Monday, October 18, 2010

Cleaning up the record: more on criminalizing homeless people

Last week, I posted about San Francisco's Prop. L, our city's latest opportunity to use the ballot to announce vigorously that we don't like people who live among us who don't have homes. Though I sorted through a lot of archives for that post, I had a gnawing sense that I'd forgotten a few twists and turns in the story. A reader emailed to correct me on events in 1994 and that prompted me to delve a little further into the history.

My correspondent was right: in 1994, we did vote down the sidewalk sitting restrictions that were embedded in unpopular Mayor Frank Jordan's broader Matrix program for dealing with homeless people. Score one for voter compassion and sanity.

However in July of that year, the San Francisco Police Department issued General Order 6.11, instructions to cops on how to deal with people sitting on sidewalks. This order recognized that sections of previous sidewalk sitting laws had been found by courts to be too broad and to allow too much officer discretion, but reinforced that police can act against any person actually blocking others on a sidewalk. This 1994 interpretive framework is still the current law.

Looking into this again tickled a vague memory that San Francisco voters had voted down one of these recurrent measures to attack people who lack a regular street address sometime early in the last decade. I should remember this one: I volunteered help to folks at the Coalition on Homelessness to organize literature distribution against it.

That 2000 ballot measure, Prop. E, was an exercise in civic paternalism. We were voting to treat very poor people as dependent children, taking back the small cash grants they had been receiving and making sure any cash they got was spent as politicians and social workers thought proper. These days, when very poor people are routinely treated as having no rights, it's amazing to think that the city once endorsed the idea that people should be able to use the pittance we spend on them according to their own notion of how to survive. But that had been the case and in 2000, momentarily, we asserted it should be.

Proposition E, put on the ballot by people convinced that the city's $354 monthly general assistance benefit is often nothing more than a "booze and drugs allowance,'' had stirred a bitter debate. ...

Rabbi Alan Lew of an interfaith coalition against Proposition E saw the initiative in almost-apocalyptic terms. "Our greed has reached such an appalling level that we want to take money away from the poor,'' he said recently.

Though there were the usual moral arguments in that campaign, I believe Prop. E's rejection should be attributed to another factor.

Prop. E served as the San Francisco liberal establishment's opportunity to give itself a sort of "ethical shower" -- to restore its own good opinion of itself after a season of besmirching its self-esteem. The city had just passed through a vicious mayoral campaign that culminated in December 1999 with the re-election of Willie Brown. Although he enjoyed wide, passionate support, challenger Tom Ammiano (now an accomplished state legislator, but then a far less seasoned Supervisor known to many only as the "gay comic") probably never could have mustered a majority from city voters. But crafty and corrupt old pol Willie Brown demanded that every liberal political figure and organized force in the city must join in grinding the upstart into the ground. Liberal politicians, most of labor, and many community organizations pledged allegiance to the mayor and spent vast sums and their staff time on Brown's campaign. A lot of this was of questionable legality, but King Willie wanted a coronation, a triumphal parade, and he pretty much got one.

The more decent of the people and institutions that were feeling queasy after serving as Brown's shield bearers wanted self-absolution. Led by then-State Senator John Burton, they used the campaign against Prop. E to restore their faith in their own intrinsic liberal goodness. With pretty much all the institutions that signal to voters that good people were speaking in a unified way against Prop. E, it was possible to turn back an attack on homeless people -- for a moment. When attention turned away, bit by bit, the thrust of Prop. E later became Mayor Newsom's current policy for the poor.

The story of that Prop. E campaign has scary implications for this election season. We're not seeing that kind of establishment unity against the racist, selfish, and simply dopey politics of the Teabaggers. We're seeing a lot of Democrats scurrying around trying to distance themselves from directions they once embraced. Defense of a decent society doesn't work that way. When "leaders" won't lead, we get frightening results.

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