Since last weekend’s sprawling Ocean Beach party—actually a number of smaller gatherings, many Burning Man-related, that conjoined into a festival-like atmosphere—a clearer picture has emerged of what took place. But a big question remains: Why didn’t the police stop the COVID regulations-flouting party earlier? The beach is often shut down at 10pm, with bright lights sweeping the sands to warn everyone it’s time to go. Why was the party allowed to continue until 1am?
The answer is a bit complicated. A combination of two specific elements seem to have helped allow the party to continue that night: reduction of US Park Police staff due to COVID, and a separation of jurisdiction between the SFPD (which controls the Ocean Beach parking lot, where the party soundsystems were parked) and the Park Police, who patrol the actual Ocean and Baker beaches.
I reached out to the SFPD to ask what happened that night—especially since there were reports that the police visited the parking lot regularly as the party grew, yet didn’t request the sound be shut off until much later. I received this response from SFPD spokesperson Tiffany Hang:
As Ocean Beach is considered a part of National Recreation Area, US Park Police has jurisdiction over the enforcement of incidents occurring on the beach.
On September 5, 2020, at approximately 00:30 AM, San Francisco Police Department Richmond Station officers responded to the Ocean Beach Parking Lot regarding a large gathering of people without face masks playing loud music. SFPD officers observed approximately 2000 people gathered around bonfires and a large bus playing loud music directed by a disc jockey. SFPD officers approached the DJ to shut the music down, who complied. Participants of the events informed SFPD officers that the gathering was in honor of “Burning Man,” an event which was set to occur in Nevada over the weekend but has since been cancelled due to COVID-19.
SFPD officers facilitated in shutting down the unsanctioned event and urging individuals to safely leave the area.
While on scene, SFPD officers were alerted by a participant of an adult male and an adult female who were unconscious. EMS responded to the scene and transported both individuals to the hospital. SFPD officers remained on scene until participants cleared the area.
Hang referred my questions about why the beach was not shutdown at 10pm to Charlie Strickfaden, chief of communications for the Golden Gate National Recreations Area External Affairs, who responded:
In normal years, officers closely monitor beach fire activity and groups, criminal activity, as well as other issues. As a result of the pandemic we have been short-staffed due to Shelter in Place or issues of an officer or their family being in a high risk group, and the massive influx of visitors throughout the bay area also Sheltering in Place. Despite community concerns about crowds and lack of social distancing our primary focus has been response to life/safety calls, and the health and welfare of our officers.
Ocean Beach does not have closure hours. This is a result of long standing community desires, and reflects very limited longterm law enforcement issues…
The current shelter in place conditions are unprecedented, both within our agency, and within bay area communities, and all public agencies are reacting to the increased use with available tools and staff. NPS staff routinely manages large crowds at multiple beaches on both sides of the Golden Gate Bridge, and works closely with local law enforcement to identify trends and problem areas.
On Labor Day weekend officers responded to both Ocean Beach and Baker Beach for “Burning Man” activities. Officers responded to Baker Beach after reports of a large event on the north end of Baker Beach (accessible only by foot) and contacted a group of over two hundred people. Several fire violations were located and amplified music. The group was advised of the violations and complied with removing them. While NPS officers were taking care of illegal activities at Baker Beach the SFPD was actively managing parking and crowds in the Ocean Beach parking lots. We will continue to work with the public, and our partners in San Francisco emergency services agencies to respond to these unprecedented events, and tailor patrols and enforcement so that tragedies like the Labor Day weekend activities do not reoccur.
In other words, a reduced staff of park police was busy dealing with a party on Baker Beach and couldn’t respond to everything that was going on at Ocean Beach. This still doesn’t answer the question of why the SFPD allowed the music to continue in the parking lot, stoking the festivities. But it does draw a clearer picture of what happened, and how the parks police plan to address the possibility of future such gatherings.
Meanwhile, Supervisor Catherine Stefani is calling for an official investigation into the incident, with criminal and civil penalties attached:
“For the past six months, we have been pleading with San Franciscans to share in the sacrifice of our small business owners and frontline workers to keep our community safe. The large gathering we saw over the weekend was selfish, dangerous, and, in my view, unlawful on the part of the promoters,” her statement reads. She intends to introduce a resolution at the next Board of Supervisors meeting “urging investigations into and enforcement actions against the promoters.”
But isn’t that like trying to sue Antifa? There were thousands of people on the beach, who knows how most of them specifically got there? How would promoters and other participants be tracked down and prosecuted, other than by creepy surveillance state methods? (I’ve written to Stefani inquiring about the scope and enforcement mechanism of her resolution, and will update if I hear back.) In an era when we’re trying to limit police overreach for non-violent infractions, this seems a bit much.
Stefani’s resolution would be sent to the Public Safety Committee, on which she sits. I rang up Rafael Mandelman, who chairs that committee, to ask him whether he would support the resolution. Our talk ended up ranging over a variety of issues—including the possibility of a repeat of the Ocean Beach incident over Halloween and Election Night.
“I would obviously need to see the resolution first, I’m not sure what she’s proposing,” Mandelman said of Stefani’s resolution. “We’ve been asking people to police themselves, and things like the Ocean Beach party show that isn’t always working. What we saw there is a level of entitlement and selfishness that is obviously upsetting to Catherine and me. ‘Insensitive’ doesn’t seem the right word for what happened.
“There are parts of the city that are testing at 10 percent infection rates. That spread is not really happening among the burner crowd or the bars on Castro Street or Valencia Street. There isn’t going to be a ton of spread, if we’re lucky, from an event like this past weekend. But the possibility that, yes, someone may go to brunch the next day and spread it to the kitchen staff who have a higher risk, or other essential workers, is very real. What we need and expect is some solidarity here with communities that are still getting hit by this. It’s frustrating to see people that purport to be part of the community yet can’t see their interconnectedness with the Latinx worker, or someone’s grandmother.
“That said, and as the gay supervisor from a community with a history of this, I don’t think prosecution is the best approach. First, we don’t want to give the police even more to do. We need to be concentrating on things like bad employer practices in workplaces, putting workers at risk by not following regulations, situations like that. I don’t think cracking down on parties should be our top enforcement priority. If we’re directing police to ticket everyone on 18th Street, and at Union Square, or Fort Mason, that’s not productive, in my view.”
So how should we approach something like what happened at Ocean Beach, I asked.
“Clearly what happened on the beach is another scale,” Mandelman said. “But it should be a lesson to start looking ahead to something like Halloween. That will be the next challenge. We just can’t have Halloween happen. No matter how much people will want to be together, once people are around each other on a mass scale like that, drinking and seeing each other, the risk will be great.
“We should start having very serious conversations about that, and about Election Night, too. If it’s bad news, we need to prepare ourselves. It could be like the protests we saw this summer, where almost everybody was masked and purposefully respected social distancing, as much as they could. That’s the ideal. Or all hell could break loose. That could happen if it’s good news, too, in fact.
“We need to come together as a community and really consider these big events coming up,” Mandelman said. “We don’t want a repeat of what just happened.”