Sweeping Away Human Rights and Protesting for Social Justice

Food Not Bombs serves dissent at SF City Hall Reopening Ceremony

Police sweeps have returned as the official policy on homelessness in San Francisco. In keeping with political tradition, Willie Brown has resorted to the tired tactic of using police to ticket, arrest, and harass homeless people in public spaces in an attempt to win votes under the guise of ‘doing something’ about homelessness. Like his predecessors, Art Agnos and Frank Jordan, Brown has entered his reelection year in office with ‘get tough’ policies that make headlines and garner approval from downtown business, but do nothing to improve the situation for poor people. Police sweeps have been on the rise all over San Francisco – in the Haight, the Castro and Union Square in particular. By December, the police sweeps were launched in full force in Civic Center in preparation for the reopening of City Hall. City Hall had been closed for upgrade, restoration and retrofitting since early spring of 95. Over 300 million dollars had been spent on City Hall, including 4 to 5 hundred thousand dollars for gold plating on City Hall’s dome. Using the policy of ‘zero tolerance’ (i.e. if you look poor and aren’t white, then you will be questioned), the police forced people out. Additionally, all of the benches in Civic Center were removed and using enormous lights, the entire plaza was lit up throughout the night to prevent sleeping.

On January 5th, City Hall reopened and was kicked off with a ceremony lead by Mayor Brown. The ceremony took place across the street in Civic Center and all signs of poverty had been removed – the reality of failed homeless policy, the effects of welfare reform and economic inequality had been hidden to make way for the photo opportunities of a triumphant ceremony of city politics as usual. However, Food Not Bombs decided to ‘celebrate’ the reopening of City Hall with an all day protest and community meal for poor people.

For years, Food Not Bombs had served free food across from City Hall in Civic Center. By sharing food in a high profile area and visibly protesting against poverty and the criminalization of poor people, FNB was targeted by Mayors Agnos and Jordan for arrest and political repression. Since the closing of City Hall, the group has been sharing food in United Nations Plaza. With the reopening, FNB returned to Civic Center in an effort to both draw attention to the social injustice of poverty and to protest the city’s punitive attacks against homeless people.

From 9 am to about 7:30 pm FNB served on the opposite side of Civic Center from where the ceremony was held. With two large banners reading “Food Not Bombs” and “Visibility is a Human Right”, FNB served breakfast, lunch and dinner, distributed literature, engaged hundreds of people walking by and created a safe space for poor people to return to Civic Center after being forcibly removed. While the number of servers/protesters never exceeded a dozen or two, hundreds of people received food and literature and many stopped to read the banners and get an alternative perspective on city politics.

“Virtually every passer by remarked on the importance of our mission – to feed people and thereby make the clear statement that government is failing in it’s mandate,” commented Rg Goudy, a workfare worker and member of People Organized To Win Employment Rights, the Coalition on Homelessness and FNB. Goudy as stated that he was “amazed at the press interest in FNB’s historic, visual and vocal return to Civic Center”. While there was much press interest, there was also concern from the police which included a surprise visit from the City’s Health Department to inform FNB that it was conducting an illegal activity.

Sasha, an activist with FNB, later said, “By the amount of attention we got early-on in the day, it was apparent that we had touched a nerve in city government. Willie’s dream seemed to be a City Hall for it’s upper class tastes to serve the upper class people who run the city. We served as a reminder to everyone’s conscience that it’s wrong to have dessert at the expense of someone else’s dinner.”

Tai Miller, who recorded much of the event for Free Radio, wondered “why we let them take our tax money to build a monument to people who are so boring while others of us starve”. Miller, a long-time activist with FNB and the Industrial Workers of the World, also wondered, if City Hall belongs to the people, as the Mayor stated during the ceremony, why were poor people forced away. “Such is life in the capitalist world,” she said.

Now that City Hall is reopened, poor people are still being cleared out of Civic Center and at the end of January, the Board of Supervisors under the impetus of Amos Brown have voted to increase the police sweeps in United Nations Plaza. Amos Brown who has argued that SF’s homeless problem is due to “compassion overload” and the generosity of the city, has repeatedly called for increased punitive measures against homeless people and “zero-tolerance”. Homeless people are being pushed into the neighborhoods as police make their presence felt in the plazas and parks. Politicians like Amos Brown have turned the public debate away from the lack of affordable housing, lack of drug treatment programs, lack of decent paying jobs, and other economic and social dynamics onto issues of personal behavior and individual conduct.

Fortunately, protests have been taking place throughout February. The Coalition on Homelessness held a “Have A Heart” rally for Valentine’s Day at City Hall. A group of almost 100 people went into City Hall and visited the Board of Supervisors and the Mayor with chants of “L-O-V-E”, “Have a change of heart”, and my person favorite “Stop in the name of love”. All supervisors who supported the police sweeps were given broken hearts, while the three who opposed the sweeps were given beautiful valentines. Religious Witness For Homeless People also held a rally denouncing the police sweeps and political rhetoric that attacks homeless people. On Feb. 17th, over 150 people rallied at Civic Center and kicked off a 21 day fast to protest the enormous amount of housing available in the Presidio that could be given to homeless people. Over 250 people are currently fasting (as this article is written). Some people are fasting one day, while others are fasting on a liquid diet all 21 days. The fast has garnered mainstream media and has been accompanied with daily vigils in front of City Hall.

Public protests, like those of Food Not Bombs, the Coalition on Homelessness and Religious Witness, aim to bring the public debate back to the real issues of economic inequality, misplaced priorities and the need to address social issues like homelessness with social and economic justice.

The slogan “Homes Not Jails” rings painfully true as the government spends more and more money on prisons to warehouse the poor, and San Francisco looks to “crack-downs” and police sweeps as answers to economic inequality and homelessness.

For more information please call SF Food Not Bombs at 415.292.3235.