Learning History: He Got Away With Murder

I’d planned to post this last night, but found myself without an internet connection. Better late than never…

Thirty years ago yesterday, the verdict for the murderer of Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk was announced. Dan White, former policeman and San Fransisco Supervisor alongside Milk, would serve the shortest sentence in prison possible.

The riot that came after the verdict would become known as the White Night riot. This bit of newscast video is from that night.

Harry Britt, Milk’s appointed successor: If you remember the violence that started all this, it was Dan White’s violence. I feel that the jury was violent this afternoon by treating Dan White in a way that nobody’s every going to believe they would have treated a black person or a gay person or someone who did not fit Dan White’s image. They were saying that the spirit of Dan White, with all of its pettiness, all of its meanness, and all of its violence right below the surface, is okay. And in so doing were very violently attacking the memory of George Moscone and Harvey Milk. We’re reacting with anger because we are angry.

The following day, reporters went looking for someone to apologize for the riots. Randy Shilts gives the reaction in his book The Mayor of Castro Street: the Life & Times of Harvey Milk

They came up empty. Harry Britt told them, “”Harvey Milk’s people do not have anything to apologize for. Now the society is going to have to deal with us not as nice little fairies who have hairdressing salons, but as people capable of violence. We’re not going to put up with Dan Whites anymore.” The reporters were shocked that a public official would condone violence. Britt was shocked that they would expect anything else. The journalists asked if such a riot would not set back the gay movement. “No one has ever accepted us,” Britt snapped. “What sets a movement back is not violence. What sets us back is Uncle Toms.”

Newspeople scurried to try to find a gay leader who would apologize. They had a tough time. “Political and cultural leaders haven’t apologized for creating a jury where Dan White is a hero and for creating a jury where Dan White can be found a moral man incapable of cold-blooded murder,” snorted Bill Draus, the new president of the Harvey Milk Club. “They have a lot more to apologize for than we do.”

I found a detailed account of the riot from Leland Frances here. You should also read the account of Fred Rogers (not that one), the owner of the Elephant Walk, the target for police brutality during the riot.

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