Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The White Night Riot, 21 May 1979, and Lesbians Against Police Violence

White Night Flyer, May 21, 1979. San Francisco.
(Flyer created and distributed by Lesbians Against Police Violence and The Stonewall Coalition [mixed-gender lesbian/gay organization allied with LAPV] in Summer 1979 in the aftermath of the White Night Riots; Maggie is pretty sure the graphic was drawn by Emily Siegel.)

Today is the 29th Anniversary of the
Most Important Lesbian and Gay Riot Ever

My close friend Maggie Jochild (and good friend of GNB) was there.

The police estimate was there were at least 3,000 lesbian and gays in the rioting. As we all know, police estimates traditionally undercount actual numbers.

The numbers were HUGE.

The rally was lesbian led, Maggie being one of the leaders. The eruption into violence was led by white gay men, Harvey Milk having been their pioneer.

Yet most of those injured were women and or people of color.

The riot began after a jury returned only a verdict of manslaughter in the trial of Dan White (thus the White Night Riot) whose defense team originated the infamous “Twinkie” defense. (Details at the link.)

White, a former police officer and San Francisco City Supervisor, had been charged with first-degree murder for the assassinations of San Francisco City Mayor George Moscone and San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk.

A note about the so-called “Twinkie” defense. While it was played in court, literally, as that White had been eating so much junk-food that it diminished his capacity, thus being one of the reasons he “lost it”, what really was going on in court was emphasis on the double-meaning of the word “Twinkie.” White's defense team rammed home for the jury how Milk smirked at him, while refusing to hire him back. The faggot, “smirked.”

Obviously, no former cop such as White, could take a faggot besmirching his honor and masculinity by not just refusing to hire him back, but “smirking” at him. Had White only killed Mayor Moscone (a true progressive) White would no doubt have been convicted of first-degree murder. But kill that faggot Milk, the “Twinkie” for smirking... Shit-fire boy, that faggot had it coming.

Thus... the White Night Riot.

Meta Watershed

Today is the 29th anniversary of the largest lesbian and gay riot in the history of the world. Not only was I there, I was one of the women in Lesbians Against Police Violence responsible for the rally from which it arose.

I've written about LAPV in other posts, such as Tania: 33 Years Later. In one, Dianne Feinstein, Opportunist, I give a good brief history of the events leading up to Dan White's cold-blooded assassinations of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and City Supervisor Harvey Milk. I refer you to that for background.

Another excellent source is an article by LAPV members and women I worked closely with, Pam David and Lois Helmbold, in Radical America, Vol 13, no.4 July- August 1979, found online at Sexuality and the State: The Defeat of the Briggs Initiative and Beyond (scroll down about 2/5 of the document to find the pertinent Radical America extract).

LAPV stood in radical opposition to police harassment of minority communities. We saw Dan White's assassination as a rage reprisal by a former cop against progressive forces (not just gay) and linked it to the larger picture of male and white domination. I think it's critical to remember that the riot which came from our agitation was the result of revolutionary lesbians speaking out against the ultimate forces of power in our society, not a bunch of "gays" upset about a verdict.

Several years ago I wrote my own memoir of the event. I'm going to include that below. Not long afterward, I was interviewed by Christina B. Hanhardt, who was writing a doctoral thesis in American Studies at New York University on "Butterflies, Whistles, and Fists: Safe Streets Patrols and the ‘New’ Gay Ghetto". Her interview with me and other LAPVers, as well as review of primary source documents (mostly from the papers I donated to the Meg Barnett Papers in the Queer Nation Collection at the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Transgender Historical Society in San Francisco) formed Chapter Two of her thesis, "Safe Space: Sexual Minorities, Uneven Urban Development, and the Politics of Violence". At a later date, I will include this chapter in a post covering LAPV in more historical depth.

White Night Riot, march in progress at 18th and Castro, May 21, 1979, roughly one hour before the riot started.
(March to City Hall just beginning, near 18th and Castro; perhaps an hour before all-out White Night Riot in San Francisco, 21 May 1979. Mount Sutro tower visible in background; buses are already being stopped.)


© 2008 by Maggie Jochild

The day after the riot, my feelings about it began to change. I was driving a morning route then, delivering something called Veggie Rolls to natural foods store in San Francisco. There were dozens of such stores in 1979. I had arranged my route to go through the Mission, Noe Valley, Bernal and Potrero Hill neighborhoods first, hit SoMa and downtown during the mid morning lull, then head out to the Haight and the Avenues, ending up at Ocean Beach in the afternoon, where I fed the day-old rolls to a keening flock of gulls. On the morning of May 22, however, I began my day by driving past City Hall on the way to Polk Gulch.

I approached it from an indirect route so I could look across the square first and see if cops were there. There were scorched places near curbs here and there, but the burned-out police cars had already been towed away. There was a knot of 20-30 people standing on the sidewalk across from City Hall, standing with their arms at their sides, staring, not talking to each other. Every window on the front facade of the block-long building was covered with plywood, raw and bright in the morning light. There were no parking meters left on that block. I stopped and watched the people for a minute. They seemed to be in shock. I felt a thrill go through me.

While I chatted daily with the managers of the stores where I delivered, and with a few of them I actually conversed (mostly the dykes in the Coop system), the majority of the stores were owned by either white boy hippies or what would soon be called yuppies, and my interest in what they had to say was limited. I knew I was identified as a lesbian by them because one of them had refused to let me help distribute his products, saying I was too “rough looking” for his clientele. I surely hated that man from then on.

On this day, however, there was something new. It mostly took the form of a second look, after the initial glance of recognition. It was as if a new dimension had suddenly been added to my identity as queer, as if they had overnight found out it also meant I could fly, or was immortal. They looked at me in such a speculative way, I wanted to say to every one of them, “Yeah, I was there. Next time we might come for YOU.” I could smell the fear on them, and I liked it. It was as close to respect as I had ever gotten from the straight world.

There's more...
As you'll read, Maggie was one of the primary people behind the rally from which the White Night Riot happened.

This essay is amazing, must-read material.

When it came to the second wave of feminism which came of age with the dykes of the late 60s through early 80s, there was the East Coast group with folks such as Liza Cowan and Alix Dobkin, and the West Coast crowd. Maggie was one of the women at the heart of the West Coast crowd.

Want to know what really happened to feminism from the inside?

Read Maggie's essays at Meta Watershed.