by Jesse Clarke and Western Regional Advocacy Project
On July 31, members of the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP) organized a march to the Union Square Business Improvement District in San Francisco to protest the way businesses and local officials use a combination of private security forces and city police to harass and banish homeless people.
Advocates from three states converged on the Union Square Business Improvement District as part of a national campaign to build a multi-state Homeless Bill of Rights and demand the right for all people to engage in the necessary activities of sitting, lying, eating, and sharing food without being criminalized. The march was another essential step in building a movement towards the elimination of poverty and homelessness and advancing the fight for the Right to Rest.
The Western Regional Advocacy Project is coordinating this fight against the criminalization of poor and homeless people’s existence in Colorado, Oregon and California. All three states are considering legislation for a Right To Rest. California’s legislation was authored by Senator Carol Liu, SB 608.
The march kicked off with a boisterous rally at Powell Street BART Station at the cable car turnaround, a San Francisco tourist destination. Weaving through the Friday afternoon commuters, shoppers and tourists, more than 75 protesters waved colorful placards demanding “House Keys Not Handcuffs.”
“We are back to the days of Jim Crow laws and Anti-Okie laws,” said Lisa Marie Alatorre of the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness. “The BIDs are promoting discriminatory policing practices to simply remove people deemed unwanted from certain parts of town. We are marching today to tell the BIDs that we are here to stay and we will have our Right to Rest.”
The marchers moved up Powell Street to the Union Square Business Improvement District office in the heart of San Francisco’s premier shopping district, where they were met by police. Huge cardboard cutouts of jails appeared and protesters spilled off the sidewalk and into the street.
The crowd then moved into Union Square proper where speakers from around the country addressed the problem of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) in their communities. BIDs have been relentlessly policing poor and homeless people for simply existing in public space.
“The Union Square Business Improvement District is not actually interested in creating a safer San Francisco for everyone, but solely interested in protecting the interests of wealthy San Franciscans and keeping poor and homeless people out of sight,” said Coral Feigin of the Western Regional Advocacy Project.
A recent street outreach survey conducted by organizers at WRAP shows that 79 percent of people on the streets who received a ticket from the police assumed that it was a result of their economic status. Also, 74 percent of street-involved people have seen private security guards harassing, policing and displacing people from the public sidewalk. Only 28 percent of people surveyed in San Francisco know of a safe and legal place to sleep.
The vast majority of this harassment has been occurring at locations within Business Improvement District boundaries. Enforcing laws meant to target homeless people is adding more stress to people who are already struggling to survive.
The Union Square BID, which gets 96 percent of its funding from raising property taxes in the district, spends over two million dollars on what it calls “Clean & Safe” expenses such as policing, security cameras and other surveillance technology. The main focus of the BID’s idea of safety involves citing, harassing, incarcerating and displacing poor and homeless people through the discriminatory practices of enforced sit/lie legislation.
As the demonstration came to a close, protesters called for a return to San Francisco to protest BIDs in the near future.
Laws That Banish and Exclude
The United States has a long history of using discriminatory and violent laws to keep “certain” people out of public spaces and out of public consciousness.
Jim Crow laws segregated the South after the Civil War and Sundown Towns forced people to leave town before the sun set. The anti-Okie law of the 1930s in California forbade poor Dustbowl immigrants from entering the state. Ugly Laws swept the country and criminalized people with disabilities for being seen in public.
Today, such laws mostly target homeless people and are commonly called “quality of life” laws or “nuisance crimes.” They criminalize sleeping, standing, sitting, and even food-sharing. Just like the laws from our past, they deny people their right to exist in local communities.
Today’s “quality of life” laws and ordinances have their roots in the broken-windows theory. This theory holds that one poor person in a neighborhood is like a first unrepaired broken window. If the “window” is not immediately fixed or removed, it is a signal that no one cares, that disorder will flourish, and the community will unravel. This theory conceptualizes poor people as “things” to be removed, and not people who are struggling to survive.
BIDS and Political Repression
Nowadays, we have Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) collaborating with police enforcement to keep business neighborhoods flourishing by removing poor people from visible spaces.
BIDs are made up of a group of property and business owners deciding to assess or tax themselves in order to invest in a more “safe and attractive” consumer environment. There are well over 1,000 of these special districts throughout the United States and Canada. Their main function is to drive homeless people away from the BID by hassling them, enforcing the sit-lie law and other discriminatory tactics, and by notifying law enforcement when quality of life offenses are being committed, thus criminalizing homeless and poor people’s existence.
We are right back to Jim Crow Laws, Sundown Towns, Ugly Laws and Anti-Okie Laws. We have gone from the days where people could be told “you can’t sit at this lunch counter” to being told “you can’t sit on this sidewalk,” from “you’re on the wrong side of the tracks” to “it is illegal to hang out” on this street or corner.
We will only win this struggle for social justice if we use our collective strengths, organizing, outreach, research, public education, artwork, and direct actions. WRAP and our allies are continuing to expand our network of organizations and cities and we will ultimately bring down the whole oppressive system of policing poverty and treating poor people as “broken windows” needing to be discarded and replaced. Our liberation is dependent on your liberation.