The New York Times is, somewhat recently, trying to counter the "doom loop" narrative about San Francisco that the SF Chronicle first promoted, and that the Times itself contributed fodder to earlier in the year. And the latest piece in this genre is a deep dive into a high-profile assault case from earlier this year.
You know the case: SF Fire Commissioner Don Carmignani said he was brutally assaulted with a metal pipe in early April by a homeless man, outside his mother's home near Laguna and Magnolia streets. Within days of the attack, the accused attacker, 24-year-old Garrett Doty, was publicly claiming that he had been pepper-sprayed by Carmignani, and he was only trying to defend himself.
DA Brooke Jenkins still took Doty to trial on assault charges, and regardless of what actually happened, the PR damage to San Francisco itself had already been done. The attack happened just two days after the murder of Bob Lee in SoMa, and it was publicized just before we knew more of the story there — with initial reports jumping to the conclusion that Lee was murdered by a random stranger, likely a homeless or mentally ill one.
"Another high-profile attack in San Francisco, only adding to the city’s image problem," said a KPIX anchor at the time, regarding Carmignani's assault — and that was just one of many news stories that rushed to judgement about the state of the city itself being somehow to blame.
Lee's accused killer would end up being an acquaintance and fellow tech entrepreneur. (The suspect, Nima Momeni, is due in court tomorrow, incidentally, to have his trial date set.)
And as New York Times Magazine writer Jesse Barron discusses in this excellent piece from last week, Doty's preliminary hearings revealed quite a bit about Carmignani's story that the judge found "troubling," and while we don't yet know whether the case will go to trial or end in a plea deal, the fact is that the media — certainly the national media, at least — has long ago lost interest in who was more at fault here.
There were a string of unsolved bear-spray or pepper-spray attacks on homeless people in the Marina and Cow Hollow neighborhoods in the months leading up to the conflict with Doty, with a suspect having a similar physical description to Carmignani. The SFPD never properly followed up on these reported incidents, the judge said, and Carmignani's attorney says there isn't enough evidence to implicate his client.
If a trial occurs, a jury will have to decide whether Doty acted only in self-defense, or if by chasing after Carmignani to deliver extra blows he committed felony assault. And it's not clear whether evidence about the other pepper-spray incidents will be admissible.
As Barron says in his piece, the assault story still speaks "to the predicament of San Francisco as a whole: stories were produced, magnified and spun, until they came to define the city, not just for outsiders, but for the residents themselves, whose own experience of reality became unstable as a result, and disproportionately fearful."
The piece notes the "rightward shift" of many tech elites in and around San Francisco, a group who, pre-pandemic, seemed to have little to say about SF's streets or its politics but who have all since piled on — Elon Musk included — to denounce the place and its politicians.
Barron also talks to two of the cellphone video vigilantes responsible for a spate of graphic viral video of SF's Tenderloin that has made it onto Fox News and elsewhere. Ricci Wynne and JJ Smith have both proceeded, for different reasons, to capture sensational video footage of drug use, drug dealing, and overdoses in SF's roughest neighborhood. And for many who never toured the Tenderloin themselves in the last two decades or so, this was evidence enough that San Francisco was absolutely circling the drain as never before.
Wynne seems to enjoy the television attention too much, but Smith, Barron writes, is more intent on helping people and preventing overdoses. That was his intent, anyway, when took video of a friend named Q ODing and getting a hit of Narcan to revive him, and then later showed Q the video and took video of him watching it and collapsing in regret. "That’s how to get him not to do it again," Smith concluded.
Barron says in a new interview with the Times today that that piece of video, specifically, "was the most shocking — and representative — piece of media I came across in San Francisco."
But he also says that the country's — and the national media's — repeated need to fall over themselves every time they get the chance to declare San Francisco "over" or "dead" or "doomed" has a lot to do with San Francisco's historic position in this country. It's not just another city — and that's why we don't hear as much about the horrific ODs and homelessness going in Los Angeles at an equal or higher rate than here, or about the rampant crime in St. Louis, etc.
"Why does San Francisco attract all this vitriol, which is so disproportionate to the conditions on the ground?" Barron, who lives in Los Angeles, asks. "I think it’s because San Francisco holds a special place in American media and politics — everything that happens there is magnified. It’s a symbol as much as a city."
Photo: Vladimir Kudinov