Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Thirty years ago, the White Night riots inflamed San Francisco


Police stand inside City Hall during the White Night riots. Photo: Dan Nicoletta
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Just as today's LGBT community awaits on pins and needles for a court decision on whether voters had the right to rescind marriage rights to same-sex couples through the ballot box, gay residents of San Francisco 30 years ago today (Thursday, May 21) were also anxious to learn about the outcome of another courthouse drama.

Inside a jury room 12 people were deliberating whether to find former Supervisor Dan White guilty of murdering then Mayor George Moscone and gay rights leader Supervisor Harvey Milk on the morning of November 27, 1978. White's attorney mounted what became known as the Twinkie defense, arguing that he had temporarily lost his mind due to the sugary snacks he had consumed.

Having witnessed a trial many found rigged in favor of White, the LGBT community did not have high hopes that White would be convicted of murder. Their fears were realized when the jury, which included no out LGBT people, rendered its verdict finding White guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter, thus saving him from being sentenced to death.

Their pain and shock over the assassinations of the two beloved progressive politicians still simmering, many LGBT residents, as well as straight allies, were angered and outraged by the outcome of White's murder trial. Thousands of people descended on the Castro, as planned, the evening of May 21, 1979 and proceeded to march to the Civic Center, where another large crowd had gathered to protest the jury's decision.

As day turned into night, and people's emotions boiled over, the crowd set upon the building, smashing windows and trying to break through the front doors. A line of police cars parked nearby was then set on fire, sending plumes of smoke and flames into the sky.

In retaliation, police raided the Elephant Walk, a gay bar in the heart of the Castro where Harvey's now sits at the corner of 18th and Castro streets. The culmination of events became known as the White Night riots and it would be decades before the rift between police and the city's LGBT community would be healed.

"It was like being on a movie set," recalled J.D. Petras, who was 21 at the time and took part in the demonstration. "It was incredible, like being in a World War II bombing or something. To see the police cars burning, to hear windows smashing and people screaming, the Civic Center was just torn apart."

Petras, who admitted to throwing a trash can that night, said to this day he feels proud of how the LGBT community rose up and demonstrated its anger.

"This was the last straw. You knew things were going to change," he said. "It was not my style to be damaging things, but sometimes you just have to make a statement that enough is enough."

Not all those present that day took part in the mayhem. A line of people had locked arms in front of City Hall in an attempt to hold back the crowd from doing further damage to the building.

Partners Bob Heacock, 62, and John Blackburn, 57, first met that night on the building's steps. Heacock, a friend of Milk's and treasurer of the San Francisco Gay Democratic Club, since renamed in Milk's honor, locked eyes with Blackburn and slipped him his phone number.

"The verdict was not what we wanted. A lot of angry people met in the Castro and were chanting 'Harvey dies, Dan White lies.' By reflex, people met in the Castro and

John Blackburn, left, and Bob Heacock met on the night of the White Night riots 30 years ago. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
then marched to the Civic Center," recalled Heacock. "We were on the steps and heard the windows crashing. A group of us in the gay political movement felt responsible for saving City Hall."

Blackburn, working then as an aide to former Supervisor Louise Renne, had exited the building to witness the commotion out front. He heard Heacock call for people to lock arms and linked up with him. Looking out at the scene was "totally bizarre. It was very Fellini-esque," said Blackburn, who himself was hit by a rock and went to a nearby emergency room for treatment.

Looking back upon the events of that night three decades ago, those LGBT people who took part in it see no need to apologize for their involvement in what they considered to be San Francisco's Stonewall. It marked the last time local gay people would be afraid to stand up and fight for their rights.

"I think it was totally justified. I think everyone should have been rioting. It was mostly a queer riot but our mayor had also been killed. The verdict was a total shame," said participant Ruth Mahaney, 64, an out lesbian who teaches gay and lesbian history at City College. "The verdict was so wrong it could not go unchallenged. If the riot had not happened, it would have gone unchallenged in a way."

State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), then a public school teacher, also took part in the events of that night. He said the crowd's response was justified.

"We were in no mood. This guy had killed a hero of ours and a friend of ours and he got treated like he had shoplifted," said Ammiano. "Dan White was a former cop and he got away with murder."

Ammiano said he derived hope from the community's response.

"In a strange way I am grateful that when the verdict came out people were not just silent. I am glad we were so vocal," he said. "I just thought it taught us you can not be too docile. You really do have to be strong."

Standing in the Civic Center crowd that night was a young businessman named Mark Leno, now an openly gay man serving in the state Senate. He said the White Night riots were "the culmination of many changes that were impacting the city at that time. It was as if it all came to a head through the outrage of the injustice of Dan White's sentence."

He said the "raw anger" people felt because of the jury's decision added to the intensity of the moment, something San Francisco needed to go through in order for its populace to heal, said Leno.

His own entrance into politics is cemented in that night and time.

"It was a jolt to the civic fabric as if we had to experience all of that to be able to move forward to become the city that we have become today," said Leno. "The experience I had at that time continues to inform my public office today. That we have had to fight for every right that we have gained and we have had to be vigilant every step of the way so as not to ever lose anything we have attained."

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