The other day, I was supposed to be doing PhD thesis when I got caught watching the documentary called The Times of Harvey Milk, which featured real archival footage of the various people involved. Once I’d started watching, I couldn’t stop. Of course, Sean Penn has just received an Oscar for his portrayal of Harvey Milk in the recently released film Milk. [Note: spoilers below]
Milk was the first openly gay politician elected to office in the USA. He had become a gay activist relatively late in life. After a few attempts at running for the position of Supervisor in San Fransisco, he succeeded after Mayor Moscone allowed individual districts to vote for candidates to represent them directly.
The new system of voting led to the election of a number of unorthodox Supervisors, among them a conservative fireman called Dan White. Apparently, White and Milk initially got along well, despite their political differences, but then had a falling out when Milk voted for a mental health facility to be located in White’s district (against White’s wishes). White started being increasingly critical of Milk.
In the meantime, various politicians were attempting to cash in on anti-gay sentiment, and Senator John Briggs put forth Proposition 6, which would have made it legal to fire school teachers who were homosexual on the basis that they posed a danger to children. Initially, public opinion was in favour of Proposition 6, but Milk and his friends instituted a grass-roots campaign where they went and talked to voters. The Proposition was rejected. Incidentally, I was fascinated to see that Ronald Reagan went on the public record as saying that Proposition 6 should be rejected, but Jimmy Carter was reluctant even to be photographed with Milk, and Carter’s sister offered to “cure” Milk of his homosexuality.
By this time, Dan White had become depressed and dispirited with politics, and in what appeared to be a fit of pique, he resigned from his position. His supporters and constituents were very disappointed, and he then asked to be reinstated. However, Moscone received legal advice which suggested that there was no requirement that White be reinstated, and the final choice was down to him as Mayor. Milk lobbied for White not to be reinstated.
The newspapers were full of the Dan White reinstatement drama, and then the Jonestown massacre in Guyana occurred. Most of the 900+ people who died had been San Fransiscans, and the papers were full of the horror of it. White was apparently unhappy that his attempt to get reinstated had fallen off the press radar. He also learned that Moscone was unlikely to reinstate him as Supervisor.
On 27 November 1977, White crept into the San Fransisco City Hall via the back window. He was carrying a gun and extra bullets. He went up to the Mayor’s office and assassinated Moscone. He then walked to the other end of the building and assassinated Milk. He was arrested and charged with two counts of murder.
When White came to trial, the jury consisted of white, heterosexual San Fransiscans who were primarily Catholic (as was White). There were no ethnic minorities and or homosexual people on the jury (it is worth noting that Milk had been popular with minorities for his passionate defence of their rights). White’s counsel used what became known as the “Twinkies defence”: White had binged on junk food in the days before the murder, and this unaccustomed consumption of junk food affected his mental deterioration. White was acquitted of murder and found guilty of two counts of voluntary murder. The verdict created outrage, and riots ensued in San Fransisco. White ended up serving 5 years for the killings. However, he committed suicide a little over a year after he was released.
It was a tragic and compelling story. I cried at various points. Such a waste of lives.
After the documentary, I was thinking about the importance of criminal trials in establishing a sense of vindication — that is to say, a sense that a person has received the punishment he or she deserves. There were riots after White’s sentence because many people felt that he got off far more lightly than a person of a minority group would have done. Apparently the police were strongly biased towards White, and the prosecution did not raise a number of critical issues which might have changed the jury’s mind about whether the murders were premeditated (eg, the pre-existing tension between White and Milk). Such cases inevitably bring the justice system into disrepute.
I couldn’t help thinking, too, of parallels between White’s trial and OJ Simpson’s trial and subsequent acquittal for the murders of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman. There was a similar miscalculation by the prosecution, coupled with a jury which was predominately of the same ethnic background as the accused. After the trial, there were allegations that Simpson had gotten away with murder because the jury was biased. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. I suppose it’s just human nature: perhaps it’s easier for people to identify strongly with others who are like them (whether victim or accused). And, in the case of the African American population, there is a long history of negative interaction with the justice enforcement system, which means that the justice system had to work doubly hard to persuade them that one of their own did wrong.
On the upside, the documentary made me think that many positive things had occurred since Milk’s death. We now have politicians who are openly gay or lesbian; it is no longer a cause for comment in most circles. The likelihood of gay and lesbian people being sacked from their workplaces because of their sexuality is less than in the past, and at least these days there are legal recourses available if people have been discriminated against. Same-sex relationships are edging towards equality with heterosexual relationships before the law (slowly, but surely). I think and hope Harvey Milk would be pleased.