I lived a block from Haight Street for over a decade; I loved the eclectic shops and restaurants and while I didn’t love the panhandlers, they were, for the most part, harmless. I remember the warm August evening that Jerry Garcia died – the street flooded with mourning Dead Heads, young and old, throwing an impromptu memorial replete with Hippie Hill’s bongo drummers and “Sugar Magnolia” blasting from an enormous boom box. Strolling toward the organic produce market, I took it all in; there was something truly magical about it.
But the kids on Haight Street these days probably don’t even know who Jerry Garcia is. The kids on Haight Street these days aren’t Dead Heads or even panhandlers – they’re drug-dealing, violent thugs who are running the neighborhood – and they’re running it into the ground.
My friend Alan fosters dogs for rescue groups. His current charge, Bruiser, is a sweet six-month-old pit bull-boxer mix. A couple of weeks ago, Alan took Bruiser down to Haight Street. As he walked with Bruiser, several kids started following him. “Hey, that’s my dog!” one of them shouted. Suddenly, more kids joined in, and they surrounded Alan in front of Amoeba Records, calling Bruiser by another name and threatening to take him. Though it was broad daylight, no one stopped to help – residents, many of whom have been threatened by the thugs, don’t want to get involved; tourists just want to get the hell out of there.
Alan clipped Bruiser’s leash to his belt and stood his ground, telling the thugs that Bruiser came from San Francisco Animal Care and Control, where he had been on death row because no one had claimed him. “Damn,” the main thug said, unfazed by the fact “his dog” was nearly killed, “you NEUTERED him!” Then he got in Alan’s face and shouted, “That’s my dog, Dog, and I want him back.” Alan pulled out his cell phone. “We’ll let the police decide whose dog it is.”
To Alan’s surprise, the gang of thugs waited, Bruiser’s would-be owner casually rolling a joint. As the cops approached, he handed his drug paraphernalia to a buddy. “That’s my dog,” he said, “I lost him when I went to jail.” Alan told the cops that the dog had been found as a stray in Golden Gate Park’s Sharon Meadow. “When did you get out of jail?” the cop asked. “Last week,” the thug said. His girlfriend monotonously tried to entice Bruiser by another name as the puppy cowered behind Alan’s legs. “Shut the f**k up!” the cop told her. “This is over,” his partner said to the thugs. “Move on.”
Still nervous, Alan asked for an escort back to his truck and was shocked when the cop said that he saw the thug’s point. “It probably is his dog,” he said. Alan was fuming. “The dog would be dead if I didn’t rescue him,” he told the cop. “And by the way, those kids have so little respect for you that they were rolling a big fat blunt when you got there.”
The cop shrugged, and Alan decided he would never take a dog to Haight Street again.
Alan’s story didn’t surprise me. Just a week before, also in broad daylight, I had stopped at the McDonald’s on Haight Street to get an iced tea when I heard shouting just outside the door. Three thugs had surrounded a tall white kid with dreadlocks and were threatening to kill him if he didn’t come up with the money he owed. An employee immediately called 911, but when the police arrived the thugs casually walked a few feet away and leaned against a fence. “Are you OK?” one cop asked. The kid shook his head that he was. All the while the three thugs were dragging their index fingers across their throats and mouthing, “We’re gonna kill you!” to the kid. The cops started to leave and none of the many witnesses said anything, so I opened the door. “Excuse me, officers, it’s those guys,” I said, pointing to the three thugs along the fence. As the cops approached and told the thugs to put their hands on their heads, I decided I didn’t need an iced tea that badly. “He owes us money, dude!” I heard one of them yelling as I headed out the back door.
New Park Station police Capt. Teresa Barrett, who oversees the Haight, says she is trying to change things. She wants San Francisco to enact a sit/lie law that would prevent loitering, but that’s been a tough sell to the left-wingers at City Hall – God forbid we restrict the rights of those tourist-chasing, resident-bashing criminals. Even that bastion of bleeding hearts, Berkeley, managed to enact the law for troubled Telegraph Avenue because they couldn’t take it anymore.
In the meantime, Captain Barrett says her officers are arresting thugs for any violation they can. But after Alan’s experience and my own, I’m not so sure. A few days ago, I saw a band of thugs crossing from Golden Gate Park to Haight Street – there were six of them with eight pit bulls, including three unaltered males. That’s a violation (pit bulls over six months of age must be neutered or spayed), yet two beat cops walked right past them and did nothing. The main thug who harassed Alan was rolling a joint as the cops walked up, yet they did nothing. And the same thug admitted that he got out of jail a week before – he was likely on probation, yet the cops did nothing.
Of course the cops could arrest every thug on Haight Street, but they’d be right back there the next day thanks to District Attorney Kamala Harris, who is too busy schmoozing with the Obamas and running for attorney general to worry about San Francisco’s problems (she never liked putting criminals in jail very much anyway). Then there’s the Board of Supervisors, who are more concerned with taking away the rights of property owners and passing legislation to protect illegal immigrant youths who are arrested than they are about the demise of one of the City’s biggest tourist destinations. The Haight’s representative, Ross Mirkarimi says he has no tolerance for the thugs, yet – prior to some attention from the press – he’s been largely silent.
And so the thugs who run Haight Street continue their assault against what once was San Francisco’s most colorful neighborhood, reducing it to a dirty, scary, lawless wasteland where shop owners and residents tremble in fear and tourists leave in droves.