Black eyes, beaucoup bucks

On illegal camping, brawling holiday shoppers and big-ticket playgrounds

In a region rich with breathless outdoor adventure, Sacramentans just can’t stop pitching tents outside of strip malls in anticipation of Black Friday. It’s a wack, undeniably American tradition, yes. But, as a recent Internet meme showed, camping on urban topography is illegal in most U.S. cities, including Sacramento—even if you have permission from a property owner.

So, then why does law enforcement permit Black Friday tents at Best Buys, but Occupy and homeless encampments are not only banned, but arguably criminalized?

OK, I realize that comparing Black Friday to tent cities is possibly a too-cute distinction. But the popular Internet meme from last week—which juxtaposed pictures of camped-out shoppers and unruly Black Friday crowds against tranquil Occupy and homeless camps—kinda makes sense.

Plus, emails from Midtown&Down readers on the issue also trickled in:

“I was just wondering if you had any thoughts about how Black Friday shoppers can camp for days at a time without any harassment, but when homeless people camp it’s illegal due to [Sacramento’s] no-camping ordinance?” one email read. “Appears to be discrimination/criminalization of people trying to survive versus the mighty dollar.” Hmm.

What really caught my eye, though, were the violent fights and frantic mobs at the Westfield Galleria at Roseville this past Black Friday.

Witnesses recorded melees and posted them to YouTube. So many crazy white people, so few cops, was my first reaction.

And then, in one video, titled “Black Eye Friday,” two men punch and stomp another man as dozens of mall rats rubbernecked (stomach it yourself at ). With nary a rent-a-cop or badged officer in sight.

It’s worth noting that there’s never been a violent incident during an Occupy Sacramento protest. Or a nasty brawl at Safe Ground. Yet the city and county of Sacramento have spent more than $1 million dollars—yes, that much—arresting protesters and homeless campers over the past few years.

A lot of heads, including Mayor Kevin Johnson’s, spun last month when the city thumped down $686,379 to rebuild McKinley Park’s playground. Located just off the grid, some jackass torched the structure in July, which was a bummer, for sure. But tragedy doesn’t preclude many Midtowners and downtowners from asking, “Hey, I thought we were broke?”

Funny thing, the city has a rich history of hurling cheddar at playgrounds and so-called park improvements in the central city.

Just last year, if you recall, we spent more than $800,000 to beautify—or render less friendly to homeless people, some argued—Cesar Chavez Plaza. These changes included such expenses as raised planter boxes, new ground cover, altered walkways. But no new playground. Was it worth it? Especially considering that just a decade earlier the city already had spent $1 million modifying the park?

And then there’s that toxic dirt lot at 19th and Q streets near Safeway. The city wants this to be the first new Midtown park in years (some hope to name it Bobby Burns Park, after the departed carouser and musician). Nearly a quarter-million dollars has been spent so far on removing toxic crud from this lot. But it’s uncertain whether Sacto can actually afford further work on the park, let alone a snazzy playground like its freewheeling neighbors to the east.

And don’t forget that in 2009, the city spent nearly $300,000 in grants and city fees to build those eyesore picnic tables in Southside Park. Basically, they took luscious fields of green, poured concrete, then slapped down a few tables and barbecues. For 300 big ones.

That $686,379 is a mighty price tag—but, even with the fundraising, the city’s track record makes McKinley’s new monkey bars and teeter-totter seem like a bargain.