'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Assassination of Harvey Milk 

Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the United States, was, along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, assassinated by Dan White thirty years ago tomorrow. A movie based upon his life, with Sean Penn in the role of Milk, will open this weekend in San Francisco. People there who have attended a special screening say that Penn's performance is remarkable, as did San Francisco Chronicle film critic Mick LaSalle.

For many, Milk is a figure who has receded into the mists of time, and this film will introduce them to someone who was one of the most dynamic and inclusive political figures in American history. His participation in the emerging movement for gay and lesbian rights is deservedly legendary, as reflected by this excerpt from his famous Hope Speech:

And the young gay people in the Altoona, Pennsylvanias and the Richmond, Minnesotas who are coming out and hear Anita Bryant in television and her story. The only thing they have to look forward to is hope. And you have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great. Hope that all will be all right. Without hope, not only gays, but the blacks, the seniors, the handicapped, the us'es, the us'es will give up. And if you help elect to the central committee and other offices, more gay people, that gives a green light to all who feel disenfranchised, a green light to move forward. It means hope to a nation that has given up, because if a gay person makes it, the doors are open to everyone.

Milk placed the struggle for gay rights within the context of the need for progressive social change in this country. He was known for his willingness to enter into coalitions with labor unions, as he did when the Castro virtually eliminated the sale and consumption of Coors beer in honor of the Teamsters boycott. In return, the Teamsters endorsed him during his campaign that got him elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

Less known is the hostility that Milk's progressivism engendered. He supported the efforts of Moscone to reform the police department, generating tremendous hostility among the rank and file cops. One of my friends told me that, during the booking of White, a former SFPD officer himself, the cops slapped him on the back, saying, Attaboy, Danny.

Maybe, that's an urban myth, or perhaps it comes from the reporting of Warren Hinckle. Hinckle did write that the cops wore Free Dan White T-shirts after the killings, and it is one of the quirks of history that Milk is universally remembered as a victim of White, with a popular vigil in his memory every year in The City, while Moscone has become a footnote, or, more accurately, a supporting character in the saga of Milk's life and times. Hinckle also said that someone sang Danny Boy on the police radio when the manslaughter verdict at the conclusion of White's trial, a verdict that would result in White spending only five years in prison, was announced. During the course of the riots that erupted that night, the police entered a bar in the Castro and savagely beat many of the patrons.

Milk knew he was going to be killed. He was challenging the homophobic values of a country that had responded to the civil rights movement with violence in the previous decade. He spoke at Gay Pride Day in 1978 after receiving a death threat moments before taking the stage. He traveled the state speaking in opposition to the Briggs Initiative, Proposition 6, an initiative that would have banned gays and lesbians from employment in the public schools. Of course, the more outspoken he became, the more death threats he received.

Many speculate about what would have happened had Milk lived. Most say that his progressive, community oriented populism would have helped push San Francisco, and perhaps, the state of California, in a direction away from the gentrification and economic conservatism that has marked the last 30 years, a conservatism personified by the person who announced his death, Dianne Feinstein.

Perhaps. But there was also a sybaritic side to him as well. For example, I have no doubt that he would have opposed Proposition 8, but he never showed the slightest inclination that he wanted to be married himself. He was having too much fun in the liberated sexual climate of the 1970s, although like many from that time, he might have settled down by now. In any event, we should not ignore the possibility that, while unlikely, Milk could have instead adapted a more pro-business, corporate politics instead. Projecting the future of someone who has died is always a rather speculative endeavor.

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