Every fire begins with a spark. For San Francisco’s controversial proposed sit/lie law, the inciting incident happened on a Wednesday night in early December in the Haight — an act of violence so brutal it inspired a grass-roots movement.
Thomas, the alleged victim, said a “street punk” jumped him and “started gouging his fingers into my eyes.” Thomas asked that only his first name be published — it is all the man he says attacked him ever learned of his identity, and he would like to keep it that way.
Little information has been made public about the incident, even though key players behind the sit/lie proposal — recently renamed Civil Sidewalks and most likely destined for the ballot in November — point to the event as the trigger for a citizens’ uprising.
“It was the tipping point,” said Capt. Teresa Barrett of the Park police station.
The proposed ordinance would make it illegal to sit or lie on city sidewalks in many circumstances. Advocates say it will give the police a new way to remove troublemaking homeless people from public spaces.
In his first interview, Thomas, 43, spoke in detail about that night. What he said points to the complexity of the issues and emotions that could ultimately prove problematic for advocates of the ordinance: Thomas does not support the proposal.
“I don’t think the sit/lie law is going to work,” Thomas said, using an expletive to scoff at the proposal.
Thomas was nearly blinded in the attack, but his assailant was set free — no trial, no conviction. If the police and prosecutors cannot enforce the existing assault laws in his case, Thomas reasoned, will they really pursue cases of illegal sitting?
Click on this interactive slideshow to see scenes of street life on Haight Street:
Thomas said that on the night he nearly lost his eyesight he was hosing down the sidewalk in front of the building on Haight Street where he and his girlfriend shared an apartment. The cleaning had become a regular chore because a group of homeless young men and women had been gathering there, leaving the sidewalk filthy.
Thomas also knew that wetting the sidewalk would force the group to move until the pavement dried. He said he found himself surrounded and engaged in a heated confrontation. Then one man lunged at him. “I got him in a headlock,” Thomas said.
The man, identified by the police and the District Attorney’s Office as Chad Potter, 26, “tried clawing out my eyes and bit me,” Thomas said.
Neighbors arrived and tried to intervene, but were warned by the group to keep away. “They said, ‘Anyone jumps in, and we’re jumping in,’” Thomas said. “They said, ‘If you call the cops, we’ll kill you.’”
At that moment Thomas said he had only one option to save himself — he struck back. At 6 feet 1 inch and more than 200 pounds, he was larger than Potter. “I don’t look for fights,” Thomas said, “but I can fight.”
His punches subdued Potter, and when the brawl ended, Potter was taken to the hospital for treatment. He was also arrested, but was set free the next day and did not face criminal charges.
Why? Because Thomas had fought back.
Thomas told investigators that when he was first confronted, he had shouted, “Do you want a piece of me?” Captain Barrett said. Thomas said he felt the need to stand up to the group because they were at his home.
But uttering those seven words, the District Attorney’s Office contends, constituted a challenge to a fight and made it difficult to prosecute Potter.
“It becomes a case of mutual combat,” said Erica Derryck, spokeswoman for District Attorney Kamala D. Harris.
Free from legal consequences, Thomas said, Potter and the others returned. For five nights, they camped on the sidewalk, taunting and screaming up to the apartment.
Then one morning Thomas says he was leaving home when Potter approached him from behind. His hands were wrapped in socks, which Thomas believes concealed a weapon. Thomas quickly made it to his car, but he believes he was only seconds from being stabbed.
That day he and his girlfriend moved out of the Haight.
But Thomas cannot get away from that night. He had to drop the college classes he was taking because he could no longer concentrate. He has a scar under his eyebrow. He suffers from a recurring nightmare: being chased down Haight Street by a faceless ghoul who wants to kill him.
“I’m getting a gun,” said Thomas, who has obtained a gun permit. “I don’t feel safe.”
Feeling let down by the legal system, Thomas is skeptical of a sit/lie ordinance. In his mind, it is an illogical notion of justice — arrested for sitting, but allowed to gouge someone’s eyes? And as a former soup kitchen volunteer, he disagrees with the idea of equating Potter and his group with other needy people living on the streets.
“I don’t call them homeless,” he said of the Potter group. “They’re street kids. They’re derelicts.”
Learn how other Haight residents and stakeholders feel about the sit/like proposal here.