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In two decades-old assassinations, a prediction of today’s white domestic terrorism

Few may recall Dan White’s name. But his heinous acts are a template for the current far-right violent extremism roiling American politics.

In this April 1978 file photo, San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk, left, and Mayor George Moscone are shown in the mayor's office during the signing of the city's gay rights bill.Associated Press

Every tribute to Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, who died last week at age 90, highlights the tragic moment, captured in a shaky, grainy video, that changed the trajectory of her political career.

Facing a scrum of reporters at San Francisco City Hall, a dazed Feinstein, then president of the city’s Board of Supervisors, announced the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and supervisor Harvey Milk, one of the nation’s first out gay elected officials. But it’s what she said next that both echoed this nation’s violent past and predicted this current era of white domestic terrorism:


“The suspect is supervisor Dan White.”

Acting mayor Dianne Feinstein, with police Chief Charles Gain, at left, addressed the more than 25,000 people jammed around San Francisco's City Hall, Nov. 28, 1978, as residents staged a spontaneous memorial service for slain officials Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk.Anonymous/Associated Press

Next month marks 45 years since White killed Moscone and Milk. After abruptly resigning from the board, he soon decided he wanted his position back. But Moscone did not plan to reappoint him. In his confession, White claimed that’s what compelled him to go to City Hall and shoot Moscone four times. He then reloaded his gun, went to Milk’s office, and shot him five times.

But to White, the men he killed also personified how the city where he was raised was becoming more liberal and his perception that many like him — white, working-class, and conservative — were being marginalized. His campaign slogan was “Unite and Fight with Dan White.” He denounced those he called “social deviants” and talked about restoring the “old fashioned values that built this country” — a kind of “Make San Francisco Great Again” rallying cry.

White was elected to what was then San Francisco’s most diverse board of supervisors, and conservatives held a 6-5 advantage. But White behaved like a man under siege. He railed against “transvestites” teaching in schools. He tried to stop the city’s “Gay Freedom Day” celebration, which he called “obscene.” He was the only supervisor to vote against the city’s sweeping gay rights ordinance that banned discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations in the private sector.


A former police officer, White condemned Moscone’s efforts to diversify the city’s police department, which included a recruitment drive for out gay officers. He told a right-wing columnist at the San Francisco Examiner, “Once they’ve taken over the law-enforcement mechanism of San Francisco, they’ve got the city cold.”

For White, “they” meant those who dared believe they deserved both a place in the city and a share of its political power. In a bitter refrain that continues to define this nation, even the slightest movement toward equity is viewed as a diminishment of white dominance. White was a man out of step with a city that was leaving his myopic brand of identity politics behind.

That’s when White, who was often described by reporters as an “all-American boy,” became something else distinctly American — what law enforcement officials now call “a white domestic terrorist.”

There’s a through line from White’s assassinations of Moscone and Milk to the white supremacist violence that today poses this nation’s most potent domestic threat. Even incremental progress in America is met with a backlash, often violent. It happened after the Civil War when, instead of recompense for formerly enslaved Black people, the nation hardened into decades of heightened brutality and laws that kept slavery and racist disenfranchisement intact under other names and means.

And it’s happening now. From school boards to legislatures, Republicans continue to ban drag shows as well as books primarily by and about LGBTQ people, people of color, and women. Such actions both deny the hardships inflicted by white supremacy and the fact that this nation was not build by the sweat and ingenuity of white men alone.


And in courtrooms, including the Supreme Court, conservative extremists are specifically targeting trans rights.

It’s all part of a relentless right-wing reaction to the worldwide protests after George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020. The deadly Jan. 6 insurrection in 2021 wasn’t just about the rancid lies Donald Trump spewed after he was defeated by Joe Biden in a fair presidential election. That dangerous mob was also fighting against what it perceived as threats to its unearned status and for the preservation of white supremacy.

A year before his death, Milk recorded an audio that, he said, “should only be played in the event of my death by assassination.” He acknowledged that, as a gay activist, he could become “the target of or the potential target of someone who is insecure, terrified, afraid, or very disturbed themselves.”

White was all of those things, and worse. In trying to explain White’s conviction on voluntary manslaughter instead of murder — he served only five years — a reporter who covered the trial said, “the jury understood Dan White.” The same should be said of every extremist coward whose chosen response to equity and progress is violence.


Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her @reneeygraham.