Saturday, November 27, 2010

Pop History Moment: MILK, MOSCONE SLAIN

On this day in 1978 Dan White - an emotionally unstable and homophobic ex-cop, who'd been gunning for the openly-gay Harvey Milk for years - calmly walked into Milk's office in San Francisco City Hall and finally got him, gunning him down in cold blood; by then he'd already been to the office of Mayor George Moscone, shot and killed him, and reloaded - all without being detected...

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketHaving spent several days planning the killings - in which spree he'd also hoped to include Carol Ruth Silver (an outspoken liberal on the city's Board of Supervisors) as well as Willie Brown - White sneaked into City Hall through a basement window to avoid the metal detectors (even going so far as planning to bring extra ammunition with him) then apparently set about his task in a very business-like manner.

At the root of White's ire was the fact that he'd previously resigned his seat on the Board of Supervisors in a fit of pique, then regretted it almost instantly. Moscone hadn't regretted accepting it, though; in fact, he'd already chosen a successor, Don Horanzy. White had long been a thorn in Moscone's side, often voting against progressive initiatives simply out of partisan bias, and the Mayor was said to be glad to get rid of such an obstreperous and divisive individual so easily.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketWhen Dan White later turned himself in to the police (intentionally at the same precinct house where he'd once worked) he denied having acted with premeditation, which blatant lie his old buddies were only too happy to believe. The courts too - which, rather than sentencing him to first-degree murder, charged him instead with voluntary manslaughter due to diminished capacity, citing the rightfully notorious Twinkie defense. Outrage over its use in this instance led to the State of California's outlawing of the diminished capacity defense, in much the same way the Matthew Shepard case led to a widespread banning of the so-called 'homosexual panic defense' a generation later.

Owing to the most specious defense in legal history, when White's slap on the wrist verdict was handed down in May 1979 - the day before what would have been Harvey Milk's 49th birthday - rioting by a mostly gay male mob erupted in San Francisco's Civic Center: windows were smashed in City Hall, parking meters uprooted, and police cars torched. Known as the White Night Riots, they represent the most significant demonstration of outrage ever committed by a gay community, possibly even greater than the Stonewall Riots themselves*; supporters of California's Proposition H8 should consider themselves grateful that we as a community have done some considerable evolution in the three decades since then...

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketDan White was paroled in 1984, no doubt having come to terms with what was a fatal ambivalence to butt sex after spending five years of a seven-year stretch at Soledad State Prison; he committed suicide less than two years after his release. While that outcome might have startled White's imaginary nemesis, Milk had been calmly resigned to his own fate; prior to his death, he recorded a will in which he posited that his own death would likely be at the hands of 'somebody who is insecure, terrified, afraid, or very disturbed themselves' - as good a description of Dan White as has ever been made.

Not only are the events of this terrible day recorded in Randy Shilts' must-read memoir The Mayor of Castro Street - reporting which formed the basis for the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk - they're as central to Armistead Maupin's 1982 novel Further Tales of the City and the miniseries spawned by it as they are to Gus Van Sant's instant classic Oscar-bait biopic Milk, in which Harvey Milk is played by Sean Penn and Dan White by Josh Brolin.

*A controversial statement, to be true, but given the massive increase in gay-themed stories being covered in the mainstream media between June 1969 and May 1979, the White Night Riots generated far more attention at the time they occurred than their Manhattan counterparts had, even though the event in San Francisco never would have been possible without the legacy of Stonewall.

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1 comment:

Wynn Kozak said...

Another excellent post, Michael. I still haven't seen the movie "Milk" and really want to.