Harvey Milk

Harvey Milk

Originally uploaded by Thomas Roche

On November 27, 1978, San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk, aka ‘the Mayor of Castro Street,’ and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone were shot to death by a former member of the Board of Supervisors, Dan White, with whom Milk and Moscone had both had numerous conflicts.

Moscone’s death meant the President of the Board of Supervisors, Diane Feinstein, automatically became mayor (and stayed mayor). I have never particularly liked DiFi, but the footage of her announcing the murders to the press is absolutely chilling. She is visibly affected by her grief.

The murders occurred about ten days after the deaths at the Peoples Temple in Guyana, including that of SF Bay Area Representative Leo Ryan, the only US Representative to die in the line of duty. Also killed in Jonestown were hundreds of San Francisco residents (the Peoples Temple had been located in SF before moving to South America). Dan White, who was campaigning for reinstatement after resigning from the Board of Supervisors, was reportedly angry that he had been pushed from the headlines by Jonestown. He was also angry that Moscone had decided not to reinstate him, but to replace him with someone who represented the growing ethnic diversity of White’s Sunset neighborhood, and the more liberal views of the city government.

At White’s trial, his defense argued that he had diminished capacity because of depression, as reflected in his consumption of sugary junk food. Herb Caen coined the term ‘Twinkie Defense.’ White was found to be incapable of premeditation and therefore was found guilty of manslaughter, rather than murder. Protests against the verdict erupted in the White Night Riots.

I remember reading the opinion of the San Francisco Bay Guardian about one of the ballot measures that sought to reinstate district supervisorial elections, which had been repealed shortly after the murders. The Guardian’s view was that neither Milk, a liberal and openly gay supervisor from the Castro district, or White, an Irish-American ex-cop from the conservative Sunset district, could have been elected in a citywide election. The Guardian seemed, 15 years ago, to favor leaving them repealed, weirdly on the basis that district elections caused strife and look what happened to Harvey Milk. It was a strange argument. But here SF is with district supervisors again, and for quite some time now.

Any consideration of Milk must mention the brilliant documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, which covers Milk’s life and the history of his neighborhood as well as the murders.

And let’s not forget Gus Van Sant’s Milk, starring Sean Penn as Harvey. It’s getting great reviews.

Image: Harvey Milk, 1978, by Crawford Barton courtesy of the SF GLBT Historical Society, via Wikipedia.


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