Economy

Police State: "Lefty" San Francisco Can Throw People in Jail For Sitting on a Sidewalk

Propelled by wealthy donors and business interests, a new sit-lie ordinance in San Francisco gives police the power to fine and arrest people for resting on the sidewalk.

When Jon Paul, a 69-year-old who's been homeless for 39 years, pulls off his cowboy hat and bows his head, I think he's being chivalrous. Instead he knocks on his forehead to show me his steel plate. He got it in Vietnam about 39 years ago. He says that when he came back from that war he had to live on the street because he "couldn't stand to be inside anymore."

In addition to the metal in his forehead, Paul's stint in Vietnam earned him a whopping $400 a month, or just enough to pay for about two weeks in a SRO (single residence occupancy). So partly through choice ("I like being out here because I can help people") and partly through necessity, he sleeps on the street in San Francisco's Mission District.

Starting last Friday, Paul and the rest of the city's homeless (numbering between 7,000 and 10,000) won't legally be allowed to do that anymore, a development that leaves him shaking his head in bewilderment, saying “fuck that.” On November 2, as the GOP swept into a majority in the House on Teabagger juice, voters in freewheeling San Francisco -- one of the haloed liberal utopias bookending dreaded "flyover country" -- passed Proposition L, a sit-lie ordinance that outlaws sleeping (or resting or sitting) on a public sidewalk between 7am and 11pm.

Police are supposed to give a warning, but after that they can issue a citation that carries a $50-$100 dollar fine. A repeat offense within 24 hours earns the unrepentant sitter a $300-$500 ticket, and/or up to 10 days in jail. If caught sitting or reclining again within 120 days of the original conviction, the individual can be fined $400-$500 dollars and end up in jail for 30 days.

So what does the city of San Francisco have against sitting down in public? Nothing, obviously, as long as you don't look like you're prone to criminal behavior (e.g., homeless).

“If the law were enforced the way it is on the books," the ACLU of Northern California's legal director Allan Schlosser tells AlterNet, “We'd be living in a police state." But as Schlosser explains, the sit-lie ordinance is unlikely to be enforced against, say, the millions of tourists who flood the city with billions of dollars in annual revenues.

Police officials have basically admitted as much. At a March public safety hearing in which the measure was discussed, public defender Jeff Adachi presented a series of slides showing people engaged in the offensive behavior: an attractive (white) woman sitting on a nice suitcase, a (white) kid holding his skateboard on the curb, and a couple of tourists. But the shots were interspersed with pictures of homeless people. Adachi wondered if they'd all be criminals under the new law.

In his rebuttal, assistant police chief Kevin Cashman assured the board that the “good” people depicted in the slides would be warned first and were unlikely to end up getting citations, saying, "Obviously, common sense is going to be part of the training with enforcement of this statute." An earlier PowerPoint presentation by Cashman also contained the creepy promise that the law "Enables Preventative Intervention, Before Accident or Crime Occurs." As Greg Kamin noted on Fog City Journal, Cashman emphasized the law's Minority Report aspect further by adding that sit-lie would "prevent a criminal act from occurring in the first place.”

Actually, what the law is most likely to do is exacerbate the city's horrific homelessness problem. As Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of Coalition on Homelessness pointed out in a phone interview with AlterNet, homeless people are not eligible for housing programs if they have a criminal record. "People wait for years to get housing and then they get knocked out. It's depressing as hell." Since sit-lie carries criminal penalties, a measure designed in part to manage the city's homeless actually plants obstacles to getting them off the streets.

Clearly aware of the optics of a law that fights pre-crime and targets people for the way they look, the city is being mindful of how the ordinance is rolled out. Sgt. Michael Andraychak told AlterNet that although the measure took effect last Friday, the SFPD is still formulating an enforcement policy. Once a game plan is drafted, the department will train officers in the proper use of the ordinance. Andraychak says the law will likely not be enforced until February 1 of next year.

But Bob Offer-Westort of the Coalition on Homelessness says there have already been incidences of individual police officers wielding the rule to hassle the city's homeless -- even before the ordinance became law. As early as election night, Offer-Westort claims there were multiple reports from the Haight and the Castro of police telling homeless youth they weren't allowed to sit on the sidewalk anymore. Offer-Westort says he witnessed a police officer tell a young guy he'd better "move along" because of the new law. Was the guy doing anything to attract police attention? "No. He was sitting cross-legged, hands tucked into his sleeves, because it was a cold day."

Over the course of the campaign, proponents of the measure -- which included Mayor Gavin Newsom, police chief George Gascon (who'd spearheaded a similar campaign targeted at Los Angeles' Skid Row) and other high-level police department representatives -- insisted the law would not be used to harass the city's poorest residents. As homeless advocates raised concerns over the impact of the discriminatory measure on San Francisco's most vulnerable, the Yes on L campaign spokespeople claimed police needed the law to curb aggressive and dangerous behavior by the city's homeless (even though San Francisco has plenty of laws that target people living on the street -- Jennifer Freidenbach says there are about 34 laws aimed at the homeless population).

In fact, the campaign for sit-lie allegedly grew out of efforts to manage a small population of homeless that mass around the Haight. As the story goes, Mayor Gavin Newsom was taking a walk with his daughter down Haight Street last February when he saw someone smoking crack on the sidewalk. The scandalized Newsom announced soon after that he would put a sit-lie measure to the board (but neglected to submit a police report).

Newsom's sudden realization that some homeless people use hard drugs was not the beginning of the push for sit-lie though; a well-oiled PR operation had already been cranking out reports of dangerous, aggressive street culture overtaking the Haight. In the six months leading up to the vote for Prop L, C.W. Nevius, a conservative columnist and former Republican fundraiser, wrote 20 fearmongering op-eds pushing for a sit-lie law. In Nevius' overheated columns, crazed thugs terrorized the neighborhood's law-abiding citizens, and the police were powerless to stop them. "The problem is that in the last year or so, the Haight has gone through an unpleasant transformation," he wrote. “Instead of the usual drowsy drunks and affable stoners, a new group has taken over the sidewalks. They're young, aggressive bullies who confront residents, sit on the sidewalks with pit bulls, and even prey on small-time marijuana dealers." So intimidating were the Haight's street kids, wrote Nevius, that residents were too scared to report crimes to the police.

Teresa Barrett, then police chief of Park Station, which oversees the Haight, held a series of community meetings with Haight residents in which she drummed up fears about rising crime in the neighborhood. (During the course of the campaign Barrett ran afoul of ethics rules when she appeared in an ad for the measure in her police uniform.) Like Nevius, Barrett claimed the police did not have enough authority to curb violent behavior in the area.

But despite dire reports of assault and aggressive behavior, crime stats in the area hadn't increased. At least one of the stories promoted by Nevius turned out to be bogus -- he wrote about a man who was jumped by a homeless man, but the district attorney found that the fight was mutual and ended up dismissing the charges.

Of course, jumping peaceful residents already tends to be illegal. So are many of the other behaviors cited by Nevius, Barrett, Gascon, and others campaigning for sit-lie. Aggressive panhandling and sidewalk obstruction are against the law. The city has strict laws against loitering. In fact, San Francisco was named the seventh "Meanest" city in its treatment of the homeless in a report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and the National Coalition for the Homeless. The SFPD issues around 10,000 citations each year for "quality of life" crimes such camping and blocking the sidewalk. Religious Witness for the Homeless found that the city used up $9,847,027 on 56,567 such citations between 2004-2008. (That money, they determined, could be used to house "492 people, put 300 people in a three-month detox center, or pay the salaries of 113 psychiatric outreach workers.)

One of the main arguments for sit-lie was that current laws were inadequate because they required a third party to report threatening behavior. But in a review of local and state laws, the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco and the Bay Area found that a third party was not necessary for police to get involved. "As this report makes clear, these laws can be enforced by police officers without requiring citizens to complain of violations prior to their enforcement," they concluded.

Many of these questions were raised by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, which voted overwhelmingly (8-3) against the measure on June 8. "I've got to believe that we can do better than this law and do something that's more meaningful for the public," said Supervisor Bevan Dufty.

Undeterred by the board's vote, Newsom put sit-lie on the ballot as Proposition L, optimistically termed "Civil Sidewalks" by advocates. While some Haight Street business owners and residents who voiced complaints about aggressive street behavior supported the measure, the Prop L campaign was, for the most part, promoted not by the community but by high-level figures in the police department and government, the city's financial interests and its wealthiest residents.

The SF Chamber of Commerce lobbied for the measure and pushed businesses to give money, including the owners of the San Francisco 49ers. Other business interests, few of which have a direct presence in the allegedly dangerous streets of the Haight, followed suit, including the Building Owners and Managers Association of SF, Coalition for SF Neighborhoods, Cole Valley Improvement Association, Mission Merchants Association, Polk District Merchants, and the San Francisco Apartment Association.

The campaign was flush with cash from the city's wealthiest residents. Investor Ron Conway, beloved in Silicon Valley for bankrolling pretty much every big startup to come over the last 20 years, donated a total of $55,000 to the Civil Sidewalks campaign. Conway even lobbied for the measure in a speech at the Bay Area Council Dinner. Other generous donations came from Charles Schwab ($25,000), 49ers President Jed York ($10,000), Kevin Lynch, of Adobe Systems ($1,000) and Jeff Fluhr, the CEO of StubHub ($500). Overall the Yes on L campaign amassed about $280,000 -- cash that went to slick consultants and TV advertising, with ads running during the heavily viewed Giants playoffs.

"It was a classic 'buy the election' campaign," says Friedenbach. The opposition had only $7,802.

The results of the election were also telling. In an analysis of votes by precinct, Chris Roberts of theSF Appeal found that the city's wealthiest neighborhoods were instrumental in passing the legislation, while less affluent areas mostly voted against. "Sit/Lie fared poorly in most voting precincts where one can actually find homeless people sitting on the street," wrote Roberts. The measure failed in the precinct that includes the Haight.

Beyond the many non-Haight business interests and wealthy conservatives that propelled the measure in San Francisco, sit-lie advocates also got help from as far away as New York. The right-wing Manhattan Institute's Heather MacDonald penned an almost 7,000-word screed in favor of a measure in a city across the country, painting the homeless in the Haight as spoiled, violent vagrants and denouncing homeless advocates and progressives as weaklings whose inaction would sink the city (when tourists suddenly decide to stop coming to San Francisco because of the mean homeless people, an argument that would later crop up in Nevius' columns).

The Manhattan Institute has promoted laws targeting the homeless before. In the early 2000s senior fellow George L. Kelling got $500,000 to consult on the campaign for L.A.'s Skid Row sit-lie law, which was spearheaded by current San Francisco police chief Gascon. Over the years, the conservative think-tank has been instrumental in promoting the "broken windows" theory of local governance, which calls on police to patrol poor neighborhoods for low-level "quality of life" crimes. Scrubbing the bad elements is supposed to trigger magical neighborhood rejuvenation; tax dollars go to police, not all those pesky social programs.

In sit-lie measures, which have cropped up all over the country, including Seattle, L.A., Miami and Chicago, that theory reaches perfection -- criminalizing the poor without the bother of waiting for them to commit a crime.

"We have to look at this in the big-picture context," said Friedenbach. "When the federal government created the homelessness crisis, local governments did not have the means of addressing the issue. So they use the police to manage homeless people's presence." Fueling this is the standard conservative mindset that paints people who have fallen on hard times as weak, criminal and subhuman. "They have to set up a framework to understand homelessness that it's not about systemic causes, but about the person."

An older guy who calls himself Birdman, who resides near Valencia Street in the Mission, articulated the humiliating dehumanization inherent in laws like sit-lie in a self-published flyer: "What if ur homeless and broke and have nowhere to go? Are u forced to stand like in Abu prison? While a DOG is free to sit or lie?

Tana Ganeva is an AlterNet editor. Follow her on Twitter. You can email her at tanaalternet@gmail.com.