Death of Fun: SFPD’s crackdowns and shakedowns

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By Steven T. Jones

OK, things are starting to get ridiculous! For years, we’ve been warning our readers about the impending Death of Fun in San Francisco, but now the city crackdowns are coming so fast and furious that it’s tough to keep up.

Since our last reports on Bay to Breakers restrictions and threats to go after flash mobs such as the Valentine’s Day pillow fight, police officers have rudely shut down the Flashdance dance party, repeatedly swept through Dolores Party busting people for drinking, and now they’re threatening tickets and arrests for participants in this coming weekend’s Bring Your Own Big Wheel event.

Seriously, exactly what law is someone breaking by riding a Big Wheel down the street? Police officials have been unable to tell me, and they say they’ll get back to me about that and their other crackdowns. Meanwhile, they’re still demanding that the How Weird Street Faire come up with almost $10,000 in protection money in advance of the May 10 event.

I know that we have a budget crisis, but are extortion and aggressive ticketing really how we want the SFPD to close its budget gap? Isn’t the right to peacefully assemble one of our bedrock constitutional guarantees? And in a vibrant, colorful city like San Francisco, why is fear trumping fun?

The Big Wheel ban is so silly that even the Chronicle has taken notice. Jon Brumit, who founded the event almost 10 years ago on Lombard Street, recently got a call from the SFPD telling him that the cops would be there to issue tickets, and that they’d even bring their “tactical teams” (what, SWAT teams, are you fucking kidding me?!?!) to deal with defiant participants.

“It’s something that has grown to epic proportions,” Brumit told the Guardian, referring to his event. But he believes in the people’s right to hold and self-police events like this, free of costly city permits and oversight. “My personal deal is I never wanted to have corporate sponsorship and I always wanted it be free.”

After all, it was the corporate sponsors of Bay to Breakers, AEG, that have pushed for the alcohol ban at the 98-year-old event and continue to resist community involvement in addressing its continued shortcomings. But it is the lack of corporate sponsorship that could doom the organic, community-based How Weird Street Faire, one of the city’s best one-day festivals.

“We’re still at a standstill with the cops. They say they want $10,000 up front and we just don’t have it,” How Weird organizer Brad Olsen told us. “This is ridiculous.”

Andie Grace, a longtime employee of Burning Man who lives near the Big Wheel course and has become closely involved with that event, says they’re doing all they can to regulate the event and address community concerns. “We’re saying don’t bring beer this year, clean up, be respectful, be responsible.” She's been helping to reach out to neighbors, held an event last weekend to fill in potholes on the streets, and they've all pitched in for porta-potties. But she said there are frustrations in the community with doing that and still facing a shutdown: “The predominant emotion that I’m hearing is we can do better than this.”

Some folks now want to be defiant and face arrest, while others seek to smooth over the conflict with City Hall and the SFPD. Arts facilitator and former mayoral candidate Chicken John hosted a discussion among various event organizers last week, arguing the need to regularly reinvent these cultural events and resist ever seeking permits or permission, while BYOBW organizer Jared Hirsch (aka J-Rad) told us “we want these events to grow up and take on a maturity.”

Unlike the leaderless Critical Mass or Valentine’s Day Pillow Fight events, Hirsch has actively tried to lead this event and deal with its impacts, eschewing the more confrontational approach: “We’re trying to create an event that brings responsibility to what has been a lawless event.”

Yet the last word they got from the cops was they plan to blockade the street and stop the event, a response that frustrates Hirsch. “There’s nothing illegal about being stupid. And there’s nothing illegal about riding a tricycle down the street.”

When his Flashdance got shut down on Friday night, organizer Amandeep Jawa responded defiantly, moving the party to Dolores Park that night (where it got shut down again), and deciding to hold another one this Saturday night at the Ferry Building, just on principle.

“I have been trying to get this bad taste out of my mouth for two days now and now I realize the only way to do that is to IMMEDIATELY DO ANOTHER FLASHDANCE THIS WEEKEND,” Deep wrote on his blog.

Meanwhile, the Big Wheelers are in wait-and-see mode for their Sunday event. As J-Rad said, “There’s no question that events like this are at a turning point.”