The New Yorker - USA (2022-01-31)

(Antfer) #1





n San Francisco, three weeks after
Mayor London Breed declared a state
of emergency to fight the “nasty streets”
downtown, Artie Gilbert walked up
Market Street into the Tenderloin. It was
dawn, and the open-air drug markets
were dispersing. Gilbert, a former mem-
ber of the Crips who spent twenty-six
years in prison, said, “This is like walking
into paradise.” A man in a bus shelter was
hunched over, smoking fentanyl with a
plastic straw. “About a year and a half ago,
you couldn’t even walk through here: tents
and drug dealers down every block, 24/7,”
Gilbert said. He gestured up the street.
“Now the dealers pile up in a different
area—they migrate further that w a y. ”
Gilbert walks this route regularly as
an employee of a civic group called Urban
Alchemy, whose mission is “transform-
ing the energy in traumatized urban
spaces.” Its street ambassadors, most of
them formerly incarcerated people, are

paid a starting rate of about twenty-one
dollars an hour to keep certain blocks
clear during the day.
He was joined by a supervisor named
Tiffany McClendon, who had on a leop-
ard-print head wrap. “I was a full-time
hustler in the Tenderloin for years,” she
said. “I know all these people. I was sell-
ing pills, crack, heroin, crystal meth with
them. I’m one day away from where they
are. This week, a guy tried to hit me with
a fire extinguisher.” She went on, “I did
so much harm to this community. Now
I’m like the mama here.” Last year, fen-
tanyl killed more people in San Fran-
cisco than COVID did.
“I was a getaway driver in S.F. in my
teens,” McClendon said. “When they
don’t want to move, people on the street
call us hired criminals. But most people
here are cool with it. Often it just pushes
them to the next block—you can’t get
high in the overnight shelters, so a lot of
people are back here all night.” She passed
a group selling drugs on the stairs to a
BART station. “Police barely fuck with us,
because we do all their work,” she said.
Gilbert arrived at an encampment
on Turk Street—one of several “Safe
Sleep Villages” that Urban Alchemy
runs—where he met Ian Clark-John-

son, another worker. They entered the
village, where twelve people were living
in tents by a parking garage. “We do
wellness checks to make sure—well, are
you alive, basically,” Clark-Johnson said.
Back on the street, he talked to strag-
glers who hadn’t yet moved from the
pavement after a 7 a.m. sweep.
“Just put it away,” Clark-Johnson said
to a man bent over a piece of foil. The
man put the foil in his backpack until
Clark-Johnson walked away, then took
it out again.
“San Francisco is segregated. This
is a containment zone,” Clark-Johnson
said. He stopped at a building whose
entrance, at night, is crowded with peo-
ple shooting fentanyl. “Now, during the
day, residents can leave their building,
exit and enter,” he explained. A man
named Cornbread came up and asked
for money. “I only got two dollars,” Clark-
Johnson told him. “You want some food?”
They went into a coffee shop, and Corn-
bread got a hot chocolate, because there
was no cappuccino.
Next, Gilbert stopped by the main
village, a fenced enclosure of seventy-
nine tents, across from City Hall. The
rows of tents surround bronze statues
of the California grizzly and the Roman

citizen groups marched in front of the
Communist Party leadership assembled
atop Lenin’s tomb and aired their griev-
ances with slogans and signs: “Down
with the Politburo! Resign!” “Down with
the Empire and Red Fascism!” A year
and a half later, the Soviet Union dis-
solved—an event that Putin has declared
the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of
the twentieth century. Since then, he has
regarded opposition demonstrations—
such as those in Moscow, on Bolotnaya
Square, in 2011, or in various states within
the former Soviet “sphere of influence,”
including Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, and
Kazakhstan––as an intimation of mor-
tality. And so, increasingly, he has be-
come the philosopher and enforcer of
authoritarian rule.
Enforcement comes with episodes of
brutal intolerance. In August, 2020, Pu-
tin’s security services used the nerve agent
Novichok to poison Alexey Navalny, the
regime’s most prominent and impudent
opponent. When Navalny survived, the
authorities arrested him and, after a trial

worthy of Kafka, locked him away in a
prison camp near the city of Vladimir.
Elections have been rendered a farce,
courts a sham, parliament a plaything of
the President. Various politicians, activ-
ists, and journalists deemed inconvenient
to the regime have been murdered, as-
saulted, imprisoned, or forced into exile—
not en masse, as in the days of Stalin,
but often enough so that the limits of
public life are made chillingly plain. The
authorities have harassed human-rights
organizations and liberal media outlets,
such as Meduza and TV Rain, branding
them “foreign agents.” Memorial, an or-
ganization devoted to the restoration of
historical truth, has been ordered to close.
Putin is particularly expert at exploit-
ing the vulnerabilities, hypocrisies, and
mistakes of his opponents. He plays a
weak hand to maximal tactical advan-
tage, and, at the moment, his high cards
are Europe’s dependence on Russian
natural gas and the destabilization of
democracy abroad, particularly in the
United States. Donald Trump’s Presi-

dency, the January 6th insurrection, and
the retreat from Afghanistan were es-
pecially gratifying to him. So is the fact
that the supposed beacon of what used
to be called “the free world” has mil-
lions of citizens who say they believe
that their current President was elevated
through a rigged ballot and ought to
be turned out by force. It is a great deal
easier to engage in a propaganda war
with an opponent that is divided, dispir-
ited, and worried about civil strife.
Ukraine is a sovereign nation of more
than forty million people. It has been
independent of Moscow rule for three
decades. The country suffers from its
own domestic crises––corruption, po-
litical division––but younger Ukraini-
ans have been born into a far less au-
tocratic political culture than have their
Russian counterparts. It is not a sure
thing that Putin will invade Ukraine.
What is certain is that any attempt to
occupy that nation will provoke resis-
tance and lead to bloody disaster.
––David Remnick
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