As in many riots in the last decades of the 20th century, a joyful looting soon broke out, creating a party atmosphere . . . Xmas in May!
It was a warm evening. I was a student at San Francisco State but that afternoon I was heading down to the Strand Theatre on Market Street across from U.N. Plaza to see a couple of movies. I remember one of them was Hearts and Minds, the documentary about the Vietnam War. I had already seen it, but my girlfriend hadn't and she was an intense movie fan. My flat-mate Peter Plate was joining us. As we rode on the bus a young man, quite agitated, jumped on and blurted out "It's only manslaughter!" We all knew, and quickly confirmed, that it was the Dan White verdict, which had been expected for several days.
Less than 6 months earlier, former cop, resigned supervisor, and conservative psychotic Dan White loaded his pistol, put some extra rounds in his pocket and drove over to City Hall to exact revenge. He felt he had been bitterly betrayed by Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk when they agreed to appoint a political ally to political enemy White's resigned seat. He entered through the unmonitored side door and proceeded to Moscone's office, shot him in cold blood, and then, reloading his gun, he walked down the hall to Milk's office and blew him away, too. He ran away and surrendered to an old friend in the police department a couple of hours later. Dan White gave his old (and clearly sympathetic) friend a rambling, incoherent confession, occasionally crying, freaking out over the disintegration of his life.
The defense invoked the now-famous Twinkie Defense, that Dan White was losing it because of the pressure in his life, eating too much junk food as one of the symptoms and causes of his temporarily insane behavior. The law-and-order, family-values, Ollie North clone (but clutzier), Dan White was a walking time bomb, gradually exploding under the pressure of failing to succeed on the system's terms. He embodied the violent backlash of straight society against the gay community's success, and the death squad approach of the powers-that-be toward individuals that seriously threaten their prerogatives. Dan White's murders of Moscone and Milk drastically altered the political direction of San Francisco, from a pro-neighborhood, populist regime to the traditional conservative, Chamber of Commerce administration of Dianne Feinstein, but that outcome seemed incidental to the psychotic breakdown suffered by Dan White and the ensuing havoc he wrought. No plausible conspiracy theory has emerged linking White to a plan to remove the progressive leadership of the city. Fifteen years later we can see that is what he did. He can't since he committed suicide in 1986.
As soon as we heard that verdict, we jumped off the bus and began walking quickly up Market toward Castro, expecting a spontaneous demonstration. When we crossed Church Street a wall of people across all of Market came angrily over the hill, heading down to the Civic Center. We quickly fell in to the raging crowd. A few buses had their overhead wires ripped down, but mostly it was a lot of fist shaking and chanting: "No Justice, No Peace!" and so on.
A mob of at least 2,000 stormed around City Hall to the Civic Center doors. Police were arriving but staying back. There was no public address system, no organizing group, it was a spontaneous demonstration of rage at the blatant injustice of the verdict. People stood up on the stairs and spoke out their anger, their denunciations. I remember vividly Amber Hollibaugh giving an impassioned speech for a radical resistance by the community. Others spoke (or shouted) their demands for justice. Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver appeared on the balcony 100 ft. above holding high a candle. She was met with jeers and angry calls to come down and get out of City Hall! A number of different people began to attack the bars and windows of City Hall. I was standing at the foot of the stairs, within a scant 15 feet of the doors, even fewer from many of the speakers. After some minutes of angry speaking, a tac squad of police broke through to stand guard in front of the building. They were met with a shower of rocks and bottles and soon they retreated inside and the attack on the windows and bars continued until they were all broken. Meanwhile, many people were beginning to surge in whatever direction police appeared. As squads of cops appeared, people would run forward throwing rocks and waving sticks. I found myself in a group enjoying the wonderful experience of chasing a squad of about 10 police around the corner from our City Hall liberated zone. A bit later I was hurling pieces of concrete curb at a stationary line of police guarding City Hall. Again and again over the next two hours, cops retreated under mob pressure. Sixteen squad cars were captured and torched, hundreds of windows in surrounding governmental and financial buildings were broken. Fires were set in garbage cans along Market Street. It was a riot.
After a few more hours the police had retaken the streets. A squad of several dozen cops rode over to the Castro and staged a retaliatory riot, attacking the Elephant Walk Bar at 18th and Castro, smashing everything. They even pulled people out of surrounding doorways and bars. I heard of one man getting his leg severely bruised when they burst in on him at his kitchen table.
Twenty-one were arrested that night, mostly around the Civic Center, including my house-mate Peter (two and a half years later, his four-felony case was settled as misdemeanor/probation pleas). The Chief of Police Charles Gain was blamed for being too wimpy and holding back his troops when he should have attacked. He defended himself by pointing out that no one was dead and only a few had minor injuries. We started the May 21st Defense Fund but most of our benefits over the next few months failed to raise any money. We got few donations. There was no community, gay or otherwise, that would stand in support of the people arrested that night, mostly because only a few of them were gay. The riot had progressed, as San Francisco riots do, from the initial angry crowd (in this case, of gays) to a gradual influx of angry young black and brown men who are spoiling for a chance to even the odds with the cops. The amazing sense of community that had existed during the riot evaporated within 24 hours. Many of us were confused by the contrast: the riot's euphoria temporarily intoxicated us with the sensation of true community. The aftermath returned us with a hard thud to a city full of barren crowds of disconnected people.
A burning police car, White Night Riot, May 21st, 1979