Stay Tuned: The Devil’s in the Sit/Lie Details

Written by Hope Johnson. Posted in Culture, News, Politics

Published on April 23, 2010 with 6 Comments

Hope Johnson

By Hope Johnson

April 23, 2010

Mayor Gavin Newsom and San Francisco Police Chief George Gascon are threatening to ask San Francisco voters to approve an unconstitutional Sit/Lie measure on  the November ballot.

The proposed law seeks to make it illegal to sit or lie on the sidewalk between 7:00 am and 11:00 pm. Supporters say the intent is to protect the public from aggressive homeless youth in the Haight district. Warnings would be issued for first time sidewalk-sitting “offenders.” Repeat offenders could be fined or incarcerated.

The San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee (DCCC) passed a resolution Wednesday opposing the law. The resolution passed with a majority vote. Only five members supported the Sit/Lie law including Senator Dianne Feinstein, District 8 supervisor candidate Scott Weiner, and District 2 supervisor candidate Meagan Levitan.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi was not represented at the meeting and Assemblymember Fiona Ma abstained from the vote.

Crucial to discussion before the DCCC vote was that all members agreed Sit/Lie laws can be unconstitutional depending on how police officers choose to enforce them. The difference of opinion was really over whether or not members believed police officers should be given the power to potentially violate civil rights and if jeopardizing the rights of everyone in San Francisco was the only tool available to the San Francisco Police Department to effectively do its job in the Haight district.

Sit/Lie opponents stressed the proposed law violates constitutionally protected civil rights, and could be used to unfairly target the poor and homeless. They argue the police department already has the tools necessary to deter street level crimes simply by walking foot patrols in those areas most impacted by vagrancy, aggressive panhandling, and threatening behaviors.

DCCC member Gabriel Haaland, author of the resolution, provided an example of unconstitutional enforcement by discussing a 1968 Sit/Lie law intended to address “hippies” living in the Haight. Instead, that law was abused to harass gay men in the Castro resulting in the law being judged unconstitutional one year after the murder of Supervisor Harvey Milk.

“Unfettered police discretion has never been a successful model,” Haaland said.

Resolution author Gabriel Haaland.

DCCC members and community activists who usually disagree politically with Haaland are in agreement when it comes to opposing Sit/Lie. DCCC member Hale Smith opposes the law, preferring enforcement of existing laws. Smith believes it is less expense to taxpayers when the homeless are housed instead of jailed. District 10 supervisor candidate and former Mayor Newsom staffer Malia Cohen said she opposes the law because it easily could be enforced on those outside of the Haight district, including seniors using park benches in Bayview Hunters Point.

Sit/Lie supporters emphasize the need to protect the public from aggressive homeless youth who block the sidewalks and harass passersby in the Haight. They claim existing laws do not provide police with the tools to address hostile behavior, and do not believe a Sit/Lie law would be enforced inequitably.

“I’ve listened very carefully and I don’t think I’ve heard one acknowledgment that there are San Francisco Democrats who walk out of their homes and something happens to them,” opined George Broder, DCCC proxy for Senator Feinstein. “This is San Francisco in 2010, not Chicago in 1968.”

DCCC member Tom Hsieh supports the proposed Sit/Lie law because, as a longtime resident of the Haight, he has organized neighbors to combat aggressive behavior by actively patrolling the neighborhood. Hsieh said parents from the outer Richmond and the Sunset fear allowing their children to attend school in the Haight because of the numbers of homeless people they encounter there.

Those opposed to Sit/Lie reminded supporters that inequitable and inconsistent enforcement of laws by police officers is not a thing of the past. District 6 supervisor candidate Debra Walker pointed out the Oakland Police Department was very recently criticized for issuing parking tickets in lower income communities, but not in wealthier neighborhoods.

Listening to the debate, it was clear there are similarities in the solutions offered by those on both sides of the argument. The devil in the details for supporters of Sit/Lie is that none of those solutions, including their own, involved criminalizing the act of sitting on a sidewalk.

Sit/Lie supporter Tom Hsieh said he successfully organized a group of residents to patrol the streets to combat harassment by the homeless and gangs. He claimed those efforts were successful even though no Sit/Lie law was in effect. DCCC member Michael Goldstein suggested the escalating problem of aggressive behavior in the Haight can be attributed to a lack of foot patrols in those areas most impacted by crime, a long-standing request by District 5 Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi previously opposed by Newsom. Both suggestions are similar solutions and do not require implementing Sit/Lie.

Sit/Lie supporter Scott Weiner suggested the Haight needed a Sit/Lie law that could work in concert with Community Justice Courts that aims to connect low-level crime offenders with services.

DCCC member Supervisor Chris Daly offered an alternative solution with the same basic social services principle as Weiner’s Community Justice Courts only without implementing an unconstitutional Sit/Lie law. Daly believes the best combination to combat homelessness is “culturally competent and probably somewhat aggressive community-based outreach services,” with affordable housing and fully-funded mental health, substance abuse, AIDS and HIV programs. Institute community policing and, rather than start a new court system, use the funds to adequately budget existing community-based programs such as the Homeless Youth Alliance.

Political progressives are not suggesting the Haight district ignore harassment. But they also do not believe the answer is eroding civil rights to feel “safer.” Sit/Lie supporter Tom Hsieh said he just wants homeless youth to follow the rules. DCCC member Supervisor David Campos emphasized the Sit/Lie law does not delineate which rules to follow.

“The Mayor can’t articulate what conduct is being targeted,” Campos said of his efforts to determine the intent of the proposed Sit/Lie law.

Supervisor David Campos

San Francisco resident Andy Blue helped organize recent protests against the proposed Sit/Lie law. Blue is disappointed elected officials would choose to criminalize citizens enjoying the city’s public instead of enforcing existing laws through community policing.

“We should be encouraging people to hang out on the sidewalks. Most public space in out city is paved over, either a road or a sidewalk,” Blue said. “We need to take back our public space.”


Comments for Stay Tuned: The Devil’s in the Sit/Lie Details are now closed.

  1. The good news, from the perspective of supporters of the sit-lie law, is that Chris Daly is becoming more vocal in his opposition.

    Hopefully, this trend will continue to the point where he becomes identified in the public mind as the face of the opposition.

    Go, Chris!

  2. Chris Daly told me that Ross took his measure off the ballot to see where Newsom was going with the Sit/Lie thing. If it goes to the ballot in November, Ross will re-introduce his measure. Seems to make sense.

  3. Hope,

    It’s still not too late for Ross and Campos to put some ‘Evil Twin’ legislation on the November ballot (think mandatory foot patrols and cop boxes) to defuse the issue. Biggest problem with status quo is that merchants have to show up in court and ID themselves as the parties fingering the assholes. Cops should sign that particular slot on the report and take shopkeepers and residents out of harm’s way. Not a single Progressive is suggesting this as an alternative. I’m standing by my analysis; without competing ballot measures Progs end up labeled as pro-punk and anti-law and order and lose districts 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10. But the sidewalk parties are so cool right?

    Unlike my Prog co-horts I don’t get off on losing.


  4. h

    You’re right (and you pointed it out some time ago). Sit/Lie is being used as a wedge issue for the upcoming elections. But it’s still important to point out that:

    (1) those supporting the law admit it has a history of being used inequitably and judged unconstitutional (why support such a law?), and

    (2) if there really is harassment going on in the Haight, then it’s the job of the police department and mayor to use exisiting laws instead of blaming their bad policy decisions on civil rights advocates.


  5. Next thing you know we will have laws for rich people and laws for everyone else….oh, wait.

  6. Hope,

    The cops won’t enforce the law even if it passes. That would require them getting out of their cars. This is just a ruse to paint Progressives as soft on law and order. The Moderates won when Mirkarimi backed off running mandatory Foot Patrol legislation on the same ballot.