Vigil to mark Castro Sweep 25th anniversary

  • by Seth Hemmelgarn
  • Wednesday October 1, 2014
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Next week marks the 25th anniversary of the Castro Sweep, the October night in 1989 when police flooded San Francisco's gay Castro neighborhood, arresting and injuring numerous people.

The takeover will be remembered at a vigil from 6 to 7 p.m. Monday, October 6 at Castro and 18th streets.

The night of the sweep had been expected to be a routine rally organized by the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP, but before the night was through, the police had shut down an entire city neighborhood and arrested 53 people and injured 10. Four police officers also were injured during the several hourslong occupation of the Castro.

The ordeal rocked the San Francisco Police Department and reverberated throughout City Hall. The incident would become known as the "Castro Sweep" and prolong a rift between the city's law enforcement and LGBT community that had begun a decade earlier with the White Night riots that were sparked by a lenient sentence for the killer of the city's first openly gay supervisor, Harvey Milk, and Mayor George Moscone.

The 1989 AIDS protest began at the federal building a few blocks from City Hall. By the time the rally reached the Castro, the marchers were met by hundreds of police officers.

Unable to hold their planned rally, the ACT UP protesters instead held a sit-in in the middle of Castro Street and drew into the pavement their own version of the AIDS quilt. Another group of protesters held a die-in on the street. As the police began to arrest those blocking the street, someone knocked over a police motorcycle and the situation quickly escalated.

The police eventually declared the protest an unlawful assembly and tried to clear the streets. They lined up shoulder-to-shoulder along the entire stretch of Castro Street and began marching in unison toward 18th Street, sweeping the crowd along as they proceeded.

The night after the sweep, 1,500 people took to the streets in the Castro to reclaim the neighborhood.

Among other actions, the police chief at the time, Frank Jordan, moved to demote his brother, Deputy Police Chief Jack Jordan, for his handling of the incident. But in November Jack Jordan abruptly resigned from the force.

A group of citizens, including several of the people injured that night, sued the city and eventually settled for $200,000.

Local gay activist Michael Petrelis, who's helping to organize Monday's vigil, said in a blog post co-authored by Todd Swindell that the aim is to remind people of the sweep and "contemporary concerns," including "the dwindling diversity of the Castro" and "harassment of homeless and poor people."

In an emailed response to a question about whether he thinks something like the Castro Sweep could happen again, Petrelis said, "All LGBT and HIV social justice activists must be on guard for another Castro Sweep occurring or other abuses by the SFPD and other law enforcement agencies. Regardless of gay police officers or liaisons, we must remember they are paid to control and contain street dissent and the responsibility of activists is to act up loudly and proudly in the streets for change. Yes, another Castro Sweep is in the realm of possibility in San Francisco."

Petrelis is running to unseat gay Supervisor Scott Wiener, whose District 8 includes the Castro.

In an interview, Wiener said, "The Castro Sweep was a significant overreaction by the police, and I hope it never happens again. Anything is possible, but the San Francisco Police Department of today is very different than the SFPD of 25 years ago. The department is much more diverse," Wiener said, adding that the force includes "high-ranking LGBT people" and an "incredibly progressive, forward-looking police chief."

Wiener added, "A lot of progress has been made."

That's "not to say there isn't more work to be done, but there has been enormous progress," he said.

Police Chief Greg Suhr didn't respond to an emailed request for comment. But asked about the sweep, Officer Albie Esparza, a gay SFPD spokesman, said in an email, "Our department encourages people to exercise their First Amendment right. SFPD now even facilitates such activities to promote a safe atmosphere. The department has evolved with better crowd control training since and cultural training to all of our officers to respect every community we serve in SF. The SFPD has also recruited many officers from the various communities that reflect the city of SF and diversified our agency."

[Updated:Chief Suhr responded after the print edition went to press. Asked about what he would say to anyone who thinks something like the sweep could happen again, Suhr said, "I would say very, very plainly 'Not on my watch.' That's a phrase we use in the police department when we say we're committed to something just absolutely not happening. ... We're a different police department."

Recalling that night, Suhr, who's been with the SFPD for more than 30 years, said, "From all the cops that were on the ground, it felt like nobody knew what was going on at that time, and it just never felt right. ... We are so much smarter, so much more thoughtful." He added, "If you could make it so it never happened, I wish it could be so."end of update]