Hearing on event security as SFPD pushes police state

If we outlaw backpacks, only criminals will have backpacks.

Just a few weeks ago, Sup. Scott Wiener, civil libertarians, and I were raising concerns here about the SFPD unilaterally expanding its video surveillance reach. Then came the bombings at the Boston Marathon, which the SFPD used to seriously up the ante in the police state pot, asking for real time video surveillance up and down Market Street and banning backpacks at Bay to Breakers.

Now, I'm not one to stand in the way of reasonable security precautions. But we shouldn't just defer to the SFPD on whatever it says it wants because then we'll have cameras on every corner, spy drones overhead, stop-and-frisk, and an ever-greater portion of our tax dollars going to expand the police state. Because the cops will always want more tools to police us, tools they will always say they need to protect us – it's just in their nature. But it's up to the rest of us to strike the right balance and not lose our heads every time some whack-job resorts to violence.

That's why it's good to see that Sup. Eric Mar has called a Neighborhood Service and Safety Committee hearing for this Thursday at 2pm on security measures for large events, to which he's invited the SFPD, Planning Department, Recreation and Parks Department, and Entertainment Commission. Let's talk about this before acting too rashly.

For example, is it really reasonable to ban backpacks at Bay to Breakers just because the Tsarnaev brothers allegedly carried their homemade bombs in backpacks? Is it possible for police to ensure that nobody in or around an event that draws more than 100,000 people has a backpack? Is it even legal to prevent me from riding my bike near a race that bisects San Francisco if I happen to be wearing a backpack?

I'm always amazed at Americans' capacity for fear and overreaction. One nut decides to put a crude explosive in his shoe and suddenly we all have to remove our shoes every time we board an airplane (a silly measure most other countries don't require). Even as horrible as the 9-11 attacks were, the 2,977 people they killed that day is a small fraction of the death toll that we inflicted in response (6,693 US troops killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, and at least hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghanis killed), and I don't think anyone can credibly claim that we're any safer today as a result.

Fearful people will accept anything police say will make them safer, and that's how the slide into police states throughout history always begin, pushed by tyrants of all ideological stripes. But isn't that just giving in to terrorism? After all, we're all far more likely to be killed by a distracted motorist than we are a terrorist, but I'm not hearing calls for big crackdowns on drivers, even in the face of good evidence this would keep us safer than banning backpacks.

Our country was founded by people who were more wary of soldiers and cops than they were random kooks, and I think we'd do well to remember what people like Benjamin Franklin had to say about irrational fears: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”