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Today marks the 40th anniversary of one of the most shocking moments in queer American history. On the night of Nov. 27, 1978, Dan White murdered San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. White, another city supervisor, disgruntled over opposition from Milk and Moscone, killed both men and was eventually given a light sentence. The Harvey Milk assassination and White’s lenient sentencing touched off riots.
Who was Dan White?
Before he was a political force, White represented the old guard of San Francisco as a police officer and firefighter. These days, most civil servants have been evicted from San Francisco by wealthy residents, forced to move to distant suburbs. But in 1977 White was a local and became a part-time city supervisor. Due to his position, he was forced to resign from his other government jobs. For extra money, he took on work as a restaurateur.
White was in favor of commercial development. He butted heads with Mayor Moscone and Milk, who wanted neighbors to have control over construction.
White seems to have decided that Harvey Milk was an enemy after the latter voted to place a group home in White’s district. In retaliation, White voted against an equal rights ordinance for queer citizens. The two butted heads frequently.
Things came to a head on Nov. 10, 1978, when White abruptly resigned from the Board of Supervisors. He simply couldn’t make ends meet on the low salary he earned from the city and from his restaurant business.
That made pro-development groups nervous. Without White on the board, they might lose their influence over city politics. They pressured White to ask for his seat back.
The night of the Harvey Milk assassination
Mayor Moscone decided against reappointing White, and instead chose a housing official who was likely to advocate for sustainable housing policies. On the day that his replacement was to be appointed, White traveled to City Hall with a gun and ammunition.
He broke into City Hall through a window, then found his way to the mayor’s office. The two met privately, and White asked for his job back. The two men argued and finally moved to a more private room where they wouldn’t be overheard.
That was where White shot Moscone twice in the shoulder and chest, then twice more at point-blank range in the head. From there he escaped to Milk’s office and shot him. The fourth and fifth bullets went through Harvey Milk’s head.
Aftermath of the Harvey Milk assassination
The bodies of the two men were found by Dianne Feinstein, then the president of the Board of Supervisors. Tens of thousands of people marched that night from San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood to City Hall, a tradition that continued for years when the city’s queer community faced trauma.
At trial White was convicted of manslaughter, a minor charge that didn’t live up to the Harvey Milk assassination. In response, the queer community rioted, burning police cars and smashing windows at City Hall. It had been about a decade since Stonewall, and LGBT people had learned they could fight back against an establishment that didn’t take their lives seriously.
White served only five years of his seven-year sentence, and he was released on parole in 1984. He never expressed remorse for what he’d done. In fact, Frank Falzon, the detective to whom White turned himself in, said White told him in 1984 that the murder was premeditated — and he had also intended to kill Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver and then-Assemblymember (and future San Francisco mayor) Willie Brown.
White committed suicide on Oct. 21, 1985.