It is this urban environment, this love of hustle and savor of public space that have come under attack in several columns in our major daily newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, that promote a very frightening proposition called “L: Sitting and Lying on Sidewalks.” The columns, written by one-time Republican political action committee fundraiser C.W. Nevius and parroting arguments proposed by an ultra-right-wing think tank, the Manhattan Institute, argue that passing a law that would lead to 30 days in jail for sitting and lying on a sidewalk would, umm, reduce the number of citations that poor and homeless people receive for being poor?
Nevius’ premise is that since there is a requirement of a warning, the number of citations will decrease. Nevius says “If Prop. L passes, there would be FEWER citations to clog up the courts. The police would just have to say, ‘Sir, we have a sit/lie ordinance here and you’ll have to get up and move along.’”
Of course, that just shows how far Nevius is removed from poor people’s reality: Police already tell people to get up and move along. Police already confiscate homeless people’s property from them.
Police already illegally issue thousands of citations to homeless people for laws that don’t apply: They give homeless people blocking sidewalk tickets when they are not blocking the sidewalk, they give poor people camping tickets when they are not camping and they give recyclers open container tickets when they are not drinking.
Of course those who disobey a police command are few: After all, who in their right mind would defy someone carrying a loaded weapon on one hip and a hard-hitting baton on the other? The officer says “move” and the person moves. Police certainly don’t need a new law to make that happen.
But if they want to put people in jail, with no witness and no crime committed, well, then Prop L is just the ticket! If they want to be able to pick people up on possession charges without probable cause, then Prop L is the opening game.
The claim, however, isn’t based on reality in San Francisco but, rather, to comparison with nominally similar laws in Seattle and Palo Alto. As we’ll see shortly, the supporting arguments don’t much seem to be based on reality in either of these cities, either.
Laws that prohibit sitting or lying on sidewalks are very generally known as “sit/lie” laws. While appeals and district courts have found sit/lie laws unconstitutional in Cincinnati, Florida, Los Angeles and San Francisco, there has never yet been a Supreme Court ruling on any sit/lie law. Thus, sit/lie laws remain in effect in many different cities and counties throughout the country, but with enormous variations.
The Seattle ordinance is nothing like the law proposed in Proposition L, and just can’t be honestly compared. The Seattle law only affects two city blocks. The San Francisco law would cover the entire city. The Seattle law is a civil offense; San Francisco’s law would be criminal. Seattle has a $50 maximum penalty while San Francisco would have 30-day jail stints and $500 fines.
In addition, Seattle’s law took place in conjunction with the establishment of additional seating areas and an additional drop-in center for homeless people. San Francisco’s has none of that and has actually eliminated shelter beds and drop-in centers in the past year. According to homeless advocates in Seattle, the sit/lie law there is not being enforced to any significant degree.
Palo Alto is barely worth talking about: Its law only applies to a small area – one-sixth of a square mile – from 11:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. C.W. Nevius repeatedly brings up the case of a person who was prosecuted under the law and calls him a “militant panhandler,” yet the only militancy of which this man ever stood accused was sitting down. Because of a disability, he was found not guilty.
Of course, in neither Seattle nor Palo Alto do they have a frothing at the mouth chief of police, ever eager to rid the streets of the downtrodden, as we have under Chief Gascón here in San Francisco.
If we want to compare Proposition L with another city’s sit/lie law, we should really look to our tougher, rougher, bigger neighbor to the south: Los Angeles. The enforcement program for the sit/lie law there was designed while our current chief of police Gascon was second in command. The San Francisco law looks and feels eerily familiar compared to the Los Angeles one.
Los Angeles began using sit/lie in its Safer Cities Initiative (SCI) of September 2006. While this was the official launch date, most of the practices in SCI had been in practice for four years. The main features of the initiative were described in a 2002 internal LAPD memo entitled “Homeless Reduction Strategies.” The public relations campaign for SCI was designed by Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow George L. Kelling, who was paid about $500,000 in consulting fees. While the money paid to jail destitute people is grotesque, the Manhattan Institute is no less so. It is an extremist right-wing think tank which comes out with obscene findings.
The San Francisco proponents of sit/lie are currently quoting a rather long article by Manhattan Institute writer Heather Mac Donald, who has been described as “the thinking bigot’s Ann Coulter.” What does that quote mean? Have a gander: “The black incarceration rate is overwhelmingly a function of black crime. Insisting otherwise only worsens black alienation and further defers a real solution to the black crime problem.” “Since many elementary and high schools now function as cheering squads for Grrrl Power, the idea that even more resources are required to overcome some still-unlocated bias against, say, female physicists is ludicrous.” “I fear that it will be harder than usual to persuade black men of the obligation to marry the mother of their children if the inevitable media saturation coverage associates marriage with homosexuals.”
Mac Donald’s story on sit/lie falsifies information and uses a ghost “homeless advocate” to make far-fetched claims. Despite Ms. Mac Donald’s having interviewed the chair of the No on Prop L campaign for two hours, she failed to quote him even once in a 7,000-word article dedicated to refuting the campaign’s supposed claims. (Seven thousand words is longer than Ernest Hemmingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.”)
Much like the LA law, the major proponents of Prop L are financial, real estate and hotel interests and the upper police department brass. Both initiatives were introduced by seemingly liberal mayors. In both San Francisco and Los Angeles, the image of the white mother and baby under threat were used repeatedly in their public relations work. While Los Angeles used the “art scene” as a rallying call, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce created a fake grassroots movement for sit/lie, known as an “Astro-Turf” campaign.
The underlying goals of SCI are clear: to remove impoverished people from Los Angeles’ Skid Row to make way for the gentrification of the area. In San Francisco, the goals are broader: to create a wedge issue so that voters who support sit/lie will vote for those more conservative candidates who support it.
At this month’s Bay Area Council Dinner, the biggest funder of Prop L, millionaire Ron Conway placed sit/lie in the context of shifting the balance of power in San Francisco: “We must take our city back [from the progressive movement] … This is about survival.”
The end game is to not just rid the city of homeless people but, more importantly, to shift the power balance in San Francisco to the right. Conway decidedly leans to the right in his giving: in addition to Prop L, he’s donated to the Republican National Committee, the California GOP, George W. Bush’s first presidential bid and to Sen. Orrin Hatch. Nevius, the columnist we mentioned at the beginning who has done fund-raising for a GOP PAC, has similarly placed sit/lie in the context of getting progressive supervisors voted out of office in November’s election. While both men very clearly lean to the right, you don’t have to disagree with their ends to disagree with scapegoating as a means of achieving them.
The Safer Cities Initiative added 50 officers to a miniscule area of .85 square miles, where homeless and extremely poor people are congregated. You literally cannot count to three without seeing a police officer in Skid Row. These new officers, called “SCI Task Force officers,” did not make many arrests for violent crime – despite the purported purpose of working for “Safer Cities.”
They instead focused on giving out 10,342 citations for non-violent crime to impoverished residents the first 10 months. While most of these were traffic citations (they shortened the red light time at the intersections to make sure folks could not cross the street in time – now there’s a real safety concern!), a major tool was their continued use of the sit/lie law – LA Municipal Code Section 41.18(d).
Between Jan. 1, 2003, and March 4, 2004, LAPD had made 1,474 arrests for violations of this section. Even so, it was utterly ineffective in reducing the visible homeless population in the area. In fact, even as arrests rose, so did the number of encampments.
The jails were forced to release individuals due to overcrowding, just like in San Francisco. The citations themselves actually exacerbate homelessness: Individuals who have active warrants lose their housing eligibility and when they get out of jail, they have nowhere else to go.
The paltry services program, named “Streets or Services” (SOS), which few residents of Skid Row are eligible for, is only 21 days in a shelter that kicks the person out at 5:00 a.m. Thus, they are relegated to return to the scene of their “crime.” While LA spent annually $9,000,000 for the additional police officers, they only spent at most annually $100,000 on the SOS program.
But there is a more sinister side to the initiative that happened under Gascón in Los Angeles: When individuals are cited for 41.18(d) in Skid Row, they often pick up a possession charge as the arresting officers search them. Since that is occurring inside Skid Row, the charges are enhanced, as it is an identified drug trade zone.
A minor “possession” charge moves up to “possession with intent to sell.” The individual is then disqualified from Proposition 36, which offers treatment as an alternative to incarceration, and suddenly the individual is shipped off for a long stint in state prison.
During this dark period that has not yet come to an end, 2,500 units of affordable housing have been lost to the forces of gentrification on the fringes of Skid Row. More and more people have been forced out onto the streets.
In April of 2006, the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit held that Los Angeles’s sit/lie was unconstitutional. In fact, they found it to be one of the most restrictive municipal laws regulating public space in the United States in an area that has the highest concentration of homeless people in the country. They found the law to be cruel and unusual punishment and thus a violation of the Eighth Amendment.
Unfortunately, the decision was appealed. Due to political pressure, the ACLU settled out of court rather than fighting the appeal. The result is that the decision was “depublished,” meaning that its legal reasoning was solid, but until another challenge is brought against LA’s sit/lie law, the 2006 decision is not binding for LA and will carry no precedent elsewhere in the 9th Circuit’s jurisdiction.
The criminalization of homeless people in Los Angeles continues at full speed, as the city celebrates more than four years of this inhumane initiative. There have been many lessons learned and, while things are bad for homeless people in San Francisco, we certainly do not want to walk the brutal path the City of Angels chose.
Proposition L, the ordinance designed by our LAPD Chief Gascón, spearheaded by the ultra-right-wing Manhattan Institute and championed by Republican operative C.W. Nevius must be voted down with a demonstrative NO this Nov. 2.
Contact Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Bob Offer-Westort is editor of the Street Sheet. To learn more about their work and to get the latest scoop on the politics of poverty in San Francisco, go to the Street Sheet blog, www.cohsf.org/streetsheet.
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