It was a classic Joe Konopka moment. The anti-drug activist and his friend Freddy Batres were out patrolling the streets of Konopka's neighborhood one evening looking for "Fat Tony," one of the Haight's major dealers. The two were side by side but it was Konopka, founder of "Residents Against Druggies" or RAD — a group devoted to pushing drugs out of the Haight — who saw a deal going down and got on his two-way radio to bring police out to the scene.
What Konopka did next still amazes Batres to this day, some 10 years later. "Joe went right in front of him and started talking to (Fat Tony) nicely until the police arrived," Batres says.
The dealer was arrested on outstanding warrants, and Batres remembers the night as a turning point on RAD's controversial war on drugs in the Haight, a famously tolerant neighborhood widely known as the birthplace of hippie counterculture. "I got a lot of respect for that man," Batres says, adding that crime in the neighborhood dropped dramatically after Joe put the dealer in jail.
But that was back in the mid-1990s, during the heyday of Konopka and his Residents Against Druggies crusade when Joe believed he could parlay his activism into a seat on the Board of Supervisors. RAD gradually stopped patrolling and faded away —just as Joe Konopka did about seven years ago. That was when he lost his second bid for the Board of Supervisors, in 2000. Afterward, he all but vanished from the public eye until this past July, when the 65-year-old Konopka was found dead inside the Ashbury Street home he shared with his wife of more than 30 years, Ethel.
When homicide inspectors arrived at the couple's house that night — after emergency dispatchers received two 911 calls from Konopka's cell phone — they saw Konopka lying facedown on the bed in the master bedroom wearing black leather fur-lined restraints on his wrists and ankles. A black hood covered his face and head. A rope tied to the bed was wrapped around his feet, up to his wrists, and around his neck.
A week later, police arrested a 40-year-old drug user who, according to a friend, became a bondage and discipline, or B&D, escort mainly to finance his heroin habit. But what's unclear is whether this was a bondage session gone wrong or, as prosecutors say, murder.
During the 1990s, Haight residents complained of a crack epidemic sweeping the neighborhood. The longtime hippie crowd, known to cruise Haight Street looking to buy or sell "buds" and "doses," had given way to a crowd looking for harder drugs.
Joseph B. Konopka Jr., a food management consultant, was one of those disillusioned people who moved to San Francisco not long after the Summer of Love. Konopka himself acknowledged that he'd come to Haight-Ashbury "to do drugs" in the 1970s, but believed things had gotten out of hand. "We don't care if you do drugs. We're just saying don't do it on our streets," he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1993.
In his view, the Haight was disintegrating. It wasn't just the drugs that infuriated him — he was also a major critic of what he described as an epidemic of public defecation in the neighborhood. At one point, he even hung a sign on his front stoop that read, "Do Not Crap on My Stairs."
In 1993, Konopka gathered about 150 people from the area into the auditorium of the Urban School. At the meeting he spoke of how neighborhood groups were sprouting up in cities across the country to take back the streets. He told them of author and longtime narcotics agent Michael Levine and his book Fight Back: How to Take Back Your Neighborhood, Schools and Families From the Drug Dealers. Levine urged ordinary citizens to fight drugs by targeting users, recommending everything from peer pressure to scare tactics to make them stop taking drugs — or at least push them elsewhere. Resident Karen Crommie remembered the moment in a recent newsletter article written for the Cole Valley Improvement Association in honor of Konopka: "He paused and looked across the faces of those sitting in the bleacher seats and said, 'If you want to follow the neighborhood patrol program of Michael Levine, stay. If you don't, leave now.'"
At the meeting, Residents Against Druggies was born.
Neighbors who joined RAD started donning matching T-shirts and caps in a distinctive lime green that was almost neon (dubbed "RAD green" among members) and patrolling the neighborhood looking for drug crimes and suspicious activity. Joe Konopka even brought in members of the Guardian Angels, the worldwide organization of civilian crime patrollers, to train RAD in everything from self-defense to how to spot drug dealers and buyers. Neighborhood patrollers with RAD focused on taking a nonconfrontational approach. They made their neon-clad presence known and kept notebooks filled with observations, but crimes in progress were usually not interrupted but rather called into "home base," where someone waited by the telephone to call the police.
Konopka's wife, Ethel, did more than stand by her man. She was a RAD patrol leader, known for delving into some of the toughest situations. At times, she even helped other groups like the Guardian Angels patrol in gritty neighborhoods, such as the Tenderloin.
The Konopkas, who organized social events as well as RAD meetings, were praised for helping to create a sense of community. This was especially true of Joe. "What he gave me was the sense that this was a neighborhood," says Susan Strolis, a former RAD member who's now a board member on the Haight Ashbury Improvement Association. "He gave a sense of neighborliness and community in an urban setting. So often, you don't know the people down the hall from you."
But to some in this ultraliberal neighborhood, Konopka was a polarizing figure. Shortly after he launched RAD, he told the San Francisco Chronicle that — although he'd been beaten up, called a Nazi, and received death threats after helping to start RAD — he felt it was "more dangerous to stay in the house and do nothing" about problems in the Haight.