Turning the Castro into a surveillance state will not keep us safe

By Castro LGBTQ Cultural District, Harvey Milk LGBTQ Club and Alice B. Toklas LGBTQ Democratic Club

By Castro LGBTQ Cultural District, Harvey Milk LGBTQ Club and Alice B. Toklas LGBTQ Democratic Club

Last year, the Mid-Market Community Benefit District – one of San Francisco’s 17 property tax-funded business improvement districts — acknowledged that they had provided surveillance camera footage to the Trump Administration’s racist deportation regime without so much as a warrant. In June 2020, an identical surveillance network of 400 cameras owned by the Union Square business improvement district was accessed by the San Francisco Police Department to target peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Earlier this year, numerous local and national news outlets reported on a wide-ranging security breach of surveillance camera networks installed throughout Bay Area public school districts.

Despite the repeated and very real risks associated with these complex, centralized surveillance camera networks, the Castro/Upper Market Community Benefit District (Castro CBD) is barrelling forward with skewed surveys and one-sided messaging to justify the acceptance of a $700,000 “gift” to blanket the Castro neighborhood with cameras, despite opposition from the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District, Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club, Alice B. Toklas LGBTQ Democratic Club, and a growing chorus of neighborhood residents and community leaders.

The “gift” — if that’s what you want to call turning a beacon of free expression into a surveillance panopticon — comes from Chris Larsen, a San Francisco-based billionaire tech mogul and co-founder of blockchain payment system company Ripple, who since 2012 has funded a private network of more than 1,000 high-definition cameras put at the disposal of business districts looking to streamline collaboration with police. It is worth noting that the executive director of the Castro CBD admits to never having met their gracious benefactor.

What little we know of Chris Larsen’s conspicuous benevolence includes recent press hits alongside elected officials handing out nominal grants to beleaguered small business groups. The larger donations — including the $700,000 pending donation to the Castro CBD — come with high-tech strings attached, calling into question Mr. Larsen’s intentions and potential personal emolument. Those intentions are unclear, but in light of public records revealing repeat contributions to Congressional Republicans across the country, they no doubt include undermining the Castro neighborhood’s reputation as a beacon of diversity and progressivism.

Our skepticism is heightened by the simple fact that scant evidence exists to support the notion that surveillance cameras actually deter crime. In reality, people who are desperate enough to commit property crimes will not be deterred even if they know they are being recorded. The individually-owned security cameras already in the Castro speak to this truth. Instead, we hear stories from small business owners about the reluctance on behalf of police to pursue leads, even when the footage exists. Instead of helping small businesses, we hear repeat stories of surveillance technology being abused to target immigrants, protesters and people experiencing homelessness, while disproportionately misidentifying Black, Brown and non-white people.

Complex surveillance technologies will not keep San Franciscans safe. Unlike individually-owned cameras, the centralized surveillance network provided by third-party contractor Audio Video Solutions provides a one-stop shop for anyone with intermittent access and an ax to grind to target vulnerable members of our communities, including to undermine San Francisco’s proud Sanctuary City status. The potential for abuse cannot be overstated, though we don’t need to read much history on the topic to be forewarned against repeating it.

If the actual goal is community safety, we can think of better uses of $700,000. For that amount, the Castro CBD could hire a team of on-demand health professionals to provide assistance to neighbors experiencing mental health crises, expanding on The City’s promising Street Crisis Response Team. They could provide long-term funding to their Public Safety Ambassadors Program, which is only in its pilot stage but already facing a funding cliff. Instead, the Castro CBD would be committing itself to upwards of $70,000 per year in unfunded liabilities for the ongoing maintenance, operations and compliance costs of a surveillance network that promises marginal returns, at best, while creating serious risks.

One thing is certain: a decision of this magnitude cannot be made by an unaccountable board of unelected property owners and real estate brokers – many of whom don’t even live in San Francisco – while alienating community groups with decades of experience organizing against government inaction on the AIDS pandemic, protesting the displacement of LGBTQ people in the face of tech gentrification, and fighting against the criminalization of poverty in the Castro and across San Francisco.

The Castro CBD is apparently unaware that we’ve been marginalized in the past — and when our communities are under attack, we stand up and fight back.

The Castro LGBTQ Cultural District aims to highlight the importance of LGBTQ people to Castro’s history and ensure they have a place in its future. The Harvey Milk LGBTQ Decmoratic Club and Alice B. Toklas LGBTQ Democratic Club are two of the largest and longest-standing Democratic Clubs in San Francisco.

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