Thirty four years ago tonight is the anniversary of the Castro’s White Night Riots. The mild nearly Summer, evening exploded in a fit of pent-up rage following the horrific news that Dan White had been convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to only a eight year prison term for shooting down Harvey Milk and George Moscone.
To add insult to injury the conviction happened the day before what would’ve been Harvey’s 49th birthday. What follows is a recounting of that event through quotes, pictures, reports, video and personal amalgamated remembrances of the historic event that followed. The White Night Riots was a turning point in both the Castro’s and the SF LGBT’s community’s history.
May 21st, 1979: The jury had been in deliberations for days. Prosecutors had asked for 1st degree murder with special circumstances that’d carry the death penalty if former SF Supe turned murderer, Dan White, was convicted. People were on edge. The City had been holding its collected breath since the murders of Mayor George Moscone and Milk. Harvey Milk’s election had represented to the local and worldwide LGBT community that equality could be possible when he took the office as an out member of the Board of Supervisors.
In the context of the times that Harvey Milk was elected one needs to understand the climate of the day when it came to Queers. A concerted effort was underway to overturn a new Gay rights ordinance in Miami/Dade County, FL led by the darling of the Far Right, former Miss America, Anita Bryant. Coors brewery openly discriminating against LGBT employees and bragged about it to the press. The Briggs Initiative had just been defeated in CA. that would’ve outlawed LGBT citizen’s from being teachers. It was common place for Gay people to be murdered, beaten, fired, thrown out of apartments, denied hospital visits with lovers, disowned by family, have children ripped from their care, falsely arrested/entrapped, victims of blackmail, forced into institutions or branded insane.
Few public officials championed LGBT causes. The idea of a sitting POTUS being one of our most vocal supporters as is the case today was unimaginable. The post-Stonewall, modern LGBT rights movement was a decade old and while strides had been made, WE, as a people, were still getting our asses handed to us daily on every level.
Harvey’s District 5 (now Dist. 8) win here in San Francisco as a duly appointed Supervisor in one of America’s most beloved cities was huge. Many activists believed it sounded the bell to all who heard it that things were going to change for the better for our people at last. Their beliefs were quickly quashed when Harvey’s victorious stint as Supervisor was cut short by White’s rampage.
“..when White shot Harvey it was if as if he shot us all. When he cut down Moscone-the most pro Gay mayor this Ciity had ever elected-he sent a signal to LGBT allies that they were equally at risk…” -the late Hank Wilson, Activist
Dan White was viewed by many as the golden boy embodiment of the old school, SF politico power structure. He was former SFFD, SFPD and had marketed himself as a ‘normal’ San Franciscan-the City’s last hope to keep it out of the hands of the freaks in his campaign for Supervisor. Now he sat in jail and his attorney had based his defense on White’s low blood sugar and over indulgence in pastries like Twinkies had led him to be imbalanced and temporarily insane at the time of the shooting. The premise was so outlandish a defense that local news reporters had a difficult time keeping a straight face when reporting on the trial.
In the late afternoon of the 21st of May news reached the Castro from City Hall that Dan White had been convicted of voluntary manslaughter not the expected first degree murder and sentenced to eight years in prison. The community’s response was visceral. People were shaken and suddenly the last vestiges of progress that they felt they’d won was stripped away.
”When the news broke, everyone ran to Castro Street. We didn’t have cell phones or computers or time to print posters. It didn’t matter, everyone knew what to do. It was about 5:00pm. By the time the sun went down, Civic Center Plaza was littered with burning police cars, smoke and tear gas filled the air and thousands of furious lesbians and gay men fought the police throughout the city.” -Cleve Jones, Milk Aide, Activist
The community quickly gathered in the Castro. The rage filled the air. Within an hour 500 people amassed, then 1500 as people blocked the intersection of Market and Castro. An impromptu march about the neighborhood led by Cleve Jones, Harvey’s appointed replacement, Harry Britt, and Milk’s now widow, Scott Smith began.