Tea Partying and Beanbagging on Shotwell
The citywide Stand Against Sit Lie campaign Saturday March 27 was a big success by all accounts. The website claims over 100 events took place on San Francisco sidewalks, and over 1000 people participated. That doesn’t sound overwhelming at first glance, but if you recall that this began as a brainstorm in a bar just a couple of weeks ago, and relied heavily on Facebook and personal networking, it is an impressive beginning.
Mayor Gavin Newsom, Police Chief George Gascón, and the S.F. Chronicle suburban-values attack-dog C.W. Nevius have been drumming up an Astroturf grassroots effort to criminalize sitting on sidewalks. The focus has been the Haight-Ashbury, where there are actual homeowners who have been contributing their energy to this effort. The joke at our 24th and Shotwell sit-in was that these same upscale homeowners in the Haight have been trying for over 30 years to “clean up” Haight Street. They had an organization for a while in the 1980s called RAD (Residents Against Druggies) and you could reliably buy pot or acid by looking for them, and then seeking the cluster of dealers who trailed them around the neighborhood!
Anyway, these folks, egged on by the powers-that-be, are clamoring for a new law to give police carte blanche to evict anyone they want to from the neighborhood’s sidewalks. The proposed ordinance is drawn very broadly, allowing for police to accost anyone on any sidewalk in the city and fine them and, if there’s a second offense, have them jailed for 30 days. This is being promoted as a means to enhance public safety, despite the fact that there are already laws against blocking sidewalks and aggressive panhandling. It’s unclear what purpose this new ordinance is supposed to fulfill, other than a new tool of arbitrary power for the police to use against “undesirable” populations.
Our group gathered at 24th and Shotwell as part of the citywide effort to say no to this proposed law. My partner Adriana organized it as a Tea Party, matching similar efforts near Buena Vista Park and elsewhere. We also put out some mats and a beanbag toss game, along with cake and tea. You really can’t imagine how fun it is to connect with passersby and neighbors on a local sidewalk until you try it out. First the Palestinian store owner came out wondering why we were there. He loved our tea since it tasted like ‘Arab tea’!
Our first “guest” was Wolf, a longtime resident of the Mission, a self-acknowledged dope fiend who had done a couple of long stints in jail. His dark leathery skin confirmed his years of living on the street. His mother was a Mission district Italian and his father a Mexican from New Mexico, and he had the distinction of being an American who was deported from Mexico after six years in Guadalajara. He was quite the beanbag tosser too! A white homeless friend of Wolf’s asked, “Just tell me this. “Why can white people sit on tables in front of cafés without being harassed? I don’t cause any trouble here. I’m just enjoying the street too.”
Adriana invited Spanish speakers to stop for tea, while various friends slowly began to gather. I spoke for a while with a British visitor who was walking his host’s dog. He couldn’t believe anyone would want to curb street life, since that was so much of why he and others wanted to visit San Francisco. A young French woman appeared in overalls a few doors down, emerging from her new gardening effort in the backyard. I hailed her and invited her for tea, explaining what we were doing. She too was aghast at the notion that San Francisco would restrict life on the streets this way. Both of them were quick to emphasize that safe streets are crowded streets.
Of course, the unspoken argument of the Sit-Lie proponents is that there are normative behaviors that must be conformed to. It’s not a problem to be on the sidewalks as long as you’re moving along in the endless process of shopping. It’s stopping to engage in activities that are economically purposeless, that actually animate a public life, that create the serendipitous and unpredictable moments and connections that give city life its strong appeal—those are the activities that must be “curbed.” There are three acceptable reasons to be in public space: working, commuting, shopping. If you’re not doing those things, go home and watch TV. That’s the American Way of Life. Earlier in the week, Adriana asked a local beat cop his opinion about the Sit/Lie initiative. He responded that it was a terrible idea. “Just another way in which a community avoids dealing with a grave social issue by having police move undesired people out of sight. It doesn’t solve the problem.”
We spoke with several dozen people during the three hours we occupied the sidewalk. A couple of local DPW street workers hung out with us and had some cake, played some beanbag. Part of their job is to shoo street people along, so they were sympathetic to the opposition to the proposed law. Two neighborhood homies, Little George and Rigo, spend a lot of time on the corner, and they were delighted that we were staking it out as public space. Elderly Latinas were quite supportive. One woman, Carmela, came up to us and became quite animated. She told a long story about losing her son —7 years of duty in the army followed by 17 years of duty as a postal worker—who died after being hit by a car. She had earlier lost her husband, a sibling and her parents, but the loss of her adult son sent her into a tailspin of despair. “The loss of a son is like no other loss.” She would go out to the street day after day, sitting on stoops and sidewalks. She imagined people thought she was insane, but she needed to walk, to sit in the sun, to be on the street to heal her pain. “You don’t know what pain people carry in their hearts, only they know. I went to the streets to carry mine.”
A posse of cyclists stopped by, including Sue King who is one of the coordinators of Sunday Streets. She complained that we were engaging in a somewhat misguided effort since the asphalt-covered streets (as opposed to the limited space of the sidewalks) were a huge common space that we should be working to re-purpose. Of course she’s right, but the deeper problem is that we’ve already been put on the defensive AGAIN. So much of what passes for “progressive” politics in San Francisco is actually opposing pro-privatization, pro-business, pro-police initiatives. A forward agenda of urban transformation, whether motivated by the Transition Town logic driven by peak oil and climate change, or just the desire to make us more self-reliant and resilient, remains absent from the political landscape. Local activists continually fall into the trap of calling for “jobs” without any discussion of what kind of work SHOULD be done. Demanding jobs in the absence of a broad agenda of ecological transformation based on mutual aid and a solidarity economy is to reinforce the logic that trapped us in the first place.
That’s the beauty of opening a public space, even for just a few hours. Across the city, dozens of conversations took place, new friendships were forged, and political networks that might go a lot further in the future started to find themselves. At 24th and Shotwell, we didn’t hear a negative word from anyone until we were wrapping it up. A half dozen young hipsters were entering the apartment building we had been sitting in front of. I asked them if they knew about the proposed ordinance. They hesitated, and then one said, “you know, I actually would support something like that. I’m sick of these guys out here at 4 a.m. drunk, puking, yelling at each other.” It was a telling moment. Here were 20-somethings who thought another law was somehow going to remove undesirable people from their sidewalk, as opposed to a well-resourced campaign of public housing and social services. I pointed out that there were already laws against public drunkenness and a young woman said, “we call the police but they don’t show up.” So, passing another law is going to change that?