There’s a lot of lobbying going on these days to push the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to pass a sit/lie law that would make it illegal for anyone to sit or lie on a public sidewalk. A hearing is being held at 10:00 am this morning at the Board’s Public Safety Committee to hear testimony on the proposed law, even though it has not actually been introduced at the Board.
The law is targeted at what conservative SF Chronicle
columnist C.W. Nevius calls the “aggressive punks” in the Haight. These kids are a small minority of those who hang in the neighborhood. Nevius, who doesn’t even live in San Francisco, is supporting sit/lie -- even though a recent, short-lived effort by Police to have a presence on Haight Street produced positive results.
Police won’t assign regular beat officers to walk the Haight, because they say it’s too expensive. More expensive than enforcing a law that will inevitably end up in the courts, costing the City millions to defend?
A similar law in Portland was struck down by the courts. In the case of Los Angeles’ statute, Judge Kim M. Wardlaw, who sits on the Ninth Circuit Court of the Appeals, ruled that without an adequate number of shelter beds for those on the streets, this type of statute constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment,” a clear violation of the Eighth Amendment.
San Francisco’s already had its own version of sit/lie, but it was repealed in the late 70s after a decade of being used to harass hippies in the Haight and gay men in the Castro. Gay activist Harvey Milk opposed the law after a young man was beaten outside of a Castro bar and police arrested him and 13 others for violation of the law. The ACLU, with the support of queer organizations, brought the suit that toppled sit/lie.
San Francisco’s new police chief, George Gascón, doesn’t seem to care about any of that. He’s already had sit/lie legislation drafted by the City Attorney’s Office. He also doesn’t seem to care about the civil rights issues the law raises.
As Alan Schlosser of the Northern California ACLU has pointed out, “It gives police a way to arrest people based entirely on the way they look.” In other words, it’s a form of homeless profiling.
While it probably won’t be used against gay men standing outside of the bars in the Castro, it could be used against homeless queer kids who are not liked by some merchants and neighbors because they think that they drive away tourists and bring down property values.
Likewise, it could be used against day laborers who hang out every morning on the sidewalk in the Mission waiting for work.
Ultimately, a new sit/lie will not solve anything. There are already laws on the books to deal with aggressive or threatening behavior on the street. Sit/lie won’t get anyone into housing or services, but it could negatively impact someone’s chances to get housing if they end up with an arrest record. It won’t stop the troublemakers, it merely forces them to remain standing when they’re causing problems.
The Board should simply say “No” to sit/lie.
Tommi Avicolli Mecca is co-editor of Avanti Popolo: Italians Sailing Beyond Columbus, and editor of Smash the Church, Smash the State: The Early Years of Gay Liberation, which has been nominated for an American Library Association award. His website is www.avicollimecca.com.