Sidewalks Are For The People
December 19, 2010
In 2009, cops in San Francisco cited homeless people 2600 times just for being asleep That’s almost as many arrests as for all violent crimes combined. And yet late that year, the most cynical of the city’s politicians determined that what was really needed was a new law to address the aspects of homelessness they claimed to find most objectionable: A law that would make it a crime to… sit down.
San Francisco tried a sit/lie law in 1968. It was found unconstitutional thrice before being taken off the books. Police chief-turned-mayor Frank Jordan tried to introduce such a law again in 1994, but it was ultimately rejected by the voters. But the immediate impetus behind the proposed sit/lie law came from Portland. Portland has had a series of sit/lie laws that have been struck down by state courts, but despite these failures, a trip to Portland sponsored by the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce led conservative politicos to think that such a law might be a good idea for San Francisco.
STAND AGAINST SIT/LIE
The media hysteria that followed the early proposals of a new sit/lie law focused on homeless youth living in and near Golden Gate Park and the historic Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. According to the SF Chronicle these youth weren’t homeless: They were Devil-may-care trust-fundies reveling in smack and booze on mummy and daddy’s dime, whilst terrorizing the neighborhood with their pit bulls. Residents of the Haight were scared to leave their houses. Several of the stories reported in the mainstream press about atrocities committed by homeless youth were proven to be false, and the neighborhood’s only residents’ association opposed a sit/lie law, but spurred on by conservative columnists Mayor Gavin Newsom was able to appear to be responding to a neighborhood demand when he submitted the law to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
The Chamber of Commerce stalked the corridors of City Hall, threatening Supervisors with an election war chest of $400,000 to support the sit/lie law and lend support to candidates who would do the same. Homeless people comprise maybe 2.5% of the population in the City of San Francisco and through smart organizing and advocacy, the SF Coalition on Homelessness has been able to wield an influence disproportionate to its size, but their volunteers and organizers ran into a lot of weak handshakes and frozen smiles. “We can’t just be the party of ‘No,’” Supervisors would object.
Homeless people testified in front of the Youth Commission and won that body’s opposition to a sit/lie law. They also persuaded the Planning Commission to register its opposition to sit/lie. Even the Small Business Commission refused to support the sit/lie law as it was written, suggesting that a slightly less draconian version might be more palatable. And still the Board of Supervisors vacillated between conscience and fear.
Most of the staff and volunteers of the Coalition on Homelessness had been homeless, but none were “just” homeless: They had experienced homelessness because they were queer, because they were immigrants, because of the structural inequalities in our country that lead to poverty. They reached out, and their broader communities responded. Soon, we had a large committee that truly represented the queer liberation movement, organized labor, day laborers, sex workers, and many other members of the community who had simply been persuaded to give a damn.
SIDEWALKS ARE FOR PEOPLE
The members of this broader coalition outreached to drop-in centers and cafés, galleries, bars, and tenants’ organizations. They carried flyers bearing the slogan “Stand Against Sit/Lie!,” picturing the many ways in which sitting had been criminalized in the past: A sit-in at the Woolworth’s in Greensboro. Sit-ins against the British Raj in India. Drag queens and transgender women at the Compton Cafeteria in San Francisco. Rosa Parks in Montgomery.
The message was heard, and an unexpected group of San Franciscans heeded the call: Public Space Advocates. In March groups organized a citywide event under the banner “Sidewalks are for People!” Everyday San Franciscans from all walks of life would take to the sidewalks for an afternoon, cop a squat, and just do whatever they pleased — Chess games. Poetry readings. Barbecues. Chalk art. Even a hot tub. The first action was phenomenal, with over a hundred actions and literally thousands of participants.
Between the broadened pressure from the many sectors of the community who now recognized sit/lie—and even homelessness—as *their* issue, and the creative and popular appeal of the Sidewalks are for People actions. the tide turned. Conservative columnists held out, but the media had a hard time resisting the appeal of the campaign, and coverage ceased to be completely one-sided.
Organizers for the campaign obtained a permit to hold a rally on the steps of City Hall the day of the Board of Supervisor’s decision. Homeless youth, day laborers, a union representative, a spokesperson for a queer organization, a civil rights attorney, and a supportive member of the Board were to speak. When they got there, they found that the Sheriff’s Department had barricaded the steps of City Hall, and a line of police stood behind the barricades with arms crossed. For a permitted protest from a group that had always been law-abiding, this was unprecedented. But organizers sat down on the sidewalk, and held their rally anyhow. When they got inside, the Board voted 8-to-3 to oppose the law, with even the moderate members of the Board speaking out against the potential infringements upon civil liberties.
We had won.
IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED, BUY, BUY AGAIN…
Rebuffed by the Board, the Mayor promptly placed sit/lie on the ballot. A truism of San Francisco politics is that neighborhood elections, favor progressive politics: Progressives have the neighborhood infrastructure and the community organizations to create powerful campaigns on a truly local level. But citywide elections favor conservatives, who are able to far outspend progressives. If he couldn’t get his way through the Board, Mayor Newsom was going to bank on… bankers.
Over the course of the summer, the campaign supporting a sit/lie law (calling itself the “Civil Sidewalks Coalition”) spent $411,000 persuading San Franciscans that such a law would create order in the city. The vast majority of this money came from the financial sector, including presidents and partners from Charles Schwab, Morgan Stanley, and the Bank of America. Commercials prominently featuring the Chief of Police were aired throughout the lead-up to the playoffs, during the championship and after each World Series game.
With a budget of less than $10,000, the opponents of the law—the Sidewalks are for People Coalition—put up a mean fight. They designed engaging tabloids and door-hangers, and went door-to-door in projected swing neighborhoods. They maintained a place in the media, through creative actions that included multiple drag shows, the musical genius of the Brass Liberation Orchestra, and a religious revival led by the renowned Reverend Billy.
In the end, however, the Sit/Lie law passed with 54% of the vote, aided by the phenomenal inequality of the campaign budgets, buying air time during the SF Giants success, the sense among many occasional voters that it would never pass in San Francisco, and a low voter turn-out in the two poorest districts.
THIS FIGHT AIN’T OVER
The night of the election, as results came in, spontaneous sit-ins happened in three different parts of the city. Within a week, hundreds of people got involved in other protests, organized by people who had not previously been part of the campaign. With core campaign organizers exhausted or burnt out, other organizations began planning their own actions. In a very, very important sense, we won: This was not something that other progressives in San Francisco had just let happen to homeless people: When we lost, we *all* lost. And there was no way we were going to take this loss lying down. Well… Maybe defiantly lying down.
Community groups have coalesced around the recognition that criminalizing any one group of us criminalizes us all. Saturday, December 18, we held the first Sidewalks are for People Day since the election, reclaiming the sidewalk now that sidewalk rest has become criminalized. With hundreds of people and over a dozen actions, this fight is not over yet.
At the same time, the Coalition on Homelessness has begun developing documentation and know-your-rights trainings for members of our community who are cited or threatened with citation. Simultaneously, attorneys from the ACLU and Disability Rights Advocates, as well as independent attorneys, have begun work developing legal strategies to challenge what we believe to be an unconstitutional law.
Through coordinated documentation, litigation, and through public pressure on our legislators, on a new mayoral administration, on the media, and on the consciences of our fellow San Franciscans, we know ultimately we will win.
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workgroups, and collective actions, we are creating a unified message that
amplifies the voices of the many organizations that fight for poor people.
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