San Francisco's handling of 420 celebrations passes the smell test

By Dan Raile , written on April 21, 2014

From The News Desk

Yesterday afternoon, crowds in excess of 15,000 people descended on the eastern section of Golden Gate Park to celebrate the resurrection of their THC blood levels. The annual 420 celebrations at the park are ad hoc, unsponsored and unofficial.  But they’ve been experiencing remarkable year-on-year growth, to the chagrin of City officials who must begrudgingly manage safety and clean-up for the event.

Though 420 observance has a national scope, the festivities in Golden Gate Park are a patently San Franciscan spectacle. It’s also among the last grand-scale, unofficial, uncompromised San Francisco street parties standing, what with the Castro’s Halloween party having been shut down, and Bay to Breakers having lost a good deal of verve in recent years.

The festival is a thriving free market, with scores of entrepreneurs barking out their cannabinoid offerings, and concession stands spewing barbecue smoke to rival the herbaceous fog. It’s also a libertarian dreamscape of governmental non-intervention.

Last Wednesday, SF Supervisor London Breed, whose district includes the Haight and adjacent  “Hippie Hill” where the throng gathers, led a press conference that also included Recreation and Park General Manager Phil Ginsburg and San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr, who issued maybe the funniest police chief quote of all time (“If everyone would just be cool, it’s cool.”)

At the press conference, city officials reaffirmed that they would effectively turn a blind eye to the technically illegal activity like smoking or selling marijuana during the festivities, though they would maintain a presence and crack down on other illicit acts, especially underage drinking. This is a touchy policy given marijuana’s continued Schedule 1 Narcotic classification by the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration. Per San Francisco law, marijuana offenses have been treated as the lowest priority for enforcement by police since 2006.

Last year, there was a bit of a scandal over the mountains of trash left behind and the city’s ill-prepared scrambling to deal with it. This year, Rec and Parks was on top of the trash situation. This morning at 8am, the fields around “Hippie Hill” were swarming with dozens of orange-vested workers and volunteers looking after the cleanup, and already the grounds looked immaculate and there was little visible evidence of yesterday’s madness.


The safety and law enforcement aspects were less of a clear success.

At around 5:30pm, as the festivities were winding down from their 4:20pm peak, your correspondent was catching a diesel-generator-powered rap battle when dozens of yelling and shrieking people started toward him, stampeding south across Sharon Meadow. Soon an entire field-full of fried folk joined the bolt, if only to avoid being smothered. The field temporarily emptied, but no one could say why the stampede had taken place.

Minutes later, a cadre of police and ATV-mounted Park Rangers made their way into the field. The Rangers went about shutting down various DJ stations, while the police pointed, spoke into walkie-talkies and hustled towards a point behind the Sharon Art Studio building on the south end of Sharon Meadow. Minutes later, in front of the carousel behind the building, two unidentified people were arrested and loaded into police wagons.

The stampede itself left many shaken up, and few verifiable answers. A rumor quickly spread that there had been gunfire, but after questioning dozens of people at the scene, I couldn’t find anyone who claimed to have heard gunshots, though several said that a DJ had played gunshots through big speakers that had sent people panicking.

Luckily, it seems no one was injured in the stampede. I spoke with Supervisor Breed this morning and she confirmed that as yet there are no reports of anyone harmed during the stampede.

The uncertainty over what had happened was widespread. Breed says she initially got a report of “shots fired” but that soon after it was downgraded to “alleged shots fired” and then to “we don’t believe there were shots fired.”

“I talked to people who were there who said they hadn’t heard any shots. And the police are saying they haven’t recovered any shell casings or found any indication of shots being fired. Sometimes when people start running, it scares people and pretty soon everyone is running,” Breed said.

It was a scary and uncertain moment, and certainly a buzzkill. The majority of revelers left the park shortly afterwards, and Park Rangers rode around asking people to take down their tents.

The motley crowd spilled onto Haight Street, which was closed for the half-mile stretch between Stanyan and Masonic, quickly occupying every public restroom in the area.

Later this week Supervisor Breed and other departments involved will hold a debriefing session, examining the challenges this year’s gathering encountered and discussing plans for managing the event next year.

A day later, it seems the city management of the celebrations were mostly successful. The cleanup effort, orchestrated by Rec and Park and including a posse of volunteers from local dispensary Green Cross and from the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, was well-coordinated and prepared to handle a difficult mandate. The public safety efforts narrowly avoided a catastrophe, though it’s unclear, given the unofficial nature of the event, how such management could be improved.

It's a very important question for the future of the event. In 2006, the Castro's Halloween street party was closed down for good after a shooting that injured nine people. And San Francisco's Civic Center edition of international dance party Love Parade has been discontinued after 21 people died from suffocation due to overcrowding at a Love Parade in Duisburg, Germany, in 2010.

Breed said her understanding was that there were more participants this year than last, and that police and Rec and Park overtime, among other costs, would cause it to be more expensive to the public. But, she said, “It was good that we were more proactive this year in handling the event, and if no one got hurt, which is what we are hearing so far, that’s a big victory for us.”

[photos by Dan Raile for Pando]