The San Francisco Bay Times has had many legendary contributors over its lengthy history, including pioneering gay rights activist Cleve Jones, who is listed in even the earliest issues of the paper. Jones worked with Harvey Milk, co-founded the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, conceived the idea of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, and much more. When an advance copy of Jones’ new book When We Rise came to the office, we therefore picked it up in a flash, began to read and literally could not put it down.
His life’s story, told in riveting prose, tracks much of our community’s movement over the past four to five decades. The book vividly reminds that in the 1960s—not so long ago— gay life took place largely underground, hidden from mainstream America in bars, bathhouses, and other gathering places. The advent of the Internet was decades away, and young LGBTQ Americans like Jones had little information and no way to meet. He, like many, grew up alone and isolated. Then, one day in the high school library, he came across a Life magazine article titled “Homosexuals in Revolt!,” and his eyes were opened. A fledgling gay liberation movement was slowly taking root across the country, and its center was San Francisco.
Inspired, Jones joined thousands of dreamers, adventures, and smalltown escapees flocking to San Francisco in the 1970s. He eventually settled in The Castro—then a burgeoning gay neighborhood—where he developed intense friendships, met lovers, and found his life calling in activism. In his memoir, published by Hachette Books and recently released just two days before World AIDS Day, he details the nearly 40 years he has spent at the center of the groundbreaking movement, fighting to give voice to people who, for much of human history, have been silenced.
The book is a witty and uncompromising account of Jones’ remarkable life, which included the heartbreak of losing Milk to an assassin’s bullet. What follows is an excerpt from that emotional chapter:
I got up early on Monday, November 27, because I knew that Harvey’s City Hall aide Anne Kronenberg would be out of town, visiting her parents in Seattle. Dick Pabich, Harvey’s other paid staffer, was planning on leaving City Hall soon to start a political consulting firm with Jim Rivaldo. Harvey had told me that I could have Pabich’s job if I would agree to take at least one class per semester towards my degree. I was eager to show Harvey how useful I could be and arrived at City Hall before him. I wasn’t the only intern; working with me was a baby dyke named Kory White and Debra Jones, a black heterosexual woman who adored Harvey and wanted to help build coalitions between the gay/lesbian community and African Americans. She was also keenly interested in urban planning issues, more so than me.
As it turned out, Harvey was less than impressed with me that morning. I’d left a file in my apartment that he wanted to see. Anticipating a reelection campaign challenge, I’d been doing some research on potential opponents, including Leonard Matlovich and Chuck Morris, publisher of the gay and lesbian newspaper the Sentinel. He frowned when I told him I didn’t have the file and told me to go back to my place on Castro Street and bring it back. He was abrupt, but when he saw my crestfallen face he softened and said, “Take your time, I hear Local 2 is picketing the Patio Café. Say hi to them, get some lunch, and I’ll see you this afternoon.”
The Patio Café was originally a bakery. In the early ’70s it was transformed into the Bakery Café, one of the most lovely and relaxing places to have an espresso and a pastry while reading or studying. Behind the building was a large space covered with lawn and a beautiful garden of hydrangeas, abutilons, foxglove, and fuchsias. The flowers attracted hummingbirds and butterflies that hummed in abundance.
The Bakery Café was sold, and a guy from Germany named Wolfgang took over. He was tall and handsome but I couldn’t stand him and neither could his employees, who approached Local 2 of HERE, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, for help in organizing.
I retrieved the file from my apartment and walked the half block to the Patio Café, grabbed a picket sign, and began walking with the other picketers. I knew a few of them, told them that Harvey sent his regards and got in a conversation with one about the giant ugly deck hat Wolfgang had built over the beautiful garden area. The flowers and hummingbirds were gone.
After about fifteen minutes the 24‑Divisadero bus drove up and slowed down to stop at 18th Street. A woman I recognized from the Women’s Building yelled at me out of the bus window, “Cleve, it’s on the radio, they shot Mayor Moscone.” I dropped my picket sign and ran to the curb to hail a taxi. As the cab sped down Market Street, I wondered who “they” were. I figured it was either death squads from People’s Temple or the cops.
The driver dropped me off on Van Ness Avenue at the western side of City Hall. I ran in, seeing the police swarming round the mayor’s office on the other side of the building. The cops frightened me and I ran up the stairs. The Board of Supervisors was on the second floor, and each supervisor had a small office opening to a private hallway that ran parallel to the public hallway. There was a passageway that connected the ornate supervisors’ chambers to the reception area and the hall to the individual offices.
Harvey had given me a key to the passageway, and as I let myself in I saw even more police officers running up the stairs. I felt panic in my chest and turned left towards the offices, looking for Harvey, when Dianne Feinstein and an assistant rushed past me. Feinstein’s sleeve and hand were streaked with dark red.
I looked down the hallway and saw Harvey’s feet sticking out from Dan White’s office. I recognized his secondhand wingtip shoes immediately.
Then my memory shifts to slow motion.
I float to the door of White’s office and peer in. There is a cop there, on his knees, turning Harvey’s body over. I see his head roll. I see blood, bits of bone, brain tissue. Harvey’s face is a hideous purple. I feel all the air leave my lungs. My brain freezes. I cannot breathe or think or move. He is dead. I have never seen a dead person before.
I struggle to comprehend, as my mind begins to understand what my eyes are seeing. The only thing I can think is that it is over. It is all over. He was my mentor and friend and he is gone. He was our leader and he is gone. It is over.
We are there for hours, trapped in his little office as they bundle up his body.
People come in. More cops. We find Harvey’s old cassette player and the taped message he had recorded in anticipation of his assassination.
I’d known of the tape and teased him a bit,“Who do you think you are,
Mr. Milk? Dr. King? Malcolm X? I don’t think you’re important enough to be
assassinated.” We press the play button.
And now he is dead and it is all over and we are listening to his voice tell us
that he always knew this is how it would go down.
This is what he expected.
This is what he was willing to do.
This is what had to happen.
And all I can think, all I can say to myself, is, “It’s over. It’s all over.” And then the sun goes down and the people begin to gather.
They come from all over the Bay Area: young and old; black and brown and white; gay and straight; immigrant and native born; men and women and children of all races and backgrounds streaming into Castro Street—Harvey’s street—faces wet with tears, hands clutching candles. Hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands fill the street and begin the long slow march down Market Street to City Hall, a river of candlelight moving in total silence through the center of the city.
Our city and community have never been the same since, but the LGBTQ movement forged ahead. The book chronicles other seemingly unsurmountable challenges, like the advent of HIV/AIDS, which Jones was diagnosed with early on. Luckily he is still very much with us, with the memoir presenting the harrowing, sexy and sometimes hilarious stories of his passionate relationships with friends and lovers during an era defined by electrifying liberation, prejudice, and violence alike.
Jones is still at the center of queer activism. Just a few weeks ago, for example, he gave impassioned speeches at protests in San Francisco following the election of Donald Trump. His life’s work is truly remarkable, and he is far from being done yet. Will there be a sequel to When We Rise? We certainly hope so. In the meantime, do yourself a favor and read this riveting book. Like us, you will probably find yourself picking it up again and again, discovering aspects of your own life in its pages.
Follow Cleve Jones online at www.clevejones.com.