White Night, White Heat

A Lesson in Outrage

Some say that nothing good comes of violence, but the White Night Riots proved otherwise.

On November 27, 1978 there were two murders the entire world heard about. One took the life of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and the other the life of San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk, the nation’s first openly gay elected leader.

Both killings were committed by Dan White, a former city supervisor. In a single murderous rampage, White changed San Francisco forever and produced a kind of rage not seen since the race riots of the ‘60’s.

Dan White was elected supervisor from District 8, one of The City’s old guard neighborhoods, the kind of neighborhood most threatened by the ongoing cultural and political changes of the 70’s. For more than a decade, a continuous influx of hippies, queers and now, punk rockers, had flowed into The City, rubbing shoulders with San Francisco’s traditional Irish-Catholic residents.

White’s connection to the tradition-bound past ran deep. He was a Viet Nam war hero and had served as a member of San Francisco’s police and fire departments, two institutions with a long history of resisting, sometimes violently, San Francisco’s demographic changes, particularly the gay men and lesbians who had moved to The City. By 1977, it was estimated that 25% of The City’s population was gay, bisexual or transgendered. They were not living in the closet.

White’s term in office coincided with that of Harvey Milk, a progressive gay rights leader elected to represent a very different district consisting of the increasingly vocal Castro neighborhood and the counter-cultural Haight-Ashbury. Although they started out allies on some issues, Milk and White became political nemeses, at constant loggerheads on the Board. Milk sought to advance gay rights and other liberal causes while White stood up for staunchly conservative Irish-Catholic values. They were like two knights sent out to do battle in the public square on behalf of diametrically opposed constituencies.

White, a political neophyte who disliked the horse-trading and conflict of politics, eventually resigned from the Board of Supervisors. He later reconsidered and asked Mayor Moscone for his seat back. For political reasons, Milk, supervisor Carol Ruth Silver and state assemblyman Willie Brown convinced Moscone to deny White his seat. In retaliation, on November 27, 1978, White killed Moscone and Milk. He had also planned to kill Silver and Brown.

On a late-May evening in San Francisco, pleasant in that indescribable way The City is pleasant when temperatures are mild and the days sunny and long, I sauntered down Van Ness Avenue. As I passed the Civic Center on my way to Market St., I noticed a large crowd assembled in the Plaza. Out of curiosity, I decided to join it for an impromptu lesson in San Francisco civics. Like any trendy punk rocker of the day — 1979 — I wore a baggy sports coat, tight-fitting pants, Beatle boots and short-cropped hair. Had I known I would be attending a riot, I might have dressed differently.

At the time, I did not know the 5000 or so demonstrators I met in Civic Center Plaza on May 21 had just marched from the Castro District over a mile and a half away after learning a few hours earlier that Dan White had been convicted of manslaughter and given the lightest possible sentence — seven years and eight months, and could be out of jail in as little as four years. I also hadn’t heard that White had won this sentence based on the claim that eating too much sugar in the form of Hostess Twinkies had caused him to kill two beloved public figures.

The outrage of those assembled in front of the Civic Center sprang not only from the minimal sentence given Dan White, but from years of mistreatment at the hands of San Francisco police. To make things worse, some officers had openly celebrated the deaths of Moscone and Milk, congratulated White for his deeds and raised over $100,000 to pay his legal bills.

A brick thrown at supervisor Silver as she stood on a balcony addressing the crowd, striking her flush in the mouth, set events in motion. Silver, a friend and ally of Milk and Moscone, tried to calm the waters and prevent violence, and for that became the first victim of the crowd’s wrath. Former Board of Supervisors president and now mayor pro-tem Diane Feinstein also tried to quell the anger, but people were not interested in consolation. The time for words was over, the time for action near.

Ensuing events come back to me in a collage of scenes and sounds without sequence or order. Demonstrators chanted a chorus of We Want Justice, Kill Dan White and Dump Diane and pumped clenched fists in the air. They ripped gilded ornamental work off wrought iron doors and used it to smash windows and break into the Civic Center building, where they set fires. Several men tore a parking meter out of the ground and used it as a battering ram to smash through the front door and enter the building, where helmeted riot police, held in abeyance by the police chief, awaited them like armed centurions.

At one point, I found myself running from a marauding line of helmeted riot police that appeared from nowhere, their batons outstretched horizontally, chasing people out of Civic Center Plaza and onto Market St. to the south. A wave of terror hit me as I fled the police along with other demonstrators.

“I’m in a riot,” I thought, incredulously. “How did this happen? How the hell did a skinny punk rock kid get into a fucking riot?”

Hoodlums used the riot as an excuse to unleash random chaos along adjacent streets. They smashed storefronts, overturned newspaper stands and set fire to garbage cans. The air smelled of burning refuse and sirens tore into the night as the scene darkened. Overhead, street lamps dutifully spread their eerie glow over the scene, as they would on any San Francisco evening. The streets turned ominous and frightening.

Because I had retreated to Market St., I could not see that the crowd in Civic Center Plaza, rather than dispersing or running away, stood its ground and fought a pitched battle with the police, resisting their oncoming charges and fighting back with weapons fashioned from metal broken off Muni buses.

As one man ignited the last police car, he shouted to a reporter: “Make sure you put in the paper that I ate too many Twinkies.”

I also missed what became the indelible symbol of the White Night Riots — the torching of police cars parked along McCallister Avenue on the north side of Civic Center Plaza. According to newspaper accounts, a young man smashed the window of a police car, lit a pack of matches and set the upholstery on fire. After a short time, the fuel tank exploded; a dozen more police cars and eight other automobiles were destroyed in a similar manner. The resulting blaze produced a giant wall of fire that rose high into the air, a funeral pyre of automobiles that raged out of control.

As one man ignited the last police car, he shouted to a reporter: “Make sure you put in the paper that I ate too many Twinkies.”

I quickly fled the riot and returned to my home in the Mission District, lucky not to have been hurt or arrested. The next day I found out that after the riot, police had descended on the Castro District and attacked gays on the streets and in a popular bar called the Elephant Walk, calling them “dirty cocksuckers” and “sick faggots.” They taped over the numbers on their badges to avoid identification. To stop the attacks, San Francisco Police Chief Charles Gain had to personally go to the Castro and order his men to leave.

The riots ended with at least 61 police officers and over a hundred gays hospitalized. No one was ever held responsible for ordering the attack on the Elephant Walk bar, although The City paid out a large monetary settlement for the damages and injuries it caused.

Some say that nothing good comes of violence, but the White Night Riots proved otherwise. In the aftermath of the riots, gay leaders emphatically refused to condemn the destruction, including the burning of police cars. Instead they defended it. “We are reacting with anger because we are angry,” supervisor Harry Britt, Milk’s replacement, said on the night of the riots.

The unanimous solidarity of The City’s gay leaders, and the combativeness and moxie of the demonstrators (those gays weren’t limp-wristed hair dressers, after all), produced far-reaching changes in San Francisco politics. The gay community gained a new level of influence and there were changes to the police department that included the recruitment of openly gay and lesbian officers.

The riots taught me a lesson I will never forget: Extreme conditions call for an extreme response — yes, including violence. On May 21, 1979, enough was enough, and today the world is a different place because of those who wouldn’t take it anymore.

Extreme conditions call for an extreme response — yes, including violence.

Dan White served a little over four years in Lompoc prison in southern California. He was released in 1985 and returned to San Francisco despite pleas from Mayor Feinstein that he not come back. After setting himself up in a food-vending business, his wife left him and he eventually killed himself with carbon monoxide. Before he died, he confided in a detective friend that he had, in fact, planned the murders of Moscone, Milk, Silver and Brown, contrary to his plea of involuntary manslaughter.

Mayor Feinstein noted his death as long-awaited closure on a profoundly sad chapter in San Francisco history.

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Tony is a freelance technical writer and author of fiction, memoir, journalism and personal essays. You can visit his author website at tonygrocco.com.

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Tony Rocco

Tony Rocco

Tony is a freelance technical writer and author of fiction, memoir, journalism and personal essays. You can visit his author website at tonygrocco.com.

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