Responding to 911 calls about a street fight in the Marina district, the police found Don Carmignani, 53, standing on the sidewalk with blood streaming down his face. It was 7:20 p.m. on April 5 — twilight — and multiple witnesses had gotten a clean view of Carmignani’s attacker: a young homeless man who was a familiar presence in the neighborhood. The police arrested him two minutes later, right down the block. An ambulance took Carmignani to Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital.
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The next day, The Chronicle ran its first piece about the incident. “A former San Francisco fire commissioner was brutally attacked with a metal object in the Marina on Wednesday evening,” leaving him with “stitches, a fractured skull and a broken jaw.” The paper didn’t define the term “fire commissioner,” but for San Franciscans who knew their city’s baroque power structure, no definition was needed. The five unsalaried seats on the commission were seen as symbolic rewards for civilians the mayor favored, like a local version of an ambassadorship. In other words, The Chronicle story indicated, the victim was not a nobody.
TV picked up the story next. On the local CBS affiliate, KPIX, a neatly groomed man in a blue suit jacket was being interviewed on the street where the attack occurred. This was Joe Alioto Veronese, a lawyer and winery owner who ran unsuccessfully for district attorney in 2022 and considered Carmignani a good friend. “We’re all living in this petri dish of mental health because the city’s not dealing with it,” Alioto Veronese told the camera. “So it’s like the insane asylum is our neighborhood.” The police, he said, were “just driving around in their vehicles with their hands tied behind their backs.” On the same broadcast, KPIX showed a snippet of cellphone video of the attacker, whose name was Garret Doty. He seemed like a caricature of vagabond chaos: a metal pipe in his right hand; shaggy brown hair covered by a red beanie; a dirty gray blanket that draped almost to his knees. “Another high-profile attack in San Francisco, only adding to the city’s image problem,” the anchor said sadly.
“Another” was neither vague nor rhetorical. This really was the second high-profile attack in a matter of days. Two nights earlier, Bob Lee, the millionaire creator of CashApp, was stabbed to death downtown. The police hadn’t made an arrest in the Lee case yet, but many were pointing to both incidents as proof that the city’s leadership had failed to rein in what they regarded as a newly dangerous level of civic disorder. On his Fox show, Tucker Carlson tackled Lee and Carmignani together, arguing that California’s liberal governor was trying to “reshape reality” by ignoring the decline in public safety that was plaguing the state.
Fresh material appeared in The Chronicle. Ray Carmignani, Don’s father, told the paper that his family, whose roots in the city went back for generations, were fed up. They were planning to leave San Francisco. “We’ll go to Nevada, we’ll go to Arizona,” he said. “I can’t worry about walking out my door and getting attacked.” The New York Post got in the game, too, then British tabloids — The Daily Mail and The Independent — reheated The Post’s reporting under different headlines. The mostly symbolic title “fire commissioner” was repeated with such righteousness that it sounded as though Carmignani had practically run the department. Within 72 hours, the flare-up in the Marina had transformed from a nonlethal assault into a news story of seemingly global import — another data point about a city in free fall.
One aspect that made the Carmignani story interesting was where it unfolded. The Marina was a wealthy and sheltered neighborhood with views of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge. Catherine Stefani, the supervisor who represents the Marina in City Hall, told a reporter that this kind of thing was rare in her district or, if not rare, then at least new. “I’ve been here 21 years,” she said. “This didn’t used to happen.” Carmignani was a former cannabis entrepreneur who dabbled in real estate, and Stefani knew his family through the community in the Marina. As the story was spreading in the media during that first week of April, Stefani happened to attend a meeting with members of the Police Officer’s Association. When it was her turn to speak, she did what would be expected of a politician in the circumstances. “My dear friend Don is in the hospital,” she said. It was boilerplate and appropriate. A constituent got hurt, you acknowledged it in public.
The intersection of Laguna and Magnolia in the Marina district where the homeless couple Nathaniel Roye and Ashley Buck set up a tent.Credit…Preston Gannaway for The New York Times
That night, she got a phone call. A police officer friend who had attended the P.O.A. meeting wanted to warn her about something.
“Don’t get too far out ahead of this,” he said.
“What do you mean?” Stefani asked.
He meant the Carmignani situation.
“Just be careful,” he said. “There are more sides to this story.”
Carmignani was discharged from the hospital with more than 100 stitches and a prescription for OxyContin. He agreed to tape an interview with KPIX. Because he had not yet spoken to police, this was his first on-the-record statement and the first time that San Franciscans would hear the story in the victim’s own words. Sitting in his kitchen in a gray newsboy cap, with get-well-soon cards neatly arranged on the table behind him, Carmignani identified the root cause of his attack.
“My city is in chaos,” he said. “You have animals on the street saying they’re going to rape your daughter and kill your mother.” He continued: “And when you call for help, 911, and that’s your savior — and they don’t show up, what do you do?” Evidence would later confirm this: The Carmignani family had called 911 on Doty hours before the attack but received no assistance. By failing to get a handle on the city, Carmignani continued, leaders were driving out longtime, taxpaying residents like his family and himself. When he said longtime, he meant it: The Carmignanis had lived in the Marina since 1902. They owned two houses on the block where the altercation happened.
Carmignani’s remarks echoed the national consensus about his city, and that consensus, in turn, explained why Carmignani was becoming national news. The bloody beating of a former city official by an unhinged homeless person confirmed what everybody knew about San Francisco in 2023: that it was gyrating into catastrophe. “What happened to San Francisco?” Anderson Cooper asked in a CNN special this May, and the answers were exemplary of how the media had come to frame the city. What happened to San Francisco was “crime, homelessness and drug use.” What happened was “breaking laws left and right.” What happened, in a nutshell, was that “things have gone crazy.”
The narrative that San Francisco was a zombified, crime-ridden wasteland dated roughly to June 2021, when a video went viral showing a man casually shoveling cosmetics from a Walgreens aisle into a garbage bag before riding out on a bicycle. In the two years since then, the city had become a source of viral content that was dark, selective and severed from any context: a young man running out of the Louis Vuitton store, holding LV-emblazoned bags; students walking off a city bus and into a crowd of people cooking drugs on tin foil; a black S.U.V. broken into in plain view of a police cruiser. When Ron DeSantis visited the Tenderloin to shoot a campaign video, he articulated what had become the standard right-leaning view: Under soft-on-crime policies, he said, the once-great city had “collapsed.”
In March, The Chronicle published a front-page article that inadvertently supplied the media with a term for the sense of despair: San Francisco, the reporters wrote, was at risk of spiraling into an urban “doom loop.” The phrase came from a 2022 paper by a group of economists and referred to a risk of the post-pandemic era. With more people working from home, commercial real estate would sit vacant, leading to lower property values, which meant lower tax receipts for the city, leading to spending cuts, which could lead to out-migration, which in turn would further deplete tax revenues, leading to more spending cuts and more out-migration. And so on.
The Chronicle’s reporting triggered a landslide of apocalyptic stories, in which “doom loop” — an academic term for a scenario that remains hypothetical in San Francisco — was stretched to apply to each and every problem in the city. Drugs and homelessness were part of the doom loop, The Daily Mail reported, “thanks to soft-touch policing.” The closure of a Whole Foods Market downtown was part of the doom loop. The cover story of The Financial Times Magazine asked, “What if San Francisco never pulls out of its ‘doom loop’?” Some journalists set out to write against the narrative of the doom loop, but the conditions downtown wouldn’t let them. “When I set out reporting, I wanted to write a debunking-the-doom piece,” Elizabeth Weil, a San Franciscan feature writer for New York Magazine, wrote in an article published in May. “Yet to live in San Francisco right now, to watch its streets, is to realize that no one will catch you if you fall.” (“Journalist’s attempt to debunk blue city’s bad reputation fails miserably,” a right-wing tabloid noted.) Even comic relief was nowhere to be found: A few days after Weil’s essay appeared, fans filled an auditorium near Union Square to watch Dave Chappelle perform, and he immediately told a story about a man who defecated in front of the Indian restaurant where he was eating. San Francisco has become “half ‘Glee,’ half zombie movie,” he said. “Y’all niggas need a Batman!”
In this context, it was nearly unimaginable that Carmignani’s assailant could mount any sort of defense. A 24-year-old who had recently arrived in San Francisco from Louisiana, Doty was arrested in the past for fighting with his father and he had a drug problem in the present. A violent addict from out-of-state — that’s what he was on paper, there was no getting around it, and that’s how he would be seen. It surprised nobody when he was indicted on multiple felony charges of assault and battery, for which the punishment could be as long as seven years in prison.
Doty’s case landed on the desk of a deputy public defender named Kleigh Hathaway, who has short brown hair and commutes to work from Berkeley on a Honda CBR500 motorcycle. Hathaway gives the impression of containing high potential energy, a coiled spring. On her office wall, there is a scrap of yellow legal paper on which “not guilty” is written three times in pen. This is the verdict sheet from a recent homicide trial, which she won on self-defense grounds. She considered self-defense cases her “shtick,” because they were fundamentally “popularity contests.” Hathaway loved to win popularity contests.
As the law required, the district attorney sent Hathaway all the material that the police had gathered on the case, including the chronology of their investigation — what the police call “the chron.” Reviewing the chron and the evidence, Hathaway noticed that before Doty swung the pipe at him, Carmignani took a canister out of his pocket and sprayed it. Indeed, multiple witnesses saw an orange “plume” or “cloud” hovering in the air around the fight. The canister looked about the size of a can of spray paint, which was much too big to be generic, hand-held pepper spray. A canister of that size was probably bear mace, pepper spray’s higher-capsaicin, faster-ejecting relative. If Carmignani sprayed Doty before Doty attacked him, that looked like the basis for a self-defense argument.
Another loose thread in the chron caught her eye. About a month after the attack, the investigating sergeant had received a voice mail message from a woman who identified herself as Carmignani’s former mother-in-law. She said that “she knows so much more about him and people being hurt.” The sergeant never followed up on it. What also jumped out: In the audio from police bodycam footage, Carmignani could be heard talking to his girlfriend when he was loaded into the ambulance. “Don’t say nothing to nobody,” he said. “Don’t say nothing to no cops.” None of this amounted to a slam-dunk. There are good reasons not to talk to the police; in San Francisco, many people now carried pepper spray or even handguns for perfectly obvious reasons. Maybe Carmignani carried it with him daily. Maybe it went off by mistake. (Through his lawyer, Carmignani declined to comment for this article.)But the most intriguing part of the chron was on Page 3. Searching police records for crimes that might be related to this one, the investigating sergeant found eight previous cases, dating back to 2021, in which pepper spray or bear mace was deployed against people living on the streets in the Marina. At least a few of the incidents had overlapping suspect descriptions: a white man in his 40s or 50s, at least 6 feet tall and weighing between 220 and 300 pounds. The victims had been sprayed without warning, sometimes in their sleep: Once, the assailant unzipped his victim’s tent and sprayed the chemical in his face. No arrests were ever made.
In the package that the district attorney sent to Hathaway, there was a grainy surveillance video of one of the previous attacks, which showed a heavyset white man approaching a man sleeping on the sidewalk, spraying him with a large canister and walking quickly away as the man writhed in pain. The assailant’s face wasn’t visible. But there was a clip from a later incident, which a witness had taken from across the street as the assailant walked away, in which you could distinctly make out a white man wearing sunglasses and a goatee. Hathaway sent her investigator to interview neighbors in the Marina; one of them said the man in the cellphone clip was Carmignani, who was 6 feet tall, weighed about 250 pounds and wore a goatee. An argument was taking shape that could flip the story inside-out. What kind of person would spray homeless people with bear mace? The answer, Hathaway would later tell the court, was clear: A person who says: “I’m a vigilante justice. I don’t care. I’m above and beyond the law.’”
Until 2020, homelessness had not been a primary concern for Marina residents. The neighborhood occupies about a square mile along the Bay shore, severed from downtown and the Tenderloin — and their afflictions — by the city’s famous hills. Then, in April 2020, the city started the Covid-19 Alternative Shelter Program, which allowed the homeless to leave the crowded shelter system and stay in hotel rooms that would otherwise have been vacant. Some of the hotels were on Lombard Street, the Marina’s main thoroughfare, around the corner from the Sweetgreen and the Barry’s Bootcamp. By the time the program was discontinued two and a half years later, a number of these homeless residents had noticed how much safer and quieter the Marina felt compared to the Tenderloin or South of Market and quite reasonably decided to stay.
A vast majority kept themselves invisible, sleeping at the far end of Moscone Park or taking their places at night in the unlit doorways of shuttered businesses on Lombard and Chestnut Streets. The number of burglaries and robberies — at least those that were reported to police — didn’t change much in this period, and violent crime stayed lower than the city average. By and large, the residents accepted, or at least tolerated, most of their new neighbors. But there were two they couldn’t stand: Nathaniel Roye and Ashley Buck.
Roye and Buck were a couple in their 20s who openly used drugs, got into screaming arguments and had sex on the sidewalk. Stefani, the city supervisor in charge of the Marina, began to receive regular complaints when they moved in. “It seems like people are snapping on all sides of this,” she told me. “Definitely a lot of emails about Nathaniel and Ashley.” When I met Roye one night this spring, he was painting a ceramic skull with the words “Spend All Want Now.” He explained that Michael Myers, the fictional villain from the “Halloween” movies, lived down the block from his tent. He said he might want to become an inventor, but he couldn’t decide what to invent. “There’s already a car,” he said. “There’s a plane. There’s a boat.”
The corner where Roye and Buck set up their tent was Laguna and Magnolia, down the street from a preschool owned by a longtime Marina resident named Cameron Martin. “I’m not concerned with somebody sitting on the street, even sleeping on the street,” she told me. “It’s more about just straight up doing drugs at 8 in the morning.” Martin showed me a photo that a neighbor had sent of toddlers in wagons being pulled past a pile of clothing, bedding and trash, with Roye and Buck in the middle of it. Martin said she was concerned that I would mistake her complaints for a lack of empathy or political conservatism. “I grew up in a very liberal family,” she was at pains to explain. “But there are times when you turn a corner. You call the police, and they say, ‘Sorry, we can’t do anything.’”
This was true. The police department’s options were limited. In 2014, California voters overwhelmingly passed a referendum, Proposition 47, that reclassified the possession of most narcotics as a misdemeanor offense. The law succeeded in reducing the number of inmates who were serving long sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, but it also removed what some in the recovery community saw as a tool to force users into treatment: the threat of prison time. (A Pew study found that longer prison terms have no deterrent effect on drug use but that availability of treatment does.) Whatever you thought of it, Prop 47 applied to Roye and Buck just as much as it might apply to the software engineer enjoying psychedelics in her living room.
Nor could the police easily sweep the encampments. This was a result of a ruling by a federal judge in California, who in December 2022 sided with a San Francisco nonprofit, the Coalition on Homelessness, in a lawsuit against the city. Because the San Francisco shelter system always ran several thousand beds short, the lawsuit argued, it was a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s equal-protection clause to force people to give up their sleeping places and throw out their belongings with no viable alternative. It criminalized them for a condition they couldn’t fix. While the community had an interest in keeping streets safe and clean, the judge wrote, homeless residents of the city were “members of the community” too.
San Francisco counts its homeless population once every two years, usually on a single night in January. The most recent “point in time count,” in 2022, recorded 7,754 homeless people, of whom 4,397 were the unsheltered people referred to in the lawsuit. While these numbers haven’t changed much since 2017, the total number of people who access homelessness-related services, such as food assistance and temporary housing, skyrocketed during the same period: In other words, more people are living in some kind of precarity. Compounding the problem are three factors that make homelessness seem, from the outside, as though it must be worse than before: fentanyl; social video sharing; and the post-pandemic emptiness of downtown San Francisco, a blank background against which encampments stand out starkly.
Civil-liberties groups have cheered the encampment ruling and Prop 47 as victories for humane policy. Law enforcement has criticized these changes. “That basic ‘move along or leave, or I’m going to cite you’ is kind of out the window,” a senior San Francisco police officer, who asked to be anonymous because he was not authorized to speak for the department, told me. “Cops naturally just go, ‘Well, why am I going to go out and make arrests that I know from the very beginning are never going to do anything?’”
When Doty came to San Francisco from Louisiana in the late fall of 2022, he found his way to the Marina, where he fell in with Roye and Buck. He pitched his tent near their encampment and often spent the day with them, mostly uninterrupted by police. Of the three of them, Doty struck Marina residents as the least disruptive presence. A clerk at the ExtraMile, a convenience store around the corner from Carmignani’s house, told me that Doty would sometimes steal food and sleep on the cement walkway outside the front door, but that he was not violent. Stefani received no complaints about Doty specifically. Alan Byard, a private patrolman hired by Marina residents to protect the area, told me that he encountered Doty on his rounds. “I’ve talked to him twice,” he said. “And he was nice to me.”
The preliminary hearing for the Doty case began in late May. To reach the witness stand in San Francisco Superior Court, Carmignani used a walker. Doty, seated at the trial table, wore a hoodie from which his tangled light brown hair cascaded. At first he seemed almost giddy to be the object of such attention — he would sometimes turn and smile boyishly at the press — but one day in the second week of hearings, he missed an appearance and was arrested, and from then on he sat quietly in an orange prison jumpsuit, his posture now slumped and his hair abruptly clean. (Doty has pleaded not guilty. He declined to comment for this article.)
An assistant district attorney, Kourtney Bell, put Carmignani on the stand first. In a slow, gravelly voice, Carmignani gave his version of April 5. That morning, three homeless people were camped in front of his parents’ house on Magnolia. (This was Roye, Buck and Doty.) From his dining-room window, Carmignani politely asked them to move. “I said: ‘My parents can’t get out of the house. Can you please move down the road?’” They did not. Carmignani and his mother each called 911, but the police didn’t show up.
When Carmignani returned home that evening, the three had moved across the street. Carmignani went out to ask them to leave the block, and Doty started “yelling and screaming.” Carmignani ran to a gas station down the street, and “the next thing” he knew, Doty was swinging a metal pipe at him “over and over and over.” Carmignani put his hands up to defend himself. He had brought a can of pepper spray with him from the house. The spray “went off accidentally and it went in my eyes and I was blinded.” Doty continued to beat him, shouting, “Die!”
“From one to 10, how would you characterize the pain?” Bell asked.
“Eleven,” Carmignani said.
Then Bell made what looked like a self-defeating move: He called a woman named Kristin Onorato, who worked as an executive assistant at a tech company and lived down the street from Carmignani on Laguna Street. Around 5:30 p.m. on the evening of the attack, Onorato was in her apartment, when voices in the street drew her to the window. Carmignani was screaming at Doty.
“Am I allowed to swear?” she asked the judge.
She said Carmignani yelled: “Get the fuck out of my neighborhood. I own this block. I don’t want to see you here tonight. If you come back, I will stab you.” Onorato said that Carmignani called Doty “a white nigger” and said he would kill him and the others. Carmignani said, “You have two hours to get out of here.” Around 15 minutes later, Carmignani was back, and slid against the wall of an apartment building, as though “baiting” Doty to come near him. When Doty approached, Carmignani “takes out a can of some kind of sprayable aerosol, and he points and sprays it at Mr. Doty,” who was standing in the street about 10 feet away. “But what Mr. Carmignani did not account for,” Onorato said, “was the wind.”
Preliminary hearings, or “prelims,” usually consist of the judge rubber-stamping the district attorney’s desired charges, then sending the case to the clerk to be scheduled for trial. They last a couple of hours. This one dragged on for six sessions over six weeks, as Hathaway tried to use the evidence to link Carmignani to the string of unsolved acts of vigilantism.
A Ring camera had captured the first of the eight pepper-spray attacks. In the video snippet from November 2021, a man approaches a figure who is sleeping on the sidewalk, holding a large canister, sprays him in the face and flees west. The victim said he didn’t want to press charges; people living on the streets tend to want to minimize their interactions with police. Witnesses described the suspect as a white man, six feet tall and approximately 300 pounds.
Of the ensuing six incidents, the police recovered no surveillance video, but they seemed broadly similar in nature. A man approached a sleeping or resting person — or sometimes several — sprayed them with a canister and moved on. Once, the assailant said “Get out of here” and another time, “Get out of my town.” By late 2022, Marina police were clocking a pattern. Because all victims were “transient individuals,” one officer wrote, and were sprayed in the same area of town, “I believe the suspect is targeting the unhoused population for reasons unknown.”
On Jan. 6, 2023, a resident of Magnolia Street captured the aftermath of an eighth attack on video: She had heard yelling outside her window and managed to snap a couple of seconds of cellphone footage before the suspect fled. This time, the assailant wore a gray sweatshirt. According to the subsequent police report, he had sprayed two people — a man and a woman — three times each, and picked their dog up and “slammed it to the ground.” While the victims were being treated by paramedics, the neighbor who shot the video took the dog inside and washed the pepper spray off in the bathtub. Witnesses described the suspect as a white man in his 40s or 50s.
This is what Hathaway had to work with as she prepared to cross-examine Carmignani. A key part of her strategy was to get him to flatly deny using bear mace before the April 5 incident with Doty. If she could get him to say he’d never done it, then later dig up evidence that he was responsible for even one of the previous incidents, she could discredit him at trial for having perjured himself.
“How many times had you used that spray prior to this day?” she asked.
“I never used it,” Carmignani said.
“You never used it before this day?” Hathaway asked.
As this exchange unfolded, a stone-faced, clean-shaven man with close-cropped hair, who had been seated silently in the empty jury box, spoke up: “I’m going to instruct the witness not to answer, under the Fifth Amendment.” This was John Cox, Carmignani’s private lawyer. Over the course of the hearings, this interaction was repeated in a surreal, looping way. Hathaway asked if Carmignani was the assailant in five of the eight assaults, and each time, he invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Here was the key witness for the state — the victim of the crime in question — taking the Fifth during a preliminary hearing. A former police officer in the Marina told me that he had never heard of it happening and that it implied “that there is something wrong with the story that they are telling.”
Toward the end, Carmignani’s story became even more confounding, when he seemed to suddenly remember that he had flown to an out-of-town wedding only a few hours after one of the attacks. Why had he tried to give an alibi for one, but taken the Fifth on all the others? (In May, the San Francisco Police Department had opened an investigation into Carmignani and the spray attacks, which they say is ongoing; Cox says he didn’t want his client testifying to facts outside of the Doty case. Carmignani has repeatedly denied involvement in the attacks.)
Hathaway did not waste her chance to muddy the image of Carmignani as an upstanding fire commissioner and businessman. She started with his alcohol use. Hathaway had reviewed records from Zuckerberg General that suggested he might have been in “alcohol withdrawal” as late as April 7 — in other words, that he might have been drinking the day of the incident. She asked him how many drinks he had per day on average.
“It could be six, it could be zero,” Carmignani said. When did he start drinking each day? “When I want to,” he said. Did he have anything to drink on April 5? “I don’t recall.”
At a later session, Hathaway raised an episode from Carmignani’s history, to try to further tarnish him as a witness. “There has been some violence in your past, correct?” she asked.
“I don’t believe so,” Carmignani answered.
“Well, you were arrested for domestic violence,” Hathaway said. This was true; in 2013 his ex-wife accused him of punching her in the face. Carmignani stepped down from his post as a fire commissioner and eventually pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor assault.
“I don’t remember that at all,” he said.
Hathaway seemed caught off guard. “You — OK,” she said. Then she recovered. “And to prevent being prosecuted in this case you actually planted a fair amount of cocaine in her car? Is that correct?” The police report did, in fact, contain this allegation.
“No,” Carmignani said.
Had the attack damaged his memory, as his lawyer claimed? Or was he pretending to forget an episode that could harm the government’s case? That question, like so many others in these ambiguous proceedings, now fell to the judge to resolve.
Though the Carmignani story broke in The Chronicle, the publication that really owned it was a new one, The San Francisco Standard, an online-only paper that was co-founded in 2021 by the billionaire venture-capitalist Michael Moritz. A former partner at Sequoia Capital, Moritz recently made several high-profile investments in San Francisco politics. The tech industry had long been ridiculed for shielding itself from the tumult of the city: The stereotypical tech worker was a person who reverse-commuted on a private bus into a suburban office campus with free cafeterias, laundry and barbershops, and who was therefore oblivious to the urban scene around him. Now tech leaders were suddenly taking an interest in city government.
Moritz was the force behind a new political nonprofit group, TogetherSF. Striving to “help San Franciscans connect with the city and each other” by organizing meet-ups and events, TogetherSF also influenced politics by endorsing candidates and running media campaigns. The group could sometimes be abrasive in its pursuit of the public’s attention. This spring, for instance, billboards popped up all over the city with bubbly fonts and pastel color schemes that contrasted sharply with the sneering, ironic messages: “The layoffs don’t appear to have hit the drug dealers. That’s Fentalife!” “Keys. Wallet. Narcan. That’s Fentalife!” “No yelling while selling drugs. Kids are trying to sleep around here. That’s Fentalife!”
One afternoon, I stopped by the group’s offices, in a converted industrial loft with gleaming white-oak floors. The chief executive, Kanishka Cheng, who is 40, was born in Sri Lanka and immigrated to the Bay Area with her family as a child. She told me that “regular people” were being forgotten in the conversation about homelessness. “We live in a bubble,” she said. “We don’t see ourselves the way the rest of the country sees us.”
Cheng criticized city government for being wasteful; considered the 2022 anti-sweep ruling to be an absurd mistake that had left the city stuck with semipermanent encampments; wanted an emphasis on “permanent supportive housing” over temporary shelters; believed that without adequate treatment options, “safe consumption” sites, where drug users could obtain clean works, amounted to the city’s enabling addiction; and thought that the nonprofits the city contracted to provide homelessness services were ineffective and unaccountable. This range of positions — a combination of calls for a more powerful and coercive government with appeals to business-friendly principles — distilled the views of a large segment of the tech and business communities.
No matter what you thought of its tactics, the rise of TogetherSF reflected a new strain in local politics: The tech industry, the city’s greatest material beneficiary, had become its most vehement detractor. On their extremely popular podcast “All-In,” the investors Chamath Palihapitiya, Jason Calacanis, David Sacks and David Friedberg made San Francisco’s street conditions a frequent topic. Just days after Bob Lee was stabbed, for example, Sacks told his co-host that he would “bet dollars to dimes” that Lee was killed “by a psychotic homeless person.” (When a clip of this exchange was posted to Twitter, Elon Musk replied “absolutely.”) Another venture capitalist, Matt Ocko, tweeted that the “criminal-loving city council” had “blood on their hands” for the murder. The man who would eventually be charged with the killing was an information-technology consultant who knew Lee; he has pleaded not guilty.
From 2008 to 2020 — Occupy Wall Street until the pandemic — one of San Franciscans’ main concerns about their city was inequality: meaning, tech. A 2014 opinion poll showed that while most residents welcomed the economic benefits, they worried that tech workers were “squeezing out” average people. Protesters disrupted Google buses ferrying workers to the South Bay. In 2000 in the Mission, the Chicano-run Galería de la Raza hung a well-known outdoor billboard, which showed a moving van labeled “Evicted & Exiled” driving away from the city: “Resist the Dot Con,” the text warned. This billboard has long since come down, but there’s a “Fentalife!” one nearby.
Many of the city’s prominent observers wanted to tell a straightforward story in which San Francisco was the example of why progressive policies didn’t work. And while there was plenty of dysfunction in city government, the explanations for the issue that most obsessed the wealthiest critics — homelessness — was not simply that recent progressive policy had gone haywire. One issue that was important to TogetherSF, for example, was the network of homeless-services nonprofits that devoured city funding with little to show for it. But this failure was not a result of progressive policies; it was the legacy of decades of free-market reforms in which government functions like homeless services were privatized.
Alex Shultz, a politics editor at the news website SFGate, thought that the tech community’s darkly tinted fixation on street conditions was evidence of a major change: a rightward drift among the city’s wealthiest residents. “You see the same V.C. and tech people who were formerly aligned with liberal politics, suddenly going hand in hand with William Oberndorf,” he told me. (Oberndorf was the main source of funding for the campaign to recall the progressive district attorney, Chesa Boudin.) “And the funny part is, when was the last time Elon Musk walked three blocks in San Francisco? He doesn’t do it. I would love to watch David Sacks walk three blocks in San Francisco! What are they basing their views on?”
Ricci Wynne became semifamous in San Francisco with one video. He grew up in the city, and, after serving 36 months at the federal prison in Santa Rita for distribution of cocaine, he had recently returned. He took a job as a case manager at a supportive-housing program in the Tenderloin that worked on the harm-reduction model: They allowed patients to stay in the program while still actively using drugs. Wynne hated this approach, because he got himself clean at an abstinence-only rehab. He sometimes took photos and videos of people outside the center using drugs, which he posted to Twitter without their consent, gaining a large following. Wynne came to think of himself as a “video vigilante,” and without much premeditation, he had begun to feed the loosely organized media machine that takes isolated videos of street disorder and petty crime, makes them go viral and lashes them to a political agenda.
One day, he was walking in his neighborhood and saw a group of school kids navigating through some people on the sidewalk using drugs. Wynne posted a video, which racked up 3.5 million views. “All these local news agencies wanted to talk to me,” Wynne says. “And when the conservatives got ahold of it, they were like hungry.” Wynne began appearing on many shows on Fox — including those of Jesse Watters and Tucker Carlson — billed as a “former drug addict” who could explain how San Francisco’s progressive government was failing by being soft on addicts. He has since supplied images at no charge to The Daily Mail and other outlets. I recognized some of his pictures from doom-loop news articles I read in the course of my reporting; when I met him, for a walk in the South of Market neighborhood, I felt I was in the presence of a kind of celebrity.
Wynne knew about the vigilante violence against the homeless, and disapproved of it. “I definitely would not spray somebody with a fire hose. I definitely would not spray somebody with bear mace. I mean, that’s not right. But it’s a byproduct of what we’re dealing with out here as citizens that pay taxes, that are trying to live through this madness.” The “fire hose” remark referred to a 2023 incident in which a gallery owner was caught on video spraying a mentally ill homeless woman with a garden hose because she wouldn’t relocate from the sidewalk; the gallery owner later wrote an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal about the episode.
As I learned by consuming more and more doom-loop viral media, Wynne had a rival, who went by JJ Smith. He was superficially unlike Wynne: Black instead of white, older and less bombastic. When I met him on O’Farrell Street, in the Tenderloin, I asked how he became a street videographer. One day last year, Smith said, his brother came to him to borrow $20. Smith learned that night that his brother had overdosed on the fentanyl he’d bought with it. After that, Smith began to shoot photos and videos of drug users in the Tenderloin. His intended audience was not the media, though his photos sometimes wound up on Fox News. His intended audience, he said, were his neighbors — in some cases, the images’ subjects themselves.
He pulled his phone out and pressed play. In the video, a homeless man wearing a blue jacket and a gray hoodie presses play on an iPad that is propped on the edge of a fence. The figure in the iPad video also wears a blue jacket and a gray hoodie; it is the same man, eight hours earlier, during a fentanyl overdose. Smith’s voice comes in, over the video playing on the iPad: “Q! Q! Are you OK?” Then Smith’s hand reaches into the frame to spray Narcan into Q’s nostril. His eyes open. Q had never seen the video. His expression becomes terrified, as though he is seeing a ghost, which, of course, he is. He begins to cry. The video concluded. “See?” Smith said. “That’s how to get him not to do it again.”
I knew I was watching a kind of media that was endemic to America in the present: an iPhone video showing a man who was crying as he watched an iPad showing an iPhone video of himself in the midst of a fentanyl overdose. An eternally recursive feedback loop of imagery, facilitated by the products that had made the city so spectacularly wealthy.
The last day of the preliminary hearing arrived, and it was time for Judge Linda Colfax to issue her rulings. She began by observing the inconsistencies in Carmignani’s memory — his recall seemed perfect during direct examination but went blank during cross — and zeroed in on his instruction to his girlfriend from the ambulance: “Don’t say nothing to no cops.”
The judge didn’t mince words about the Police Department, either, singling out the sergeant for not having followed up on the other attacks, despite the “similar suspect description.” This left her “troubled, and that’s a somewhat generous word.”
But she couldn’t ignore the video. Even if Carmignani was not “credible,” the video made it impossible to dismiss or reduce the charges. According to Colfax, Doty’s first few blows, after the bear spray went off, could reasonably fall within California’s definition of self-defense. But the additional blows after Carmignani was already running away could constitute assault, and “that is an issue that should be decided by the jury.” Among the evidence that the jury could review was an image of Carmignani in the hospital, looking dazed, with a flap of skin hanging loose from his cheek and his eye swollen shut.
A source close to the district attorney’s office told me that prosecutors are considering a plea deal to conclude the case, an outcome that Carmignani will not welcome, because it would lessen Doty’s ultimate punishment. (The district attorney’s office declined to comment.) If the case goes to trial, which could happen in just a few weeks, the presiding judge will face a decision: whether to allow Hathaway to introduce evidence about the unsolved pepper-spray attacks. Even if Carmignani were definitively connected to the attacks, which was hardly a sure thing, a defense lawyer is not allowed to bring up every “prior bad act” by the victim of an assault just in order to help her client. But she can absolutely investigate the inconsistencies in Carmignani’s account of what started the fight and try to introduce evidence showing that Carmignani is the kind of person who would have started it.
Hathaway had argued that Carmignani seemed to fit the descriptions of the suspects in five of the eight attacks: the heavyset white man in his 40s or 50s. This description applied to Carmignani but also to many other men in the Marina. What was more, the suspect IDs in the other two attacks were clearly wide of the mark: one was a “white or Hispanic male in his 30s, approximately 160 pounds,” and the other was a white man in his 30s and about 5-feet-8. This pointed to an even more disturbing possibility than a single vigilante: that more than one Marina resident thought to address the city’s homelessness problem by attacking people living on the street.
Cox, Carmignani’s lawyer, said that the police did not have enough evidence to charge his client in any of the prior incidents. According to Cox, Hathaway had merely done a “very good job” of creating a “circus” in the preliminary hearing. He thought the reason that prosecutors had allowed the case to veer off-track by putting Carmignani on the stand — a procedurally avoidable move that had exposed him to Hathaway’s cross-examination — was that they were afraid of being accused of anti-homeless bias by the media. “Wealthy San Francisco versus homeless — who are you gonna support?” Cox asked me rhetorically. “It was a politically charged case, and the media was all over it, and they didn’t want to appear biased in favor of the victim.” (The district attorney’s office says it is not uncommon to put the victim on the stand in a preliminary hearing.)
Whatever really happened in the courtroom, by the time of Colfax’s ruling, the tabloids had lost interest. Nobody could be certain what the story represented. That Carmignani was a victim? A villain? That Doty belonged in jail? That the city was worse than it seemed? That it was better? But this indeterminacy was the quality that made the story resonant. It spoke 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.
In September, Carmignani opened a restaurant. Il Porcellino Grasso — the fat piglet — is in the heart of the Financial District, where nearly vacant commercial buildings have been selling for 50 or 75 percent under their prepandemic values, generating new headlines about the doom loop. Carmignani had lambasted the city as a zone of pure chaos, where “animals” roamed the streets and the police were nowhere to be found. But that was not the whole story, it seemed. When it came time for business, he was taking the opposite view — that downtown San Francisco, the most maligned neighborhood in the country, was destined to bounce back.