A Letter

Dear Mayor, Board of Supervisors, and the Department of Public Affairs for the San Francisco Police Department,

As I write this, yet another police siren is sounding through my window, an increasingly aggravating noise whose frequency has only continued to increase over the last few months and has become especially intensified in just the last couple of weeks. Moments ago I returned from a shopping trip for groceries, from locally owned stores on Valencia Street, as I have been doing for eleven years, without fear for my life or person, as has generally been the case for eleven years. As I approached my house, I passed an enraged man making violent threats against another man on the sidewalk by the MUNI stop–not an infrequent event, and one that generally I make my way gingerly around and go on. As I passed the scene of altercation I happened to notice a police officer ticketing a homeless-looking man for trespassing on property which was vacated by a church about a year ago and which the owner has apparently been unsuccessful in finding another renter willing to pay whatever s/he is asking.

The police officer glanced up the sidewalk in the general direction of the shouting, then, seemingly unconcerned, went back to finish writing his ticket which the trespasser will of course have no way of paying so who knows where he will end up–and I thought “is this what it’s come to?”

Put briefly, I have been simmering in anger about the apparent drive to aggressively arrest those involved in non-violent, victimless crimes up and down my street, to clear them out for–for whom? For those with money who would like to live in a city but are afraid of those who are not just like themselves in the way they live their lives? I don’t know. I don’t know exactly where the motivation has come from to begin this campaign, but once I saw the notices for the “community safety cameras” now trained on the BART plazas at 16th Street I began to notice a sneaking suspicion that the Mayor and the Police Chief are engaged in a Giuliani-inspired crusade to “clean up” San Francisco to make it more “livable.”

But let me just point out what a livable city is NOT. At least here, where progressive policies once kept the Police Department trained on actual threats to community safety, such as gang violence, homicide, rape and muggings, a livable San Francisco is NOT one which is heavily monitored, policed and harassed into complying with the insane wars against (some) drugs, against the homeless, and against sex workers. San Francisco used to stand for humanity instead of persecution of those who choose to live their lives in ways the federal government has condemned, even though they HURT NO ONE except when the prohibition of their chosen ways of life drive them to petty thievery, for instance, or into defecating where there were no public restrooms available.

But you know? When someone commits a violent crime in the service of a habit, they should be prosecuted for the violent crime rather than the habit, which is in itself harmless except, perhaps, to the person who has it–and at one time I thought that this city agreed with me in that this was none of the government’s business. When there aren’t enough public toilets to accommodate those who need them, they should be placed in neighborhoods with the greatest need. Instead, however, it seems that this city has suddenly chosen to align itself with the right wing absolutists who advocate that the people involved in these sorts of crimes are criminals for their non-violent, victimless behaviors and that a proper city should not allow anyone to subsist in it who might frighten a newcomer with enough money to live downtown but not enough guts actually to live in a real city.

I would be interested to know just how many violent crimes it is estimated that the “community safety cameras” have actually prevented. Was the 16th Street BART plaza a particularly dangerous place to frequent before those cameras went up? How many homicides, muggings and rapes actually happened within the area that they now survey? My point of course is that it is all too obvious that these cameras were set up to “protect” people from themselves, not from any particular threat, and this zeal to “protect” has long been a concern of the conservative, puritan element of American society that believes that no one should dare to live as though they do not believe in sobriety, chastity and industry. In other words, the concern of an element that, prior to now, I never thought of as holding sway in San Francisco.

I’m not actually that naive, however. I do suspect that the stepped up police activity is related to money, to the gentrification of the Mission, and to the general unease of the rich around those who get by in ways other than monetary acquisition. The Mission used to be vibrant and alive with lifestyles of every stripe, a neighborhood which may have felt gritty, but which was real and even had a sense of solidarity about it. Now no one trusts anyone: who might be trying to inform on whom? Who has been picked up and let back out under the condition that they work against those who were once part of their community? You might think that prostitutes, transients and those with illegal habits are without community, but this is simply not true, and the police department and by extension the whole city is currently involved in a campaign to destroy it.

As much as some believe that this is absolutely the right thing to do, I thought San Francisco knew better. Mayor Newsom has lost my vote. Any city supervisor who stands up for what is ethically right, in the face of great pressure from those who feel quite differently about right and wrong and who feel they have the right to force this view upon others, will gain it. I realize of course that I am but one voice, but you must realize also that you all are persecuting a community that effectively has no political voice whatsoever, especially given that much of it has been defined as “criminal” and thus without legitimacy. I can guarantee you there are many in that community who feel the same way I do, but who have been driven to desperation by the national wars undertaken to eradicate them, wars doomed to failure but nevertheless capable of engendering hundreds of thousands of needless casualties.

I once thought San Francisco had the sense not to participate in this war. I guess I was wrong.

Oh listen. Another police siren. Why don’t I feel any safer?

Your citizen for now,

Erik etc etc

deYoung the narrative

So what happened when I went to see the New Guinea art at the deYoung is not easy to describe other than that from outside someone would have seen a bald medium sized man walking from piece to piece taking pictures by holding his breath and trying to stand very still for the tenth of a second and slower shutter speeds the very scanty light was giving him.

The pieces are encased in glass so you can’t get too familiar but still standing next to them and looking into the shell eyes of the one skull one could say a presence but that would be entirely the wrong word because it is also an absence insofar as these pieces are a raw confrontation with death and its relationship to life. It’s hard to explain but the energy with which the works were obviously produced seems to pulse right there on their surfaces and in their intricate forms and I don’t know if you have to be especially attentive but this was the first time that aboriginal art really got me in a way that outpaced thoughts about the political and moral conundrums behind their simply being there. They speak but they are silent and tell you things that on their surface are as legible as any heiroglyph and yet you cannot figure out what they are saying.

It’s as though the arbitrariness and beauty and intricacy of a certain animal culture (ours, that is) stands out in its arbitrariness and beauty and intricacy when one confronts artifacts of another arbitrary, beautiful, intricate but unknown and yet very human culture.

Use “I” statements, Erik.

I felt something similar at the Anasazi ruins in Canyon de Chelly in the Navajo Nation–as though I could almost imagine but not even begin to understand the life that went on there: a kind of deep mystery that was oddly and sometimes uncomfortably familiar precisely because in order to even contemplate it one has to take death into account. These people are gone, after all. They cannot talk to you. The New Guinea pieces especially speak and don’t speak that mute witness of death that ends at death and yet goes on as life in general.

The fact that these pieces were all drenched with spiritual significance and that that significance derives from the thin line between life and death that is the organism itself also made me reflect on our distanced, intellectual relationship to “art” in our own culture and how much we have lost by disintegrating it from daily life as though it were just another analyzable but largely irrelevant object. Life is lived artfully from the very moment one imagines a world, but in the US especially we have no acknowledgment of that and indeed art is disparaged at the popular level if it tries to do anything adventurous.

And yet culture itself is a sublime and ridiculous but daring work of art that knows death to the extent that it is knowable which is to say not at all and so one dreams spirits in its place. The fact that the most powerful nation on earth has completely forgotten this is one of the reasons why we keep fucking things up.