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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.

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