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Thursday, February 4, 2010

Police Chief Scapegoats Homeless, Cyclists -- Who's Next?

Posted By on Thu, Feb 4, 2010 at 6:01 PM

click to enlarge critical_mass_ii.jpg
Last week police chief George Gascon vowed to reduce crime in the city by 20 percent. But as any sharp-witted Southern law enforcement leader knows, crime-reduction will only get one so far in winning public hearts and minds. At some point, the most effective tool is scapegoating.

Gascon, who comes to us from the southwestern town of Mesa, Ariz, knows all about scapegoating; he's famous for confronting Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio when that miserable bigot was seeking headlines by rounding up Mexicans on behalf of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Gascon is no Sheriff Joe -- but we've noted how the chief has begun making his own scapegoating bones in San Francisco by diverting officers to Haight Ashbury to harass homeless people with jaywalking and dog license citations. And last week he was quoted as suggesting he'd crack down on Critical Mass, the monthly mid-town bike ride. He was even cited as saying a ballot measure banning Critical Mass would pass with flying colors. (Meanwhile, on the anti-unbathed-poor-person front, he's pushing a law that would curb people's ability to sit on the sidewalk.)

Passing laws aimed at prohibiting the movement and congregation of people who annoy you has a storied history in America, one populated by political players attuned to a surly public mood.

In some places in this country, ballot measures banning sodomy,

miscegenation, and doing business with Mexican immigrants would pass by

a wide margin this very day if the U.S. Constitution would permit it. San Francisco's own popular labor leader Dennis Kearny in 1879 pushed

through laws banning the employment of Chinese laborers, which were eventually overturned on Constitutional grounds.

"We

caution these lecherous whelps to beware. We are making all necessary

preparations, and oh, God! How sweet revenge is when it comes,"  said

Kearny, in one of his racist diatribes.

"These critical mass riders are gangsters, criminals and anarchists," read a Web comment under the San Francisco Examiner's story about Gascon's Critical Mass-themed utterings.

"These troublemakers move on to the next riot on their anarchist-from-hell tour. Bastards!" read another.

I've written in the past that Critical Mass was a type of brigandry that hampered the laudable agenda of obtaining fair road space for cyclists.

But then last fall a friend, the vice president of a San Francisco-based international telecommunications corporation, invited me, my wife, and my six- and four-year old daughters to attend. That's right: Families go on Critical Mass now; we spent the evening riding next to a man on a tandem with his 10-year-old son.

The anarchists that I railed about years past seem to mostly have gotten impatient with Critical Mass. Now it's for the most part a rolling celebration of what San Francisco could be like if you didn't have to spend most waking moments worried about having your kids or yourself killed by ubiquitous 3,000-pound deadly weapons known as cars.

Fans of Gascon's scapegoating are likely to say that here merely wishes to enforce the law, -- his duty after all -- and Critical Mass participants flout traffic rules.

That would be an argument worth considering if Gascon had demonstrated some real epiphany about traffic safety. Then he might truly make a campaign of making city streets less deadly. (By slowing down and blocking automobile traffic, and replacing it with slower-moving, lower-kinetic-energy bicycle traffic, Critical Mass actually makes a few SF streets safer for a couple of hours a month.)

A real safer streets campaign, as opposed to a blowhard scapegoating campaign, might start by addressing situations where multiple lanes of traffic along major arteries are blocked every single day -- not to be confused with the lanes of traffic Critical Mass clears of automobiles just a couple hours a month.

Patrons of the Arco station on the four-lane thoroughfare Fell Street block a bike lane and an automobile lane for several hours each day in search of cheap gasoline. The result is a death-trap for cyclists, who use that marked bike lane as the main artery from Downtown to the bedroom districts of the Richmond and Sunset.

To address a situation that could be resolved by a single cop with a ticket book has instead been discussed at in community meetings, powows among transit bureaucrats, and phone-calls between  supervisors' aides and officials in the city attorney's office.

But there's no cop writing tickets there because the chief of police doesn't have a general interest in traffic blockage. He merely seems to have a sharp eye for a worthy scapegoat such as Critical Mass.

My friend Sean Benward, who commutes between the Potrero shopping center and the western neighborhoods by bike, has been attempting for months to lobby to fix this death trap, to no avail. He forwarded me one of his letters to Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who oversees this district:


We move forward creating a bike network, bike lanes,

green zones and additional sharrows and the city is powerless in

abating an issue as blatant and unarguably dangerous as the Arco/Fell/bike lane

death trap (my words) "major traffic hazard" (your words).

It seems to me that the City acknowledges the

dangers but is wiling to accept the liability in the event someone is injured

or killed at this intersection. It would seem that if this were to turn

into a negligent death or injury claim, it could be your words that would

seal the victory for the plaintiffs. Though this would be bittersweet victory

as a cyclist would need to be injured or killed in order to prevail.

Why as a City, are we okay with mopping up the blood

rather than preventing it from spilling in the first place?


While preventing blood from spilling int he first place might be good policy, it lacks the political oomph of a good anti-Critical Mass scapegoating campaign.

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Matt Smith

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