Last week, a stone-faced and emotional Mayor London Breed stood before a phalanx of cameras and denounced the longstanding conditions of filth, misery and overt dope-dealing and drug use in the Tenderloin.
The mayor spoke at the decibel level and using the vocabulary you might expect her to use behind closed doors or on the other end of an irate phone call, not at a press conference that would, soon, be touted as a national bellwether regarding a change of attitude toward crime and policing — even in “liberal San Francisco.”
Breed called for a police crackdown in the Tenderloin, and called for street drug-users to be offered a choice between treatment and incarceration.
San Franciscans, she summed up, need to be “less tolerant of all the bullshit that has destroyed our city.”
One day later, the city announced its first two-year budget surplus since 1998. Yes, the wealth disparities in San Francisco are either comical or obscene, depending on how you look at it, but this would indicate the mayor should probably redefine what she means by both “destroyed” and “our city.”
And, three days after that, the mayor and everyone who was anyone wended their way through the rubble and twisted wreckage to attend the new Matrix premiere at The Castro Theater. Like periodic crackdowns on the longstanding filth, misery and overt dope-dealing and drug use in the Tenderloin, it appears the Matrix is back.
Forgive me if I get the synopsis of The Matrix wrong, but the conceit of these films is essentially that we’re all living a simulated existence orchestrated by malevolent computers who are harvesting us as a power source. Or something like that; kung fu and freeway chases are involved. And no one would be the wiser, except when some manner of anomaly occurs, tipping us off that we’re living within a vast simulacrum. This is a “glitch in the Matrix.”
And, I’ll be damned if that didn’t happen during Breed’s Dec. 14 blood-and-thunder press conference. During the mayor’s stentorian announcement, wedding parties in the background posed for goofy pictures in front of the big City Hall Christmas tree. And, finally, during the crescendo of the mayor’s speech, a woman in a slinky white dress with a Kim Novak bottle-blonde hairdo materialized over Breed’s right shoulder.
These, for all the world, felt like a glitch in the Matrix. Regardless, we are living in a simulacrum. All of the subsequent coverage — referring to a rapidly evolving and still largely inchoate set of goals as a “plan;” enabling cheap populism and breaking things down into an artificial “progressives vs. moderates” binary; ignoring decades of alternating periods of crackdowns and neglect in the Tenderloin — has both obscured the truth and taken us farther from it.
The truth is, a humanitarian crisis exists in the Tenderloin, and has for decades. And, faced with this generational crisis, San Francisco’s response in recent weeks has been to politicize the issue and launch dueling press conferences.
So, San Franciscans should be less tolerant of all the bullshit that has destroyed our city. But the bullshit in question isn’t crime in the Tenderloin; it’s bad government.
Mayor Breed’s “plan” was not carried down from Mt. Sinai carved in stone. As recently as Dec. 21, the “plan” being described to supervisors was for police to serve as the lead agency in contacting street drug users, asking them to go to a “linkage site” where they could receive services or referrals — or face the consequences a police officer can deliver when you’re caught with drugs or drug paraphernalia.
This tracks with what Breed said last week, and has continued to say. The mayor didn’t attend today’s lengthy command-performance special board meeting, at which the supes, in the witching hour, approved her declaration of emergency in the Tenderloin. But the mayor’s underlings were mandated to show, and they walked back her repeated statements.
This has been happening in both public and private: Throughout this week, multiple sources tell us that the “plan” had shifted. Following extreme pushback, the idea is now that groups other than law enforcement will make initial contact with the homeless and/or drug-users, and find ways to get them to the “linkage site” that don’t involve threats of incarceration or having their belongings appropriated.
As for a “linkage site,” this appears to be something akin to a Navigation Center without the housing element, or a 21st-century drunk tank. At the beginning of the week, it was described by police as a “big tent on UN Plaza.” Then police sources began using the term “sobering tent.” And now it’s a “linkage center.”
I am told it’ll have beds for about 100 people to sober up. Just how expediently people can be “linked” to services is something of the $64,000 question. Whether people who are “linked” to services here will bigfoot out needy people being referred from elsewhere, a longstanding complaint tied to Navigation Centers, also remains to be seen.
Will you be able to discreetly use drugs there? Without that offer, drug users would be likely to keep shooting up in the streets of the Tenderloin or simply relocate to a neighborhood not under the microscope. Well, let’s put it this way: If you’re allowed to do that, nobody is saying so on the record.
“There is no plan.”
That was the answer, earlier this week, when your humble narrator asked a high-ranking police source what “the plan” was regarding the mayor’s call for a greater law-enforcement presence in the Tenderloin.
“Putting a bunch of cops out there? That’s a plan? Whatever,” the veteran officer continued. “Bringing more cops into the district? To do what? Be scarecrows?”
In fact, Tenderloin residents tell me, the city’s move to push dealers out of areas like vacant lots has, bewilderingly, resulted in drug markets moving from isolated spots to residential neighborhoods.
The call for more police resources naturally begets questions about what’s being done with present resources. The Tenderloin is a realm that’s far from bereft of cops or drug-dealers. San Francisco has, apparently, rethought the benefit of arresting and incarcerating the addicted and/or mentally ill. But dealing is still rampant. In the year The Matrix came out, 1999, San Francisco police made 9,036 drug-related arrests. In 2019, they made 573, and in 2020, they made 537.
The Tenderloin was awash in narcotics and misery 20 years ago, when cops were making 25 citywide drug-related arrests a day. And that remains the case now, with the cops making 1.5 such arrests per day. Clearly, this is a more complex situation calling for more complex analysis and multifaceted “plans.” And, clearly, “scarecrow” policing could just lead to dealers and drug-users, who are not stupid, relocating to other neighborhoods. Breed’s declaration of emergency, which the Board of Supervisors weighed in on today, applies only to the Tenderloin, not to adjacent SoMa or the Mission.
(After a marathon session of public comment , the supes, at 12:17 a.m. on Christmas Eve, passed the 90-day order after a 10-and-a-half hour meeting. The only dissenting votes were Shamann Walton and Dean Preston; Aaron Peskin was absent ).
Just what the hell extra cops would do, then, is a complicated discussion. It demands the analysis of both whether the SFPD, with its mind-blowingly bloated command staff of 14, is competent to undertake this action in the Tenderloin, and if this is the kind of action the police should be called upon to undertake.
Clearly, this discussion has not yet taken place; our reporting indicates that, as of mid-week, no specifics had trickled down to either high-level officers or the street-level cops who’d be tasked with “fixing” the Tenderloin.
Regarding the police, they “have to show up if a plan does exist,” said a longtime city politico. “If it’s not articulated, that’s a problem. And even if it is, you still need buy-in.”
Absent the public-relations element, it makes little sense for Breed to state that, as of late December, 2021, conditions in the Tenderloin have grown so dire that an emergency must be declared, immediately, and our elected officials must be recalled from winter recess to vote on her declaration (at a meeting she did not attend).
It’s not that conditions aren’t dire or that an emergency declaration is misbegotten. It’s that this condition is not new; the city neglected the Tenderloin so egregiously last year, it was forced into a humiliating settlement with UC Hastings.
The Tenderloin was awash in drugs and misery 20 years ago. It was awash in drugs and misery damn near 40 years ago, when your humble narrator’s father brought him along for an eye-opening visit to the since-shuttered Central YMCA on Golden Gate Avenue. Yes, the drugs are worse now, and the outcomes are often worse. But it’s been bad, and it’s been bad for a long time.
So, declaring an emergency now and forcing city officials to rapidly bang out a series of half-formed plans in a succession of hair-on-fire sessions and then hurriedly vote on it at a special winter break meeting? This is bad government.
It is bad government to have allowed the untenable situation in the Tenderloin to fester for years, and then demand sweeping emergency powers to cut through “red tape” — “red tape” it appears nobody ever really attempted to previously cut through.
You are not going to craft the best possible plan via this ridiculous and constrained process, especially regarding an intractable and multifaceted problem like crime and drugs in the Tenderloin. It’s deeply disappointing that our city’s powers-that-be couldn’t meet and hammer out a real plan, or even attempt to do so, and that it didn’t happen years ago.
But the public relations element was never absent. And our mayor, who has been mayor since 2018, was lauded locally and nationally for her December, 2021, statements regarding longstanding problems in the Tenderloin, problems everyone seems to feel have only grown worse under her watch. Her statements came at a time when, rather than pushing laudatory stories on this city’s covid response, national outlets have been reporting on brazen crime and drug use.
Voters are riled up about crime and safety; they’re riled up about filth and quality-of-life issues. These are all issues directly under the aegis of this city’s strong mayor. And, once again, the onus has been deflected to the Board and the District Attorney. That’s clever. But, in and of itself, it won’t make a whit of difference for the people of the Tenderloin.
There’s a difference between politics and government. In San Francisco, we excel at the former, but not at the latter. That’s a glitch. That’s bullshit. And it’s destroying our city.