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Topics In the News
 
Remembering San Francisco's White Night Riots
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 05/21/13
Last updated on: 05/21/13
 
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On May 21, 1979, after a San Francisco jury returned a verdict of manslaughter against former Supervisor Dan White for the assassination of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk and was sentenced to less than eight years in prison for the killings, the city erupted in violence. The White Night Riots may be the most violent episode in the history of the American gay rights movement.

In 1977, Harvey Milk had been elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, becoming one of the first openly gay politicians to win elective office in the United States. However, Milk's tenure in office was tragically short-lived. On November 27, 1978, after serving on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for only 11 months, Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated by Dan White, a disgruntled former Supervisor who had resigned in opposition to the recent passage of a landmark gay rights ordinance that Milk sponsored and the mayor signed.

When White attempted to rescind his resignation and Moscone, at the urging of Milk and others, refused to allow him to do so, White resolved to kill not only Moscone and Milk but also Supervisor Carol Silver and Assemblyman (later Mayor) Willie Brown.

White crawled in through a basement window at City Hall to avoid the metal detectors; he walked into the Mayor's office and shot Moscone at point-blank range; then he reloaded his gun and walked down the corridor to kill Milk. He surrendered before he could carry out his plan to kill Silver and Brown.

Milk's fate at the hands of an assassin was not entirely unexpected, given the violence and homophobia that have characterized American politics. Milk himself was haunted by the possibility of assassination. He tape recorded several versions of his political will, which he labeled "to be read in the event of my assassination." One of the tapes included the following statement: "If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door."

White, who had been a police officer before entering politics, was convicted not of premeditated murder, as had been widely expected, but of the lesser crime of manslaughter, the result of what is now referred to as the "twinkie defense." White's attorney argued that the defendant could not be held accountable for his actions due to the amount of junk food he had eaten on the day of the crimes.

When White was sentenced on May 21, 1979 to less than eight years in prison, enraged citizens, sensing a conspiracy, swarmed City Hall in what came to be known as the White Night Riots.

San Francisco suffered more than $1 million in damages to city property, including rows of police cars set on fire by angry protesters. Later that night, the police staged a retaliatory raid on the Castro, where they vandalized gay businesses and beat passers-by on the street.

White served five years of his seven-year sentence at Soledad State Prison. On January 7, 1984, he was transported to Los Angeles, where he spent a year on parole. At the expiration of that year, White, rejecting a plea from Mayor Dianne Feinstein that he not return to San Francisco, moved back to the city. On October 21, 1985, he committed suicide.

The clip below from Rob Epstein's Academy Award-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk presents archival footage of the White Night Riots.

 
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