Victory in militant fight to stop new SF jail

by Dave Welsh

San Francisco – Against all odds, a grassroots coalition defeated a plan to build a new, 384-bed downtown jail at a cost of $240 million – up to $465 million including 30 years of debt financing.

Protesters ignored the no-clapping, no-demonstrating, no-signs rules in the ornate Board of Supervisors chambers and took over the huge room for two hours at a Budget Committee hearing Dec. 2, leading to a unanimous vote of the board on Dec. 15 for no new jail! – Photo: Mike Koozmin, SF Examiner
Protesters ignored the no-clapping, no-demonstrating, no-signs rules in the ornate Board of Supervisors chambers and took over the huge room for two hours at a Budget Committee hearing Dec. 2, leading to a unanimous vote of the board on Dec. 15 for no new jail! – Photo: Mike Koozmin, SF Examiner

In what the No New Jail Coalition called “an historic moment in our long and difficult fight against jail expansion,” the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted Dec. 15 to reject the new jail plan.

“I am not going to support another stand-alone jail to continue to lock up African Americans and Latinos in this city,” said Board President London Breed. In addition, she said, “We are not going to continue to lock up people who have mental illness and substance abuse problems and clearly need to be treated.”

Chanting crowd occupies board chambers for two hours

The decisive moment in the two-year No New Jail campaign may have been on Dec. 2, when about 100 people took over the Board of Supervisors chambers in City Hall to demand: Stop the jail project now. Unfurling a banner – while five young organizers deployed a lockdown – they shut down a Budget Committee meeting that had been expected to rubber-stamp the jail proposal.

Meanwhile, non-stop chanting and dancing, led by three young Black women, went on for over two hours, before police cleared the room. They chanted: “Lift us up, Don’t lock us up,” “Kids not cages,” “Affordable housing, not jail beds,” “Supervisor Tang, do the right thang” and “House keys not handcuffs” (while people shook their keys in time with the chant).

When an official tried to stop the chanting “so we can get on with public comment,” an older man in the crowd shouted, “This is public comment!”

‘With people power we actually shift our political conditions’

The fate of the jail proposal was touch and go, right up to the last minute. Many thought the plan, backed by the sheriff, the mayor and other movers and shakers in the city, would pass. As the No New Jail Coalition said, “This just goes to show that when we use our people power, we actually shift our political conditions and realities.” In the end, the board vote was unanimous.

Community members made key points:

  1. 85 percent of people in the San Francisco jail are simply awaiting trial. In other words, they cannot afford bail. “This means the jail is really a paupers’ prison.”
  2. African Americans make up half of those locked up in the city’s jails, but as a result of “gentrification,” displacement and lack of jobs, are now only 4 percent of the city’s population.
  3. Jail promoters tried to use tricky financing – “certificates of participation,” where taxpayers pay a higher interest rate – to get around public opposition. Normally a bond issue is used to finance projects like the new jail, but this would require a ballot measure which jail promoters knew they would surely lose.
  4. “We don’t want jails that are newer and nicer. We want alternatives to imprisonment and permanent affordable housing, for people locked inside to return to their communities. As we’ve shown today, we will make this happen through our collective strength,” said Lisa Marie Alatorre, Coalition on Homelessness.
  5. “We reject the notion that Black residents’ only way of accessing resources like mental healthcare is by criminalizing them, arresting them and locking them away,” protested Kamau Walton, Critical Resistance.
  6. Those opposing the new jail included Critical Resistance, Coalition on Homelessness, Letter Carriers Union, Teachers Union, Tenants Union, Gray Panthers and the California Coalition for Women Prisoners.

Dave Welsh, a retired letter carrier and delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council, is an organizer with the Community-Labor Coalition to Save the People’s Post Office. He can be reached at sub@sonic.net.