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Law & Disorder & Disinformation

A violent knife killing of a well-known and well-liked “techie” in San Francisco exploded onto the front pages of papers that still have pages, and all over online: “San Francisco is a terror zone, a dystopian mess, a cesspool of failed liberal anarchy!” And so on ad nauseum. Some, but not all, of them actually believed it.

Then it quickly was revealed that the murder was among “friends,” in a scenario that some wags termed “bro on bro violence.” The doomsayers mysteriously then went quiet. No longtime local with any intelligence and judgment was surprised at either the fact that this incident had nothing to do with local crime rates or that the ignorant outrage turned out to be just plain hypocrisy.

Almost any murder is a tragedy, and when violence happens to you that feels like a 100% crime rate, but the selective “outrage” we feel over Bob Lee’s death has also been disturbing. One of Lee’s friends says he left San Francisco since “It’s just not safe there anymore.” But Lee had moved from bucolic Marin to Miami — a city with some of the highest crime rates, violent and otherwise, in the nation, much higher than San Francisco’s. The irony was thicker than Fisherman’s Wharf clam chowder.

As has been amply demonstrated and disseminated each time the crime scare flares, San Francisco is still much safer than before. Yes your car might well get broken into if you are foolish or uninformed enough to leave anything that might seem valuable inside. Other thievery happens too — just like in most any city, or many suburbs, or the woods of Mendocino County, and so on. It seems to rise and fall like tides. But it’s violent crime that gets the most media attention, and a recent survey indicates that more and more San Franciscans live in varying levels of fear about that. Too often that fear is self-fulfilling, fueled by all the attention, another gift of the unfiltered internet.

Before the internet, one had to get out to see and feel how things were. Forty years back when I moved here, taking risks was part of having fun in the big city. Live music and cool bars were all over but tended to be in sketchier neighborhoods. South of Market, before it was re-branded “SOMA,” was for decades a crime-ridden open-air alcoholic ward — as documented by famed photographer Dorothea Lange during the Great Depression, by Jack Kerouac in the 1950s, and by my own experiences when I moved here in the 1980s. When crack cocaine hit here at that time, violence was rampant. South Park and the area Lee was killed in were often scary at night. The Mission had gang turf wars, Hayes Valley sported gunshot sounds every night, NOPA was still part of the Western Addition and was no place to be out at night, the Haight was a boarded-up post-60s wasteland, and BMW was said to stand for “Break My Window,” and on and on. 

Some of this might be a slight exaggeration, but in any event I feel safer now in all those areas than then, and I’m no longer a tough guy. Yes, the Tenderloin is a mess as has long been the case, and mid-Market indeed looks bleak, but that geographically accounts for about 5% of the city. The rest is often teeming with diners, tourists, shoppers, regulator folks doing what they do, or just quietly residential. Easter Sunday out at the beach looked like a tropical paradise, with hordes enjoying the sunshine; the biggest risk looked to be sunburn on all that exposed flesh. Friends from afar ask if it’s safe to come here and I tell them, Yes, once you’ve gotten past the high-risk driving here part. I’m only slightly joking.

Unfortunately, I’ve found that no amount of factual evidence will convince those who insist violent crime here is worse now, and that their outrage only really arises when they see a victim as one of their own. If Lee had been an unknown, nonwhite, non-affluent victim, let alone a homeless man, would his sad death be big news, and would techies and others be up in arms? Who can name the other dozen murdered victims so far this year? Did the trumped-up misguided recall of former DA Chesa Boudin do anything to help the city’s crime scenario? Unfortunately, the questions answer themselves. 

We could use more good cops, walking strategic street beats, as most agree. We could also use much more residential mental health and drug addiction treatment resources, some of it compulsory, despite what some of my fellow civil rights advocates might say, more to protect those so afflicted from others than because they are criminals (most aren’t). Too many of these ill unfortunates just bounce from street to hospital emergency department and back and need to be coerced into being helped and then helping themselves. It does nobody any good to “die with your rights on,” as the sad slogan goes. But we let them do so. And of course too many of us wouldn’t want to pay what it will cost to improve things.

Still, any number of good policies won’t eliminate crime, and the hypocritical and irrationally scared will always cry “law and order,” whatever that might mean to them, and even though that rarely works much and for long. The intricacies of what causes and reduces crime are just too complex, and too often called “soft on crime,” to satisfy the outrage. In any event, to “politicize” a sad murder dishonors the victim’s memory, and for no good reason, to no good end, and is soon forgotten until the next dead body. Rest in peace. All of them.

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