Yesterday, May 22nd, would have been Harvey Milk‘s 81st birthday. In San Francisco people held rallies and celebrations.
I and other activists against the recently passed “Sit/Lie” law held another Sidewalks are for People day. The Sit/Lie law makes it illegal to sit or lie on any public sidewalk between 7am and 11pm. It’s illegal to sit on the curb while waiting for the bus, it’s illegal to put a folding chair on the sidewalk to enjoy the sun and greet your neighbors, and it’s illegal to sit down if you’re holding a sidewalk sale, even if you’re a child running a little lemonade stand.
We chose Harvey Milk’s birthday not just because Harvey would have opposed the current Sit/Lie law – he actually did oppose existing laws in the Seventies against sitting and lying on the sidewalk. Those laws were selectively enforced – against, among others, gay men. At the time, the SFPD was quite homophobic and blatantly discriminated against gay people and gay establishments.
Today, the ballot proposition to impose this ridiculous law actually did well in the Castro district as a whole. Harvey Milk is idolized and mythologized in a vacuum of historical perspective. His actual politics are not acknowledged – they are contradicted! He would be shocked to see wealthy gay men in his beloved Castro district vote to re-instate a law that he fought hard to repeal, simply because they, in their assimilation, are now safe from discrimination, and want the police to openly discriminate against the current “undesirables” – for now, mostly poor, homeless people, but also day laborers and black and Latino youth.
The hypocrisy in the Haight is no less dramatic. The Upper Haight was the epicenter of youth counter-culture during the Summer of Love. It is that history that made the neighborhood famous, and brings the tourists flocking to see “Haight-Ashbury”.
That counter-culture is now thoroughly commodified: the Haight contains many smoke shops and purveyors of tie-dye clothing and the like. Turned into a shopping zone, its merchants suppress the current counter-culture. Street kids on the sidewalk, though closer in spirit to the Sixties’ counter-culture than any store (save perhaps Bound Together Books), might scare away tourists, so they are subject to police harassment, political demonization, and surveillance.
In another irony from another part of counter-culture commodification, one of the main proponents of using police power to push “undesirable” people away from Haight Street owns a store called FTC Skate Shop. You know what “FTC” stands for here? “Fuck The Cops”!
In defense of the Haight as a neighborhood and a collection of people (rather than merchants specifically), despite being portrayed by the media as the center of the terrorism of violent street “thugs”, the ballot proposition actually had more Noes than Yeses here. That’s right – this part of town was allegedly so horrible that it required us to pass a fascist measure “to give the police the tools they need”, but the Haight’s actual residents rejected the proposed law.
The counter-culture that politicized Harvey Milk, and Harvey Milk himself, are safely recuperated from the distance of three and four decades. The Sixties kids who made the Haight famous would be chased off the street by cops and merchants today, and Harvey would be appalled at the elitism of the gays in his old neighborhood.
Remember, Harvey stood for “All the Us-es”. The street kid no less than the gay yuppie is a part of our common humanity.
Nato Green nails it in this two-minute stand-up bit:
“Part of the great thing about white privilege is that you get to think that things that I don’t like should be illegal.”