Late Saturday night on the eve of Super Bowl Sunday, I drove the streets of the South of Market district in San Francisco, my usual route to get to the freeway that takes me back home to Oakland. While waiting for the light to change on Division Street — a four-lane thoroughfare under Highway 101 North to Golden Gate Bridge — a long line of homeless men were huddled next to pillars, readying themselves to sleep on the Division Street meridian for the night.
A generous young couple braced themselves, looking left and right as they completed a dangerous walk across aggressive traffic, bringing with them their camper tent for a few of the homeless under the freeway. One, maybe two, people could sleep in it comfortably.
Undoubtedly, there would be more crammed in there. In February, San Francisco gets cold at night.
As I turned the corner, a long line of young people four-deep waited outside a local nightclub. The line snaked around the block. Double-parked in front of the club, a young man was texting — unaware that he was taking up two lanes while lines of cars wormed their way around him to get home. I honked him into awareness and he pulled over. Similar scenes were happening all along that same street, clubs filled with partiers taking Saturday night long into early Super Bowl Sunday morning.
I knew from my friends who work in SF County Jail that during the two weeks prior to Super Bowl weekend, the police jailed most of the homeless. Keeping them out of sight from the two massive development areas — Justin Hermann Plaza and Moscone Center — was a priority for the NFL’s Super Bowl Host Committee’s designated pre-game celebrations.
It was surprising to see more homeless underneath the freeway last Saturday, but that might have been due to the additional pressure of one million additional people coming to party or go to the game Super Bowl weekend. The hotels wanted to keep the downtown tourist areas free of poor people. And the jails were probably at capacity.
The pressure on public services, plus street and commuter traffic, was enormous — cutting off major in-city commuter arteries to set up what amounted to a Football Disneylandia at the Embarcadero (our trendy bay side neighborhood called Super Bowl City.) 500,000 people came to watch continuous free concert performances from local artists and Grammy award-winning musicians over the weekend. Throughout the week, demonstrators lined the block where Super Bowl City was set.
In December of last year, the police shot and killed a young black man named Mario Woods in the Bayview Hunter’s Point area — one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. He was unarmed. It was caught on cellphone video.
Adding Wood’s death to the long long list of grievances already caused by the Dot-Com Boom 2 and the ensuing development driving working-class families out of the city due to astronomically high rents, the city had more than enough on their hands in keeping demonstrations contained. Mayor Ed Lee — who, throughout his first term oversaw the accelerated gentrification of the city by the tech industry — continues to face hostile demonstrations at City Hall and elsewhere. The Super Bowl is just one more of the thousand cuts that’s pushed long-time residents and the working class of the city to the edge.
It’s over. Three long years of planning with the National Football League and a large cluster of corporate sponsors produced the empire’s annual spectacle for the plebs — locally, and nationally on television. The NFL took over an entire region — the western Bay Area with its six million people — for the 50th Super Bowl, also known as SB50 for short.
It takes much in resources from an area to produce these games, which are in essence the amusements of empire: the gladiators; the bread and circus; the sweeping under the carpet of human misery so as not bring a downer onto the people who can afford jacked-up hotel prices and Super Bowl tickets. This is what we expect of Rome. Looking at the sponsors for these various events this last week, you can see what this empire is made of.
Fortunately we are still, last time I checked, a first-world country, and our region is even more first world than others. So we can take this on, economically. But there remains the social cost. Long-term problems like homelessness, police brutality, and the pressure of gentrification fester hotter underneath, and are ready to explode because of this. Working-class people — the very people who like the game — are being forced out the city they live in. Forget that they could ever even afford an NFL season ticket, let alone admission to the Super Bowl.
All empires have to do to keep us in line and not complain is to create temporary distraction. With its glorification of American machismo and the passion it generates — real and manufactured — the NFL is corporate Rome’s greatest distraction machine.
With each and every empire throughout history, the disruption of human lives remains the regrettable price of spectacle. I wish for my town that the money they spent on public services and safety — garbage collection, street cleaning, traffic control — could have gone to homeless shelters, or better yet, actual housing for people who need it. It pisses me and a lot of people off that the Big Football Show came here. We can’t afford to be distracted when — amidst the revelry, the partying and the crowds — so many of us are about to be crushed.