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)