Volume 47 Number 37

‘Money is a tool’

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Jack Abramoff says “legalized bribery” is corrupting our political system, and as a lobbyist who went to prison for taking the practice of buying favors from Congress to obscene new depths, he should know. But if we’re relying on him to help reform that system, a cause he’s now taken up, we could be in real trouble.

Watching Abramoff address “public ethics” at a University of San Francisco class of aspiring political professionals on June 6 was a little surreal. Part charming rogue, part penitent reformer, Abramoff told inside tales of how easily money corrupts even well-intended people who work in Congress.

“I didn’t create a new way of lobbying, I just did more of it,” Abramoff told the students, noting that while some lobbyists had a few good tickets to Washington Redskins or Wizards games to give away to members of Congress, he had 72 of them. And while some lobbyists would take members golfing, “I would put them on a Gulfstream and fly them to Scotland. What’s the difference? It’s still playing golf.”

It was particularly strange for someone of Abramoff’s obviously questionable moral fiber to be addressing political students at this Jesuit-run academic institution, whose local advertising slogans include “How to succeed in business and still go to heaven” and “Wicked smart without the wicked part.”

Yet forgiveness is supposed to be divine, and the instructor who lured Abramoff to speak with his class, local lobbyist and political consultant Alex Clemens, was certainly pleased to attract someone with Abramoff’s inside knowledge, avoiding Abramoff’s usual speaking fees of up to $20,000 by piggybacking on a Southern California speech he gave and paying only his airfare.

I was a bit more skeptical of a guy who equates political donations with bribery while hawking a book and narrow reform proposal — while at the same time soliciting corporate lobbying clients and telling the San Francisco Chronicle that Silicon Valley should be spending far more money to influence politicians.

“It needs a much bigger view of political involvement,” Abramoff told the Chron. “It should be spending much more. They’re not playing as smart as they should, and they could lose big.”

That’s part of the muddle of contradictions that defines Abramoff and his advocacy today, which is consistent with the anti-government, wealth-worshipping conservatism he has pushed with missionary zeal since his college days, along with pals Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist, who still play key roles in keeping religious fundamentalists and the rich in the Republican Party fold.

“I’m not against money in the system, I’m against money being used the wrong way in the system,” Abramoff told me after the talk, as I probed the contradictions in his statements and views. My efforts to pin him down caused him to scornfully brand me a “socialist,” the old bully replacing the affable face he showed the students.

“Money is a tool,” Abramoff told me.

Abramoff is also a tool, I decided as I listened to him, although it’s still tough to discern who is wielding him now and where this effort may be headed.

LESSON FOR STUDENTS

Abramoff told the students that even after he got busted in 2005, for a long time he indignantly wondered why he was being prosecuted for the same sorts of actions that were endemic to Washington DC. Eventually, he began to realize he had done something wrong.

“I thought maybe some of this [the charges against him] is right,” he said. “I decided to be honest with myself. Am I the saint I always thought I’d been, or the devil they said I was?”

Yet in the end, Abramoff never did really rethink his own worldview and history — from his early days of shilling for the South African government against efforts to end apartheid to later bribing members of Congress to oppose regulation of sweatshops and sex trafficking in US territories — he just blamed the political system.

“I thought this system is maybe not right,” he told students studying to be a part of that system. “I thought when I got out, I should probably try to help.”

So he wrote a book, Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Corruption From America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist, and he says that he’s been developing political reform legislation that he intends to start pushing next year along with unnamed others.

Abramoff has consulted with Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig, who founded Rootstrikers to push political reforms, but Abramoff doesn’t support many of the central tenets of that and other reform groups, including public financing of elections and overturning “corporate personhood” court rulings that deem political spending by the rich to be a free speech right.

In fact, Abramoff is still a right-winger who shows little interest in limiting the ability of wealthy corporations and individuals to freely spend their money on political candidates and issues, placing him at odds with pretty much the entire political reform movement.

Phillip Ung, a spokesperson for Common Cause — which has been working on these political reform efforts for decades — was a little skeptical about getting help from someone who once embodied the most corrupt and excessive aspects of the current system.

“As much as we enjoy his newfound support for political reform, we also understand that he has a debt to pay, and not just to society,” Ung said of the $44 million in restitution that Abramoff still owes to his victims.

Ung said that a stark example of political corruption like Abramoff represents does help the cause, but that has little to do with his current advocacy. “The reform flag at the federal level goes almost nowhere if there’s not a political scandal,” Ung said, although even that isn’t saying much because, “Congress and DC only have tolerance for political reform one every 10 years or so.”

With Democrats now overwhelmingly controlling California’s Legislature and executive offices, Ung sees opportunities for important reforms here. The most promising is Senate Bill 27, which would require political groups that raise more than $500,000 to disclose their donors.

By contrast, Abramoff’s proposal seems tepid at best, and his strategy for selling it relies on using political spending to elect sympathetic people to Congress, which would seem to undermine his reform message almost as much as pitches to corporate clients to hire him for lobbying consulting services (see www.abramoff.com).

“He seems to be going back to his old ways,” Ung said of Abramoff.

Abramoff said his legislation would broaden the definition of lobbyist, limit their campaign contributions to $500 per election cycle, and prevent public officials from working as lobbyists for 10 years after they leave government.

Then Abramoff said that he and his unspecified “we” will dump money into six contested Congressional races in 2014, trying to elect three Democrats and three Republicans who pledge to support his legislation, following that up in 2016 by targeting 25 to 50 races.

“Then and only then will Congress take it seriously,” Abramoff concluded, arguing that politicians respond to losing their jobs more than other means of persuasion. He’s going to use aggressive political spending to win the reforms he seeks, which don’t really do anything to limit political spending.

When I asked Abramoff how increased political spending can reform a political system corrupted by money, he replied, “You play with the tools and the battlefield you’re on.”

THE SYSTEM, OR ITS SPONSORS?

Abramoff blames Congress for corruption far more than the lobbyists or wealthy special interests who are doing the corrupting, noting how difficult it is to get political reforms approved by legislators who want to later cash in on their public service.

“The lobbyists are a response to the system set up by Congress,” he told the students, building on his earlier point that “99 percent of everything I did was legal, and that’s a bigger deal than the 1 percent that was illegal. That’s what has to change.”

But he acknowledges that reforming the system will be “impossibly difficult” because those who are invested in the current system will always find loopholes to any new regulation. “They’re extremely brilliant people and their goal is to get around things,” he said.

Omitted from Abramoff’s recitation of what’s wrong in Washington are the people doing the corrupting, that other 1 percent, the very rich. When I asked him about how he can really attack institutionalized political corruption without going after the cash that feeds that corruption, he told me, “I tend to be nervous about a political approach that says, ‘It’s the rich.”

Abramoff actually supports the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United ruling, which ended controls on the political spending of wealthy individuals and corporations, telling the students, “We all want certain corporations to have the rights that we individuals have.”

Abramoff also seems to dismiss the possibility of a grassroots political reform effort, saying that any change in the system would need support from both the left and the right, and the latter will kill any effort to actually removes private money from political campaigns.

“You’re not going to have federal financing of elections. The right will die before they let that happen,” Abramoff said.

That might have been the most insightful thing that Abramoff said to the students, although he certainly didn’t intend it the way that I heard it: maybe the right needs to die, in the political sense, before the system that Abramoff both decries and supports will change.

Polo in the park

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le.chicken.farmer@yahoo.com

IN THE GAME The lights at Jose Coronado Playground stay on until 10 p.m. Like most playgrounds, it has a life of its own: a heart, a brain, a bloated liver, and a basketball hoop. In fact: two — but most nights the basketball court is cut in half by an extension of the tennis court to create a bike polo court. Which is cut in half by the slightly grassy crack between tennis-top acrylic and just plain asphalt.

So you don’t always get a clean roll, but that’s life.

Also life: the ragtag collection of drunks and disorderlies congregating on the sidewalk near the 21st St. entrance to the courts most evenings. They bring chairs, or huddle around the trash bin there.

One of their number, long gray hair scare-crowing out from under his hat, saunters onto the empty half-court with a worn black basketball and starts shooting free throws. He’s wearing a suit jacket. After missing four straight from the line, he backs up to almost half court, heaves awkwardly from his rib cage, and finally sinks one.

Nobody cheers.

On the unbicycled part of the next-door tennis court, a couple of much younger folks, a pink-haired woman and a regular ol’ facial-haired man, are riding around in electric-wheelchair-based cardboard robots. They look like something from a sixth-grade science fair, modified boxes with marker-drawn robot features. One has corrugated heating ducts for arms, dangling down to the pavement.

“You go on ahead without me,” I say to Hedgehog.

Jose Coronado is smack between our favorite restaurant (Limon Rotisserie) and our favorite ice cream (Humphry Slocombe).

“Do you want me to bring you something?” she says.

“Your call,” says I. I eat ice cream, but it’s not my thing.

Nor are homemade robots. But I have to ask, so while Hedgehog is walking on to 24th and picking out our flavors, I manage to make my way into the driver’s seat for a test drive. There is a camera mounted high on the chain-link fence surrounding the playground, and you have to drive by video, which is transmitted to a pair of goggles.

It’s like playing a video game from inside the screen. You are the little thing that you’re looking at.

I don’t like video games.

Zipping around pretty much blindly, I get almost immediately dizzy and lost, and almost crash into some bikes.

They’re going to race these funny wheelchair robots next day at SubZERO, San Jose’s annual subcultural festival, and I wish them luck.

While I’m waiting for Hedgehog to get back with our ice cream, I watch a little bike polo on the other side of the tennis net. It’s a pretty intense pick-up scene. Three-on-three, with a basketball hoop and a light pole in the field of play.

Most of them wear helmets. Some, knee pads and elbow pads. They drink beer, they smoke. One girl is playing with a cigarette in her mouth.

Plastic mallets awhirl, they circle and sprint, skid, bounce, and sometimes fall. If your foot touches the ground, you have to touch one of the mid-court posts with your mallet before returning to play.

It looks goddamn fun.

Another woman scores her second goal of the game and a dude against the fence, waiting his team’s turn, hollers, “My nipples are hard!”

“I didn’t know he had nipples,” quips a guy on a bike, racing back to defend his goal.

On the hard-top soccer pitch other side of the fence from all this, a couple of moms are kicking around with their kids. I fantasize about joining them, but here comes Hedgehog with our ice cream: mango and carrot, and basil lime.

The basketball scarecrow has moved on, and now two short guys are playing one-on-one. Someone else is practicing his fancy dribbling in the shadows, and occasionally pulls up and bounces a shot off of a light pole.

Twenty Major League Baseball players face possible suspension for alleged use of performance enhancing drugs, and these moms, kids, kooks, and badasses are out here every time I walk by, which is often.

Between Shotwell and Harrison on 21st Street in the Mission. Jose Coronado Playground. This has been a night in the life. Of it.

Newcomer Nights are on Wednesdays, in case you’re interested in getting in the game, bike polowise.

Otherwise, it’s not a bad spectator sport. Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays they play, from seven to ten. Check it out.

www.sfbikepolo.com

 

Scorning smokers

news@sfbg.com

San Francisco officials are attempting to ban the public use of e-cigarettes under the same laws that restrict smoking cigarettes, which are banned in most public places purportedly because secondhand smoke endangers others. However, the alleged lack of toxic emissions from e-cigarette vapor raises questions about the basis for the crackdown.

Has the crusade against smoking in public really been about protecting the innocent, or is the moralistic motivation to try to save people from their own bad choices also driving the trend? And if so, does that undermine the legal basis for restricting an otherwise lawful product?

Since 2011, the San Francisco Department of Public Health has backed legislation to hold e-cigarettes under the same public smoking laws as traditional tobacco products. Currently, San Francisco’s continually expanding smoke-free ordinance bans cigarette consumption in nearly any public place. This consists of Muni stops, festivals, parks, farmers’ markets, non-smoking apartments and, unfortunately for all you nicotine-addicted bingo lovers, the obscure addition of “charity bingo games.”

San Francisco has yet to pass any regulatory laws regarding e-cigarette consumption, or “vaping.” But Nick Pagoulatos, a legislative aide to Sup. Eric Mar, a staunch sponsor of San Francisco’s many anti-smoking policies, says a plan is in the works.

“Currently there is nothing on the books,” Pagoulatos told the Bay Guardian. “But there has been discussion with the health department [which is] working something up and the Mayor’s Office has been talking with them as well. The timing is unclear, but at some point it will happen.”

California Senate Bill 648, approved in May and currently on its way to the California Assembly, would elevate similar e-cigarette regulations to a state level. So why are California and San Francisco pushing so hard to regulate these products?

“The suspicion is that allowing people to vape these things reinforces the culture of smoking,” Pagoulatos said. “It continues in the tradition of making smoking look cool, even if it’s not actual smoke.”

Traditionally, San Francisco’s smoking ordinances have derived from the hazards of secondhand smoke on innocent bystanders, but the regulation of e-cigarettes evokes an entirely new basis for public smoking laws.

California has an active history of anti-smoking legislation beginning in the 1990s when San Luis Obispo became the first city in the world to ban smoking in all public buildings. In 1998, the public smoking ban elevated to the state level, specifically because of the health risks posed to bar and restaurant employees by secondhand smoke. This year, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to extend the already strict non-smoking laws to cover festivals and street fairs and require landlords to designate their building units as smoking or non-smoking. Now, vapers in California face a similar threat.

 

VAPING ISN’T SMOKING

E-cigarettes contain a battery operated heating device that vaporizes a combination of nicotine and a binding liquid such as propylene glycol, a substance “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA. Since nicotine is not what kills smokers, e-cigarettes have the potential to exist as a safe alternative for smokers who can feed both the physical and mental habit of smoking without the detrimental effects of tar and the plethora of other chemicals found in traditional cigarettes.

However, conflicting studies exist regarding the safety of e-cigarettes for both users and the public. While the FDA has yet to regulate e-cigarettes, a 2009 evaluation reported the finding of numerous chemicals in e-cigarette liquid, such as those found in antifreeze.

Gregory Conley, legislative director for The Consumer Advocates for Smoke-Free Alternatives Association, told us these reports are misleading.

“Essentially, there is absolutely no evidence that e-cigarette vapor poses any significant threat to public health,” said Conley. “The antifreeze chemical was found in one of the 18 cartridges and tested in an amount that was less than 1 percent. Additionally, the amount of the chemical diethylene glycol found by the FDA would take thousands of cartridges to reach a toxic level.”

Conley cites the publication Tobacco Control, a premier tobacco science journal in the US with no tobacco industry ties, as the leading evidence in the case for e-cigarettes. The study, funded by the National Institute of Health, tested 17 different brands of e-cigarettes for chemicals known to cause harm in secondhand smoke.

“These amounts were nearly identical to the amounts in the control product, or the FDA approved nicotine inhaler,” said Conley. “They are trace levels, and anyone who has been in a room with an e-cigarette knows that there is a vast difference in comparison to a normal cigarette.”

A study by the Fraunhofer Wilhelm-Klauditz-Institut in Braunschweig, Germany found similar results, reporting that the release of toxins from e-cigarettes were marginal to non-existent. In fact, researchers attributed many of the low level chemicals detected in the tests, such as formaldehyde and acetone, to the test subjects, since our lungs naturally exhale these chemicals in small amounts.

Conley says e-cigarettes not only provide a safe alternative, but also offer a public promotion of smoking cessation by illustrating the addicting effects of nicotine.

“It’s a walking advertisement to show how addictive cigarettes are,” Conley said. “The fact that you have to buy one of these things to quit smoking, with a battery and everything, it’s ridiculous.

 

TARGETTING TOBACCO

Equating e-cigarettes and traditional cigarettes does tend to disregard the potential benefits safer nicotine alternatives can have on addicts. The language of the FDA and the DPH appears to dismiss the advantages of e-cigarettes over smoking. While issues certainly arise with the lack of regulation and quality control of e-cigarettes, much of the discussion from these groups pertains to reversing social views on smoking.

“The major concern for us is about social norms,” Derek Smith, a health program coordinator at the Tobacco Free Project, told us. “People get confused about the use of these products in public where they might think tobacco use is allowed. That’s one of the major concerns because there are limits to where people can safely smoke indoors. It’s the idea of a copycat item.”

According to Smith, AT&T Park, San Francisco General Hospital, and the San Francisco Airport Commission have all already banned the use of e-cigarettes on their premises. Some Bay Area cities, such as Petaluma, have already classified vaping under their smoking ordinances. In Canada, the sale of e-cigarettes is entirely prohibited due to a lack of regulation and quality control, while cigarettes remain legal.

FDA regulation could certainly alleviate much of the pressure e-cigarette companies face from the public. However, if a safe e-cigarette is proven to exist via an official FDA evaluation, organizations like the DPH may still not allow public vaping for the sake of remaining strictly against the use of tobacco related products in public places.

Many of the arguments against the use of e-cigarettes are seemingly arbitrary to the discussion of public use since San Francisco’s public policy holds so much blunt hostility toward anything tobacco related (but, of course, anything marijuana related is okay with the city). Oddly, e-cigarettes continue to get flack from the FDA, while other nicotine delivery systems such as patches and gum are FDA approved.

Under what legal grounds could San Francisco’s government have the right to ban e-cigarette usage in public places if they are proved harmless? If the legislation passes, residents of non-smoking apartments would be unable to legally vape a scentless, allegedly toxin free e-cigarette in the privacy of their own home.

 

FEDS AND E-CIGS

In March the FDA appointed Mitch Zeller as the new director of the Center for Tobacco Products. According to his FDA profile, Zeller, a lifelong proponent of FDA tobacco regulation, has deep-rooted ties to the anti-smoking movement and is currently an executive of a pharmaceutical consulting firm working closely with sellers of FDA approved, nicotine-replacement pharmaceuticals.

But Zeller has openly advocated the idea of harm reduction through nicotine-replacement systems, much more than his predecessor, Dr. Lawrence Deyton. So hope may yet exist for the plight of vapers who don’t want to be lumped in with smokers. So much of the anti-smoking conversation is drenched in black-and-white thinking, promoting a system of total abolition over harm reduction. Unfortunately for smokers, this could impede their transition to a safe nicotine delivery system that they can use virtually anywhere, and one that may consequently help save lives. As of now, public discourse and education may act as the most important catalyst toward a widespread understanding of e-cigarettes.

For anyone who has seen an e-cigarette, the soft glow of the LED light at the end has little resemblance to a traditional cigarette, which is on fire and emitting a cloud of noxious smoke. If an FDA approved, emission-free e-cigarette eventually hits the market, users in San Francisco could still face a loss of freedom solely backed by the ideological social standards of the anti-smoking movement, which would bar them from vaping in public. But for now, San Francisco’s vapers should enjoy their freedom while it lasts.

CORRECTION: This article was corrected to change the chemical name in Conley’s quote from propylene glycol and to clarify that the FDA studied the liquid in e-cigarettes, not their emissions. 

In his footsteps

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arts@sfbg.com

DANCE If you are even tangentially connected to San Francisco’s dance community, one name will pop up again and again: Ed Mock. He was part of San Francisco’s awakening as a center for arts on the edge before his death from an AIDS-related illness in 1986.

African American and gay, the performer-choreographer was, above all, a free spirit throughout the two decades he lived in SF. During that time, he influenced and shaped a generation of young artists. For dancers like Wayne Hazzard, Victoria Mata, Shakiri, Joanna Haigood, and Pearl Ubungen, he was crucial to who they became. Mock also collaborated with the young Rhodessa Jones; Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf premiered in his studio.

One of the dancers whom Mock profoundly marked is Amara Tabor-Smith. To honor him, she created the multi-venue He Moved Swiftly But Gently Down the Not Too Crowded Street: Ed Mock and Other True Tales in a City That Once Was. The piece will wander through the city Sat/15 and June 21-23.

The SF-born Tabor-Smith encountered Mock when, at 14, she tagged along with a friend who had been told that classes with Mock were a must. She joined his Ed Mock Dance Company at 17 and stopped dancing for a year when he died. Eventually, she joined New York’s Urban Bush Women for a decade before returning to her much-changed hometown in 2006.

Talking with her after a rehearsal in early June, it quickly becomes clear that she not only mourns the passing of a pioneering artist but also a period when San Francisco was place for experimentation, openness, and a sense of the possible. The Beats and the hippies may have put their own stamp on the city, but in the 1970s the gay pride movement filled the air with champagne-like effervescence and expectations — until the AIDS epidemic cut it down. Lately, the tech boom has had a negative effect on SF’s artist population.

“Ed was the most fearless person I ever knew,” Tabor-Smith says, “He was the embodiment of freedom, courage, and mischief. I loved the way he embraced the risk of failure and the way he could create on the spot because the spirit moved him. He knew who he was and where he came from. He was an old soul, and he walked with the ancestors.”

Mock left his primary legacy through his classes, teaching wherever he could find studio space. Tabor-Smith remembers them as always packed with all sizes, colors, body shapes, and orientations — unusual for a time when teaching was much more compartmentalized than it is today.

He choreographed for his company, but as a dancer he improvised — a pioneering act in itself. Unfortunately, little documentation has survived. A YouTube search does turn up a video of Possum Slim, an astounding solo from 1979 performed by a naked and body-painted Mock.

Tabor-Smith (in collaboration with Ellen Sebastian Young) conceived of He Moved — part of Dancers’ Group ONSITE Series — as 11 site-specific performances that journey through Mock’s life. Among others, she is working with Jose Navarette on a section about memory; Jesse Hewitt and Laura Arrington will perform “acts of disruption” for Valencia Street’s 24/7 connected crowd.

Hayes Valley’s Salle Pianos and Events — where Tabor-Smith is rehearsing He Moved‘s “A Room of Black Men” section — happens to be next door to one of the studios in Mock’s peripatetic teaching career. She sees its funky elegance, with crystal chandeliers hanging over metal folding chairs, as “an Ed kind of place.” In stark contrast to the traffic roaring by on Market Street, the nine dancers bring a statuesque dignity and stillness to what is a tribute to black manhood. But they also explode into individual solos and help each other find community. At one point the dance becomes what looks like a ceremonial blessing around a seated elder, whose eloquence emanates simply from his presence.

Tabor-Smith also likes the Salle space because it’s located across the alley from Zuni Café, where her piece’s “Window Seat” section will be shown. Appropriately, “Ed was a fixture there. The people who ran it were wonderful. He never paid for a meal. Or a bottle of wine.” *

HE MOVED SWIFTLY BUT GENTLY DOWN THE NOT TOO CROWDED STREET: ED MOCK AND OTHER TRUE TALES IN A CITY THAT ONCE WAS…

Sat/15 and June 21-23, 3:30-8:30pm, free

Various locations (starts at 32 Page), SF

www.dancersgroup.org

 

The young master

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cheryl@sfbg.com

FILM After a banner 2012 and early 2013 — in which his 1958 Vertigo was named the best film of all time by Sight and Sound magazine; a critically-panned but still entertaining-enough biopic hit theaters; and a months-long career retrospective, “The Shape of Suspense,” played the Pacific Film Archive — Alfred Hitchcock’s revival continues. Next up is “The Hitchcock 9,” a San Francisco Silent Film Festival showcase of nine silent films — nearly his entire 1920s output, all made before he turned 30.

His best-known films continue to inspire pop culture (see: A&E’s hit Bates Motel), but Hitchcock’s earliest work isn’t widely circulated. That may change thanks to the British Film Institute’s restoration efforts, the fruits of which are unspooling stateside on a multi-city tour (along with the Silent fest, co-presenters include the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) launching at the Castro Theatre. Live music by acclaimed musicians will enhance each screening, including the five-piece Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, Bay Area pianist-composer Judy Rosenberg, and British silent-film specialist Stephen Horne.

In movie-crazed San Francisco, where Silent fest screenings regularly sell out (this year’s event is July 18-21; start your engines, Louise Brooks fans), the only dilemma will be deciding which of the Hitchcock 9 to see. Opening night offers a tempting option in 1929’s Blackmail, which Hitchcock — always adventurous with filmmaking technology — shot as a silent/sound hybrid.

Her blonde hair hinting at what would become a Hitchcock trademark, saucer-eyed beauty Alice (Anny Ondra) steps out on her inattentive boyfriend, a Scotland Yard detective, with an artist whose intentions prove shockingly lascivious. Alice has no choice but to stab her attacker (and rip one of his creepy clown paintings) and skulk off into the night, leaving the murder scene for her cop beau to find. What happens next is given away by the film’s title, but no matter — Blackmail is suspenseful to the end.

Another fair-haired lass encounters menace in closing-night film The Lodger (1926), a thriller that takes its stylistic cues from German Expressionist films, particularly 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Sassy model Daisy (June Tripp, credited as “Miss June”) declares “No more peroxide for yours truly!” when London’s headlines begin shrieking about a serial killer, “The Avenger,” who exclusively targets blondes. Enter a gloomy-yet-dreamy stranger (Ivor Novello), who takes a room at the boarding house run by Daisy’s parents; it doesn’t take long before he makes the landlady uneasy (he does wear a cape, after all), though Daisy finds him intriguing. Naturally, her boyfriend — another cop — becomes highly jealous, not to mention suspicious.

Blackmail and The Lodger are stuffed with elements that would later be easily identifiable as “Hitchcockian” (witness Blackmail‘s high-climbing climax — it ain’t Mount Rushmore, but you see where the idea’s heading). But The Ring, about a love triangle between two boxers and the (dark-haired) temptress that motivates their brawls, is Hitch’s only original script penned without collaborators, and it’s hardly chockablock with psychological terrors. It is, however, a charming sports romance with some nifty technical touches, including an early example of a drunken scene being shot in blurry “booze-o-vision.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F2T4ZrBel6A

The rest of the Hitchcock 9: 1928’s daffy-heiress tale Champagne; 1927’s Downhill, which also stars The Lodger‘s Novello; 1927’s Isle of Man-set The Manxman; 1928 comedy The Farmer’s Wife, with The Ring‘s Hall-Davis; 1927 Noel Coward adaptation Easy Virtue; and Hitchcock’s feature debut, 1926’s The Pleasure Garden. 

THE HITCHCOCK 9

Fri/14-Sun/16, $15–<\d>$20 (nine-film pass, $135)

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF

www.silentfilm.org

 

Hell boys

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cheryl@sfbg.com

FILM It’s a typical day in Los Angeles for Seth Rogen as This Is the End begins. Playing a version of himself, the comedian picks up longtime pal and frequent co-star Jay Baruchel at the airport. Since Jay hates LA, Seth welcomes him with weed and candy, but all good vibes fizzle when Rogen suggests hitting up a party at James Franco’s new mansion. Wait, ugh, Franco? And Jonah Hill will be there? Nooo!

Jay ain’t happy, but the revelry — chockablock with every Judd Apatow-blessed star in Hollywood, plus a few random inclusions (Rihanna?) — is great fun for the audience. And likewise for the actors: world, meet Michael Cera, naughty coke fiend.

But stranger things are afoot in This Is the End. First, there’s a giant earthquake and a strange blue light that sucks passers-by into the sky. Then a fiery pit yawns in front of Casa Franco, gobbling up just about everyone in the cast who isn’t on the poster. Dudes! Is this the worst party ever — or the apocalypse?

I chatted with Rogen, his co-director and co-writer Evan Goldberg, and co-star Craig Robinson (The Office) when they hit town a few weeks back; their Bay Area visit included stops at multiple social-media HQs (Rogen’s take: “I thought there’d be more Segways.”) Rogen and Goldberg’s often-overlapping, guffaw-laden answers speak to their lifelong friendship — at 13, the Vancouver classmates wrote the first version of what would become the 2007 hit Superbad.

Also in 2007, they made Jay and Seth vs. The Apocalypse, a short film starring Rogen and Baruchel as “two guys arguing in a room, basically,” Rogen says. “The world is ending, but our main problem is that we have to deal with each other, and our histories, and our friendship issues.” The idea expanded and became This Is the End, which marks Rogen and Goldberg’s feature directorial debut. An apocalypse comedy? Well, why not?

“There’s always been apocalyptic movies. It’s the biggest idea you can have: the end of everything. But are there any other funny ones?” Goldberg wonders. “I found moments of Volcano (1997) pretty funny. I suppose Armageddon (1998) would be classified as an apocalypse comedy, by accident.”

It’s important to note that This Is the End relies not on natural disasters, asteroids, aliens, or zombies to signal doomsday. “The whole concept was, full Christian apocalypse,” Rogen says.

“Catholic. Christian. Apocalypse. Book of Revelations. It’s the biggest book ever made,” Goldberg adds. “It’s the most popular version of it, so we might as well ride that gravy train.”

Cult-movie connoisseurs will be familiar with unintentionally hilarious depictions of the Rapture, most famously in “scare films” like 1972’s A Thief in the Night. Rogen’s research was slightly more modern. “Along with two of our producers, I watched all of Kirk Cameron’s Left Behind movies,” he admits. “They are fucking insane. It was one of those things where we were like, “Let’s look at it for five minutes. It’ll be funny!” and we ended up watching the whole trilogy. It was unbelievable.”

Neither Rogen nor Goldberg happens to be Christian, which is part of the joke. “A lot of people think we’re gonna be stuck here as hell comes to earth ’cause we’re Jewish,” Goldberg points out.

“It’s true!” Rogen laughs. “That idea fascinated us. Most people in North America were raised Christian; whether or not they actually believe in it, they’re ingrained from a very young age with the general idea that hell is gonna come to earth one day, and the good people will get sucked up to heaven and the bad people will be laid to waste, basically. Which to us was a fuckin’ disturbing concept, especially since it was implied that we would be the ones left behind. I think that’s really where [the film] came from.”

Goldberg elaborates. “In 11th grade, I had a conversation with a Christian friend, where I asked, ‘Let’s say I save a bus full of children who are falling off a bridge. But there’s this serial killer who believes in the stuff that gets you into heaven, and I don’t. Does he still go to heaven, and I go to hell?’ And she was like, ‘Yeah. Sorry, dude.’ Most Christians don’t really think we’re going to hell. But they all know the story.”

Of course, This Is the End has a lot more to it than religious commentary; there’s also copious drug use, masturbation gags, urine-drinking, bromance, insult comedy, and all of the uber-meta in-jokes fans of its stars will appreciate. (When asked if this is the most self-referential movie ever made, Goldberg cracks, “Maybe … unless, is somebody making a movie about the making of this movie?”)

“You’ve seen people play themselves in a movie before, but not to this level,” Robinson notes. “Though there’s two versions, you know — there’s me, singing ‘Take Your Panties Off,’ which I do in real life, and the me who has killed a man, which is not real. Hopefully the audience will able to differentiate.”

With a large ensemble of funny guys (Rogen, Robinson, Baruchel, Franco, Hill, and Danny McBride), plus a raft of cameos, the filmmakers were careful to split the laughs as evenly as possible.

“For the six main guys, we tried to write the best script we possibly could. But sometimes, the actors won [with their improv], because they’re funnier,” Goldberg laughs. “When it came to the party with all the different deaths and stuff, we had a bunch of ideas and we kind of hashed it out with each actor. We tried to make sure we gave everyone one good bit, and I think we mostly pulled it off.”

 

THIS IS THE END opens Wed/12 in Bay Area theaters.

Volume 47 Number 37 Flip-through Edition

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Wish you weren’t here

2

arts@sfbg.com

FILM Austrian Ulrich Seidl has been making films since the early 1980s, but didn’t get much attention internationally until 2001’s Dog Days, a bleak and nasty ensemble piece about some seemingly ordinary — but all variably pathetic, ugly and/or perverse — Viennese suburbanites sweating through a heat wave. It was the sort of movie that demanded attention, being grotesque, funny, surprising, meticulously crafted, and arguably just plain mean.

Following decades of mostly documentary work, he’d suddenly joined the ranks of what you might call the New (though not necessarily young) Misanthropes: directors like his fellow countryman Michael Haneke, France’s Gaspar Noé, and the Philippines’ Brillante Mendoza. For some their invariably depressing, often upsetting films illuminate the human capacity for cruelty. For others, they wallow in it.

After taking his time making a Dog Days follow-up (2007’s Import/Export, a predictably grim comment on Europe’s immigration inundation), Seidl is back in atypical bulk with his Paradise Trilogy, three lightly interlocking (there’s no real overall arc) features more tightly focused on hapless individual protagonists. Each are observed — and this director is among the most ruthlessly clinical observers around, as if cinema were a laboratory and characters his test subjects — on vacation. But of course the experience of any earthly paradise is a sour joke in the contexts they find themselves in. Striking if unpleasant, the trio gets its Bay Area debut over the next three weekends at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Paradise: Love (2012) makes the pursuit of pleasure look grim indeed, from the rather cheap-shot opening of Teresa (Margaret Tiesel) overseeing mentally handicapped adults as they enjoy an amusement-park outing on bumper cars — a scene whose “grotesquerie” feels exploitative. But once she’s on her holiday in sunny Kenya, it’s Teresa who does the exploiting. At the urging of a cheerfully horny friend (one among many plus-sized, German-speaking women well into middle age holidaying there), she partakes of the local populace of young men who offer gigolo-type services for a price.

But Teresa wants something more — or at least the illusion of it. Ergo she’s thoroughly suckered when the first seemingly non-predatory beach stud she encounters (Peter Kazungu as Munga) starts asking for money — he’s got no end of needy sick relatives, it seems — once they’ve consummated his declared “love.” Similar disappointments ensue. Teresa’s naiveté isn’t exactly sympathetic, however. She unconsciously brings the full weight of class/racial privilege and condescension with her, and is endlessly, petulantly demanding as a sex tourist who insists on being treated as a lover. (The negotiation around how her breasts should be touched by Munga seem to take half an hour alone.) She just wants to be desired. Yet she acts like a pushy colonialist bargain shopper.

In Paradise: Faith (2012), the spotlight is taken by Teresa’s older sister Anna Maria (Maria Hofstaetter), who most certainly is not looking for romance, let alone sex — without wearing a cowl, this hospital radiologist has become a fervent bride of Christ. She spends her vacation time alone in her over-large house, scrubbing it spotless, flogging herself clean of impure thoughts before Jesus, and singing hymns at the Casio keyboard. She also goes on daily outings to the homes of strangers, frequently immigrants. She barges in with sizable Virgin Mary statues crying “The Mother of God has come to visit you!,” and tries browbeating them into sin-abjuring prayer. Needless to say, this all seems much more about her needs than theirs.

She returns one day to the unwelcome surprise of husband Nabil (Nabil Saleh), an Egyptian Muslim back after an unexplained two-year absence. They’ve both changed greatly — back then he wasn’t yet paralyzed from the waist down, and she wasn’t a born-again fanatic. He’s nonplussed that her vinegary form of “Christian charity” treats him more as a home-nursing burden than a marital partner, and hostilities between them soon escalate to nightmarish proportions.

Ultimately, faith provides no comfort — and that failure induces a crisis of faith. Rigorously controlled in aesthetic terms, Seidl goes over the top content-wise at times — as when Anna Maria stumbles upon a public park orgy, or uses a crucifix à la Linda Blair — yet this cruel portrait of religious fixation has a certain compulsive, often cringe-inducing tension.

Finally, there’s some light at the end of the tunnel with Paradise: Hope (2013). While Teresa is fucking Africans and Anna Maria proselytizing, the former’s teenage daughter Melanie (Melanie Lenz) has been packed off to fat camp, where she and other pudgy youths endure long days of tortuous exercise and other “improving” programs. But the kids have each other; rather surprisingly, Seidl doesn’t rain gloom on their giddy rapport. Melanie also develops a serious crush on the resident doctor, a handsome, friendly, and flirtatious fellow (Michael Thomas) approximately four times her age.

Convinced she’s overdue to lose her virginity, she’s an avid pursuer — and disturbingly, he’s kinda interested. It is the movie’s major failing that seemingly kind, intelligent, grounded Dr. Arzt remains too much of an enigma for us to grasp why he’d even consider taking up a 13-year-old on the offer of herself. Yes, Melanie is cute, vivacious, and likable … but, well, come on. Of course this won’t end well. Still, Hope is indeed the most hopeful of the Paradise trilogy: its main character’s life isn’t ruined already, and she might well survive the hard knocks she’s given here to experience actual happiness.

ULRICH SEIDL’S PARADISE TRILOGY

June 13-30, $8-$10

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF

www.ybca.org

 

Power plays

0

arts@sfbg.com

THEATER With its storied 35-year history of politically charged and transgressive theater, Theatre Rhinoceros might seem the perfect San Francisco outfit to take on the great English playwright Caryl Churchill’s 2006 political allegory Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? — wherein the “special relationship” between the United States and Great Britain is metaphorically transformed into a sadomasochistic affair between George Bush and Tony Blair. Or rather, their more expansive stand-ins Sam (Rudy Guerrero), described as “a country,” and Jack (Sam Cohen), described as “a man.” (Jack became “Guy” in the Public Theater’s US premiere, suggesting possibly an American everyman as opposed to a specifically British one).

The premise translates into an opportunity to excavate the seductions and corruptions of power, the homoerotic relationship resonating in complex ways with a larger patriarchal order where sex and death are right on the surface and inextricably linked. Unfortunately, despite the harmonizing at the outset of this 45-minute one-act — in a double rendition of American the Beautiful and God Save the Queen — the production directed by the Rhino’s John Fisher rarely seems in tune with the material.

The staging can be amusing even when obvious, as when Sam rams home his points with robust pelvic thrusts to his partner. But it is unnecessarily busy, with multiple entrances and exits and use of a changing photographic backdrop illustrating various settings, iconic images, and bellicose themes. Of course, all of this might have been OK if the tension, sexual and otherwise, were palpably communicated. But the tension is slack, despite the mildly explicit blocking.

Instead, the actors seem to have their hands full with the challenging dialogue — which, in addition to being tightly intermingled, is non-realistic and poetically compact, deploying the argot of geopolitics as if it were the stuff of intimate cooing and romantic tussling. Sam demands “total commitment” from his lover, for instance, but Jack is a family man divided in his loyalties, and moreover has moral qualms about some of Sam’s more outré behavior, despite the carnal lust it can also arouse. It’s a rare moment when Guerrero and Cohen convincingly connect this heightened dialogue with their rambunctious interactions.

The dialogue also makes use of a litany of high crimes committed by the US government, and its ally Britain, since the Second World War — a verbal onslaught that carries its own force by virtue of its magnitude and extent, rescuing from banality the individual crimes (from Vietnam to El Salvador to Guantanamo) made too familiar by repetition. But the power that derives from the juxtaposition of a romantic affair and this index of world-rocking brutality somehow gets lost when the production attempts to act out too much of the relationship. Ironically, the more it tries to show, the less we register the true political pornography on display.

A similar disconnect attends the second half of the evening: a staging of the 10-minute play Churchill wrote in the immediate aftermath of Israel’s devastating 2008 attack on Gaza, Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza, which the Rhino balances with New York playwright Deborah Margolin’s dramatic response to Churchill, Seven Palestinian Children: A Play for the Other.

As in the first play, Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children combines moral outrage with a keen formal logic, and is capable of subtleties that belie its compact and deceptively simple structure. In a series of short, regular phrases, a set of parental voices discuss what to tell a young female child about the world she has been born into. The short scenes begin in Nazi Germany and end in 2008, covering seven decades of Jewish Israeli experience. Its coruscating and certainly provocative evocations seamlessly progress from the Holocaust to the colonizing of Palestine and the repression, in turn, of its indigenous Arab population.

The staging is again probably busier than it needs to be, since the force of the rhythmic dialogue (given histrionic emphasis by Cohen and Kim Stephenson as a married couple) is somewhat dissipated when haltingly delivered across multiple scene changes and the insertion of visual and chronological cues on the screen at the back of the stage. But the short work has raised dialogue and debate internationally, and it’s long overdue for a production by a major Bay Area company. (The Rhino audience is invited to stay and discuss both plays afterward.)

Balance may be the objective in following this piece with Margolin’s Seven Palestinian Children, but there is something lopsided about it just the same. Part of the problem is that Margolin’s tit-for-tat response dulls the force of the impression left by the first play by co-opting its form and yet deploying it in a less muscular way. Indeed, Seven Palestinian Children (performed by Guerrero as a hotheaded Palestinian father and Stephenson as a more compassionate Palestinian mother) not only trades in the kinds of gendered stereotypes eschewed by Churchill’s piece but, in substituting a male child for the female one, raises an uncomfortable gender dynamic in the very representation of Israel vis-à-vis Palestine. That may be latent in the Churchill play to some extent, but in making it explicit the pairing of plays risks being more obfuscating than clarifying of the relevant issues.

DRUNK ENOUGH TO SAY I LOVE YOU?

Wed/12-Sat/15, 8pm; Sun/16, 3pm, $15-$30

Costume Shop

1117 Market, SF

www.therhino.org

 

Stretch out

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culture@sfbg.com

On the Om Front The days are getting longer. The college kids who live next door are throwing parties seven nights a week instead of the usual four. Your dog is asking to be walked so early in the morning that you’re not certain you’ve ever actually gone to sleep. It’s summertime! And it’s the perfect time to get out of town for a few days, and do what yogis (and defeated armies) do best: retreat.

Yoga and meditation retreats can take many forms. They can be active and playful (think Acro Yoga on the Yuba River) or tranquil and introspective (like a silent meditation retreat in Santa Cruz). The Bay Area is a prime launch pad for a whole range of extro- and introverted magical adventures that will stretch your body and your mind into dimensions you never knew existed.

Of course the hardest part about planning a retreat or festival getaway is actually planning it. So, here’s a little help for you. Now, all you need to do is whip out your smart phone or old-school paper calendar, flag the summer days on which you’ll say a temporary sayonara to the daily grind, and book it. See you on the flip side.

 

ACRO YOGA AND YUBA RIVER

You’ve seen those brightly dressed yogis in Dolores Park on summer Sundays balancing on slack lines and doing crazy partner acrobatic tricks. Learn how to do what they do on this high-energy retreat in Nevada City, led by Jason and Chelsey Magness of the YogaSlackers. Retreat includes all-levels training in Acro Yoga and slacklining plus plenty of time on the river.

June 20-23, $400. Nevada City, CA. www.yogaslackers.com

 

AS-ONE-WE-FLOW RIVER RETREAT

This “Interdepen-dance” retreat, run by River Guidess, will blow your July 4th out of the water. It features yoga, ecstatic dance, seven miles of mellow rafting (all gear provided), deluxe camping accommodations, organic meals, and live music. The Stanislaus river is so otherworldly that you may start dreaming in an alien language. And the best part: no wetsuits required.

July 4-7, $395–$475, Oakdale, CA. www.riverguidess.com/july-4-2013/

 

YOSEMITE YOGA

The towering mountains of Yosemite are just a hop, skip, and car ride away, but we city-dwellers rarely make it over there. Toss your yoga mat and some hiking shoes into your backseat, and head for the (really big) hills with Back to Earth’s annual Yosemite Yoga trip. Each day includes guided hiking to gorgeous spots, yoga classes, Thai Massage, delicious meals, campfires, and swimming in local creeks.

July 10-July 14, $675. Yosemite, CA. www.backtoearth.org/trips/yosemite-yoga

 

WANDERLUST

This is pretty much the hottest local-ish yoga festival of the year. Featuring a panoply of talent, this Lake Tahoe event includes world-class yoga instructors (including several Bay Area teachers like Janet Stone and Pete Guinosso) and like-minded musical artists like Moby, Grammatik, DJ Drez, and The Shimmy Sisters. Oh, and jaw-dropping vistas of Lake Tahoe.

July 18-21, $125–$475. Squaw Valley, North Lake Tahoe, CA. squaw.wanderlustfestival.com

 

SECOND ANNUAL YOGA ESCAPE

If you’re down for something mellower and more introspective, this Cazadero retreat with Danae Robinett offers yoga, delicious food, and deluxe accommodation amongst redwood trees and wandering wild turkeys. You’ll also get to experience Shake Your Asana, Robinett’s unique combo of yoga and rump-shaking.

July 25-28, $650. Cazadero, CA. www.smore.com/2t0b

 

INTRODUCTION TO MINDFULNESS MEDITATION RETREAT

Looking to shift your perspective on life for more than just a weekend? Try this introductory silent meditation (and Qi Gong) retreat at the Insight Retreat Center in Santa Cruz. Silent retreats give us the opportunity to look at our thoughts and patterns so that we can start shifting them to better our lives. The insights gained on a silent retreat are well worth corking your pie hole for a few days. You may not even want to talk again when you return. Donation-based.

August 15 to 18, free ($100 refunded deposit). Santa Cruz, CA. www.insightretreatcenter.org

 

DEEP RESTORATION, DEEP HEALING: ZEN MIND, YOGA BODY RETREAT

If relaxation is on your agenda (and not the kind that requires a cocktail), head to Tassajara, a Zen Buddhist retreat center in Carmel Valley. In this retreat, teachers Samantha Ostergaard and Do-On Robert Thomas will combine Restorative Yoga (an effortless, passive yoga practice) and Zen meditation techniques to create a feeling of calm in the body and mind.

August 22-25, $240, Carmel, CA. www.sfzc.org/tassajara

 

BHAKTI FEST

Indian chanting or “kirtan” is a juicy part of yoga practice for lots of folks, and this festival is the ultimate event to get your kirtan on. Located in Joshua Tree (close to the state park, but not in it), the festival offers four days of music with bands performing on two different stages all day and night, as well as a mad plethora of yoga classes. Hot desert nights plus divine tunes equals a personal favorite of mine.

September 5-8, $200–$400 plus camping fee. Joshua Tree, CA. www.bhaktifest.com

 

Developers should pay — on time

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OPINION San Francisco used to be an eclectic city, filled with working class folks, people of color, lots of artists, and families. But that’s changed dramatically. The black population has dismally plummeted, to 6.3 percent, according to the most recent census. Families of color are streaming out, expensive condos and sky-high rentals are shooting up, and the unique mix that once was the city and made it such a diverse and culturally rich place to live and thrive is changing.

Three years ago, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom decided that private developers in San Francisco needed a local stimulus boost. The housing bubble had burst and taken the economy down with it, but Newsom wanted to ensure that private development in the city continued. So he proposed that private developers be allowed to defer paying the neighborhood impact fees on their projects, thus delaying funding for safety-net programs that help existing residents of working class neighborhoods fight displacement.

His proposal passed in 2010, and since then the Eastern Neighborhoods, SoMa, and the Octavia/Market Area have seen an upswing in private development projects coupled with rising eviction rates and housing costs, while affordable housing throughout the city becomes harder and harder to find. Because neighborhood impact fees were deferred services that would help vulnerable populations were underfunded by a total of almost $53.5 million — in 2011-2012 alone.

That lost money impacted affordable housing construction, affordable child care, development of parks and other types of open spaces, infrastructure and pedestrian-safety measures, neighborhood schools and libraries, and eviction prevention services.

Meanwhile, out-of-town private development companies are set to make millions of dollars building high-end rental units and luxury condominiums that the average San Franciscan can’t afford.

Given that private market-rate residential development in San Francisco is speeding up regardless of displacement dangers, it’s even more necessary today to strengthen and sharpen the tools our neighborhoods have for fighting displacement.

A longstanding question for San Francisco has been how to keep it from becoming a place where only the very wealthy can afford to live while the rest of us have to commute in to the city that we work in and love. Now as we field off another local housing boom fueled by speculation, we are faced again with needing to ensure that we prioritize San Franciscans over profit.

That’s why tenant groups, affordable housing advocates, and San Franciscans fighting for the right to stay in their city will be urging the Planning Commission to end the fee deferrals. The Planning Department staff has studied the issue and recommends that the Newsom program be allowed to expire; that would bring back the funds needed to invest in the vitality and vibrancy of our neighborhoods.

Come join us in helping get San Francisco’s priorities back on track at the Planning Commission meeting Thursday June 13th at 12pm in room 200 of City Hall. Private development is not worth more than the well being of working class communities, immigrants, families, LGBTQ, and tenant communities.

Maria Zamudio is a housing rights organizer for Causa Justa: Just Cause

A ‘reasonable’ cheek swab

7

Rebecca@sfbg.com

On June 3, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it’s legal for law enforcement to collect DNA samples from people who are arrested — even when the individuals taken into custody are never convicted of a crime. The justices were narrowly split, and the decision immediately drew criticism from civil liberties advocates like American Civil Liberties Union, who characterized it as a blow to American’s Fourth Amendment right to privacy.

Does the historic ruling carry implications for law enforcement practices in California? Not exactly. As it turns out, current state law allows police to collect DNA samples through cheek swabbing on a far more routine basis than in Maryland, where only a handful of serious offenses can trigger this kind of search. And in the Golden State, fewer protections are in place for arrestees.

The Supreme Court issued its ruling with a narrow 5-4 vote. “The majority’s take was that cheek-swabbing is reasonable … even without any suspicion of wrongdoing by the arrestee, because the intrusion is minimal, the arrestee has less of an expectation of privacy than a typical citizen, and the state has a strong interest in using DNA to identify people,” explained Andrea Roth, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley and founding member of a group that studied and litigated forensic DNA typing.

In contrast, Roth said, conservative Justice Antonin Scalia “was concerned that this is the first time that we’ve ever allowed searches of someone’s body, without any type of individualized suspicion, for the purpose of general crime-solving. He thought that was a line the Constitution draws in the sand, and that the law is on the wrong side of that line.”

Despite drawing a scathing critique from a conservative Supreme Court justice, Maryland’s system for the collection and use of DNA is actually much narrower in scope than the law that went into effect in California in 2004, when Proposition 69 passed.

Maryland’s law “only applies to a limited number of offenses, it doesn’t apply at all to people who are simply arrested but not charged, and they can only make use of the sample after there’s been a judicial finding of probable cause,” Michael Risher, a lawyer with the Northern California Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, told us.

“California doesn’t have any of those safeguards,” Risher added. “It’s a different law.”

2.1 MILLION SAMPLES

When Prop. 69 was approved, California voters initially sanctioned DNA collection from people convicted of felony offenses. But on January 1, 2009, a different provision of that initiative kicked in, expanding it to allow police to collect DNA samples from “any adult person” arrested for “any felony offense,” regardless of whether that person is ever charged or convicted of a crime.

When used as a form of identification, DNA samples are processed to yield a 26-number sequence that aids law enforcement in verifying suspects’ identities.

Once they’re collected and used to produce unique identifiers, those cotton-swabbed samples aren’t destroyed; instead, they remain in the hands of a state agency. “The problem is that the state keeps your samples,” Roth said. “It’s not like they develop the 26-number profile and then throw the rest of the sample in the trash. So if you’re in a database, state officials still have your entire DNA strand.”

According to the California Department of Justice, since the start of the program, the DNA data bank had received and logged more than 2.1 million samples as of March 31. The data bank is shared with the National DNA Index System (NDIS), part of the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), which is linked to federal records.

In its decision, the nation’s highest court determined that “taking and analyzing a cheek swab of the arrestee’s DNA is, like fingerprinting and photographing, a legitimate police booking procedure.”

Yet civil liberties advocates point out that the information contained in a DNA sample can reveal much more about an individual than either a fingerprint or a unique identifier generated from a sample.

“There’s a basic difference between your DNA and your fingerprint,” Risher explains. “Your fingerprint doesn’t tell you anything about yourself. And your DNA is your genetic blueprint. The profile that they generate might not say a lot about you … but they are keeping these physical samples. Current law says they can’t be tested for sensitive things, but laws change, and people can violate them.”

And a properly preserved DNA sample can last hundreds of thousands of years — essentially forever.

ANTI-WAR PROTESTER ASKED FOR DNA

Lily Haskell has been fighting the state of California over DNA collection ever since her arrest in March of 2009, at an anti-war demonstration in downtown San Francisco. Held to commemorate the anniversary of the start of the Iraq war, the protest was staged in Civic Center Plaza. “With no prior warning, police charged the crowd, penned us in, arrested us, and charged us with trying to incite a riot,” she told us.

But hours later, after she and a handful of others had been processed at the San Francisco County Jail, Haskell was summoned from her holding cell and presented with what struck her as an odd request. Although she says she had already been fingerprinted, and her identity already confirmed, an officer “told me I had to provide a DNA sample.”

Her first instinct was to decline. “I didn’t believe it was just to have to comply with that,” she said. “I told them I believed it was my right to refuse.” Haskell was told that if she continued to resist the sample collection, she’d be charged with a misdemeanor and would likely spend a few additional nights in jail. So she relented.

Although she was neither charged with a crime nor tried for a felony or any other offense after being released from jail 24 hours later, Haskell’s DNA sample remains in the state databank. Now she’s a lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit filed by the ACLU.

Haskell said she’s never tried to get her DNA expunged from the state database, because she sees her participation in the lawsuit as an important challenge to a law she views as unjust. “I don’t want my DNA to be held,” Haskell says, “and I don’t want anybody else’s DNA to be held, either.”

Individuals who have tried to go the route of having DNA samples removed have found it can be tedious. “In California, the process of getting your DNA out of a database if your case ends in dismissal or acquittal is an onerous one,” Roth explained. “You have to pay your own filing and attorney fees, you have to wait until the statute of limitations has run, the judge has complete discretion to deny your motion, and you can’t appeal the judge’s decision.”

Legal upshot still unclear

Meanwhile, ACLU attorneys in Northern California were closely watching the Supreme Court case, Maryland v. King, to see how it might affect their class-action challenge to Prop. 69, a case known as Haskell v. Harris. Although a divided panel of Ninth Circuit judges upheld the law in February of 2012, the court took the unusual step last July of voting to rehear the case en banc, with a nine-judge panel. However, the court issued an order after oral arguments saying it wouldn’t issue a ruling until King had been decided in the Supreme Court.

“Yes, they will have to do something with our case — but what they do is actually up to them,” Risher explained. “There’s no binding opinion in our case right now. Everything was up in the air waiting for King to be decided.”

Risher added that in future arguments, the ACLU plans to highlight the differences between Maryland’s DNA collection law and California’s far broader Prop. 69. “If King was a 5-4 decision with a law that was so narrowly focused, with those safeguards,” he said, “well okay — this one crosses the line.”