KPFA's morning show had a great debate this morning around the sit-lie law, featuring Gabriel Haaland, a longtime Haight resident, and Ted Lowenberg, president of the Haight Ashbury Improvement Association. You can listen to it here.
In the discussion -- nicely moderated by Brian Edwards-Tiekert -- you could see the essential problem with the law emerging.
Haaland pointed out that blocking or obstructing the sidewalk is already illegal; so is aggressive panhandling, assault and all of the other behaviors Lowenberg complained about. Lowenberg's response: Yes, that's true, but it's hard to arrest someone on those charges; you have to fill out paperwork. What we need is to give the police more discretion to use their judgment to make arrests when they think that's what's needed.
"The police need the immediate ability to respond without paperwork," he said.
And that's precisely what bothers a lot of us about this law.
The San Francisco police have a long history of abusing their "judgment" in cases involving marginalized populations. A lot of us don't believe that arrests will be limited to violent bad actors -- and we have many, many years of evidence to back us up.
Haaland pointed out that the last time a sit-lie law was enforced, in the 1970s when the cops wanted to crack down on the hippies on Haight Street, it wound up being used against gay men in the Castro. This time, it could be any of a wide range of people who wind up sitting on the sidewalks, for a lot of reasons.
Lowenberg kept talking about "street thugs" and complaining that the district attorney hasn't prosecuted them when they've attacked people -- in one case, gouging someone's eyes and biting him. But attacking someone on the street is already illegal; does anyone really think that the D.A., and the law-enforcement model, will be any more effective with the new law in place?
It won't -- but that's not the point. I think what Lowenberg and his allies want is to give the police more power, to let them "clean up the streets" as they see fit. It's not about courts and prosecution; it's about curbside justice. And that's never worked well in San Francisco.