by Jeremy Miller
On Dec. 14, 2021, San Francisco’s quixotic mayor authored a blog post that served as a policy statement (slightly more literate than Trump’s policy by Tweet) entitled, “A Safer San Francisco.” It stated, “San Francisco is a compassionate city, but our compassion cannot be mistaken for weakness or indifference.” The mayor’s one liner was a prelude to the announcement of a “series of initiatives to create a safer San Francisco.” The initiatives were itemized as follows:
- Executing an Emergency Intervention Plan in the Tenderloin neighborhood
- Securing emergency police funding
- Amending our surveillance ordinance
- Disrupting the illegal street sales of stolen goods
This proposal was then supplemented three days later by a mayoral proclamation declaring “the existence of a local emergency” due to drug overdoses in the Tenderloin. If these elements seem a bit disjointed, it is because they ought to be.
But in the Machiavellian logic of a Breed administration, a complex emergency consisting of at least three constituent epidemics, to wit: opioid addiction, COVID-19 and homelessness, is the perfect opportunity to roll back rebuttals of historical carceral policy, eviscerate safeguards against technofascism, and double down on a relentless animus towards San Francisco’s most impoverished and vulnerable residents.
In the Machiavellian logic of a Breed administration, a complex emergency consisting of at least three constituent epidemics, to wit: opioid addiction, COVID-19 and homelessness, is the perfect opportunity to roll back rebuttals of historical carceral policy, eviscerate safeguards against technofascism, and double down on a relentless animus towards San Francisco’s most impoverished and vulnerable residents.
Because the mayor’s assault has so many moving pieces, it is incumbent upon us to analyze each separately. We’ll work backwards.
Disrupting the illegal street sales of stolen goods
Let’s begin with the horrors of poor person market economics a.k.a. “street vending.” Entering Mayor London Breed’s phantasmagoria from “A Safer San Francisco,” we learn that:
“For the most part, the goods for sale are being acquired through criminal activity. In other words, the stuff is stolen, then sold on the street. In addition to the thefts themselves, there is an increasing use of weapons, getaway cars, physical violence, and invasion of homes and businesses that come with the robberies.”
And what might our stalwart municipal executive do to combat this cacophony of theft and violence? Breed continues:
“To address this issue, my legislation will:
- Create an exclusion zone for all street vending activity in existing locations that are highly problematic, such as United Nations Plaza,
- Give the Department of Public Works the flexibility to add locations where vending will be barred,
- Regulate the number of street vendor permits issued,
- Mandate highly visible posting of approved vendor permits to make it simple and easy for inspections at any time,
- Request proof of purchase immediately from anyone attempting to sell goods,
- Enforce the Americans with Disabilities Act to ensure accessibility in our public spaces,
- Allow DPW to associate with law enforcement if there is a need to move individuals who are non-compliant and/or confiscate goods.”
So just a few little issues here. For one thing, there is absolutely no evidentiary basis for the claim that most of the goods for sale are being acquired through criminal activity. Not only does Breed not have this evidence, the evidence would be almost impossible to generate, as most of the goods for sale do not have serial numbers and would not have been reported stolen even if they were.
Secondly, there is this pesky little thing called presumption of innocence. Sale of stolen goods has been illegal for 150 years in California, and the entire time criminal intent or knowledge was a necessary element of the crime. The seller must either know they are selling an unlawfully acquired product or have failed to exercise due diligence in attempting to ascertain the answer to this question prior to the point of sale, both of which are, in most circumstances, notoriously difficult to prove.
As such, an overly aggressive posture regarding these property questions would almost certainly lead to both constitutional and human rights violations. Thirdly, with roughly 85 percent of the currently incarcerated population of San Francisco unsentenced and awaiting trial and a backlog so severe that over 400 people have been waiting more than a year to see their day in court, there is no way to justify even thinking of clogging the system with these kinds of petty matters.
District Attorney Chesa Boudin – rightly – would never prosecute the majority of cases under this approach, and even were he to be replaced by a more dyed-in-the-wool law and order prosecutor, there still would be no ethical, moral or even pragmatic justification for such a policy.
Fourthly, Breed’s mythology about the weapons, getaway cars, home invasions etc. is easily debunked by looking at SFPD data. Currently, in year-over-year terms, robbery, burglary and even grand-theft auto are all down from last year.
A fifth point is that in September 2018, almost exactly two months after London Breed first assumed elected office as mayor of San Francisco, SB 946 was signed into law, which states in relevant part(s):
Cal Gov Code 51038(b)(1): A local authority shall not require a sidewalk vendor to operate within specific parts of the public right-of-way, except when that restriction is directly related to objective health, safety, or welfare concerns.
Cal Gov Code 51038(b)(4)(A): A local authority shall not restrict sidewalk vendors to operate only in a designated neighborhood or area, except when that restriction is directly related to objective health, safety, or welfare concerns. And
Cal Gov Code 51038(b)(5): A local authority shall not restrict the overall number of sidewalk vendors permitted to operate within the jurisdiction of the local authority, unless the restriction is directly related to objective health, safety, or welfare concerns.
Thus, the first five planks of Mayor Breed’s proposed legislation fly directly in the face of existing California law while the sixth plank creates a contradiction by utilizing federal disability law to attack state law she doesn’t approve of – with complete disregard of the possibility that those negatively impacted by her lawfare might also be disabled!
The seventh plank is even more ridiculous in that it claims to authorize an action that has been ongoing aggressively throughout Breed’s administration, i.e., “sweeps.” This suggests that the mayor is aware that in the absence of some sort of enabling legislation, her sweeps are currently a constitutional abuse of power and she’s attempting to provide legal cover after the fact.
But speaking of sweeps, the final and most critical point here is that as stated in the beginning of this section, street vending is poor people’s market activity. Far from doing anything to improve safety for San Franciscans, this attempt to further criminalize street vendors is nothing more than another of London Breed’s unfortunately predictable assaults on San Francisco’s most economically vulnerable residents.
In the absence of some sort of enabling legislation, her sweeps are currently a constitutional abuse of power. To further criminalize street vendors is nothing more than another of London Breed’s unfortunately predictable assaults on San Francisco’s most economically vulnerable residents.
Amending our surveillance ordinance
San Francisco Administrative Code §19B.2(d): It shall be unlawful for any Department to obtain, retain, access, or use: 1) any Face Recognition Technology on City-issued software or a City-issued product or device; or 2) any information obtained from Face Recognition Technology on City-issued software or a City-issued product or device.
On May 6, 2019, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors made history by “banning” the use of facial recognition technology for any departments, which of course most notably impacted the San Francisco Police Department. The quotes are because there are loopholes in this so-called ban large enough to drive a bus through.
Nevertheless, the ordinance is sufficiently coherent to prohibit laissez-faire use and widespread proliferation. At the time passionate – and true – arguments were proffered describing the lack of accuracy of the technology in identifying “minorities” as part of the reasoning behind the prohibition.
But there was a larger issue not amenable to a technocratic fix. The greater concern was that given the gross disparities in targeting sans facial recognition – e.g., Blacks representing roughly 50 percent of the incarcerated population of San Francisco vs. less than 6 percent of the total population – there was no reason to assume said powerful technologies wouldn’t simply be used to augment the weaponization of pre-existing bias and therefore augment inequality and abuse.
It was also recognized that San Francisco’s proximity to Silicon Valley and its status as a “global political city,” would possibly set precedent for other locations around the country. As San Francisco was the first US municipality to ban facial recognition technology, this event ranks up there alongside the creation of the Exotic Dancers Union as one of the few moments where the City actually lived up to its “progressive” mythos.
The third initiative of Mayor Breed’s “Safer San Francisco” seeks to upend this.
To return to the mayor: While this legislation created a clear public process and transparency relating to surveillance technologies, it also created barriers for law enforcement when responding to public safety emergencies. It hobbled law enforcement when confronting life-threatening incidents like active shooters, suspected terrorist events, hostage taking, kidnapping, natural disasters or looting.
OK. So first of all, the only articulated crime in Breed’s fear-mongering rant that would trigger the prohibition would be looting. As mentioned earlier, the current loopholes in this particular ordinance are enormous and amongst them is a carve-out for “exigent circumstances,” defined as “an emergency involving imminent danger of death or serious physical injury to any person that requires the immediate use of Surveillance Technology or the information it provides.”
Looting notwithstanding, all of Breed’s other hypothetical emergencies would provide a pretext where the prohibition could effectively be legally ignored. This clarifies what Breed is actually concerned about: Larceny.
Secondly, as with the “illegal vending” claim, there is a profound lack of evidence. Can Mayor Breed name one terrorist event, active shooter event or natural disaster during the last three years in which the lack of cutting-edge surveillance tech “hobbled law enforcement?” Well, she hasn’t yet.
She could and does, however, refer with hilarious gravity to a “mass looting event!” Thirdly – and I cannot stress this enough – the majority of the proscribed activity, criminal or otherwise, that is generating calls for greater enforcement from certain sectors is conducted by known individuals! Anonymity, even in the era of mask mandates, has never been a primary obstacle to health and safety in the Tenderloin.
Finally, beyond technology wars, San Francisco has been the site of government surveillance overreach for decades. Reportedly over 80 percent of COINTELPRO intelligence gathering was conducted by Bay Area informants, and in the immediate aftermath of 9-11 San Francisco was a primary collection site for domestic surveillance by the NSA.
What this speaks to is that surveillance policy is inevitably political and will never remain hermetically directed towards whatever target a sitting official deems appropriate. Is a stolen handbag or a petty drug deal seriously worth supporting 21st century COINTELPRO? Beyond the rhetoric, this is truly the question at hand with the mayor’s proposed surveillance initiative.
San Francisco has been the site of government surveillance overreach for decades. Reportedly over 80 percent of COINTELPRO intelligence gathering was conducted by Bay Area informants. Is a stolen handbag or a petty drug deal seriously worth supporting 21st century COINTELPRO?
Securing emergency police funding
In 2020, using the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext, Mayor London Breed’s administration instituted citywide budget cuts. The San Francisco Police Department’s budget was not immune to this trend and experienced an $18.1 million cut in the approved budget or, in other words, a roughly 2.6 percent cut.
This belt tightening reduced the astronomical SFPD annual budget from $692,322,316 in FY 2019-2020 to (cue the somber violins) $674,194,131 in FY 2020-2021. In the subsequent fiscal year, FY 2021-2022, which we are currently living through, this same budget saw over one and a half million dollars restored, leading to a current annual budget of $675,774,373.
During this process, Mayor Breed leveraged the economic disruption through the use of some fiscal smoke and mirrors to produce a $120 million fund allegedly extracted from law enforcement budgets and dedicated to investment in Black communities. This was then funneled into a spending plan known as the “Dreamkeeper Initiative.”
In a bid to court people who had been in the streets in numbers last year pushing for “defunding” the police, Mayor Breed and current Board of Supervisors President Shamann Walton gushed over this plan, presenting it as the work of a receptive and progressive government – and even daring to refer to it as reparations! While there may be limited positive returns on investment for the Dreamkeeper Initiative, the scale of its investments, when compared to the scale of both historical divestment and current community need make it farcical to refer to this as reparations.
Even more ridiculous is the assertion that this represents a “defunding” of the police department, as the $40 million claimed annually over the last couple years has been generated merely by not hiring new cops, not buying new cop cars, making cuts to the police overtime budget – which is perennially exceeded anyway – and eliminating the department’s settlement and judgments fund!
“Defunding” of the police department has been generated merely by not hiring new cops, not buying new cop cars, making cuts to the police overtime budget – which is perennially exceeded anyway – and eliminating the department’s settlement and judgments fund!
What was cynically rendered as a people’s victory actually ensured less financial accountability from the police department when they abuse their authority. And the only money ever removed from the SFPD budget was the previously discussed and unrelated 2.6 percent cut in FY 2020-2021. This is the historical context for Breed’s “Securing Emergency Police Funding Initiative.”
The only explicit expenditure that Mayor Breed cited in “A Safer San Francisco” as justification for her suggested budget supplemental was to “help fund SFPD overtime” which she later clarified as necessary to “flood the district [District 6, which includes the Tenderloin] with police officers.” This of course would be in addition to Mayor Breed’s ominous threat of “allowing sheriff’s deputies to work off duty in uniform in a number of locations throughout San Francisco.”
Eliding for a moment the obvious human rights questions that Matrix policing implies, we are also left with a naked economic question. What security service possibly justifies more than the $14 million per square mile per year as currently budgeted?
What security service possibly justifies more than the $14 million per square mile per year as currently budgeted?
Tenderloin Emergency Plan
The final component or “initiative” of Mayor London Breed’s “Safer San Francisco” is her vaunted “Tenderloin Emergency Plan.” The only problem is that there is no plan. The constituent parts of this initiative are largely general and aspirational, unfunded and undefined. Here is the basic list:
- Additional temporary street lighting
- Felony warrant sweeps (largely by SFPD)
- Creation of a temporary “Linkage” site
- Targeting of drug dealers (largely by SFPD)
- Infrastructure repairs
- Long term funding for ambassador programs
- Community led beautification and open space projects
- Environmental changes that promote safety
- Long term partnerships with community organizations for “plan” maintenance.
Points 1, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 have not been clarified to even the Board of Supervisors or relevant city departments. For example, there is no detail of where streetlights will be added, what infrastructure repairs are contemplated, what community beautification means, which community partners – BIDs (business improvement districts) and police auxiliaries such as Urban Alchemy notwithstanding – are implicated and what the sources and amount of funding will be to facilitate these amorphous programs.
As regards to Point 3, the “Linkage” site, only the Department of Emergency Management seems to have any idea what this is, but it has been vaguely described as a “services-focused location where people can voluntarily go to find respite from the streets and gain access to a wide variety of resources from the City and its partners.”
Finally, to turn to Points 2 and 4, those relative to policing, Mayor Breed cited 23 people arrested for outstanding warrants at some undefined point in recent history and an aspiration for targeting drug dealers with absolutely no indication of future enforcement except the risible assertion that somehow increased parking citations would “disrupt drive-up drug dealing!”
Mayor Breed is targeting drug dealers with absolutely no indication of future enforcement except the risible assertion that somehow increased parking citations would “disrupt drive-up drug dealing!”
While short on strategic or tactical details that might be expected in a plan, there was certainly no lack of bombastic rhetoric such as, “It is time for the reign of criminals who are destroying our city, it is time for it to come to an end.” As a quick aside, the fact that the mayor could utter such a phrase while the FBI has indicted her compatriots at the helm of the San Francisco Department of Public Works, Mohammed Nuru, and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, Harlan Kelly, in an ongoing corruption probe, which also saw the resignation-in-shame of her City Administrator Naomi Kelly, is enough to make irony itself blush.
But digressions aside, there is not just a penchant for hypocritical polemic or over-policing being pushed here. Mayor Breed has also chosen to couch in her (non-plan) plan a resumption of her pre-Lanterman forced treatment ethic. Piggybacking on the success of California State Sen. (and former San Francisco Supervisor) Scott Weiner’s illiberal legislative cocktail of SB 1045 and SB 40, which wedged open the doors to forced conservatorship for mental health and emergency service consumers, London capped her Ronald Reagan impression with this ominous threat:
“We are not giving people a choice anymore. We are not just going to walk by and let someone use in broad daylight on the streets and not give them the choice between going to the location we have identified for them or going to jail.”
Three days after this initiative blitzkrieg came the big reveal. Mayor Breed showed the City how she intended to achieve her policy dreams. The COVID-19 pandemic seems to be her inspiration. Clearly London Breed’s takeaway was how to embody Rahm Emmanuel’s dictum, “Never allow a good crisis to go to waste.”
Emergencies, London Breed’s Christmas Special, and the future if we don’t intervene
On Dec. 17, 2021, Mayor London Breed declared “the existence of a local emergency” based upon a spike of overdose deaths in the Tenderloin. This may seem self-explanatory and even banal for those familiar with the Tenderloin dope scene, but to a trained eye it appears in its true colors as a coup d’état.
This is because although the language of the emergency proclamation focused on the very real opioid epidemic, it exploited the crisis to grant Mayor Breed or her designees extraordinary powers without anything other than periodic supervisorial oversight. The accountability vacuum thus created allows Mayor Breed to spend the next two months initiating her “Safer San Francisco” program.
In operational terms, what the emergency declaration does is to reorganize the city government’s functions vis-à-vis the Tenderloin under the provisions of an “Incident Command System.” It also removes virtually any institutional constraint to the mayor exercising her will or commandeering the City’s funds in the service of her objectives. Implementation would be overseen by the mayor’s appointed Executive Director of Emergency Management, Mary Ellen Carroll.
Per the city charter, any such emergency declaration requires the concurrence of the Board of Supervisors to remain in effect. On Thursday, Dec. 23, an emergency meeting was held for this purpose and, after ten and a half hours of essentially a cop-lover vs. harm reductionist verbal war, the Board of Supervisors voted at 12:17 a.m. on Christmas Eve to concur, with only Supervisors Walton and Preston in the dissent.
The Board of Supervisors voted at 12:17 a.m. on Christmas Eve to concur with the emergency declaration, with only Supervisors Walton and Preston in the dissent.
A note should be made here about targeting. This emergency declaration makes two incredibly sloppy designations, which alone should have been fatal to its ratification by the Board of Supervisors.
First of all, the proclamation geographically defined its area of operation to be the SFPD’s Tenderloin District plus an additional one-block perimeter of that district, yet the Tenderloin accounts for only a little over 20 percent of overdose deaths in San Francisco. In other words, conservatively 75 percent of the overdoses occur outside of the defined geography of the emergency declaration.
The second fraught designation is an inaccurate conflation of drug users and homeless people. The proclamation states that “During this period [March 2020 to the present] there was a significant increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness dying from drug overdoses.” Well, there was also a significant increase in people experiencing homelessness, period, during the pandemic!
Based on the most recent available data, less than a quarter of San Francisco’s homeless residents were unsheltered because of substance abuse, with the broad majority being merely internal economic refugees.
Subtle as it is, this conflation is key to decoding the real politics behind “A Safer San Francisco.” You see, neither London Breed nor any of her enablers actually cares about the health of addicts or homeless people. They are concerned about having to see them.
Based on the most recent available data, less than a quarter of San Francisco’s homeless residents were unsheltered because of substance abuse, with the broad majority being merely internal economic refugees.
If the reverse were true, it wouldn’t have taken 60 years to fund and roll out the localized wrap-around services that have been consistently demanded by users and advocates and which are now being disingenuously claimed as an innovation by the administration. Also, street vendors would not be targeted.
Evidence of this jaundiced perspective is plentiful from the HSOC (Healthy Streets Operations Center) operations pushing people between “Mid-Market” and SOMA and tent confiscations in the middle of a pandemic, to the nudge nudge wink wink lawsuit from UC Hastings in May of 2020 allegedly against the City and County of San Francisco but really targeting a population so impoverished that they couldn’t possibly defend their interests, or the People Cages euphemistically rendered as “Safe Sleeping Sites” which just forced tent dwellers into greater congregation during an infectious disease pandemic safely removed from public view by chain link fences.
A discussion of emergencies is also in order. A 175 percent increase in overdose deaths since 2018 is certainly cause for consternation, though statistically significantly less than the “over 200 percent increase” claimed in Mayor Breed’s emergency proclamation.
It is also reflective of a nationwide trend. Houston still leads in total overdose deaths and Philadelphia has a higher body count specific to fentanyl.
Let’s look at some other numbers for a moment. How about the fact that at the peak of San Francisco’s “COVID-19 Alternative Shelter Program,” only 3,864 people were sheltered in SIP (Shelter-in-Place) hotels or trailers compared to the 8,025 rooms mandated by Emergency Ordinance 69-20, which Mayor Breed and Administrator Kelly simply chose to ignore?
That’s over 100 percent fewer people housed than was legally mandated. To make matters worse, currently fewer than 70 percent of those who got rooms are being served by the successor program.
What about the fact that despite an unprecedented roughly $1.3 billion budgeted by the City towards housing and homeless services during the pandemic, San Francisco saw a roughly 30 percent increase in homeless mortality in the same period? In fact, homeless mortality increased even in year-over-year terms – more than a 10 percent increase from 2020 to 2021 – as compared to overdose deaths, which went down in 2021 for the first time since 2012.
Homeless mortality in San Francisco increased even in year-over-year terms – more than a 10 percent increase from 2020 to 2021 – as compared to overdose deaths, which went down in 2021 for the first time since 2012.
Unlike fentanyl, these are issues specific to Breed’s San Francisco. And if your head is spinning with all the numbers, that is precisely the point because there is not just one solitary emergency to be addressed here. Years of failed policy combined with increasing class stratification, labor dislocation and multiple epidemics have created a complex emergency that requires dynamic, inclusive and multifaceted responses.
Instead, the 45th mayor of San Francisco, much like the 45th president of the United States, has chosen populism and scapegoating, preferring to shore up relations with her moneyed backers rather than address the pain of the People. We’ve seen this movie before. It doesn’t end well.
San Francisco can and must demand better. Trust that many lives depend on it even if you never learn their names.
Investigative reporter Jeremy Miller is co-director of the Idriss Stelley Foundation, part of the POOR Magazine family, organizer with the Black Alliance for Peace and a graduate of San Francisco State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.