By Any Means

Homeless Defense Strategies when “Officer Friendly” Won’t Help

It’s easy to take things for granted when you are housed each night: having a bed to sleep in, control over the temperature around you, access to a bathroom or kitchen, having personal belongings at close reach, or having some control over the disturbances around you. Even if you don’t have control over these things, you have protected rights under California law, all of which are far more accessible to a person with the privilege of housing and the resources that come with it.

But what if you didn’t have any of those things?  What if none of this was guaranteed?

What if the “long arm of the law”, a.k.a. the police department, ignores you?  How much can California Penal and Civil Code help you if you don’t have access to an attorney or the resources needed to attend court, depositions, etc?

For our unhoused neighbors, the law of courts is often nothing but meaningless rhetoric.  They know well that laws are not enacted to protect them, and in fact, are usually put in place with the opposite intention.  People who are homeless have to survive with the law of the street, which is roughly, “protect yourself by any means necessary.”

Housed people who can shave, speak fluent English, dress in expensive clothes, and have access to oral care are going to be treated vastly different by law enforcement.  This is precisely where the difficulty lies. For those of us who are housed, and especially those of us with white privilege, our experience with law enforcement will likely be radically different.

We might vote for increasing funds for the San Francisco Police Department, thinking that they protect our community and serve us.  People looking at Prop B’s “Earthquake and Fire Safety” measure may not even see the fine print, which dupes voters into giving the San Francisco Police Department $121 million.

If you’ve only experienced police in a helpful capacity, maybe you would actually support a measure like this, instead of those that Mayor London Breed has yet to implement to increase homeless housing and shelter. 

Police abuses in our community are rampant though, and largely affecting minority populations.  From 4 a.m. encampment “sweeps,” to bullying, harassment, and neglect, there is a long list of misconduct. This might sound shocking, but there is a long history of facts that speak to this truth.

Back in February 2014, six San Francisco police officers were charged with drug dealing, extortion, illegal searches, and stealing — much of which was caught on camera.  In November 2015, two SFPD officers were caught on video brutally beating a man screaming for help.  This is not to mention the unarmed killings of so many people of color in our neighborhoods, which added to the outcry of the national #BlackLivesMatter movement.  

A group of community organizers calling themselves the Frisco Five organized a widely supported hunger strike outside the San Francisco Mission District police station in April 2016, resulting in the resignation of SF police chief Greg Suhr.  Years later, you can still find signs on store windows and local murals depicting Alex Nieto, the unarmed 28-year-old who was killed after San Francisco police fired 59 bullets at him while he was eating a burrito.  A permanent city monument was recently approved in his honor and memory.

We tend to think that law enforcement will take pity on our most vulnerable residents, but that isn’t always the case.  This past month, I had the displeasure of engaging with police after witnessing and de-escalating a violent attack on a homeless person’s life.  To say that SFPD’s response was unhelpful, is an understatement.

The incident left me in shock. I was extremely rattled by witnessing the attack, but even worse, I was appalled by the response from those we had called on to help.  A couple of days later, I decided to check back on the encampment. While I was experiencing PTSD from the violence I saw, the survivor of the attack and his friend seemed to treat it like any other day of the week.  I mentioned that I came by to check in and make sure they were OK:

“Thank you very much,” he said. “Pero, I appreciate it with my heart, but we’re fine.”

 I showed him a link to the video I took of the aftermath, including my statement to the police.

…”That can be good, yeah, because they give me some paperwork, the police. I can get a new visa with immigration… I got my papers already, just in case one day I need it.  I need that one…”

I was very happy to see the injured man out of the hospital and recovering. However, the police displayed a concerning lack of investment in the well-being of the person who had been attacked, resisting my requests to have them take down my statement and interrogating the survivor rather than prioritizing emergency medical care. 

Police departments often prey upon vulnerable populations, especially immigrants and people of color.  Disabled people like myself also have reason to fear police violence. Prominent disability activist Leroy Moore opened my eyes to the threats that surround me as a person with disabilities when he released the Broken Bodies, Police Brutality Profiling Mixtape in 2011.

All of this got me thinking: if law enforcement fails us, what can we do to make sure that our unhoused neighbors are safe?

I decided to meet with a neighborhood veteran who lives outside a vacant, out-of-business hipster bar.  Don is normally a very gentle man, a bearded white male in his mid-60s, usually spending his daytime hours reading beneath an umbrella.  I asked him what tips he might have for fellow unhoused neighbors to protect themselves from attacks. 

In order to stay safe, he told me he takes certain precautions. “I keep a…basically it’s a club; a pipe.  And pepper spray. It was given to me by a young lady I know; she was concerned about me.”

When asked what he recommends to other folks trying to stay safe while sleeping outside, Don said, “that’s a tough call, because I believe there’s strength in numbers, even though I don’t do it. Probably run with somebody else; have a companion of some kind… Be aware of your surroundings, be aware of what’s going on around you. If you’re asleep, obviously you can’t do that. But if you see somebody coming that might be a problem, be prepared for it.”

Don also told me he has had his own firsthand experience being attacked in the Tenderloin.

“I was attacked, and knocked out of my chair. Right in the middle of the street during the day.  And I was fighting with this guy. I can’t get up and stand up and fight, but I was swinging it out. He was trying to grab some of my stuff and… This was about maybe 3 o’clock in the afternoon, there’s traffic going by, I’m out in the middle of the street, my chair’s tipped over, all my belongings is there…” He told me he benefited from the intervention of strangers, saying “several people came to the rescue, a car came swooping down…a guy jumped out; a couple guys came from across the street from God knows where and started duking it out with this guy.  And uh, he got away; he took off.”

I was extremely heartened (and surprised) to hear about his experiences of receiving help from random strangers. In a culture that appears to have the general motto of “look the other way,” I was amazed to hear stories of people coming to the rescue, and even providing physical defense.  Speaking with him, I felt a wave of pride in my city that I had not experienced in a long time. “Hell yeah,” I thought, “San Franciscans really can kick ass.”  On the way back from the interview, I felt just a little bit safer in the neighborhood.

What can we do to support our unhoused neighbors in the event of harassment or an attack?  Here is a list of working suggestions:

  1. Call 911 and ask for an ambulance. Insist that an ambulance comes and state that “someone is being attacked and is severely injured.”  Whatever you do, do not say “a homeless person” is being attacked – that only gives emergency personnel the opportunity to treat that person’s life as less valuable and respond slower.
  2. Be safe.  Make sure you are a good distance from what is happening, and consider your options. Is the person using a weapon, fists, or a gun?  If it’s the first two, you might get away with yelling out, “POLICE!” or a similar scare word to get the attacker to stop. However, if they have a gun, it’s best to stay out of sight.
  3. If you are at a safe distance, try and record the incident with your phone.  Sometimes law enforcement has been known to steal phones, in which case you can upload your video real-time using the ACLU app.
  4. Know your rights.  Do not consent to a search and do not answer questions that you don’t have to. Ask if you are “being detained,” if an officer is trying to intimidate you or doesn’t seem to want you to leave.
  5. Do court support for the victim(s), if you can.  Communicate with victim(s) and try to find out what they want / need for you to support them.
  6. Connect with organizations like the Anti-Police Terror Project, ACLU, and CopWatch.  They have tons of useful information on their website, including the APTP First Responders Training Guide.