(ed. note: Much of what Michael Bellefountaine wrote about his research into Jonestown – and the findings from his research – has been published on this website and in forthcoming works. One item we discovered on his computer a week after his death was the transcript of an interview – or perhaps Michael’s extended answers to written questions – regarding his interest in the Harvey Milk/George Moscone assassinations and his introduction to the Jonestown story. The notes are undated, and the identity of the interviewer is unknown. Because they provide insights into what drove one of the Temple’s most indefatigable researchers, we offer them here.)
What do you remember most vividly about the 27 November 1978 death of Mayor Moscone? Where were you was and how did you learn about the facts?
I was a teenager who lived in New England at the time of the murders, so I do not draw from personal memory or experience. I have, however, spent years studying the murders and the Jonestown events. I have also interviewed a number of Milk’s friends and political aides in trying to figure out what happened and why. The good side to this is that my research isn’t tainted with incorrect memories and personal emotions. I can still be detached.
I think the thing to remember the most is that the city of San Francisco was reeling from the assassination of Leo Ryan and the Jonestown deaths. Ryan was a popular politician from San Mateo, and there were few people in the city who did not know generally about the Temple, if not someone who was actually in the Temple. When the murder of Ryan and his party was announced from Guyana, the press reported that only a couple hundred or so Temple people were dead. There were actually eyewitness reports which stated that hundreds of people were seen fleeing into the jungle around the community. This had a unique effect on San Francisco. Initially there was sadness and mourning around the assassination, but there was hope that hundreds, if not a thousand, people survived the suicides. This is ignored or forgotten today, but initially this hope lasted for days. Slowly every day or so, the death toll began to rise.
Then it was the holiday of Thanksgiving, and people retreated to family and prayers.
It was not until November 25 that the San Francisco Examiner printed the final death toll at around 910. People were just realizing the full effect of Jonestown when the Milk/Moscone murders happened. So, contrary to popular belief that the city had a week to digest the suicides and murders, this was not the case. The events (the Moscone – Milk murders and the realization of the extent of the Jonestown death toll) happened virtually at the same time. The hope that people of survivors was not only dashed, that hope was eradicated and mocked by the murders of Milk and Moscone. By the time that Milk and Moscone were murdered the city was in collective shock and grief. Regardless of what you felt about the Temple, the Temple members or Jim Jones, the photos coming out of Guyana were emotionally disturbing and touched almost everyone in the city.
Had the murders of Milk and Moscone not followed the Jonestown massacre so closely they may have unfolded quite differently. But the two events happened almost simultaneously and therefore it is almost impossible to talk about one without talking about the other.
What happened in the following days?
There were two important things that were brought out by the Milk/Moscone murders. The first was the replacement of Moscone with Dianne Feinstein as Mayor of San Francisco. Feinstein was the president of the board of supervisors and next in line for mayor. She had been term limited out, which means she could not run for another term at the board. So she was finished politically. The death of Moscone catapulted her to the mayor’s office and eventually on a political career to her present position as a US Senator. Though both were Democrats, Moscone and Feinstein were very different politicians. Feinstein was tied to downtown big business in a big way. They got more mileage out of her than they would have from Moscone. This had a long term effect on the development of San Francisco, physically and politically.
The second important thing was a mystique in the gay community that gay leaders would be shot and killed, and that gays were the targets of American society. This was not as true. Harvey Milk was not killed because he was gay as is the common thought. Indeed Dan White had hoped to also kill Willie Brown and Carol Ruth Silver, neither of whom are gay. If he had killed four people – three of whom are not gay – he is not a gay basher per se. Additionally, he killed Harvey and wanted to kill the others, I believe, because they were the ones who had forced him out of his seat. The board had been divided equally between progressives and business people, and Dan White’s departure and replacement by a progressive gave the progressives the votes they needed to push through their agenda. I think that Moscone would have been willing to give White his seat back, but he was pressured not to do so by the others who were open about wanting a progressive majority on the board.
Soon after Harvey’s death, the gay community became adept at turning it into a gay murder. Not a murder of a politician who happened to be gay, but the murder of a gay man. In part this was due to the fact that Milk had left a tape saying he was going to be assassinated, and assumed it would be because he was gay. As the tape was played and replayed, the myth developed that White was a gay basher. I just don’t think that this was the case. Additionally the mystique was created that Milk was the first elected gay person and if gay people rise to public office, as gay people, they would be gunned down. Neither of these statements is true. Milk wasn’t the first elected gay person – a lesbian had been elected in Massachusetts, as was a gay man in Madison, Wisconsin – and neither of them had been targeted.
But this mythology did wonders for the gay community. White epitomized all that was wrong with straight America, and gays began coming out of the closet left and right. People were marching by the hundreds for Milk in cities where the gay communities traditionally remained hidden behind locked doors and dark, dank bars.
What role did the press play? Were there significant journalistic investigations? What do you remember, in particular, about the debate in the following days and months?
The journalistic investigations consisted mostly of biographies. Period. At the time it was still sensationalistic to talk about gay people. Papers were written for, and read by, the mainstream. This would not include gays who were often treated like a secret sect or society themselves. Cult-like.
I think the most important thing to remember is that if Milk had been the only one killed, it would not even be a footnote in the history books. Milk was a first-term member on the Board of Supervisors. On the other hand, Moscone was a well-known politician and was sincerely loved by the average Joe and Joanne who lived in the city. In fact when the California Senate voted to memorialize Moscone – who had served in that chamber for a number of years – eight Senators scoffed at the notion of adding Milk’s name to the memorial. They said that it was unfitting to honor a gay, and that including a homosexual with the Senator was an insult to Moscone. They declined to support Milk’s memorial. This is important. Today we think, “Oh, Harvey, he was so great” but I think it comes from the fact that he was killed alongside a popular figure and the two have become merged into one. (I also assume based on their relationship that Moscone would have been appalled at the Senators’ response and the lack of ethical challenges from the press.)
Were you involved in the trial? What do you think about the “Twinkie Defense”?
The Twinkie defense is now outlawed in California and is absurd on its face. “I ate too much sugar so I killed two people and should be absolved?” It was just a ploy successfully used by the defense to allow jurors who were sympathetic to White to convict him of manslaughter instead of murder. This is where gay bias of average Americans came in. White should have got life for killing Moscone. Then he should have got life for killing Milk. But it did not work that way. The defense focused on Milk’s homosexuality and White’s mental state, and it did so effectively. The fact that twelve people fell for it is the problem. The press was just as much at fault for promoting White as a good boy gone bad (or confused) and therefore not responsible for the murders. This is nothing more than a black eye on the American legal system.
However, it was the Twinkie defense and the trial’s outcome that truly mobilized the gay community which had trusted the system. That trust is revealed in the number of peaceful candlelight memorials during which thousands poured out of the gay enclaves of the Castro and the Polk districts of the city, in powerful statements of non-violence and grief. But when the verdict came down, the community rioted. Gays and lesbians from all over the city converged on city hall screaming over and over again, “He got away with murder.” This verdict, more than the murder itself, mobilized the community. Feinstein was trapped in city hall with a phalanx of police while protesters smashed windows and doors. Twelve cop cars went up in flames, and hundreds of people, both gay and straight, went to the hospital. This was followed by the Castro sweep where hundreds of cops ( I think the number was 2/3 of the active force) converged on the Castro and – in a sick and twisted switch – held a riot of their own, beating everyone they could get their hands on and sending even more people to the hospital. But the community had fought back, and after this night would never be the same again. (There were two violent Castro sweeps, the other in the early nineties, so don’t confuse the two. It is easy to do.)
Did the assassination of George Moscone and Harvey Milk change the city of San Francisco and its political makeup?
Mentioned above, but also the district elections (which Milk supported) were changed to city-wide elections, meaning small community-based people like Harvey would have a harder time running against well-funded, downtown interests.
What do you think is still important to remember about the episode thirty years later?
I think one of the most important things to remember is that Harvey did not get to power because of the gay community. In fact, many in the traditional gay leadership opposed him. They felt it was better to support gay friendly people until gays were electable. Milk felt like the time was now, so he circumvented them and started his own campaigns, many of which failed. Of course Harvey stirred the imagination of many a gay and lesbian, and the rank and file did vote for him, but he was able to build important ties outside of the gay community which ironically helped the gay community. Whether it was the endorsement of the firemen or the Teamsters, or his outreach to the Chinese and senior voters, Milk did what he could to build a people’s coalition to get himself elected. This, of course, led him to Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, which seemed genuinely interested in Milk’s campaign and supported him when they could. Milk ended up buying one of the Temple printing presses so that he could cut down on printing costs by making his own material, and according to personal correspondence, seemed interested in the works of Peoples Temple beyond the general veneer of politics.
What do you think about the man who killed Mr. Moscone? Is there a possible connection with Peoples Temple and the Jonestown massacre?
There are a number of lingering questions about Dan White, but I don’t know if involvement with Jim Jones and the Temple are among them. The topic has been researched, and there has been no credible evidence of any relationship between Jones and White, even on a superficial political level. They were from different political spectrums, and it is unlikely that the Temple would have aided White in politics.
I think one flaw in the research to date is that it tried to find a tie between White and Jones. Put the two “bad guys” together and see what comes up. It might be helpful to clump Moscone and Milk with Jones, and see what we come up with.
One thing I find of interest is the four people that White wanted to kill (Moscone, Milk, Willie Brown and Carol Ruth Silver) were all strong Temple supporters. Of these, Silver is of particular interest as she is often referred to as White’s closet friend on the Board of Supervisors. It seems strange he would include her. She is still in the city and I have tried to contact her for her take on this, but she has not replied. (I found someone who lived with Silver and who said that she had a number of White’s political stuff in her basement and had it before the deaths happened. In other words, they were close enough that he used her place for storage.)
I think it would be interesting to see if there was a connection between White and the government. This makes some people uncomfortable and pushes this to a “conspiracy theory,” but I think it is worthy of exploration on some level, even if it is just to rule it out once and for all. All I know is that these murders achieved two things in relation to Jonestown and Peoples Temple. First, it drew all the attention away from what was going on on the ground in Guyana, and second, it removed from the game two of the most powerful people most closely connected to Peoples Temple who might very well have demanded investigations and kept the city’s, if not the nation’s, focus on what really happened in Jonestown.