Rename it John Barbagelata Elementary after the lone hero who stood up to a murderous Communist cult
Last month the San Francisco Board of Education (SFBOE) made a splash with their decree to rename 44 of its schools, including those celebrating presidents Washington and Lincoln, but now, after a round or two of ridicule and a lawsuit, it looks like the the renaming affair is going to fizzle out. At first SFBOE conceded that they should have consulted experts, and now they’ve promised to vote on the issue again once students return to school full time.
I’m saddened by this about-face because some of the schools should be rechristened. In case the Board revisits its decision, I want to draw its attention to several dead white males whose lifetime achievement is worthy of celebrating and who have biographic connection to the Golden Gate City.
For starters, why is there a Diane Feinstein Elementary? As Dolly Parton knows, it’s tacky to name landmarks after the living, and the octogenarian Senior Senator from California is ostensibly still alive. Instead of her, the School Board can be honoring Mark Twain, one of the founders of American literature who worked as a journalist in San Francisco in the 1860’s. Children around world read his novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Prince and the Pauper, but American kids are alienated from their own cultural heritage because we, adults, fail to teach it. Dedicating a school to Twain would be a small step in the right direction.
Another San Francisco school that’s crying out for renaming is the Harvey Milk Elementary. Yes, there is an elementary school in San Francisco named after the member of San Francisco Board of Supervisors who was romantically involved with a string of troubled teens. One of Milk’s young lovers, Jack Lira, committed suicide while living with the aspiring First Gay Mayor. Milk was nonplussed. In Cult City, Daniel J. Flynn notes that in a few short weeks after the death, Milk moved a new lover into the apartment where Lira took his life.
Milk, of course, was no children’s rights advocate. As families were fleeing the pre-AIDS San Francisco, then Supervisor Diane Feinstein raised a stink about exhibitionists taking over the city and proposed confining porn stores to designated areas. Milk campaigned against her solution which in his opinion was “something out of the 50’s,” and “19th century moralistic.” The horror!
Milk’s celebrated activist career and short tenure on the Board of Supervisors are highly controversial.
He was an early practitioner of canceling, with his targets being the anti-gay crusaders John Briggs, and Anita Bryant. The Jewish radical frequently used Holocaust analogies to evoke a sense of urgency behind the gay rights movement.
Shortly after being elected, the shifty politician became the target of an FBI investigation for embezzling funds dedicated for a Pride center. He was murdered by Dan White, the mentally unstable former ally on the Board of Supervisors who felt betrayed by Milk and by the mayor George Moscone. Although Moscone was White’s main target, he made the otherwise inconsequential Milk into a gay legend.
Milk’s most significant transgression was not his carnal drives nor his questionable activist tactics, but his allyship with the notorious People’s Temple cult. The cult’s charismatic leader Jim Jones was a communist swindler who, while posing as a priest, amassed a thousands-strong following, mostly among black people, by faking healings and promising heaven on Earth. The drug-addled preacher endeared himself to San Francisco’s political machine before fleeing to Guyana and ordering a “revolutionary” mass suicide of 918 people.
According to San Francisco historian David Talbot, Jones was cozy with the entire Democrat establishment and enjoyed especially strong support from the Governor Jerry Brown and Milk. In Season of the Witch, Talbot argued that, like all other local politicos, Milk knew that Jones was a creep, but still cynically courted his favors. Flynn, however, speculates that Milk might have genuinely enjoyed worshiping at People’s Temple, where members of all races, and sexual orientations attended services—a very progressive San Francisco kind of utopian idea. Consequently, the Supervisor stood by its charismatic leader even after the news of the massacre in Guyana reached home.
Jones was useful because he was in command of thousands of obedient souls who can be counted on to show up at a city hall meeting or to knock on the doors campaigning. The only politician in San Francisco not under the cult leader’s control was the winner of the 1975 mayoral election John Barbagelata. Not that Jones didn’t try to bring him into his sphere of influence: he once sent his security guards to offer protection to the sole Republican on the Board of Supervisors. At the time Barbagelata was besieged by terrorist bombings—the groovy 60’s, and 70’s Bay Area was crawling with leftwing terrorists. The Supervisor declined the offer, later joking that the People’s Temple is just as likely to kill him as it is to protect him.
I propose to rename Harvey Milk Elementary after Barbagelata, the anti-Milk. A devout Catholic who banned bottomless dancing in strip clubs, he tapped into the growing wave of reaction of the native San Franciscans to the newcomers who have been invading their city since the late 60’s. He campaigned on a libertarian limited government platform that was truly revolutionary for the city vacillating between the cultish New Left types and conservative trade union Democrats.
Barbagelata pulled ahead in the close contest with the Progressive Democrat George Moscone, but Moscone surpassed him by a few thousand votes at the end of the election night. The following morning the Republican candidate and his supporters alleged that Jim Jones fixed the election for his opponent.
At the time American voters didn’t take kindly to this type of allegations. Today, a majority of Democrats believed that Trump stole the 2016 election and a majority of Republicans think Biden cheated in 2020, but in 1960, Nixon wisely abstained of making a fuss about Kennedy’s reportedly fraudulent claim to the presidency. Barbagelata made a stink that cost him his career.
The District Attorney Joe Freitas, who himself owed his electoral victory to Jones, refused to investigate the allegations of fraud, and Barbagelata appeared as a sore loser. As it turned out, his claims have been independently confirmed by multiple sources. Flynn interviewed the former City Attorney Ken Harrington who remains convinced that Jones stole the 1975 election for the progressive candidates.
Likewise, Temple defectors Wanda Johnson and Kay Henderson alleged that the cult leader bused in his followers from all over California and ordered them to vote illegally in multiple precincts. Henderson further alleged that without her knowledge multiple people were registered to vote at her address. Talbot recorded the testimony of Jones’s adopted son Jim Jones Jr. who confirmed that the busing took place. In Jones’s opinion, and I’m not sure that Talbot disagrees with it, it was all worth it because Jim Jones was on the right side of history. It’s a very San Francisco kind of judgement, actually.
After the Jonestown massacre, Talbot tells us, city officials decided to enter the vault where the 1975 election records were kept, and found it empty. Eyewitness testimony about fraud is all we have.
Before exiting politics, the brave, and unswerving Barbagelata was the lone voice opposing Jim Jones in the city government. He took note of the foster children that the Temple kidnapped and whisked off to Guyana and made inquiries about them. He continuously sounded the alarm about the “radical takeover” of City Hall. For that, the Marxist sect bombarded him with threatening letters. Shortly before retirement, Barbagelata warned, “In the next few months, the people are going to go through an emotional experience when they find out who’s running the city.” He might have looked like a crank at the time, but, boy, was he right.
Instead of honoring an ambitious but deeply flawed politico who happened to be gay, we can right a historic wrong and teach students about the lone hero who stood up to a murderous Communist cult penetrating deep into city government. Locals don’t like talking about it, but San Francisco’s political machine was built on the bones of the Jonestown victims, most of them black.
Additionally, if San Francisco wants to rename another school, it can consider Caesar Chavez Elementary. Not because Chavez, like all union leaders, was opposed to illegal immigration, but because he was a minor political figure, and the city needs to break its obsession with minor political figures. And with politics in general.
For a place that imagines itself as some sort of hub of the Age of the Aquarius creativity, San Francisco has not much in the way of artistic activity to show.
To live up to its aspirations, the Board of Education can highlight Wayne Thiebaud, the midcentury artist who was Pop Art before Andy Warhol, and who spent part of his career painting spell-bounding landscapes of the City on Seven Hills. Students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds will find his work depicting yummy cakes and smoothies delightful. Food is a great unifier, and in the Bay Area, it’s the only unifier that remains.DONATE
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