisms, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.