by Carol Harvey
Sidewalks are for People Day, May 22, dedicated to Harvey Milk’s birthday, happened in three cities and two states simultaneously.
The sit/lie law idea originated in Portland, Ore., then traveled to San Francisco and Berkeley, Calif. Bob Offer-Westort, San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness organizer, described an accidental, spontaneous counter-push back along the same route.
The May 2011 “Sidewalks are for People” resistance, he said, sprang up organically, reversing the path from San Francisco to Berkeley and Portland.
How bad ideas spread
In 2007, the San Francisco Convention and Visitors’ Bureau officials and city government policy makers encountered Portland’s sit/lie law. “Let’s bring it back,” they said. Ironically, Oregon had just found sit/lie unconstitutional.
In his Dec. 16, 2007, article, “S.F. leaders hear about Portland’s approach to homelessness”:
Chronicle columnist C.W. Nevius picked up the sit/lie idea promoting this “attempt to build political support for an initiative that could address one of the most persistent problems in downtown San Francisco: the unpleasant and infamous street scene.” It died when he got distracted.
Nevius picked it up again in 2009.
Offer-Westort termed the process a “national system of stupidity” whereby local laws spring up. Bad ideas spread not just individually or locally, but regionally and nationally.
Dysfunctional ideas metastasize, moving from city to city, causing democracy to fail. Sidestepping real social issues, mayors share bad policy ideas like corporatized, commercial business improvement districts and privatizations of public space.
Such ideas travel from place to place, through informal trips, news or conferences.
Business Alliance of Portland’s Mike Kuykendall reported that conventioneers complained about people with sleeping bags and pit bulls aggressively panhandling on downtown sidewalks.
Kuykendall led a delegation to sell Portland’s downtown plan to city officials Mayor Gavin Newsom, D.A. Kamala Harris, City Attorney Dennis Herrera and Supervisors Michela Alioto-Pier and Sean Elsbernd.
The “Street Access for Everyone” 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: Though “sitting on the sidewalk will earn a citation,” moving homeless people off the street, amenities like benches are provided “that make life more pleasant.”
Good ideas spread back through the same channels
Portland brought the sit/lie idea to San Francisco conservatives. Then, publicity and a sit/lie victory at San Francisco polls inspired Berkeley’s downtown Business Improvement District to push sit/lie.
According to Offer-Westort, some public relations person didn’t just announce, “It would be cool to pull off nine events simultaneously in three cities.” The people decided to reclaim San Francisco sidewalks. Then Berkeley folks asked, “Can we do that too?” Then Portland folks were like, “We’ll do something simultaneously.”
Grass after rain, good songs and ideas spread naturally like overwhelming viruses and cancers. What Offer-Westort called “the angelic metastasization of resistance and democracy” healed “diabolical metastasization.”
We didn’t plan a multi-city resistance. It came into being. People reclaimed public space and civil society, saying, “This is ours.”
We build our movement spreading culture, the people’s voice and democracy, using the identical viral pathways conservatives use to disperse anti-culture, authoritarianism and kleptocracy.
This movement’s unified, organic energy made it independent, powerful and unstoppable.
Portland, Ore., as reported by Bob Offer-Westort
Though Portland’s law inspiring San Francisco’s sitting ban was found to violate the Oregon State Constitution, homeless citizens still face a “sidewalk management” ordinance restricting them to the curbside half of downtown sidewalks.
Protesting these restrictions, Portland activists, Sisters of the Road, ate cake honoring Harvey Milk’s birthday and erected a soapbox.
Berkeley, Calif., as reported by Lydia Ganz and Terry Messman
At the Berkeley BART station, the “Stand Up for the Right to Sit Down Coalition” protested the anti-sit/lie ordinance with a unique, dynamic “chair-a-pillar.” A sinuous caterpillar’s movements up and down the sidewalk symbolized homeless people constantly forced to get up, dragging belongings around.
Sitters in a long row of brightly painted chairs got tired hauling seats to the end of the line.
The line snaking around the station drew honking and pedestrian involvement.
The sitting ban remains a proposal. Berkeley business interests insist Mayor Tom Bates supports it and City Council members are apparently willing to pass it. Resistance groups hope to erode support before introduction to the council, whom the grapevine says may sneak sit/lie through this summer when UC students aren’t there.
The Haight in San Francisco, as reported by Bob Offer-Westort
At the Haight Street “Sidewalks are for People” action, the Coalition on Homelessness and the Homeless Youth Alliance offered homeless youth a welcoming place.
Since SFPD began enforcing the law in March 2011, Park Station police issued more sidewalk sit-down warnings and citations, mostly to homeless youth, than cops at other city stations.
Despite its history as a counter-culture pilgrimage site, the Haight was always the epicenter of sit/lie struggles.
In its ’09-‘10 all-out push for sit/lie, the Haight-Ashbury Improvement Association claimed to represent the neighborhood.
Members of the Homeless Youth Alliance, the Coalition on Homelessness and the Haight-Ashbury Neighborhood Council – opposing sit/lie from day one – held a barbecue at Haight and Cole and a “social stone soup” where friends performed sit/lie or homeless harassment poems. Complementing the budget dogs, neighbors brought corn on the cob, portobello mushrooms and asparagus.
We played Grateful Dead, a perennial Golden Gate Park favorite, Neil Young and the Beatles. HANC friends distributed information, inviting passersby to our barbecue and the celebration of public space, and bringing homeless and housed neighbors together.
Two confused beat cops approached, saying they would check with their supervisor. Returning, they insisted our barbecue violated Municipal Police Code Section 720, which actually prohibits news-racks from showing genitalia and breast images.
The sergeant compromised: We could grill between parked cars. Driving away, he cautioned, “Sitting on the sidewalk is a citable offense.”
The Tenderloin, Polk and Sutter, San Francisco, as reported by Rachel West
US PROStitutes Collective and Legal Action for Women held their event in the Tenderloin at Polk and Sutter. Tenderloin sex workers, people of color, immigrants and LGBTQ people face regular police harassment.
Our focus was reclaiming public space for all criminalized people. Key message: Criminalization must end.
Sex workers, many driven into prostitution by homelessness, poverty and destitution, report being repeatedly ticketed and arrested for loitering and nuisance charges under existing Municipal Police Codes. Now they face sit/lie enforcement.
Neighbors came with stories. We spoke about the sit/lie law.
We offered live music, an information table and vigil for murdered sex workers. A KPOO Radio reporter conducted interviews.
The Castro, San Francisco, as reported by Carol Harvey
Harvey Milk would love his “No on Sit/Lie”/”Sidewalks are Still for People” birthday party spreading through two Bay Area cities up the coast to Oregon.
Under bright sun at Harvey Milk Plaza, an attendee rainbow celebrated. People of color, a nudist, LGBTQ community, the young, old, homeless and housed emphasized enjoying public space, sitting and talking with neighbors.
A core group stayed. Neighbors cycled through, sang and spoke standing on a soap box like Harvey used encouraging gay neighbors to exit the closet.
Reported event organizer Tommi Mecca said: The “Castro had about 50 people throughout the two hours. We began with two songs from Singers of the Street, ending with a Bay Times newspaper photo-op.”
Tommi performed original music and harmonized Francis B. Collin’s stirring rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
Two videographers, journalists and a photographer recorded impassioned speeches on LGBTQs’ civil rights struggle history and Harvey Milk’s fight against the ‘70s sit/lie ordinance.
A USF professor suggested instead of chasing homeless people from in front of their stores, shop owners encourage business by creating civic squares where a spectrum of people meet, perform and rest.
Edmund Juicy, wearing a Chinese marijuana garland, danced in a bubble shower floating from Tommi’s pipe. No SFPD harshed our mellow!
Carol Harvey is a San Francisco writer whose work is published by many Bay Area periodicals. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.