Rioters outside San Francisco City Hall on May 21, 1979 responding to the verdict in the Dan White murder case. (Photo by Daniel Nicoletta via Wikimedia Commons)
With the 50th anniversary of the June 1969 Stonewall riots in New York’s Greenwich Village taking place this weekend, the compelling story of how LGBT people fought back following the police raid on the Stonewall Inn gay bar will likely capture the attention this week of the LGBT community and its allies.
But those familiar with LGBT history point out that there were three other riots besides Stonewall in which LGBT people fought back against injustices by police, government officials, and society in general. All of them took place in San Francisco.
Compton’s Cafeteria Riot
One of them, known as the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, took place in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood in August 1966, three years before Stonewall. Those familiar with it say it was led by LGBT people known then as drag queens and “cross dressers” but who today would be known to be transgender women.
Many of them hung out at the late night cafeteria, which operated as a restaurant.
According to an account by transgender historian Susan Stryker in her 2008 book “Transgender History,” the cafeteria’s trans customers and their gay male friends were frequently harassed by the cafeteria’s management and by police in the early and mid-1960s.
At the time, so-called “cross-dressing” was illegal in San Francisco, and police and local regulatory agencies often threatened to close bars or eateries like Compton’s for allowing such people to patronize their establishments.
Stryker reports in her book that the Compton’s Cafeteria riot was triggered when a police officer attempted to arrest a trans woman inside the cafeteria and she responded by throwing the coffee she was drinking in the officer’s face.
That act of defiance, coming on the heels of years of harassment by the police, prompted other trans people and their friends to “erupt,” Stryker wrote. People began to throw dishes and furniture and the cafeteria’s plate glass windows were smashed. When police reinforcements rushed to the scene the fighting spilled into the street, where people smashed the windows of a police car and set a sidewalk newsstand on fire.
Stryker, who also co-produced a documentary film on the riot called “Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria,” reports that more than a dozen people were taken away by police in paddy wagons that night.
She reported that on the next night more transgender people, sex workers, Tenderloin neighborhood “street people,” and LGBT people in general returned to the scene to picket Compton’s Cafeteria after learning the management had banned transgender people from going back to the establishment.
In what observers consider an important pre-Stonewall development for LGBT rights, trans and LGBT youth under the guidance of the progressive Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco formed a group that staged protests over the next year or two against police harassment of trans and gay youth in the Tenderloin area.
White Night Riots
What has become known as the White Night Riots erupted in San Francisco on May 21, 1979 hours after news broke that a jury had rejected prosecutors’ call for a first-degree murder conviction for the man who assassinated gay rights icon and San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and the city’s pro-LGBT mayor George Moscone.
To the shock and horror of San Francisco’s large LGBT community and its allies, the jury instead convicted ex-police officer and former supervisor Dan White of voluntary manslaughter for the two killings, prompting a judge to sentence him to seven years and eight months in prison. With good behavior, he would be eligible for release after serving just five years.
Legal observers said the jury appeared to have been persuaded by the defense attorneys’ argument that White suffered from an impaired mental state due to depression and the excessive consumption of fast food, which later became known as the “Twinkie defense.”
Police and prosecutors said White shot Milk and Moscone on Nov. 27, 1978 multiple times in the head and body execution style with a handgun inside their offices at City Hall, which White entered through an unguarded door he knew about as a former supervisor.
According to accounts by the media and by longtime LGBT and AIDS activist Cleve Jones, who worked on Milk’s staff and who was present during the riots, the LGBT community responded to the news about White’s verdict by organizing a peaceful protest in the city’s largely gay Castro neighborhood.
What started with about 500 people quickly grew to 1,500 as the protesters marched through the streets and swelled to more than 5,000 as the crowed reached City Hall in what observers described as an angry mood that took on the air of a mob.
Media accounts say some in the crowd began to smash the windows and glass front doors of the City Hall building as several of Milk’s friends and longtime supporters attempted to hold the crowd back. Although police officials said later that the large number of police officers dispatched to the scene were directed to hold back the crowd, many officers waded into the crowd and attacked the protesters with nightsticks, inflaming what was already a volatile situation.
The police action prompted angry protesters to begin smashing the windows of police cars and setting them and other cars on fire by tossing lit matchbooks into the cars, causing the gas tanks to explode. At least a dozen police cars and eight other cars were destroyed that way before the rioting ended later in the evening.
Media reports said at least 61 police officers and an estimated 100 or more protesters or members of the public were hospitalized as a result of the rioting. Additional people were injured, media reports said, when a group of police officers disobeyed orders from the chief of police not to retaliate and raided a gay bar in the Castro neighborhood later in the evening.
Witnesses said the renegade officers, who placed tape over their nametags and badges, smashed the Elephant Walk bar’s windows and attacked its patrons for about 15 minutes. They then went out on the street and attacked others they believed to be gays who participated in the rioting.
Further LGBT organized protests took place in the following days that did not trigger violence. One of the later protests drew more than 20,000 people who assembled peacefully at Castro and Market Streets. The city’s then mayor, Dianne Feinstein, and gay Supervisor Harry Britt, who replaced Milk on the Board of Supervisors, vowed to take steps to protect the rights of LGBT people and curtail anti-LGBT violence.
AB 101 Veto Riot
The last of the three known other LGBT riots took place in San Francisco on Sept. 30, 1991. Similar to the White Night Riots, it was triggered by breaking news earlier that day.
Then-California Gov. Pete Wilson (R) vetoed a major gay rights bill approved by the state legislature known as Assembly Bill 101, which called for banning employment discrimination based on someone’s sexual orientation. Wilson initially suggested he would sign the legislation, but political observers said he changed his mind at the behest of his party’s religious right faction and other conservatives whose support he needed for his re-election bid.
Several thousand outraged LGBT activists and their supporters marched from the Castro district to a downtown state office building to protest Wilson’s veto. The crowd far outnumbered startled police officers, who were not expecting such a large turnout. According to media reports, a small number of protesters smashed the building’s first floor windows and door, entered the building and started a fire that was quickly extinguished by firefighters but which resulted in more than $150,000 in damages.
That same week about 2,000 angry LGBT protesters in Los Angeles marched from West Hollywood to the Los Angeles Museum of Art, where Wilson was attending an opening of an exhibition of Mexican art, according to the L.A. Times. The protesters stopped short of rioting but set a California state flag on fire and burned Wilson in effigy, the Times reported.