Yesterday’s Crimes: The White Night Riot at 40

The controversial verdict in the trial of Dan White for the killings of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk sparked off the LGBT revolt that changed San Francisco forever.

On-again, off-again public servant Dan White walked into San Francisco’s City Hall on Nov. 27, 1978 and unloaded his gun into Mayor George Moscone. The ex-cop, ex-fireman and former San Francisco supervisor then reloaded his old police service revolver, strolled across the hall and put five shots into his political rival, Harvey Milk, the “Mayor of the Castro” and most prominent out gay elected official in the country if not the world.

Nearly six months later, a jury that was just as white and working class as the defendant found White guilty only of voluntary manslaughter on Monday, May 21, 1979, just one day shy of what would have been Harvey Milk’s 49th birthday. Anything less than a life sentence for White was unacceptable to the city’s LGBT community, but now Harvey Milk’s assassin was going to be eligible for parole in just five years with good behavior.  

After news of the verdict was broadcast by Bay Area TV stations, LGBT and future AIDS activist Cleve Jones addressed a growing and angry crowd in the Castro through Harvey Milk’s bullhorn.

“Today, Dan White was essentially patted on the back,” Jones said. “He was convicted of manslaughter — what you get for hit-and-run.”

Jones worked for Milk as a student intern and was at City Hall on the day of White’s shooting spree.  Moments after the murder, he stood next to an ashen-hued Dianne Feinstein, who had just become Mayor via assassination. They stared at Milk’s body lying face down in a pool of blood, his brain tissue seeping out of the hole in his skull that Dan White had put there.

At the intersection of Castro and Market on May 21, Jones summoned this sad, gruesome memory. “I saw what Dan White’s bullets did,” Jones told the crowd. “It was not manslaughter, it was murder.”

A crowd of thousands coalesced in the Castro and began marching up Market Street. Chants of “Murder! Murder! Murder!” and even “Kill Dan White!” were punctuated by the percussive tone of the self-defense whistles that gay men carried back then to call for help from attacks by gay bashers and cops who all too often resembled Dan White.

“It was eerie and frightening to see familiar faces so distorted by anger as to be nearly unrecognizable,” Jones recalled in his 2001 memoir Stitching a Revolution: The Making of an Activist. “Everyone wanted blood, wanted revenge.”

Jones intended to lead the marchers to the top of Nob Hill and then down to Union Square, a route gays and lesbians had marched so many times before when Milk was alive, but everyone stopped at Civic Center and went no further. It wasn’t long before rocks started flying from the crowd, forcing a line of riot police guarding City Hall’s Polk Street entrance to take shelter inside the building’s foyer.

Jones used Milk’s bullhorn to try to calm the crowd, but it was taken away from him and passed around. When the bullhorn got Amber Hollibaugh, a feminist lesbian activist with bleached-blond hair, protestors started chanting, “LET HER SPEAK! LET HER SPEAK!”

Maggie Jochild, then with Lesbians Against Police Violence, witnessed the moment.

“I remember being relieved to see a woman climb up on the wide railing beside the stairs and face the crowd,” Jochild recalled in a detailed blog about that night. “She looked to be working class and clear-headed.”

“It’s time we stood up for each other,” Hollibaugh said into the bullhorn. “That’s what Harvey meant to us. He wasn’t some big leader. He was one of us. I don’t think it’s wrong for us to feel like we do. I think we should feel like it more often!”

Every line of her speech was met with cheers and the shrill punch of the whistles. “Tell the truth!” one man yelled.

“Don’t you listen to anybody who tells you you don’t need to fight back,” Hollibaugh continued.

The crowd responded with a prolonged chant of “FIGHT BACK! FIGHT BACK! FIGHT BACK!”

The cheers and chants from the crowd grew so loud that they drowned out the end of what Jochild described as “one hell of a speech.”

“And then all hell broke loose,” Jones recalled, although it’s doubtful that things would have gone down any differently no matter who had that bullhorn.

Protestors tore the ornate brass work from the façade of City Hall’s entrance and used the broken pieces of metal to break the glass windows. Gay men in leather chaps ripped parking meters out of the sidewalk and used them as battering rams, as the police watched from behind doors that couldn’t hold up for much longer.

Liberal Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver—who had also been on Dan White’s hit list—got smacked in the head with either a brick or bottle as she tried to calm the crowd and had to be taken to Saint Francis Hospital. Mayor Feinstein observed the chaos from her ornate second story office as her constituents below pelted her workplace with newly-purchased trash cans and flaming bundles of newspapers. She considered addressing them but decided against it.

“I would have been a lightning rod,” Feinstein later said. She decided to call in for police reinforcements from neighboring counties instead.

At one point a squadron of police riding three-wheeled motorbikes attempted to mount a counter-attack but were met by what Jochild described as gays and lesbians “on the big motorcycles they rode in every Freedom Day Parade.”

“Most of these queers were big, especially the women; most of them had on leather,” Jochild recalled. The queers revved the engines of their big hogs and the police retreated down Grove Street.

“I’ve often wondered if I just imagined this whole episode,” Jochild said. “Fortunately, I had companions with me who saw the same thing.”

Things got more violent after the protestors were joined by angry young men from surrounding neighborhoods who weren’t necessarily gay or even sympathetic to the LGBT cause. By 10:30 p.m., the first of several police cars parked on McAllister Street was torched.

“The flames from the eight burning police cars bathed the City Hall dome in an eerie flickering light and their sirens screamed like dying animals until melting down silenced them one by one,” Jerry Carroll wrote, reporting for the Chronicle.

When police finally emerged from City Hall, “they ran out like hell for revenge” according to journalist Paul Krassner who took some baton shots to the ribs that night that punctured his lung. “The police were running amuck in an orgy of indiscriminate sadism, swinging their clubs wildly,” Krassner recalled.

Police launched canisters of teargas into the crowd, and then a line of riot cops equipped with clubs and plexiglass shields swept through Civic Center Plaza. As protestors fled down Market Street, the police broke ranks to pursue them.

“At times a single demonstrator would find himself isolated, and a group of officers would club him to the ground and handcuff him to await a patrol wagon,” Katy Butler wrote in the Chronicle.

Back in the Castro, cops stormed the massive Elephant Walk bar on the corner of Castro and 18th Streets, beating everyone inside. Jones had made his way back to his neighborhood by this time to see “the shadows of people being knocked down and punched and kicked” in what was Harvey Milk’s favorite bar.

In an uncredited editorial, the Bay Area Reporter, the newspaper of record of the Bay Area’s LGBT community, tried to make sense of what is now known as the White Night Riot: “With the assassination of Harvey Milk, who in the past — time after time — turned angry crowds into peaceful demonstrators, no Gay leader has emerged with enough affection and charisma to turn events around. Hence, to this writer — what happened, happened — perhaps not appropriately, but predictably. The Gay community was pushed too far.”

“To many, the destruction of property was a futile response,” the editorial writer added. “It accomplished nothing. Except, satisfaction.”

The closure of Castro Street for the planned celebration of Harvey Milk’s birthday still took place the next day even though Mayor Feinstein had considered calling in the National Guard. San Francisco’s gays and lesbians weren’t able to take power with their siege on City Hall, but they would never be powerless again.

Related Stories