Taking the TL Drug Dealing Task Force to Task

“Instead of a War on Poverty, they have a War on Drugs, so the police can bother me.”

2pac, from Changes

San Francisco can be a bit of a bubble. In no other moment has this felt more true than during the social and political turmoil of recent times. This is a city that has always thought of itself as liberal and open-minded, and many of our local officials seem to shine in comparison with the previous White House administration.

However, if you read this paper, then you’re probably aware of the many attacks on the homeless community, people of color and disabled folks here. Many marginalized San Franciscans feel the daily frustrations of the SSDD survival triathlon while a whitewashed image of our city gets exported to the world through movies, television and the progressive media. The most recent example of this contradiction is the benevolent language surrounding the so-called “Tenderloin Street-Level Drug Dealing Task Force.” 

This task force was created by Supervisor Matt Haney and Mayor London Breed and given the dubious responsibility of “stopping street-level drug dealing” (and drug use) in the Tenderloin neighborhood. I placed emphasis on the phrase “street-level” because apparently drug dealing is completely OK in the Tenderloin, so long as you are not on the street.  Just make sure to deal drugs at your child’s day care, during a TED talk or inside the newest luxury condo—this task force won’t mind! (Yes, that’s sarcasm.) The task force also interchanges the phrase street-level with “open-air drug market.”  I guess the closed-air drug market isn’t a concern.

Why the emphasis only on “street-dealing” drugs?  Drugs are everywhere, but the business interests of condominium developers and new boutique stores in the Tenderloin dictate where resources go for such a task force. These meetings have a strong emphasis on “small business,” with store owners telling stories to jerk your tears about how difficult life is for them.  No, not because the city government has left them to die and be devoured by a brutal economic depression during a pandemic, but because they notice people (and let’s be honest: Black and Brown people) hanging outside their storefront. 

These meetings routinely discuss the Tenderloin like they’re a “stranger-danger” 1980s McGruff the Crime Dog ad, with all the exaggerated overtones of a Nixon-era witch hunt. Suspicious vehicles are described, needles and feces are decried, and a Mad Max world of pandemic SRO chaos is laid out before the judges of safety and cleanliness among the benevolent overlords of the task force.

When this task force is talking about the “open-air” population of the Tenderloin, they are not talking about Whole Foods soccer moms coming home from its K-12 schools, SFMOMA tourists, Hastings law students, Zephyr Real Estate agents or Elon Musk fanbois.  They are talking about unemployed or lower working-class San Franciscans.  They are talking about people like you and me.

Who’s Running the Show?

This new task force has nine people at its head. Police come to these meetings to testify on how uncontrollable this outlaw land of the Tenderloin is—despite belonging to a force with state-of-the-art weapons, an always increasing budget currently at $738.6 million (including $7.5 million for new vehicles, $3 million in Tasers, and 250 new armed cops), and a police station located in the heart of the community, where officers patrol and harass its residents. In examples of biased policing, 100% of the 37 people arrested in a 2015 Tenderloin drug bust were Black, and the following year 207 criminal cases were reopened after evidence that the arresting officers had used racial slurs in text messages (notably, Police Chief Greg Suhr was forced to resign in 2016 when organized hunger strikers demanded he leave over multiple high-profile police murders).  

Soft-spoken police task force members come to say things like, “When we talk about engagement, sometimes the best engagement happens when somebody is removed from that environment. … People sometimes think that all cops want to do is lock up people forever. … We don’t. If there was a way around it, I would love for that to happen. But I know the reality. I walk the foot beat in the Tenderloin, I’ve worked in narcotics, I’ve worked in an undercover capacity…” That statement was made by task force member and Police Commander Raj Vaswani. [1hr in]

Having a record of a drug arrest does not help you get clean and employed. Regardless, wasn’t the whole point of this task force to find “a way around” locking people up? People who have been to jail will be the first to tell you that it is not a place of healing, understanding and recovery, but of abuse and mistreatment.  “Removing” (i.e. arresting) people from the “environment” (i.e. their home or community) is not something meant to help the individual; it usually has the opposite effect. However, this new War on Drugs does accomplish one thing: a more anglo-saxon, more boutique and more homogenized San Francisco Tenderloin.

Quite unusually for government meetings, the Research and Development Corporation (RAND) has been hosting these task force meetings. These meetings don’t have a city official handling accessibility, but instead rely on an employee of the RAND Corporation, resulting in numerous accessibility problems. The task force website has no recordings of past meetings (although these can be obtained through public records requests), no slides from the presentations are provided, public comments have been censored, and worst of all, the task force won’t share the meeting ID or password so that I can access the WebEx platform to visually attend the meeting. As a result, attendees can’t know who is speaking throughout the meeting, who they are addressing, or who is bringing forward proposals. When we call in, who is the public speaking to on the phone?  Someone from Supervisor Haney’s office, someone from RAND?  A large hamster? The ghost of Biggie Smalls? Or perhaps, one of the nefarious drug dealers with tinted windows they are describing? I mean…who knows?

It was only after a half-dozen emails fighting for access that public comment was moved two hours earlier, to the start of the meeting.  In recent months, two meetings have been canceled within a few hours’ notice, one due to “technical issues” and another simply because of the verdict issued in the George Floyd case. (Why would this warrant canceling a public meeting?)

It is worth noting that the RAND Corporation got its start doing research for the United States military. In 2019, the RAND Corporation published an article on its website fueling scare tactics on “American Spending on Illicit Drugs,” which lumps together cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine with a state-legalized drug, cannabis. This troubling article is authored by Beau Kilmer, who represents the RAND Corporation at the task force meetings.   

Is Drug Use the Cause of Suffering in the Tenderloin? 

As our homeless neighbors struggle to access their most basic needs and face racist attacks and isolation, many have turned through despair to non-prescribed medications, sometimes leading to overdose. This is without a doubt a response of the most desperate kind from those feeling the most hopeless and without any useful alternative.  These deaths don’t count as “COVID deaths,” either, further obscuring the data and success-story pandemic response our officials and media boast about.

As the body count rises, with the homeless death toll more than triple what it was last year, City officials are starting to feel the heat. San Francisco has been making international headlines as an example of some of the greatest wealth disparity in the world, with thousands of homeless people on our streets, in a city of 77 billionaires.  

It takes a sick mind to see this kind of suffering and to weaponize it against those same victims through the silver-tongued rhetoric of the task force. Instead of compassionately addressing the causes of overdoses—by funding a mental health hotline, community support centers or addiction recovery groups, or distributing technology aids to homeless San Franciscans while using FEMA funds to utilize vacant housing, this task force prefers to resurrect archaic stereotypes of the Tenderloin community.

It’s sad to see the community’s name dragged through the mud in these meetings.  There is no mention of the brilliant Tenderloin poetry readings, the underfunded city parks with mothers and musicians, the incredible murals painted three stories high of plants and vegetation by local hero Mona Caron, the amazing underground theater and cabaret shows, the art collectives, kickass pizza or music studios of the TL.  There is no mention of the faith-based grassroots organizations that empower people here, the work and housing programs, the highly educated library patrons or anything else that doesn’t fit within the task force’s increasingly threatened and gentrification-hungry lexicon.

           What much of the public doesn’t know is that nearly all disabled people lost their access to pain relieving medications abruptly in 2016, due to new CDC guidelines restricting prescription pain medications as part of a federal crackdown on the so-called “Opiate Epidemic.” Not a week goes by that I don’t hear about a fellow disabled person writhing in pain and suffering long hours of horrific agony because their doctor will no longer prescribe the medication that used to help them. In a 2019 letter sent to members of Congress, the National Council on Independent Living cites a Human Rights Watch report, a letter signed by 300 doctors, and three former White House drug czars to make the point that “people with chronic pain may deteriorate medically, lose their ability to function or work, or resort to suicide or illegal substances when their medication is denied.”  Opiate medications were created and designed to help disabled and sick people manage pain. Now, with doctors limiting prescriptions, fearful of losing their licenses, many disabled people turn to non-prescribed drugs for debilitating pain relief—sometimes, yes, on a street corner in the Tenderloin.  

Enforcement of anti-drug laws tends to target poor and homeless people who have nowhere private to self-medicate.  It comes as no surprise that this new task force does nothing to investigate rampant drug use within the startup or technology companies. There is no mention of the documented drug use and drug dealing within any police department or how to prevent that.  As long as you’re using CBD, mushrooms, or coke in your upmarket Embarcadero penthouse, Steve Rogers or the A-Team won’t get assistance from the task force to take you down. In fact, they probably won’t mention you at all. 

We Can Do Better            

The War on Drugs has never worked. It has always been a bloated mess of wasted resources, racial profiling and divisive agendas. Supervisor Haney and Mayor Breed know this. When civil liberties are attacked, when people like task force member Max Young make Twitter posts encouraging arrests of someone on a street corner as “an easy bust,” much greater harm occurs than anything done by non-prescribed drugs.  In the time it took me to write this article, 15 Black people were killed by U.S. police officers.  I wonder how many of those deaths were a result of a phone call because someone on a street corner was self-medicating or looked suspicious in the “open air.”

If this task force really cared about drug use, it could provide a late-night transportation service to prevent drunk driving, support local domestic abuse help organizations like Woman Inc.or La Casa De La Madres, or work with communities to assist those with real needs—people who are the victims of real crimes committed under the influence of drugs—instead of working with the police who have denied survivors that help.  It could organize to lobby against Phillip Morris and the tobacco companies which help murder 41,000 Americans every year.  It could work to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour, to provide actual extremely low income housing in the Tenderloin and SF (no more than 20% of area median income), so that no one would ever have to resort to selling drugs to survive.  Or it could fund work development programs, addiction and rehabilitation programs—or it could do just about anything else.

The War on Drugs has never worked. It has always been a bloated mess of wasted resources, racial profiling, and divisive agendas.  Remind Matt Haney and Mayor Breed about this.  Get involved: Call your local supervisor, or come to some of the many cool community events in the Tenderloin. While there are some limitations now due to COVID-19, Faithful Fools has a calendar of upcoming events, and Hospitality House offers free therapy on Sixth Street as well as an art workshop on Market and Sixth streets.

If you have the time, come speak out at one of these meetings and remind this task force that San Francisco is more than the sum of its condominiums and boutique shops, that Black, Brown, homeless and disabled people outside are not threatening to you, and that the War on Drugs has never, ever worked. To join an upcoming meeting, visit https://oewd.org/meetings and click through to the agenda; follow the link or phone number to join.