On this day- May 21st, in 1979, inside a jury room 12 people were deliberating whether to find former Supervisor Dan White guilty of murdering then Mayor George Moscone & gay rights leader, City 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.
On the afternoon of May 21st, 1979, the jury, which included no out Gay people, rendered its verdict finding White guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter, thus saving him from being sentenced to death.
The pain & shock over the assassinations of the 2 beloved progressive politicians still simmering, many Gay residents, as well as straight allies, were angered & outraged by the outcome of White's murder trial.
Thousands of people descended on the Castro, as planned, the evening of May 21, 1979 & proceeded to march to the Civic Center, where another large crowd had gathered to protest the jury's decision.
As evening came, emotions boiled over & the crowd surged the building, smashing windows & trying to break through the front doors. A line of police cars parked nearby were set on fire, sending smoke & fire into the night sky.
In retaliation, police raided the Elephant Walk, a gay bar in the heart of the Castro. The culmination of events became known as the White Night Riots & it took decades before the rift between police & the city's LGBT community would be healed.
Not all the protesters were 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.
It marked the last time local gay people would be afraid to stand up and fight for their rights.
State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, then a public school teacher, took part in the events of that night: "We were in no mood. This guy had killed a hero of ours & a friend of ours & he got treated like he had shoplifted. Dan White was a former cop & he got away with murder. 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. I just thought it taught us you can not be too docile. You really do have to be strong."
Mark Leno, now an openly gay man serving in the state Senate: “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. 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. 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 & we have had to be vigilant every step of the way so as not to ever lose anything we have again.”
The next morning gay leaders convened in a committee room in the Civic Center. Supervisor Harry Britt, who had replaced Milk made it clear that nobody was to apologize for the riots. Britt: "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."
That day, May 22, would have been the 49th birthday of Harvey Milk. City officials had considered revoking the permit for a rally planned for that night, but decided against it for fear of sparking more violence. Officials stated that the rally could channel the community's anger into something positive. Police from San Francisco and its neighboring towns were placed on alert by Mayor Feinstein, & my hero- Cleve Jones coordinated contingency plans with the police. More than 20,000 people gathered on Castro & Market streets. The crowd engaged in a peaceful celebration of Milk's life. Attendees danced to disco songs, drank beer, & sang a tribute to Milk.
5 months later, on October 14, 1979, more than 100,000 people marched on Washington DC for gay rights. Many carried portraits of Milk, and placards honoring his legacy.The rally, something that Milk had intended to organize, was instead a tribute to his life.