Today is Harvey Milk Day, commemorating the birthday of the gay American civil rights hero. But as we remember his important life’s work promoting gay rights as the first openly gay non-incumbent ever elected to public office, let’s also speak briefly of his death. On November 27, 1978, Dan White, a former member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, assassinated Milk and then Mayor George Moscone. Gay activist and blogger Mike Petrelis recently posted audio of White’s confession to police about Harvey Milk’s murder — it’s both chilling and revealing.
A little background: 17 days before murdering Milk, White resigned from his District 8 City Supervisor seat, telling Mayor Moscone that the seat’s $9,600 salary wasn’t enough to support his family. However, White later changed his mind and asked Moscone that he be re-appointed. Moscone initially agreed but then reneged. White felt that Milk and others on the board had unfairly conspired against him to keep him from reclaiming his seat.
Increasingly distraught by the financial pressure, not being able to see his family because his wife worked 50- and 60-hour weeks and the campaign to keep him out of his renounced seat — a campaign he said involved District 8 residents who’d falsely accused him of taking un-reported corporate donations — White got the revolver he once owned as a city police officer, some stray bullets, concealed the gun in a holster and avoided the City Hall metal detectors by sneaking into a basement window.
White had spoken to Moscone the weekend before Harvey Milk’s murder. White told police, “[Moscone] told me that I would have to show some support from the people of District 8 if I was going to be reappointed. And I could see the game that was being played — they were gonna use me as a scapegoat. Whether I was a good supervisor or not was not the point. This was a political opportunity, and they were gonna denigrate me, my family and the job that I had tried to do, and then hang me out to dry.”
White claimed the mayor had promised to call him before he made any decision, but according to White, he hadn’t. In fact, 30 minutes after his death, Moscone had scheduled a press conference announcing his decision to the world.
In the recording (below) White explained his final conversations between he, Moscone and Milk and the feelings of distress and disassociation he felt before Harvey Milk’s murder:
It was pretty much just, you know, I asked [Moscone] was I going to be reappointed. He said, “No … no you’re not.” And I said, “Why” He said, he said, “Well, I’ve had people in your district say they don’t want you.” And I, I reiterated that I told him before that these were people that had brought false charges against me and had been dogging me since I’ve been in office and that he had been in politics and he understood that there are going to be people that dislike you, you, not everybody as a 100% supporter.
But I told him that oh, you know, an overwhelming majority of the people in my district wanted me as their supervisor and I told him how a person told me last night that they had on their own gone out with neighbors and gathered over a thousand signatures in one day, my constituents, to keep me in office. He knew that, and he told me, “It’s a political decision and that’s the end of it, and that’s it.”
… He could obviously see, see I was obviously distraught and upset and then he said, “Let’s go in the back room and, and have a drink.” And I, I’m not even a drinker, you know, I don’t, once in a while, but I’m not even a drinker. But I just kinda stumbled in the back, went, went, went in the back room and he sat down and he was all, he was talking and nothing was getting through to me.
It was just like a roaring in my ears and … you know, it just wasn’t registering. What I was going to do now, you know, and how this would affect my family, you know and, and just, just all the time knowing he’s going to go out and, and lie to the press and, and tell ’em, you know, that I, I wasn’t a good supervisor and that people didn’t want me, and then that was it. Then I, I just shot him, that was it, it was over.
… I left his office by one of the back doors an’, an’ I started, I was going to go down the stairs and then I saw Harvey Milk’s aide across the hall at the Supervisors an’ then it struck me about what Harvey had tried to do an I said, well, I’ll go talk to him. I said, you know, at least maybe he’ll be honest with me, you know, because he didn’t know I had, I had heard his conversation and he was all smiles and stuff and I went in and, like I say, I, I was still upset an ah. . . .then I said, I wanted to talk to him an, an, an just try to explain to him, you know, I, I didn’t agree with him on a lot of things but I was always honest, you know, and here they were devious and then he started kind of smirking cause he knew, he knew that I wasn’t going to be reappointed.
And ah … it just didn’t make any impression on him. I started to say you know how hard I worked for it and what it meant to me and my family an then my reputation as, as a hard worker, good honest person and he just kind of smirked at me as if to say, “Too bad,” and then, and then I just got all flushed and, and hot, and I shot him.
White shot Moscone in the shoulder, chest and twice in the head. He shot Milk five times, including twice in the head. Then fellow board member Dianne Feinstein heard the gunshots, called police, discovered Milk’s body and then announced it to the members of the press and the audience waiting below. Moscone was 49 years old. Milk was 48.
Immediately after Harvey Milk’s murder, White went to a nearby diner to call his wife. She later met him at a nearby cathedral and the two went to turn White over to police.
Having once been a police officer himself, police sympathized with White’s actions and openly wore “Free Dan White” t-shirts in the days following Harvey Milk’s murder.
Dan White’s trial had a jury of mostly white, middle-class Catholics (people of color and gay people weren’t allowed to serve on juries at the time). The jury sympathized with White’s legal defense that his “diminished capacity” under mental anguish, underhanded political maneuvering and a recent binge on junk food (despite normally being health-conscious) drove White to commit Harvey Milk’s murder. When White was acquitted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 92 month in prison for manslaughter, newspapers labelled it “the Twinkie Defense,” after the popular junk food snack cake White supposedly binged on.
Enraged by the decision, 3,000 protestors took to the streets. They reportedly threw an ignited newsstand booth through the front doors of City Hall and lit police cars on fire. When a reporter asked a rioter why he was destroying city property, the rioter reportedly answered, “Just tell people that we ate too many Twinkies. That’s why this is happening.”
Later that night, police raided the Elephant Walk Bar, a gay bar in the Castro district (nearly two miles away from the riot in City Hall), and randomly began beating patrons and people out in the streets. By the end of the riots, 100 citizens and 61 police officers had been hospitalized from injuries during what would become known as the White Night Riots.
White served a little over five years in prison for Harvey Milk’s murder. When he announced his intention to resume his family life in San Francisco, then Mayor Dianne Feinstein issued a statement asking him not to. White’s wife left him and on October 21, 1985 — a year and a half after his prison release — Dan White killed himself by carbon monoxide poisoning. His brother discovered his body the same day.
At the end of his tape recorded confession, White said, “Well it’s just that, I never really intended to hurt anybody. It’s just this past several months, it got to the point I couldn’t take it and I never wanted the job for ego or you know, perpetuate myself or anything like that. I was just trying to do a good job for the city.”