This Day in History: The White Night Riots

On May 21, 1979, riots and protests erupted in the streets of San Francisco over the verdict delivered to Dan White, a former member of the Board of Supervisors who had shot and killed politician Harvey Milk and Mayor George Castro six months prior. The verdict of "Voluntary Manslaughter" was far too lenient for thousands of San Franciscans. A crowd of 500 peaceful protestors set out from Castro Street upon hearing the verdict. By the time they reached City Hall, their numbers had grown to 5,000 and tensions were rising. The police (who had fundraised over $100,000 for Dan White's defense) showed up, enraging the protesters and starting a fight between the two sides. 

Buildup to the Crime

Dan White and Harvey Milk served together on the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco. Initially having a good relationship, the two clashed in April of 1978 over a facility for juvenile criminal offenders and relations between them deteriorated. On November 10, 1978, White resigned his post. Four days later, he appealed to Mayor George Moscone to be reappointed as Supervisor. Ultimately Moscone refused at the behest of Harvey Milk and others. 


On November 27, 1978 (roughly two weeks after being denied re-appointment), White climbed through a window of San Francisco City Hall carrying a gun and 10 rounds of ammunition, and avoiding the building's metal detectors. He went to Mayor Moscone's office and shot him four times, and then went to Harvey Milk's office and shot him five times (two of them being point-blank at Milk's head). 


With the help of psychiatrists Martin Blinder and George Solomon, Dan White's defense convinced the jury that Mr. White had a reduced capacity for rational thought. The assertion was as follows: White was depressed. He had quit his job, his marriage was on the rocks, and he was letting himself go - his appearance was slovenly and his diet was horrible, which caused worsening of his mood swings. Ultimately, the jury found that White was incapable of premeditation and convicted him of voluntary manslaughter. 


Dan White's trial later became known as the "Twinkie Defense." Twinkies were allegedly never mentioned - this monicker had roots in satirical writing following the verdict. His trial additionally resulted in significant reform - premeditation and malice were eliminated from murder laws in California. 

Some could argue that White's murder of Harvey Milk was by modern definition a hate crime - two point-blank shots to the head convey a serious sense of personal hatred. Sexual orientation was not added to California's hate crime legislation until 6 years after Harvey Milk's death, but it was the first state to include it. Suffice to say, things may have turned out very differently for Dan White in 2018.