Angel — we’ll call him Angel — didn’t see the argument break out. But he could certainly hear it. It was in English, which, he notes, both the warring parties spoke impeccably.
Arguments erupt at 24th Street BART Plaza between vendors all the time. This Aug. 28 fracas was, at its onset, nothing to note: “They were arguing, but I did not pay attention,” Angel recalled later. “I was eating my lunch.”
But then the knife came out.
In the end, 28-year-old Jabaree Harris ended up face-down and dead on the BART platform; it’s not clear how much more quickly police or onlookers would’ve come to a stabbing victim’s aid if he hadn’t been mistaken for one the area’s ubiquitous fentanyl addicts sleeping one off. Plaza regulars recalled Harris as a “nice kid” who peddled shoes and clothes.
His killer fled and remains at large. As best as Angel can tell, the lethal dispute was over a matter of $50, which the aggressor may have taken from Harris.
Nobody can pretend that Harris’ death was unsurprising, or even unpredictable. The 24th Street BART Plaza was never a garden of earthly delights although, for many years, 16th Street was far more problematic: It was the place where trash piled up and drugs were sold openly and the city responded by putting in an intentionally uncomfortable bench and a monolith-sized ping-pong table.
In recent months, however, 24th Street Plaza has devolved into a black-market bazaar, and a fentanyl and needle-drug site. Yes, there are still a very few legitimate vendors on its periphery selling food or handicrafts and, yes, there are folks offering flea market-type stuff. But an awful lot of the sellers hawking in this plaza are selling medications, groceries or toiletries, and clothes obviously swiped from brick-and-mortar stores, perhaps brick-and-mortar stores only a stone’s throw away. This is not a place many paleteros or fruit men want to be, and some are now afraid to be here.
Many sellers only stay long enough to make a quick buck, then hand that money over to a dope dealer (perhaps also on-site); on a recent Thursday, a man was seen selling a jacket out of a Nordstrom sack. He wanted $30 and he got it; he handed a woman $20 in change with his left hand while grasping a glass pipe in his right.
“Honestly, that is my fear,” replies Supervisor Hillary Ronen when asked if the plaza has become the Mission’s Tenderloin.
“The Mission is worse than I’ve seen it since I took office six years ago. We need more street cleaning, we need to deal with graffiti, we need more resources for the people sleeping in the Mission to be given rooms and hotels and safe sleep sites and navigation centers. And we need the vendor law to be enforced. It’s a mess right now, and I’m angry.”
Everybody’s angry, or at least nobody is happy. But you could say the same about the Tenderloin, too — and, despite periodic and oft-farcical “crackdowns,” that neighborhood has suffered through its grim status quo for generations.
Too often, narratives of San Francisco and its meth-poop hell-hole dystopia ignore the fact that crime is, by and large, down — and violent crime is way down. But Mission lifers don’t need to be reminded of this. The 1980s and ’90s were awash in gang-fueled violence and terror that make today’s crime statistics look like a child’s experiment. And still, like Ronen, long-timers say things have never been like this.
The 24th Street Plaza “brings tears to my eyes,” says former supervisor Jim Gonzalez, who assumed office in 1986.
“It’s the worst it’s ever been,” sums up Carlos “Kookie” Gonzalez, no relation, a youthful “Folsom Park Loco” turned probation officer, and now a muralist.
“The Mission is far safer from shootings and robberies,” says a veteran ex-cop who patrolled this neighborhood from the early 1990s to the mid-2000s and is now a regular visitor. “But the overall quality of life has cratered.”
“And that is the irony.”
Irony is a term that’s misused a good bit. But this does sound ironic: A community is terrorized by internecine gang violence, hollowed out by gentrification, re-populated by wealthy arrivistes — and then quality of life goes to shit?
What a Pyrrhic victory for long-timers who stuck it out. But that’s what happened. And these steps weren’t unrelated: Nobody is pining for the return of violent criminal gangs, but petty crooks and drug dealers and addicts of yore would have been wise to avoid setting up shop in broad daylight on Mission Street. Many of the vendors selling suspect goods tell us they’re commuting into San Francisco.
“I hate to say it, but I don’t think this would’ve happened when gangs were prevalent,” summed up Kookie Gonzalez. “They probably wouldn’t have allowed it.”
“My house is in a gang injunction zone,” notes Tracy Gallardo, a neighborhood lifer who serves on the Latino Task Force. “I never had my car broken into. There was never graffiti left on any neighborhood agencies. No one openly did drugs. No one peed on 24th Street in front of kids.”
The scene on the plaza is a source of deep pain for Gallardo; women always endured catcalls, but the situation now has grown menacing. And fentanyl makes everything worse. “You can see it’s just dirty all the time. And a lot of the vendors we want to protect — they’re not even there. They are afraid for their safety, of getting robbed or being charged by someone to be there.”
The lawlessness and chaos escalated to the point that Ronen, in July, asked BART to temporarily fence off the plaza until a functional vendor permitting system could be rolled out.
More than 40 years ago, the urbanist William Whyte concluded that making public spaces inhospitable for “undesirables” actually leads to moving out everyone but “undesirables.” And that’s pretty much what happened: The fences may have limited the number of people on-scene, but pushed the vendors and brazen criminality out of the plaza and into streets already filled with vendors. This crowded bus passengers and BART patrons even more at one of the system’s busiest stops, and did little to alleviate the chaotic scene greeting anyone hoping to walk along an economic corridor lined with mom-n-pop shops.
Last month, activists, for the second time, removed the fencing (and stacked it, neatly, in a corner, which was an unexpected and kind touch). It’s hard to say that fence did much good, but Ronen says she’s never gotten more constituent thank-you notes than after she called for its temporary installation. The situation has clearly grown untenable, and something had to be done.
This, at least, was something.
On Aug. 23, hundreds of community members attended an outdoor meeting convened by more than 20 Mission groups to discuss the future of the plaza.
There were plenty of good ideas to be had, but much is dependent on the enforcement of the city’s newish vendor law and the licensing of vendors to enable that enforcement.
Many people have worked extremely hard to hone the policies meant to make 24th Street Plaza unremarkable again. Nobody should belittle these efforts. But the preliminary assessments are not looking favorable.
To wit: San Francisco Public Works has reported that, as of Aug. 30, it had received 50 permit applications. It has approved four. Enforcement is set to begin on Sept. 12. So, this does not bode well.
Nor do the parameters of the permitting process: For a peddler to receive one, they must have a business license, which requires the aspiring permit-holder to disclose estimated gross receipts and possess a Federal Tax Identification Number.
For many, that will be a challenge. And even if a peddler obtains a business license and vendors permit, that only gives them the right to sell from the sidewalk. Since 24th Street Plaza is on BART land, there’s another permit from the transit agency to sell on the plaza.
And we haven’t even gotten to enforcement: The plan, as it stands, is for Public Works employees to confiscate the goods from scofflaw vendors who refuse to leave the site after being warned. It’s not hard to see problems potentially erupting when that occurs, however — and the role of police in helping to enforce the vendor law was a source of division at that Aug. 23 community meeting.
It’s easy to understand why many Mission locals fear and distrust the police. At the same time, it’s a cruel sort of beneficence to drop potentially confrontational and violent enforcement responsibilities onto the heads of Public Works employees. In essence, it puts a lower-paid and predominantly people-of-color workforce into a situation where it’s being asked to grab and take things predominantly from low-income people of color.
Tough talk about offering drug users a choice of incarceration or treatment falls flat in a city where even addicts who desperately want treatment can’t get it — and where programming, such as drug-treatment, has been more or less curtailed in city jails.
By all means, the “root causes” of poverty, drug addiction and homelessness fueling the chaos at 24th Street Plaza can and must be addressed, but the mantra of “root causes” can’t be trotted out as an excuse to do nothing. The Mission shouldn’t be made to wait for the transformation of all society into a utopia before focusing on this one tract of land. At some point, push will come to shove on this plaza.
Left unsaid is that if drug dealers, users and unlawful vendors set up at, say, Lafayette Park instead of the Mission, the city’s response would lean less toward community meetings and more toward calling in the National Guard.
Mission dwellers know this. As do Tenderloin dwellers, who’ve been made to put up with criminal and antisocial behavior for decades. And, while many in the Mission claim elements from the Tenderloin are merely migrating a couple of BART stops, the truth may be more insidious.
This may not be a migration. It may be an expansion. It’ll take more than a fence to stop that.
Additional reporting from Lydia Chávez and Andrea Valencia.