THE ACCUSATION that San Francisco has become a "city of violence," currently being made in this paper and elsewhere, has a lot of back it up. In the past five years alone there have been nine incidents of politically related violence, ranging from shottings to arson to kidnapping to bombings of several types, acts including, in an indirect and amorphous way, the People Temple murders and suicides in Guyana and most recently, the assassination of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. This latest event is telling, for it is specifically former supervisor Dan White's alleged assassination of the two city officials that has called San Francisco to the attention of the phrase-makers. Yet the grounds for analyzing San Francisco as a "city of violence" are grounds the conservative, straight arrow, anti-liberal, hard-nosed Dan White never walked.
There are, nevertheless, definite characteristics and circumstances that one associates with San Francisco, and with California in general, that give rise to thinking of it as a violent place. The space. The leisure. The "perfect" climate. The illusion of infinite possibility, traced back to the first pioneer movements west, and the promise of freedom and riches. The disappointment of such dreams. The inevitable frustrations upon discovery that the riches were not for everyone and that there was no further west to travel. The frontier law of leading with one's fists. And perhaps above all, the attraction to the territory of such settlers who are prone to California dreaming, who may in fact live in dreams, and on whom accordingly the anything-goes atmosphere and the wide-open spaces work havoc.
So you can make a certain kind of case. Yet the danger in doing so, as we relearn too often, is that statements of fact become confused with causalities; and a city of - that is, containing - violence quickly becomes a city that makes violence - no longer simply a city where instances of violence have occurred. The trouble with these cause-and-effect theories is not just that they are more impressionistic than scientific; it is also that all the elements which in retrospect seem to build so solid a case against San Francisco, are precisely those that make a case for it, as a place to live. And who is to say that the quintessentially eastern circumstances and characteristics - the forceful presence of history, the cramped quarters, the extremes of temperature - do not contribute as much to the violent predispositions of some, and to the sudden madnesses of others, as do those elements of the California environment?
At one time or another every city is a city of violence, and in recent history that includes Dallas, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Detroit and the Greater Washington area as well. What we learn from the apparent pattern in San Francisco is how much we don't know.