Death of Fun: SFPD’s crackdowns and shakedowns


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.”


I am not a San Franciscan, and I'll be honest and tell you that a lot of what ya'll do there makes no sense to me whatsoever. The BYOBW event, however, is something I could really get behind. Like Tom Price and Andie Grace and myriad others, I hope soesort of mutually acceptable arrangement can be reached. I'll keep my fingers crossed that everything gets ironed out before Sunday.

Your friends in Utah are rooting for you!

Posted by Elizabeth Foote on Apr. 08, 2009 @ 8:07 pm

Put the 'fun' back in SAN BYOBW, FLASHDances and other non-impact events responsibly....linger a couple of minutes afterwards and help clean up.

Posted by Lauri on Apr. 08, 2009 @ 9:25 pm

Blame Gavin. Sorry Gav, we're not happy, and you're not gonna be guv.

Posted by James Lamb on Apr. 08, 2009 @ 7:51 pm

Could it be that we're not allowed to gather unless we pay the police overtime?

Posted by Matt on Apr. 08, 2009 @ 8:23 pm

I'd like to make sure we don't unfairly position the police department in all this. They're doing their job, and I'm sure they don't hate fun.

This event is organizing to save itself -- but it's basically a bunch of friends who share an urge to ride Big Wheels on a Sunday. The thing is, we also have a desire to not be utter jerks to our neighbors in the process. Stupid, yes. Not jerks.

My suggestion, then, is that if this city is and has always been a place where improbable things happen, perhaps this is a step in our evolution where we figure out how to maintain that tradition without trampling the bushes in the process.

I'm just hoping that we can find new ways that this kind of gathering -- San Franciscans in pursuit of an unmediated moment together -- doesn't always have to come down to charging a ticket price or having a sponsor for the privilege.

I think the only way that works, though, is if participants in this stuff take responsibility for our own presence. Perhaps that's especially true at events where we're gathering spontaneously and you know there's not a "cleanup crew", but really - everywhere.

It just doesn't make sense that anyone else should be left literally picking up the pieces after we have a good time making art, riding our big wheels, gathering for a spontaneous zombie flash mob, or otherwise just being San Francisco.

Posted by Andie Grace on Apr. 08, 2009 @ 5:52 pm

I live on Vermont, one block away, and this event is *awesome*. Yes, I'm a homeowner too, and everyone I know is all for the event (there must be people against it, but I haven't yet met them). I've even talked to folks on the part of the street where the race would be, and they were all for it too.

Hey, if they close vermont, just run them down DeHaro!

Posted by Matt on Apr. 09, 2009 @ 11:45 am

Police extortion,

They billed MUNI tens of millions for work they didn't do. They illegally worked with the DEA to rob a pot club of all its cash and product. Know why?

Cause, with no fanfare whatsoever, the cops recently became fully staffed. Uh huh, 1,971 officers in the City and a couple hundred more at the airport. Which means?

Means they have no excuse to pay overtime cause they're short of badges. But, they are still doing it. Thus, to justify it they need to invent more crime and make more criminals.

I predicted this would happen when voters passed the DROP (Deferred Retirement Option Plan) Prop B last February. There are over 450 cops 55 or older with over 30 years on the force. These can stay for an extra 3 years and still have their full retirement banked. That averages out to a cost of some $300k annually for EACH cop. Now, would you quit?

So, cause cops gotta pay their mortgages, they gotta have overtime and they don't even need to wear masks when they rob you. How about the cop detail that strong-arms developers to hire off-duty cops to look at where workers place orange rubber cones?

It's why they've gone after the last of the Patrol Specials (equally well-trained officers who do foot patrols but work directly for the neighborhood businesses).

The most worrisome thing I see is that Fong is no longer the spokesperson. No thug district captain with an attitude should be speaking for the department. Is this a preview?


Posted by h. brown on Apr. 09, 2009 @ 8:41 am

OK now, here's a thought: How about if the SFPD tried DOING ITS JOB instead of harassing S.F. citizens?!!! You know, like investigating actual CRIMES like burglary and assault and murder (including the crimes committed BY SFPD!) Ever had something stolen in this city and tried to get the police to do something bizarre like actually tracking down the crooks??? Of course, we're solemnly informed by said SFPD that they don't have the RESOURCES or SUFFICIENT STAFF HOURS to pursue actual crimes that hurt people who live in S.F. Hmmmm.... guess not, not when SFPD has to hoard its resources for IMPORTANT activities like harassing S.F. citizens to be sure that life in S.F. can be made as un-enjoyable as possible. Our tax dollars at work!!!

Posted by Deborah on Apr. 09, 2009 @ 8:20 am

A little insight... SF Police Chief Heather Fong announced her retirement in December of last year. It appears there is a real power play (and show our force bravado) tactics being played here as the city starts making decisions between replacements from internal and external candidates for the position to replace chief fong. Police Districts where most of the edgy activities in the city are occurring who happen to also have high crime figures (independent of fun related activities) suddenly employ new get tough on crime song and dance routine.

Its a shame that after clearing our souls from 8 years of borderline (and some straight) illegal government intrusions into personal expression and identity by our Federal keepers, San Francisco has suddenly allowed the Police Department to adopt a similar agenda in order to ensure its own political survival in our daily local lives.

Already miss you Chief Fong.

its worth searching google for some of this stuff. Always good to know the subtext behind actions.

Posted by H.N. on Apr. 12, 2009 @ 3:55 pm

This gives me an idea: Good Friday Death-of-Fun Die-In at Civic Center. In a perfect world, it might lead to the resurrection of fun on Easter. But, oh wait, would that be a flash mob? Hmmm, what a slippery slope. I dunno if I want to be crucified for suggesting a that SF citizens express themselves freely and have a little fun while doing it. Maybe participants should BYOBW to escape the SWAT teams.

Posted by Sasha Hnatkovich on Apr. 08, 2009 @ 2:59 pm

Update: BYOBW organizer say they just received the following word from SFPD Capt. John Loftus: "As far as I'm concerned, there will be no big wheels, garbage cans or vehicles of any kind going down that street on sunday. We will barricade the street and you won't be able to go two feet anywhere on that block. If downtown wants to come up with another solution, fine, but as of now, wednesday, that's the police department's position."
So, they're response to a fun event that would close the street for a few hours is to...close the street and ban the fun. Because sometimes you gotta burn the village to save it.

Posted by Steven T. Jones on Apr. 08, 2009 @ 1:38 pm

Steve -

Thanks for the great post.

One thing that really needs to be pointed out is that unlike Pillow Fight, the Big Wheel Race and my FlashDances cost the City NOTHING while enhancing its vibrancy and appeal IMMENSELY.

I can understand the issue with the Pillow Fight - it really is horrible how much mess is created and the damage to the fountain etc - so there is a reasonable problem that must be addressed there. But the Big Wheel Race? Or my FlashDances? How much traffic is being blocked on Vermont Street on a Sunday afternoon? My FlashDances have even less negative impact. This past one was in an area where NO ONE lives and no one called it in. All the passersby (on the way to the opera or symphony) LOVED IT & many joined in.

I hope this post doesn't bring even more cops to my Saturday FD but what will happen will happen, and I appreciate you speaking the truth-to-power as you do so well!


Posted by Amandeep Jawa on Apr. 08, 2009 @ 2:08 pm