Protesters Take Over Budget Committee Vote on New Jail

The protesters who took over the Board of Supervisors Budget Committee today (an action that is still ongoing; their chants of “Hell no, no new jail in San Francisco” are serenading me as I write this) waited through nearly two hours of budget wrangling so dull it could bring a statue to tears before making their move.

Give them credit: That’s endurance. A lot of people don’t make it through the first 20 minutes.

The clerk wasn’t even quite finished reading the agenda items relevant to the proposal for a new $240 million city jail to replace the decrepit earthquake hazard on Bryant Street before a whistle interrupted him and out came the banners: “NO SF JAIL” and “DON’T LOCK UP OUR BUDGET.”

At that point, the meeting descended into a festival-like atmosphere of shouting, stomping, and chanting that has been going on for over an hour now with no sign of abating.

[jump] “Why would we want a new jail?” said Rocheall Pierre, a 41-year-old San Francisco native with the Young Women’s Freedom Coalition, one of a patchwork of non-profits and activist groups who collaborated on the protest.

“Black San Franciscans are five percent of the population but 56 percent of the jail population. Now they want to bring hundreds of millions of dollars into the city just to lock more of us up?”

Pierre, a mother who was recently evicted from her Fillmore home, says the demonstration was in planning for about a month and was motivated by flat disgust that the city would propose spending nine figures on a jail rather than relief for the homeless, the mentally ill, or the working poor.

Another protester, who declined to give a name, put it more pointedly: “They build the jails for people like us, not people like you.”

She was angry about my question, which was simply, “Why do you object to the proposed jail?” A basic query, but from her perspective I was a white guy (who would never have to worry about being racially profiled) asking a question that she thinks would be obvious to anyone less privileged. She let me know in a hot second how unhappy she was about that.

For the record, the answer was obvious to me too (even before I asked), but that’s not the point. There are lots of potential objections to the jail plan, which the budget committee was supposed to vote on funding for today before sending it to the full board next week.

Some argue that the $240 million plus price tag (a third of which would be covered by a state grant) is too much for the modest size of the facility. Others question building a new facility at a time when the jail population is in decline anyway.

Ada Chan, an East Bay resident (“I live on Oakland, like all San Franciscans”) came to the meeting to object to the size of the proposed “super size” jail, which she says would cast a shadow on the playground near her workplace. (Chan didn’t know about the protest before she showed up, but volunteered to hold up part of a large banner as an enlistee of convenience.)

But for the folks who still have command of the chamber (most of them — including myself — were finally hustled out by sheriffs and right into the middle of a wedding in progress, but five protesters hunkered down in a circle on the floor and chained themselves together, which will require the intervention of the fire department), the problem is more fundamental: To them, the jail is an abiding symbol of a society where they increasingly feel unwelcome.

Many of us think of things like the Google Bus and the price of toast at Four Barrel when we talk about gentrification. But to someone like Jed, an 18-year-old from Richmond who volunteers with the LGBT youth group Lyric in the Castro (a neighborhood where an 18-year-old queer youth can no longer find a place to live), a jail might be the place where an increasingly white and affluent city can stick those few undesirables who can’t be driven out by economic pressures.

That‘s not everyone‘s view, of course.

A few at the meeting tried to shout down the protesters, claiming they agreed with the points being made but resented the interruption of normal civic process.

“I’m not being allowed to speak,” one woman cried repeatedly, before being shouted down.

Supervisor David Campos, who is not a member of the budget committee but came to speak on a few agenda items, looked like he might have enjoyed the display a little. Asked whether this would sway the minds of any of his colleagues, he said, “I think most of them have already made up their minds, although there are one or two who aren’t sure.”

As we all sit here waiting for the fire department to come unchain the last of the demonstrators so they can be carted away, a tour group is coming through. The docent points out the City Hall holiday tree, noting that it’s covered with white paper cranes, each inscribed with a “message of hope.”

It’s a pretty notion, but it looks like it’s going to take a little more than that to lift up some of us.

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