Spurred by Trey Speegle’s thoughts on World of Wonder friend, writer Kevin Sessums’ reflections on violent uprisings in America, this writer is brought back to The White Night Riots 41 years ago.
On May 21, 1979, inside a jury room in San Francisco, 12 people had been deliberating whether to find former City Supervisor Dan White guilty of murdering Mayor George Moscone and openly gay City Supervisor Harvey Milk on the morning of November 27, 1978. White’s attorney mounted what became famously known as the “Twinkie Defense”, arguing that White had temporarily gone murderously nutty because of the sugary snacks he had consumed.
The jury rendered its verdict, finding White guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter, saving him from getting the death sentence.
The pain and shock over the assassinations of the pair of beloved progressive politicians was still simmering, and the LGBTQ residents, as well as straight friends and allies, were angered and outraged by the outcome of White’s murder trial.
Thousands of people descended on The Castro to take part in a planned march to the Civic Center, where another large crowd had already gathered to protest the jury’s decision.
As evening came, emotions boiled over and the crowd surged the building, smashing windows, trying to break through the front doors of the courthouse. A line of police cars parked nearby were set on fire, sending smoke and fire into the night sky.
In retaliation, the police raided Elephant Walk, a gay bar in the heart of The Castro. The culmination of these events became known as the White Night Riots. It took decades before the chasm between police and the city’s LGBTQ community could be repaired to any degree.
Not all the protesters were part of the mayhem. A line of people had locked arms in front of City Hall in an attempt to hold back the crowd from doing further damage to the building. The events marked the last time that San Francisco’s gay citizens would be afraid to stand up and fight for their rights.
State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, then a public school teacher, took part in the events of that night:
“We were in no mood. This guy had killed a hero of ours and a friend of ours and he got treated like he had shoplifted. Dan White was a former cop and he got away with murder. In a strange way I am grateful that when the verdict came out people were not just silent. I am glad we were so vocal. I just thought it taught us you cannot be too docile. You really do have to be strong.“
Mark Leno, an openly gay man who served in the California State Senate until 2016:
“The White Night Riots were the culmination of many changes that were impacting the city at that time. It was as if it all came to a head through the outrage of the injustice of Dan White’s sentence. It was a jolt to the civic fabric as if we had to experience all of that to be able to move forward to become the city that we have become today. The experience I had at that time continues to inform my public office today. That we have had to fight for every right that we have gained and we have had to be vigilant every step of the way so as not to ever lose anything we have again.“
The next morning gay leaders convened in a committee room in the Civic Center. Openly gay City Supervisor Harry Britt, who had replaced Milk made it clear that nobody was going to apologize for the riots. Britt:
“Harvey Milk’s people do not have anything to apologize for. Now the society is going to have to deal with us not as nice little fairies who have hairdressing salons, but as people capable of violence. We’re not going to put up with Dan Whites anymore.“
The next day, May 22, would have been the 49th birthday of Harvey Milk. San Francisco city officials had considered revoking the permit for a rally planned for that night, but decided against, fearing that it could sparking more violence. Officials stated that the rally could channel the community’s anger into something positive. Police were placed on alert by Mayor Diane Feinstein, and my hero Cleve Jones worked on contingency plans with the police department. More than 20,000 people gathered on Castro and Market Streets. The crowd created a peaceful celebration of Milk’s life. They danced to disco, drank beer, and sang a tribute to Milk.
Five months later, on October 14, 1979, more than 100,000 people marched in a Gay Rights On Washington DC event. Many marchers carried portraits of Milk. The rally, an event that Milk had helped to organize, became a tribute to his life.