NIGHT STICK: A Novelized Account of the May 21 Riot

"I was there..."

by Steven Marks


No Apologies poster features a burning cop car.

Art: Paul Mavrides

At City Hall. There's a crush of people at the top of the stairs, around them several hundred more. There's no focus here. Chants picked up and passed through the crowd, clashing from one part to another: "MUR-DER... MUR-DER...MUR-DER..." Nobody can speak, the bullhorn doesn't work. They're shouted down. Everyone's paying attention to the people behind the speakers, at the doors of City Hall and white lights suddenly flash on and you see the tops of people's heads moving frantically around a little space there, people standing around watching... The faces of speakers, a parade of our gay celebrities, fade in and out: Harry Britt, Sally Gearhart, Leonard Matlovich... a woman with a guitar... break of applause... who is it? Then, later, even a priest, who leaves the soonest under a barrage of hissing... "NO MORE BULLSHIT... NO MORE BULLSHIT... NO MORE BULLSHIT." I remember seeing Ruby Rodriguez, the street comic everyone calls the Chicken Lady: "Now I want everyone to listen to me. I've got something to say here..." and later standing on a car roof haranguing people to stay when a sudden rippled of panic comes through, "They're coming, the cops are coming!" and people start to swell into the street. But no, the cops aren't coming in yet and the movement subsides.

When I first ran into Robert, I had been wandering around the crowd, never standing still, always looking for the best vantage point, the best people to stand near. Sometimes chants coming up of "NO MORE VIOLENCE! NO MORE VIOLENCE!" But then something would break, another window at the doors of City Hall, and others would clap and cheer. I was... I wanted to stand only near people who cheered at the crashing. I didn't want to think about the ones chanting against violence. What violence? Where are these people with their chants when gay people get beaten up, when Harvey was assassinated? I was somehow afraid... and too angry at the same time. But there was no place, no best place to be. How could I let out what I was feeling? More than just clapping when a window broke? I ran into Robert then. He told me he heard about it on the radio, it had been officially declared a riot. But it was just this aimless gathering, a press of people at the doors of City Hall, waiting, watching, not leaving, wanting Something To Happen. And the thoughts in my head now - not about Dan White or Harvey Milk or the verdict or even my own rage. It's just the anxiety: I have to do something. I had reached this logical, intellectual conclusion that something must happen here and I felt a compulsion to take action, to be more than a bystander.

Robert is flushed with excitement. "We have to do something Steve. What will get these girls going?" The people with the bullhorn trying to speak think they can do the opposite - keep us from doing anything. They each take a turn trying to sway the crowd. But you can't hear them for all the chants and shouting and confusion. Yet each believes he or she will be the one the crowd will listen to, they can convince everyone to go home, to break their attention from the stairs of City Hall. But none of them succeed. They've always told us what to do - to vote, to give money, to do this or that, year after year. You realize their attitude is that they are going to teach you how to behave politically. Like we're not thinking or feeling the whole time. They're always exhorting us to do something that always serves their political needs (like getting elected). But there's resistance here tonight. A moment of silence. Then broken by noise or a chant from the top of the stairs, suddenly TV lights go on and attention shifts. There's a chant for Sally Gearhart, "LET HER SPEAK! LET HER SPEAK!" For a moment it is quiet and she starts to say, "No one is more enraged tonight than I am..." and then we know the next part, Part Two.... BUT.... HOWEVER... "but Harvey Milk wouldn't be breaking these doors here tonight..." And a chant goes up, "BULLSHIT! BULLSHIT! BULLSHIT!" How would she know what Harvey would be doing? In 1972 or 1973, when Harvey was considered a freak by the City's political establishment, Harvey might be throwing the first rock. Or at least standing consentingly nearby, with his wonderful sweet boy smile. Then, of course, Harvey the San Francisco Supervisor would probably have been more inclined to be the charismatic leader who turned by the angry crowds -- to send outraged letters and telegrams to elected officials the next morning.

Then there's a little light. A small light appears above the stairs, from the second floor balcony. People strain to see. Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver trying to speak from a bullhorn. Can't hear her. People shouting. She keeps trying. We can't hear her, and then she's gone, appearing again at the top of the stairs, coming out from the broken windows of the doors. She's still trying to talk through her bullhorn, fiddling with the knobs, moving from one side of the steps to another, through the thick crowd. Robert says he wants to get the bullhorn. "I know just what to say to make these people go wild. Steve, how can I get that microphone?" "I don't know. Maybe you could ask her for it. Nobody can hear anyway."

I look out over the crowd from the top of the stairs, where Robert and I are standing. It is dark now, night time, and the size of the crowd has continued to grow, rings on rings of people and now there are a couple thousand people or more, spreading out across the street, into the edges of the Civic Center Plaza. Robert and I wander around the top of the stairs for a while. I'm still anxious and excited. You could look through the shattered glass and see a formation of cops at semi-attention, legs parted, sticks resting in hands, white helmets, dark blue jump suit anonymous, shifting weight, stepping aside coolly when a spike from the grillwork around the door comes sliding through the broken windows. There are a few people, recklessly brazen, a couple are drunk, holding cans of beer in brown paper bags. They seem crazed, possessed. Suddenly yelling at the cops inside, screaming at them, calling them pigs. Then turning to talk to a friend or bystander, laughing and smiling. Then arguing with some men in the crowd trying to tell him how bad it is for our image... "They killed Harvey. Fuck it, fuck this shit," whirling around and one guy jumps up, pulls a piece of wrought iron grill, people step back for a moment as the iron flies up, thrown at the highest windows still unshattered at the top of the doors. I'm afraid of shattering glass but Robert pulls me in closer. Leonard Matlovich pushing and shoving some guy around, practically beating him up to keep him from being "violent." Others trying to form a line by linking arms in front of the doors to keep the "violent" ones away from City Hall, but they don't have enough people to complete the line -- they were all from the Advocate Experience or some gay democratic club -- (too bad later, when the cops finally came in, these fine distinctions of our "image" offered so little protection). Robert grabs me by the wrist, "Steve, what are we going to do? I can't believe these people are just standing around like this. This is stupid. I can't believe these queens...."

Karen strained her attention to the top of the stairs. What should she do? What was her responsibility? She had been one of Harvey Milk's aides and was almost appointed in his place. She's there with some man in wire-rimmed glasses who keeps feeding her with suggestions. But Karen's genuinely distressed. "What should I do? I can't believe this is happening. I can't believe it." And the guy with her trying to be detached and intellectual, "They're all crazy. They can't be dealt with. It's out of control." "Should I talk? Should I try to talk?"


Gay Rights grafitti after White Night, 1979.

Photo: Crawford Barton, Gay and Lesbian Historical Society of Northern California

IF DAN WHITE WAS BLACK, LATINO OR GAY, TO THE GAS CHAMBER HE'D BE ON HIS WAY -- graffiti on Hayes Street. Two young black women, both with their hair straightened and cut off even right at the back of the neck. "Hey! What's happening man? This is great!.... Yeah man, this is all on the radio, far out." For some it really is a party. They laugh and jump around. And I stare at them. They really don't have any reason to care. They laugh. It is a joke for them.

Five days before the riot I was at Carl's apartment in the Castro. He was counting out piles of flyers for the Harvey Milk birthday celebration, scheduled for May 22. Carl was checking off piles of flyers on a list of neighborhoods and locations throughout the city. "I'm just afraid that the verdict will come out that day. Honey, I'm afraid we're going to have trouble." Last weekend in the Castro a cop with a reputation in the neighborhood for being an asshole tried to arrest some poor character for stapling leaflets up on telephone poles. It led to a full-fledged confrontation right there, Saturday afternoon, hot spring day in the teeming Castro. Cops call in reinforcements, then, faced off by a crowd of several hundred gay men pouring of the bars, shouting "DAN WHITE WAS A COP! DAN WHITE WAS A COP!" And the cops end up retreating up Castro Street, each step back they take instantly filled by a surge of the crowd, pushing forward.

Carl is on the phone now: "Listen that cop is back on the street today. Yes... he's on the beat again. I don't care. He said he'd be off the beat. It's the same one... yeah, Tom. That's what I thought he said. Well, he's out there right now. Listen we're having that street party next Tuesday. The verdict could come in then... Well, you just tell him that if Tom is still on the beat there could be trouble. A lot of trouble. I'm not kidding. Doesn't Harry realize what's going on?"

Images of City Hall: walking back from the Strand Theater, through UN Plaza out to Civic Center Plaza, and a full moon fills the corners of the sky with pure pale neon glow. "Steve, let's throw this rock. Come on, let's do it together. What do you think will happen?" "Well, maybe you could do it round there, on the other side of the bush..." And Robert heads off around the bush again. I look around nervously but no one seems to be watching. I see the little rock fly up and bounce off the granite wall. Robert comes back panting, "Fuck. I missed. Did anyone see?" Then someone else comes around, I see through the bush someone trashing around, looking for something -- a stick bounces off the window -- then a rock hits and makes a small hole in the glass. Some guy wanders off. Nothing happens. There're no more rocks here so Robert has us go around the steps to the other side. There's a long string of newspaper vending machines linked together with a chain. Robert and I slip behind the bush there. He hands me a rock, "Come on, Steve, it's your turn," and I slip all the way around the bush, taking glances behind me, and throw my rock at the window but it bounces off. Heart pounding I come back, some people on the abutment above look at us. Robert throws a bottle that crashes against the wall and throws another rock and finally a window crashes. We slip out suspiciously from behind the bush -- there are a few more people now, milling around the sidewalk and the building. Something else is thrown. And Robert is excited. It's snapped. It's been snapped. He grabs both of my hands, "I've got to find something else to throw..." and he's off looking for rocks. I turn around and the newspaper machines are right there. I walk up slowly. The image of what I'm to do burning in my mind. Turn -- walk past them -- look around. Then I walk up and kick one, kick it over -- walk a little ways -- and push over another, slam it down and other people now picking them up and throwing newspaper machines, breaking the chain linking them, smashing them open. One gets picked up, carried overhead and thrown against the face of City Hall and someone's into the papers and papers thrown up in the air and flying around, people standing on car tops, some guys gathering paper together into a pile. And I notice, they're all cute disco types, in a circle, crouching down, match held to papers and the first flames of the night leap up. I lose Robert. Flames leaping out of a trash can on the corner. Then I see Robert, he's hurling a huge rock through a window, he spins around and suddenly falls, gets up limping. "They're coming! The cops are coming!" And a line of cops, helmets, visors, blue jumpsuits, run in quick from the Grove Street side.

I feel like I'm running on air. They try to set up a line in front of City Hall but rocks start flying. I see cops, sticks up, cops bent over, they pick someone up and retreat under a barrage of bottles and rocks. Did they get someone? Was it Robert? Was he hurt? When the cops retreat people move back in again. I see a group of women running along the front of the building, by the huge window wells covered with steel grates. Newspaper torches flying over to the building then up and into the broken windows. Glass shattering, crashing, each window, each piece, one by one. Inside they lower venetian blinds after all the glass is broken out and objects start to thud on the floors of the offices inside, and the glimpse of white visor tip of the cop inside lowering the blinds draws a cry and a new barrage of rocks and bottles appearing out of nowhere. Some leather guys shaking a parking meter back and forth in wider swings until it pops out of the sidewalk and two men carry it off and throw it whole at the building, others chipping away at the newly broken cement to make more rocks and missiles. In Grove Street, in front of Larkin Hall, there's a roar of motorcycles. Cycle cops are coming in! But I look again and it's all the leather men, Folsom Street types, running their bikes into a huge circle in the intersection.

At the foot of City Hall Robert is helping some women lift one of the steel grates from the window well and then forming a line to help women climb into the well, start piling wood and barricades in the basement and setting it on fire. (While on the other side, a local gay reporter, thinking of "our image: (and no doubt of the impression he can make on command post big-wigs), spots the fire and calls for help to put it out.) I ran into Lanny standing on the sidewalk across from the front of City Hall. Riot activity swelling around us we can't help taking advantage of the camp opportunities -- as if we were suddenly on TV: "Why gosh, Steve! It's all quite festive. And I almost missed it! Except I heard something on this guy's radio..." "Oh, yes, it's been officially declared a riot." "Well, what are they doing over there? That's severe." Off by the side of the stairs a fire is started under a bush, flares up and for a while threatens the tree above. I start to tell him about the newspaper machines and what happened (I thought) to Robert and at that moment Robert walks up. He's exhilarated. There's a cut above his eyebrow, purple red blood partly dried. "Where have you been? I was afraid the cops got you." "Oh, I fell down and hit my leg, here, on my shin, really hard. Here, hold this." He hands me a chunk of cement. He tells us about helping the dykes get into the basement -- and we joke about the stereotype of lesbians and gay men not being able to work together. Then Robert is impatient and excited. "I've got to get rid of this rock." And he wanders off.

I step off the sidewalk, following. "What should we do?" I point out a stranded police car there on Polk Street. "Well, we do seem to have an unfortunately stranded police vehicle here..." Robert's rock dents the side, mine bounces off the rear widow. But then there are others. Other rocks, and a parking meter rammed into the side and the front window and a guy with a garbage can smashes the top of the car, crashing can, windows popping out, mirrors snap off, hood bashed in. Then there's ten guys trying to turn the car over, Robert in the middle. Then from somewhere, some guy tosses newspapers into the front seat and a book of matches. It went up so fast everyone was surprised. People gathered around the area, applauding and cheering. Then suddenly afraid of bullets going off or the gas tank exploding. Some people shout to get back. I catch Lanny at the sidewalk and stand across the street with him. I see one lone person, one of San Francisco's flashier sissies, dressed tonight like a boy in a sailor outfit, standing hands in pockets staring at the cop car burning, unconcerned with explosions or bullets -- it's a film we're all watching -- parts we picked long ago -- we know how the story goes.

in Vortex, Issue #1, Fall 1980, San Francisco

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