Dueling rallies pit "public safety" against "safety net"

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By Rebecca Bowe

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Mayor Gavin Newsom joined the city’s police, fire and sheriff departments yesterday afternoon in protesting the Board of Supervisors’ move to slash funding to those departments in order to restore cuts to critical services that the mayor had included in his interim budget.

In essence, the mayor was sending a very divisive message, pitting one set of city employees against another. Because just a few yards away from Newsom’s rally, health and human service employees were holding an event of their own.

Standing upon a stage equipped with a very loud sound system and decorated with American flags, Newsom praised police and firefighters for being willing to step up and be part of the solution to the budget crisis. He was greeted warmly by cheering and drumming, and before they introduced him they blasted a song with the lyrics “A family affair.”

Across the street, public-health workers were joined by Sup. John Avalos in their own rally against the deep cuts to the department of public health. “All we’re asking is to give a little so that we can share the pain of this deficit,” Avalos said.

But the tone was far from conciliatory across the street at the firefighters’ rally, as Avalos was personally singled out as being untrustworthy, and one speaker bemoaned “these idiots” who had decided to slash the public-safety budget.

Newsom was apparently the guest of honor at the rally. “You’re budget’s not everything I had hoped it to be,” Newsom said. “We made tough choices, but we did it together. Police chief and fire chief were also part of those discussions. Out of nowhere … the Board of Supervisors decides not to take a million dollars, not to take two or five or 10 million dollars from the budget, but 20, 30, 42 million dollars alone from the police department, all told 82 million dollars! Without consulting the people from the city and county of San Francisco!” the rallying firefighters let out boos and hisses in response. “And that is wrong,” Newsom proclaimed. “We need to step up and send a strong message to the Board of Supervisors that we’re not going to retreat.”

Indeed, that message came across loud and clear inside City Hall a mere ten minutes later, when the police and firefighters crowded into the alcove just outside the Board of Supervisors chambers and found they wouldn’t be able to get into the room because other people had gotten in line first, and there wasn’t enough space for everyone. “Let us in! Let us in!” They chanted, the shouts reverberating throughout City Hall, and when Sup. Chris Daly showed up, all hell broke loose and the chanting got even louder. (“Fair’s fair,” Daly admonished later on his Facebook page, and derided the chanting firefighters for apparently creating a fire hazard inside City Hall.)

A counter chant rose up: “Get in line! Get in line!” The people who were already lined up and waiting to get in were public-health workers and members of SEIU Local 1021, who had staged their own rally outside City Hall that afternoon and were ready to testify to the Board about the consequences of the deep budget cuts proposed in Newsom’s interim budget. Under the mayor’s proposed budget, the city’s general fund support for public health would be reduced by more than 23 percent, while the firefighters, sheriff and police departments would each receive a six percent increase in general fund support.

The meeting lasted till after 7 p.m., with hours of testimony from hospital workers, nonprofit employees, advocates for mental health, and other service providers who turned out in droves to describe the real-life consequences the cuts would have on their lives and their clients’ lives.

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“The patients that [emergency vehicles] bring to SF General, we’re the ones who’re going to take care of them,” SF General staffer Brenda Barrows pointed out during the public-health workers rally, illustrating the point that “public safety” and the “public safety net” that seemed to be at odds yesterday afternoon actually go hand in hand when it comes to providing quality care and emergency response.

Near the end of the meeting, the Supervisors agreed to include a symbolic amendment that would move $82 million from the police, fire and sheriff department budgets to restore critical services, a move that was described as a gesture to send a message to the mayor's office. They voted 7 to 3, with Sups. Bevan Dufty, Carmen Chu and Michela Alioto-Pier voting no, to approve the interim budget with Sup. John Avalos' amendment.

Guardian photos by Rebecca Bowe