Ghosts of sit-lie past


Is sit-lie a case of not learning from our mistakes?

An interesting bit of history that for the most part failed to enter the debate over the ordinance is that San Francisco enacted a similar ban on sitting and lying  in public spaces in the late 1960’s (PDF).

Inspired 40 years later by the same neighborhood, the current sit-lie law is a legislative throwback. Back then, Haight Street was a center of controversy as hippies began to arrive in droves – hanging out, singing, dancing and generally occupying the sidewalks. Some business and property owners were apprehensive over the rapid changes to the neighborhood.

The Board of Supervisor enacted the ordinance, which made it a crime to “willfully sit, lie or sleep in or upon any street, sidewalk or other public place,” with a unanimous vote in 1968. Violation carried a fine of up to $500 and a maximum jail sentence of six months.

Then-Mayor Joseph L. Alioto, who signed the ban into law, told the San Francisco Chronicle the ordinance “will not be used to discriminate against any group or person.” His promise echoes the claims of contemporary proponents of sit-lie.

But police used the law to target not only hippies but also gay men in the Castro. The predictable reality of selective enforcement galvanized popular resistance.

Over the next decade, the ACLU sued and managed to overturn parts of the law. "[The original laws] were being used unjustly by the police against people who were considered undesirable,” said Alan Schlosser, legal director of the ACLU, who has been working for the organization since 1976. They were used against Hippies in the Haight, they were used in the Castro and the Tenderloin against the prostitutes.”

Political pressure from a wide coalition, which included Harvey Milk, convinced the board to rescind the ordinance in 1979. In fact, one of Milk's signature campaign issues was stopping police harassment of gay people.

The current law does avoid some of the pitfalls of the old one. The ban only applies to sitting and lying down; the sixties-era law referred to the obstruction of public space. Police are now required to issue a warning, and the punishment for violation is significantly lower. Neither distinction, however, alters the fundamental problem of sit-lie.

The ordinance criminalizes an extremely common behavior, which is in itself harmless. The most vulnerable members of our society depend on public space and are inevitably the most susceptible to getting in trouble into the crosshairs sit-lie enforcement.

Queer activists are once again leading the effort against unfair and unwise regulation of public space. We reported April 11th that self-proclaimed “angry queers” installed handmade benches on city streets as a form of protest art. Likewise, this upcoming May 22nd, which is Milk’s birthday, Queers for Economic Equality Now (QUEEN) will be coordinating sidewalk events against sit-lie in San Francisco and Berkeley.

Tommi Avicolli Mecca who organizes with QUEEN, said “for me it is so thrilling to see two cities doing something against sit-lie and invoking Harvey’s name.”




“The Police Department needs to do its job and enforce the laws that are already on the books,” Supervisor David Campos said."

Read more at the San Francisco Examiner:

Why didn't you so called progressives and your supervisors get on the cops and have them "enforce the laws that are already on the books," over the last ten years? The last ten years that so many of you all are so proud of, now it is to late and you just bitch and moan. Man up.

Posted by maltlock on May. 11, 2011 @ 7:48 pm

uh, the "so called progressives" did tell the cops to "enforce the laws that are already on the books", ie do their jobs. maybe you've heard of something called footpatrols? Which the progressives introduced and EVERYONE else liked as well -- except, of course, for the cops themselves, oh yeah and that so called moderate, Mayor Newsom (who repeatedly vetoed them on the grounds that the supes shouldn't tell the cops how to do their jobs.)

but yeah, crime is the progressives fault. which, I guess means they can take credit for the drop in crime rates, which happened well before sit-lie was law?

matlock, I didn't hearing any bitching or moaning in the column, but I heard a lot in your comment. and you're going to tell someone to "man up"?! that's pretty laughable coming from someone who does nothing of consequence in real life while sitting at a computer posting rude comments online, day after day. "man up" indeed.

Posted by Guest on May. 17, 2011 @ 3:55 am

THose who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it.

Posted by Guest on May. 12, 2011 @ 10:37 am

The tactics that opponents of Prop L used, didn't work. The measure passed by nearly nine percent.

Yet the opponents imagine that if they persist with the same tactics they will get supporters of the measure to change their minds.

A prime example is Tommi Avicolli-Mecca. During the campaign over Prop L, he got his friends to squat on sidewalks in the Castro and be obtrusive, while he plunked his guitar and sang out of tune.

The squatters reminded passers-by of everything they didn't like about people squatting on sidewalks, and they voted in favor of Prop L.

Avicolli-Mecca is again using the same tactics, and with the same result.

The problem goes beyond tactics, however. Avicolli-Mecca and his fellow squatters are in denial about a basic fact.

The people squatting on sidewalks around the city are mostly migratory addicts and alcoholics. They have no money because they spend everything they have, whether much or little, on drugs and alcohol.

Their behavior is toxic to themselves, other people, and the environment. They don't know what they do when they do it, and they have no memory of it later. They're drunk and stoned out of their minds. They often refuse available services.

Avicolli-Mecca and his fellow squatters are enablers of addiction. This is the message they have conveyed to the voters. And the voters have voted accordingly.

Posted by Arthur Evans on May. 17, 2011 @ 9:08 am

Arthur, sit-lie does not in any way shape or form address issues of drugs or alcohol. I think what you're looking for is something called prohibition.

Posted by Guest on May. 19, 2011 @ 5:50 am

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