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What were the White Night Riots?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 30 July 2014
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The White Night Riots were two riots which took place in the city of San Francisco on 21 May, 1979, after a controversial trial verdict was announced. In the course of the riots, the Civic Center and Castro districts both incurred substantial damage, and numerous arrests were made. Ultimately, the White Night Riots even resulted in several civil suits against the San Francisco Police Department from people who claimed that they were abused during the course of the riots; patrons of the Elephant Walk bar in particular cited widespread abuse of power by police officers.

The events leading up to the White Night Riots started on 27 November, 1978, when an ex-supervisor named Dan White walked into City Hall and shot Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone in cold blood. In the course of White's subsequent trial, the defense put forward the now-infamous Twinkie Defense; they claimed that White was not in his right mind, using his consumption of copious amounts of junk food in the months preceding the murders as evidence of a disturbed mental state.

The City of San Francisco waited with intense interest for the verdict in the case. Harvey Milk was one of the first openly gay officials in the United States, and he was a beloved citizen of a city which has long been famous for its open attitude about the gay community. When the verdict came back as manslaughter, rather than murder, with a sentence of only seven years, the city erupted.

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Angry protesters gathered at Market and Castro Streets, the heart of The Castro, San Francisco's gay district. A spontaneous march to City Hall began, and despite efforts to calm the crowd, people started going wild in the Civic Center district. Cars were set on fire, windows were broken, fires were started inside City Hall, and the police began to respond, attempting to break up the crowd. Several policeman were injured in the first of the White Night Riots, setting the stage for increased violence in the second riot.

The second of the White Night Riots occurred in The Castro, where people reconvened after being dispersed from City Hall. Still restless and angry, the crowd continued to act up, and the police waded into the fray. Some off-duty and out of uniform police arrived to lend support, making it hard to distinguish between rioters and police, and angry police officers landed a few blows in retaliation for their wounded fellows from the City Hall riot. Some witnesses claimed that policeman arrived with active vengeance in mind, rather than simple crowd control, although the San Francisco Police Department remains silent on the issue.

After the White Night Riots, a grand jury investigation was convened to determine who was responsible, and several substantial settlements for personal injuries and property damages were made. Harvey Milk remains an icon in San Francisco's gay community, as well as an inspirational figure to gay politicians in many other corners of the world.

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