10 Facts About the White Night Riots
By Kyubin Kim
On November 27, 1978, Dan White, a former police officer and city supervisor, broke into San Francisco City Hall with a loaded revolver. Evading metal detectors, he snuck through a basement window and shot and killed both Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk, San Francisco's first openly gay elected official, in their offices. Weeks earlier, the mayor had refused to reinstate White as city supervisor after he previously resigned from the position; Milk was among those who backed the mayor's choice. Hours after the shootings, White turned himself in to the police and confessed to his crimes. What seemed like an open-and-shut murder case, however, turned out to be anything but.
The city's gay and lesbian population stood aghast on May 21, 1979, as White was convicted of the lesser crime of voluntary manslaughter, which only carried with it a maximum prison sentence of seven years and eight months (White would only serve five years). That night, thousands of enraged protestors showed up at City Hall and engaged in violent clashes with the police over the outcome of the trial. What would later become known as the White Night Riots redefined the relationship San Francisco's gay and lesbian community had with the political structure and law enforcement in the city at the time. Here are some facts that you should know about the White Night Riots, one of the most violent protests in San Francisco history.
1. Dan White's trial will forever be known for the "Twinkie Defense."
During Dan White's trial, his legal team had to convince the jury that their client wasn't a cold-blooded killer but was instead a man suffering from diminished capacity due to ongoing bouts of depression. Among the evidence they used to illustrate that White wasn't in his right mind during the killings was the fact that he had recently given up his normally healthy lifestyle in favor of sugary junk food and soda. To give these claims credibility, the defense even called Dr. Martin Blinder, a psychiatrist, to the stand to talk about how, among other things, White's sudden intake of sweets was clearly a sign of a man depressed. (He also brought up White's strained marriage and unkempt beard.)
Reporters covering the trial would coin the term Twinkie defense to describe the unique strategy, but despite its outlandish nickname, it was enough to sway the jury after six days of deliberation. Today, "Twinkie defense" has been inscribed into law dictionary history as a derogatory label for an improbable legal defense. (Though, in reality, Twinkies weren't even brought up during the trial, and the killings were never blamed directly on junk food itself.)
2. The police openly supported Dan White's cause.
Dan White, the former police officer, turned himself in to an old friend down at the department just a couple of hours after the killings. Soon, members of the city's police and fire departments had helped raise over $100,000 for White's defense and many officers were seen openly wearing “Free Dan White” T-shirts in the weeks and months before the trial.
3. The White Night Riots started off as a peaceful march on Castro Street.
Many within the city's gay community were furious when the verdict was announced, and that night, a crowd of people spontaneously gathered in San Francisco’s Castro District to begin a nonviolent protest march. Gay and lesbian activists raised their fists and led the way, chanting “No justice, no peace!” throughout the district. Originally, 500 people began the march, but that number would soon balloon to 1500 as the crowd moved through the city.
4. Famous activists spoke at the protest, including Cleve Jones and feminist Amber Hollibaugh.
Harvey Milk’s friend, Cleve Jones, spoke to a crowd on Castro Street through Milk's own bullhorn. He angrily denounced White's conviction, saying, “I saw what those bullets did. It was not manslaughter, it was murder.”
When the marchers reached City Hall, feminist and lesbian activist Amber Hollibaugh climbed onto the railing and gave a speech in front of the ever-growing crowd. She yelled, “It’s time we stood up for each other. 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!”
In the years after 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 handmade quilt made up of more than 50,000 panels that commemorate the lives of over 105,000 people who have died of AIDS-related illnesses. It remains the world’s largest community folk art project. And Hollibaugh went on to establish Queer Suvival Economics (QSE) in 2014, a project that addresses the intersection of sexuality, poverty, homelessness, labor, and the criminalization of survival.
5. Chaos broke out once the crowd reached City Hall.
By the time the demonstrators had reached City Hall, they had attracted a crowd of 5000, and the peaceful march soon evolved into a full-fledged riot. Grieving and angry protesters broke the windows and bars of City Hall, set police cars on fire, pelted the cops with rocks, and ripped parking meters off the sidewalks, leaving 59 officers and 124 protestors injured in three hours. The White Night Riots remains one of San Francisco’s most violent protests, and one estimate put the cost of the damage at $1 million.
6. Some police officers covered their badges with black tape during the riots.
When police arrived on the scene, they were ordered to hold the crowd back. However, many officers began assaulting the demonstrators with night sticks, with some even covering their badges with black tape during the chaos. Protesters tore off tree branches to use them as protection against the police who were armed with clubs and riot shields. After three violent hours, the police used tear gas to stop the protestors. Later, the FBI investigated the police’s use of force but no officers were ever reprimanded.
7. Rogue police officers retaliated by raiding The Castro District, San Francisco’s “Gay Mecca.”
After the destruction at City Hall, some rogue police officers headed 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 nicknamed “the Mayor of Castro Street.” One of his favorite haunts was the Elephant Walk bar, a safe space for people otherwise unwelcome in straight bars.
During the White Night Riots, a crowd of people dashed into the bar for shelter, but the police stormed in and demolished the property. Officers clubbed and injured the people inside, crashed bar stools, and broke windows while shouting anti-gay slurs. When former police inspector Jack Webb questioned why officers were pouring into the Castro when it had been quiet and nonviolent, the police captain allegedly responded, “We lost the battle at City Hall. We aren’t going to lose this one.”
In 1995, 16 years after the riots, and after surviving a fire that almost destroyed the entire building in 1988, the Elephant Walk bar reopened under a new name: Harvey’s. You can still find it at 500 Castro Street.
8. Flyers were plastered all over Castro Street warning protestors from speaking out.
Days after the riots, flyers appeared around the Castro, warning neighbors to keep quiet in fear of persecution by the law. The flyers read, “Our defense against the police is each other, our strength is our silence.” The ongoing distrust in the gay community ran so deep that the flyers even discouraged people from cooperating with law enforcement looking for information about the Elephant Walk attack.
9. The day after the White Night Riots 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 San Franciscans peacefully gathered to celebrate and honor his legacy. This event had been organized months prior to the riots, but in light of the protests, the organizers came prepared with community “gay monitors” who wore shirts with “PLEASE! No violence” printed on them. The community policed themselves as Mayor Dianne Feinstein ordered police not to enter the immediate area. The “noisy and sometimes drunken” celebration of Milk's life was a complete turnaround from the night before. “Last night, gay men and lesbian women showed the world we’re angry and on the move,” Cleve Jones said at the gathering. "Tonight, we are going to show them that we are building a strong community.”
10. The 2008 movie based on Harvey Milk's life and assassination omitted all mention of the White Night Riots.
Directed by Gus Van Sant, the biographical film Milk details the life of Harvey Milk, focusing on his rising political career as a gay rights trailblazer. But the film comes to an abrupt end when Dan White shoots Milk and Mayor Moscone, with a closing shot of a candlelight vigil across San Francisco. The film’s omission of the violence that wracked the city on May 21 also omits Harvey Milk’s legacy that sparked an aggressive fight for gay rights on the West Coast. In 2017, however, Van Sant did wind up recreating the riots as a producer on the miniseries When We Rise, which chronicles the major events in recent LGBT history.