Burton F. Becker

Piedmont's Police Chief, member of the Ku Klux Klan and San Quentin resident #48814.
Becker Badge.png

...Up against Barnet was the law-and-order candidate Burton F. Becker, who ran on a platform of “Christian morals” and upholding Prohibition. Becker was also a high-ranking member of the Oakland Ku Klux Klan.

The people of Piedmont already knew this; he’d publicly declared his affiliation while serving as their chief of police. In that role, he appointed Klansmen to the under-sheriff and city jailor positions. Faced with a choice between a murder suspect (or, at least, an adulterer) and a Klansman, Alameda County voters handily elected Becker.

If there is any happy ending, it’s this: Becker’s career ended in a jail cell in San Quentin. As sheriff, he became the head of a massive bootlegging operation. His deputies took protection money from still operators throughout rural Alameda County, and bootleggers who wouldn’t pay up were raided. In this way, Becker was able to centralize liquor production among his chosen, paying partners. He also paid men to inform him of impending federal raids.

Then-Alameda County District Attorney Earl Warren got wind of the scheme and launched an investigation. The scale of Becker’s racket was staggering. Warren found 150 officers in the Oakland Police Department alone were “dividing $50,000 each month to protect 250 speakeasies.” The scheme was “so well-constructed that police were selling to bootleggers at twice the going rate liquor seized in earlier raids,” Warren biographer Ed Cray wrote. “Some bootleggers were simply ransoming their own stock.”

After years of investigating, Warren finally hit Becker with multiple corruption charges. At the time, the media called the trial "the most sweeping exposé of graft in the history of the country." Becker was convicted, banned from holding public office for the rest of his life and sent to San Quentin.

“No reports have as yet come in of observing the burning of any fiery crosses,” the Sausalito News taunted after his conviction. “Perhaps Klansmen are like many others — for a fellow when he’s a comer, but off him when he loses out.”

From: Katie Dowd,  SFGATE | May 13, 2019

Oakland Tribune - Wed - Jun 4, 1924

To give you an idea of how many Ku Klux Klan members were living in Oakland/Piedmont during the time Sidney moved in, look at the above picture of thousands of KKK members gathered in Oakland's Civic Auditorium at Lake Merritt. Was Burton Becker is in this picture while Police Chief of Piedmont? "The most successful Klan politicians were Burton F. Becker and William H. Parker, Kailiff (vice-president) and Kleopard (lecturer) of Klan No. 9, respectively. Becker was the popular chief of police of Piedmont, and belonged to the Moose, the Modern Woodmen of America, and several Masonic orders. Becker was already publicly identified with the Klan in 1922 when he ran for sheriff, winning over 23,000 votes, or about 34 percent, against longtime incumbent Frank Barnet."

White nativism and urban politics: The 1920s Ku Klux Klan in Oakland, California.

By: RHOMBERG, CHRIS, Journal of American Ethnic History, 02785927, Winter 98, Vol. 17, Issue 2

 

"According to historian Chris Rhomberg's 2004 book No There There: Race, Class, and Political Community in Oakland", a local KKK chapter — Oakland Klan No. 9 — established a headquarters in downtown during the 1920s, and it had at least 2,000 followers. On July 4, 1924, 3,000 of these Klansmen marched through downtown Richmond. And in 1925, about 8,500 of them donned white robes and hoods and held a massive cross-burning ceremony inside the Oakland Auditorium (now known as the Kaiser Convention Center) next to Lake Merritt."

The East Bay Express - The East Bay Still Has Some Very Visible Reminders of Our History of Racism 
It isn't just the South.  By Robert Gammon 2017

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Piedmont Holding KKK Meetings

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According to the 1920 Census, Burton F Becker (Chief of Police, 32 years old) and Fred W Heere (Sgt Of Police, 31 years old) were divorced and living as boarders in Piedmont. Ralph and Mary Staedleron were their hosts on Scenic Avenue while the Census says they worked on Vista Avenue (Vista is where the current city government buildings are located). 

 

Fred Haas was Becker's assistant.

Jahnsen

What I'm going to tell you is that the city of Piedmont had a chief of police named Burton F. Becker, and several other persons. I recall one by the name of Fred--


King

Haase?


Jahnsen

No. Haas. They were associated with the Ku Klux Klan. This Ku Klux Klan group appeared to me to be in a sense vigilantes. I had worked with some of these people during the time I was a federal agent, enforcing the Prohibition laws.

Fred Haas was the fellow I was thinking of. He was later chief of police when Becker became the sheriff. Fred Haas was closely associated with the people in this group.


King

There's a report in some paper I read of a meeting of the Klan in Piedmont, in about 1925.  (The year Sidney finally moved out)

 

Earl Warren Oral History Project - 
Enforcing the Law Against Gambling, Bootlegging, Graft, Fraud, and Subversion, 1922-1942


Oscar J. Jahnsen
Interviews Conducted by
Alice King and Miriam Feingold Stein in 1970

In an Oakland Tribune article on Thursday May 18, 1922 that Burton Becker, then Police Chief of Piedmont and Police Officer RM Beagle of Piedmont vigorously denied they were in the KKK but according to unconfirmed reports their names appeared on rosters. Becker said he had been approached by William McRae but he had never joined and Beagle said he must have been misidentified. 

Fred W Heere

Piedmont's Detective and Police Chief

Piedmont Detective, Fred Heere:
"I believe that Dearing's story is true. I have every reason to believe a third bomb was thrown at Dearing's home, as he told me. However, I am not interested in it."

Oakland Tribune - Sat - Jun 7, 1924

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Fred W Heere was the former doormer living with Burton Becker. When Becker left to become Sheriff on his path to San Quentin, Heere became Police Chief of Piedmont. The Police and Peace Officers Journal of the State of California in 1938 mentions Heere being "particularly informed on radicalism" and has lectured and headed committees to "curb red activities".  

Ejecting Communists - The_Sacramento_Bee

Piedmont Chief of Police, Fred Heere:
"We want sheriffs to have the right to eject Communists from their counties. If each sheriff does this, the agitators and sabotagers will be kept constantly on the move and eventually run out of California. It will be up to other states to pass similar laws."

The Sacramento Bee - Mon - Sep 21, 1936

This is the story the Waterfront Strike mentioned

further down on this page.

Violations of Free Speech and Rights of Labor: Supplementary exhibits

By United States. Congress. Senate. Committee on Education and Labor. Subcommittee on Senate Resolution 266 · 1941

Protecting Piedmont

Piedmont vs _____
"Chinese Labor in Piedmont"
"From the behavior of a small group of children on their early walks to the Junction school one could observe the attitude of rancor and prejudice that permeated the feelings of the general populace toward the Chinese in the 1880's."
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To fact check Evelyn Craig Pattiani, I looked up Mrs. Florence Wing in Piedmont's Census. In 1900, she's listed on 8 Mountain Avenue with Chan Don, a 22 year old Chinese cook, 1910 it is just her and her son Robert at 311 Mountain and she is listed as a widow. In 1920 she is 59 years old and listed as living alone. In 1920 there were 28 Chinese people living in Piedmont as "help", many more than People of Color.

Queen of the Hills: The Story of Piedmont, a California City.  By  Evelyn Craig Pattiani
Academy Library Guild, 1953 - California - 179 pages

Queen of the Hills is Piedmont’s unofficial biography of the 19th and 20th century. It reads as a who’s who blue book brag of Upper Piedmont’s noble residents while changing the narrative of our past by whitewashing some of our more controversial history. The book’s closing line describes Piedmont as a place of “opportunities for greater fame as a town of ideal family life.” It failed to mention those greater opportunities were only ideal if you're apart of the "race restricted" and "caucasian only" ownership class allowed in Piedmont. 

 

This book's exhaustingly detailed directory of Piedmont's grandiose and high society social register was written by Hugh Craig's daughter, Evelyn, in 1953 when she was 79 years old. Hugh was an immigrant from New Zealand, the city's first mayor and one of the first 5 pioneers of Piedmont. According to piedmontexedra.com:  When Craig and his wife settled in Piedmont in 1880 it was a sparsely populated patch of unincorporated forest and farmland. The indigenous Ohlone tribe had been mostly driven out by Spanish missionaries by the early 19th century, or killed by state-sponsored militias after California joined the union in 1850. 

Evelyn was a prominent and privileged Piedmonter, her 170+ pages reflect adoringly on our town's social parties and ostentatious homes. During the time her father was Mayor, the Piedmont Protective League was trying to recall him and her brother, Collin Craig, as city recorder.  On July 12, 1912, The San Francisco Chronicle was questioning the honor of Collin and believed he was pocketing fines from our city's speeding violators. Her father was also known to have a lively set of fists and use them on several occasions while doing business. (Oakland Tribune on Sunday, Aug 6, 1911, Page 27).

 

From cover to cover there is curiously no mention of the infamous Sidney Dearing or the horrible experience he went through here with the KKK Police Chief, 500+ person protest mobs and bombs that could destroy blocks. One would assume if she mentioned “Chinese Labor” and kids who "took fiendish delight in hurling stones and epithets at these unassuming Orientals" that she might haver known about a nationally publicized race war in Piedmont’s lowland. If she knew about it, which one would suspect she did, why did she leave it out of the book?

Piedmont vs Suspicious People

According to the Piedmont Historical Society's publication of the Attic Trunk, Piedmont and our then Chief of Police Fred Heere deputized residents to guard the boarders against "suspicious people" entering the city during the Waterfront Strike of 1934. Homeowners barricaded the city with orange crates and apple boxes nailed together for 10 days and there were no outbreaks of violence in our peaceful city. 

The Reno Gazette Journal on Friday Jul 20, 1934 reported  4 strikers came to Piedmont's barber shop and they were "treated" with night sticks and jailed. Then 4 more came in and were beaten the same way.

Reno Gazette Journal - Fri - Jul 20, 1934

Sundown-Town

“Sundown towns” were a formal expression of the threat of violence to people of color existing in a town after dusk. From the 1890s to 1960s, thousands of towns across the country had designated themselves “white only,” and often had signs announcing that these areas were sundown towns, meaning African Americans, Mexican Americans, Chinese Americans, or other people of color were not allowed in town after the sun went down. Historian James Loewen keeps records of sundown towns, and lists Antioch, San Jose, and San Leandro as “surely” sundown towns, and considers it “probable” that Burlingame, Lafayette, Palo Alto, Mill Valley, Napa, Piedmont, and Ross were too.

Roots, Race, & Place, Extrajudicial and Militia Violence

Piedmont vs Dogs and Hoboes

According to The San Francisco Examiner on Friday, September 30, 1910 a facetious article highlighted our town's notorious fears of plebeians. One can assume the article was metaphorically speaking when mentioning the agonies due to having neither a jail yet nor pound for our proletarian dogs and unkept "Hoboes". One "medical man" of Piedmont suggested hypnotizing the Hoboes and leaving them on the outskirts of town. And for the stray dog problem getting an automatic sausage-making machine.

Piedmont vs. the Black Panthers

Piedmont's Assemblyman introduced the Mulford Act, aka "The Panther Bill"

Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare

Photography and the African American Freedom Struggle

By Leigh Raiford · 2011, Page 161

Piedmont vs. Piedmont

Highlanders vs the Lowlanders

Piedmont's Historical Society

Thoughts from a previous President:

Recently I found myself face to face with the reality of historical ignorance. In January, my wife and I traveled through Vietnam and Cambodia. In Hanoi, our guide (a young woman in her twenties) pointed out the "Hanoi Hilton" where American pilots had been held prisoner. With her wide-eyed innocent look, she described how wonderfully the prisoners had been treated, how they were allowed to have parties on American holidays and how suprised they were to have their money, watches and other personal belongings returned to them when they were released. 

I looked at her and thought, my God, if she believed this and that is what history has recorded for her to read, then the future generations have little hope for history to not be repeated. The need for history to give depth and understanding is paramount to helping direct future actions. 

Our beautiful little town did not just happen, it grew with the sacrifices efforts and commitment of those who had a vision. The need to record that history and share it with all generations will ensure that human growth and development will embrace the values of the past. 

The excellence of our schools did not happen by happenstance. It took vision, commitment, countless volunteers and community support. The excellent government, police, fire, park, and recreation departments are also the result of these commitments. The historical perspective needs to be shared with every child and adult in our community. 

The bottom of the line is that we are a community, and working together with and understanding of the past and a commitment to the future, we can continue to live a life of respect, decency, and happiness in our beautiful town. 

All it will take is for "good men" to act,.

Ralph Marinelly

President of the Piedmont Historical Society

From in The Attic Trunk, Vol 6. No. 1, 2002

©2020 by A resident of Piedmont, California who grew up here and returned to raise our kids. 

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