Videographer of rampant BART drug use says he was addict himself

Shannon Gafford's Twitter bio says he is a Christian, conservative Republican and a proud father of three. What it doesn't say is that the 45-year-old San Francisco transplant had a rough childhood and battled drug addiction for 14 years.

That background is what compelled Gafford to start posting what have been described as painfully disturbing videos showing rampant drug use at the Civic Center BART station, a stop on his daily commute to his job as a building estimator for the federal government. 

VIDEO: Drug use at BART Civic Center Station

"I know how they got there," Gafford said Wednesday, his first lengthy interview about himself and the backstory behind the videos, which have since gone viral and gained the attention of the mayor and director of BART. "I was there myself."

Gafford, who grew up in New Orleans, said he became addicted to painkillers in 1999.

"I was taking Vicodin like they were Tic Tacs," he said. He said he took Oxycontin too, following a 40-foot fall from a building while on a construction job.

But it was after Hurricane Katrina in 2006, that he tried to get his life back together. He went to church. He met his now wife. He started to get clean, which he said he finally achieved in 2013. 
And because he was able to sober up, he believes that others can, too. 

He wants the drug users, whom he refers to as "junkies," to be removed from BART and he blames "liberal policies" for them being there. But when asked to elaborate, Gafford's answer is one that many liberals espouse: Get them help.

In fact when pressed, Gafford acknowledged that President Donald Trump probably wouldn't be able to fix San Francisco's drug problem either, and he acknowledged that former President Ronald Reagan cut services to the mental health in the 1980s, a contributing factor to a now-nationwide epidemic.

Gafford is the first to admit that he too doesn't have any idea how to solve San Francisco's chronic problem of homelessness, mental illness or drug addiction.

"I don't have any answers," he said. "I just wanted to bring up awareness. I wanted people to be pissed about it."

He wants city leaders and politicians to fix the issues, though. 

San Francisco Mayor Mark Farrell has vowed to do more after Gafford's videos caught his attention, though the two have not met.

“This situation on our streets is unacceptable,” Farrell said in April, announcing a new $750,000 public health team dedicating to removing syringes. The city will now have 10 workers (up from four) hired specifically for syringe cleanup duties, and who will conduct targeted sweeps of hot spots. Farrell also proposed spending $13 million over two years to clean the entire city with block sweepers and more public toilets.

There is indeed a drug and health problem in San Francisco. Each month, the Department of Public Health and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation collect more than 275,000 used needles per month. And according to the San Francisco Department of Public Health, there are about 22,000 intravenous drug users in the city.

BART recognizes the problem, too. Last fall, the agency formally addressed the region's homeless problem, which also often extends to drug use, violence, hygiene and other issues, too. BART said the agency doesn't have the internal resources to solve the issue, but said its officers would try to connect people in need to social services whenever they could. In addition, there are special BART officers deployed to make sure the trains and stations are clean, especially at the Civic Center and Powell stations, and extra bathrooms were installed at major entrances and exits. 

Bevan Dufty, a BART director, said "there is no excuse for this. I'm furious about this open use of narcotics." And he said that beginning on Wednesday, San Francisco police and BART police would both have more of a presence at the station, urging drug users to move on, perhaps to safe injection sites. "I don't want to criminalize this behavior," he said, adding that his godmother was a heroin user. "But this is a place where kids walk to school. They shouldn't have to see this." 

On Thursday morning, Dufty said Salvation Army volunteers would also be at the Civic Center station, cleaning up and offering services to those in need.

It's heartening in a small way to hear that some action is being taken, Gafford said. Earlier this year, Gafford said he first contacted several police substations about the drug use, but got no response. So in April, he began posting his short clips to YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. Unfortunately for Gafford, while his cinematography has received a fair amount of attention, in his opinion, the core issues have not been addressed.

The Civic Center station was cleaned up for a day or two after his first videos appeared, he said, but now, they're back to status quo: Gauntlets of drug users line the hallways, shooting needles into their veins, slumped against the walls. 

"No I'm not pleased in any way yet," Gafford said. "My wife wants me to stop. But I'm going to keep taking videos until something happens."