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Nine people were shot during this year's big Halloween celebration in the Castro, prompting city officials to announce the convening of a task force that will examine the event and its future in San Francisco. Supporters and event planners say such early attention is crucial for a gathering of this magnitude — and that the lack of proper planning contributed to this year's problems.
Concerns that the event has gotten out of control prompted some Castro residents and Sup. Bevan Dufty to announce in July that they wanted the event cancelled, moved, or drastically scaled back. Instead, the plan was hatched to increase the police presence by 25 percent, adopt a zero tolerance policy for public drinking and other crimes, and end the event at 10:30 p.m., which they announced just days before Halloween.
More than 100,000 people showed up anyway, passing big groups of police clumped at the edges of the event but rarely undergoing even cursory searches for weapons and other contraband as they entered the cordoned area. Just after the music was turned off at the one stage (down from three last year) and police announced, "The party is over," a conflict between two San Francisco gangs escalated, with someone being hit by a bottle and then someone pulling out a gun and opening fire in retaliation. There were no fatalities, and the shooter escaped.
Other than that one incident, which most attendees weren't aware of until the next day, the event was pretty tame. More striking and upsetting to most who came was the fact that the event ended just as its numbers were peaking and that the end was reinforced at 11 p.m. by water trucks and street sweepers that cleared the still-large crowd.
Mayor Gavin Newsom seemed to acknowledge the lack of preparation when he told KRON-TV, "We're not going to wait until the last few months before the event. We're going to start planning right away." Nonetheless, both Newsom and Dufty praised the police and the planning efforts, with the mayor telling the Chronicle, "We'd done everything we could imagine doing."
Yet critics say that if that's the best city officials can do, we're in no shape to host other large events, such as the 2016 Summer Olympics, which Newsom is bidding for.
"If San Francisco wants to host the Olympics, it can't go around telling the world that it can't keep a party under control one night a year," Ted Strawser of the SF Party Party told the Guardian. "Halloween is like gay Christmas. It's a travesty to talk about canceling it."
Other cities seem to be up to the task. Take New York's Village Halloween Parade. Twenty-five years ago, when its crowds first topped the 100,000 mark, New York celebration artist Jeanne Fleming began working closely with local residents, schools, community centers, and the police to maintain "a grassroots feel and prepare for future growth."
Today, the New York Village Halloween Parade is the biggest in the world, a fact organizers actively advertise on their Web site to attract sponsors and fill the city's coffers with $80 million worth of tourists’ money annually, thanks to two million spectators and 60,000 parade participants.
And while Newsom, Dufty, Police Chief Heather Fong, Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White, and Sheriff Michael Hennessey deliberate whether the party should continue and how to make it securer if it does, the NYPD hails the Village parade as a valuable public service that makes Halloween safe for New Yorkers.
"Maybe the SFPD needs to talk to the NYPD," Fleming told the Guardian, noting that the Village parade has changed routes four times over the years in response to merchants' fears and neighborhood concerns without losing its original identity. "Instead of putting up walls, San Francisco needs to open up its mind."
That's what Alix Rosenthal (the domestic partner of Guardian city editor Steven T. Jones) had been urging during her campaign against Dufty for his seat on the Board of Supervisors.
"Bevan Dufty has accused me of playing politics with Halloween, but he should have started working on this plan at least six months ago," Rosenthal said at a day-after press conference. She believes that more entry points, entrance fees (with higher fees for uncostumed attendees), and a parade leading away from the Castro would be helpful. "Getting out the word that there are going to be changes has to be a huge PR effort."
Paul Wertheimer of LA-based Crowd Management Strategies told the Guardian that talk of canceling the event is "an understandable reaction if you know you can't do it right."
"Organizers often fail to recognize the changing demographics and popularity of events," Wertheimer said, pointing to the success of New Orleans in managing its Mardi Gras parades despite narrow streets and huge crowds. "You can't have a hippie, anything-goes mentality. Once an event gets bigger than 3,000 to 5,000 people, it has to be organized and planned with the proper resources, but it can be done, because the techniques and plans are already laid out."
Wertheimer hopes the SF Halloween task force will assess what worked and what didn't, take a break, then begin planning no later than six months out. "And merchants' issues have to be addressed. Merchants are always concerned, but if they can be shown ways they can benefit and be protected from vandalism, they'll be for it."
Or as Strawser put it, "We need to put the dollars into better management, not police overtime. Former mayor Willie Brown learned that lesson in 1997 when he tried to cancel Critical Mass. We're a city that handles the Love Parade, Gay Pride, and Bay to Breakers. To cancel what began as a gay event because of fear of gay bashers and violence would be to give in to the terrorists." SFBG