Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Politicians destroy Castro Halloween party.

The most famous Halloween party in the world has been cancelled. The party was held on Castro Street in San Francisco. San Francisco is considered the gay capital of the world and Castro Street the epicenter of the capital.

The reality is that the area, while heavily gay, was never exclusively gay and I would say that a third of the residents were heterosexual even within the Castro itself -- with the number of straights rising quickly if one moved a few blocks in any direction.

Some years ago when I moved to San Francisco, the first apartment I found was on Castro, though it was slightly outside the “epicenter”. The apartment was small -- much too small but I loved the Victorian building. Shortly after that I discovered a very large apartment which was on the top floor of one of the buildings in the very heart of the Castro. The rent was rather reasonable, for San Francisco at least, especially since the flat occupied the entire floor. The lounge was double the size of most and had a huge bay window looking down on the street. And off that was the room I used as my office which also had a bay window that butted out over the street below as well.

So the Halloween party in the Castro wasn’t exactly something I could avoid. Well over 100,000 people would descend in various costumes and party, perhaps double or triple that.. And each year it seemed to get bigger. Even with the bedroom at the back of the flat the noise from the party filtered through easily. The street was far too compacted with people to go down, at least not for long. But I didn’t need to. I could watch all the festivities from my front window with no problem. And admittedly every Halloween I got little sleep due to the noise.

Because the party was where it was it has also attracted people from outside the neighborhood who wanted to come in and cause problems. Various gang types would descend in order to win some stripes by attacking people they assumed were gay -- often assumed wrongly I might add. On the other hand that was not relegated to Halloween alone. Two bus routes, the 22 and the 24, ran through the area and both went through some pretty rough areas of the cities. Thugs from those neighborhoods would hop on the bus and sit there in waiting until it got closer to the Castro. They would wait until someone they believed was gay got on the bus and the group of them would pounce. The bus driver usually tried to pretend he didn’t see anything and often the gang just remained on the bus while the victim staggered off seeking protection and medical assistance.

The city always tried to cope with the problem but was typically unable to do much without getting heavy handed. One Halloween I was headed to the flat when I found the surrounding streets had roadblocks with police at each of the main entrances. They were frisking everyone who entered and going through anything they carried.

I only had a briefcase but my view was that I had not committed a crime and their right to search my belongings was dependent on either “reasonable cause” or a search warrant. They had neither. I explained to the officers that they had a problem. They wanted to search me without cause and were preventing me from returning to my home. I also pointed out the obvious: they wanted to make sure I had no weapons that could harm others and I had an apartment that had butcher knives, hammers, screw drivers and other items that could easily inflict harm. In other words what good is it to search people who actually live on the street and can obtain a weapon from their home -- which was still immune to warrantless search -- George Bush eat your heart out.

The police were reasonable about it that evening. One of them figured out an easy solution. One officer would accompany me to the entrance of my building. Since I had the key to the entrance, and since there was only one apartment in the building (the ground floor was a restaurant and the second floor were offices) it was obvious that I lived there. When he saw me unlock the door and enter he was satisfied. The Bill of Rights was preserved, that night, at least for me.

Last year two gangs of youths from outside the Castro were in attendance and it seems they brought their own neighborhood conflicts to the party. They were yelling insults at one another (such class) and threw bottles at one another. One of them pulled a gun and started shooting. Nine people were wounded though none seriously. And the police were unable to do anything. The gunman is still free. At the time the Sheriff Michael Hennessy described it as “just one jerk with a gun who had an enemy there.”

The police didn’t check people for weapons because they said too many people were coming in and it would have added to the congestion.

This year the city just cancelled the celebration entirely. From downplaying the event to overreacting seems to be par for the course, when it comes to politics. Politicians either ignore a problem or switch into panic-mode and use sledgehammers to swat at flies.

This year the sledgehammer came down. Not only did the mayor cancel the party but the politicians did everything they could to shut down the Castro. First the subway lines will stop running at 8:30 p.m. and the BART station will close at 8 p.m. Next the streets will be open for traffic though the police seem to understand that traffic won’t get through as people will turn up anyway.

Next a petty politician, Bevan Dufty, started putting pressure on the 110 businesses in the area with liquor licenses to “voluntarily” close down. All the bars in the area, but one, will be closed. And the city plans to send in 600 law enforcement officials to control everything and everyone. As I said: killing flies with sledgehammers. The Democrats like to think Bush got hysterical. He did. But this is a Democratic administration in San Francisco that is literally closing down the Castro.

For decades the San Francisco police have yearned for the ability to shut down the Castro. I’ve seen that myself. I remember one night suddenly finding the police lined up across the street with batons ready to bash skulls. They marched down the street forcing everyone inside buildings and demanding they be locked in or face a beating. The excuse was an incident that book place elsewhere in the city.

When Dan White, a former cop, received a slap-on-the-wrist sentence for assassinating Mayor Moscone and gay Supervisor Harvey Milk, riots broke out at city hall. The police responded by swooping into the Castro, several miles away and peaceful, beating in heads and attacking gay bars.

So it is a bit disconcerting to see this mayor doing precisely what the police have tried to do for decades without success. Since Mayor Newsome is perceived as being supportive of gay rights he can trample on the Castro as much as he wants and the toadies to the Democrats, in the community, will praise him for it.

What had started as a neighborhood party did become an event that attracted people from outside the area who often wanted to cause problems. But between the sledgehammer approach and turning a blind eye to violence there is a lot of territory.

One possible solution would be to turn the event into a private party with tickets. That could be done easily as the main party was in a small area with four main entry points. Residents of the street, and actually there were never more than a few dozen people who actually had apartments on the top floors of the buildings right on Castro, could be given passes for themselves and maybe a few extra if they wish to have friends over. Tickets could be sold in neighborhood shops leading up to the event with the number of tickets limited to the capacity of the area. The reality is that 100,000 people crammed into that small area was a problem.

Using the pricing mechanism to ration access works for movie theaters so I don’t see why it wouldn’t work for the Halloween Party. If the price is sufficient to discourage low-life thugs (almost any price would do that) most the problem would be solved. Policing the entry points by admitting ticket holders only would allow the neighborhood to have its traditional party while keeping out trouble. And the proceeds from the sale of tickets could be used to fund the event with any left over going to neighborhood charitable causes, of which there are many.

Instead of thinking like entrepreneurs politicians think like bureaucrats. And the Halloween tradition in the Castro is a victim of that bureaucratic mentality. A few police officers at the entrance could handle the situation. And others would be stationed in the surrounding streets enforcing the normal laws. That would keep crowds from gathering on the streets leading into the Castro instead.

Certainly allowing the market to work makes sense. Having an entrance fee would allow the party to return to what it was meant to be -- a local celebration. It is unnecessary to cancel the event and if handled properly, which probably means having it privately run by a residents association or local businesses, it could generate enough revenue to cover the costs of the event and possible contribute to worthy causes. The local businesses would not need to close on one of the most profitable evenings of the year either.

Sometimes a fly swatter is all you need to kill flies.

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