On Being Black in San Francisco

For an SF-born black man, white liberal indifference is just as dangerous as the cops.

I used to work for The Sharper Image at Ghirardelli Square. My first day, I showed up 30 minutes before opening. The cops were called. They were told “someone suspicious” was standing outside the store. That was 2000.

In the mid-2010s I was conspicuously followed as I walked to a friend’s party in Oakland. There had been protests earlier, so the cops were out in force. As I hopped off BART and made my way from downtown to a residential area, a helicopter kept its spotlight trained on me for three or four blocks.

In the wake of the 2008 recession, the SF-based theatre group I worked with was featured on a show supporting the burgeoning Occupy Wall Street movement. I read Black Panther co-founder Huey Newton’s 1970 speech reaching out to the Women’s Lib and Gay Rights movements. Walking home in the rain without an umbrella, a cop car stalked me for about a block-and-a-half. The car jumped onto the curb to block my path. The white cop, who never took his hand off his holstered pistol, went on about local burglaries and how I “fit the description of a suspect.” The arrival of a black officer in a second squad car did not put me at ease. That was January 2012, three years after Oscar Grant was killed on a BART platform and one month before Trayvon Martin was killed on a Florida sidewalk.

After a while, people who look like me become so accustomed to getting the third degree from cops that we stop counting how many times it happens.

I was born in San Francisco — at the Kaiser on Geary Boulevard. I grew up watching films at The Coronet, listened to Rick Chase on KMEL, and remember The Embarcadero before the ’89 quake. I’ve lived here my entire life.

I love my hometown and its status as a progressive outlier. But, as much as San Franciscans like to think of themselves as forward-thinking, highly evolved, multicultural humanitarians living in a world apart from the rest of the country, this city is still a microcosm for the United States: while she claims to support independent businesses, Mayor London Breed has maintained her predecessor’s “Twitter Tax,” which allows loopholes for corporate interests; all talk of embracing a local identity goes out the window when Halloween in The Castro is cancelled due to violence from out-of-towners; and though we pride ourselves as some “post-racial utopia,” both The City and the country have yet to reconcile their racist history. Japanese citizens were hauled out of the Fillmore under the infamous Executive Order 9066 and Pinoys were dragged out of Chinatown kicking and screaming. Even The Castro’s questionable history with PoC is a story unto itself.

And through The City’s many changes, black San Franciscans have consistently made easy targets for their supposedly progressive white neighbors. Not all of the reactions are as extreme as pegging the Zodiac Killer as an “unidentified black male;” most are just indifference to PoC lives and institutions. For instance, every white hipster in The City chipped in to save Le Video in 2014, but despite its historic status as the oldest black-owned bookstore in the city, Marcus Books couldn’t garner enough support from the community to keep its doors open. Moving to a tolerant city hasn’t magically cured people of their biases, it’s just forced them to get more creative with how they express them.

In my capacity as artist and art critic, I often deal with a lot of white artists whose take on race is troublesome. For all those who collaborate with artists of color and let them speak their own truth, there are plenty of edge-lords who think being provocative (ie. casually racist) is their artistic duty. Calling out these would-be visionaries leads to whitesplaining about how you failed to interpret their artistic vision.

These pretentious hypocrites are all talk, no action. They’ll shrug in discomfort at the mention of SFPD murdering a person of color, but they won’t show any real support for the Frisco Five (whom I personally reported on in 2016). They fail to understand — or simply turn a blind eye to — how their myopic interpretation of black life contributes to making black San Franciscans more of a target for an historically antagonistic police force.

Like the corporate behemoths gentrifying The City, white San Franciscans have the luxury of calling the police in an emergency — as they have no ingrained fear of being mistaken as a threat or perpetrator. Black San Franciscans know that calling the cops could backfire.

And even as the SFPD attempts to make strides under Chief Bill Scott, the danger is still present for black San Franciscans. In lieu of making corporate giants pay their fair share in taxes (leading to better social programs and non-lethal police training), white residents — both old and new — have taken to hiring private security firms to patrol their neighborhoods. Inevitably, this has led to increased harassment of an already-dwindling black SF population. As someone who feels safer in the Tenderloin than Nob Hill, the only thing I find more dangerous than a cop is a private security guard, whose only duty is to protect the interests of wealthy stakeholders and who has no accountability to the general public. In either case, I’ve been pegged as a criminal on sight.

If white San Franciscans glean nothing else from my words, let it be this: no one likes to be told they aren’t welcome. Not you, not us. You can live up to the progressive ideals you claim to support by actively working to solve this problem — by patronizing black-owned businesses, supporting black artwork, and asking yourself if the mere sight of a black neighbor is worth calling the police. People of color are an endangered species in San Francisco, with black residents being the most rare. Living in the place where we’ve set down stakes for generations shouldn’t be considered a threat or provocation. When you get down to it, what we want is very simple.

We want to live here in the city you were drawn to.

We want to live here in the city.

We want to live here.

We want to live.

Is that so much to ask?

Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theatre artist and arts critic. His collected writings can be found at TheThinkingMansIdiot.wordpress.com

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