The AB101 Veto Riot Remembered @ GLBT History Museum (San Francisco)

October 3, 2011

On Thursday, September 29th, historian Gerard Koskovich hosted an event at San Francisco’s GLBT History Museum to commemorate the 20 year anniversary of the AB101 Veto Riot, the last of three queer riots in the history of San Francisco.  The riot was sparked when California Governor Pete Wilson vetoed a statewide gay rights bill in 1991 (after promising during his electoral campaign to approve it).  In response, an estimated 10,000 marched downtown to protest, ending with the police in retreat and the California state office building in flames.

Thursday’s event began with the screening of a short film about the history of the riot by Steve Elkins, director of “The Reach Of Resonance,” which evoked cheering, laughter and tears from the full house attending the event, most of whom turned out to be participants in the riot 20 years prior.  Laura Thomas then moderated discussion with a “living history” panel consisting of protest organizers and participants, Bob Ostertag (who composed a string quartet based on a precise transcription of audio he recorded at the riot for Kronos Quartet), and Steve Elkins who discussed his documentation of the riot in his feature film “The Reach Of Resonance,” as well as his more recent short film about the history of the riot which was made largely in reaction to the scant documentation on this important event in the history of San Francisco and human rights.

“Living History” Panel (from left to right): Laura Thomas (moderator), Lito Sandoval (protest organizer and participant), Ingrid Nelson (protest participant), Bob Ostertag (composer of “All The Rage”), Steve Elkins (director of “The Reach Of Resonance” and short film about the AB101 Veto Riot screened prior to the panel discussion).

Bob Ostertag discussing his string quartet “All The Rage,” the score of which is derived from a precise transcription of audio he recorded at the AB101 Veto Riot.

Steve Elkins, director of The Reach Of Resonance

Because so many in attendance had taken part in the protest (many of whom had remained anonymous for the last 20 years), the second half of the evening was opened up to audience members to share their memories of it.  One person spoke of the burn marks still visible on his jacket from an exploding cop car, while others recalled using police barricades as ladders to scale the California state building and set some of the upper story offices on fire.  Others recalled literally chasing former police chief out of the Castro on foot (and setting fire to the shoe he lost during his flight) when he showed up to the protests to posture for votes in his campaign to become San Francisco’s mayor.

Audience members at the “All The Rage” panel.

Sister MaeJoy B. Withu sharing memories of the AB101 Veto Riot. The Sisters were on the front lines that evening.

Moderator Laura Thomas led the audience to discuss questions such as why this was the last queer riot in San Francisco’s history, and why it happened that night 20 years ago rather than in reaction to other more obvious catalysts before and after.  Audience members discussed the blurred relationship of gay rights issues and police brutality in general, and questioned whether aging or changing social circumstances have affected the impetus for social activism over time.  Recognition was given to several participants in the 1991 riot who could not attend Thursday’s event due to taking part in the currently ongoing “Occupy San Francisco” protests, which had almost definitely led to their arrests while the panel discussion was taking place.

Drew Bourne, Dan Nicoletta and other audience members.

Steve Elkins was reunited with several of the incredible photographers who so graciously contributed images of the riot from their private collections to his films, including Jane Cleland and Dan Nicoletta, whose photographs of Harvey Milk are featured prominently in the 1985 Academy award winning documentary: “The Times Of Harvey Milk.” 

Nicoletta was played by Lucas Grabeel in Gus Van Sant’s Academy award winning feature film “Milk,” while Nicoletta himself played Carl Carlson in the film, the last person to see Harvey Milk alive.

Panel moderator Laura Thomas

Panelist Lito Sandoval

An audience member wrote an articulate and impassioned response to the event, which can be read here: http://www.autostraddle.com/twenty-years-ago-today-in-gay-history-the-ab101-veto-riots-112443/

One Response to “The AB101 Veto Riot Remembered @ GLBT History Museum (San Francisco)”

  1. gkoskovich said

    Thanks again to Steve for giving us permission to show his documentary short about the AB101 Veto Riot and for taking part in the panel. One historical revision to this post: Although an audience member did indeed talk about burn marks to his jacket from a flaming police car, his memory likely conflated events from other protests during the period, as no police cars were burned during the riot.

    Police vehicles were, however, torched at two protests quite close in time to the AB101 Veto Riot: During the massive San Francisco protests against the first Gulf War in January 1991, a police car was burned near the entrance to the Bay Bridge, and in late April 1992, on the first night of the massive protests against the acquittal of the Los Angeles police officers who beat Rodney King, a police motorcycle was burned on Market Street. During both of those protests, queer militants were visibly present in large numbers.

    I’d also like to second Steve’s comments about the importance of the AB101 Veto Riot veterans who offered their recollections at the museum program. On other thing struck me forcefully: More than one-quarter of the audience at the program was too young to have participated in the protest. They were their to learn about — and learn from — the contributions of their elders.

    Many young LGBT people and their friends are keen to know the history of our community, as is suggested by an impassioned blog post about the AB101 Veto Riot by a young lesbian on Autostraddle: http://tinyurl.com/Auto-Veto. Steve’s film will help many more discover the story of the riot.

    For more information about The GLBT Historical Society and The GLBT History Museum, visit our website at http://www.glbthistory.org.

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