February 12, 2003




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Control the cops – now

FOR THE PAST two years or so, it has almost seemed as if the San Francisco Police Department had developed a sensible crowd-control policy. Reports of peaceful demonstrators getting beaten and randomly arrested were rare. The cops even showed admirable restraint in dealing with the (very few) violent protesters at the last peace rally. The notorious Tactical Squad was no longer an object of fear and derision in the activist community.

That's why the police response to the Feb. 6 Gay Shame demonstration outside the San Francisco Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center on Market Street is so disturbing – and why the Police Commission and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors should demand a full and public investigation.

As is often the case in these incidents, it's hard to sort out exactly what happened and when. What we do know is that a group of perhaps 60 queer activists from Gay Shame, a group that pushes lesbian and gay organizations to be true to their progressive roots, gathered outside the center to demonstrate against a fundraising event featuring Sup. Gavin Newsom. At some point, some of the protesters tried to enter the exclusive, $150-a-head affair. The police reacted by driving the protesters away from the doorway and into the street.

In the ensuing melee, four people were arrested, two of them on the bizarre felony charge of "lynching" (which translates into interfering with a police officer in the process of arresting someone). At least one person had to seek medical attention for injuries to her face. Numerous others are complaining of police beatings.

Newsom, much to his discredit, says the police acted with "remarkable constraint." Nonsense. By any standard, the police overreacted. There was never any threat of violence to any individuals or property. The worst thing that might have happened was a few queer protesters getting access to an invitation-only event – held at the LGBT Community Center.

Instead, the LGBT Community Center looks bad (although staffers are now calling for the charges to be dropped). Newsom, a candidate for mayor, looks like an elitist jerk (and sends out a frightening message of what he would consider appropriate police behavior in his administration). The cops are facing brutality charges – and once again, as in the bad old days, the city is facing potentially expensive lawsuits.

The timing couldn't be worse. As the Bush administration gears up for war, protests in San Francisco are only going to be larger, more frequent, and increasingly militant. The city can't afford to have the cops running amok: the last time the San Francisco police got involved in a string of bad crowd-control problems, in the early 1990s, it cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal settlements.

The Police Commission should investigate this incident immediately and determine whether anyone violated policies or procedures on crowd control. If the commissioners decide the cops acted properly, then those rules need to be changed – and if the commission won't do it, the Board of Supervisors needs to get into the act.