Thursday, November 27, 2008

Harvey Milk and 30 years

Minneapolis, Minnesota

On Tuesday, on one of the rare occasions she has done so during the past 30 years, Dianne Feinstein spoke about the events in San Francisco, Nov. 27, 1978, that started her on the path to national prominence as a United States senator from California.

In an interview with Rachel Gordon of the San Francisco Chronicle, Feinstein, who in 1978 was president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, recounted how she had found the bullet-riddled body of her colleague, Supervisor Harvey Milk, and checked for his pulse by placing a finger into one of the bullet holes.

Milk had been murdered with five shots fired at close range from the gun of former Supervisor Dan White. Minutes before killing Milk, White had used four bullets to kill Mayor George Moscone in his City Hall office.

Moscone was a progressive figure, intent on opening up San Francisco's political culture to a host of groups who had not been part of the city's power structure. Milk had been elected in 1977 as the first openly-gay official in California, representing the Castro neighborhood. White, who had represented a more conservative district, had recently resigned his seat on the Board and then changed his m
ind. Moscone, who had stated publicly that he would reappoint White, was persuaded not to do so by Milk and others.

The murders capped a tumultuous period in San Francisco's history. Nine days earlier, Leo Ryan, the area's congressional representative, was one of 900 people – many of them from the Bay Area – who died in a wave of homicides and suicides at the People's Temple cult community in Jonestown, Guyana. Even earlier, the city had been the scene of the Patricia Hearst kidnapping, the Zebra killings, and the Golden Dragon restaurant massacre.

Feinstein became interim mayor and later won election to the post in her own right.

White's conviction, May 21, 1979, on two counts of voluntary manslaughter – instead of premeditated, 1st degree murder – prompted the White Night Riots by San Francisco's gay community. His trial gave rise and national prominence to the "Twinkie defense."

White's release on parole after a mere five years in prison occasioned a protest rally on Castro and Market Streets. Live entertainment was provided by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, the Dead Kennedys band, and the folk singer Blackberry. James Davies and I were in San Francisco at the time and attended the January 1984 event.

White asphyxiated himself, Oct. 21, 1985.

Three weeks before the 1978 assassinations, Milk and the nascent, national gay and lesbian communities had celebrated the defeat of California Proposition 6, The Briggs Initiative. The initiative would have banned gay men and lesbians from teaching in California's public schools. Sponsored by John Briggs, Orange County's representative in the state assembly, the measure received overwhelming initial public support. Milk helped lead the statewide opposition. Opponents included Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. Voters defeated the measure by more than a million votes.

• • • • •

On Wednesday, my reading about the Chronicle's interview with Feinstein prompted a visceral sadness that brought tears to my eyes as I recalled the turbulence of those days. Consciously, we may move on in life, but feelings stay with us. However, at the same time this emotion surged, the instant realization that fully 30 years had passed gave me a mental image that felt as though an intellectual file drawer had slammed shut on those events. The passage of 30 years suddenly had relegated them to a more objective and non-present lens of history.

I was startled to read Feinstein's comments that Milk and White had met weekly as colleagues, if not friends, for morning coffee in the Castro neighborhood. This information is confirmed in an essay for the Chronicle by Willie Brown, a former member of the California Assembly and a former mayor of San Francisco. Somehow, this bit of history has not been part of the popular myths and legends that have evolved surrounding the life and times of Harvey Milk.

, a film by Gus Van Sant about that life and those times, opened nationally on Wednesday. It received its world premiere showing at the Castro Theatre, Oct. 28. It features Sean Penn as Milk, Josh Brolin as White, Victor Garber as Moscone, Emile Hirsch as Milk confidant Cleve Jones, and James Franco and Diego Luna as Milk's lovers.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

We value water, land, legacy

Minneapolis, Minnesota

In an email to supporters today, Paul Austin, executive director, Conservation Minnesota, thanked volunteers for their work to pass The Clean Water, Land, and Legacy Amendment to the Minnesota Constitution:

Minnesotans proved yesterday that clean water and conservation are a top priority. More Minnesota voters cast ballots for the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment than voted for either Barack Obama, John McCain, Norm Coleman or Al Franken. More Minnesotans voted for the Amendment than voted in 2002 and 2006 for Governor Pawlenty or for Senator Amy Klobuchar in 2006.

As of mid-morning, the total voting in favor of the Amendment was 1,634,027. Counting unmarked ballots, which are considered ‘no’ votes, 56.08% of voters supported the Amendment! ....

Congratulations to all of you and all Minnesotans for making a lasting difference for our magnificent state.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


Minneapolis, Minnesota

Some poets romanticize it as "the majesty of the people," those long lines of folks waiting to celebrate winning events or pay respect to fallen leaders. On this day, we simply call it waiting to vote, and in Minneapolis the morning dawned with picture perfection.

The precinct where I live on the edge of downtown Minneapolis consists of 28 city blocks. About 4,500 of us live there. Until today, I have never seen so many people from the neighborhood on the streets at the same time.

After joining the line a block from the entrance to our polling place at the Minnesota Church Center, it took an hour of waiting before my ballot was handed to me. It was a lovely wait. Bright blue skies. Temperatures approaching 70 degrees – on Nov. 4! Sunlight sparkling off the golden leaves still clinging to their trees. The slightest of breezes. Some quiet conversations taking place here and there. Mostly, though, quiet.

I remarked to the woman in front of me that it felt like waiting in line before an Obama rally. "Isn't that what this is?" she replied.

The residents of my neighborhood are 98% renters and mostly young, students, and others starting to get their bearings in life and the city. Such a wonderful and motley lot! In small groups they share daily the tales of their toils on front stoops, in coffee shops, and online.

To look at them waiting to vote is to see calm, certitude, and strength. They are the future. They know why they are there. A few ideologues there may be, but no one has brainwashed them. Things have gone awry and they are there to take it back. They are voting their hopes and their dreams.

I love every one of them for it.

McCain may receive 60 votes from Precinct 6-4. There will be a handful of votes for four or five others. The rest belong to Obama.

When Marilyn finally handed me my ballot, I remarked that today's turnout will make up for all those years when she and her colleagues waited all day for 95 of us to show up. For the past 36 years, I have not missed a primary, general, or special election save one. People who think their votes do not count should participate in a primary election for municipal candidates!

There are small-print decisions to be made on two sides – three columns to a side – of a legal sized ballot. In addition to state and city questions, we have candidates for president, Congress, the legislature, school board, soil and water conservation commission, and more than 30 judicial races.

When I feed my ballot into the tabulating machine at 11:24, the counter notes that I am number 738. I calculate that 190 have voted each hour since 7am. After applying the red "I Voted" sticker to my sweater, I head out and count another 150 people standing in line, with more approaching from all directions. At that rate, 2,500 will complete their voting by 8pm.

Walking through downtown on the Nicollet Mall, the red stickers appear everywhere. These are our badges of majesty, worn by us who have drunk the kool-aid of America.

We believe.