The San Francisco “White Night” Riots of 1979: Bruce Martinez

The San Francisco “White Night” Riots of 1979: Bruce Martinez

An essay on the causes of the 1979 "White Night Riots" and the role of harassment by the San Francisco Police in contributing the violent self defence by the large LGBTQ community in the city.

The morning of November 27, 1978 was a quiet one in San
Francisco. The quiet was soon shattered as a devastating story
broke throughout the city. There had been a double murder in city
hall, and both the mayor and a supervisor had been assassinated.
The police soon announced the suspect was Dan White, a former
supervisor, police officer and fireman. Mayor George Moscone
and supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to
public office in the United States, were the victims.1

White was soon apprehended, and the city entered a difficult
trial period that in many ways tore the city in two. Milk and
Moscone represented liberal San Francisco; Milk was the most
prominent gay leader in the city, and Moscone had time and again
sided with liberal causes.2 White represented the conservative
forces within the city, specifically the police department and
members of the working class.3

White’s defense centered on psychological and moral argument
and ultimately it was argued that he was of a diminished
capacity at the time of the murders. In addition to this, White was
portrayed as an honest decent man who was incapable of cold
blooded first degree murder. This is best seen in Douglas
Schmidt’s opening arguments: “Good people, fine people, with
fine backgrounds, simply don’t kill people in cold blood.”4

Schmidt’s combination of psychological and moral arguments led
the jury to a verdict of double manslaughter instead of the much
anticipated double first degree murder. White was sentenced to
eight years in prison.5

The night the verdict was read there was a large scale riot
within the gay community. By the late 1970s the gay population
in San Francisco was estimated at close to 150,000. This community
historically had been large in San Francisco because the city
had become a dumping point for men rejected from the armed
services for homosexuality in World War Two. A march on city
hall turned violent with over one hundred injuries reported, twelve
police cars burned, and nearly one million dollars in damage done
to city hall and the largely gay Castro neighborhood.6

The perceived absurdity of the verdict triggered the riots, but
there were several other factors that also lead to the disturbance.
Conventional wisdom, which states that the largely peaceful gay
community had a spontaneous evening of anger, misses the
multiple reasons behind the riot. There were major political and
social forces that came to a boiling point that evening. The
writings on the murders, the trial, and on Milk and Moscone
largely gloss over the complex reasons for the riots, seemingly
ignoring the historical evidence that suggests a deeper reason for
what happened.

The riots on the evening of May 21, 1979 occurred both as a
reaction to the verdict in the Dan White double homicide case and
also because the murder of mayor George Moscone changed the
balance of power within the city’s police force. Earlier gay rights
marches and vigils had been held without police intervention and
violence. What made this night different were three things: Police
Chief Charles Gain had lost control of his rank and file officers
following Moscone’s death, there had been an upswing in violence
and harassment against the gay community in the time since the
city hall murders, and Harvey Milk was not available to keep the
peace within the gay community as he had during earlier marches.
One reason for the violence during the riot was the beleaguered
San Francisco police department. There is ample evidence to
suggest that some members of the police department were
sympathetic to Dan White. After he was arrested on the day of the
murder’s, several police officers came up to him while he sat in
custody and nodded their approval, some went as far as to pat him
on the back.7 While there is no historical evidence to support the
widespread rumor that the police and fire departments raised
$100,000 for White’s defense, the mere proliferation of such a
rumor suggests a certain support for White among law enforcement.
This support was cemented when the eventual verdict was
read over the police radio band and several officers began to sing
“Danny Boy,” a popular Irish song, in celebration of White only
being convicted of manslaughter.8

Police Chief Gain was also hugely unpopular with the rank and
file police force. He had been appointed by Moscone in early 1975
to clean up and unify the department. Some of his first moves were
to ban any drinking of alcohol while officers were on duty, to take
down a large American flag in the hall of justice that he felt could
alienate the city’s international population, and order squad cars
painted a modest sky blue and white instead of the traditional black
and white. These largely symbolic changes still irked the general
police force. Gain’s most notorious change was to stop the
enforcement of small infractions against minority communities.9
For the gay community this meant not being arrested and
harassed for infractions such as blocking a sidewalk. Harvey Milk
commented on this in an unpublished manuscript for a political
speech in 1974: “When the Geary Theater empties the sidewalks
are impossible to pass. When the Police Athletic League circus
empties the sidewalks are chaos. These cases are fine. Yet when
the gays leave the bars at the 2 a.m. closing time, we find that
some of our police object to it and make arrests for blocking the
sidewalks.”10

Harassing the gay community had been a near tradition within
the SFPD, who were largely conservative Catholics with a built-in
sense of homophobia.11 While Gain’s easing up on minor infractions
gave the gay community a new sense of freedom, his stance
on homosexual officers gave them a new ally. When asked by a
gay newspaper what he would do if an officer came out, Gain
responded, “If I had a gay policeman who came out I would
support him one hundred percent.”12

This statement was confirmed to the San Francisco Examiner
in a story appearing on April 18, 1976. In reference to a closeted
gay police officer coming out, Gain said, “It will be hard for them,
I know that, but they’ll have the full support of the police chief.13
Soon graffiti saying “Gain is a Fruit” began appearing in station
houses and in the Hall of Justice. As early as July 1977, the
leadership within the police officer’s association were calling for
Gain’s removal from his post.14 The opposition against him within
the department was so strong that there were some officers who
may have conspired to murder him while he was off duty. An
officer with the nickname Joe the Pig had said to Margo St. James,
a famous prostitution union organizer that a plot was in the works,
“It would be easy…Gain leads an active social life, remains
unarmed when he was off duty, and does not keep a bodyguard.”15
Gain was protected from being removed from office despite
the dissent from officers below him because he had the unwavering
support of Moscone, who had appointed him and was committed
to the liberal causes Gain was espousing. Moscone wanted the
police force integrated and had the political support of San
Francisco gays, who treasured the calm within their community
during Gain’s tenure. Wayne Friday, in a column in the Bay Area
Reporter, captures the support held by Gain: “Would one reader
in the gay community tell me when the gay community has had a
better friend as the top cop in town?”16

Moscone, who had received near unanimous support from the
gay community during his 1975 election, was not about to remove
Gain from his post.17 Upon Moscone’s death Gain became the
ultimate lame duck. The new mayor, Dianne Feinstein, had
repeatedly criticized him during his time as chief from her position
of president of the Board of Supervisors.18 Even though Feinstein
pledged to keep Gain through what would have been the rest of
Moscone’s time in office, the writing was on the wall for Gain and
the police department.19

Without Moscone behind him, Gain lacked the political power
to hold his officers in line. Assuming that Gain was on his way out,
the rank and file officers took this as an invitation to revert back to
previous tactics used against the gay community. The old guard
within the police department would be able to operate as they had
before the new rules had been implemented.

Quickly reports of violence against the gay community began
to surface again. Gay journalist Bruce Pettit commented on this in
a column for the Bay Area Reporter which attempted to explain the
reasons behind the riots: “Almost immediately after the murders,
there was an upsurge of increased police harassment and street
attacks on gays, which bred anger within gays.”20

Further evidence of this upswing in enforcement of petty laws
is found in the March 21, 1979 San Francisco Chronicle. An
article describes Gain being booed at a meeting of the Golden Gate
Business Association because the police recently attempted to
close six gay bookstores and theaters. The owners of the establishments
were charged with operating public nuisances.21 Events like
these tore at the fabric of the gay community; they hindered gays
in their pursuit of happiness and gave them a reason to be angry
with the police department. Within the Castro, the center of gay
politics and culture, there was considerable outcry against the
actions of the police.22

The problem was further exacerbated when the police raided
a lesbian bar called Peg’s Place. Ten police officers, some on duty,
some off duty, ran into the bar and shouted, “Let’s get the dykes.”
They began to beat the bars owner and several patrons with their
nightsticks. There were no arrests and the officers had covered
their badge numbers which made prosecuting them difficult. Gay
newspapers heavily reported the incident while the two city dailies
ignored it. A news article that ran in the Sentinel in May 1979
reported, “Michael Kelly is accused of physically assaulting the
bar’s owner, Erlinda Symers by wrestling her to the floor with a
headlock.”23

This incident of violence was among the first that saw
members of the gay community begin to fight back against the
police: “A melee broke out between the men and women patrons
who rushed to the bar employee’s defense, beating the intruders
with pool cues.”24 Previous to this night, gays had almost always
docilely submitted to police instructions and violence.25 The preriot
move towards active resistance undercuts the argument that the
gay response during the riot was surprising in its violence. Gays
had already begun to oppose police intimidation tactics violently,
and there is ample evidence of growing resentment within the gay
community.

The best example of this bitterness was the afternoon of May
12, 1979, nine days before the riots. A gay man was hanging fliers
on telephone poles outside of a gay bar in the Castro. A beat
officer approached him and stated that tacking up posters violated
a city ordinance. He handcuffed the man and called for the paddy
wagon. Within minutes a mob of gay men had pored out of the
bars and stores and surrounded the officer. The officer who was
being taunted and jeered radioed for backup and soon a half dozen
police cars had arrived. By this time the mob had grown to three
thousand people who were throwing change at the police and
chanting, “Dan White was a cop.” The paddy wagon arrived and
inched its way through the crowd, and as it did some individuals
slashed at its tires. The police quickly vacated the scene, leaving
the throng with no one to shout at.26

This second instance of gay resistance to the police suggests
the speed with which the gay community could move out of the
bars and shops and onto the streets to respond in anger. The
chanting of “Dan White was a cop” demonstrates the angry
association made between the police force and the man who
murdered the unofficial mayor of Castro Street.

After an earlier increase in police violence and persecution
against gays that followed the double murder, the gay community
was now beginning to find its will to fight back. The incident
described above would certainly discourage any one officer from
enforcing minor violations of the law in an unfair manner. In the
weeks leading up to the riots the gay community reached a critical
mass of anger and belligerence. What was lacking was any kind of
leadership to direct the growing anger. This became most apparent
the night of the riot.

Gays had marched on city hall during other crises in the late
1970s. These marches had always ended in a peaceful way. The
most striking example of a gay march that could have ended in
violence was the Orange Tuesday march on June 7, 1977. After
Dade County Florida had repealed a gay rights law by a two to one
margin, a large crowd of gays estimated at over five thousand
gathered on Castro street and began to chant militant slogans
calling for gay rights nationwide.27 The police, shocked over the
sudden appearance of so many homosexuals feared a riot and
called upon Milk to calm the crowd. He led them on a lengthy
march which ended in a peaceful sit down in the middle of the
Castro and Market Street intersection. The gay community had
turned out in force but had remained peaceful due to Milk’s
leadership.28

If the gay community was ever to have a violent riot it would
have been on this night. The Dade county gay rights referendum
was being watched around the country and its defeat was a real
blow to gay rights organizers and their followers.29 Milk was able
to steward the marchers through the city and provide peaceful
leadership. He was even able to portray the march as a completely
peaceful one to the newspapers when in reality it was on the brink
of turning violent. He stated to the San Francisco Examiner:
“What’s happening is an out poring of love and warmth for all gay
people.”30 This account differs from the one given in Randy
Shilts’s The Mayor of Castro Street, which implies a much greater
threat of violence: “For three hours, Harvey led the crowd over a
five-mile course, worried that any pause might see that first rock
hurled through a window or at a cop.”31

Milk had managed to bolster the gay community in the
newspaper and to also lead it through the crisis during the march.
His leadership was seen in similar marches up until his death. The
night of the riots there was not a capable gay leader to step forward
and keep the night peaceful. Milk’s successor to the Board of
Supervisors, Harry Britt, attempted to quell the violent crowd
which gathered at city hall after the verdict had been read. He
shouted “Harvey, remember Harvey Milk. He’d be ashamed of
us.”32 Britt was soon shouted down and the riot commenced.
The moment the gay community began the assault on city hall
was captured in the next day’s San Francisco Chronicle. “‘We are
not Dan White! No violence tonight!’ somebody cried through a
bullhorn. ‘Bullshit!’ came the response, then the sound of glass
breaking, and a cheer went up from the crowd.”33

After city hall had been heavily damaged, the rioters eventually
moved to Castro Street where police officers descended on the
gay bars in the late night hours. As they then began arriving they
were greeted with thrown bottles and more jeers. The night ended
only after the police had raided the Elephant Walk, a bisexual bar
on Castro and 18th Streets. While there they brutally beat patrons
and “won” a figurative battle. Warren Hinckle wrote in the
Chronicle the day after the riots, “In the corner of my eye I could
see cops chasing gays with sticks. Captain Jeffries put on a firm
jaw: ‘We lost the battle at city hall. We aren’t going to lose this
one.’”34 The price of winning the battle was steep for some
members of the Castro who suffered brutal beatings at the hands
of the officers who were not following any standard protocol. “The
police swooped into the bar, swinging and beating people. They
were down there to crack a few heads open,” bar patron Donald
Sagim said. Sagim had his right ear and chin split open, suffered
five broken ribs, and a partially collapsed lung.35

The violence at city hall and on Castro Street occurred both as
a spontaneous angry reaction to the perceived injustice of the
White verdict but also for other deeper reasons. Gays had become
used to a relative amount of calm in their social lives after Gain
had been appointed police chief by mayor Moscone. The random
police violence had almost stopped. Within a period of six months,
from November 1978 to May 1979, the gay community’s most
prominent leader had been assassinated, police had stepped up
persecution and violence to near unprecedented levels, and no one
stepped into the leadership vacuum left by Milk. There was much
to be angry about.

If Gain had been able to maintain control of his police force
and the violent attacks and persecution had not immediately
restarted after the assassinations, the violence of the White Night
Riots would have been mitigated. If a real leader had stepped
forward to lead the community, there may have been a peaceful
march instead of a violent protest. These forces all played together
to bring the gay community to a critical level of anger that boiled
over against both the police force and city hall, the very essence of
San Francisco.

_______________________________________________________________________________________

1Randy Shilts, The Mayor of Castro Street, The Life and Times of Harvey
Milk (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982), 263-267.
2Richard DeLeon, Left Coast City, Progressive Politics in San Francisco,
1975-1991 (Lawrence, Kan.: University Press of Kansas, 1992), 48-51.
3Mike Weiss, Double Play, The San Francisco City Hall Killings (Reading,
Mass.: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1984), 91-101.
4Shilts, 310.
5Shilts, 325.
6Maitland Zane, “Battle’s Debris At Civic Center,” San Francisco
Chronicle, 22 February 1979, sec. A, final edition.
7Weiss, 273.
8Shilts. 326, Weiss, 405.
9Shilts, 120.
10Harvey Milk, 1974. Courtesy of the San Francisco History Center in the
San Francisco Public Library.
11For more a more in depth report on police brutality against gays see
Shilts, pgs 49, 57-59 and 91-93.
12Shilts, 120.
13Raul Ramirez, “Gain to Cops: Come out of the closet,” San Francisco
Examiner, 18 April 1976, sec A, final edition.
14Michael Taylor, “POA Leader Wants Chief Gain Out,” San Francisco
Chronicle, 15 July 1977, sec A, final edition.
15Shilts, 201.
16Wayne Friday, “Political Poker,” Bay Area Reporter, 20 January 1977.
Courtesy of the San Francisco History Center in the San Francisco Public
Library.
17Shilts, 109.
18Shilts, 278.
19Shilts, 292-293.
20Bruce Pettit, Column, Bay Area Reporter, 24 May 1977. Courtesy of the
San Francisco History Center in the San Francisco Public Library.
21Steve Rubenstein, “S.F. Gay Businessmen Boo Gain in Meeting,” San
Francisco Chronicle, 21 March 1979.
22Gayle Rubin, The Miracle Mile, ed. James Brook et al. (San Francisco:
City Lights Books, 1998), 258.
23“Battle at Peg’s Place,” The Sentinel, 4 May 1979. Courtesy of the San
Francisco History Center in the San Francisco Public Library.
24Shilts, 306.
25Shilts, 57.
26Shilts, 320-321; The Sentinel 18 May 1979. Courtesy of the San
Francisco History Center in the San Francisco Public Library; “Castro Street
gays confront cops,” San Francisco Examiner, 13 May 1979, final edition.
27Shilts, 158.
28Steve Rubenstein, “Defiant Gays March in S.F.” San Francisco
Examiner, 8 June 1977, sec A, final editon.
29Shilts, 159.
30Steve Rubenstein, “Defiant Gays March in S.F.” San Francisco
Examiner, 8 June 1977, sec A, final edition.
31Shilts, 159.
32Shilts, 330.
33Katy Butler, “Anatomy of a Gay Riot,” San Francisco Chronicle, 22 May
1979, sec. A, final edition.
34Warren Hinckle, “How Cops Waded Into Castro Street,” San Francisco
Chronicle, 22 May 1979, sec. A, final edition.
35Bill Soiffer, “The Sorry Saga at Elephant Walk Bar,” San Francisco
Chronicle, 22 May 1979, sec. A, final edition; also “The Times of Harvey
Milk,” produced by Robert Epstein, 88 Minutes. Black Sand Productions,
1984, 1 videocassette.

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  • Almost immediately after the murders, there was an upsurge of increased police harassment and street attacks on gays, which bred anger within gays

    Bruce Pettit, Bay Area Reporter

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