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Op-ed: We Should Understand, We’ve Been Here Before

Op-ed: We Should Understand, We’ve Been Here Before


Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk fought hard for San Francisco values. Moscone led the fight to enshrine the right to privacy in our state constitution. Milk made community oversight of police a top priority. One of Milk's first acts as supervisor was to get an LGBT person appointed to the Police Commission.

But these values are under siege.

Here's what happened. In 2007 the San Francisco Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation entered into a secret agreement to govern terrorism investigations. Last year the Asian Law Caucus and the American Civil Liberties Union forced the police department to release this document. The implications are shocking. Without any reasonable suspicion or cause, the SFPD and FBI can search our trash, spy on our community groups, and enlist our friends as informants. Instead of answering to residents of this city, or even their own police department supervisors, SFPD officers on FBI-led cases must answer only to D.C. And let's be frank, when there isn't reasonable suspicion, what the police are relying on is unreasonable suspicion -- racial and religious profiling. So much for Mayor Moscone's "right to be left alone."

The SFPD issued an order to officers in May 2011 to follow local civil rights laws, but when the ACLU met with the FBI, the feds said there was no change to the agreement in place. Even the San Francisco city attorney says that it's a legal contract, and officers who break the terms with the FBI put themselves in legal jeopardy. The chief insists that the city should trust his good intentions, but the agreement with the FBI forbids the kind of transparency that trust requires.

The Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian communities (which include people of all sexual orientations and gender identities) are bearing the brunt of this. But LGBT people of all races and religions haven't forgotten when we were in the crosshairs.

We can't let this happen again.

LGBT people of all races and religions were also once viewed as a threat to national security. Joe McCarthy's twin obsessions were "Communists and queers." A 1950 Senate report said we were a bunch of easily blackmailed perverts. As a result, the federal government fired thousands of LGBT scientists, diplomats, and other civil servants. It wasn't until 1995 that President Clinton signed an executive order stating that sexual orientation couldn't be used to bar someone from getting a security clearance.

There was a time when LGBT people could not safely gather -- not in San Francisco, not in New York, not in Los Angeles, not anywhere. Our meeting places were subjected to police raids, our community members were intimidated, entrapped, blackmailed, and our lives were routinely destroyed. Stonewall, Compton's Cafeteria, the Black Cat -- these names live on in our history as places where we fought back against police harassment and violence. The first LGBT rights organizations in this country weren't founded in boardrooms and conference centers. They were founded in cramped living rooms and windowless bars. People used pseudonyms and feared putting their names on membership lists. They were subjected to FBI surveillance and harassment.

Profiling still goes on. Try walking down the street as a transgender woman of color. Nearly half of transgender people in a recent survey said they were afraid to ask the police for help.

Unaccountable power leads to abuses. According to a recent article in the Guardian, a man hired by the FBI to pose as a terrorist and spy in Orange County's Muslim community admitted that his bosses were particularly interested in finding out who was gay and in the closet. The goal was "to turn targeted people into becoming FBI informants themselves." Meanwhile, the undercover fake terrorist so unnerved the community with his recruitment drive that they reported him to the FBI -- not realizing that he was on the payroll.

For San Francisco, there is a way to avoid these abuses. Supervisor Jane Kim has proposed a bill to restore the protections that Moscone and Milk fought hard for, and it's called the Safe San Francisco Civil Rights Ordinance. A majority of the Board of Supervisors supports this bill, and the final vote is tomorrow, but Mayor Lee hasn't tipped his hand on what he'll do. Portland, Ore., already passed a law like this, and the police chief reported to the City Council that it hasn't interfered with counterterrorism work one bit. Good police work doesn't require racial profiling, unaccountability, and throwing civil rights aside.

To maintain a city that prides itself on welcoming people of all sexual orientations, gender identities, races, religions, and nationalities, we'd do well to remember George Moscone and Harvey Milk's legacy.

DANIEL REDMAN is the Elder Law Project Fellow at the National Center for Lesbian Rights. He received his law degree from the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law (Boalt Hall).

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