White Night Riot: A Policeman's View

"I was there..."

by Kevin Mullen


A burning police car, White Night Riot, May 21st, 1979

May 1979: Prologue to “Toughest Gang in Town”

In the early morning hours of May 22, 1979—on my orders—police formations marched back-step up Castro Street from 18th to Market, followed by a crowd of jeering demonstrators. As the oddly paired groups passed in front of the Castro Theater where I was standing, one of the crowd broke away and approached within 20 feet of me, where he loudly denounced me as a “pig-faced Irish motherfucker” before scurrying back to the safety of the mob. The irony wasn’t lost on me that my withdrawal order, which even then I knew would cost me dearly in the opinion of working cops, had also saved my detractor from getting his butt kicked by some very angry police officers.

The string of incidents leading to what came to be called the White Night Riot can reasonably be traced to events six months earlier. In November 1978, the city was shaken to its psychic roots when San Francisco-based Jim Jones led his People’s Temple followers in a mass suicide in Guyana. And when a few days later, on November 27, ex-Supervisor Dan White sneaked into City Hall and summarily executed Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, it was almost more than the civic psyche could absorb. At first, though, the city seemed to come together in its grief. That night, more than 25,000 candle-bearing mourners formed up in the Castro, then made their way peaceably down Market Street to City Hall.

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Harvey Milk's Last Words

There they were greeted by the familiar voice of Joan Baez and the strains of “Amazing Grace.” Acting Mayor Dianne Feinstein addressed the group over pre-positioned loudspeakers, as did other civic leaders, including Harry Britt, Milk’s political protégé. Harvey’s recorded voice, taped three weeks earlier on the defeat of the Briggs amendment which would have prohibited gays from teaching in public schools, was broadcast to the assembled throng. The proceedings closed at 11:30 p.m. with a Felix Mendelssohn hymn sung by the Gay Men’s Choir.

White had been arrested shortly after the killings and in April 1979 was placed on trial in Superior Court on what most saw as a double premeditated first degree murder. It looked like a slam dunk. To the extent that we thought about it at all, we expected some type of peaceful demonstration when the verdict came in, perhaps a replay of the march six months earlier. When the manslaughter verdict—with a top sentence of imprisonment for eight years—was announced on May 21, San Francisco’s gay community, along with many straights, was stunned beyond belief. There would be no Mendelssohn that night.

The verdict was announced shortly after 5 p.m., inconveniently just after the entire police department day watch had reported off duty. Without any firm knowledge about when the jury deliberations would end, we had no plan in place. (Since the Los Angeles riots following the verdict in the Rodney King beating case, the announcements of jury verdicts in potentially volatile cases are often delayed until police can make the necessary arrangements.)

A group formed up at Castro and Market, as they had so many times before, and proceeded to march to City Hall. There were reports along the line of march that the crowd was mostly peaceable with some violent elements. Photographs taken at the time, which I viewed later, showed signs saying “Avenge Harvey Milk.” Had I known of the signs at the time perhaps I would have done things differently. But I think not; by then it was too late anyway. When the marchers arrived at the Polk Street side of City Hall and found nothing to distract them from their outrage, they began to attack the face of the building. We called up reserve forces and made impromptu efforts to engage the mob with speakers sympathetic to their cause. It didn’t work.

Some questioned whether events could have played out differently. “There’s nothing that could have been said that would have placated that crowd,” said Supervisor Tom Ammiano, then chairman of the Gay Teacher’s Coalition. “Emotions were running too high.” According to another view though, that of an injured demonstrator, “Harvey Milk was a street-fighter. . . . he could get that bullhorn and slow that crowd down. That’s what we lacked tonight.” Whether Harvey could have turned the crowd is open to debate, but I can’t help but think that if things had gone differently at several turns that night the outcome would have been different.

In the late 1960s, in the midst of the anti-war demonstrations of that era, the department acquired a surplus military loudspeaker called a loudhailer. The self-contained, battery-operated unit could be heard a mile away. The unit also had a “curdler” feature which, when cranked up to full volume, was supposed to make listeners within hearing range defecate. Early in the disorder, I put in a call for the loudhailer to be delivered to City Hall. As luck would have it—again bad—nobody on duty knew where it was stored. It was found at 3 a.m. the next day, neatly nestled in its place in the Tactical Division Headquarters.

In the meantime, we asked Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver to address the mob from the balcony in front of the Mayor’s Office with a police bullhorn. I joined her there and so as not to incite the mob with the appearance of my uniform, I hunched down behind the balustrade and extended my hand holding a lighted butane cigarette lighter above the rail. To the crowd below, the sudden appearance of a small disembodied flame from the embattled ramparts of the enemy citadel must have seemed like a sign from beyond the grave. Immediately, the shouting and rock throwing stopped and a reverent hush fell over the crowd.

Lighted candles, first a few and then more and more, began to appear among the crowd. Who, I wondered, brings candles to a riot? Supervisor Silver, a sympathetic figure to those below, began to speak. The crowd applauded respectfully. For a time peace held the upper hand. In the end, the bullhorn was too feeble to be heard below, and the lighter became too warm to hold alight. The rock throwing resumed. The violence built until almost 11 p.m., when several police cars parked along McAllister Street were set afire by rioters. It was only then that we swept Civic Center Plaza and chased rioters as they trashed shop windows on Market Street and in the surrounding area.

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Early May 22, a squad of police officers entered the Elephant Walk bar at 18th and Castro and routed the patrons in what many saw as a retaliatory “police riot.” The events of the night were capped by a police withdrawal from the Castro, dubbed “Mullen’s Retreat” in my honor by officers who would have preferred a different outcome.

The White Night Riot has evolved into one of the founding legends of modern gay San Francisco—sort of a West Coast version of New York’s Stonewall riot. If Harvey Milk’s assassination was the Boston Massacre, White Night was Concord Bridge. Much of the after-action criticism centered on tactics and timing as the reasons for what went wrong. Some said we moved against the crowd too late, unnecessarily endangering officers who were forced to stand in formation in front of the rock-throwing mob. Others complained that when we did move, officers used excessive force. There could be no way of reconciling the views of those at opposite ends of the opinion spectrum.

Still, tactics and timing aside, the tensions that characterized events in the late 1970s – from the Guyana mass suicide to the White Night Riot—can be viewed in a broader sense as the inevitable eruption in a long-simmering conflict between the San Francisco that had been, and city that was about to be—the death throes of the old San Francisco, you might say, amid the birthing pains of the new.

-- 2005

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