Today in San Francisco History

(Disclosure:  This post appears in slightly different form on a private social media page.)


Today, May 21, is the fortieth anniversary of the Dan White verdict and “White Night” riots which occurred in the S.F. Civic Center and Castro District.

People still debate whether the riots had a positive long-term effect on LGBT rights. I say they didn’t, and shouldn’t have happened in the first place. The far-out nature of the verdict made a violent public reaction likely, though, so no one should have been surprised. Dan White’s crime was viewed as homophobic, and San Francisco’s “gay community” (which was the usual blanket term used at the time) had surpassed the limit for trauma and frustration.

In fairness, we should recognize that the shootings weren’t exclusively homophobic acts. Mayor George Moscone was killed first, and he was openly heterosexual.

The speculation that the crimes were anti-gay — the word “homophobic” was unheard of then — began because Harvey Milk was also killed. Although Dan White was a homophobe (he was the only Supervisor to vote against the citywide ordinance protecting gay people in employment and accommodations), he had a recent workplace dispute with Harvey Milk which was associated with the conflict he had with the Mayor.

Dan White had resigned from the Board after less than one year of service, with the explanation that he couldn’t support his family on the below-$10,000-a-year salary which was the norm in 1978.

Soon after, White’s family volunteered to give Dan and Mary Ann White money to offset the financial drain. That was when White asked Mayor Moscone to reappoint him to office.

Harvey Milk asked the Mayor not to reappoint White. His reasons were an apparent combination of political conflict with White and suspicion that White was on the verge of melting down and getting violent.

For the record, the Voluntary Manslaughter verdict was crap. White was convicted of two counts of that crime after it was well-documented that he had climbed through a window at City Hall (bypassing the metal detectors) with a handgun and extra ammunition. He shot two people — each repeatedly — in separate offices, reloading his gun between crimes.

The charges against former Supervisor White were two counts of First Degree (premeditated) Murder, and then-District Attorney Joe Freitas was asking for the death penalty. An Assistant D.A. prosecuted, and White was defended by Douglas Schmidt.

At the time, Mr. Schmidt was noted for successfully protecting a defendant in the 1977 Golden Dragon restaurant mass shooting from the death penalty. After the White trial, he was noted for securing a shockingly light verdict for Dan White.

The verdict appeared to be prompted by jury sympathy for the defendant, a new father who had worked as a firefighter and a police officer in San Francisco before running for the Board of Supervisors. His facial features also made him resemble a teenager, which many people commented on. He was thirty-two at the time of the City Hall shootings.

I understand the so-called Twinkie Defense that was criticized after the verdict was overstated in news commentaries. Although Douglas Schmidt had called attention to White’s junk food addiction, the “diminished capacity” (not insanity) defense centered on mental illness and not diet.

While people still argue whether the riot in the Civic Center was a good thing (as well as whether it was actually instigated by LGBT people), changes were made as a result of anger over the verdict. Joe Freitas was defeated for re-election, and legislative action removed diminished mental capacity from the approved list of criminal defenses in California. There was also a change in S.F.P.D. Administration, described below.

Although there were a large number of angry LGBT people in the crowd during the riot in the Civic Center, it should be noted that when things got violent in the Castro later that night the aggressors were police officers who ignored S.F.P.D. Chief Charles Gain’s orders not to leave their posts in the Civic Center. Those officers drove to the neighborhood to trash the Elephant Walk Bar at 18th & Castro (where Harvey’s is now), and beat the shit out of people.

Chief Gain was forced to resign by then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein, after the S.F.P.D. officers’ union, known as the Police Officers’ Association (P.O.A.), demanded that he be removed. Between May 21 and Chief Gain’s resignation days later, marked patrol cars — which were painted light blue — had illegal bumper stickers with the pun YOUR LOSS IS OUR GAIN. He was replaced by Cornelius Murphy, who ordered the patrol cars repainted black-and-white.

Earlier today I looked at some Twitter posts referring to the events in S.F. forty years ago. After scrolling down and finding historical or technical inaccuracies with every one I saw, I gave up.

Anyone with a ten year-old’s knowledge of how the criminal court system works should be aware of the distinction between a verdict and a sentence. White was convicted on May 21, 1979. He was sentenced later. Many of the Twitter posts I saw today said the so-called White Night Riots were prompted by the defendant’s sentence. Wrong.

When I was younger, I had no idea how badly the average person could screw up a historical account. Now I’m seeing a lot of that, and it’s getting me worried.

Maybe it’s time to turn off the television and read some decent books.

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