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What Were the White Night Riots?

The White Night Riots erupted in San Francisco on May 21, 1979, as a community's explosive response to the lenient sentencing of Harvey Milk's assassin, Dan White. This outcry symbolized the LGBTQ+ community's fight against injustice and systemic discrimination. How did this pivotal event shape the ongoing struggle for equality? Join us as we delve into the heart of the movement.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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 second night of White Night riots happened in the Castro district.
The second night of White Night riots happened in the Castro district.

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.

Numerous arrests were made during the White Night Riots.
Numerous arrests were made during the White Night Riots.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What were the White Night Riots?

The White Night Riots were a series of violent protests that erupted in San Francisco on May 21, 1979, following the lenient sentencing of Dan White for the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. White, a former city supervisor, had been convicted of voluntary manslaughter rather than first-degree murder, a decision that outraged the LGBTQ+ community and its supporters, leading to a night of unrest and a significant clash with the police.

Why was the sentencing of Dan White so controversial?

The sentencing of Dan White was controversial because many believed the punishment did not fit the severity of the crime. White had assassinated two elected officials, yet he received a sentence of just seven years and eight months for voluntary manslaughter, with the possibility of parole in five years. This outcome was seen as a miscarriage of justice, particularly by the LGBTQ+ community, as Harvey Milk was one of the first openly gay elected officials in the United States.

What was the significance of the "Twinkie Defense"?

The "Twinkie Defense" refers to a strategy used by Dan White's defense team, which argued that his consumption of junk food, such as Twinkies, was evidence of his depressed state and diminished capacity. This argument was used to suggest that White's mental state, exacerbated by his diet, should mitigate his responsibility for the murders. The term has since become a symbol of perceived legal absurdity and is often cited as a contributing factor to the public's outrage over the verdict.

How did the White Night Riots impact the LGBTQ+ community?

The White Night Riots galvanized the LGBTQ+ community, highlighting the systemic injustices they faced and the need for political activism. The events underscored the community's vulnerability to discrimination and violence, and the riots became a catalyst for increased solidarity and advocacy. The aftermath led to greater visibility for LGBTQ+ rights issues and helped spur the movement for equality and justice, both locally in San Francisco and across the nation.

What were the immediate consequences of the White Night Riots?

The immediate consequences of the White Night Riots included extensive property damage in San Francisco, particularly to City Hall and the surrounding area, as well as injuries to both protesters and police officers. The riots also led to a deeper examination of the city's political climate and law enforcement practices. In the longer term, the events contributed to significant changes in the relationship between the city's government, its police force, and the LGBTQ+ community.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a HistoricalIndex researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a HistoricalIndex researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

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    • The second night of White Night riots happened in the Castro district.
      By: MasterLu
      The second night of White Night riots happened in the Castro district.
    • Numerous arrests were made during the White Night Riots.
      By: Marc Roche
      Numerous arrests were made during the White Night Riots.