Tuesday, November 27, 2007

November 27

Nearly three decades ago, on the morning of November 27, 1978, a 32-year-old former police officer and Vietnam veteran named Dan White assassinated San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. White, who had served with Milk on the city Board of Supervisors until two weeks before the murders, shot the two men in what he would later claim was a depressed state of mind, evidenced in part by his excessive consumption of Twinkies and Coca-Cola during the previous few months. In death Milk -- who was openly gay -- became a martyr to the gay rights movement.

Described by friends as an “all-American” young man, Dan White had been elected to the 11-member Board in 1977 thanks in large part to his law and order ideology, which included thinly disguised campaign attacks on homosexuals, whom he regarded as threats to the entire city of San Francisco. As one of his campaign brochures explained, right-thinking people like himself would not stand idly by while their civilization crumbled at their feet:
[t]here are thousands upon thousands of frustrated, angry people waiting to unleash a fury that can and will eradicate the malignancies which blight our city. I am not going to be forced out of San Francisco by splinter groups of radicals, social deviates, incorrigibles.
After these “frustrated, angry people” carried him to victory, White clashed frequently with Moscone and Milk among others on the Board; in one of his more celebrated battles, he cast the only vote against a proposed city ordinance to bar discrimination against gays and lesbians.

Disgruntled with the position’s low pay and distressed by marital problems, White submitted his resignation in early November 1978. He changed his mind, however, several days later and asked Moscone to reappoint him. When Moscone refused, White loaded his revolver, came to City Hall and shot the mayor -- once in the chest and twice in the head -- in Moscone’s own office. Making his way to the other side of the building, White requested a brief conversation with Milk, whom he proceeded to shoot five times.

At his trial, Dan White successfully argued that the murders resulted from his depression, which diminished his capacity to sort out right from wrong. The jury, finding the “Twinkie Defense” plausible, found him guilty of manslaughter instead of first-degree murder. After serving five years at San Quentin, Dan White killed himself in October 1985.