Listening to the local evening news in the San Francisco Bay Area is by no means uplifting, given the nightly reports covering a crime wave that shows no sign of ebbing. But in recent weeks, there’s been a glimmer of hope: I’ve been hearing again and again the words “Proposition 47.” TV news reporters are beginning to connect the 2014 state referendum, which reclassified many drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, with the recent breakdown of law and order.
In this case, however, the corporate media is merely playing catch-up to the citizen journalists who for years have chronicled the Bay Area’s crime problem on Twitter. I was thinking of this when I learned of Twitter’s new rule prohibiting publication of images or videos of private individuals without their consent.
In 2018, when I started blogging about San Francisco’s misnamed “homelessness” problem, local TV news stations continuously pushed the idea that income inequality and steep rents were the cause. Without a doubt, San Francisco is an unnecessarily expensive city because of the myriad regulatory measures hindering both new housing construction and commerce. But any honest casual observer in the Bay Area knows that something other than high rents lies behind the phenomenon.
And so I found, on Twitter, a group of locals posting cellphone pictures and videos of their unhoused neighbors prostrated on the sidewalk, trash and tents blocking the streets, violent psychotic breakdowns, and drug deals in progress. The images inspired a discussion of how our once-lovely city had turned into a desolate zombie land. San Franciscans were putting two and two together, figuring out that Proposition 47 had gutted the law and that the people in charge were corrupt. Our group of citizen journalists tagged elected officials, nonprofit leaders, and the corporate news media on Twitter, inviting them to participate (they rarely did).
The Tenderloin Station of the San Francisco Police Department used to post the photos regularly on social media, along with the circumstances of the arrest and the number of times the suspect had been apprehended. These posts blew our minds: why was an individual holding enough opiates to annihilate an entire block arrested a half-dozen times in a year, only to be promptly released each time? A year after I found the Twitter enclave, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Phil Matier documented the city’s “revolving door for drug dealers.”
But following the death of George Floyd in 2020, Black Lives Matter used its clout to oppose the “racist practice” of releasing mugshots. In June 2021, California governor Gavin Newsom banned the publication of mugshots of nonviolent criminal suspects. Had he done so a few years earlier, it’s possible that we would never have noticed that drug crimes go unpunished in San Francisco. The cops would not have alerted the public, and the public would not have pressured journalists to cover what should be considered one of the biggest scandals in San Francisco’s history.
Just as BLM was unhappy with police posting the pictures of suspects, socialist activists and nonprofit leaders like Jennifer Friedenbach of the Coalition on Homelessness consider pictures of street people disrespectful. Some Bay Area citizen journalist Twitter content has already been flagged for reporting, and it’s guaranteed to happen more in the future. Bay Area TV stations like KTVU Fox 2 have acquiesced to the activists’ demands and begun blurring out the faces of drug addicts. So much for guerrilla journalism.
To be sure, the pictures of narcotized “zombies” are not a pretty sight. They display prematurely aged men and women with vacant stares and sores covering their bloated limbs, poking odd body parts in search of still-functioning veins. Though these images are disturbing, they are not exploitive. The photographer’s intent is not to degrade the addicts as individuals but to create the muckraking imagery needed to shock Bay Area citizens out of their complacency.
The depravity exhibited on public sidewalks in San Francisco is something one has to see to believe. Addiction is a human tragedy and a public horror. The human tragedy is best understood by seeing a face, and the images are gathered in public spaces, where nobody can reasonably expect privacy. A city street is a place to see and be seen.
Even when citizen journalists obtain explicit consent to post these images, some could argue that the subjects are in no position to give permission. For instance, San Francisco restaurateur and activist Adam Mesnick posts interviews with addicts on the @bettersoma Twitter account. Though his subjects obviously want to tell their stories, all of them are troubled, and many should be institutionalized. The cries for help Mesnick records make essential viewing for anyone struggling to understand the addiction and mental health crises taking place in California. As with the other citizen journalists on social media, Mesnick is light years ahead of establishment media outlets. Just last week, one of his frequent confidantes, a fentanyl user named Jessica, whom he helped reunite with her mother, appeared on the front page of San Francisco Chronicle. That story wouldn’t have been brought to the public without Mesnick’s efforts.
It’s true, of course, that Americans are posting too many videos of one another online. The world doesn’t need to know about every controversy involving an unleashed dog in a park. But blurring out images amounts to converting public spaces into private areas and averting our eyes from corruption. A city street belongs to everyone, and anyone has the right to record what’s happening on it, with or without the consent of those involved in the recording.
A man relieving himself on the sidewalk is probably the most disgusting image I saw on Twitter, but it was necessary to see because it documents both the depravity of the situation and the assault on public spaces that such quality-of-life violations represent. His was effectively an act of aggression because he is claiming public space for a personal matter. Since Big Tech refuses to publicize offensive behavior, it is complicit in this degradation of common spaces.
In his groundbreaking book San Fransicko, Michael Shellenberger explains how nonprofits and far left activists share responsibility for creating the culture that has enabled the fentanyl crisis on the city’s streets. Perhaps their efforts to quash media coverage of these realities is motivated more by a desire to cover up their own failures than by sensitivity for drug users’ privacy. Why a social media company would be interested in hiding such failures, however, is another question.
The most important contribution that social media’s guerrilla photojournalists make is to raise public awareness of rising disorder. Twitter’s new rule will have a chilling effect on their work. If not for the citizen muckrakers, many San Franciscans would still be trying to figure out how to fight homelessness with more rent control.
Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images