Posted on November 5, 2019

The Porch Pirate of Potrero Hill Can’t Believe It Came to This

Lauren Smiley, Atlantic, November 1, 2019

[Editor’s Note: This is a long story that’s worth reading in its entirety here. A snipped version is below.]

The first time Ganave Fairley got busted for stealing a neighbor’s Amazon package, she was just another porch thief unlucky to be caught on tape. In August 2016, a 30-something product marketing manager at Google, expecting some deliveries, got an iPhone ping from his porch surveillance camera as it recorded a black woman in a neon hoodie plucking some bundles off his San Francisco stoop. After arriving home that afternoon, the Googler got in his Subaru Impreza to hunt for any remnants strewn around the streets of his Potrero Hill neighborhood. Instead, he spotted Fairley herself, boarding a city bus, which he trailed while dialing 911. Minutes later, he watched responding police officers pull their cruiser in front of the bus and escort her off. The Googler, sitting nearby in his car, played the Nest Cam tape for them—Yep, it’s her—and the police pulled a $107.66 Apple Magic Keyboard from Fairley’s purse and black tar heroin from her coin pocket. The officers wrote Fairley a ticket with a court date a month later. “I thought it was just a ticket, and that was it,” Fairley said.

It was only about nine months later, in May 2017, when one of Fairley’s neighbors plastered photos of her, “Wanted”-style, on Nextdoor, that Fairley realized things were about to get worse. Nextdoor is an online ticker tape of homeowner and tenant concerns, and the grievances can be particularly telling in a city of Dickensian extremes like San Francisco, whose influx of tech wealth is pitting suburban expectations against urban realities. The city’s property-crime rate is among the highest in the United States. Nextdoor posts about dogs slurping from a public drinking fountain and Whole Foods overcharging again (“Be on guard”) show up alongside reports of smash-and-grab car break-ins, slashed tires, and an entire crime subgenre of “porch pirates,” the Artful Dodgers of the Amazon age.

Fairley and her neighbor do not agree—will likely never agree—on what happened in the minutes prior to the photos of Fairley going up on Nextdoor. Fairley has sworn that the boxes she picked up were from down the street, where they had been laid out for the taking, and that her 6-year-old daughter was helping to haul them to their home in the public housing down the block.

Julie Margett, a nurse who lives on the street, in a purple cottage with a rainbow gay-pride flag and a Black Lives Matter sign in the window, said she was leaving her garage and spotted Fairley coming down her neighbor’s stairs carrying boxes with various addresses on them. Surmising that they were stolen, she asked Fairley warily, in her British accent, “What are you doing?”

Fairley called her a racist (in fact, she still does) and told her she was in the middle of moving. “That was what was so disarming about her,” Margett told me. “Before you know it, she’s torn you to shreds and she’s off down the block.” Margett snapped photos of the mother-daughter haul act—in one, the young girl sticks her tongue out at the camera—and, after calling the police, uploaded them into a Nextdoor post: “Package thieves.”

So, Fairley told me two years later, sitting in an orange sweatsuit in a county-jail interview room, that was the real acceleration of the epic feud of Fairley v. Neighbors of Potrero Hill, a vortex of smart-cam clips, Nextdoor rants, and cellphone surveillance that would tug at the complexities of race and class relations in a liberal, gentrifying city. The clash would also expose a fraught debate about who is responsible, and who is to blame, for the city’s increasingly unlivable conditions. As Fairley says, “It just got bigger and bigger and bigger.”


Still, some residents, like Margett, said they were attracted to the diversity in a city that is hemorrhaging people who don’t earn tech paychecks. Margett said Potrero welcomed her, a white woman and a proud lesbian sporting a Mohawk ponytail (“The pulse of the neighborhood, to me, is more important than petty crime”), and the neighbors have dealt with the glaring disparities in their own ways. {snip}

When I visited Margett, she said that in her interaction with Fairley, the charged dynamic of “white-privileged homeowner” versus “someone who is barely making it” was not lost on her, yet she didn’t consider herself a bigot for calling out what she deduced was petty crime. “One is always so concerned about not wanting to appear that way, and then I’m second-guessing myself—Maybe I did leap to that conclusion because she’s African American,” she recalled. “But no! I know what I saw.”


As Fairley started hitting the stoops, her neighbors took to Nextdoor to discuss what to do. One group thought it was naive to expect a package to sit undisturbed for hours on a city stoop. Another camp felt the residents deserved the same rights to deliveries as in any other town. A third group was the solutions crowd: They advised having the boxes delivered to workplaces, or to Amazon Hub Locker, or with Amazon Key, a smart-lock system that allows couriers to drop packages directly inside a home or car. It turns out that while delivering packages is big business, so is thwarting their theft.


Even so, Sierra Villaran, a San Francisco deputy public defender who handled Fairley’s case early on, has seen how social media’s rabble-rousing still leads to profiling of minorities and the poor. One of her clients, a Latino man, was arrested after a resident mistook him for someone recorded by their Ring device. (He was later released.) Not only does an arrest go on an innocent person’s record and potentially subject her to the use of force, Villaran said, it makes the accused feel like the cops will take the word of accusers, who are usually wealthier, over their own. Neighborhood surveillance and social media aren’t “adding quality to their life, making them any more safe.”


“This has zero to do with race,” Arnold interjects. Fairley shoots back that it does. (Arnold is white.) Then she threatens him with a harassment suit, and he says he’ll be forwarding the tape to the district attorney. Fairley tells him that, when he does, he should include a note of clarification: “I didn’t see her doing nothing, but I’m assuming.”

After the spat, Arnold followed Fairley down the street, watching her take other mail—“fearless,” as Arnold would later describe her to me—and called the cops. He snapped a photo of Fairley for a forthcoming Nextdoor report as the police came and detained her. Neighbors thanked and high-fived him as he walked home, in socks, victorious—at least for the hour.


Arnold began combining the neighbors’ Fairley-related posts in a single document. They started with the first dispatch, from May 2017, with Margett photographing Fairley and her daughter. In October of that year, a friend of Arnold’s, then a VP at Flipboard, followed Fairley in his Prius, watching her go door to door collecting packages—a mail carrier in reverse. In November, a cam caught a lithe woman who looked like Fairley crawling up a home’s steps to seize a fat Amazon pouch of lug nuts, a rosary dangling from her neck. Two weeks later, neighbors were gardening on a shared strip of land when Fairley passed by balancing a long lamp box on her shoulder. (Fairley claimed that the box contained her own headboard and lampshade.) Seeing an address written in big letters for a home in the opposite direction, one of them grabbed the box and demanded to see an ID to prove Fairley lived there. A second man called 911 as a woman videoed Fairley’s ensuing tirade: “That’s why people get shot. You don’t pull somebody’s package off their fucking arm,” Fairley snapped, then stalked off.


On Nextdoor, Pease-Greene, a black woman, blasted stereotyping while making it clear that she didn’t condone any shenanigans, no matter who the perpetrator was. In a city with staggering racial disparities in its criminal-justice system—African Americans make up only about 6 percent of the population but more than half the county jail inmates—Pease-Greene was privately relieved that the city’s thieves, including those outed on Nextdoor, were of all races. “It’s sad that I have to think like that, but it’s like, oh God, thank you!” she said. “This is everybody doing it.”


Fairley’s troubles started ramping up one night in November 2017, when police spotted her in the Potrero projects and arrested her on bench warrants. They added a child endangerment charge when the officers dispatched to Fairley’s unit found that her daughter had wandered outside, alone and upset. (The charge was later dropped.) Fairley had no one to call to take her daughter, and the cops contacted Child Protective Services, which eventually had her stay with a paternal great-aunt.

Fairley cycled in and out of jail in the following months. She said that with her daughter gone, she sometimes stopped getting her government cash assistance, exacerbating the poverty that had initially led her to steal mail. (She did, at points, still get food stamps.) Fairley said her immediate need for money made it impossible to launch a job hunt. “I live now, today. I have to eat tonight.” At one point, Arnold thought he spotted her stealing produce at Whole Foods; he reported it to a manager, but Fairley wasn’t charged. When told about this, Fairley’s defense attorney, Brandon M. Banks, described Arnold as “the ring leader in the smear campaign” against his client. “It is unfortunate that he believed every time he saw Ms. Fairley at the grocery store or with a package in her hand he believed she was stealing it.” Arnold, however, argued that the evidence of Fairley’s thefts was “irrefutable.” “It’s not a smear nor an opinion, just an unfortunate reality,” he said. “It’s very disappointing [that] Banks has chosen to smear the victims.” Kai told me that when she brought up stealing with her sister, Fairley would say that “she has to do what she has to do, and someone else is going to take it if she doesn’t.”

In January 2018, yet another neighbor grabbed a package out of Fairley’s hand, and signed a citizen’s arrest form, leading to another charge of petty theft. In February, a judge slammed Fairley with a stay-away order for blocks where she’d been accused of stealing. In March, the police and U.S. Postal Service inspectors rustled through Fairley’s unit with a search warrant, finding clothes and other items she had been seen wearing in cellphone and porch-cam footage, along with mail and documents printed with the names of 40 different neighbors. After missing yet more court dates that spring—resulting in more warrants, more arrests—she was jailed again in April, and released the next month with an ankle monitor.

Fairley’s time was up. Her landlord had issued warnings because of the police visits to her unit, she told me. Fairley said that in June, she found a “notice to vacate” on her door. Before she could challenge it, sheriff’s deputies strode into her unit with an arrest warrant—she’d missed another court date—and found her hiding under a gigantic blue teddy bear. This time, the judge didn’t let her out of jail, and Fairley couldn’t pay bail as the prosecutor pursued charges for the three alleged stealing episodes. Banks stepped in from San Francisco’s aggressive public defender’s office. Fairley rejected a plea bargain that Banks considered a “terrible” deal (including a stay-away order from Fairley’s surrounding neighborhood and, to his thinking, too much jail time)—and the case of Ganave Fairley v. Neighbors of Potrero Hill hurtled toward trial.


The prosecutor, Jennifer Huber, told jurors that the case was “not a whodunit: The defendant was caught red-handed stealing, over and over and over again.” Fifteen neighbors testified, and the prosecutor showed jurors the evidence they’d collected: The photo of Fairley’s daughter sticking her tongue out at Julie Margett. The cellphone video of Fairley sniping “That’s why people get shot” after the gardening neighbor took the lamp box from her. The spat where she’d called Arnold a racist. None of these incidents were charged as crimes but were admitted as evidence of Fairley’s m.o., though Banks, the defense attorney, alleged that the parade of squabbles was just to sully her character.


Fairley told me that she was surprised by how angry the neighbors seemed. In court, she wore a suit Banks had brought her from his office’s wardrobe, and Arnold noticed that she had filled out in jail. “She looked groomed, slept, and fed,” Arnold told me later. “It made me believe she was being properly looked after.” When Arnold took the stand, Banks tried to get him to admit that he’d badly wanted to get Fairley arrested. “Do you normally post telling people that they should call 911 irrespective of whether they see someone commit a crime or not?”

“I do not, normally. This is a very abnormal situation.”

Arnold’s credibility went mostly unscathed. Even so, Banks did succeed in showing who gets the benefit of the doubt in Potrero. He asked the gardening man who demanded identification from Fairley in the lamp box episode whether he would investigate everyone walking down the street with a package. His answer teetered on profiling: “If they look suspicious, and it’s not their address” on the delivery. When Banks then dug in to ask whether he thought Fairley was wearing something suspicious, the man said, “She just had a hoodie, and she was carrying a box from the next block down. I’ve never seen her in that block, and I know a lot of people who live down there, so I assumed it wasn’t her box.”


After a day of deliberations, the jury returned a packet of verdict sheets on which one of them had scrawled “GUILTY,” determining that Fairley had committed every act she was charged with. They even convicted her of stealing when they had been given the alternative of finding that she merely possessed stolen items.

In sum: She was found guilty of the drug charge, of five counts of receiving stolen property (one was later thrown out), and of every single theft.

The case continues to be litigated, both in and out of the courtroom. {snip}


Yet during her first week at the rehab program, in mid-October, Fairley learned that having taken other people’s stuff meant that she had lost all of hers; everything in her unit had been thrown out because she hadn’t been around to claim her possessions. Losing photo albums with her children’s pictures in them hurt the worst: “No memories, nothing,” she told me. Since she was no longer a resident of Potrero’s public housing, she had also lost her chance to move into the incoming redeveloped complex. Then, within a month of arriving at the rehab program, she failed three drug tests—meth, she said—and was kicked out.


Potrero’s conflict with Fairley herself is not over. Sometime in late summer, Fairley left her Salvation Army program early. She skipped a probation status hearing, and the judge issued new warrants for her arrest. Around that time, Uzuri Pease-Greene spotted Fairley walking through Potrero’s public housing. If she was planning to squat in her old unit again, that wouldn’t be an option for long: The block’s residents were moved earlier in the summer into their new homes in the redevelopment plan, and the now-vacant buildings are set to be demolished later this year. Mary Jane Boddie-Cobb told me that Fairley’s daughter no longer asks as much about her mom.

Starting in mid-September, posts started popping up on the Neighbors app showing Ring videos of someone—Fairley, it was clear to me—hitting Potrero stoops. In one, she wrestles with something on the ground before someone off-camera yells, “Get the fuck out of here, man!” (A commenter wrote, “So satisfying. Jump him next time!”) Another video includes a close-up of Fairley’s face as she grabs at something offscreen while wearing a Rastafarian hoodie; in an accompanying post, the user explains that a package had been ripped open but left in place. (Fairley couldn’t be reached to comment on the videos; Banks declined to comment.)

This fall, Mark Arnold’s wife was trekking home from a Potrero bus stop with their daughter when she spotted what looked like a familiar figure in a baseball cap, with a warped left knee, a few blocks from where Fairley used to walk home from school with her own daughter. The woman wasn’t carrying any mail, or going up anybody’s steps, so Arnold’s wife didn’t call the cops—nor did she take any photos, or post on Nextdoor.

But she did turn back for a last glimpse—surprised, after all, to see her back in the neighborhood, after everything that had happened. The woman in the baseball cap continued to stroll up the street: alone, gazing up at homes, as if searching for something lost.