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How San Francisco (?!) Helped Give Birth to Modern American Fascism

Remember Dan White? He was the Kyle Rittenhouse of his day. No wonder Tucker Carlson loves him.

Personally depressed and politically enraged, White resigned from office. The Board of Realtors and the Police Officers’ Association—White’s biggest supporters—summoned him to a meeting and convinced him to withdraw his resignation. Initially, Moscone indicated that he would reappoint White to the Board of Supervisors, but under political pressure from Milk and other liberals in City Hall, he later announced that White would not regain his seat. 

White’s next move transpired on November 27, 1978. Late in the morning, he sneaked into the municipal government building through a window in order to evade metal detectors. He requested a meeting with Mayor George Moscone, pleading with the secretary for one more chance to make his case for reinstatement. An aggravated Moscone begrudgingly escorted White into his office. When the mayor turned his back to pour a drink, White assassinated him with his police-issued revolver, firing a fatal shot to the head. As Moscone took his last breaths, White walked down the hallway, reloaded his gun with hollow point bullets, located Harvey Milk, and murdered him in cold blood, shooting the gay rights hero five times, twice in the head. Only months earlier, Milk had recorded a cassette tape detailing his life story and political philosophy, leaving instructions to his staff to play “in case” of assassination.

Milk became a martyr for the gay rights movement and has a rightful place in the pantheon of progressive heroes in the U.S. Sean Penn won an Academy Award for his exhilarating and tender portrayal of Milk in the 2008 biopic, which also won an Oscar for best original screenplay. The late Randy Shilts’s biography, The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, is a classic of the genre, effortlessly blending sociopolitical analysis with a deeply moving chronicle of an extraordinary life.

Despite the celebration of Milk, American historians, journalists, and political commentators have largely ignored the dark insight that White’s act of terrorism affords us into the paranoia, malevolence, and danger of the American right. White’s criminal defense, and the sympathy it garnered, foreshadowed what the Republican Party, and its various anti-democratic satellite networks of support, have become in 2022.

Only days after the murders, police officers adopted “Free Dan White” as a slogan, often shouting it on the streets, and even wearing it on T-shirts underneath their uniforms. The San Francisco police and fire departments collectively raised $100,000 for White’s defense fund. Across the city, journalists spotted graffiti with messages like “Kill Fags: Dan White for Mayor.” Hate crimes against gay and trans residents exploded, often with the police turning a blind eye or even committing the assaults themselves. Several cops beat transgender tenants in a hotel lobby. When the manager complained to a sergeant at the nearest precinct, the officer said, “Well, they’re only fruits.”