On April 22, 2022, an anonymous Twitter account with the handle ‘KarlBra47’ posted an off-the-cuff Old West-style “Wanted” poster meme which read, “WANTED: Gary McCoy, harm reduction advocate, for the murder of 1500 plus drug addicts at the failed Linkage Center.” The meme was in reference to McCoy in his role as vice president of public affairs and policy for HealthRIGHT 360 (HR360), a multimillion-dollar purveyor of harm reduction that I’ve written about before, best known for teaming up with the San Francisco Department of Public Health (DPH) to run the controversial Tenderloin Linkage Center. In fact, McCoy was himself the subject of controversy when he “fudged” the numbers to make the linkage part look far more successful than it was.
Gina McDonald, co-founder of the advocacy group Mother’s Against Drug Deaths (MADD), obtained emails through public records requests revealing that DPH officials actively conspired with HR360 executives to minimize McCoy’s fabrication. In a Feb. 8, 2022, email to colleagues, Rob Hoffman, special project manager with the DPH, wrote, “I think Gary is just making up random numbers.” That was in reference to the 659 “meaningful engagements” recorded by staff for the week ending Feb. 7, 2022. Hoffman said he and a coworker had visited the linkage center over the same period, writing: “I observed the HR360 staff and did not see anything that can account for the high numbers of meaningful engagements.”
Alison Hawkes, DPH director of communications, personally modified a response to press queries that replaced words like “mistake” and “inaccurately” with a sprinkle of public relations magic. The original statement, written by Dr. Matthew Goldman, read, “Part-way through the most recent reporting period, the TLC metrics team discovered that one of the CBOs was inaccurately recording data on engagements. … This mistake has since been resolved.” Hawkes reworked it to say, “one of the providers at the site was defining engagements in a way inconsistent with other teams on the site.”
But even public relations magic couldn’t erase the damning numbers compiled by McDonald, who helped create MADD after her daughter became an addict in the Tenderloin neighborhood: Between January and March of 2022, just 18 of the 23,367 visitors to the Tenderloin Linkage Center — or 0.08% — had been referred for medical or substance abuse treatment, and there was no way to track them.
The word “linkage” was later dropped from the name, and the center, which made international news as a drug den “sanctioned by city officials,” including Mayor London Breed, was closed. In a recent CNN documentary called “What happened to San Francisco?” Breed told former Bay Area reporter Sara Sidner that she was angry about the center becoming a free-for-all place to partake in illegal drugs and doing nothing to actually link people to services.
MEME LEADS TO LAWSUIT
While the Twitter meme of McCoy was factually untrue, the anonymous Twitter account was trying to make a point — that harm reduction doesn’t save lives, it merely prolongs the misery of addiction and inevitable death, particularly with the emergence of fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid 50 times stronger than heroin. In the past two years, more than 1,300 people have died of overdoses in San Francisco, mostly due to fentanyl. McCoy, however, clearly didn’t get the picture — on May 9, 2022, he filed a lawsuit not only against the anonymous account holder for tweeting the meme, but also against those who retweeted the original tweet, including writer and anti-harm reduction advocate Erica Sandberg.
McCoy’s attorney, Alex Lemberg, immediately ran to the Bay Area Reporter (BAR) and gave an extended interview about the case to Assistant Editor Eric Burkett, who referred to the tweet as “a murder allegation” and quoted Lemberg saying it was “jaw-dropping and patently false.” Even the headline was histrionic: “Gay SF man sues for libel after tweet accuses him of murder” it blared over — you guessed it — a copy of the meme. And that’s not the most absurd part: the author doesn’t credit the meme to Doe 1, but rather to McCoy. In the righthand corner of the image accompanying the story, it reads, “PHOTO: Courtesy McCoy lawsuit.” (You can’t make this stuff up, folks.)
Lemberg also went to the San Francisco Examiner where reporter Sydney Johnson wrote an article — again, bringing the lawsuit far more attention than the meme ever received, and including a long-winded snippet from the press release which read: “In addition to obtaining relief for the serious damage to Mr. McCoy’s reputation and psyche from this series of Twitter posts, this lawsuit is intended to firmly and publicly renounce this severe and outrageous form of cyber-bullying that is prevalent on social media. Both Mr. McCoy and Mx. Lemberg are proud members of the LGBTQ+ community and unequivocally stand against bullying in any form. Public discourse related to matters of public importance must not stoop to these levels, and people who choose to accuse others of murder in a public forum must face consequences.”
If the lawsuit is intended to “firmly and publicly renounce this severe and outrageous form of cyber-bullying that is prevalent on social media,” McCoy may want to look in the mirror: I wrote a June 2018 column for the Marina Times called “London Breed’s Troll Patrol,” which featured McCoy and his husband, San Francisco Realtor Kory Powell-McCoy, relentlessly bullying a woman for supporting Angela Alioto for mayor. McCoy, then policy and community affairs manager for S.F. Recreation and Park, told the woman she wasn’t being attacked: “You just can’t accept facts, and you’re clearly racist.” Powell-McCoy chimed in that Alioto “may as well be campaigning in a white hood.”
Besides the hypocrisy of McCoy as a bully crying victim, the lawsuit alleges the “Wanted” poster meme was liked by a paltry “26 unique accounts and re-tweeted by 6 unique accounts.” One of those six retweeters was Sandberg, who said she was shocked: “My daughter answered the door and said it was for me and I went to the door and the woman said ‘You won’t believe this but you’re being served and it’s crazy.’ I’d never been sued before — not even close. He was upset about his reputation, but I was worried about my own reputation,” she told me over the phone. “As a journalist your reputation is everything — especially with the BAR and SF Examiner stories. What pissed me off most about the Examiner was she ran with the story even after I said I would give them a comment.”
While the Examiner at least reached out, the BAR evidentally couldn’t be bothered. “They just ran with it,” Sandberg said. “Within five days — I was reeling the whole time — I called the law firm of Harmeet [Dhillon] and they said ‘It’s just going to take a letter.’ The same day they got the letter, which said we would sue and anti-SLAPP because it was so baseless, they dropped me from the lawsuit. I understand suing when there is merit — but this was just pure spite and craziness.” (An Anti-SLAPP — Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation — is a motion to strike lawsuits brought “primarily to chill the valid exercise of constitutional rights of freedom of speech and petition for the redress of grievances.”)
McCoy’s appears obsessed with finding out the identity of the meme-maker — called ‘Doe 1’ in the lawsuit — and he was clearly hoping it was a secondary account for one of his biggest Twitter detractors, Mark Fabela, known for his biting memes aimed at public figures. Though Fabela wasn’t served, he was named as a possibility for ‘Doe 1’ in the original filing. “I was critical of the Coalition on Homelessness and HealthRIGHT 360, and I had no problem calling them out. I had just started to make memes, and for whatever reason, they thought it was me,” Fabela said via phone. “In a perverse way, I hope McCoy gets the information he is seeking from Twitter. The meme wasn’t mine, and getting the information will prove it. As funny as it might be, I’m not responsible for every meme that appears on Twitter.”
I asked Fabela if he thought the lawsuit had merit. “Not at all,” he said without hesitation. “Gary is a public figure, and a controversial one at that. Like it or not, a lot of people saw Gary as the face of the consumption site operating at United Nations Plaza, so naturally he’s going to catch some flack. I mean… come on… no reasonable person actually believes Gary killed 1,500 people. It’s just a meme. This lawsuit is a joke.”
Several months ago, I received an email explaining that Doe 1 was ready to tell his story — to me. “My client prefers to remain anonymous,” John Roach, attorney for Doe 1, said. “I believe that anonymous political speech serves an important function in political debate. The ability to speak anonymously on the Internet promotes the robust exchange of ideas and allows individuals to express themselves freely without fear of economic or official retaliation or concern about social ostracism.”
I reassured Roach that I broke the City Hall corruption stories with anonymous sources (they remain anonymous until this day, but the proof is in the indictments), and with that, we agreed to a phone interview.
“My client’s tweet was not defamatory,” Roach said. “As Twitter’s lawyers pointed out, the context and tenor of Doe 1’s tweet negate any impression that Doe 1 is actually stating that Plaintiff killed 1,500 people. The tweet uses an Old West-themed ‘WANTED’ poster to comment on the Tenderloin Linkage Center, a safe use space for drugs, and McCoy’s involvement with that project … In his Complaint, McCoy argues that, prior to reading the tweet, no ‘reasonable person’ would believe he was responsible for the deaths of 1,500 people ‘considering the nature of his job as a policy and public affairs.’ But even after reading the tweet, no reasonable person would form that belief. Instead, Doe 1 used a creative medium to criticize a particular method of drug addiction treatment (and an individual associated with that treatment) as contributing to the deaths of people with drug addiction, rather than helping them.”
So who is Doe 1? Definitely not who Lemberg and McCoy think he is. In fact, Doe, as we will call him, is a gay icon (so notable that I can’t describe what he’s done in the LGBTQ+ community because it would immediately out his identity).
Here is my interview with Doe, which took place by phone with his attorney, John Roach, present:
SDR: Why did you post the meme?
Doe: I felt Mr. McCoy, the Mayor and [Senator] Scott Wiener, and HealthRIGHT 360 are getting a lot of money, and I just thought of it like Jonathan Swift and Gulliver’s Travels, as satire. I chose 1,500 people as that is the number of people who have died from overdoses in the City, and I never intended to mean Mr. McCoy personally was a murderer. I’m sure South Park didn’t mean that Harry and Meghan went on an anonymity tour. When I saw a photo of Mr. McCoy’s car that has harm reduction on the license plate … I’ve seen him in the media with you, Chris Ruffo, Michael Shellenburger; even Bill Maher.
SDR: So who are you?
Doe: A gay man living in San Francisco. I came here at the end of 1979 and I’ve lived in the same building for 43 years. I went to my first [Alcoholics Anonymous] meeting in 1980 and tossed my Valium down the toilet. I am 78. I have been sober ever since.
SDR: So this subject is personal for you.
Doe: I’ve been writing tweets under my assumed name and started giving my opinions on stuff since A.A. is a large part of my life and because harm reduction is controversial. I also lived through the AIDS epidemic, and there were HIV [human immunodeficiency virus] focused A.A. meetings where the main thing in those meetings was staying clean and sober. AIDS was 100 percent fatal then. I can’t believe someone in recovery would do otherwise.
SDR: John, why do you think Gary McCoy filed this lawsuit?
Roach: This lawsuit is just someone trying to stifle a narrative they don’t like. McCoy was able to win a motion to get whatever info Twitter has on Doe 1 and if they ever find him we will file an anti-SLAPP and go after all the remedies available. Doe is living in suspense. He doesn’t have that amount of money, over $25,000 — they actually wrote $1.9 million in the BAR.
Doe: In the days of AIDS the obituary section was so important. But I don’t even read the BAR anymore. I know what I know about recovery and abstinence and spirituality of all those who died of AIDS but stayed sober, but no one even talks about them. I knew people who had AIDS and stayed sober, and I was part of that, and it was a very inspiring time in our lives. Harm reduction is the worst thing they can do — it doesn’t honor the memories of those people or the people who don’t get well. There were people who died not from AIDS but from alcohol and drugs. I would go with the Salvation Army and pick up people on the streets on drugs. But Tom Ammiano stopped funding them because they said “God.” I believe Mr. McCoy is depriving people of their dignity.
SDR: How did you feel when Gary McCoy sued you?
Doe: I was sickened to death when it first happened. Mr. McCoy is going after an elder, sober, in the gay community. Meeting [attorney] John Roach made my life bearable. Just knowing there is someone there if this happened — I can’t tell you how grateful I am.
SDR: John, where does the case stand and what are your chances of prevailing?
Roach: If this case proceeds, my client has a strong probability of prevailing on the merits. Recently the San Francisco Superior Court ordered Twitter to produce the name and email address of my client. If my client is served with a lawsuit, we will defend my client’s right to speak freely on matters of public concern. My client was simply using a public forum [Twitter] to exercise his constitutional right to free speech regarding harm reduction and the [linkage] center, which remain issues of public interest in San Francisco. It is in the public interest to encourage continued participation in matters of public significance, and that this participation should not be chilled through abuse of the judicial process. I believe McCoy’s lawsuit is an effort to chill my client’s participation in an important public debate. We will pursue all available remedies to protect my client’s right to anonymous political speech.
THE MEME WENT VIRAL
It’s been over a year since McCoy and Lemberg filed the lawsuit, and they still don’t know who Doe is — not for lack of trying. Besides having a judge order Twitter to turn over identifying information, McCoy and Lemberg are attempting to force Comcast to produce location data. Meanwhile, the lawsuit has done more to draw attention to the meme, which was originally seen by just a few people on Twitter (only one in five U.S. adults — or 23 percent — say they use the platform). As an account that goes by Total Recall SF aptly tweeted, “Funny how I saw this tweet and barely remembered it. Now that Gary and his green lawyer are suing, I’ll never forget it…”