Sit, lie, stand and fight

Officer Larry Bertrand, right, being sworn in to the SF Police Officers Association Board of Directors.

A version of the following op-ed by Ben Rosenfeld ran in this week's Guardian, edited for space reasons, and it's generating quite a lively discussion here. He has asked us to post this extended dance mix of his piece, which offers more political context and gets into some of the issues raised in this weeks' cover story, which is also generating heated debate. So here it is:

            This is a call out to creative, fun-loving San Franciscans: The mayor, the police chief, and their downtown cronies have declared war on our grassroots arts culture, and they are coming for your actual and conceptual space next. All that stands between the town you love and their vision of San Francisco as one big mercantile zone is a single vote progressive majority on the Board of Supervisors. But come November, they see the chance to take that away. The future they promise is already manifest in their many recent attacks on public and private gatherings, and their efforts to wrest the commons from the commoners.

            On Halloween 2009, the San Francisco Police, under their new chief, Los Angeles transplant George Gascón, shut down the Take Back Halloween Flashdance in front of the Ferry Building before DJ Amandeep “Deep” Jawa even arrived. Then they shut down several smaller street parties. (SFBG, 11/2/09) Their official reason—that organizers lacked permits—is what Bill Clinton famously termed an explanation, but not an excuse. The SFPD has a long history not only of tolerating unpermitted gatherings, but of re-routing traffic around and even escorting them. They are fully empowered to grant the equivalent of on-the-fly permits, a concept recognized in federal parks regulations. Applying for an actual permit is cumbersome, costly, anti-spontaneous, and reinforces the government’s view of itself as censor.

            Since Halloween, Chief Gascón’s force has been striking a mighty blow against crime by writing scores of open container citations to revelers in Dolores Park; fining or forcing the closure of SOMA clubs and bars for failing to conform to every fickle letter of the law; and sending undercover officers into warehouse and studio parties to bust them from within, sometimes violently, and without warrants. Their alpha party-crasher is a twitchy undercover cop named Larry Bertrand. He reportedly makes a habit of gratuitously attacking partygoers and vandalizing property, especially DJ equipment. One DJ wrote on a confidential email list: “I have been telling every DJ I know to run with their gear when your party gets busted [by Bertrand].” Not only has the chief failed to rein in Bertrand, but he wants to put a Taser in his hand, and in the hands of a rotten core of approximately 100 other officers whom the Chron found in 2006 are responsible for most citizen complaints, but whom the Department and this chief have systematically failed to discipline.

            Perhaps the most un-San Franciscan of all of Gascón’s initiatives is his demand for an anti-sit/lie ordinance, which would literally criminalize the very act of sitting or lying on certain public sidewalks at certain times. Never mind the fact that most violent crime is committed by people standing up and in striking range. Gascón appears to share the mayor’s philosophy that homelessness is just an aesthetic problem the rest of us should hose off our sidewalks. Not only is the idea just plain mean, it is anathema to San Francisco’s culture of compassion and broadmindedness, and its affirmative celebration of vibrant street culture. The danger is not that the police will arrest everyone who dares to take a load off or sit and sip a Snapple against the side of a building, but that they will enforce the law selectively according to their own purity tests, while robbing the rest of us of a diverse street scene that makes us all richer.

            To be sure, essential San Francisco has reasserted itself in the teeth of earlier culture wars, if in ever wealthier iterations. When Willie Brown stood in front of Critical Mass in 1997 and declared it illegal, riders blew by him like he was a grand prix flagman, and ridership surged from one or two thousand to five to seven thousand. What’s different this time are the demographics. San Francisco is richer than ever before, even at the height of the boom. Rents are through the roof. Everywhere, industrial warehouses and studios are drying up and concept industrial restaurants and bars are sprouting up. A new wave of young, hip residents has arrived seeking Dionysus, but they want no part of the political machinations under his robe. They are liberal, but they are not active. At least not yet. The mayor, the chief, and the norm core they serve are counting on our collective non-engagement. If we don’t band together—hipsters, activists, artists, and fun-loving folk all—we will watch the San Francisco we cherish slip away.

            On March 27, reclaim public space. Sit and lie on the public sidewalk. March and sing in the public street. Picnic on the pavement. Pop open a beer in Dolores Park. Do it without a permit. The Constitution is your permit. San Francisco’s heritage of artistic experimentation is your permit. Hell, the people telling you to get a permit flocked here because people like you marched around them in the first place and made this City a model of art and innovation for the world. Do it for them too. This is a defining moment. They are playing for keeps and so must we. Let’s bask in San Francisco’s ongoing heyday, not in quaint stories of the good times that used to be.