Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, who were murdered 40 years ago today at City Hall, will always be joined in public memory.

On Nov. 27, 1978, Dan White called his former legislative aide and asked her to drive him to the job he no longer had. He emerged not from his Excelsior district front door, but the garage. Clandestinely strapped into his belt was the .38 Smith and Wesson Chiefs Special five-shot revolver he kept downstairs, a remnant of his days as a San Francisco police officer. Ten more bullets were tucked into his shirt pocket, purportedly wrapped in a handkerchief so they wouldn’t rattle.

They didn’t.

City Hall was on high alert. Only nine days earlier, the Rev. Jim Jones had coerced some 900 of his followers into mass suicide; San Francisco officials feared People’s Temple acolytes would strike again. Security, however, was not airtight. Rather than pass through a metal detector at the front door, White clambered through a basement window. When stopped by a confused city worker, he calmly said, “I’m Supervisor Dan White.”

And that was true. So off he went.

On Nov. 27, 1978, Cleve Jones screwed up. The young lieutenant to Supervisor Harvey Milk arrived bright and early at City Hall; he wanted to show his boss just how diligent he could be. Instead, he left an important file at his apartment, annoying Milk. Jones was sent home to retrieve it. “See you in the afternoon,” Milk told him. Those were the last words they’d ever exchange.

On his way back to City Hall, Jones heard a woman scream from a bus that someone had shot Mayor George Moscone. He high-tailed it back to City Hall, and ran up the steps to the second floor, screaming “Harvey! Harvey!”

He found him. Milk’s prone legs and feet were protruding from his office. And Jones’ heart fell, because he knew it was Milk: Harvey only had the one pair of second-hand dress shoes. His work clothes were worn and ill-fitting artifacts obtained from a former campaign manager’s dead lover, Milk’s for the mere price of redeeming a dry-cleaning ticket.

In happier times, Milk enjoyed making his board colleagues squirm by putting those very shoes up on his desk in chambers, revealing a hole in the sole. The first openly gay supervisor’s staff used to laugh about that. But not now.

“All I could think,” Jones the crowd at a City Hall memorial today — 40 years later, to the day — “was, ‘How can we move forward? He was our leader.’

“‘It’s all over now.’”

Former Mayor Willie Brown, flanked by Sen. Scott Wiener, Mayor London Breed, and Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, recalls the legacies of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. Moscone was Brown’s law school classmate at UC Hastings, and a fellow after-hours janitor. Photo by Bill Wilson, used with permission.

On Nov. 27, 1978, San Francisco witnessed the coup de grâce of bizarre and horrific acts in a decade marked by its bizarre and horrific acts. This city, in the 1970s, is almost unfathomable for those who weren’t here.

There was not one serial killer but teams of serial killers. Radicals and terrorists exchanged gunfire, blew up bombs, abducted one another, killed one another, and knocked over banks. Astroturf was installed at Candlestick Park. Crime and violence were recorded at levels rendering today’s downright quaint — and the stuff they weren’t recording was at nightmare levels as well. Activists in the Mission and Harvey Milk’s Castro, for one, had a mutual alliance cemented by both communities being preyed upon by violent cops (Mission lifer Roberto Hernandez, 22 in ’78, recalls weeping apoplectically when he heard of the deaths of Moscone and Milk. He and others organized an impromptu vigil at 24th Street Plaza).

It was a nasty and brutish time, and Milk had good reason to fear for his life. You’ve all seen the photos of him laughing and hoisting the “I’m from Woodmere NY” sign during the ’78 Gay Freedom Day parade. What you didn’t see was him asking his driver if she knew how to get to San Francisco General in case of an assassination attempt.

And yet, like a horror movie, when the call came, it came from inside the building.

White, a disgruntled former supervisor, shot Milk in his City Hall office after shooting the mayor. White would serve less time in jail than the shelf life of a Twinkie. In 1985, he would asphyxiate himself in the same garage where he once stored his Chiefs Special.* 

On Nov. 23, 1978, Harvey Milk told a reporter friend that he would run for president in 1980 in a kamikaze quest in which he would serve as a “vessel for gay liberation.” Four days later he was dead.

And yet, and yet, and yet — he did not fail.

[dropcap]“I[/dropcap]f a bullet should enter my brain,” Milk said prophetically, “let that bullet destroy every closet door in the country.”

That legacy — the legacy of George Moscone and Harvey Milk — was on full display today at City Hall during a memorial celebration. People talked about it. But you didn’t even need to listen. You could just look. There was the African American female mayor and the African American female board president and the openly gay district supervisor and the African American former mayor and, far in the background, an ongoing conga line of oblivious couples of all gender combinations getting married on a rainy Tuesday afternoon.

“George Moscone appointed African Americans and women and LGBT people to city commissions — that was significant at the time and we take it for granted today,” said Mayor London Breed. Rafael Mandelman, the board’s only gay supervisor, noted that part of the recent “Blue Wave” was 150 LGBTQ officials elected nationwide.

That all started somewhere. And that’s a hell of a legacy to have.

Harvey Milk dines in 1978 at Guadalajara de la Noche restaurant in the current location of Precita Eyes on 24th Street. Photo courtesy of Michael Nolan (who is at left).

Of course, there’s another legacy. One that wasn’t mentioned today in front of Milk and Moscone’s contemporaries, successors, and families. Not only did these men transform San Francisco through their presence, they transformed it through their absence.

On Nov. 27, 1978, at the very moment that Dan White was motoring downtown with a pistol strapped to his hip and 10 extra bullets nestled over his heart, Supervisor Dianne Feinstein let it be known she was done.

The two-time mayoral loser informed the City Hall press corps that, when her term expired in 1982, she’d move on to other things.

That plan changed. So did San Francisco.

Under Mayor Feinstein — and the appointees she put on city commissions and bureaucrats she placed at the controls of the city’s engine room — San Francisco went from being what it was to what it is. The past determines the present and the present determines the future.

And yet, sometimes the future is hard to predict.

On Nov. 27, 1978 — and every Nov. 27 since, including tonight, at 7 p.m. — marchers honoring the legacies of Milk and Moscone gathered in the Castro and proceeded to City Hall. And on that day, 40 years ago, they were so great in number that, Cleve Jones recalls, they illuminated Civic Center Plaza.

“And at that moment,” he said today, “I knew I was wrong. “It wasn’t over. It was just beginning.”

*This is incorrect. The White family moved while he was in prison, so it was not the same garage. Apologies for the error. 

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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