San Francisco District 8, Castro Supervisor, Scott Wiener has released an ugly blueprint: an ordinance in search of a problem that threatens to turn the Castro into a First-Amendment-free zone.
Sometimes it can be small, local issues or ordinances that can impact the narrative – if not set it – in a broader state, national or international context.
The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests that began in Zuccotti Park, and spread like wildfire across the country, and then internationally, demonstrated this perfectly.
Rumors of a coordinated effort among 18 mayors and the Department of Homeland Security were unintentionally confirmed by Oakland mayor, Jean Quan, in an interview with the BBC (excerpted on The Takeaway radio program–audio of Quan starts at the 5:30 mark), just before a wave of violent raids against OWS encampments across the country. The success of the Occupy movement represents a threat. A national threat, apparently, to be countered locally.
San Francisco has been a hotbed of protest and politics, and anyone who knows anything about San Francisco history is aware of the relationship between gay rights and the iconic Castro district. From Harvey Milk’s historic campaign for Supervisor, his election and tragic assassination in 1978 to the riots following Dan White’s puny sentence for the assassination, as well as the powerful mobilization of Act Up, the Castro has shone as an international model for its thriving community and the political power it has wielded in the interest of its primarily gay residents.
From fiery political speeches, candlelight vigils, victories and defeats, the Castro has brought the community together in sickness and in health. A place where women in suits mingle with Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Where politicians know to embrace diversity as an election imperative. Not because of national gay organizations setting up shop to drain money better served filling local coffers. Nor because of its stores selling over-priced rainbow colored crap using protectionist trade practices under the guise of history, more concerned with what you buy for the Matthew Shepherd memorials than the tears you cry.
The powerful draw of the Occupy movement and the global condemnation of the often heavy-handed, violent response have local governments across the country scrambling for solutions. The First Amendment is under attack with unprecedented firepower, as the protections it affords its citizens to assemble and protest, and the press to observe and report, is being trampled on with jackboots, pepper-spray, rubber bullets and tear gas.
Against this backdrop, San Francisco District 8, Castro Supervisor, Scott Wiener, perhaps the most insipid and uninspiring in the colorful seat’s history, is proposing an ordinance that would have Mike Bloomberg wet-dreaming, were he to get his hands on it. Wiener’s biggest claim to fame, to date, has been to save San Francisco from nudists without towels to place between their butts and public seating. Seriously.
His latest attempt, however, is a lot more alarming. A stupefying, muddled, impossible to follow or enforce, unconstitutionally vague piece of garbage that hands over any control over, or responsibility for the district he was elected to serve, and gives it to to the Director of the Department of Public Works .
A local fight over control of the giant rainbow flag that flies over the Castro, located in Harvey Milk Plaza, has been simmering for ten months between activists and the politically powerful Merchants of Upper Market and Castro (MUMC), over an alleged “agreement” with the city’s Department of Public Works (DPW), unable to be produced by either party in spite of he city’s powerful Sunshine laws. A meeting between activists and DPW scheduled for October 26, 2011 at City Hall was abruptly cancelled at Wiener’s behest. What seems local and petty on the surface offers a sobering view of what happens when representation of corporate interests trumps the desire of citizens to express themselves legally.
Wiener’s behavior, and bizarre release of an ordinance in search of a problem has done little other than actually precipitate an Occupy Castro demonstration. His interference that resulted in the termination of a meeting between activists and DPW is blatantly personal, and likely in retaliation for a September 11th anniversary event honoring Flight 93 hero Mark Bingham in the very plaza he seeks to regulate into obliteration.
Despite resistance by MUMC to any efforts to lower the flag, and despite Wiener ignoring repeated requests by activists to get involved in brokering the dispute, he had no qualms making political hay once the successfully organized commemoration was in full swing. But the microphone was intercepted by Michael Petrelis, an organizer of the event, before Wiener reached it. Excoriating him for his hypocrisy and lack of leadership, in front of media hordes, San Francisco mayor, Ed Lee, and other San Francisco power brokers, Wiener’s subsequent speech was an excruciating, cringe-inducing embarrassment.
What could have served for a model for all jurisdictions in San Francisco, and what the city needs, is an ordinance designed to advance and protect freedom of expression and clarify to activists, celebrants, the general public, and anyone seeking to enjoy their rights to free expression, or to peaceably assemble how to best do so. And instructions for law enforcement that balance public safety with free speech. That, however, would have required leadership.
Wiener’s proposed ordinance is an ugly blueprint. Attacks on the homeless and the city’s most vulnerable citizens, along with lack of affordable housing and healthcare require more community involvement than ever. It threatens to choke the Castro’s creativity, silence the rich and diverse voices, and turn the vibrant nightlife into a petty, curfew controlled, First-Amendment-free zone. And of course, where Occupations can be killed before they even begin.
This is what a sanitized, consumerist Dinseyfication looks like. Anyone who respects the Castro’s rich political history should decry this ordinance, and get Scott Wiener the hell out office before he actually inflicts some serious damage. San Francisco Supervisors are often derided for their silliness, not always without good reason, but the office of the Supervisor is not a playground for local merchant group hacks or gangly, amateur-hour politicians with bruised egos exacting revenge or treating the First Amendment as a political toy to advance their unpromising careers.
The biggest question is whether Wieners proposed ordinance is a purposeful, cunning, barely disguised First Amendment attack aimed to arm San Francisco in advance or a stunningly ignorant and misguided attempt to score political points without realizing the dangerous precedent it can inflict with the stroke of a pen.
The national conversation that began with OWS continues, but it’s on a local level where many of the battles will be fought and victories won.
I am one of the activists who believe that control over the flagpole by MUMC, regardless of an agreement or lack thereof with DPW, threatens the First Amendment rights of activists for whom commemoration and acts of solidarity along with the resulting education and action, are more important the consumerist arguments made by MUMC. I support MUMC having some role as well, but not one that lacks consensus, consistent application and transparency. I was also supposed to attend the meeting on October 26, 2011 with Amy L. Brown, Acting City Administrator for the City and County of San Francisco, which was abruptly cancelled by her assistant with no explanation.
Clinton Fein is an internationally acclaimed author, artist, and First Amendment activist, best-known for his 1997 First Amendment Supreme Court victory against United States Attorney General Janet Reno. Fein has also gained international recognition for his Annoy.com site, and for his work as a political artist. Fein is on the Board of Directors of the First Amendment Project, “a nonprofit advocacy organization dedicated to protecting and promoting freedom of information, expression, and petition.” Fein’s political and privacy activism have been widely covered around the world. His work also led him to be nominated for a 2001 PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award.
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