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Letter from California, Part 4

To Tad Friend, c/o The New Yorker

By Betsey Culp

Newsom has indeed spent more time on issues affecting San Francisco’s low-income neighborhoods than might have been predicted from his credentials and support. By the way, your use of the phrase “inner city” misrepresents the residential patterns of San Francisco. Most of the areas in question are in the southern hinterlands, wide open spaces populated in part by people who fled development and redevelopment closer to downtown. Newsom has been forced to pay attention to them because, as you suggest, his predecessor Willie Brown did not.

The years of neglect show themselves not only in lumpy basketball courts and swing sets with no swings. The city is on a homicide spree — in August the Chronicle announced a record of 61 to date for the year. (Once again, multiply by 10.) The police complain that their investigations are hampered by a fear of gang retaliation, which keeps witnesses from testifying.

In addition, several high-profile cases involving shootings or beatings by police officers have fueled residents’ already smoldering distrust of the SFPD. At a forum at the Commonwealth Club, documentary filmmaker Kevin Epps responded with horror at a suggestion that officers move into his neighborhood in Hunters Point. It wasn’t just their presence that bothered him. Epps worried that the neighbor-in-blue would bring in all his friends and create a new kind of gang hangout: “His boys gonna hang out there and turn it into a police station.”


Relations between the police and the public have been strained for years, and so have relations between the police and the district attorney. We saw a brief thaw after the November 2003 election, when Kamala Harris replaced famously left-leaning Terrence Hallinan. Harris was seen — perhaps mistakenly — as less interested in social issues and therefore tougher on crime. The SFPD argued that they had been spending weeks tracking down suspects only to have the charges dismissed for lack of evidence. Why bother, they grumbled, and hoped that Harris would give them a little more satisfaction. Before long, however, inconsistencies inherent in the system intruded.

Harris had already angered police officers in April when she announced that she would not pursue the death penalty in the case of a recently murdered police officer, on the grounds that it would be nearly impossible to obtain a conviction if she did. She had said during the campaign last November that she personally opposed capital punishment, but apparently few people paid any attention to her statement. Now the uproar was deafening. The police protested. So did Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. State Attorney General Bill Lockyer threatened to take over the prosecution himself. (Later, after reviewing the case, Lockyer concurred with Harris’s decision.)

In August the feud moved to a new stage, as police officers began to rely on Ramey warrants — “probable cause warrants,” which don’t require the approval of the District Attorney’s Office — to make arrests. Harris began to throw out the resulting cases for insufficient evidence. Articles in the Chronicle speculated that the real reason for the arrests was tactical: as you noted, Newsom has been on the Police Department’s back to improve “its dismal rate of cleared murder cases.” The probable cause warrants allow the cases to be officially cleared, whether they actually go to trial or not. The police deny the charge.


If you’re looking for a Californian to profile, you couldn’t find a better subject than Kamala Harris. A sharp contrast to the rumpled Irishman she succeeded, San Francisco’s new district attorney is a slim elegant woman whose name appears frequently on the society pages. Her father is an economist who grew up in Jamaica, and in the Tiger Woods mode of journalism, the media tend to identify her as the first African-American D.A. in California history. But it was her mother, an endocrinologist who emigrated from India in the 1960s, who stood by her side as she campaigned.

Or you might take a look at Supervisor Sophie Maxwell. At the Commonwealth Club forum, both Harris and Maxwell argued that an increased police presence by itself would not solve problems of violence. Maxwell is an electrician by trade; tall and statuesque, she is given to wearing Africa-inspired fabrics and jewelry. She, too, was raised by a strong mother: Enola Maxwell, who died last year, is well known in the Bay Area as a civil rights activist. For several years, Sophie Maxwell was the only woman on the Board of Supervisor. Habitually soft-spoken, she occasionally shocks observers by lecturing her pugnacious colleagues on their lack of civility or scolding developers for their failure to hire more African Americans. In speaking of the increase in homicides, she said, “We have to deal with it on many different levels…. We’re looking at jobs. We’re looking at training. We’re looking at taking kids to camp and trying to have some interaction with the police.”

Kamala Harris agreed: “We really should look at it in terms of a long-existing problem, which requires therefore a long-term investment in a solution. And that that solution would have to manifest itself through financial support and a distribution of resources from the city to make up for those many many years of neglect, and that it really would have to be a ten-year plan.”

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The problem now lies on the doorstep of City Hall. As you point out, Gavin Newsom has personally visited a number of San Francisco’s troubled neighborhoods. He recently added the Mission to the list, where he was “disheartened by the condition of this wonderful and lively community that has been marked by gang violence, poorly kept sidewalks, illegal postings, graffiti, broken news racks, broken phones, shattered light fixtures and unkept garbage cans.” In each case, he promised a combination of law enforcement and street cleaning as a remedy.

You note Newsom’s admiration for Robert F. Kennedy, and it’s easy to find a parallel between the mayor’s forays into low-income areas and Kennedy’s explorations of Bedford-Stuyvesant in the 1960s. But so far, Newsom has been content to repair figurative broken windows. It will be interesting to see if he, like his hero, leaps beyond policy to passion. It will be interesting to see if he, like his hero, can persuade his wealthy supporters to invest in underserved parts of town. You quote Newsom as saying, “I’ve got my Ph.D. in homelessness and now I’m getting my Ph.D. in crime.” To succeed, he will also need a Ph.D. in politics.

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The New Yorker article closes with an all-too-familiar San Francisco vignette: “A suspiciously serene rally in favor of legalizing marijuana was going on [opposite City Hall], and the air was suddenly pungent with the substance in question.” Images of the Summer of Love must have struck a responsive chord in other parts of the United States, because they refuse to die. The only thing missing is a couple of hippies dancing around a maypole. I won’t get into the politics of pot clubs, other than to remind you that the city is home to close to thirty thousand people infected with AIDS, and many of them have found that marijuana relieves their symptoms as no other medicine does. Like thousands of gay couples, they would like the law to make honest men and women out of them. The stock photo you’re re-creating is tired, very tired. Like gay marriage, the reality is far more complex than the stereotype.

Mr. Friend, I realize that San Francisco has used up its credits so you won’t be visiting us again for a while. That’s too bad. I’d love to show you the city I know.

If you have some free time, you might drop in at the end of this month, when you can catch a triple-header lively enough to titillate the most blasé of New Yorkers. Halloween in the Castro offers a firm reminder that no, Toto, you’re not in Brooklyn any more. If you stick around till the following Tuesday, you can observe Election Day, San Francisco-style. This year it promises more than its usual allotment of oddities, with 16 state and 16 local propositions on the ballot, and 67 candidates for supervisor, spread out over seven districts, to be chosen for the first time by ranked-choice voting. That night, before the polls even close, a yearly procession complete with candles, flowers, and larger-than-life puppets will wind its way through the Mission, celebrating el Dia de los Muertos. If you liked the “pungent” air you encountered in front of City Hall, you’ll love the Day of the Dead.

Plumage, politics, and pot. What more could you want?

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