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Gallery operator seeks to defuse controversy over whether he dumped water on homeless woman

Number Of Homeless On San Francisco Streets Rises 17 Percent Over Last Two Years
A homeless woman in San Francisco holds up a sign in May. A video of a man pouring a bucket of water on a homeless woman’s belongings last week has sparked an uproar in the city.
(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

The operator of a San Francisco art gallery has stepped forward to defend himself after being accused of dousing a homeless woman with a bucket of water.

Don Soker emptied the bucket from the roof of the two-story brick building that houses his gallery, and the video shows water striking the belongings of a homeless person camped near the door to his business. It is not clear in the widely circulated 10-second clip if the water struck the individual.

The June 22 incident in the Mission District sparked outrage and prompted a police investigation. Critics accused Soker of cruelty and said the incident should be treated as an assault.

The essence of Soker’s defense is his claim that the water did not strike the woman.

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“Anyone who paused the video shortly before the end can see the woman sitting on a bench near the curb,” Soker said in an email. “I poured water on a pile of flammable garbage she had leaned against the building wall and refused to move. The woman who posted the video could not possibly see where the water went because of the trees and the homeless woman spent another night before moving on. Don’t believe everything you read.”

Soker had been outed as the soaker by Spike Kahn, another figure in the Bay Area arts community, in a Facebook post. Soker’s first public acknowledgment was apparently in a response Friday afternoon on Kahn’s page. Earlier, in speaking to KPIX-TV, Soker had suggested that a person doing work on the roof might have been responsible, according to the station.

Soker absorbed a rhetorical deluge on Kahn’s and on his own Facebook page, so much so that he limited public access to his page, which he typically uses to promote art exhibits and for posting photos and personal observations.

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“Now I’m afraid to leave my building,” he wrote in an email to The Times.

Soker is a longtime figure in the local arts scene, having operated a gallery for more than 40 years. Exhibitions at Don Soker Contemporary Art frequently appear in cultural listings, and the quality of the displays has generated positive write-ups for the artists with whom he works.

On his Facebook page, Soker notes that he is married, from Toledo, Ohio, and studied at Sonoma State and at Miami University.

In a follow-up post, Kahn defended the decision to “call out” Soker: “I guess Don Soker has some explaining to do. To the SFPD for one. TO THE COMMUNITY for another... I will not stand idly by and let bullies torment my neighbors. SF is full of folks turning away rather than extending a hand. It stops with me.”

Soker has offered somewhat conflicting accounts, suggesting in his initial response to Kahn that he doused the woman.

“I was told by a visitor to my business that she was harassed by the woman camping directly next to the building door,” Soker’s post states. “When I asked her to move, I was roundly cursed. Forget calling police or 311, so what’s so bad about a cold shower on a hot day?

“Also I have never done this before and she simply moved down to the next building,” he added.

In that response, Soker first took on Kahn: “Not to put too fine a point on Kahn’s oligarchic sins of omission on reverse gentrification but the complainants and she live in expensive buildings with security that prevents homeless encampment.”

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Soker responded twice more on that thread Friday evening: “Look out this is just what is needed. A confrontation between the former liberal, now socially accepted wealthy gentrificated locals and against those locals who were unable to achieve such a level of hypocrisy.”

Soon after, Soker downplayed the seriousness of the incident: “It was on the tent if you watch the video.”

The vast majority of social media responses have not been sympathetic to Soker.

“Water is heavy, so dropping it on any one without warning them to get out of the way is an ASSAULT,” wrote Jeanine K. Reisbig on Kahn’s page.

Local news reported that the Coalition on Homelessness was demanding an apology and more.

“Mr. Soker not only needs to give a public apology but also should pay damages to the women he terrorized with water buckets,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, director of the coalition. “Having yourself and your gear soaked with water when you don’t have a home to get warm and dry is no joke.”

KPIX-TV reported Soker had denied involvement when the San Francisco station interviewed him on June 26 — two days before the exchange on Kahn’s Facebook page.

“I don’t know who it was,” the station quoted Soker as saying. “Probably it was some people from the place next door who were doing some work on the roof … because they also had access to it.”

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At the time, KPIX-TV agreed to Soker’s request not to be identified, but unfolding developments prompted the station to disclose his identity.

The landlord of the property and a maintenance person told the station that no work was underway on the roof at the time of the incident.


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