Halloween 2007: Martial Law is the New Party!

[Ed Note: This post is about Halloween in the Castro, what went wrong, & how to fix it. If you are more interested in my Halloween pictures, or my costume or how I made it, scroll or click to the previous post. Also, if you are interested in the future of the event send email to info AT halloweeninthecastro DOT com & ask to get on the list.]

Halloween is my favorite holiday. This year was no exception. It was getting stale doing the big costume thing and the mega-fun thing. So this year San Francisco decided that Martial Law was the new way to party!

MartialLaw.jpg

The massive police presence in the Castro on Halloween night was like a snuggly jackbooted baton-wielding blanket on a hot summer night. The biggest highlight? Maybe the formation of cops in full riot gear aggressively marching past me at CafĂ© Du Nord. Or maybe it was the cop who screamed at me to not step off the curb, or the cops who screamed at me turn down my small Disco Ball speakers. It’s a toss up really. Hmmmm actually more choices come to mind: Maybe it was when city officials bullied various merchants into joining other merchants who decided to close, or forced BART to shut down – bypassing the wishes of BART’s democratically elected leadership…. such a hard call….

Ugh. It sucked.

I’m left angry at the City, disappointed the idea that “nothing else could be done”, and hoping that everyone helps turn this thing around next year…

(Read on for my thoughts on what went wrong & how to fix it)

I managed to have a pretty good time anyway mostly because my costume was a blast (Disco Ball 4.0!) & Celeste & Gretchen (my dance squad) were awesome:

TeamDisco.jpg

But compared to the MEGA fun time I usually have on Halloween, this was a tough night. And I’m not happy about it at all. What really gets me is that it doesn’t have to be like this. Other cities do big parties – even big Halloween parties – but we have decided that we are incapable of doing one. I don’t know which disappoints me more: the failure of leadership & execution from Gavin Newsom & Bevan Dufty or the passive acquiescence and agreement from many local residents due to our low expectations of the public realm.

Before I go on, I do want to acknowledge something critical: While there is much I love about it still, Halloween in the Castro seems to have gotten worse and worse over the years. I still love it because there is a lot of fun still to be had there & probably due to the way I approach it*, but it is important to call a spade a spade: The problems range from the horrible, to the just really bad, to the annoying. Last year, people were shot in a gang related altercation that happened near friends of mine (who were hurt in the stampede that followed and scared for their lives). Local business owners who are all for public fun (like Dylan at Woodhouse Fish Co) suffered significant property damage & were threatened by idiot thugs. And there is the public drunkeness, urination, and just lame gawkers that throng to the Castro at Halloween. These types of problems have been growing for some time now & last year was the final straw for many. Even for those of us who love Halloween in the Castro, things do need to change.

My friend Pete L. put it this way (he was one of those who was dangerously close to the shooting & roughed up in the ensuing panic):

For my money, I’d say that there’s been a gradual decline in the fun spirit of the event over the past decade. In parallel with the party’s natural growth, the costumes have become more and more sexualized. That seems to have resulted in a rapidly increasing proportion of gawkers and voyeurs, some of whom are just there to take advantage of the opportunity for semi-sanctioned obnoxious behavior.

I pretty much agree with his general assessment of the situation, although I’m not sure I blame the sexualized costumes as a root cause (but they are seriously LAME & STUPID: sexy cat, sexy nurse, sexy cop, sexy witch, sexy yaaawwwwwnnnnn). I think all of us who have been to the Castro for a while now agree that the event has gotten worse, not better. I just refuse to accept that this is how it has to be or that shutting it down is the best we can do.

The official reason given by Supervisor Bevan Dufty for “No Halloween” this year was that the City was developing a plan, but that plan fell apart & so no plan led to “No Halloween” (which lead to “Martial Law”). Unofficially, the argument for closing the Castro given by many residents has been that last year was a disaster & thus we can’t do such things.

I reject both of those notions. To the first I say “BEVAN, YOU HAD A YEAR! and furthermore, given the way you handled last year, I don’t really believe you were trying that hard.” To those who argue that “last year was a disaster” & that we “can’t have nice things,” I ask “Have we really tried?”

To understand what I mean, lets start with what happened last year. Last Halloween was a disaster in that many things went badly, topped off by the fact that 9 people were shot. That was just horrible. Simply unacceptable. But what isn’t often mentioned is that MANY people knew Bevan Dufty’s plan for last year was destined for failure.

Last year’s plan was basically thrown together at the last minute, and essentially involved reducing the amount of entertainment & infrastructure:

  • It limited entertainment by going from 3 stages down to 1
  • It tried to shut down the party early 10:30 (when it is usually really getting going)
  • It placed riot cops everywhere
  • The plan was published only days before the event

So not only did this NOT address any of the various problems that had been growing with the previous years’ Halloweens, it did a worse job of doing the same old things we had been doing. This was Supervisor Bevan Dufty’s grand plan for Halloween 2006. Many of us said then it would fail & tragically we were right.

Some have argued that last year’s effort was an attempt to have Halloween fail so that it could be shut down entirely. And while that is in fact what has happened, I honestly don’t think Bevan Dufty is that cynical. Though I have disagreed with his policies many times and he makes me very angry at times, he is a nice and decent guy (left wing politics in SF get VERY personal and name-cally – I HATE that). I really think last year was just badly badly botched & yes, I blame Bevan for a good part of it.

The other notion that I have heard from many folks is that “we just can’t do anything better, so sadly Halloween has got to go”. Ugh. Really? Do we just give up the things that make this City great without trying anything better? This just pisses me off in lots of ways. Remember kindergarten, when the teacher said “if any of you misbehaves, then the whole class won’t get to do <whatever fun thing>”. I HATED that. I think that was my first sense of injustice! It still bothers me. So now, the notion that we all have to suffer for the lameness of a few bad apples coupled with the blasĂ© shrug-your-shoulders acceptance displayed by so many locals ads a real sense of disappointment to my frustration about our lame Halloween.

Where do we get this sense that “We just can’t do a safe, fun Halloween in the Castro”. New York has been doing a much bigger Halloween in the Village for 33 years now with 2 MILLION people (two and a half San Franciscos worth of people!). West Hollywood does one with 500,000 people. But somehow we have given up before we have even tried any innovative solutions. Why? Here are three quick ideas that I think would make a big difference:

  • Charge a sliding scale from $10-20: This would keep out a lot of the gawkers and riff raff that make the event so unpleasant – that alone I think would dramatically improve the quality of the event. It would also go a long way to paying for the expense. We do this at various street fairs and the like – why not Halloween? Maybe have a shorter line & lower fees for those in costume.
  • Community monitors to supplement the cops: just as Burning Man is self-policing by using volunteer Rangers who are burners looking to help out, the City could recruit volunteer monitors from the neighborhood who would provide the first line of monitoring of the crowd. They could then be the eyes and ears for the cops and their presence would not be nearly as intimidating or as harsh. Most of their job would be just making sure drunk people weren’t peeing on public property and the like.
  • More costume contests and the like to encourage costumes & participation! (Come to think of it we could have a hoosegow for all the lame “sexy fill-in-the-blank” costumes… )

But these ideas are just a small taste of what is possible. Here are a few more radical ideas I’ve heard:

  • Doing multiple neighborhood-scale Halloweens all over SF rather than one huge party in the Castro
  • Doing a parade that starts in the Castro & ends at Civic Center

The point is there are many good things we haven’t tried – but fundamentally, why accept the idea of “No Party, Just Cops”?

Honestly I think charging will solve a good chunk of the issues. But regardless, the fact that other cities succeed and that there are lots of interesting ideas out there suggests to me a huge failure of leadership and imagination & it kills me.

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My friend Brian put it well on a flickr page of photo he took of a boarded-up shop:

last years shooter became San fran’s 9/11 — a rallying cry used to shred civil liberties and due process in the name of “public safety”. it worked for bush…

I think that is what saddens me most about Halloween this year. No, the changes in Castro didn’t have ANY of the evil inherent in the changes taking place in the country since 9/11. But once again, something near and dear to me has been taken away due to fear & incompetence albeit on a much much smaller scale. Hell No!

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WHAT TO DO:

It looks like next year there will probably be a Halloween. Whatever happens, I hope everyone who reads this takes back Halloween next year – how? Ideally, by joining in the discussions around Halloween with Citizens For Halloween (Thanks to Ted Strawser & Alix Rosenthal for leading the charge on this one….) but ALSO By going all out! At whatever event gets decided on – just go out and try to make it as super fun as you can! PARTICIPATE Do the big costume! Do the crazy scheme! Try something – but whatever it is go out to have the most positive fun you can & take back Halloween for San Francisco!

*I go all out for Halloween but also I go to the corner of 18th and Castro & stay around there – the big crush and the big crazyness seems to always be on Market St & also as far down as the theater – I tend to stay clear of that.

7 thoughts on “Halloween 2007: Martial Law is the New Party!

  1. I do think that charging admission will cut down somewhat on gawkers there will of course be the time-honored “elitist” counter-argument: “You only want rich white kids to party in the Castro. Poor people need not apply.”

    I like the idea of a variable price based on costume. You could have a price ranging from $30 to free. A small panel of judges would be seated at each entrance to decide your admission fee. No costume = $30; a lame-ass t-shirt that says “This is my costume” = $29.50; sexy nurse outfit bought at the Halloween Superstore = $15; something homemade and creative like a disco ball = free. Expense doesn’t matter, creativity does. No appeals, the judges decision is final.

    Ideally, the impromptu costume contest should be an attraction in it’s own right.

  2. I’m curious, has there been a survey of the community? I’d be hesitant to impose such a large event on a community that might not want it. Yeah, NIMBY-ism isn’t a good thing, but community involvement and ownership is one of the most important things in SF I think. So if the Castro residents (in large enough numbers) were to say that they don’t want this in their community, shouldn’t we respect that? I did hear something about there having been an alternative celebration the weekend before that wasn’t well publicized. That sounds like the community taking back Halloween and making like it used to be. Did anyone else know about this?

  3. I take a stand against the blanket condemnation of all “sexy {insert occupation}” costumes. Maybe we just haven’t delved far enough into our nation’s job titles. How about a sexy…. phlebotomist? Oooo, now that has some torque.

  4. Firstly, where did you find those hot disco divas you’re with? But, seriously, I really loved what you wrote and one of the things that I would like to see more of with community parties like the one (that didn’t happen) on Halloween is a greater emphasis on showcasing local talent. I think there should be smaller stages where there could be dance performances, open-mike style music, stand-up comedy, etc. The more people who are involved from the ground up, the more people who will be invested and work to make the experience safe and fun for everyone else.

  5. Thanks for the detailed breakdown of what you would do to save Halloween.

    So often I hear people complaining about it, but they don’t spend the time to consider solutions.

    I also appreciate the other ideas posted by your community, this gives me great hope for partying in SF. Sometimes it takes hitting bottom to surface back up, hopefully for us,better than ever!

  6. I appreciate all your thoughts around how to make this better. I just have to ask, why on earth did you go there on Halloween this year, just to bum yourself out?

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