In a wide-ranging and sometimes emotional meeting Tuesday night, some Mission residents floated proposals to maintain order at the 24th Street BART plaza that included nixing the $439 fees for vendor permits and opening a flea market in a public space.
More mixed were the opinions on how to secure the plaza and enforce any restrictions. Should it be the police, or perhaps community ambassadors?
Already, District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen and Calle 24 Latino Cultural District, a local nonprofit that has been working with Ronen and the vendors, have been considering the fee waiver and a flea market. But security continues to be a contentious issue.
One meeting participant recalled an armed robber demanding her husband give up all the money he had. Another woman, Yolanda, 60, said she was grabbed on the way to her 3 a.m. shift. A friend stepped in to help her.
“To the people who said, ‘No police,’ I ask you: For your wife, your daughter that goes out [at night], who will defend them?”
Mario Paz, the executive director of the Good Samaritan Family Resource Center, added: “The short-term, stopgap solution is, we need to work to remove that threat. And that means involving the police.”
Spectators immediately cut Paz off and clamored in displeasure, some rising from their seats. Paz attempted to continue, but left the mic before elaborating.
Several attendees, especially youth, were quick to criticize such sentiments, and argued that police officers have disproportionately killed and harmed Latinx and Black residents. In the Mission alone, police have shot and killed Matthew Hoffman, Luis Gongora Pat and Jesus Adolfo Delgado Duarte in the past decade.
“I have never seen the police help anybody,” said one elder in Spanish, who has lived here since the ’90s.
“There’s a big division among those who think the police should be involved or not,” said Rut Hernandez, 21, in Spanish. “We’ve read a lot of Latino stories about people who defend us without police involvement. It’s something we hope you consider.”
Hernandez also asked the younger generation to consider why their elders believed the police help. “My solution is ambassadors,” said Hernandez, suggesting non-police officers protect the plaza.
The fences that went up a month ago were meant as a temporary solution to curb the sometimes chaotic vending at the plaza and the sidewalks surrounding it. Once up, the vending remained on the sidewalks along the plaza’s perimeter, but last week a group — possibly affiliated with @ missiondefence_sf, or DeFENCE Coalition on Instagram — removed the fence in protest.
That was the same day the new vendor permitting system was online for the first time. The Tuesday night meeting, billed as “Community solutions hosted by Community” and put on by more than 20 Mission organizations, came days after the fence on the northeast plaza came down.
No one at the meeting suggested putting the fence back up, but many had suggestions and opinions on the plaza.
“My kids are out there stepping on needles,” said William Ortiz-Cartegena, a city Small Business Commissioner and one of several local leaders who played a role in facilitating what he and others called a “dialogue” about the plaza.
Cesar, a vendor who sells artisanal crafts, has worked in the Mission for decades and raised his kids in the Mission. He encouraged vendors to get certified with the new permits that the Department of Public Works began processing late last week.
Ronen pushed for the permits, and Calle 24 agreed to be a community partner to help educate vendors about the program.
“The police have helped us get these,” Cesar said, referring to how police officers accompanied Calle 24 and city workers during permit education. “These can keep us stable.”
Calle 24 submitted 50 permit applications, all asking for a waiver of the fees, earlier this week.
As the meeting went on under the tents at the Capp and 24th Street health site run by the Latino Task Force and UCSF doctors, vending continued a block away at the plaza.
At least a dozen vendors sat in front of sheets of cardboard or blankets spread with tubes of toothpaste and other goods on the northeast plaza. None of those interviewed knew about the meeting or seemed interested in attending. “I’m going to be late for class,” said Kerry who sold, among other sundries, Chase Bank pens that he said he picked up at the bank for free, and small tubes of toothpaste that, he said, dentists give away for free. He did not say where the large tubes of toothpaste and other items came from. The permit system, he said, “sounded hella hard.”
Back at the meeting, the conversation veered between the micro issues of vendors selling what appear to be stolen goods, and the macro issues of economic disparity that the plaza represents.
Longtime Mission activist Maria Cristina Guiterrez, the executive director of Compañeros del Barrio preschool and a Frisco Five hunger striker, opened the meeting, saying that the fence and plaza are indicative of systemic problems like “violence, extortion, unemployment, homelessness, lack of access to healthcare and jobs.”
The community, not politicians or nonprofits, needed to determine an answer. “The solutions are not going to happen in one meeting alone. Let’s not fool ourselves,” she said and, like many of the speakers, addressed the crowd in both English and Spanish.
As poverty increased during the pandemic, the 24th Street BART Plaza became especially crowded with street vendors attempting to survive economically. Some were longtime vendors who sold handmade wares; others openly admitted to stealing goods, and have extorted legitimate vendors, threatened violence to pedestrians, and littered the plaza. Increasingly, the plaza became home to the latter because long-time vendors felt threatened by the scene, Calle 24 Executive Director Susana Rojas said in July.
Ronen and Calle 24 said the permit system would be enforced and primarily led by city Public Works staff, but they would be accompanied by police officers. Interim Mission Police Capt. Michael McEachern has been informed of all plans.
“I have lived in the Mission 33 years,” said Jorge William Bermudez in Spanish at the community meeting. “The danger hurts San Francisco’s ability to be a tourist attraction. I’m too scared to buy pupusas. That fear will be contagious.”
Bermudez’s thoughts were echoed by older parents and business owners, many of whom wanted police to handle individuals on the plaza engaging in crime.
But many resisted the idea of police surveillance.
Two hours later, as Guiterrez predicted, the meeting had not led to actionable solutions. However, a previously blank posterboard was full of everyone’s thoughts, and a second meeting was scheduled.
Afterwards, locals chatted with each other, but most stayed in their own groups. Hernandez engaged in civil debate about policing with Paz, who had been cut off when he suggested that police should help. Next, Hernandez discussed police with an elder Latina who wanted to challenge Hernandez’s beliefs. They did not agree by the end. But they were talking.
As the meeting ended, vending on the plaza continued
Just after 8 p.m. on the northeast 24th Street plaza and a block from the meeting, the fence remained down. Keely Felan arranged her items on a neat blanket: A “Dirty Dancing” record and a few toys. “Buy one, get one free,” she shouted.
Each item was something Felan found, she said, adding that she lives in a “tent city” on Cesar Chavez Street. The extra bucks allow her a meal or two.
Behind Felan, a man opened a backpack. “Party time,” he yelled, and pulled out dozens of liquor bottles, pressing a customer to buy two for $30. “They are worth $140 at Safeway,” he said, telling a companion they were stolen.
A Cantonese woman surveyed the plaza’s vendors with a wad of dollar bills, looking for her next purchase. An older woman who was selling random items yelled, “Get the fuck away from me!” at certain customers who approached her display of goods. She then smashed a liquor bottle on the sidewalk.
“Ugh, ruins it for the whole bunch,” Felan said as she watched the scene. She then added, sympathetically, that there is a lot of mental illness.
The Mission is a better place to sell than Civic Center, she said, because there’s less drug use here. “It’s more family-like here,” she added.
Felan is against permits. “It’s like the War on Drugs again. There’s gotta be a better way … a farmers market?”
She was not against a police presence, “as long as they just check around and keep the area clear.”
Mostly, she said, she just wished folks would pick up their trash and “keep it nice for everybody. There’s some great deals out here. Laundry soap. Makeup. It’s awesome.”