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.
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.
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.
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.”[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jet-Ubwk5l8]
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.[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s2kD-9QZOs4]
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/