SAN FRANCISCO — The killings took only a few seconds. Two bullets to the head apiece and five to the bodies. Neither victim had a chance.
On a cool November morning in 1978, Dan White strapped on a gun, slipped into City Hall and assassinated Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. It was an act of personal and political vengeance that shocked the nation and plunged San Francisco into a tailspin from which it has taken years to recover.
Just nine days before, 912 members of the city's People's Temple died in the jungles of Guyana. A town already reeling from tragedy had now lost its liberal mayor along with Milk, America's first openly gay elected official. There were no apologies from White, a brooding ex-cop who quit his job on the Board of Supervisors and erupted when he couldn't get it back. As the year ended, a low-level hysteria blanketed San Francisco like fog sweeping in over the bay. The city that had so often boasted of its tolerance and civility seemed on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
"Suddenly, you had a sense that San Francisco was not the fabled city it once had been," says Duffy Jennings, a public relations consultant and a City Hall reporter during the Moscone era. "The magic began to wear off, because this crime tore the city's heart out. We were laid bare."
Now, as the 15th anniversary approaches, the Nov. 27 assassinations may strike some as distant and dated, the kind of crazy thing that always seemed to happen in a community buffeted by political violence in the 1960s and '70s. "Kook Central," some called it--home of the Zebra and Zodiac serial killers, cult leaders like the Rev. Jim Jones and the Patty Hearst kidnaping.
Yet the bloody event that rocked City Hall is more than a historical footnote. Beyond the personal tragedy and political carnage, it is a cautionary tale about change and diversity in late 20th-Century America, a grim foreshadowing of problems that plagued a city in the '70s but now engulf a nation.
Are we swamped with senseless, random violence in our streets, homes and schools? San Francisco experienced one of the earliest workplace slayings: An unstable, disgruntled person stormed into a public place and killed unsuspecting people with a gun that was easily obtained and concealed.
Is America anguishing over gays in the military? The City by the Bay grappled with a similar controversy in 1977, when Milk was elected to office. San Francisco was the first U. S. city to confront the explosive issue of gays winning and wielding real political power. In an age of televised law and order, many Americans are shocked that public acts of violence do not always lead to harsh criminal penalties, as in the Rodney King and Reginald Denny beating trials.
Yet San Francisco had its own version 14 years ago, when White admitted killing two public officials in cold blood but was convicted only of manslaughter, serving just more than five years in prison. In a novel defense, his attorneys claimed that White had acted in a "diminished capacity," brought on by heavy consumption of junk foods. Outraged, California legislators moved to restrict such tactics in future homicide trials.
The most important legacy, however, turns on a lesson as old as civilization itself.
At the time, San Francisco was undergoing a sweeping upheaval: Italian and Irish powerbrokers who had run the city for decades were losing clout, while newcomers--gays, neighborhood activists and ethnic immigrants--seized control. Two worlds on a collision course. For some, White's rage symbolized a dying order.
When he killed himself two years after his release from prison, the assassin seemed to close the book on the tragedies he had unleashed. But to this day, San Franciscans still debate his actions. Was he simply a deranged man with a gun? Or did he symbolize a conservative, blue-collar class provoked and humiliated by rapid urban change?
"We're going through many of these same tensions in America now," says Mimi Silbert, president of Delancey Street Foundation, a drug-rehabilitation institute in San Francisco.
"Change is necessary. But it's also messy. We have to find better ways of communicating before more people like George and Harvey die in the same senseless way."
For many in San Francisco, the killings of Moscone and Milk were traumatic events similar to the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. The shock, of course, was especially acute in the Moscone family, where the 49-year-old mayor left behind a widow, Gina, and four children.
Yet, one gunman also breathed new life into careers that seemed dead and changed a city's course.