Police sweeps to social service

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Text by Joey Plaster. Copyright (©) by C. Joey Plaster, 2009. All rights reserved.

Starting in 1977, openly gay, “progressive” politicians had made significant inroads in local and federal government, and with the second district election in 1979, “progressives for the first time had substantial representation on the board.”[1] The assassination of Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone in 1978, and the furor over the light sentence given to Dan White the following year set off a string of events that changed San Francisco and the path of the LGBT civil rights movement.

Community United Against Violence, the nation’s first gay anti-violence organization, was founded. Jo Daly was appointed as the first openly LGBT person appointed to the San Francisco Police Commission in 1980, and “progressive” gay activist Harry Britt succeeded Harvey Milk. District Attorney Joseph Freitas, blamed for the White manslaughter verdict, lost in his 1981 re-election bid to Arlo Smith, a liberal supported by the progressive gay community. “Progressive” activists had long framed Polk Street police sweeps as an attack on civil liberties. They now had the support of the City to resist these sweeps.

Ron Huberman, hired as a criminal investigator in 1981 as part of a campaign promise to hire gays in the District Attorney’s Office, helped decide whether or not to prosecute the cases brought before the office as a result of the police sweep. Framing the arrests as “police abuse,” the office decided to “explain to the police the fact that they’re wasting their time and their money issuing frivolous citations that go nowhere.” With Arlo Smith’s stamp of approval, “I would say 90% of the prostitution, 98% of the jaywalking, urinating in public, and all that were thrown out.”[2]

Gay activists seized on the District Attorney numbers to argue that police were harassing gays on Polk Street. The city’s Human Rights Commission noted that “the most common charge (18%) was…obstructing the sidewalk.…About 87% of the cases were discharged/dismissed by the District Attorney.”[3] Supervisor Harry Britt characterized the increased law enforcement as a systematic harassment of Gays.[4]

Central City Hospitality House, a social service organization that had formed in 1966 to care for homeless youth in the Tenderloin, noted that police sweeps had simply “moved youth from the Mission, to the Haight, to the Tenderloin, and to Polk Street.” They tartly suggested that the police “reconsider its approach to using decoys offering money to tempt unsuspecting and hungry youth.”[5]

“The Merchants Association appear to be alone in their praise of Mayor Feinstein,” the Bay Area Reporter claimed. “Criticism of her judgment in allowing these procedures to be used to temporarily clean up Polk Street are overwhelming. She has been criticized for not having the foresight to being in the many social service organizations in the City to work towards a permanent solution to the problem.”[6]

Under siege, Feinstein justified the arrests in a Bay Area Reporter editorial, noting that the arrests were intended to reverse a pattern of violence, drug abuse and prostitution,” she wrote. “Lawlessness has a grim way of compounding itself and spreading, and this Administration is not going to ignore reports by residents and merchants that their street is no longer safe….More police are on the streets, more arrests are being made and, as a result, the most indiscriminate crime of violence – assault – is down seven percent from last year.”[7]

The next month, the congregation of Polk Street’s Old First Presbyterian Church collaborated with CUAV to host community discussions about the increased numbers of youth on the street and the police sweeps. Out of these discussions, they developed a two-pronged argument for serving youth instead of arresting them.

Focusing on the youngest and newest additions to the street, they characterized the youth not as criminals, but as “victims” that had been turned out from homes across the country and needed a “surrogate family” in San Francisco. They also noted that the longer youth were on the street, the more likely they were to become part of the underground economy and culture.[8]

The church then leveraged their moral authority to argue for such a family. The “lack of a vigorous community response, in an effort to provide alternatives for these youth forced to prostitute in order to survive, represents community child abuse,” they argued in a promotional flier. “Our primary purpose is to enable those most vulnerable (younger youth and those new to the streets) to exit from street life and prostitution.”

Their work was supported by research by Harvard-educated ethnographer and gay activist Toby Marotta, who was hired by URSA in 1977 to produce a Carter administration-funded study about youth prostitution across the country. In completing the study report in 1981, they also framed the conflict not as one of crime and profit, but as an opportunity for the upscale gay community to encourage an upwardly mobile, gay-identified path for the youth.

“Our case was, homosexual young people, struggling with their gay identity, need to be in the best possible neighborhood,” he said. At the time, Polk Street was “an upscale neighborhood, and thereby an escape, a haven, from the Tenderloin,” Marotta said. He advocated for a space that “would have gays as staffers and programs for gays and therapists sensitive to gays, and gay-identified clients, in a turf that would be more nurturing accepting and productive for them.”[9]

In 1983, Polk Street Town Hall, URSA, and two other nonprofits formed a consortium and secured a 12-month demonstration grant from the Department of Health and Human Services to create a multi-service center for homeless youth. The center was established in the Polk Gulch neighborhood, and became Larkin Street Youth, later a national model for a harm-reduction approach to street youth.

Police began to bring youth to the center instead of prosecuting them, and the massive street sweeps that had been a hallmark on the street since 1977 were no longer politically feasible for the City and merchants.

This activity overlapped with Tenderloin housing activism in the Tenderloin, which might well have disappeared in the late 1970s when it risked being swallowed by the expanding downtown Financial District and tourist industries. In the 1980s, influenced by Tenderloin activism, San Francisco passed a moratorium on the conversion of residential hotel units to tourist or commercial use, required luxury hoteliers to contribute millions of dollars in community mitigations, downzoned dozens of blocks of prime downtown property, and experienced a nonprofit housing boom.

  1. Hartman, City for Sale, 239.
  2. Interview with Ron Huberman by Joey Plaster, 2008.
  3. Martin and Lyons papers, GLBTHS, Polk Street Committee, Wed Sept. 30 1981, Summary of Mayor’s Criminal Justice Commission report.
  4. Bay Area Reporter, Oct. 22 1981 .
  5. Martin and Lyons papers, GLBTHS, City and County of San Francisco Memorandum, From Office of the HRC Intergroup Clearinghouse.
  6. “Polk Street Sweep,” Bay Area Reporter, Sept 24, 1981.
  7. “Statement by Mayor Diane Feinstein for the Bay Area Reporter,” Bay Area Reporter, Oct. 22 1981.
  8. Personal Papers, Bill Campbell, “Youth Prostitution and Intervention Program Intervention Program,” 8/7/84.
  9. Toby Marotta interview with Joey Plaster, 2008.

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