Tuesday, November 27, 2007


(Burning police car in front of City Hall, San Francisco during the White Night Riot, 21 May 1979)

Dianne Feinstein managed last week to avoid censure from her colleagues in Congress. Still, I take heart at the effort to hold not only all Democrats to an ethical party standard, but her in particular. She has a constant legacy of being in league with corporate and AIPAC interests at the expense of liberal issues. I think it's time we remind ourselves of how she got her political start.

Feinstein first ran for public office 1969, earning a position on San Francisco's Board of Supervisors at a time when elections were conducted by general vote of the entire city. She had enough money and influence to retain her seat but never the popular support to win election as mayor, despite running in 1971 and 1975.

In 1977, San Francisco switched to a system of electing its board of supervisors by district rather than city-wide. This system was strongly supported by George Moscone, and it had the effect of opening up more supervisor positions to those who had neighborhood backing rather than big money buying elections. Following the 1977 election, among those who opposed Moscone on most of his liberal initiatives were Feinstein, along with Dan White, a former cop and firefighter who was elected to the board of supervisors from a mostly white, conservative district of San Francisco. Supporting Moscone were supervisors Harvey Milk (first openly elected gay), Carol Ruth Silver (single mother and attorney), Gordon Lau (Chinese-American progressive), and others. By a vote of 6-5, Feinstein was elected head of the board of supervisors over Lau.

In the autumn of 1978, Dan White decided he was in over his head, financially and politically. He had a new baby and additional expenses that he thought could be met with a private sector job. More to the point, he was used to the authoritarian hierarchy of the police and fire departments, where people of color "knew their place" and he would never have to deal with queers as equals. Without talking it over first with the business interests who had paid for his election, he submitted his resignation to Moscone. Who managed not to show his glee at this development: The power bloc on the board of supervisors now might shift toward the liberal end.

When White's backers found out what he had done, they were appalled and demanded he go to Moscone to beg for his job back. One of those who lobbied White to plead with Moscone was Dianne Feinstein.

Knowing his plea likely to be denied, White loaded his service revolver, filled his pockets with extra bullets, and went in through a back window of City Hall to avoid the metal detectors. When Moscone did, in fact, refuse to reverse White's resignation, White shot him, emptying the gun into his chest and then his head in trained assassin fashion. As people began reacting to the gunfire, he coolly walked down the hall to Milk's office and emptied his gun again into Milk.

He then fled, without being stopped. Later he turned himself in to a friend at the police department, and the following day police all over San Francisco could be seen wearing T-shirts that said "Support Dan White". Years later, White confessed to his friend Frank Fanzon that he had intended to go on and kill Carol Ruth Silver and then-California Assemblyman Willie Brown, but had not been able to complete his list of executions.

These murders were devastating to San Francisco progressive politics. Dianne Feinstein, as president of the board of supes, was immediately sworn in as mayor. During the ensuing trial, White's defense rested on two factors, one now infamous as the "Twinkie Defense", that he was so depressed and suffering from diminished capacity by overdosing on junk food that he was incapable of making a premeditated plan. The second was more subtle, but relied heavily on White's insistence that Harvey Milk had "smirked" at him after he resigned. This insult to his "manhood" from a fag was a code the carefully selected jury understood. They found White guilty of voluntary manslaughter rather than first-degree murder.

I still believe if White had not gone on to murder Milk, he would have been found guilty of the planned political assassination that it was and would possibly have received the death penalty. The addition of Milk, not a popular figure outside of Castro Street, muddied the waters in the public eye.

The verdict was delivered at around 5 p.m. on May 21, 1979.

(Lesbians Against Police Violence contingent in the Lesbian/Gay Freedom Day Parade, June 1979, San Francisco)

At that time, I was a founding member of an organization called Lesbians Against Violence who worked against police violence in minority communities. We had followed the White trial closely, making the point that White's actions were in line with police training and his protection was coming from other cops. We planned a rally for the evening the verdict came in and I, along with my roommate and a few others, had created flyers and placed them around Castro Street earlier that day announcing the rally.

By the time we got to 18th and Castro around 4:30, a crowd had already begun. I plan to write a more detailed version of the events in a later post. The short version is, we (my organization of around two dozen lesbians) led the crowd down Market Street to City Hall, but numbers swelled along the way and the mood began shifting. By the time we were standing on the front step of City Hall, our backs to the ornate doors behind which was a mass of police tactical squads, there were 2000-3000 furious people waiting for our direction. We realized we'd lost control, and found a way to the sidelines to watch as 11 police cars were torched and virtually every window on the front of City Hall was broken.

It was the largest lesbian and gay riot in American history. I had no idea that at the time I was standing on the top step of City Hall, Dianne Feinstein was huddled in the basement, surrounded by a body guard. No one else knew this, either. I think if that mob had known, they would have gone after her. We all knew she was not Our Friend.

It was from this disaster that Feinstein launched her national career, running for mayor again, then for the Senate. I can't imagine her having risen through the ranks without this windfall of circumstances, despite her wealth and corporate connections. (According to Wikipedia, "In 2003, Feinstein was ranked the fifth wealthiest senator, with an estimated net worth of $26 million. By 2005 her net worth had increased to between $43 million and $99 million.")

I'll write more in the White Night Riots post about the police reprisal, the deals that were made in the aftermath (which Feinstein had a hand in), White's eventual suicide, and the eulogizing of Milk. I still feel a personal loss in the death of George Moscone, who was a gifted politician and would have gone on to do much good, likely on a state or national level.

Instead, we have Feinstein. I think when people don't actually earn their leaps forward, they have a responsibility to be humble and accountable to those who were passed over in their luck. We have not seen this from Feinstein. But it's never too late to help someone learn humility.

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