Building a Movement to Reclaim Public Spaces

Same-day protests were held in San Francisco, Berkeley and Portland to challenge laws banning sitting or lying by homeless people. These “copy-cat laws” travel from city to city, as municipal officials copy each other’s efforts to erode human rights by making it illegal for poor people to exist in public.

Introduction by Carol Harvey

 

In 2007, San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau officials and government policy makers learned about Portland’s sit/lie law. ‘’This is great,” they said. “Let’s bring it back.” Ironically, the law banning sitting and lying down had just been found unconstitutional in Oregon.

Mike Kuykendall, head of the Business Alliance of Portland, reported that Portland officials were barraged with conventioneers complaining about people aggressively panhandling on downtown sidewalks next to sleeping bags and pit bulls. Kuykendall led a delegation to sell San Francisco officials, including Mayor Gavin Newsom, the district attorney, city attorney and city supervisors, on Portland’s downtown plan, known as “Street Access for Everyone.”

The "Sidewalks Are Still for People" protest was held on Harvey Milk's birthday, in resistance to San Francisco's sit/lie ordinance. Carol Harvey photo

The ordinance states: “Sitting, lying down, or leaving one’s belongings on a public sidewalk in a (designated) High Pedestrian Traffic Area during certain times (7 a.m. to 9 p.m.) would not be permitted.”

The twist is that, although “sitting on the sidewalk will earn a citation,” which will successfully force homeless people off the street, amenities “that make life more pleasant” would be provided, such as bathrooms and benches.

In his Dec. 16, 2007, article, “S.F. leaders hear about Portland’s approach to homelessness,” San Francisco Chronicle columnist C.W. Nevius picked up the sit/lie idea. He used his column to attempt to build public support for an “initiative that could address one of the most persistent problems in downtown San Francisco — the unpleasant, and infamous, street scene.” Nevius briefly pushed this, then the idea died when he got distracted. He picked it up again in 2009.

Such ideas travel from place to place, through informal trips, news, or conferences. Bob Offer-Westort, an organizer with the Coalition on Homelessness, said the process whereby local laws spring up is part of a “national system of stupidity.”

Dysfunctional ideas can metastasize, moving from city to city, eroding human rights. Certain bad ideas spread not just locally, but regionally and nationally. Sidestepping real social issues, mayors share bad policy ideas like corporatized business improvement districts which privatize public space.

Portland brought the sit/lie idea to San Francisco conservatives. Then, publicity and a victory for San Francisco’s sit/lie initiative in the November 2010 election, inspired Berkeley’s Business Improvement District to push for a sitting ban.

The anti-homeless law traveled from Portland to San Francisco to Berkeley. Resistance to the sit/lie ban traveled in the reverse direction, from San Francisco to Berkeley and Portland, said Offer-Westort.

“The idea of Sidewalks Are For People Day started in San Francisco, which is why I think it is really cool it was Harvey Milk’s birthday we are choosing for it,” he said.

Activists didn’t plan a multi-city resistance. It just spontaneously came into being. San Francisco activists had decided to reclaim San Francisco sidewalks. Berkeley folks were already in the midst of their own campaign to resist a repressive sitting-ban measure supported by Mayor Tom Bates and downtown business associations. Then, Portland folks decided to take action, simultaneously.

Offer-Westort called this “the angelic metastasization of resistance and democracy.” People take back public space and civil society, saying, “This is ours.”

Using the identical pathways by which conservatives purvey law-and-order crackdowns, authoritarianism, and the takeover of public spaces by big business, we can build a movement to uphold human rights and democracy, and restore the people’s voice.

Portland, Oregon

by Bob Offer-Westort

While there have been sit/lie laws since the 1960s along the West Coast, following a Conventions and Visitors Bureau visit to Portland in 2007, Portland’s now-discredited sit/lie law was the immediate inspiration for San Francisco’s law.

Portland’s law was ultimately found — in several successive versions — to violate the Oregon State Constitution. However, homeless people in Portland still face a “sidewalk management” ordinance, which restricts them to the curbside half of downtown sidewalks.

In Portland, activists from Sisters of the Road set up a soapbox and had birthday cake for breakfast to honor Harvey Milk’s birthday.

Berkeley, California

by Terry Messman, Lydia Gans, Bob Offer-Westort

The ACLU successfully challenged Berkeley’s 1994 sit/lie law. The City appealed, but the Berkeley City Council repealed it. Ten years later, Berkeley’s City Council passed the “Public Commons for Everyone Initiative,” a measure sponsored by Mayor Tom Bates that regulated some street behaviors.

However, the Berkeley City Council has not yet passed a sitting ban ordinance. To date, it is a proposal. The business community insists publicly that Mayor Bates will support a sitting ban. Other members of the Berkeley City Council are reportedly willing to pass one.

A coalition of  homeless activists, attorneys and service providers has begun to mobilize resistance in an attempt to erode public support before the sitting ban is even introduced to the Berkeley City Council. City Councilmember Kriss Worthington has warned that the council may try to sneak the law through later this summer when University of California students are not in session.

On Sunday, May 22, at the Berkeley BART station, the “Stand Up For the Right To Sit Down Coalition” protested the anti-sitting proposal with a unique Chair-A-Pillar simulating a sinuous caterpillar’s movements up, down and around the sidewalk. For two hours, sitters at one end of a row of dozens of chairs, brightly painted by high school students, carried their seats in succession to the other end of the line. As the Chair-A-Pillar snaked around the BART station, the lively action seemed a metaphor for forcing homeless people to move their belongings constantly. [See Lydia Gans full report on the protest in the article, “Creative Sit-Down Strike Protests the Sitting Ban.”]

The Haight

by Bob Offer-Westort

Despite its history as a counterculture pilgrimage site, the Haight was the epicenter of sit/lie struggles in San Francisco from the get-go.

In its all-out push for the sit/lie ordinance in 2009 and 2010, the Haight-Ashbury Improvement Association claimed to represent the neighborhood.

After the ballot measure was passed in November 2010, San Francisco police began enforcing the law in March 2011. Park Station police, who have jurisdiction over Haight Street, issued more sidewalk sit-down warnings and citations, mostly to homeless youth, than cops at other city stations. It was important for the Coalition on Homelessness and the Homeless Youth Alliance that homeless youth have a welcoming place.

Members of these two organizations, in partnership with the Haight-Ashbury Neighborhood Council, which opposed the sit/lie law from day one, set up a grill at Haight and Cole and held a barbecue and “social stone soup” where friends performed sit/lie or homeless harassment poems. Neighbors brought corn on the cob, portobello mushrooms, and asparagus to complement our budget hot dogs and veggie dogs.

We played songs by the Grateful Dead (a perennial Golden Gate Park favorite), Neil Young and the Beatles. HANC Friends distributed information to passersby, inviting them to join our barbecue and the good celebration of public space that brought homeless and housed neighbors together.

With the barbecue in full swing, two confused beat cops approached. We explained our action. They said they’d check with their supervisor. On their return, they insisted our barbecue was a violation of section 720 of the Municipal Police Code (which actually prohibits news racks showing genitalia and breast images).

The sergeant offered the compromise that we could have the grill on the street, between parked cars. As he drove away, he said, “You know that sitting on the sidewalk is a citable offense, don’t you?”

Tenderloin — Polk And Sutter

Rachel West

US PROStitutes Collective and Legal Action for Women held their event in the Tenderloin at Polk and Sutter Streets. Our focus was reclaiming public space for all criminalized people. We offered live music, an information table. We kept a vigil for murdered sex workers. A reporter from KPOO Radio came for interviews.

Neighborhood people stopped by with stories. We spoke about the sit/lie law. People of color, immigrants, LGBTQ and sex workers face regular police harassment.

Sex workers on Polk Street, many driven into prostitution by homelessness, poverty and destitution, report being repeatedly ticketed and arrested for loitering/nuisance charges under existing police codes. As a strategy to get guilty convictions from San Francisco juries generally sympathetic to sex workers, multiple charges are prosecuted together. No evidence is needed — no tapes, no photos — just the word of the police. Now they face sit/lie enforcement.

Also reported was how sex workers, the majority of whom are mothers, young and/or transgender/LBGTQ, are forced onto the streets by crackdowns against massage parlors, as well as against web advertising like Craigslist. The censorship campaign against Craigslist which forced the closure of the adult ads section is spreading. Now Backpage and other web-based services are being targeted. Clamping down on ways sex workers can advertise undermines sex workers’ safety and rights.

Rape and violence are increasing, but sex workers are afraid to report violence to the police, knowing they risk arrest under these laws. If sex workers can’t report rape and violence, and police and courts refuse to act against these attackers, serial murderers like those in Long Island and Los Angeles are given a green light.

The overall message of the event was that safety must be prioritized and criminalization must end.

The Castro

by Carol Harvey

Under a bright sun at Harvey Milk Plaza in the Castro, a rainbow of attendees celebrated, including people of color, LGBTQ community members, a nudist, young, old and in between, homeless and housed. The emphasis was on enjoying public space by sitting and talking with neighbors in honor of Harvey Milk’s birthday.

Tommi Mecca, organizer of the “Sidewalks Are For People” event in the Castro, reported the “Castro had about 50 people altogether throughout the two hours.” Supporters like US PROS’ Rachel West, and Martin MacKerel visited from other sit/lie events.

A core group stayed as neighbors cycled in and out, sang and spoke, standing on the kind of soapbox Harvey used as he encouraged gay neighbors to come out of the closet — until the soapbox broke.

Said Mecca, “We started with (SOS) Singers Of The Street doing two songs and ended with a photo op for the Bay Times newspaper.” Singers Of The Street is a choir led by Dr. Kathleen McGuire that provides “a voice, a face, and a place for seeking justice, healing, and joy for those living on the margins of society, especially those who are ‘homeless, unemployed, and invisible.’”

Mecca performed several original songs and harmonized Francis B. Collin’s stirring rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Two videographers, some journalists, and a photographer recorded smart, impassioned speeches on the history of LGBTQ civil rights struggles and Harvey Milk’s fight against the sit/lie ordinance in the 1970s.

One USF professor suggested that business people, instead of chasing homeless people from in front of their stores, encourage business by creating small public squares where everyone could meet, perform, and rest.

Stephany Joy Ashley, president of the Harvey Milk Democratic Club, spoke briefly. Edmund Juicy, wearing a garland of Chinese marijuana, danced in a rainbow shower of bubbles floating everywhere from Mecca’s bubble pipe, and no police showed up to harsh our mellow!

Harvey Milk would have loved attending his “No on Sit/Lie” and “Sidewalks Are Still For People” birthday party as it spread through two Bay Area cities and up the coast to Oregon.

 

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