Friday Nov. 27 marked the 37th anniversary of Harvey Milk’s assassination—one of the United States’ first prominent gay activists. In honor of his death, a memorial march and vigil was held at Harvey Milk Plaza in San Francisco. Milk was the first openly gay politician to be elected to office in California.
During his tenure as city supervisor, Milk became the voice of the gay community and was famous for drafting an ordinance outlawing the discrimination of gay people in the workplace. Milk’s life was ended when former San Francisco supervisor Dan White assassinated both Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone.
White’s trial was cause for national controversy. This unjust trial exemplified the prejudice that minorities—like the LGBTQ+ community—faced back in 1978 and still face today.
The unfair trial given in favor of White was largely due to the selection of the jury. Consisting of mostly white middle-class Catholics, the jury excluded any type of minority that might relate to the experience of discrimination.
White’s trial spawned the “Twinkie Defense,” which has since become a part of the national lexicon. White’s defense team claimed that White’s unhealthy diet consisting of Twinkies was an underlying symptom of his depression, which led him to murder two men.
White was charged with voluntary manslaughter rather than first-degree murder, which reduces a potential life sentence to only seven years in prison. Following the verdict of the trial, thousands of people stormed the streets of San Francisco, lighting police cars on fire and smashing windows with rocks in an event known as the White Night riots.
The recent Ferguson, Missouri riots are a modern day corollary to the White Night riots. The shooting of Michael Brown—an 18-year-old unarmed black male—was the cause of these riots that occurred three times over the course of a year. The key difference between these scenarios was that former Ferguson officer Darren Wilson—Brown’s assailant—was never charged with any crime.
Alongside White and Wilson is George Zimmerman, who fatally shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012 and was cleared of both murder and manslaughter charges.
After Milk’s death, California outlawed the defense of “diminished capacity”—claiming that the accused’s capacity was impaired. After Martin’s death, over 429,000 signatories petitioned for a review of the “Stand Your Ground” law. After Brown’s death, President Barack Obama proposed spending $75 million on body cameras for law enforcement officers.
Brown and Martin are two of the many minorities that have been killed without consequence due to our deeply flawed justice system. While many believe that America has made great progress in the acceptance and tolerance of minority groups, this is sadly not the case. In addition to the discrimination toward black people, the murders of transgender people have sharply increased in the past few years—despite the legacy of many activists.
While administrative actions will help prevent the murders and unjust trials of minorities, the larger issue at stake is discrimination. As long as minorities are seen as inferior and unequal, their deaths will not get the justice they deserve.