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UNCLE DONALD'S CASTRO STREET

THE WHITE NIGHT RIOT

as remembered by LELAND FRANCES



The WHITE NIGHT RIOT occurred on May 21st, 1979, the day Dan White got barely a slap on the wrist, his shameless lawyer using the now legendary and infamous Twinkie Defense and the jurors' homophobia to get a ludicrous verdict of manslaughter even though White crawled through a City Hall window to avoid the metal detectors that would have detected his police service revolver and extra bullets, and confessed to then pumping them repeatedly into Mayor Moscone and Milk, and, in both cases, leaning over to fire fatal "coup de gras" shots into their heads after the initial shots knocked them down.

The riot that evolved at City Hall should have dwarfed Stonewall in history because of its greater numbers of participants, their rage (a dozen parked police cars were torched), and its greater significance. With all due respect to the smaller group of Stonewall rioters, many were stoned out of their senses or simply pissed off by yet another routine police raid on a seedy Mafia-owned bar spoiling their fun. Most had no thought at all in the moment to fighting in the name of anyone or anything other than themselves. White Night was a reaction to a right wing former cop [and those he represented] having gotten away with a double murder. Given credit for time served, he was a free man four years later.

I had not moved to SF yet when the assasinations happened, and the best I can imagine what it was like, particularly I believe barely two weeks after Jonestown, effectively another SF horror. Probably much like what one's disoriented senses experience when one dives or falls into a body of water and remains submerged.

There was the absence of a clear coordinated intent to be violent the night of the verdict, of any plan really beyond appearing. Local organizers such as Cleve Jones had been promoting a march to City Hall whenever a verdict was announced, and whatever it was, though few imagined it would be what it would be. One who did, apparently, was Mayor Feinstein. Speaking, a few nights before, at a typical gay fundraiser [her handsome husband slow danced with a drag queen as nonchalantly as if he'd been doing it all his life], she was very somber, and seemed to sense some kind of bad verdict but was afraid to say so explicitly [she had been one of the prosecution witnesses].

It was still daylight when, after news of the mindboggling verdict had begun to explode across the city, someone walked through the Castro with a bullhorn, "Out of the bars and into the streets! Out of the bars and into the streets!" And they came. From the bars and the restaurants and the stores. From side streets and off city buses. A stream of people gathering on Castro and flowing down Market Street toward City Hall, turned into a steady river. Someone was playing a marshaling beat on a snare drum the entire way. Because of gay bashings, it was common then for many SF gays to carry silver police whistles, which, as victim or witness, they'd use effectively to summon help from anyone in earshot. As so much that was spontaneous that night, as they moved under an overpass, they suddenly blew those whistles for all they were worth. Just hearing one whistle can generate a brief, visceral sense of panic, but now hundreds were simultaneously shrieking and wailing‹Disbelief. Grief. Rage. And the sound was magnified and echoed by the overpass concrete, momentarily drowning out the drum's cadence.

The crowd was so huge by the time we were in front of City Hall that attempts to use that bullhorn to convey anything was useless. With no sound system and no plan or even a single human focal point, the crowd struggled with the right way, SOME way, to effectively express the conflicting, raw emotions they were feeling. The glass of the doors on the Polk Street side of City Hall were quickly shattered; their decorative metal bars twisted or broken off entirely. Trash bins on wheels were set on fire and pushed toward the building like burning chariots. At least one parking meter was ripped from the sidewalk and was transformed into a battering ram. Struggles broke out between some who wanted to burn the building itself and those who didn't. Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver, a close friend of Milk, was hit in the mouth by a brick thrown at the balcony from which she tried to calm the crowd. My roommate was punched in the face when he wrenched a large burning paper sign from the hands of the guy who was trying to throw it into the magnificent building. [Constructed of various kinds of stone, neither stopped to think that such a puny flame would have done little more than leave a temporary mark on the marble floor.] I could see a group of cops in riot helmets hovering in the shadows inside, ready to stop anyone who might pass through the broken glass. None, as far as I know, did.

The police became enraged themselves after having been held back most of the night at by their chief who feared a bloodbath [he was soon fired]. After they were set loose, I was one of those clubbed in the back. Some of them later zoomed in their police cars into the, at the moment, 'quiet as a church' Castro, looking for vengeance.

After the steps were finally cleared [that was when I got clubbed, ducking in time to receive only a "glancing blow"], I wanted to hang around and see what else would happen but far enough away from the cops who would eventually use tear gas as well as their clubs. I kinda remember crossing the plaza which previously had been filled with hundreds and hundreds of protestors, but at about McAllister and Larkin I suddenly saw a white kid, maybe 15, striding almost casually along the row of police cars parked on McAllister [only some of which had thus far been set on fire] and using his skateboard like a sledge hammer to smash their windshields. Was he a gay kid who worshipped Harvey Milk? Was he straight but knew a day of historic injustice when he saw it? Or was he simply one of the "punks"?

Not wanting to get clubbed again when the police came to the Castro, my roommate and I watched from the roof of our building at the corner of 18th and Castro as a surreal spectacle unwound below us. Some police pointlessly marching in formation down the middle of Castro Street. Rogue others attacking random bystanders with their clubs, whether or not they were among those yelling "Police out of the Castro!" Others giving first aid to their fellow officers' victims. And the grand climax when some burst through the doors of Elephant Walk bar on the corner clubbing queens to its floor mid-cocktail. One acted out his own rage by furiously smashing the glass of its double front doors.

If it could ever be said that Camp collided with near fatal violence, it happened the moment some, standing in front of what was then Star Pharmacy, realized it was after midnight and, therefore, technically, Harvey Milk's birthday, a celebration of which had been promoted in the previous week's gay papers. Hopefully Singer (in the new movie "The Mayor of Castro street") will dramatize that priceless instant when they suddenly began to sing, "Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday, dear Harvey. Happy birthday, to you!" while shaking their fists at the police, blood running down their faces....

Individual memories of May 21st, 1979, will vary as much as those who were in or outside the Stonewall Inn in 1969 [some swear neither a drag queen nor even simply a nelly queen but a butch dyke ignited the Village crowd's resistance, others don't remember her at all]. But it is probably safe to say that none of us who were at City Hall that night and/or the Castro afterward will ever forget it. And had it not been for the pacifists then and the rising devastation of AIDS two years later, many others would remember, too, and maybe, just maybe, Matthew Shepard would still be alive and Kevin Aviance would not be attending this year's NY Pride parade with his mouth wired shut.

Historians and politicians will never forget "Watts," and it is one of the main reasons things changed for Blacks as quickly as they did [if not yet enough] after decades of little progress. Yet "Stonewall" is mostly just a parade of pansies to them and "White Night" never happened at all, and we're still begging Dems and Repugs to toss us scraps of equality from their tables.

Adapted from comments by Leland Frances,
on the BLOGsite TOWLEROAD,
and used with his permission.


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This page created June 26, 2006
text © 2006 Leland Frances