May 21, 1979: The White Night riots begin.

On November 27, 1978, Harvey Milk - San Francisco’s first and one of the country’s first openly gay elected officials - was shot and killed by San Francisco supervisor Dan White (also killed in the attack was Mayor George Moscone). White and Milk had served together (and often clashed on issues while serving together) on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors under Dianne Feinstein for around ten months before White, citing his disgust at the corruption of city politics and his need for a higher salary, resigned his position as supervisor. After Moscone declined his request for re-appointment to his position at Milk’s (and others’) urging, White assassinated both men at San Francisco City Hall. 

White’s trial officially began on May 1, 1979. The jury announced its verdict three weeks later after 36 hours of deliberation  White was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to seven years in prison; his defense team had successfully argued that, because of White’s spiral into depression (as evidenced by his change in diet from healthy foods to junk food), he would have been unable to premeditate murder, therefore making it impossible for him to be charged with first degree murder. Instead, White’s assassination of Milk and Mayor Moscone was defined as third degree murder, a “heat of passion” crime, and the least severe conviction White could have managed to leave the courtroom with, despite the fact that White had admitted to planning the assassinations of Carol Ruth Silver and Willie Brown. 

The “White Night riots” began in the Castro District (where Harvey Milk began his work as a gay rights activist) as a gathering of several hundred people, mostly members of the Castro’s LGBT community. Enraged over White’s light sentence, thousands of protesters erupted into violence, and riots broke out near City Hall. By the end of the incident, during which policemen indiscriminately attacked rioters and vice versa, sixty-one policemen and around 100 protesters were hospitalized. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, tensions between San Francisco’s conservative elements and its growing minority populations increased as the latter groups gained political and economic influence - this hostile divide was apparent within the Board of Supervisors, in the conflict between White (who was relatively conservative) and Milk, and in the White Night riots, which pitted the city’s police department, which had raised money for White’s defense, against the city’s gay community, which had been revitalized under Milk’s leadership and by his election.

In 1985, Dan White committed suicide. Harvey Milk was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. 

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