LGBTQ History

2019 marks the 40th anniversary of the White Night Riot. “He got away with murder!”

A police car burning
Photo: Screen cap

I was not at Stonewall, but I was at San Francisco City Hall ten years later and 3000 mile away when upwards of 5000 people expressed their outrage at the verdict in the trial of Dan White for the murders of Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. Like my memories, the opinions that follow are solely my own.

At Stonewall, they slashed the tires of police cars. On White Night they burned police cars. Twelve of them.

Related: Ian McKellen reciting Harvey Milk’s famous speech will make you proud to be gay

For those unaware of the details behind the murders, the short version is this. In November, 1978, former police officer and former firefighter Dan White had resigned his seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors because it did not pay enough to support his family. Viewed as their only voice on the board, several of his extremely conservative constituents convinced him to rescind his resignation.

Initially, Moscone agreed to let White stay, but several people including Milk convinced him not to. A reporter told White over the telephone before Moscone could.

The next morning, White went to City Hall, crawling through a basement window to avoid the metal detectors that would have detected his police service revolver and extra hollow point bullets, and proceeded upstairs to Moscone’s office where he pleaded to be able to stay on the board.

Moscone said he couldn’t, and White pulled out the .38 and repeatedly shot Moscone, then hurried down the hall until he found Milk, repeatedly shooting him, too. In both cases, he leaned over to fire two coup de grâce shots into each man’s head after the first shots knocked them down.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After turning himself in, an officer he’d served with, Frank Falzon, made an audio recording of his detailed confession in which he cries several times. Falzon believed White’s contention that he was overcome by all of the pressures on him and what he viewed as Moscone’s betrayal orchestrated by Milk and that the shootings weren’t premeditated.

Thousands of people descend on City Hall that night with candles, in shock and mourning. The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus performs publicly for the first time, and Joan Baez leads the crowd in singing “Amazing Grace.”

May 1, 1979, the first-degree murder trial begins. Given his confession, most believe he will easily be found guilty though some are troubled by the prosecution seeking the death penalty. White’s defense counsel argues “diminished capacity.”

Several days into the trial, I attended an evening fundraiser for some gay group at which Moscone’s successor as mayor, Dianne Feinstein, is the guest of honor and watched intrigued as her handsome then-fiance slow-danced with a drag queen as nonchalantly as if he’d been doing it all his life.

But during her remarks, Feinstein, who’d been a prosecution witness having seen White in the hallway office and later discovered Milk’s body, was very somber and seemed to sense some kind of bad verdict but was afraid to say so explicitly.

The well-meaning prosecutor played the audio of White’s confession in court which totally backfired; four jurors were seen tearing up listening to White’s weeping on the tape.Screen cap

Flyers had been circulating for some time, urging everyone to gather in the Castro after the verdict was announced, whenever and whatever it was.

The verdict was made public around 5 p.m. on Monday, May 21st – guilty not of murder but of only voluntary manslaughter; “the intentional and unlawful killing of a human being without malice aforethought.” The jury foreman told reporters, “No one could come up with any evidence that indicated premeditation.”

What part of “snuck into the building through a window with a gun and extra bullets” was impossible to understand?

Two dead men, and White faced a maximum of only eight years in prison. Feinstein’s response? “As far as I’m concerned, these were two murders. This raises the question as to who gets what kind of penalty and why.”

It was still daylight when, after news of the sickening verdict had begun to spread across the city like a fast-moving brush fire, someone – Milk’s aide Cleve Jones as I recall – was gathering people in the Castro with Harvey’s bullhorn. “Out of the bars and into the streets! Out of the bars and into the streets!”

And they came. From the bars and the restaurants and the stores. From side streets and off city buses. A stream of people gathering on Castro Street at 17th in front of Twin Peaks bar and flowing like an ever-expanding down Market Street.

 

Screen cap

Someone was playing a marshaling beat on a snare drum the entire way. Because of gay bashings, it was common then for many SF gays to carry silver police whistles, which, as victim or witness, they’d use effectively to summon help from anyone in earshot. As so much that was spontaneous that night, as they moved under a highway overpass, they suddenly blew those whistles for all they were worth.

Just hearing one whistle can generate a brief, visceral sense of panic, but now hundreds were simultaneously shrieking and wailing, sending chills through me. Disbelief. Grief. Madness. And the sound was magnified and echoed to ear-splitting volume by the concrete of that overpass as we passed through, momentarily drowning out the drum’s cadence.

“HE GOT AWAY WITH MURDER! HE GOT AWAY WITH MURDER!”

The crowd was so huge by the time we were in front of City Hall, filling the huge plaza in front of it, that attempts by various people to be heard through a bullhorn from the mayor’s balcony above the building’s Polk Street entrance were futile. Someone hurled something when Milk’s friend, Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver, was speaking, splitting her lip which would require several stitches.

“WE WANT JUSTICE! WE WANT JUSTICE! WE WANT JUSTICE!”

With no sound system and no plan or even a single human focal point, the crowd struggled with the right way, some way, to effectively express the conflicting raw emotions they were feeling. The building’s glass doors were soon shattered by people who’d ripped off their decorative, gilt wrought iron to use as a weapon.

Night had fallen, and large trash bins on wheels were set on fire and pushed toward the building like burning chariots. Some tried to flip over a police car. At least one parking meter was ripped from the sidewalk and was transformed into a battering ram. 

“NO MORE VIOLENCE! NO MORE VIOLENCE!”

Struggles broke out between some who wanted to burn the building itself and those who didn’t. My roommate, Leonard Matlovich, was punched in the face when he wrenched a large burning paper sign from the hands of the guy who was trying to throw it into the magnificent building. Constructed of various kinds of stone, neither stopped to think that such a puny flame would have done little more than leave a temporary mark on the marble floor.

I could see a group of cops in riot helmets hovering in the shadows inside, ready to stop anyone who might pass through the broken glass. None, as far as I know, did. But at least one Molotov cocktail was thrown through one of the same kind of ground floor windows that White had used to slither into the building six months before on his mission of murder, causing a small fire quickly extinguished.

Screen cap

Several parked police cars were soon set on fire; the bright flames exploding into the darkness. The heat triggered each car’s siren, which blared full blast, at first drowning out the mob’s roar, then slowly winding down, softer and softer and softer like something dying. “Melting. I’m melting.”

The sight and sound further enraged the cops, already seething with anger because they’d been held back most of the night by their chief who feared a bloodbath. (For which he would be fired some months later.) After they were set loose, all but about three dozen of us were driven from the building’s steps. Someone suggested we sit down to create a peaceful buffer zone. I was skeptical but sat down.

But the line of police with their backs to us by then and standing between us and the roaring mass that stretched across the plaza interpreted it as a hostile attempt to “take” the building by sit-in and suddenly turned around and charged us, swinging their billy clubs.

Screen cap

Screen cap

Nearly blinded by TV news camera lights, I was able to move quickly enough to only get a glancing blow on my back and ran deep into the plaza across the street before I stopped after making certain no cops were chasing me

I wanted to stay but far enough away from any others with clubs and tear gas. The plaza now emptied by charging cops of most of the thousands who’d been there minutes before, but at about McAllister and Larkin Streets I suddenly saw a boy, maybe 15, striding almost casually along the row of police cars parked on McAllister (only some of which had thus far been set on fire), using his skateboard like a sledge hammer to smash their windshields.

Was he a gay kid who worshiped Harvey Milk? Was he straight but knew a day of historic injustice when he saw it? Or was he simply someone taking advantage of the surreal, suspended moment to act out something else?

Once it was clear the riot at City Hall had passed, I walked three blocks to Market Street naively expecting to be able to catch a direct city bus back to the Castro. But they’d been rerouted from the spillover of protesters, cops, and tear gas, and I joined a large stream of others returning the same way we’d arrived, on foot, quickly reconnecting with Leonard.

We’d barely stepped into our apartment at the corner of 18th and Castro when red light began bouncing through our bay windows onto our living room ceiling. Looking out, we saw it was from police cars stopping down below which made no sense to us as the streets were back to what they were any typical Monday night, quiet from how few people were out.

But, obviously, something was going on and, not wanting to face them again up close, we went to the flat roof of our building and were suddenly watching a three-ring police riot unfold incomprehensibly four stories below us.

Some were pointlessly marching in formation down the middle of Castro Street. Rogue others were attacking random bystanders with their clubs, whether or not they were among those yelling “Police out of the Castro!”

Others were giving first aid to their fellow officers’ victims. And the grand climax was when several cops burst through the doors of Elephant Walk bar on the opposite corner from our building clubbing queens to its floor mid-cocktail. We watched one of them furiously smash the glass of its beautiful double front doors with his long billy club, serving no purpose but to destroy. (Elephant Walk is now called Harvey’s.)

Michael Bedwell collection

Gay historian John D’Emilio was visiting San Francisco at the time and staying with Jones in the Castro. He’d joined the march to City Hall but left when he began to sense it was turning more violent, never imagining that the violence would flow backward to the Castro.

“The police were marching up the street in lock step, like Nazis I remember thinking, and Cleve and I pulled into his building a young gay guy who had been hit by the police.”

Of all of the images that night, the one that remains most vivid forty years later is that moment when some people, standing in front of Star Pharmacy (now Walgreens) directly across the street from our apartment building, realized it was after midnight and, therefore technically Harvey Milk’s birthday, a celebration of which had been promoted in the previous week’s gay papers.

Suddenly they began to sing, “Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday, dear Harvey. Happy birthday, to you!” while shaking their fists at the police, blood running down their faces.

Did you see the movie Milk but forget that scene? No, because it wasn’t in the movie. Nor was the riot even mentioned; the Einsteins behind the film had their own agenda and including that unique powerful night in our people’s history wasn’t on it.

Individual memories of the riot on May 21st, 1979, in San Francisco will vary as much as those who were in or outside the Stonewall Inn June 28, 1969. But like those in New York, I will never forget it.

Nor will I forget the sight of someone’s blood soaked t-shirt hanging out of a trash can I passed on my way to work the next morning in the exact spot from which those Birthday Rage choruses had risen the night before.

If it had not been for the pacifists bleating like neutered, shorn sheep “We are a gentle loving people” (Baaa Baaa) from the stage set up in front of the Castro Theatre during the previously planned posthumous birthday party for Milk the night after the riot, the rising devastation of AIDS two years later, and the creators of Celluloid Harvey, many others would remember that night, too, and maybe, just maybe, we would not still be seen as such easy targets of hatred and violence.

Maybe, just maybe, if the story of the White Night Riot, of 12 incinerated police cars, hundreds of thousands of dollars in property damage, more than 150 injuries, and dozens of arrests – the story that we are not pathetic weaklings – were told as often as the story of Stonewall – or ever at all – Matthew Shepard and countless others would still be alive, taken neither by others’ hands nor their own such as the late Tyler Clementi whose smirking, unrepentant tormentor got his own mere slap on the wrist on the anniversary of the day Dan White got his.

Historians and politicians will never forget “Watts,” and it, and other acts of rage like it, were one of the main reasons things changed for Black people as quickly as they did after decades of little progress; though there is so much farther to go.

No, I’m not suggesting premeditated violence. Yet Stonewall is mostly just a kick line of “girls, we wear our hair in curls” to the nongay world, an accidental blip in time unimportant to anyone but us, White Night never happened at all – and more than 40 years after its first introduction in Congress the Equality Act remains in a ditch.

Dan White was released from prison after five years. The community buzzed with stories of contracts having been taken out on his life. But he took his own less than two years later – sometime after having finally admitted to his old friend Frank Falzon that he had planned it all and intended to also kill Carol Ruth Silver and State Assemblyman Willie Brown, then himself.

He got away with murder. Two murders. And a handful of tie-dyed ideologues got away with erasing a milestone in our history that could have been at least as big as Stonewall.

The difference being how people used Stonewall as a springboard to a new stage in the movement while White Night became the riot that dare not speak its name.

Marie Osmond says sexual abuse made her think she might be gay

Previous article

A straight Trump supporter accidentally spawned a gay meme

Next article