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Milk Memories

By Denny Meyer

This story appeared in GayCityNews Dec 24, 2008

Like at least 100,000 other gay men, I was in San Francisco during its Camelot years of the 1970s. In those days, Harvey Milk and the other gods of the gay revolution walked the Earth like ordinary mortals. Anyone at all could stroll into Harvey's camera shop or pause on the corner of Castro and 18th and chat for hours with folks who would go on to become legendary and with some who already were. And some, like myself, had no idea at the time that we would one day years later play some role in the battle for our rights. The inspiration for nearly all of us was Harvey Milk's courage in those years.

Navy Lieutenant Harvey Milk in the early 1950s, when he
saw service in the Korean War.

The film "Milk" was made with excruciating accuracy and talent because of love for that hero's memory, and also because there are thousands and thousands of old men like me who would notice and bitch about it if anything were amiss in the details. Thirty years later I can still hear the protest clarion cry of the era echoing in my ears: "Out of the bars and into the streets!" It was portrayed in the film and gave me goose bumps.

Nevertheless I can and will complain about what was left out. The cinematic story of this great man's life begins on his 40th birthday as he cruises a younger man on a New York City subway station stairway late at night. Yet, some significant things happened in his life before the age of 40.

For one thing Milk, born in 1930, served as a lieutenant in the US Navy during the Korean War in the early 1950s. Yet not a single film frame is devoted to that. As a gay veteran, it offends me that no mention was made of that. And in 2008, on the cusp of the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, I think it would have been quite relevant to have portrayed his service.

Less of a sin, but still a lapse, was not showing what happened after Milk was murdered, particularly the White Night Riot, a year later, when his killer, former San Francisco City Supervisor Dan White, was given a slap-on-the-wrist, seven-year manslaughter sentence for the assassination of two elected officials, Milk and Mayor George Moscone. It started, as did all the other gay protests of the day, as a peaceful candlelight march. As it went past my window, down Market Street, I told my lover, "This time I'm going!" I hung up my apron - it was my job to wash the dishes - and ran out the door to join the march at dusk. I was so eager, I ran all the way to the front and ended up at the base of the steps at the entrance to City Hall.

Sixty thousand people were there, all angry. And alas, there was no one to lead them and calm them. Harvey wasn't there with his megaphone, of course, and it was all about him. With 60,000 angry protesters, there were bound to be a small number of assholes in the crowd. And it was those assholes who mounted the stairs, broke off some of the wrought-iron door decorations, and smashed the glass doors. A few thousand of us up front began chanting, "No violence, no violence!" But, the roar of 60,000 people made it totally impossible for us to be heard. Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver actually came out onto a rampart high up on City Hall with a megaphone, but no one could hear her either. And some idiot threw a rock at her, and she withdrew back inside, injured.

The sound of the breaking glass on the front doors was the spark that the police had been waiting for. A phalanx of cops in full riot gear rushed in from the right and all hell broke loose. Suddenly everyone was shouting and pushing in all directions. People were trying to flee and others were rushing forward to battle the police. It was horrible, and I was right up front in the middle of the chaos.

Because of my years, more than a decade earlier, in the black civil rights movement, I had received good training on how to survive when demonstrations go bad. So, earlier, when the march peacefully approached City Hall, I had more or less subconsciously worked out an escape route, just in case things went wrong. I also knew how to resist the urge to run like hell. The cops were chasing anyone who was running and beating them brutally on the head with batons. There was blood everywhere. I had to tell myself over and over, "Walk, don't run!"

I walked, the cops ignored me and chased people running right past me. I got to Market Street, where busloads of riot cops were rushing toward the scene, helicopters were overhead, and streetcar service had been suspended. I was in a war zone. I walked and walked. I got home at midnight; my lover was watching the riot live on TV; he burst into tears when I came in the door. He'd thought that I was lying somewhere in a pool of blood.

We held each other in bed all night, watching the carnage, watching the burning police cars. And we just held each other tight. Little did we know that there was another enemy already within his body, that would take his life just over a decade later.

The film "Milk," of course, cannot be faulted for leaving out what might have been. No one knew, in Milk's days in the late 1970s, of the evil virus that was already invading the bodies of those we loved, or how many lives it would take in the coming decades. Yet, had Milk lived, he would certainly have led the battle for AIDS research and funding, and likely would have become a congressman to carry on that battle.

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