Mixed reviews for Castro Halloween
by Zak Szymanski
Touting Halloween in the Castro as a safe and fun venue may have actually helped contribute to the crowds that mobbed San Francisco on Monday, October 31, although the unusually warm weather, combined with the fact that many people are now accustomed to an annual city-run event were definitely factors as well, organizers and city officials said.
By some estimates, over 300,000 people came to the city's historic LGBT neighborhood to take part in what has become known as the wildest party around. The event, for the most part, was considered to be relatively safe, said San Francisco Police Captain John Goldberg of Mission Station. There were several arrests, he said, but the numbers weren't extraordinary. There was vandalism, including graffiti and broken windows. There were two reported stabbings, although neither of them appeared to have occurred in the Castro venue itself. Television station KPIX also reported that six shootings occurred that night, but again they were not attributed to Halloween in the Castro.
"Overall, people were remarkably well behaved, and we worked well with all the city agencies," said Goldberg, whose department, along with the San Francisco Fire Department and other workers also managed to respond to a propane tank explosion near South Van Ness Avenue at 3 p.m. and still handle Halloween duties just hours later.
Indeed, city departments and officials earned high praise from organizers of the event, who noted many improvements over last year, including greater patrols of the neighborhood's perimeters to avoid pockets of lawlessness and tail-end violence as people headed home; a clear and accessible fire and emergency lane; and large public safety presence, to name a few. Additionally, Safeway agreed to allow its parking lot to become a police deployment stop at the end of the night, allowing the extra officers called in from around the city to report to a central accessible location.
This was the third year of the city takeover of the event, which for years was an unsanctioned street party known for gay bashings and rampant violence. After the 2002 street party â€“ where five people were stabbed, numerous people were assaulted, and one man brought a working chainsaw as part of his costume â€“ Supervisor Bevan Dufty worked with city officials to sponsor, and therefore better manage the crowded event. And it worked. For a while.
Taming the beast
Try as they might, organizers acknowledged this year that they have been unable to tame the beast that is the event's larger-than-life reputation. And the ideas that worked the first two years to keep things running smoothly deserve another look, they said.
"Every year has its challenges," Dufty told the Bay Area Reporter. The warmer weather â€“ described as "balmy" by many in attendance â€“ encouraged more people to be out and stay out. Some neighborhood blocks that had hired private security in the past did not do so this year and became destinations for public congregation and urination.
Additionally, many people have finally "figured out" how to navigate the party's no-alcohol policy, said Audrey Joseph, an entertainment commissioner and manager of the event. Many alcohol bottles were confiscated last year at the gates, leaving the unsuspecting without their booze. But this year, those in the know simply drank before the event and outside of the venue.
"People are getting used to the restrictions and ways to get around them," said Joseph.
With more evident drinking came the expected problems.
"I'm kind of disappointed that the newspapers are downplaying the event. We were short-staffed and had to deal with fight after fight after fight," said San Francisco Special Patrol Officer Jane Warner, who managed a team of 40 safety monitors â€“ down from 80 last year due to budget cuts, she said â€“ which mostly responded to individual calls rather than performing its usual duties of walking the streets. "We logged 75 incidents. And that's just us, that's not SFPD."
Warner, who called the evening "chaotic," said that violent incidents began to increase at about 9 p.m.
Joseph, who characterized much of the evening as fun and safe, said she had some crowd control problems of her own, as an enormous amount of people rushed the gates around 8 p.m., many of them without paying the requested $5 donation.
This year, the city had hired professional entertainment personnel in the hopes that their experience would increase the financial return to community groups, but Joseph said that the gate money this year was about $27,000, or half of what was made last year.
"The gates didn't do as well as they should have, which is a drag," said Joseph. "We're going to rethink how that's done. We hired professional people but they were overwhelmed. The crowds came in droves and just pushed."
Joseph said she had some new ideas about how to collect donations that she would present at the annu
Another part of the problem, said Dufty, was that some radio stations were telling their listeners that the Castro was a "crazy" party, in stark contrast to the gay-positive and safe messages airing from the event's official sponsor Energy 92.7 FM.
There were even stories of Muni trains experiencing robberies, and evacuations due to horseplay, although at press time Muni spokeswoman Maggie Lynch did not return calls from the B.A.R. to confirm these reports.
All the factors added up to make some people experience a rather ominous vibe. Longtime B.A.R. photographer Jane Philomen Cleland said that a homophobic and not-so-festive culture pervaded the city, from the antigay comments on public transit to the lack of costumes on the streets. Some media accounts estimated that only 15 percent of people dressed up for the occasion. Cleland said that wherever she turned she was reminded that outsiders were in the Castro specifically to gawk at and incite the gays.
"The only gay people I saw looked horribly frazzled and stressed," she said. "We've always provided a freak show for straight people but this felt different."
And while the Castro perimeters may have been better patrolled, such an improvement may make it difficult to put an accurate face on Halloween-related incidents, as many occurred in the nearby Mission District, which was also teeming with people, some of whom may or may not have been headed to or from the Castro.
"I don't know the exact number of arrests or incidents, as the district itself was very busy," said SFPD's Goldberg, referencing how the 16th and Valencia street area bars and restaurants were also unusually packed, with "hundreds of people out there, too." One of the violent incidents reported, he said, occurred at 15th and Dolores, just a few blocks in either direction of both bustling scenes.
Likewise, the number of gay bashings is hard to determine on a traditionally violent night like Halloween, said Terry Person Harris, executive director of Community United Against Violence. Person Harris, along with Dufty and District Attorney Kamala Harris, toured the Castro on Thursday, October 27 to educate merchants and residents on how to recognize hate crimes, and to encourage people to report them.
On camera, Harris and Dufty also warned potential revelers that there would be legal consequences to participating in Halloween violence in the gay neighborhood. With so many people in attendance, it can be difficult to hear what perpetrators are saying, and often the gay-targeting of victims is more inherent â€“ with less need for antigay epithets â€“ during the Castro Halloween event. Additionally, noted Harris, people from marginalized populations may be less likely to report violence because of their community's own difficult history with law enforcement or their residual shame after a hate attack.
To report a hate crime, call (415) 777-5500, or (415) 553-0123. Even without physical injuries or witnesses, the data is useful for the community to have, noted advocates, and hate crime incidents can include everything from verbal harassment to robbery to assault and anything where bias is a significant motivating factor.
Those interested in providing input to Dufty about this year's Halloween event or how to handle future events are also encouraged to e-mail him, at Bevan.Dufty@sfgov.org.
"Halloween is a conundrum. At one level, not having a city event left us without a coordinated plan. At the same time it's just apparent that a lot of outside people are coming in despite having a no alcohol policy and serious likelihood of arrest for bad conduct, and I don't think we've struck the right balance," said Dufty, who was out on the Castro streets on Halloween until 3 a.m., fielding neighborhood calls on his cell phone, and up again at 7 a.m. to oversee street clean-up.
Dufty stopped short of suggesting an end to Halloween but agreed it could be part of the discussions. It has always been considered difficult, he said, to both prevent and prepare for an event.
"In the next three to four weeks we will have our Halloween debriefing meeting and I'm very open to the widest range of alternatives for what we should do in the future," said Dufty. "I do listen to people. A lot of people told me they were happy with how the other night went. A lot of people told me they were unhappy. I do take responsibility for it, and planning for Halloween has always been an open community process."