This November marks the 40th anniversary of the assassinations of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. Yet despite the passage of four decades, memories of the horror surrounding the killings and fiery aftermath on the streets of San Francisco linger to this day.
As Mayor, George Moscone opened the door to create a city government that now reflects the healthy diversity that is San Francisco. History will show that his strong leadership and compassion for those less fortunate sowed the seeds that helped the city grow to be the progressive beacon for all of America. As quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle, his son Christopher said, “My father was a strong leader, passionate. He stood for what he stood for, and that was that. And that’s what we need a little more of now.” On that point liberals, moderates and conservatives should hopefully all agree.
In commenting on his parents’ relationship, son Jonathan reminisced, “My dad was the man who shook everybody’s hand. He could get along with a tree.” He said his mother often reminded her husband that others were not so magnanimous but his larger than life personality helped him always see the bright side of politics.
My own fond last memory of Mayor Moscone was sharing a beer with George and then Fire Chief Andy Casper at a Knights of Columbus Hall on Polk Street. He was simply fun to be around. And the city loved him for it. He was shot a week later.
[(L to R) Mayor George Moscone. Brian Banmiller. Fire Chief Andy Casper.]
Harvey Milk went from running a camera shop on Castro Street to being elected San Francisco Supervisor in 1977, becoming one of the first openly gay government officials anywhere in America. Harvey had known he was gay since high school in New York, but stayed quiet about it for much of his life. After Naval service he returned to New York for a variety of jobs. Seemingly tired of the tedium, he moved to San Francisco in late 1972, where he soon found his voice as a leader and activist in the gay community. After running and losing twice he was ultimately elected Supervisor in 1977, broadening his appeal to work on issues from child care to affordable housing to a civilian police review board.
My own experience with his outsized personality and broad appeal in the city he loved, involved a “Thursday Club” luncheon held weekly in a slightly run-down building in the shadow of City Hall. This “Thursday Club” was an invitation-only event run by 25 of the city’s more colorful characters, including well-known attorneys, politicians, fire fighters and police officers. Every Thursday, club organizers would invite a guest “speaker” who would not be informed that in fact he/she was never going to be allowed to speak. Some would spend days preparing, only to be drowned out by clapping and booing. Firefighter Leon Bruschera was famous for dropping the needle on a record played at high volume. His favorite was the sound of jet planes taking off. It was all great fun, except when occasionally the speaker did not get the joke, and loudly complained, clearly to no avail.
Unfortunately, Harvey’s soon-to-be killer didn’t get these jokes either. During one such raucous luncheon Milk was invited to attend as a guest politician. I was also invited, and sat directly across from Harvey at cafeteria style tables complete with red checkerboard vinyl tablecloths. To my right sat Supervisor and former police officer and fireman Dan White. To my left sat Fire Fighter’s Union President Jim Ferguson. Always the jokester, Bruschera loudly proclaimed that he was chef for the day, and in honor of Harvey he was not serving chicken, but meat instead. The audience (and Harvey) howled with laughter and banged the tables in salute. Supervisor Dan White simply stared ahead in cold silence with a scowl on his face.
Shocked by this, I asked Ferguson “What’s up with Dan?” Jim shrugged and said “Dan is just screwed up, is moody and does not really like Harvey.” Dan, a conservative, was indeed frustrated with what he perceived as a breakdown in traditional values and a greater tolerance of homosexuality. In frustration, White eventually resigned as Supervisor, but when the police union pushed him to return to government, he went to City Hall to ask Mayor Moscone to re-appoint him. Slipping into an open window to avoid detection and armed with a 38 revolver, he confronted the Mayor who refused his request. In a rage, White shot Moscone four times, calmly re-loaded and crossed the corridor to put five bullets into Harvey Milk’s body before turning himself in at his old police station.
White’s trial became known as the “Twinkie defense,” as his lawyers claimed that their depressed client switched from a healthy diet to a high sugar one, causing his abnormal behavior and clouded thinking. The city reacted violently after the jury downgraded the crime from murder to manslaughter, rioting in the streets in what was called “The White Night Riots.” Dan White served six years in prison, and after his 1985 release, committed suicide.
Today Dan White is but an asterisk in history while George Moscone and Harvey Milk have the eternal love of the city, including high-profile buildings named after them. In particular, the new Terminal One under construction at the San Francisco International airport will be named after Harvey Milk. In July of 2016 the Navy announced it would name a yet to be constructed tanker the USNS Harvey Milk. In 2009 Sean Penn won an Academy Award as best actor for his portrayal of Harvey in the biopic “Milk.”
Unfortunately, despite all the monuments and accolades honoring the sacrifice of these two dedicated public servants, as a nation we seemingly continue to forget the lessons of our storied history, and violence against those who simply share different views continues to this day. Recent mass murders in cities such as Pittsburgh, Charleston and Orlando are sad reminders of that.
(Brian Banmiller is a national Business reporter for CBS News Radio, writer and public speaker. The former television business news anchor in San Francisco can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
This article was originally published on November 27, 2018.
CBS News Radio national business journalist Brian Banmiller has spent more than 40 years in the news industry, covering business, politics and the economy on television, radio and in print. Currently, his “Banmiller on Business” reports are delivered to an audience of millions nationwide.
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