Until 2007, hundreds of thousands of revelers would mob the streets of the Castro every year for Halloween, flocking in from across the world for one of the country’s biggest holiday parties.
The streets were closed, Muni lines were rerouted to “Halloween Castro,” and costumed residents dangled out of their bay windows, showing off and greeting those below. Crowds stood shoulder-to-shoulder for blocks in all directions.
“I went to the emergency room, talked to victims, talked to family members, and I looked around and I promised myself, ‘I’m not going to be here next year.’ This is it,” said then-Supervisor Bevan Dufty, speaking last week about the mass shooting. The supervisor and the mayor’s office spent the following year talking to bar owners, meeting with residents, reaching out to reporters, and taking out PSAs, telling everyone: The Castro would no longer host Halloween.
“We had a whole PR campaign, that there was going to be no Halloween in the Castro,” Dufty said. “We had advertising, radio. I met with every bar owner, and we had posters with all the bars’ names that were closing, and signs on the bars that they were closing.”
“We did a full-court press,” he added.
When October 31, 2007, arrived, the revelers, by and large, did not show. “There were almost as many cops as people,” Dufty said. The streets were open to cars, the bars were closed, and the costumes absent: Dufty estimates that fewer than 1,200 attended that year, compared to a 2002 high of some 300,000.
In 2023, however, none of those pre-event measures were taken in advance of another event some city officials wanted to shut down.
When the San Francisco Police Department moved to put the kibosh on the annual Dolores Park hill bomb skateboarding event, the lack of prior outreach and communications was jarring: More than 100 officers were at Dolores Park on Saturday, July 8, shuttering the event the day-of and angering the skaters already there. Officers donned riot gear and charged crowds of unruly teenagers. By the end of the night, 117 people — 83 of them minors — had been arrested, most trapped between lines of officers.
The Dolores hill bomb, an annual tradition among skaters across the Bay Area, sees hundreds “bombing” Dolores Street by going as fast as possible downhill. It has, like Castro Halloween, seen its share of incidents and violence over the years: Police broke up crowds and an ankle in 2017 (the same year a skateboard icon suffered a serious brain injury), a popular skateboarder landed in a coma for two weeks in 2019, a cyclist died in 2020, and a man was stabbed last year.
After the 2020 death, the city installed raised pavement dots on Dolores Street to deter skateboarding. This year, it brought out officers in force.
What it did not do is tell anyone about any of this ahead of time. It did not reach out to skaters, it did not announce its intention to close down Dolores Street. It did not plaster posters in the area — or post on Instagram — warning people to stay away.
“The city and the police should have said well in advance that [the hill bomb] wasn’t going to happen, and informed everyone about that, rather than making a hasty decision that led to opposing forces and mass arrests,” said Supervisor Aaron Peskin. “I think that’s what led to this conflagration.”
Much less did San Francisco actually attempt to sanction the event — as it does for any number of cycling events across the city, for example.
“There should have been general outreach to the skate community, like, ‘Hey, we like the hill bomb, but we have this concern, is there any way we can work this out to deal with some of the grievances of neighbors?’” said Ryen Motzek, the president of the Mission Merchants Association and co-owner of DLX Skateshop on Market Street. “But that discussion never happened. They took it into their own hands, and here we are.”
Amire Lofton, 19, an eight-year skater who was, in the past, the main organizer of the event — an informal role that involves creating an Instagram post announcing the event and watching it go viral — said he and his friends have “never” heard from city officials hoping to sanction the event.
Lofton was at Dolores on Saturday, arriving in the late afternoon to see the police already out and blocking off Dolores Street as more and more skaters arrived to bomb the hill. “They could’ve at least told us something. I had no idea,” he said. “And people kept coming in.”
SFPD response pre-planned
On Saturday, police officers, clad in riot helmets and carrying truncheons, rushed into crowds of young skateboarders, forcing them to scatter and skate and dash away in panic. The initial dispersal orders were, according to police, the result of a sergeant’s injury: A 16-year-old boy spat at the sergeant, the sergeant attempted an arrest, and his 15-year-old girlfriend yelled “Get off him!” and tried to interfere.
Three officers took the boy down and, in the scuffle, the sergeant “suffered lacerations to the face.” The “lacerations” turned out to be a cut, singular, perhaps an inch-long to the forehead. It is unclear what treatment, if any, the sergeant received.
The teens’ arrests prompted anger from the crowd, which threw bottles and lit fireworks. The police then declared an unlawful assembly and marched corner-to-corner across the area. Skaters moved over to the much-steeper Church Street and bombed the hill there; they were chased off. After being forcefully dispersed by police, the crowd spray-painted a J-Church tram, a nearby bus, and the walls of Mission High.
As the police moved block to block, forcing skaters and spectators one way and then the other, a group of more than 200 teenagers was purposefully targeted for arrest and penned between two lines of officers. Many escaped, but more than 100 were arrested.
The enforcement was hasty, chaotic, and ultimately violent — but it does not appear to have been impromptu.
Emails sent on July 3 by a member of the Dolores Park Ambassadors, a group of organized park neighbors, to Mission Station Captain Thomas Harvey show that the member requested Harvey take “proactive steps to shut down this dangerous and thoroughly illegal event.” It is unclear what, if anything, the police captain promised, but he did respond to the member asking to speak further.
Police Chief Bill Scott, for his part, cited “terrified” neighbors when justifying the operation, and said the planned response involved command staff, officers from different units, and a dedicated emergency dispatch channel.
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, on June 22 and 30, installed more raised pavement dots on Dolores Street at the intersection with 20th and Cumberland streets, both at the request of Supervisor Rafael Mandelman’s office, a Muni spokesperson said.
No one, however, bothered to tell any of the skaters that the police would be there, and likely to shut it down. Several veteran skaters and longtime hill bomb participants said they have never seen city officials engage in outreach regarding the Dolores hill bomb.
Dufty, coincidentally, was driving through the area as the chaos was in full swing. “It was wild, how many police there were,” he said. “Nothing but barricades.” But, despite the dozens of officers, Dufty could not get an answer from anyone about what was happening or why — a mistake he said could have been easily remedied with prior outreach.
“There are resources that need to be brought together,” he said. “No matter how difficult the situation is, you’ve gotta talk to people.”
Police contact has lasting effects
It is unclear if ample warning or a sanctioned event would be appealing to the particular crowd that enjoys the Dolores hill bomb. Skaters are a rebellious group, and teenage skaters doubly so.
But the alternative was laid out on July 8, and now more than 100 teenagers and their parents are facing what, for many, is a first brush with the criminal justice system.
“I don’t know how to navigate the system. I don’t know what to do; it’s never happened before,” said Gabriella, a mother of a teenager arrested during the hill bomb. She, like other parents, has been making and fielding calls this past week to understand what consequences her child faces. “It’s confusing, it’s infuriating.”
And, though the majority of those arrested will seemingly not face charges, dozens still may, many of whom are technically adults, but teenagers nonetheless.
The initial arrests are enough to impact teenagers’ future development, to say nothing of subsequent charges, said Subini Annamma, a professor at Stanford whose research focuses on minors caught up in the legal system.
“Any police contact actually increases chances of kids’ grades dropping in school, and increases chances of kids dropping out of school, and that should make us rethink sending police to be the first responders when kids are doing something we don’t like,” she said.
The city’s elected leaders, for their part, have been largely silent. Supervisor Dean Preston has been the most outspoken, calling the arrests “an abuse of power, waste of money, and trauma inflicted on our young people.” He has demanded an investigation. And Board President Peskin, for his part, acknowledged that to be arrested is inherently “traumatic,” and that there were likely many teenagers swept up in the kettling who had nothing to do with the illegal acts that day. “For that, I’m sorry,” he said.
District 8 Supervisor Mandelman, whose district includes the park and hill bomb street, defended the police response, as did Mayor London Breed. Supervisor Joel Engardio said he was awaiting the results of SFPD’s presentation this Wednesday during the Police Commission, when parents and teens are once again expected to testify.
No other supervisors responded to requests for comment.
For the parents and teenagers, inchoate anger may yet give away to financial remuneration. The treatment for the teens detained that day, however, has left a lasting impression.
“I never liked cops, but it’s one thing to hear about it and see it; it’s a completely other thing to experience it,” said Eriberto Jimenez, 16, who was arrested that night. “Now, I’m quite anxious around any kind of police officer, especially after being zip-tied and held for five hours.”
“We were scared and angry at the same time,” added Lofton, the one-time organizer of the hill bomb, “because we felt like we were being bullied, pushed around like cockroaches.”