Why Do SF Progressives Defend Open Air Drug Markets?

by on May 22, 2023

Ignoring the Public Safety Crisis

Many progressives are outraged by TogetherSF Action’s “That’s Fentalife!” advertising campaign targeting San Francisco’s open air drug markets. Instead of blaming Mayor Breed for the crisis, progressives are denying that stopping sellers of deadly drugs should be a priority.

Some elected progressives, like Board President Aaron Peskin, have called for crackdowns on drug markets. But Dean Preston and his backers in the media and public defender’s office are irate to see public ads highlighting the scourge of fentanyl and open drug markets.

Denying the Public Safety Crisis

Many progressives believe arresting drug dealers is a failed strategy. They view drug cartels selling deadly drugs as strictly a public health crisis, not an issue of public safety.  That Tenderloin families don’t feel safe walking to and from their homes, and neighborhood small businesses can’t attract customers unwilling to walk by dealers is not their concern.

The city’s massive overdoses is clearly a public health crisis. But when even Urban Alchemy feels it’s not safe for its workers to patrol blocks controlled by the drug cartel, open drug markets are clearly a public safety issue.

The Tenderloin Business Coalition explained to Supervisor Preston that ambassadors cannot stop drug dealing. They described how businesses were being hurt by drug markets. Yet the D5 Supervisor continues to claim that a police response to drug markets is wrong. His stance conflicts with what is actually happening on the streets. It also ignores the nearly 200 Tenderloin businesses that signed  petitions calling for more police enforcement.

Progressives used to champion small business. Now many oppose enforcement measures that small businesses need to survive. The city’s left used to be strong allies of the Tenderloin; now many ignore the community’s public safety concerns.

It’s a very curious strategy for progressives eager to unseat Mayor Breed in 2024. Defend the mayor on the issue where she is most vulnerable and instead run a campaign denying that she has made the city less safe.

Pro-Police Agenda?

Some criticize TogetherSF Action’s budget proposal for including more police funding.  They also believe the city should continue to spend millions of dollars promoting drug addiction; that’s an expenditure of city funds that the ad campaign has questioned. Critics also believe that drug users should be allowed to shoot up wherever they want without facing risk of arrest; TogetherSF Action’s campaign challenges this.

But putting aside whether low-income communities of color favor more police—which recent mayoral elections in New York City, Oakland and Philadelphia say they do—TogetherSF Action’s overwhelming goal has always been to close open air drug markets.

And that’s what the ad campaign is designed to achieve.

I see Preston and others tweeting about how great things are going in Hayes Valley and other gentrified San Francisco neighborhoods. Don’t San Francisco progressives oppose gentrification? Haven’t progressives fought to protect working-class neighborhoods like the Tenderloin from displacement and gentrification?

A new 100% affordable family housing project recently opened in the Tenderloin. And despite calls for more family housing in the neighborhood, the project can’t attract tenants. Why? Because they fear living in the neighborhood.

That should be a wake up call to all progressives that their top priorities like affordable housing are endangered by drug dealers. Progressives should realize by now that closing open air drug markets is essential.

I look forward to hearing the questions about drug markets raised to the mayor at the May 23 special Board meeting that Board President Peskin pushed to have in UN Plaza. You’ll never see fewer dealers in the plaza as during the meeting.


Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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