Politics behind the picture

Pub date November 18, 2008

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The new Harvey Milk movie, which opens later this month, begins as a love story, a sweet love story about two guys who meet in a subway station and wind up fleeing New York for San Francisco. But after that, the movie gets political — in fact, by Hollywood standards, it’s remarkably political.

The movie raises a lot of issues that are alive and part of San Francisco politics today. The history isn’t perfect (see sidebar), but it is compelling. And while we mourn Milk and watch Milk, we shouldn’t forget what the queer hero stood for.

Milk started out as something of a pot-smoking hippie. “The ’70s were a hotbed of everything,” Sup. Tom Ammiano remembered. “Feminism, civil rights, antiwar.” Milk’s early campaigns grew out of that foment. “Sure, he wanted to be elected,” Ammiano told us. “But the main ingredient was courage. He was fighting with the cops when they raided the bars … what he did was dangerous.”

Milk never would have been elected supervisor without district elections — and the story of district elections, and community power, ran parallel to Milk’s own story, for better and for worse.

Milk tried twice to win a seat on the at-large Board of Supervisors and never made the final cut. But in the mid-1970s, a coalition of community leaders, frustrated that big money controlled city policy, began organizing to change the way supervisors were elected. The shift from an at-large system to a district one in 1976 was a transformational moment for the city.

“I think that San Francisco doesn’t always appreciate the sea change that district elections brought,” Cleve Jones, a queer activist and friend of Milk who helped Dustin Black write the script for Milk, told us. “It wasn’t just important to the various communities that had been locked out of power at City Hall — it was the glue that began to grow the coalitions.”

Milk was elected as part of what became the most diverse board in the city’s history, with Asian, black, and gay representatives who came out of community organizations. The board, of course, also included Dan White, a conservative Irish Catholic and former cop. And it was the assassination of Milk and Mayor George Moscone by Sup. White — and the civic heartbreak, chaos, and confusion that followed — that allowed downtown forces to repeal district elections in 1980. That gave big money and big business control of the board for another 20 years, a reign that ended only when district elections returned in 2000.

Milk was a gay leader, but he was also a tenant activist, public power supporter, advocate for police reform, supporter of commuter taxes on downtown workers, and coalition-builder who helped bring together the labor movement and the queer community. It started, ironically, with the Teamsters.

“Those of us who came out of the antiwar movement remembered that the Teamsters supported Richard Nixon until the very last moment,” Jones said. “And they were seen as one of the most homophobic of all the unions.”

But in the 1970s, the Teamsters were at war with the Coors Brewing Company, and trying to get San Francisco bars to stop serving Coors beer. Allan Baird, a Teamsters leader who lived in the Castro District, saw an opportunity and contacted Milk, who agreed to help — if the Teamsters would start hiring gay truck drivers.

“It wasn’t just San Francisco and California,” Jones recalled. “We got Coors beer out of every gay bar in North America.” And gays started driving beer trucks.

Today, the queer-labor alliance is one of the most powerful, effective, and lasting political forces in San Francisco.

Milk was never popular among the wealthier and more established sectors of the gay community; he believed in a populist brand of politics that wasn’t afraid to take the fight to the streets — and beyond San Francisco. A central theme of the film is the fight against Proposition 6, a 1978 measure by conservative state Sen. John Briggs that would have barred homosexuals from teaching the public schools.

Milk, defying the mainstream political strategists, insisted on debating Briggs in some of the most right-wing parts of the state. He refused to downplay the gay-rights issues. And when Prop. 6 went down, it was the end of that particular homophobic crusade.

Milk was always an outsider, and he ran for office as a foe of the Democratic Party machine. “His campaign for state Assembly was all about Harvey vs. the machine,” former Sup. Harry Britt told us. “His main supporter was [Sup.] Quentin Kopp. He didn’t run as the liberal in the race; he ran against the machine.” And for much of the next 20 years, progressives in San Francisco found themselves fighting what became the Brown-Burton machine, controlled by Willie Brown and John Burton.

It’s too bad the movie wasn’t released early enough to have had an impact on Prop. 8, the anti same-sex marriage measure that just passed in California. Some critics of the No on 8 campaign say the message was far too soft, and that a little Harvey-Milk-style campaigning might have helped.

But for us, one of the most striking things about the movie is the fact that Milk and his lover, Scott Smith, were able to leave New York with very little money, arrive in San Francisco, rent an apartment on their unemployment checks, and open a camera store. That wouldn’t be possible today; the Harvey Milks of 2008 can’t live in the Castro — and many can’t live anywhere in San Francisco. The city is too expensive.

In fact, for all the victories Milk won, for all the successes of the movement he helped to build, much of his agenda is still unfulfilled, even in his hometown.

The first time Harvey Milk gives a public speech in the film, he’s standing on a soapbox … literally. He brings out a box with “soap” written on the side; a funny gag, but a serious and telling moment for him and San Francisco.

The issues that Milk spoke so passionately about in that speech included police reform, ending the war on drugs, protecting tenants and controlling rents, and improving parks and protecting people’s rights to use them liberally — all issues with as much resonance today as they had back then.

The movie leaves us with a painful question. For all the celebration of Milk’s legacy by San Franciscans of various political stripes, why have we made so little progress on some of his signature issues? We celebrate the martyr — but often forget what the man really advocated.

Support for gay rights is de rigueur for anyone who aspires to public office in San Francisco. But a quarter of city residents still voted to take away same-sex marriage rights in this election. Many older gay men today are barely able afford their AIDS medication and rent. And transgender people and other nontraditional types are still ostracized, unable to get good jobs, and sometimes treated contemptuously when they seek help from their government.

Sure, marijuana is supposedly legal for medical uses in California and pot clubs proliferate around San Francisco. But even these sick patients are still targeted by the federal government and its long arms in San Francisco, including former US Attorney Kevin Ryan, whom Mayor Gavin Newsom named his top crime advisor and who is now seeking to crackdown on the pot clubs. Why, 30 years after Milk was shot, does one have to claim an ailment or illness to smoke a joint in this town?

Two-thirds of city residents are renters, a group Milk championed with gusto, but we barely beat a state initiative in June that would have abolished rent control. Housing is getting steadily more expensive. And in this election, Newsom and his downtown allies opposed Proposition B, an affordable housing measure, and Proposition M, a common sense measure to prohibit landlords from harassing their tenants. Such harassment is a common tactic to force tenants from rent-controlled units, even though the City Attorney’s Office is currently suing the city’s biggest landlord, Skyline Realty, for its well-documented history of harassment. Newsom may be the champion of same-sex marriage, but when it comes to issues like tenants’ rights, we suspect that Milk would be appalled at Newsom’s gall.

Ted Gullicksen of the San Francisco Tenants Union noted that in the wake of Milk’s death and before the repeal of district elections, San Francisco established rent control and limits on condo conversions. The tenant movement has grown steadily stronger and more sophisticated, he said, as it had to in order to counter increasing economic and political pressures and creative gambits by landlords.

“The city has gentrified phenomenally since that time, and that’s put tremendous pressure on tenants and on condo conversions,” Gullicksen told us. “It continues to be a real struggle.”

Police reform was also a huge issue for Milk and his gay contemporaries, who suffered more than most groups from the behavior of thuggish cops protected by weak oversight rules and a powerful union. And today, the Police Officers Association is stronger and meaner than ever, but the oversight has improved little, as both the Guardian and San Francisco Chronicle have explored with investigations in recent years.

And in our public parks, San Francisco officials in recent years have banned smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, playing amplified music, and even gathering in large numbers without expensive, restrictive permits. Even in the Castro, where Milk and his allies took it as a basic right to gather in the streets, Newsom and the NIMBYs unilaterally cancelled Halloween celebrations and used police to chase away citizens with water trucks.

Is this really the city Harvey Milk was trying to create? In the film, he talks about transforming San Francisco into a vibrant, tolerant beacon that would set an example for the rest of the country, telling his compatriots, “We have got to give them hope.”

Well, with hope now making a comeback, perhaps San Francisco can finally follow Milk’s lead on the issues he cared about most.

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