May 21, 1979 was warm and sunny, but there was tension in the air as crowds gathered in the Castro awaiting the verdict of Dan White’s trial.
The former San Francisco city supervisor’s defense team argued that when he gunned down Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk the year prior, he’d been suffering from diminished mental capacity. Briefly out of his mind because of crippling depression, they said. A moment of temporary insanity.
But how could that be, many residents argued. The act seemed premeditated. White stopped mid-massacre to reload his gun, suggesting right there that he’d had enough premeditation to bring extra bullets.
So it was with great grief — and great anger — that the city learned that afternoon White had been found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, not murder. With good behavior, he’d likely serve just five years in prison.
“‘What’s wrong with San Francisco?’ was being asked again yesterday, again for all the right and wrong reasons,” famed columnist Herb Caen wrote. “A middle-class jury, not a bunch of kooks by any stretch, had decided one can kill, twice, complete with coup de grace, and get away with it.”
Shock reverberated through the city. As news spread, the gay community began heading to City Hall.
“It wasn’t planned as a riot,” The Chronicle front page story later read. “It was hardly planned at all.”
Inside City Hall, Mayor Dianne Feinstein, who had found Milk’s body the previous November, was absorbing the news. She was met at her office by then-fiancé Richard Blum, and the pair went back to her Pacific Heights home for dinner around 6. Soon, she heard there was unrest at Civic Center. At 8:30 p.m., Feinstein and Blum were driven back to City Hall.
Thousands of protesters were already gathered outside. They were smashing windows, ripping pieces off the government building, screaming “kill Dan White.” When police moved in with night clubs, the violence escalated. Protesters began setting cop cars on fire.
“The flames from the eight burning police cars bathed the City Hall dome in an eerie flickering light,” a Chronicle story read, “and their sirens screamed like dying animals until meltdown silenced them one by one.”
After a three-hour melee, the second act began in the Castro District. With activity dying down in Civic Center, a group of police officers went to the gay bar Elephant Walk and started destroying property in retaliation. Patrons were assaulted. It wasn’t until the police chief arrived that the rioting ended.
By the night’s end, dozens of police and over 100 civilians were injured. A civil grand jury later convened found insufficient evidence to indict anyone for the riots.
“Harvey Milk’s people do not have anything to apologize for,” said Supervisor Harry Britt at a press conference the day after the White Night riots. “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.”
White would end up serving five years of his seven-year sentence. Shortly after he was paroled in 1984, he returned to San Francisco against the advice of pretty much everyone. In 1985, White killed himself.
This post was originally posted at https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/white-night-riots-sf-dan-white-milk-moscone-13862312.php.