Monday, May 02, 2016

White Night Riots Redux

On Friday night, the streets around City Hall were shut down for filming When We Rise, an 8-hour minisieries for ABC about the history of the gay rights movement in San Francisco and beyond. The all-night shoot on Polk Street in front of City Hall was devoted to filming establishing shots of the May 21, 1979 White Night Riots with the violent sequences involving burning police cars and people being clubbed by the police having already been filmed in Vancouver, B.C. a couple of weeks ago.

For those unfamiliar with local history, Supervisor Dan White, who represented "traditional" San Francisco values, murdered leftist SF Mayor George Moscone and gay SF Supervisor Harvey Milk on November 27, 1978 in City Hall. He then turned himself in to an old Catholic high school buddy at a police station and was treated with kid gloves throughout a bungled, lengthy trial, where everything from junk food to leftist agitators were blamed for his assassinations rather than his peevish rage and homophobic bigotry. The verdict of manslaughter with its accompanying light sentence was shocking, inciting a protest march from the Castro to Civic Center which ended in a riot in front of City Hall. This was followed by a rogue contingent of SF Police Department officers beating the crap out of people on the sidewalks and bars of the Castro District before they were ordered to disperse.

For a concise post about what went down that night, click here for Uncle Donald's Castro Street website. There are a few details I would like to add that didn't make it into the historical record, but which struck me as interesting. The verdict was announced in the late afternoon, and I found out about it when a TV news van came screeching to a halt in front of the Twin Peaks bar and a reporter stuck a microphone in front of my face. "What do you think of the verdict?" they asked, and I countered with, "What was the verdict?" "Manslaughter." After expressing my disgust, the reporter's next question was, "Do you think there will be a riot?" and I responded, "I certainly hope so." I was on my way to work out at the City Athletic Club (known to initiates as the Sissy Athletic Club), but grabbed my gym bag and joined the spontaneous, angry march that went down Market Street to City Hall.

At the end of a protest march in those days, there would usually be a microphone or bullhorn set up in front of City Hall along with a roster of speakers, but none of that existed on this evening so nobody quite knew what to do. Somebody finally broke some windows at City Hall and immediately the TV news crew lights popped on. Then, when nothing else violent happened, they would go dark. Another crash and on came the TV lights again. The effect was predictably Pavlovian, and the media-induced vandalism was bizarre to witness as it spiraled out of control.

One of Mayor Moscone's first acts in office was to bring an outsider, Charles Gain, to reform the historically corrupt, insular, thuggish San Francisco Police Department. The Police Officers Association hated Moscone and Gain, and there were credible reports of policemen cheering Dan White when he first showed up at the station for his confession. On the night of the riots, the police inside City Hall were ordered at first by Gain to step down and not to confront the protesters because he didn't trust them to stay in any kind of control. Meanwhile, according to my late friend Mick McMullin, a teenaged Polk Street hustler who was next to him shouted, "Let's get some stuff for fire." The kid then broke plate-glass windows at a Goodyear tire store nearby, and joined with others to throw them into police cruisers, leading to the infamous conflagration of cop cars burning in front of City Hall. This was the final straw and the police were sent out to battle the protesters whose numbers had swelled to the thousands by this point.

Sensing that the scene was going to get seriously violent, I fled and jumped on Muni back to the Castro district, stopping at a few gay bars to spread the news of what I had seen. The response from most of the patrons was "tsk, tsk, this kind of behavior is not good for our image, people should work through the system." This turned out to be darkly ironic in that a rogue battalion of police officers invaded the neighborhood later that evening and beat the crap out of those mostly apolitical drinkers, with the Elephant Walk bar at 18th and Castro bearing the brunt of most of the official mayhem. (The Badlands bar bolted their doors to protect their patrons from the marauding police, trapping everyone inside.)

Before the police riot occurred, I met a friend on the quiet Castro Street sidewalks and we went to his place where we watched TV coverage of the City Hall riot. Leaving his place to go home, I stumbled across a remarkable scene -- thousands of neighborhood residents slowly pushing a phalanx of policemen backwards up Castro Street after their raid as they shouted, "Get out! Get out!" A few minutes after my arrival, word of this rogue operation had finally filtered back to Chief Gain and he ordered everyone out over the radio. I watched as various police officers banged mailboxes, flower boxes, and windows with their batons in violent anger at not being able to smash any more heads. It took six years of frustration and heartache for the owner of the Elephant Walk and its patrons to receive a pitiful settlement from the city of San Francisco (click here for Fred Rogers' account), and to this date there has never been any apology or acknowledgement of this thuggish behavior by the San Francisco Police Department. Chief Gain, by the way, was fired by Mayor Dianne Feinstein in 1980. (Pictured above is Alex, the amiable production assistant directing pedestrian traffic at City Hall on Friday.)

Something else that has been little noted about the evening was that the rioters were not only white, middle-class, young gay men from the Castro neighborhood, but that they were joined by the black underclass from housing projects in the Western Addition nearby. It's the the only time I have seen those two groups in San Francisco standing and fighting together in solidarity in my forty-plus years living in this city. After the White Night Riots, the gay population stopped being beaten up with impunity by the SFPD because the local establishment was publicly shamed internationally. The white, gay middle class was eventually co-opted into the local power structure, culminating in the dreary spectacle of gay Supervisor Scott Weiner cheerleading for embattled SFPD Chief Greg Suhr whose department continues to bash and murder people of color with alarming regularity out of sheer, backwards racism. It is time to put a stop to that kind of behavior too. If you are free, there is to be a march on Tuesday from Mission Police Station at 17th and Valencia to City Hall at 12:30PM with hunger strikers in wheelchairs who are demanding the resignation of Police Chief Suhr, with a rally at City Hall at 2PM.


Hattie said...

Thanks for this very fine report. The battle is not over yet. The cops killed someone here a couple of weeks ago, and all I saw was a short mention on an inside page of the paper.
In retrospect it is beyond belief that a man could murder a mayor and get away with nothing more than a manslaughter conviction. Unless it's a cop killing a black person, of courss, in which case no charges are filed.
I really hate this country sometimes.

whabbear said...

Absolutely fascinating, particularly the nugget about the Pavlovian response of the medial to each act of violence! Thanks, Michael!


All I can say is wow, this is overwhelming. To think after all this time we have come only a short way in this long road of bigotry. So much hate and when a large part of it is within our police department, something is seriously wrong.

Civic Center said...

Thanks, Hattie, Rob (whabbear) and Seasidelady. This was hard to write without getting too angry all over again, especially since the SFPD hasn't gotten much better over the years.

Prof. Hubbard said...

Thank you for the history lesson, Michael.

janinsanfran said...

One of the best riots I ever attended ... Those burning police cars were a lovely sight. I was reporting for an LA lesbian publication ..but in those days I never missed a good riot. Too slow now.

Actually, in 1989 SFPD officers went rogue again in what was called the Castro Sweep, charging into astonished passersby and bar-goers after an AIDS demo. They declared a seven block area "an unlawful assembly." There were 10 people seriously injured.

In this instance, I think the Police Officers Association was defying Mayor Art Agnos who was friendly to the gay community.

These days, you'd think they were undermining Mayor Ed Lee, except there is no evidence he is not part of the problem.

Civic Center said...

Dear Jan: "One of the best riots I ever attended" is going to be my new mantra. And I hear you on the "too slow now" part. I'd attended Vietnam War protest marches as a teenager and knew how to stay on sidelines and run when appropriate when uniformed stormtroopers looked to be getting ready to attack. I noticed then that most of the people being beaten to a pulp by the police were privileged young people who knew nothing about how brutal and dangerous police officers can actually be. You had to pay attention or you'd be like those poor people in the Elephant Walk who were trying to ignore it all.

Nancy Ewart said...

I worked the ER at Davies Medical Center that night - the casualties never stopped coming. We all worked a double shift to try and take care of the tide of battered people. That idiotic twinkie defense! Bah humbug.

Hattie said...

Who knows what we are in for now, with the Trumpmonster within reach of the presidency!
Anyway, Michael, I wasn't able to find a way to contact you except through your blog. Are you available for a get-together in SF on Tuesday, May 24? At least one of the usual suspects says she can make it. I'll be staying in the Chinatown area. Any suggestions for activities would be most welcome!
Marianna Scheffer aka "Hattie."

Civic Center said...

Dear Hattie: I'm a working class hero in Silicon Valley this month doing 12-hour days so won't be able to make it to a get-together. You can get hold of me at this email address:

Hattie said...

Sorree, Michael, but I know what it's like in this gig economy + getting around the Bay Area. Best to you.