The commons and commoners

Pub date March 23, 2010

By Ben Rosenfeld

OPINION This is a call out to creative, fun-loving San Franciscans: the mayor, the police chief, and their downtown cronies have declared war on our grassroots arts culture, and they are coming for your actual and conceptual space next. The future they promise is manifest in their many recent attacks on public and private gatherings, and their efforts to wrest the commons from the commoners.

On Halloween 2009, the San Francisco Police, under their new chief, Los Angeles transplant George Gascón, shut down the Take Back Halloween Flashdance in front of the Ferry Building before DJ Amandeep "Deep" Jawa even arrived. Then they shut down several smaller street parties. Their official reason — that organizers lacked permits — is what Bill Clinton famously termed an explanation, but not an excuse.

The SFPD has a long history of not only tolerating unpermitted gatherings, but of rerouting traffic around and even escorting them. The cops are fully empowered to grant the equivalent of on-the-fly permits. Applying for an actual permit is cumbersome, costly, anti-spontaneous — and reinforces the SFPD’s view of itself as censor.

Since Halloween, Chief Gascón’s force has been striking a mighty blow against crime by writing scores of open container citations to revelers in Dolores Park; fining or forcing the closure of SoMa clubs and bars for failing to conform to every fickle letter of the law; and sending undercover officers into warehouse and studio parties to bust them from within, sometimes violently, and without warrants.

Perhaps the most un-San Franciscan of all Gascón’s initiatives is his demand for an ordinance that would literally criminalize the very act of sitting or lying on certain public sidewalks at certain times. Never mind the fact that most violent crime is committed by people standing up and in striking range.

Not only is the idea just plain mean, it is anathema to San Francisco’s culture of compassion and broadmindedness, and its affirmative celebration of vibrant street culture. The danger is not that the police will arrest everyone who dares to take a load off or sit and sip a Snapple against the side of a building, but that they will enforce the law selectively according to their own purity tests, while robbing the rest of us of the diversity and ferment which make us richer.

On March 27, reclaim space for art and innovation. Sit and lie on the public sidewalk! March and sing in the public street! Picnic on the pavement. Pop open a beer in Dolores Park. Do it without a permit. The Constitution is your permit. San Francisco’s heritage of artistic experimentation is your permit. Hell, the people telling you to get a permit flocked here because people like you marched around them in the first place and made this city inspiring. Do it for them too. This is a defining moment. They are playing for keeps, and so must we. Let’s bask in San Francisco’s ongoing heyday, not in quaint stories of what used to be.

Ben Rosenfeld is a lawyer in San Francisco.