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Our History: White Night Riots

Posted by willow On May - 21 - 2009

On May 21, 1979, 30 years ago today, the White Night Riots erupted in San Francisco as Dan White was given the most lenient sentencing possible for the assassinations of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk, the first elected openly gay politician in U.S. history.

When Milk’s friend Cleve Jones heard White was sentenced to only 7 1/2 years and could be out in as few as five years he hit the streets.  With bullhorn in hand he led 500 people around Castro shouting, “Out of the bars and into the streets!”  As people spilled out of the bars the crowd grew.  Jones led approximately 5000 people to San Francisco City Hall where people called for the death of Dan White.

The crowd continued to grow as other gay neighborhoods led marches to city hall.  After three hours of angry but otherwise peaceful chanting, the San Francisco police turned on the crowd with black tape covering their badges so they could not be identified. They beat the protesters with batons and tear gassed the crowed.  Tired of years of violence against their community, they fought back using whatever they could find as a weapon, including tree trunks and even chunks of the street blow their feet.

Watch for yourself here:

The physical damage to the city cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, but the strong voice the LGBT community gained was priceless.  When reporters were searching for a gay leader to apologize for the riots they were surprised to find no one willing to turn on their community.  Instead Supervisor Harry Britt (Harvey Milks replacement) said, “Harvey Milk’s people do not have anything to apologize for. Now the society is going to have to deal with us not as nice little fairies who have hairdressing salons, but as people capable of violence.  We’re not going to put up with Dan Whites anymore.”

30 years later and our equality movement has come a long way.  We are at a tipping point in history when equal rights are shining over the horizon.  5 states grant same sex marriage. National polls indicate growing support for marriage equality with a strong majority young voters on our side.  Our opponents are finding little to no support any more, as their old allies realize Americans see them for who they truly are, Dan Whites.

Harvey Milk’s famous saying, “Hello, I’m Harvey Milk and I’m here to recruit you” still rings true. Cleve Jones pointed out an important change in the new voices in our movement.  No longer are LGBTs alone, but straight people are standing with us. They showed up by the thousands on November 15th when the world shouted “No More Hate!” at rallies protesting Proposition 8. They will continue to stand with us all the way to equality and beyond.

It has been 30 years since the White Night Riots.  30 years of bloodshed and struggle, marching and fighting. 30 years of conversations and courageous coming outs. 30 years of wins and losses.  We have come a long way and the end is within reach.

30 years ago today, gays and lesbians said enough is enough. Because they did, today is a peaceful day. The sun is shining and the dark shadows of the past are growing short. There is little doubt, if Harvey Milk could see us now he would be smiling.

Joe Mirabella, who authored this post, is the Washington State Community Organizer for Join the Impact. He and his fiance Joe Brokken are engaged to marry in their home state Iowa this summer. Joe works as a professional writer and content developer for an online retailer.

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