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.

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