A simple, powerful, moving account of one of our worst hate crimes
In 1978, when Dan White calmly walked through the offices of City Hall
to murder, in cold blood, the two men he, with his small, selfish mind,
felt were opposing him, I was 10 years old. I was just old enough to
appreciate the horror of this event, and to form my own opinion of the
ensuing judicial verdict and sentencing/miscarriage of justice. It was
probably the first time an outside political event awakened within me a sense of injustice. The Life and Times of Harvey Milk does the remarkable job of instantly bringing back strong sense-memories of that torrid time. That the filmmakers do so with apparent even-handedness and a distinct cool, clear eye entirely absent of rah-rahing is even more remarkable. After viewing the film on SHOWTIME, I was moved to both anger and tears as I flashed back to the strange times of San Francisco in 1978.
I lived in Sacramento at the time, and we subscribed daily to the SF
Chronicle, so San Francisco news and culture was always present in our
household. We also went to The City often, so that by the age of 10, I was thoroughly entranced by The City’s glamour and wild energy, especially as compared to the considerably more sedate surrounds of leafy Sacramento. I knew from a much younger age–perhaps 5–that I would live my adult life in The City, and I have done just that.
So when Mayor Harvey Milk and Supervisor George Moscone were shot, it had the
same shocking and solemn importance for 10 year-old me as would have a
Presidential assassination–it was a Big Deal. I was also aware of
Milk’s gay status, and the angry bigotry against gays echoing around the country by the likes of Anita Bryant and others of her ilk. With the simplicity of a
child’s reasoning, this kind of intense and mindless hate seemed to go
against all of the tolerance and “this world was made for you and me”
that I was taught in schools. Sexuality was not the issue; rather,
judging someone with bigotry–exactly like the Civil Rights movement–was the issue,
and to a child’s mind, it couldn’t have been clearer.
When Dan White’s trial was underway, it had the strange reek of
desperation and outright lying that I was surprised to be allowed to
exist in the stately halls of justice, so unseemly was that defense.
The defense strategy of essentially suspending disbelief to snow a
jury, and rolling out questionable “experts” to support such utter
tripe as “The Twinkie Defense” in regards to White’s so-called
depression seemed to be outright cheating; at least knowingly lying,
and I remember being surprised that they could get away with it. Little
did I know that another California murderer, Mr. Orenthal James Simpson, would resort to similar Hail Mary tactics to get away with a very similar
hate-motivated crime. The film remarks about White’s verdict, that
although White’s defense howled about his supposed depression to reason away
his culpability, White received no psychiatric treatment during his
shockingly short incarceration.
Dan White, even before his undoubtedly pre-meditated role as an
assassin, seemed to me the classic Angry White Guy, with a frowny,
squinty manner who seemed 100% sure that he was on God’s side as he
stammered about how gays just weren’t OK. He seemed like the
genius-challenged bully types that roamed my school halls ready to
instantly, and with great personal satisfaction, persecute anyone who didn’t meet their narrow approval–Dan White is whom they grew up to be. During the movie, an
onlooker describes White as having “a pettiness; meanness right below
the surface”; one sees this deficit of character in all Angry White
Here was a guy who was used to getting his way in his clannish world of
conservative Catholicism and the police department, and when he didn’t
automatically succeed to power as a politician, was desperate to find
someone to blame for his own failure. These Angry White Guy types
always seem so babyish and outrageously selfish and self-centered;
unwilling to recognize their own limitations of intelligence and people
skills but eager to place all of the blame on others.
This film brought back all of those emotions I felt as a 10 year-old.
My family talked about the trial and verdict for weeks at our dinner
table; my parents were also aghast at how an angry, babyish bully was
working from within the last vestiges of San Francisco’s Old Boy’s
network to get away with cold-blooded murder. After Milk/Moscone, SF
lost all of its tolerance for the kind of stodgy, sclerotic conservatives who, within their lawmaking, pushed along intolerance and bigotry. SF was to become a thoroughly Progressive city–the nations’s most Progressive in fact–to the decided ire of today’s rollcall of the intolerant and bigoted: Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, all of whom show apoplectic hissyfits of contempt for San Francisco with hilarious regularity.
Documentaries struggle to be “fair and balanced”, to quote a
notoriously unfair and unbalanced source. “The Times of Harvey Milk” is
excellent because it remains balanced yet still retains all of the
passion and emotion that I so well remember feeling about this sad part
of history and miscarriage of justice. Today, the great majority of
Americans are coming to accept equal civil rights for LBGT individuals,
and this number grows dramatically with the passing of each generation.
It’s profoundly interesting that one of San Francisco’s boldest tests
of equal civil rights regarding gay marriage was thrown up by none
other than Mayor Gavin Newsom. Mayor Newsom was another straight white
guy from a Catholic background, but he went an entirely different way
than Mr. White (thank goodness!). That a straight white guy from a
traditional background could become one of SF’s most visible crusaders
for gay rights–at a distinct risk to his obvious political
ambitions–is proof that Angry White Guys are the sad and pitiful
exception rather than the rule.