On a November morning in 1978, former San Francisco supervisor Dan White snuck past metal detectors at San Francisco City Hall and assassinated his colleagues, mayor George Moscone and supervisor Harvey Milk.
That historical violence might give one an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu in the present, upon hearing that Republican lawmakers want to bring guns into the U.S. Capitol — which is why it’s an important time to look back at what happened in San Francisco in 1978, to see if there are any lessons for today. What happens when powerful bigots don’t get their way, and don’t think they’ll ever have to face consequences for their actions?
We know Harvey Milk now as a radical queer leader in San Francisco in the 1970s — but before that, he was just a guy who owned a camera store and was popular among his neighbors.
As a resident of the Castro district, Milk was frustrated that the growing queer population didn’t have a voice at City Hall. He ran for office several times, but kept losing — in part because because the city held “at large” elections, in which the entire city picked its leaders on one ballot, rather than each neighborhood choosing their own person.
That allowed the city’s long-time majority — straight white men — to control City Hall. A gay candidate didn’t stand a chance.
Until 1977, when the city switched to district elections. Suddenly, the Castro got to choose their own candidate, and they elected Milk in a landslide.
That also meant big wins for other minorities who’d had been shut out, creating the most diverse Board of Supervisors in history. The first self-described women’s rights advocate, the first Chinese-American supervisor, the first Black woman — and then there was Dan White.
White was a former cop, who was elected with strong support from the local police union. His district was described by the New York Times as largely white, middle-class and “hostile to the homosexual community.” He ran as a defender of family and religious life against homosexuals, and pledged to take the city back from “radicals, social deviates, and incorrigibles.” He told his followers that there were “thousands of frustrated angry people such as yourselves waiting to unleash a fury that will eradicate the malignancies which blight our beautiful city.”
That intensity sounds a lot like the rhetoric we hear from the right today.
Milk, in contrast, said that almost everything he did, he did with an eye to the gay movement. So as you can imagine, White and Milk clashed on some issues.
White quickly ran into trouble in office. Despite being the voice for those who wanted to “unleash a fury,” White himself got frustrated in his job and, after less than a year, resigned. He said he didn’t like city hall politics and that he wasn’t getting paid enough.
But then a few days after he resigned, he changed his mind, and asked for his job back. The mayor ultimately declined, so White took matters into his own hands.
The morning that Mayor Moscone was scheduled to announce White’s replacement, White slipped a revolver into his pocket along with ten bullets. City Hall had just installed metal detectors, so he didn’t go through the main entrance. He slipped around to the side and climbed in through a window, so he could bring the gun with him.
He went to the mayor’s office first — White pleaded with Moscone for his job one last time, they argued, and White shot him. Then Dan went to Milk’s office, invited him to meet in private, and assassinated him, too. White then drove to the police station where he used to work and turned himself in.
Milk’s body was found by the president of the board of supervisors — Diane Feinstein.
During his trial, White had the full support of the police department. According to The Mayor of Castro Street, Randy Shilts’ exhaustive book about Milk, cops even fundraised about $100,000 for his defense, and wore shirts that read “Free Dan White.”
White, enlisting the “twinkie defense,” was nonetheless found guilty. But he was only sentenced to a few years.
We think of San Francisco as a friendly city for queer people, but that was certainly not the case back then, when queer people were only just starting to gain a little bit of respect and political power. The old guard — the straight white male machine that was used to running the city until that election — didn’t like what was changing.
Back in the present, the U.S. Capitol decided to start requiring lawmakers to walk through metal detectors, just like everyone else who visits the Capitol, following a violent attempt by right-wing extremists to take over Congress. Those extremists were encouraged by conservative politicians who told their followers that their power was being taken away.
Now, how are those conservative politicians responding to the metal detectors? By refusing to go through them, refusing to submit to police officer inspection, and flaunting safety regulations after promising to bring guns into the capitol.
This sounds a lot like a story we’ve heard before. Let’s hope it doesn’t end the same way.