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Street Justice 

Marching for peace -- and voting for change -- means matching the solution to the problem

Wednesday, Oct 30 2002
Though I arrived an hour or so after the perorations began, Saturday's anti-war demonstration was still impressive in scope: The vast square of Civic Center bloomed from Federal Period façade to façade with peaceniks of most every age and race imaginable. Without really looking, I ran across contingents from Sacramento and Monterey and Seattle and Los Angeles; a speaker who said he was a member of the Japanese Diet pleaded, in cryptic semi-English, for peace.

As at most San Francisco demonstrations, the proceedings were often controlled by extremely irritating professional activists. There were stupid chants from the stage. The usual bands of calculating neo-Marxist and -Socialist shills tried to sign people up for dead causes and subscriptions to boring political tracts. On a more positive note, the demonstration pros displayed real inventiveness in sign-making. I mean, who doesn't laugh at a placard that says:

No wonder we're screwed.

OK, maybe Republicans named Richard don't, but "Impeach Über-Goober"? Hey, that's an instant peace-march classic.

At any rate, the rally was noteworthy for more than sheer numbers (anywhere from 40,000 to 80,000 people attended, depending on who did the estimating) and low comedy. Clearly, the crowd contained a staggering breadth of humanity; even the professional activists were diverse of type. In addition to fringe-feeding lefties, the rally included many of California's saner interest groups, including environmental and nonproliferation organizations known for engaging, on occasion, in actual rational thought. And unless my eyes have gone suddenly, completely unreliable, the rally was primarily composed not of the professional marching-and-chanting class, but of ordinary people who went out of their way for several hours on a beautiful fall Saturday to express opposition to making war on Iraq.

To be sure, there were offensive rants blaming America (or, at least, American foreign policy) for terrorism. Still, an emphasis on democracy -- the power of popular opinion to alter national policy -- seemed to overshadow the America-deserves-it, overthrow-the-imperialists rhetoric. As the signs said, regime change can begin at home.

Over the next several years, U.S. military action will sometimes be necessary and proper (as it was in Afghanistan) to protect Americans from specific terrorist threats. Iraq may constitute such a threat; without access to the highest level of intelligence briefing, it is all but impossible to know with certainty.

In a democracy, though, citizens have to make decisions based on the information available to them. To my eyes, the evidence so far provided is insufficient to justify war. Despite plenty of opportunity, the Bush administration has been unable to explain what changed, recently, to require pre-emptive military action. Seemingly responsible members of Congress have seen the highest level of intelligence on Iraq -- and voted against war. The administration's own political Svengalis have even acknowledged that the war drumbeat is at least as much about Republican prospects in Tuesday's congressional elections as it is about national security.

On Saturday, it was heartening to see what looked like an awfully lot of soccer moms and dads -- that is to say, swing voters -- announcing that when military intervention seems ridiculously out of scale and obviously politically inspired, they will respond, in the democratic and peaceful way decent people ought.

Walking north from Civic Center, I passed the targets of another out-of-scale, politically inspired attack on a problem better addressed with thoughtful, sophisticated policy. One of the targets, a handicapped young man naked from the waist up, sat on the sidewalk atop tattered blankets, under a "tent" made of another filthy blanket stretched over the top of two utility-company sawhorses. He twitched and muttered to himself. Down the block, an elderly mulatto woman with eight sets of small, full, grocery-store plastic bags arrayed around her feet stuck a confused, desperate face into mine and asked, simply and a bit threateningly, "Quarter? Quarter?" I gave her one and walked on into amazing piss stink and the long stretch of seated, dazed human misery and junk-stuffed shopping carts that generally leads down Golden Gate toward St. Boniface Church, around the corner onto Jones, and down to the St. Anthony Foundation Dining Room.

Lunch was over by the time I got there, but I went back to the dining room on Sunday and chatted a bit with Emil Hebert, who works in St. Anthony's Client Safety Services operation. I asked him what effect Proposition N, the "Care Not Cash" ballot measure that would cut off much direct cash assistance to most of San Francisco's homeless population, might have on the Dining Room, which, in an amazing spectacle that lines the full cast of the city's needy down the street for a block every lunchtime, serves some 2,700 meals a day. His answer was pithy, immediate, and pretty much what I expected: "We'll get hit big time."

And what would passage of Prop. N mean for the city at large? "The crime rate is going to skyrocket," he said. "People got to have money to survive, and they'll do it by all means necessary."

If you haven't paid much attention yet to the absurdly long list of initiatives that will appear on the city ballot on Tuesday, then you're like most San Franciscans who have real jobs and real lives. Once again, the political fanatics in this town have conspired to pack the ballot with so many arcane policy measures that no one -- I repeat, no one -- who is not a politico-governmental professional or a journalist can tell you what most of the ballot propositions are about, even in a very general sense.

Amid this local initiative madness, superficially attractive nonsense often becomes law. And Prop. N, the opening shot out of Supervisor Gavin Newsom's incipient mayoral campaign, is indeed attractive, in part because it addresses a real problem from which our supposedly progressive and caring Board of Supervisors has averted its collective face.

Yes, something needs to be done about the crowds of homeless that line our streets; they are unsightly, at times aggressive, usually a negative for nearby business, and often a danger to themselves or others. Yes, in the end, dealing with the city's homeless problem will involve the substitution of a coordinated package of housing and other services -- including, especially, life-skills training for people who have not worked or otherwise interfaced with civil society for years -- for the cash outlays that now go to many on the street.

The homeless are not, in any universal sense, angelic Dickensian waifs. Many are, indeed, addicts who use their General Assistance grants to get high. More than a few are scammers and petty thieves. Some are violent. A fair number are (and please excuse my French; it's the only word that's spot-on) assholes. Throwing money at assholes never solves a problem.

But many of the homeless are basically honest people who just happen to be down on their luck and unable to rise on their own (often because they are mentally ill). Honest or sleazy, they all are people, and because it takes the means of support away from thousands of actual human beings without providing for their basic needs, Proposition N is at heart inhumane. You should vote against it, knowing that when it passes (as it almost certainly will; polling has put its support as high as 70 percent) you, as decent people, will have to respond in numbers and force the Board of Supervisors to enact the comprehensive, truly caring reform of homeless policy a city of peace and democracy owes itself.

About The Author

John Mecklin


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