July 21, 2013
Saturday, July 20th, 2013, 10:15pm, another death in the Tenderloin. I heard over a dozen shots between what sounded like two different caliber guns. Fear struck hard. It sounding like a gunfight. A real one. In the movies, it sounds different. Curious but frightened, I came downstairs to find a dead body on the sidewalk outside my apartment building – a young Latino man, lying face up. He had been shot in the head. This was upsetting and I wasn’t prepared for it.
I’ve learned more, since. I’ve discovered that this fatal shooting appears related to a dispute between drug crews working nearby on the corner of Larkin and O’Farrell streets. The police reported two groups firing at each other. One dead, the other wounded. As the wounded man tried to flee, he encountered and exchanged fire with a police officer but was captured without being struck by the officer’s return fire. Two guns were recovered at the scene.
For the half-dozen years I’ve lived here, this corner has been home to a thriving open air crack cocaine market run by Honduran gangs – staffed by quickly rotating and easily replaceable Spanish speaking immigrants. They appear treated as disposable by their employers.
This stretch of O’Farrell Street, between Larkin Street and Van Ness Avenue, exists in an uncertain border land between two very different worlds. Larkin Street is on the dividing line between two police precincts – the Tenderloin or “TL” precinct and the Northern precinct. Northern precinct patrol cars don’t drive down this block of O’Farrell because it quickly takes them outside of their precinct with return difficult due to all of the one way streets.
Some officers in the Tenderloin precinct driving down Larkin Street have told me they will not intercept the open air drug dealing on the South/West corner of Larkin and O’Farrell streets, home to J&E Liquors, because it is technically not in their precinct. Yes, that sounds absurd. The Northern precinct starts on the West side of Larkin Street even though this street can only be patrolled by Tenderloin precinct squad cars.
This section of O’Farrell street exists on the edge of the Tenderloin. Another block or so West begins the Cathedral Hill neighborhood, complete with its own Bentley car dealership on Van Ness and O’Farrell selling half million dollar luxury cars across the street from an Academy of Art classic car showroom. The street drug dealing continues unabated and no precinct wants to take responsibility, each believing it is the other precinct’s problem.
Furthermore, police have frequently reported that even when they do make arrests, and they have made over 90 in the last year, their cases either get diverted to drug court where the perpetrators quickly end up back on the streets, or they are not prosecuted at all. Either way, the District Attorney’s Office seemingly places a low priority on these types of crimes and essentially functions as a revolving door.
Our city’s Sanctuary Ordinance contributes to the problem. Undocumented immigrants arrested for illegal narcotics sales are not handed over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). As non-citizens without documentation, they don’t qualify for aid or a number of assistance programs that could help them. They are literally and unfortunately dumped back out onto the street. Many end up back on the corners of the Tenderloin selling drugs.
In the six years I have lived on this block, the problems have grown progressively worse. They recently and dramatically escalated with the installation of a new roofed MUNI bus shelter. This structure, installed a few months ago, provides a safe cover to conduct illicit hand-to-hand transactions. Often when I walk by, I see cash openly exchanged for crack cocaine stored in the dealer’s mouths in tooth-sized cellophane wrapped “baggies.”
Unlike the old days when both parties in such an illicit deal would quickly pocket their winnings, glance nervously about and walk way, both now loiter. They calmly stand to examine their spoils. The dealer slowly counts, straightens and sorts his bills while the customer closely examines the purchased crack cocaine rocks. A few even unwrap the baggies to test, usually not more than a few feet further away. No attempt is made to hide anything. The brazenness is startling and unnerving.
Now that the lethal consequences of such activity has been forced upon me, made disturbingly manifest by the graphic display of a real life death, I don’t know if I can keep looking the other way and tolerating this.
Before they covered him, I stared. I could not look away. Now I cannot clear these terrifying images from my memory. I heard gun shots and then witnessed their blood stained consequences. These are very real, too real for me to handle right now nor even to decide what to do.