Violent crime in California dropped for the first nine months of 1993 over the same period in 1992, reported attorney general Dan Lungren last winter. But statistics are of no comfort, and Lungren knows it. During the same press conference he even said so: “The reason people are more worried today than they ever have been before is the randomness.” Or as pollster Marvin Field told the San Francisco Chronicle, “When you have the Polly Klaas cases and the serial killers and the sexual molesters, that kind of crime bursts the bubble of feeling that you can protect yourself.” Even in traditionally liberal San Francisco, bleeding hearts are hardening. After the abduction and murder of Klaas by a repeat offender, for instance, a Chronicle reporter told me that many of his most liberal newsroom colleagues had been broken and turned by the ordeal of tracking the local tragedy.
Average San Franciscans can likewise only take so much, which became clear after another particularly cold-blooded murder in the heavily touristed Fisherman’s Wharf area (just a few months after a teenage Irish tourist was nearly shot dead for no reason in the same area by a 16-year-old out on a weekend pass from a juvenile facility). Michael Stuckey, age 23, suffered a mortal knife wound while trying to break up a mugging. His suspected killer, who has a considerable rap sheet, was arrested in a nearby Bay Street housing project, the one that surrounds a cable car turnaround where tourists, with good reason, wait pensively to be delivered upward to Knob Hill.
Even the televised dramatization of Tales of the City has not been enough to divert media and citizen attention away from the streets—no small thing for a city that has a sense of nostalgia that can eclipse all else. For instance, facing minimal protest. Mayor Frank Jordan is going through with his “Matrix” program to get certain street people, many of whom can be downright menacing, off the streets.
Meal-ticket civil libertarians and radical clergy have been thrown into a predictable tizzy. But their rallies have failed to draw any significant numbers. One overnight protest in front of City Hall attracted a crowd of only 250, slim pickings for a city with a tradition of drawing throngs for any demonstration demanding “social justice” from City Hall’s coffers. The next day’s account of the protest in the Chronicle spells out why, as the Reverend Robert McAfee Brown of Palo Alto’s First Presbyterian Church showed just how divorced from street life some homeless activists are: “We want to make an act of solidarity with homeless people,” he said.
But if that’s really the case, then, as anyone who works in the City Hall area or has to walk through it can tell you, the Reverend Brown ought to be sipping solidarity from a quart malt liquor bottle or smoking it from a crack pipe only a hundred yards away from City Hall on the steps of the emergency exits from the Civic Auditorium. If the reverend wanted to save souls, this would be an excellent place to start. To get to these homeless he would have to skip over broken bottles, streams of urine, and litter of all kinds, including the occasional soiled condom and used syringe. But by then he might even have second thoughts about Matrix, which links the self-destructive and disoriented to social services and puts criminals with outstanding warrants in jail.
San Franciscans have suffered a compassion breakdown, which is evident by the pathetic anti-Matrix effort—and the amazing tough talk by the city’s mainstream media. The usually liberal San Francisco Examiner, for instance, sounded downright traditionalist—echoing the Bushian “points of light” voluntarism—in an editorial entitled “Don’t Give to Beggars.” “Some [on the streets] are hard-luck eases. Some are afflicted with multiple ailments. And some are simply parasites,” the editorial read. “No city should have to endure legions of beggars. . . . Give to Glide Memorial. Give to St. Anthony’s. Give to St. Martin de Porres. Give to the Salvation Army. . . . Don’t give to beggars.”
Should it make the streets even remotely more hospitable to the working and tax-paying populace. Matrix may win Jordan, a moderate Democrat suffering from low numbers in popularity polls, a second term. In contrast, former mayor Art Agnos let the homeless have their way, and what aptly came to be known as “Camp Agnos,” a homeless Hooverville, sprang up in front of City Hall, causing a long-running national embarrassment to the city. Compared to Agnos’s homeless policies. Matrix represents the most responsive government San Francisco has seen in years, even if, as the far-left San Franciscan Bay Guardian has reported, “Only about 100 of the more than 7,000 homeless people cited, arrested, or fined since the program began last August have actually been taken off the street.”
But absolute numbers don’t count. Intent does. Jordan, a career cop, as opposed to Agnos, a career activist and liberal apparatchik (he’s now the regional director for HUD!), makes the distinction any average man on the street would: “I separate homeless and street people,” he told the Examiner in early January. “We should be sympathetic to those who are down and out and need help for a variety of reasons. But there are others who take advantage of all of us, including the homeless.”
No doubt some on the streets may have turned to crime or landed there because of hard times—the usual activist jag deceitfully lays all blame for the homeless on the “cold-hearted Reagan- Bush years”—but with the second year of the Clinton enlightenment now virtually over, even most bleeding hearts would have to agree that booze, dope, and the dole have more to do with criminality and life on the streets than does the labor market.
Now, sandwiched between random violent crime and streets more desperate than many in the Third World, San Franciscans are proving even liberals can be pushed only so far. Other progressive cities said to be studying Matrix include Portland and Seattle. Can the day be far off when progressives realize good intentions and even more government services aren’t enough for a civil society?