Standing Up to Sit-Lie

Hashbury_60s_hippie_on_haight.jpgHippies and punks have been sitting on Haight Street for almost a half century. Will they soon be criminals? (Photo: Greg Gaar Collection, via http://foundsf.org)

As San Francisco moves closer to a decision on a new sit-lie ordinance that proponents say would facilitate the SFPD’s clearing of unsavory elements off of sidewalks in neighborhoods like the Haight, resistance is building, and several organizers have called for a day of sidewalk action on Saturday March 27, from 10 am to 5 pm. I sat down recently with Nate Miller, one of the people who decided that they
weren’t going to watch the City succumb to yet another pandering campaign of fear mongering without standing up to say no.

The sit-lie campaign has been orchestrated from behind the scenes for the past few months, trying to appear as a spontaneous grassroots effort by residents of the Haight-Ashbury. But as Miller tells it, there is strong evidence of coordination between “grassroots activists,” the Chronicle’s resident suburban attack dog C.W. Nevius, Mayor Newsom and Chief of Police Gascon. Together, they are using the decades-long presence of impoverished and annoying “gutter punks” on Haight Street to push a law criminalizing anyone who is sitting or lying on a sidewalk anywhere in San Francisco. Gabriel Haaland wrote an intelligent editorial in last week’s Bay Guardian calling for a new approach to actual conflicts (greatly exaggerated in this case), rather than expanding the definition of so-called criminal behavior.

Here’s Nate in his own words: 

I grew up in San Francisco and lived here my whole life. For the past few months the Chronicle has been publishing really inflammatory articles talking about “thugs and bullies” in the Haight who are making it a living hell for residents, shoppers, and business people to exist there. The police have been talking about how this is a grassroots effort of the neighborhood, but the timing shows that is false. First the Chronicle starts drumming up all this stuff. Then they have the Mayor walk down the street when he’s supposedly undecided about this. He walks down the street with his baby, and supposedly sees a man sitting on the sidewalk smoking crack. Obviously it’s already illegal to smoke crack (and you can do it standing up!). He uses this to announce that we need to make it illegal to have people sitting on the sidewalk. Two days later he introduces legislation to the Board of Supervisors, already vetted by the City Attorney. He proposes two separate pieces of legislation. If you do anything in politics, you know that’s impossible [to get this done so quickly]. The Mayor must have been working on this since a long time ago.

The same day the Chamber of Commerce/Committee on Jobs does a poll that they claim shows there’s 71% support for a law outlawing sitting on the sidewalks. The question that they asked was not simply if you support a law that will make it illegal to sit or lie down on a sidewalk. It asked if you support a law that would arrest people who were harassing you. I’d support a law like that! I don’t want to be harassed. There are already laws against that. There’re laws against aggressive panhandling, against panhandling, against blocking the sidewalk, against smoking crack.

They say this is “a tool.” Supposedly “the police will use their discretion to use it appropriately.” Public Defender Jeff Adachi pointed out in a hearing that there were a lot of people that could be subjected to this law—tourists sitting on their luggage, students sitting on a sidewalk, homeless people—and all these people would be subject to $100 fine the first time, while repeat offenders could do 30 days in jail. The Chronicle’s Nevius said “that’s ridiculous, the cops would never arrest a tourist for sitting on their bag,” but the law states that it would be illegal to do that.

The argument made by Nevius and other Sit-Lie Law supporters is that the police can be trusted to implement this sweeping legal mandate in a reasonable manner. But the law defines a normal behavior, sitting on a sidewalk, as a crime!

Here’s Nate again:

Obviously the law will be used against the most vulnerable people. It’s a biological fact that some time during the day you’re going to need to rest. If you don’t have a home to do that in and you’re homeless you’ll have to sit on the sidewalk. I like sitting on the sidewalk! I just went to Vietnam and Cambodia to experience the vibrant, amazing things that go on in the streets. People are out there all day and it’s just a much better feeling. I feel a lot safer with a lot of people on the streets.

I think it’s a two-pronged approach. One is to scare people when they’re on Haight Street—just go shopping, minimize engagement with other people … (forget about people watching or anything else). This is also a serious effort by the Chamber of Commerce and conservative politicians to create a wedge issue for the November elections. That’s already playing out. You see people like Scott Weiner who is running for Supervisor in the Castro campaigning by saying “I support Sit and Lie because I care about public safety.” He can now run, playing to people’s fears that have been created by the Chronicle through all this fabrication, and make them feel safe.

There’s a lot of routes you can go besides this idea of “pre-crime,” that you can just make totally normal behavior illegal and then give the cops the discretion to punish people based on how they look or anything. Because if they’re not doing anything else illegal you are just arresting someone for sitting on the ground.

A few other people started talking about the broader implications of this law, that it is going to make it illegal to sit anywhere on the sidewalk. The first response was a very defensive one: hey, we’re under attack. But then we started talking about what we could do with this. What kind of conversations can we have?

boys_w_marbles2.jpgDangerous use of public space! Let’s do it! (Photo: Kurt Bank)

Public space is important. On one hand there’s all these greening initiatives going on, but at the same time we’re trying to make it illegal to exist in public space, setting a really horrible precedent. We thought about Park(ing) Days, where people voluntarily occupy parking places and make them parks for a day, and people really enjoy it. We thought, why don’t we bring that on to the sidewalks for a day? We need to be encouraging more people to enjoy public space, to talk to each other, enjoying our vibrant and exciting city. Through talking about that we decided we were going to reach out to people who were interested in that. The basic idea is that anyone can bring out a table, or lawn chairs, or a mat, and do whatever you want, because it’s completely normal.

Bring yourselves and anything you like out to the street, and just relax. You can do whatever you want, argue with your family, party with your friends, make coffee for people. Some people are reclaiming the tea party idea and having a huge tea party. There’s going to be all kinds of fun things for people to go and see and engage with. We want people to contact us through the website we’re developing, or FB or email. Send us a location, a street corner where you will be situated. What time you’re going to be there, and a couple of sentences about what you think you’ll be doing. Afterward, we’re asking everyone to document it with a photo or a video, even a cellphone picture, and send it back to us. We’re creating a Google Map and hopefully there will be dozens or hundreds of locations where people were doing things. It will be a lot more cohesive after that.

Later on Saturday, March 27, everyone is going to Market and Castro to the new plaza there. By going there we want to connect to a bit of local history. In the 1970s Castro, they passed a similar law to target hippies that were laying around smoking pot or staring at the wall on acid or whatever, but what they really used it for was to target gay men who were flocking to the city to see this exciting new scene that was growing. There was this group called the Castro 14, guys who got put in jail for sitting on the streets. Harvey Milk was a huge opponent of this, and it eventually got repealed after he died because it was totally ridiculous and unfair and it was destroying part of the culture of the Castro.

It’s important that people contact us because we want to provide them with some basic infrastructure to make it a bit more focus and pointed. It’s unusual to do this kind of street activism when something is just being voted on at the Board of Supervisors. It’s going to go on the ballot this November regardless of how it’s voted on by the Board. We have this problem with Ross Mirikarimi and David Chiu who are basically bending to political pressure. They haven’t committed either way, but we’re going to send documents to everyone who contacts us with fact sheets and contact information to organize our opposition. Write us at info@standagainstsitlie.org and you’ll be getting good information, not spam, from us.

guy_on_suitcase.gifAnother activity on the way to criminalization? (Photo: Kurt Bank)

  • Joseph

    off topic:

    Photo credit on the first picture? The overexposure of the man sitting on the sidewalk is gorgeously haunting.

    I would also be curious whether there have been effectiveness studies for sit-lie laws on the books in other cities. If sit-lie is going to help with the quality-of-life issues that are pervasive here, I am in complete support. However, it would be beneficial to have some sort of solid data here before SF engages in yet another futile ideological firefight.

    Anecdotally I was just on Telegraph in Berkeley for the first time in years last weekend and it was as borderline scary as I can remember. That probably has more to do with support services around there than any sit-lie law though.

  • The first photo is from the Greg Gaar Collection, via http://foundsf.org.

    I lived at 540 Cole Street, just off Haight, from 1978 to 1987, and I am on Haight Street quite often visiting friends. I’ve never felt afraid, or had anyone threaten me, or anything close to the hysterical fear reported by some commenters. And sure, I’ve had to step around obnoxious punk panhandlers from time to time. Big deal! When I moved in to the Haight on the first of January 1978, about 50% of the upper Haight was actually boarded up. Many storefronts were abandoned, and the Theatre Club Bar was directly south of the end of Cole Street where it came into Haight. Every night drunks would spill out of it brawling, sometimes shooting at each other or waving knives. I remember it well, plus all the folks peeing on the walls of the old Straight Theater in those days (long since demolished and replaced with the Goodwill store/apartments there.

    I think the pro-sit/lie people would be happier in the sanitized parts of town, or perhaps in the suburbs. Thanks to all the thoughtful people, who without passing judgement (like i just did!) on the fears of people, have taken the time to point out that 1) this law will NOT improve your personal safety; and 2) making a broad, loose law and then relying on police to enforce it against people whose aesthetics and demeanor offend you is really BAD POLICY.

  • Shawn Allen

    JohnB,

    “if you want to know what my neighbors (in nearby Cole Valley) think, they’d mostly tell you (in their near unanimous support of the proposed law) that the right of a resident to go about their business without due let or hindrance is a more important Constitutional Right (and RP is huge on the Constitution) than the Right of a bunch of kids with large salivating dogs to harass people.”

    Nobody has the “right” to harass anyone else. In fact, it is your right as a citizen—and, I would assert, your obligation as a responsible member of society—to report harassment to the police and press charges if necessary. The SFPD doesn’t need a sit/lie law or any other new “tools” to kick the gutter punks off Haight Street. They need to do their job and enforce the laws on the books. California Penal Code Section 647 is a good place to start: http://law.onecle.com/california/penal/647.html

    I can’t blame upper Haight residents for feeling helpless, because the assumption underlying the perceived need for a sit/lie law is actually pretty frightening: SFPD is incapable of doing their job. It’s the same attitude (or really, a a lack thereof) that I see applied to crackheads and crazies harassing people at the 16th & Mission BART plaza. If the plethora of laws that exist today aren’t enough for a police officer to arrest somebody who’s threatening or harming us, then we have a much more serious problem on our hands which can’t be solved just by passing new, pernicious laws. Gascón needs to get his act together and demand some accountability from his force, rather than pandering to suburban reactionaries like C.W. Nevius.

  • Dano

    It’s a side-walk. Not a side-sit down. It’s a shopping district and a neighborhood, if you want to take a break and sit down, go the park. Most of the “homeless” that I see are just transient losers who shit and piss wherever they want and are fucked up and belligerent most of the time. I say ship ’em out to the desert.

  • Really? The entire city and count of San Francisco is a shopping district?

  • Geo Epsilanty

    I would MUCH rather be harassed by physically aggressive citizens than physically aggressive police officers. When a citizen becomes a problem you can call the police, but when the police become problematic, who do you call? There are surely better ways of dealing with the creeps on Haight St than making it illegal to sit or lie on the sidewalk anywhere in San Francisco. Those who doubt the law will be applied elsewhere — against the homeless and basically ANYONE a particular police officer doesn’t like — are dreaming a dangerous dream.

    Let me also call attention to the role of the Hearst Corporation (owner of the Chronicle newspaper) in this proposed new law. Rather than simply reporting the news, they are once again creating it. I am so glad to see power slipping out of their hands as a result of the alternative news sources available online. I NEVER buy that paper (& Craigslist rocks.)

    Finally, whenever I read suburban reactionary Nevius’ angry and bitter column my heart breaks because I remember The Chron’s brilliant and warm-hearted city columnist of so many years, so long ago. Herb Caen, we miss you SO much. Our City has become a colder, meaner place since you left us.

  • Beck

    Shoppers and tourists take up just as much space as street kids. The difference is that they have money and the police on their sides. ive been working with street youth for 5+ years, i myself am queer and formerly homeless and i’m telling everyone out there that ticketing us for sitting down will only land us back on your stoop. Criminalization of homeless people makes it incredibly difficult for us to access govt housing or programs. we’re asking for real solutions. there should be a homeless mediation team if there are situations that need to be dealt with. the police should not be the first people we call.

  • Viv

    Why not make the sidewalks a little wider? Put folks to work, get rid of some more parking to encourage the EB to take BART into town, and have more outside space to connect us. Valencia is already looking better and more fun to walk down. Plus, they added sparkles which is nice on rainy nights…

  • Amy Trachtenberg

    Funny how many Americans love to travel to or live in densely populated foreign cities in part for the vibrancy of the street life. In Barcelona, Mumbai, Paris, Bangkok, etc people cook, eat, squat,sleep, trade, get haircuts and do business on the sidewalks of the world. Here in the US as we do not have sufficient safety nets for our people most at risk, the compulsion to sweep these folks out of sight will do nothing to remedy their plight or the disturbances they may create. Programs help. More funding and second step programs towards affordable permanent shelter, job training and mental health services are the main fix for the hassles encountered. And how strange that Haight Street’s commercial properties seems to be thriving despite the complaints, it is one of the only neighborhoods w/o vacancies.. why is that?.

  • Gerrard

    Has anyone pointed out that the supposed inspiration for the sit/lie law comes from complaints about a very dense, very commercial strip? No one wants to deal with the class issue, especially those who trust the cops blindly because they’ve never had a negative experience with them. People want to be allowed to “shop in peace,” coming to an area that probably makes more total profit than any other hood outside of downtown, and when the poor and the bored also come to where the money is, it’s an egregious insult to the landlords and the willfully insulated weenies whose guilty conscience and lack of imagination leave them with no come back for the occasional punk outburst. People sitting on the sidewalk, even crazy people, are a lot less dangerous than the chumps who turn their heads when the city crowds the schools, privatizes recreation areas, or gives fat tax breaks to developers, even while cutting transportation services and asking the poorest people in the city to pay for it. We can not evade the political issue and the class issue here people, and it is absurd to even try.

  • Susan King

    Here’s an idea- I know there are logistics issues to be resolved so it is not necessarily an easy solution- put the Park police station on the corner of Haight and Stanyan. I would love to see the McDonalds there get pulled out like a rotten tooth. With a visible police station on Haight st and not hidden in the park a few blocks away, I think the issue of overt illegal behavior (drug dealing, using, petty theft, unleashed dogs, etc.) would go down. Again, I know it would take some cooperation from the property owners of the McDonalds, but it could be a win-win for the neighborhood. I am also waiting for more neighborhood serving retail in the area, like a grocery store again? BTW, I live here and agree with most of the anti- sit/lie arguments. There have been kids hanging out on Haight for 40+ years, this law is not going to be the solution that proponents hope it will be.

  • Citrus

    Ridiculous, ridiculous, ridiculous, ridiculous.

    Also, anyone who thinks that this law WON’T be abused at police discretion has obviously never had the “pleasure” of being the victim of police harassment. Believe you me, if this is passed, it WILL be abused.

    I’ve never been harassed by someone sitting down on the street. In fact, I’ve met some pretty cool people sitting down on the street. Stop criminalizing these people.

    To irritated to write a coherent rant. So I’ll just leave it at that for now.

  • Tom kuremsky

    i amseventrees. homeless on the haight . fair words i supose some info for the tourist. but the shear undefined nature of this law is costing 10’s of millions of happy tourism dollars from getting to the haight. this is un acceptable. and a weak hand gavan is playing.. cheers

  • Adam P Smith

    As a federal prisoner serving the last fews days of his sentence, I prefer that our resources be used to fill my bed, figuratively or otherwise, with predators – not the weary lounging.

    Meanwhile, when released on Monday…still have 32 tickets to answer from whence I slept in public near the central business district of Dallas (public usually meant at 3:30am, hiding behind an abandoned building) – one bill for such pending at the municipal level totals $7,210. I want my closely held religious beliefs respected, at least referencing old tickets and perpetual electronic dossiers, vide’licet background checks; you know, in the forgive AND forget ‘christian’ way.

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