On November 27, 1978, Dan White, a former police officer and city attendant, broke into San Francisco City Hall with a loaded revolver. He dodged metal detectors, snuck through a basement window and shot Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk, San Francisco’s first openly gay elected officials, in their offices. Weeks earlier, the mayor had refused to reinstate White as town overseer after resigning from his position. Milch was among those who supported the mayor’s election. Hours after the shootings, White turned himself in to the police and confessed to his crimes. What seemed like an open murder case, however, turned out to be anything but.
1. Dan White’s trial will forever be known for the “Twinkie Defense”.
During the trial of Dan White, his legal team had to convince the jury that their client was not a cold-blooded murderer, but a man who was suffering from decreased capacity due to persistent depression. Among the evidence they used to illustrate that White was out of his mind during the murders, included the fact that he had recently given up on his normally healthy lifestyle in favor of sugary junk food and soda. To give credibility to these claims, the defense even called in psychiatrist Dr. Martin Blinder to discuss how, among other things, White’s sudden ingestion of candy was clearly a sign of a depressed man. (He also brought up White’s strained marriage and unkempt beard.)
Reporters covering the process would coin the term Twinkie defense to describe the unique strategy, but despite its fancy nickname, it was enough to influence the jury after six days of deliberation. Today “Twinkie Defense” entered legal dictionary history as a derogatory term for an unlikely legal defense. (In reality, Twinkies weren’t even raised during the trial, and the murders were never charged directly on junk food itself.)
2. The police openly supported Dan White’s cause.
Dan White, the former policeman, turned himself in to an old friend in the department a few hours after the murders. Soon, members of the city police and fire department helped raise over $ 100,000 to defend White, and in the weeks and months leading up to the trial, many officers were seen openly wearing Free Dan White T-shirts.
3. The White Night Riots began as a peaceful march on Castro Street.
Many members of the city’s gay community were furious when the verdict was pronounced, and that night a spontaneous crowd gathered in San Francisco’s Castro District to begin a non-violent protest march. Gay and lesbian activists raised their fists and went ahead and sang, “No justice, no peace!” All over the district. Originally 500 people began the march, but that number would soon rise to 1,500 as the crowd moved through the city.
4. Famous activists including Cleve Jones and feminist Amber Hollibaugh spoke at the protest.
Harvey Milk’s friend Cleve Jones spoke to a crowd on Castro Street using Milk’s own megaphone. Angry, he denounced White’s beliefs and said, “I saw what those bullets did. It wasn’t manslaughter, it was murder. “
When the protesters reached City Hall, feminist and lesbian activist Amber Hollibaugh climbed onto the railing and delivered a speech to the ever-growing crowd. She yelled, “It’s time we stood up for one another. That’s what Harvey meant to us. He wasn’t a great leader. He was one of us. I don’t think it’s wrong for us to feel like us. I think we should feel like it more often! “
In the years following the protests, Jones and Hollibaugh would continue to be vocal activists in the LGBTQ community. In 1987 Jones became one of the creators of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, a handcrafted quilt made from more than 50,000 plaques commemorating the lives of over 105,000 people who died of AIDS-related diseases. It remains the community’s largest folk art project in the world. And Hollibaugh founded Queer Suvival Economics (QSE) in 2014, a project that explores the intersection of sexuality, poverty, homelessness, work and the criminalization of survival.
5. Chaos broke out when the crowd reached City Hall.
By the time the protesters reached City Hall, they had drawn 5,000 people, and the peaceful march soon turned into a full-fledged riot. Mourning and angry protesters broke town hall windows and bars, set fire to police cars, threw stones down at police officers and tore parking meters from sidewalks, injuring 59 officers and 124 protesters in three hours. The White Night Riots remains one of the most violent protests in San Francisco, and it is estimated that the cost of damage is $ 1 million.
6. Some police officers covered their badges with black tape during the riot.
When the police arrived on site, they were ordered to hold back the crowd. However, many officials started attacking protesters with night sticks, and some even covered their badges with black tape during the chaos. Protesters tore off branches to use them as protection against the police armed with clubs and protective shields. After three hours of violence, police used tear gas to stop the demonstrators. The FBI later investigated the use of force by the police, but no officers were ever reprimanded.
7. Rogue cops retaliated by raiding the Castro District, San Francisco’s “gay Mecca”.
After the town hall was destroyed, some rogue police made their way to the Castro district, an area known for its large gay community. Harvey Milk was an admired public figure throughout the district and was even called the “Mayor of Castro Street.” One of his favorite spots was the Elephant Walk Bar, a safe place for people who otherwise wouldn’t be welcome in straight bars.
During the White Night riot, a crowd stormed into the bar to seek shelter, but police stormed in and razed the property. Officials beat and injured people inside, crashed into bar stools and broke windows while shouting anti-gay slurs. When former police inspector Jack Webb asked why officials poured into the Castro when it was quiet and non-violent, the police captain allegedly replied, “We lost the battle at City Hall. We will not lose this one. “
In 1995, 16 years after the riots and a fire that destroyed almost the entire building in 1988, the Elephant Walk Bar reopened under a new name: Harvey’s. You can still find it on 500 Castro Street.
8. Flyers were plastered all over Castro Street warning protesters not to speak up.
Days after the riot, leaflets appeared around the Castro, warning neighbors to keep quiet for fear of persecution by the law. The flyers read: “Our defense against the police is one another, our strength is our silence.” The lingering distrust of the gay community was so great that the flyers even prevented people from working with law enforcement to obtain information about the Elephant Walk attack.
9. The day after the White Night riot, it would have been Harvey Milk’s 49th birthday.
The day after the riots, May 22, would have been Harvey Milk’s birthday, and an estimated 20,000 Franciscans gathered peacefully to celebrate and honor his legacy. This event had been organized months before the riots, but in light of the protests, the organizers came with community “gay monitors” wearing shirts that said “PLEASE! No violence ”printed on it. The community controlled itself when Mayor Dianne Feinstein ordered the police not to enter the immediate area. The “noisy and sometimes drunk” celebration of Milks life was a complete turnaround from the night before. “Last night gay men and lesbian women showed the world that we were angry and on the move,” Cleve Jones said at the gathering. “Tonight we’re going to show them that we’re building a strong community.”
10. The 2008 film, based on Harvey Milk’s life and murder, omitted any mention of the White Night Riots.
The biographical film is directed by Gus Van Sant milk describes the life of Harvey Milk and focuses on his emerging political career as a trailblazer for gay rights. But the film ends abruptly when Dan White shoots Milk and Mayor Moscone with a final shot of a candlelight vigil in San Francisco. The omission of the violence that raged the city on May 21 also omits the legacy of Harvey Milk, which sparked an aggressive struggle for gay rights on the west coast. In 2017, however, Van Sant recreated the riots as a producer of the miniseries When we get up, which chronicles the most important events in recent LGBT history.