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The White Night Riots were a series of violent events stemming from the sentencing of Dan White, which was deemed lenient by many, for the assassinations of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk, an openly gay San Francisco supervisor. White, a former policeman, firefighter and himself a former San Francisco City Supervisor, was found guilty of manslaughter rather than murder, a ruling that was seen as controversial to many in San Francisco's gay community. The protest began on May 21, 1979 as a peaceful march from the Castro District to City Hall. As soon as the sentence was announced, word ran through the gay community and groups of people began walking to the Civic Center where City Hall is located, and by approximately 8:00 PM a sizable crowd had formed. According to the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, the crowd began screaming at police officers calling for revenge and death.
Many members of the crowd were relatively peaceful in their demonstrations of anger, but other protesters caused significant property damage, including broken windows and glass doors, as well as the burning of twelve San Francisco police cruisers. Riots began to break out with a mob disrupting traffic, and smashing windows of cars and stores. Buses were disabled by their overhead wires being ripped down, and violence broke out against the outnumbered police officers. Mayor Dianne Feinstein addressed the crowd, as did Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver, in attempts to defuse the crowd's frustration with the judge's sentencing of White to seven years in prison for the dual assassinations.
The second stage of the violence was a police riot hours later in the gay Castro neighborhood. After order was restored at City Hall a number of SFPD cars with dozens of officers headed into the Castro District. Police marched into a bar called the Elephant Walk, smashing fixtures and attacking patrons. A civil grand jury, convened to find out who ordered the attack, ended inconclusively with a settlement covering personal injury claims and damages.