Wednesday, December 23, 2009
San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood is famous for many
things: whimsically painted Victorian homes, the hippie movement, a
carnival-like atmosphere of daily street performances, and a long
list of excellent boutiques. It does not need to get famous for being
the kind of neighborhood where people are afraid to walk down the street.
Sadly, the Haight is on the verge of becoming that kind of
neighborhood. Local mores about tolerance and acceptance have allowed
a small group of belligerents to flourish. These street toughs are
harassing tourists, beating up locals, frightening business owners
and daring anyone to do anything about it. It's time for San
Franciscans to call their bluff. A "sit/lie" law, designed to keep
troublemakers moving on, would give the police another tool to stop
Critics of sit/lie laws claim that they're used to penalize people
for being poor and homeless. They ask: "Why not just enforce the laws
we have on the books?"
It's true that in recent weeks, police have flooded the Haight and
found plenty of reasons to cite these troublemakers. But citations
are only half the battle - the other half is getting successful
prosecutions that would keep the worst offenders off the streets. Any
local who sees the same panhandlers day after day can tell you that
that's not easy in San Francisco.
A sit/lie law isn't about giving the police leeway to sweep the
streets of everyone who's homeless, poor or just looking for day
labor. It's about giving the officers a way to arrest the bullies who
block the streets and try to intimidate everyone else.
San Francisco has done this successfully before, with anti-gang
injunctions. Then, as now, critics said the injunctions would lead to
racial profiling and a police state. In reality, the injunctions
helped city officials break up small bands of criminals - many of
whom didn't even live in San Francisco - who had been terrorizing
housing projects and communities. They gave the police the power to
focus on the worst offenders, and that's exactly what they did.
Berkeley's famously liberal residents got so fed up with the lawless
atmosphere on Telegraph Avenue that they agreed to a sit/lie law.
Berkeley police have been enforcing it since September, and Telegraph
Avenue hasn't lost its spunk. It's just lost some of that lawless
edge. The Haight should be so lucky.