It’s an old saying that still rings true: As goes California, so goes the nation. A popular addendum to that rule — at least among those of us living in the Bay Area (and for those living in the rest of California, should they care to admit it) — is that as goes San Francisco, so goes California.
It’s no secret that San Francisco tends to position itself on the leading edge of advancing often-progressive policy in the Golden State, and, therefore, the nation at large. It’s long been a source of civic pride and bragging rights among San Franciscans that our City is frequently the first to take the long view on public heath, environmental, labor and many other issues well ahead of those issues hitting the policy agenda at large, and to enact laws accordingly.
This legislative boldness has made our city a beacon of hope. Here’s one example: As early as 2003, the people of SF were astute enough to see the writing on the wall and to act accordingly regarding our state’s skyrocketing cost of living and rapidly increasing wealth and income inequality. That year, SF voters passed a local minimum wage ordinance, making the City the first local jurisdiction to pass a minimum wage rate higher than the federal or state minimum wage. Eleven years later, SF voters passed a new initiative to increase the local minimum wage to $15 per hour by July 1, 2018, and to adjust the wage rate each July 1 thereafter based on the annual increase in the Consumer Price Index.
Dial the clock all the way back to 1867, and we see the SF Board of Supervisors passing an eight-hour-day provision for city and county employment. This achievement was born directly out of worker struggle and demand in the City. One year later, the California legislature made the eight-hour day law statewide, making ours the second state in the West to pass such a law. (Illinois passed an eight-hour-day law in 1867.)
These are some truly forward-thinking, important, and influential pieces of grassroots legislation that would go on to lift the tide of working people’s boats throughout the U.S., and all San Franciscans ought to be proud of them.
Unfortunately, however, our city hasn’t always been the shining beacon of well-intentioned policy that it fancies itself today. It also has a slate of shameful firsts in legislation.
For instance, SF holds the distinct dishonor of being the first municipality in the United States to enact a so-called ugly law — which Wikipedia helpfully and succinctly describes as an “unsightly beggar ordinance” — to target and criminalize the poor and the disabled simply for being poor and disabled. That law, enacted in our city in 1867, declared it illegal for “any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or deformed in any way, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object, to expose himself or herself to public view.”
SF’s ugly law ended up further marginalizing Civil War veterans, immigrant Chinese, and Native Americans. You won’t be surprised to learn that the three aforementioned groups were almost exclusively made up of working-class people just trying to get by in the face of unthinkable hardship. In the following years, New Orleans, Chicago, Denver, and numerous other American cities would enact ugly laws based on the shameful legislative precedent set by our fair city.
Just a few years after the ugly law went into effect, SF found another way to innovate in despicable, discriminatory legislation with its Pigtail Ordinance of 1873. This law targeted Chinese prisoners, forcing them to have their hair cut within an inch of the scalp.
I don’t mean to dwell in the negative — we all know that American history is filled with as many despicable deeds as it is democratic ones. My point is only that in our city, firsts have been catalysts for social change — some morally right, such as marriage equality, and others morally bankrupt, such as the anti-Chinese ordinances that paved the way for the federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
My further point is this: The times in which we were at our worst can be connected to the economic and political climates of the day. This is not an excuse, merely the truth of the matter. Our worst manifestations can also be connected to the opportunistic politicians who stoked the flames of fear and division.
It’s a cautionary tale. Our beacon of hope can more resemble a well-lit target if we let our guard down. A wave of rollbacks starting here could shift the tide far away from something we’d be proud to say started here. The same tide that lifted all boats can recede, and do so quickly.
In the past week alone, we’ve been hit with announcements by the Board of Supervisors that they plan to end the ban on the City doing business with states that discriminate against LGBTQ+ people and restrict access to reproductive freedom. We’ve seen our district attorney announce efforts to exempt our sanctuary city law. Our own state senator has proposed a dangerous rollback of workers’ rights and safety regulations on housing production.
These would be cowardly moves that would only give in to reactionary feelings of complacency, indifference, fear, racism, and sectarianism, all of which are simply poisonous. They threaten our progress and prosperity at every level.
Be wary the politician who tells you what you need and offers to do it on your behalf. Demand a seat at the table and speak for yourself. Better yet, be heard with a collective voice and get involved in your local union committee on political education.
Stay alert, stay active, and stay safe.