Imagine you are visiting San Francisco from out of town and find yourself in the Haight. Your legs are exhausted from climbing Coit Tower and walking up Lombard Street, but after seeing no benches around you plop down on a tidy square of sidewalk. Deciding where you would next like to explore while examining your map, a cop approaches you, asking you to move or pay $100. This scenario will become real if the sit/lie law passes.
Last month Mayor Gavin Newsom introduced two separate versions of the sit/lie law, which would require police officers to warn violators and then issue a $100 ticket if they sit or lie on a sidewalk and refuse to move. Repeat offenders would get 30 days in jail. On Monday the law was unanimously voted to affect only commercial strips where the issue is most prevalent, as opposed to the version which applies to the whole city (SF Examiner).
Proponents of the sit/lie law argue that residents don’t feel safe in their own neighborhoods with homeless people on the sidewalks, and that it decreases commercial value, aesthetic value, and quality of life. Laws already exist against aggressive panhandling, drugs, dogs, harassment and blocking the sidewalk. Creating an additional law will only target a vulnerable section of society.
San Francisco’s sit/lie law is modeled after the groundbreaking law instituted in Seattle in 1993. Unlike the San Francisco law, the Seattle one excludes people sitting while observing a parade or protesting. Only 57 people were issued a ticket last year, and new businesses moving in are the only reason why downtown is safer (Seattle PI). The sit/lie law made no contribution to this and no impact on the city, so in addition to being discriminatory, how would it make a difference in another liberal, colorful, seaside town?
Those opposed to the sit/lie law fall into two general camps: those who see constitutional rights challenged and those concerned with profiling. The constitutionality of the sit/lie law has been called into question for going against the first amendment right to a peaceful assembly, though the Seattle one was maintained as constitutional. Though our country was founded on democratic ideals, the sit/lie law would uphold unequal protection under the law and penalize a social minority. This is essentially a form of fascism, punishing those who refuse to assimilate to society.
The Haight has been a specific target of this law, with its runaways and homeless under fire for harassment. Any San Franciscan in support of this law can acknowledge that these youth who contribute to the neighborhood’s character are one of the only things keeping the Haight from becoming bleached and sterilized like other areas of the city. Besides, it seems naïve to attempt to decrease harassment by ensuring people will be up on their feet and closer to your face.
What will happen to tourists sitting on luggage, a boy sitting on his skateboard waiting for a friend, or curb-sitting residents reading in the sun? Common sense says that these people would not receive $100 fines, even though they would be technically breaking the law. This proves that it is really profiling based on appearance.
Genuine safety and respect in one’s own neighborhood are completely reasonable desires, but a law that encourages removing constitutional rights and profiling homeless people is not the way to go about achieving that. If crimes are being committed on the street, like violence or the use of illegal drugs, then those crimes should be individually addressed rather than making everyone sitting on a street corner into a criminal.