"I was there..."
by Paul Krassner from Remembering Jonestown, Dan White, and the two weeks that ate San Francisco (appeared originally in the Bay Guardian Nov. 24, 1993)
Shot in January 1984. Dan White had just been freed from prison after serving 5 years for the assassinations of George Moscone & Harvey Milk. The image was shot during the resultant demonstration.
Photo: © David Goldberg
It's been 15 years since the Jonestown massacre, and the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. Those of us who lived in San Francisco then were at the epicenter of an emotional earthquake that encircled the globe. What happened in Jonestown was inconceivably evil. What happened in City Hall was devastating. We walked around in a daze of sadness, only to have our outrage further intensified each day as new details were revealed in the media.
A Slimy Creep
Jim Jones, founder of the 8,000-member People's Temple on Geary Boulevard, once asked Margo St. James, founder of the prostitutes' rights group COYOTE, how he could obtain political power. She answered sardonically, "Arrange for some of your women to have sex with the bigwigs." Jones in turn offered to supply busloads of his congregation for any protest demonstration that COYOTE organized, but Margo declined.
"I thought he was a slimy creep," she told me.
Margo's instincts were correct.
Jones had potential recruits for People's Temple checked out by his representatives, who would rummage through the recruit's garbage and report on their findings -- discarded letters, food preferences, and other clues. Temple members would visit the homes of recruits, and while one would initiate conversation, the other would use the bathroom, copying names of doctors and types of medicine. They would also phone relatives of a recruit in the guise of conducting a survey and gather other information. All of this data would then be taped to the inside of Jones podium, from which he would proceed at a lecture to demonstrate his magical powers by sensing the presence of an individual and mentioning specific details.
When the People's Temple moved to Guyana and became Jonestown, Jones would publicly humiliate his followers. He required them to remove their clothing and participate in boxing matches, pitting an elderly person against a young one. He forced one man to participate in a homosexual act in the presence of his girlfriend. There were paddle beatings and compulsory practice suicide sessions called White Nights.
On November 8, 1978, Leo Ryan, a congressman who had been investigating Jonestown, was slain at the Guyana airport, along with three news people and several disillusioned Temple members. Jones then orchestrated the mass suicide-murder of 900 men, women, and children, mostly black. Those who refused the flavored drink mix laced with potassium cyanide were either shot or received lethal injections. Jim Jones either shot himself or was killed.
And then, one week later, while we were still in a state of utter shock, along came a second earthquake.
Let Those Bullets Blow Open Every Closet
Dan White, a former cop, resigned from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors because he couldn't support his wife and baby on a salary of $9,600 a year. He obtained a lease for a fast-food franchise at Fisherman's Wharf and planned to devote himself full time to his restaurant, the Hot Potato. However, White had been the swing vote on the board, representing real estate interests and the conservative Police Officers' Association. With a promise of financial backing, White changed his mind and told the mayor that he wanted his job back. At first Moscone said sure, a man has the right to change his mind.
But there was opposition to White's return, led by Harvey Milk, who was openly gay. Milk had cut off his ponytail and put on a suit so he could work within the system, but he refused to hide his sexual orientation.
Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library
I met Harvey Milk when he ran a neighborhood camera shop, and I watched him develop into the gay equivalent of Martin Luther King. Had he lived, he might have been elected the first openly gay mayor.
But he already envisioned the possibility that he would become a martyr. After he was elected supervisor, he taped a message for his constituents that included this prophetic fear and hope: "If bullets should ever enter my brain, let those bullets blow open every closet in this country."
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Harvey Milk's Last Words
Milk warned the pragmatic Moscone that giving the homophobic White his seat back would be seen as an anti-gay move. Even a mayor who wanted to run for re-election had the right to change his mind.
Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library
On Sunday evening, Nov. 26, a reporter called Dan White and said: "I can tell you from a very good source in the Mayor's Office that you definitely are not going to be reappointed. Can you comment on that?" White replied, "I don't want to talk about it. I don't know anything about that," and hung up. He stayed on the couch that night, not wanting to keep his wife awake. He didn't get any sleep himself and just lay there brooding. He decided to go to City Hall on Monday morning.
When his aide, Denise Apcar, picked him up at 10:15, he didn't come out the front door as he normally would; he emerged from the garage. He had gone down there to put on his service revolver, a .38 special that he always kept loaded. He opened a box of extra cartridges, which were packed in rows of five, and put ten of them, wrapped in a handkerchief so they wouldn't rattle, into his pocket.
Because of rumors that Jonestown assassins had been programmed to hit targets in the U.S., metal detectors had been set up at the front doors of City Hall. When White went up the stairs to the main entrance, he didn't recognize the security guard monitoring the metal detector, so he went around to the McAllister Street side, entered through a large basement window, and proceeded to the mayor's office. After a brief conversation, he shot George Moscone twice in the body, then two more times in the head, execution style, as he lay on the floor. The Marlboro cigarette in Moscone's hand was still burning when the paramedics arrived.
White hurriedly walked across a long corridor to the area where the supervisors' offices were. His name had already been removed from the door of his office, but he still had a key. He went inside and reloaded his gun. Then he walked out, past Supervisor Dianne Feinstein's office. She called to him, but he didn't stop. "I have to do something first," he told her. Harvey Milk was in his office, thanking a friend who had just loaned him $3,000. Dan White walked in. "Can I talk to you for a minute, Harvey?" White followed Milk into his office. White then fired three shots into Milk's body, and while he was prone on the floor, White fired two more shots into Milk's head.
George Moscone's body was buried. Harvey Milk's body was cremated. His ashes were placed in a box that was wrapped in Doonsebury comic strips, then scattered at sea. The ashes had been mixed with the contents of two packets of Kool-Aid, and they formed a purple patch on the Pacific. Harvey would've liked that touch.
In 1979, I covered the trial of Dan White for the Bay Guardian. Defense attorney Doug Schmidt didn't want pro-gay sentiment to pollute the verdict. He wasn't allowed to ask potential jurors if they were gay, but he would ask if they had ever supported controversial causes, like homosexual rights, for instance. There was one prospective juror who came from a family of cops -- ordinarily Schmidt would have craved his presence on this jury -- but then he said, perhaps gratuitously, "I live with a roommate and lover." Schmidt's next question: "Where does he or she work?" The man answered, "He" -- and the ball game was over -- "works at the Holiday Inn."
The day before the trial, the assistant D.A. who was handling the prosecution was standing in an elevator at the Hall of Justice. He heard a voice behind him speak his name "Tom Norman, you're a motherfucker for prosecuting Dan White." He turned around and saw six police inspectors. He flushed and faced the door again. The cops were his drinking buddies, and now they were all mad at him.
In his confession White had stated "I don't know why I put [my gun] on." And at the trial, psychiatrists offered reasons ranging from the psychological (it was a security blanket) to the practical (for self-defense against a People's Temple hit squad). But as Jack Webb, a former police officer and member of the Police Commission, told me: "An off-duty cop carrying his gun for protection isn't gonna take extra bullets. If he can't save his life with the bullets already in his gun, then he's done for."
The Twinkie Defense
The late J.J. Rodale once claimed in his magazine, Prevention, that Lee Harvey Oswald had been seen holding a Coca-Cola bottle only minutes after the assassination of President Kennedy. From this he concluded that Oswald was not responsible for the killing because his brain was confused. He was a sugar drunkard. In a surprise move, Dan White's defense team presented a similar biochemical explanation of his behavior, blaming it on the compulsive gobbling of sugar-filled junk-food snacks.
This was a purely accidental tactic. Dale Metcalf, a Merry Prankster who became a lawyer, told me about the evening he happened to be playing chess with Steven Scheer, an associate of White's attorney. Metcalf, a health enthusiast, had just read Orthomolecular Nutrition by Abram Hoffer. He questioned Scheer about White's diet and learned that while under stress White would consume candy bars and soft drinks.
During the trial, one psychiatrist stated that on the night before the murders, while Dan White was getting depressed about the fact that he would not be reappointed, he just sat there in front of the TV set, binge-ing on Twinkies. In court, White just sat there in a state of complete control, bordering on catatonia, as he listened to an assembly line of psychiatrists tell the jury how out of control he had been. One even testified: "If not for the aggravating fact of junk food, the homicides might not have taken place." In the corridor, Berkeley psychiatrist Lee Coleman denounced the entire practice of psychiatric testimony as a disguised form of hearsay.
And so a shrewd defense had transformed a double political execution into the White Sugar Murders. The jury's verdict was guilty, of voluntary manslaughter, and White served a little more than five years in prison. The estimated shelf life of a Twinkie was seven years. When Dan White was released, that Twinkie in his cupboard would still be edible.
The White Night Riot
In the evening of the day the verdict was handed down, I was relaxing at home, smoking a joint and remembering how in 1975, as a state senator, the progressive George Moscone had been the author of a bill to decriminalize marijuana. I was trying to unwind from the trial and was contemplating the implications of the verdict. Patty Hearst had been kidnapped, kept hostage, and brainwashed, but she was held responsible for robbing a bank. Whereas Dan White had not been kidnapped, kept hostage, and brainwashed, but he was not held responsible for executing two government officials.
My reverie was interrupted by a phone call from Mike Weiss, who had covered the trial for Time magazine. He was calling from a phone near City Hall, I could hear crowds screaming and sirens wailing behind his voice. He had to yell: "There's a riot going on! You should get here right away!"
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Rioting at City Hall
Reluctantly, I took a cab. When I arrived, there were a dozen police cars that had been set on fire, which in turn set off their alarms, underscoring the angry shouts from a mob of 5,000 gay men. On the night Harvey Milk was murdered, many of them were among the 30,000 who had marched silently to City Hall for a candlelight vigil. Now they were rioting, utterly furious at the Dan White verdict. But where were the cops? They were all fuming inside City Hall, where their commander had instructed them to stay -- armed prisoners watching helplessly as angry demonstrators broke the glass trying to ram their way through the locked doors.
Suddenly the police were being released from City Hall. As I and others walked north on Polk Street, the cops were beginning to march slowly in formation not too far behind us. But the instant they were out of view of City Hall, they broke ranks and started running toward us, hitting the metal pole of a bus stop with their billy clubs, making loud, scary clanging noises. They had been let out of their cage and they were absolutely enraged.
I was struck with a nightstick on the outside of my right knee. I fell to the ground. The cop ran off to injure as many other protesters as he could. Another cop came charging at me yelling, "Get up! Get up!"
"I'm trying to!"
He made a threatening gesture with his billy club, and when I tried to protect my head with my arms, he jabbed me viciously on the exposed right side of my ribs. The cops were running amok now, in an orgy of indiscriminate sadism, swinging their clubs wildly and screaming, "Get the fuck outta here, you fuckin' faggots, you motherfuckin' cocksuckers!"
I managed to drag myself to the sidewalk. I had a fractured rib and a punctured lung. The injuries affected my posture and gait. I still walk with a limp, and its all Dan White's fault.
In October 1985, White committed suicide by inhaling carbon monoxide fumes in his garage. He taped a note to the windshield of his car: "I'm sorry for all the pain and trouble I've caused."