Cameras, Cops, and Complicity
Reflection on attending the Castro Community Benefit District Town Hall last night
Last night, I attended the Castro Community Benefit District’s Town Hall on installing cameras across the Castro and down Market Street to Octavia Street. I found out about it thanks to Twitter. The announcement piqued my interest because cameras (aka surveillance) is just more tools for cops, and I am committed to abolishing the police. Plus, this is the supposed heart of the LGBTQIA+ community. The home of Harvey Milk’s camera shop. In so many ways, the Castro is the reason I moved to San Francisco.
I really didn’t know what to expect from the Town Hall. I already believe the Community Benefit Districts serve Business Interests and not community benefits. Their name is a misnomer. Their focus is mostly “quality of life issues”1—a euphemism for harassing our unhoused neighbors— and beautification for the benefit of business and not community or culture, as evidenced by SOMA Community Benefit District’s censorship of queer artists selected by the LGBTQ and Leather Cultural District for display in the SOMA neighborhood2. In essence, they are the next evolution of Redevelopment: they claim the development of public space for the benefit of business.
I went into the meeting knowing all this, and I was still unsure the exact purpose of this event. Was it a space of open exchange regarding the installation of surveillance throughout the Castro and the implications of those cameras on both public life and civil liberties? Had a decision already been made, and the Town Hall was a formal presentation about how the cameras were going to be installed? How were the presenters picked, and what are their relations to each other and the company providing the technology for the surveillance?
All I had to go on was what they posted in the Zoom registration:
Goal: To provide the opportunity for the community to dialogue about implementing a public safety camera program in the Castro. This will include a panel of experts from the following perspectives: Castro CBD, Citywide Community-Based, Social Justice, S.F. Community Benefit Districts Experience, S.F. Justice System
I. Welcome and Introduction
II. Expert Panel
III. Community Dialogue: Q & A and public comments
IV. Wrap-Up and Next Steps
It quickly became apparent that the Town Hall, set up by Andrea Aiello, Executive Director of Castro CBD, and facilitated by Griffin Gaffney, Co-Founder of Here/Say Media, Together SF, and Civic Action Labs, heavily favored installing cameras. There were no dissenting opinions on the “Expert Panel”. In fact, the whole panel was focused on more effective and efficient collaboration with cops.
As a queer, I find it outrageous that in my own supposed community and in my own short lifetime the Castro has gone from burning cop cars to being co-conspirators of state harassment and violence. I am only 44 years old. How have we become so defanged? How have we let our land-owning businesses get away with calling the cops on our queer and trans neighbors?
This last question really hits me in my gut. Where and how have I been visible and vocal about the cooptation of the imagined heart of the LGBTQIA+ community?
Image description: The words, “Community Benefit Districts are ‘political’ arms of business interests.” in bold black block lettering set against a hot pink background.
Since the early 2000s, the Castro has not felt like home to me. It is not my heart, nor does its rainbow crosswalks represent my communities. I often feel like an outsider within a neighborhood I used to spend hours a day in. Whether Cafe Flora, Tower Records, A Different Light, or even Peets, I found a place where I could casually meet other queer and trans folx with nothing more than a smile and a friendly hello.
It was still a neighborhood in the 1990s. By the mid-2000s, it was a global tourist destination, marketed by San Francisco’s tourism board, and Community Benefit Districts, after the closure of Redevelopment Offices that quite literally paved the way for gentrification, sprung up to address the private business concerns as related to quality of life issues, public safety, and, ultimately, economic interests.
Tourism has always been big bucks for San Francisco, and creating destinations is within the interests of both City Hall, who constantly chases tourist dollars, and the businesses benefitting from being labeled a destination. This feedback loop also increases land value because it increases desirability. The land-owning founding directors of Community Benefit Districts3 know this, and it is within their financial best interest to continue increasing desirability, even at the expense of the communities and cultures in which they reside.
Regardless of knowing this and experiencing how gentrification has separated me from a neighborhood that used to be familiar, what have I actually done besides complain to my friends and comrades? How have I disrupted the comfort of the business interests gentrifying my life?
image description: an illustration of a selfie in a red-orange gradient set against a lime green watercolor dots background.
This Town Hall was an opportunity for me to disrupt. My profile picture is an illustration of me smiling joyously against a lime green watercolor background. I’ve had others tell me that it makes them feel comfortable. As I was listening to Andrea Aiello extoll the benefits of surveillance, I realized that while I may be muted and chat may be disabled, I was not, in fact, silent. My profile picture was communicating complicity within this process. I could change it.
So I opened up InDesign and made a quick magenta square. On top of it I started responding to what I was hearing with short, bold statements in black block lettering. I changed my comforting profile picture to the slogan, “Queers don’t surveil queers. Queers don’t call cops.” The bright pink and bold statement stuck out against a sea of awkward Zoom videos and blank profile pictures. I saw people begin to get uncomfortable. I may not have been able to be vocal, but I could still use my words.
Image description: The words, “Queers don’t surveil queers. Queers don’t call cops.” in bold black block lettering set against a hot pink background.
As the event progressed, I made more and more statements and changed out my profile pic. I was able to force a dialogue, even if no one could physically hear it, not just with myself but with others who might not agree with the premise of being cop-conspirators. It was a visible message of solidarity. At least in that moment.
The presentations ended, and public comment ensued. A lot of people were opposed to cameras and called into question the premise of the Town Hall. Was this about figuring out how best to install cameras, or was this an open dialogue about public surveillance? While Andrea tried to say it was an open dialogue, she clearly had an agenda: to get these cameras installed.
The Town Hall was supposed to end at 7:30pm. Due to community coming out in force and demanding to be heard, the meeting was extended another 30 minutes. Comment after comment brought new questions and considerations that Andrea clearly had not thought through. The “experts,” too, couldn’t answer them. In fact, when questioned about the tech billionaire funding these cameras, Andrea bewilderedly responded, “he’s just a philanthropist,” as if that proved his benevolence. (I replied in chat, “tech does not invest in something it will not get a return on.”)
Image description: The words, “Surveillance is anti-gay.” in bold black block lettering set against a hot pink background.
Towards the end of the call, one caller shared a harrowing run in with the police. He’s a business owner born and raised in San Francisco. He was being harassed outside his business by someone passing by. When the police showed up, they assumed the business owner instigated it, and they put him in handcuffs. His staff told the cop it was the other person who started it. The cop didn’t listen. It was only after the staff shared video footage from the owner’s private camera that the cop released him.
He’s rightfully conflicted about cameras. He sees that there might still be need for continued dialogue about the issue of surveillance. He also experienced how a camera saved him from the police. If he hadn’t had that footage, who knows what the outcome would be. I learned this morning he is on the Board of the Castro CBD.
What strikes me most as I reflect on the entirety this Town Hall is that the basic dialogue still focused mostly on cameras and surveillance. This final caller’s story strikes at something much deeper for me. How is it that the Castro CBD has allowed the police to terrorize business owners? If the Board Member of a cop-conspiring organization can be handcuffed and not listened to, what is the experience of the police by our most vulnerable queer and trans neighbors?
This isn’t just a question for the Castro CBD, either. It is a question for everyone, including myself:
How are we going to abolish the police?
Image description: The words, “Harvey Milk didn’t die so we surveil our neighbors.” in bold black block lettering set against a hot pink background. Yes. I posted this with a grammatical error. It should read, “Harvey Milk didn’t die so we could surveil our neighbors.”
see: Citations Needed Episode 85, “Incitement Against the Homeless (Part I) - The Infestation Rhetoric of Local News,” and Episode 86, “Episode 86: Incitement Against the Homeless (Part II) - The Exterminationist Rhetoric of Fox News” for deeper analysis of rhetoric.
see: “Why is Soma CBD censoring leather community art?” by Jackie Blandón in 48 Hills, December 2020.