Volume 47 Number 40

July 3-9, 2013

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Hi-yo, stinker

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FILM Pop-culture historians who study 2005’s top movies will remember Mr. & Mrs. Smith, the so-so action flick that birthed Brangelina; Batman Begins, which ushered in a moodier flavor of superhero; and Tim Burton’s shrill Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

That last title is of particular interest lately. Not only did Charlie provide grim confirmation that a post-Planet of the Apes (2001) Tim Burton had squandered whatever goodwill he’d built up a decade prior with films like Ed Wood (1994) and Edward Scissorhands (1990), it also telegraphed to the world that Johnny Depp — previously a highly intriguing actor, someone whose cool cred was never in question — was capable of sucking. Hard.

In the years since 2005, Depp hasn’t done much to stamp out those initial flickers of doubt. If anything, he’s fanned ’em into a bonfire. His involvement in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (which is plodding toward a fifth installment) has taken up most of his schedule, though he’s always willing to don a wacky wig whenever Burton needs him (2007’s Sweeney Todd; 2010’s Alice in Wonderland; 2012’s Dark Shadows). The rest of his post-2005 credits are a mixed bag, mostly best forgotten (ahem, 2010’s The Tourist), though one does stand out for positive reasons: 2011’s animated Rango, a cleverly-scripted tale that reunited Depp with Gore Verbinski, who helmed the first three Pirates movies.

The pair returns to Rango‘s Wild West milieu for The Lone Ranger; certainly there’ll be no Oscars handed out this time, though Razzies seem inevitable. The biggest strike against The Lone Ranger is one you’ll read about in every review: it’s just a teeny bit racist. The casting of the once and future Cap’n Sparrow — who apparently has a blank check at Disney to do any zany thing he wants — as a Native American given to “hey-ya” chants and dead-bird hats is very suspect. Some (white) people might be willing to give this a pass, because it’s always been part of Depp’s celebrity mythology that he’s part Indian. I mean, he totally has a Cherokee warrior inked on his bicep, just below “Wino Forever”!

Mmm-hmm. Let’s go to the source, shall we? Speaking of his heritage in a 2011 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Depp mustered the following: “I guess I have some Native American somewhere down the line. My great grandmother was quite a bit of Native American, she grew up Cherokee or maybe Creek Indian. Makes sense in terms of coming from Kentucky, which is rife with Cherokee and Creek.”

Sounds kinda sketchy, JD. The actor who played Tonto on TV may have been born Harold J. Smith (“Jay Silverheels” was his nom de screen), but he was also raised on Canada’s Six Nations reserve and was the son of a Mohawk tribal chief. So The Lone Ranger TV series, which ran from 1949 to 1957 — and had its share of racial-insensitivity and stereotype-perpetuating issues — was able to cast an actual indigenous person to play Tonto, but 2013’s The Lone Ranger, which elevates Tonto from sidekick to narrator and de facto main character, was not.

In fact, it’s not too far-fetched to assume that the casting of Depp (also credited as an executive producer) is the only reason this Lone Ranger exists. Clearly, he really wanted to play Tonto, and Depp has a way of making his performance the most important thing about whatever film he’s in. Were audiences really screaming out for The Lone Ranger, a rather literal big-screen take on a 1950s TV show with some heavily CG’d train chases added in? Could not $250 million, the film’s reported budget, have been better spent doing something … anything … else?

Obviously “redface” is nothing new in Hollywood. It was frequently deployed in the pre-PC era, as when a white actor played a heroic Native American figure — think Chuck Connors in 1962’s Geronimo. But shouldn’t we have transcended that by now? You’d never see blackface in a film unless it was being used to make a character look ridiculous (2008’s Tropic Thunder), or to make a satirical point, as with 2000’s Bamboozled. Somewhere, Kevin Costner is clutching his Oscars for 1990 post-Western Dances With Wolves — more or less cinema’s biggest mea culpa for all those “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” yarns of the John Wayne era — and weeping.

Tonto isn’t the only Native American character in The Lone Ranger. But the others (none of whom are given names, unless someone was called “set dressing” or “background actor” and I missed it) have a slightly sharper aura of authenticity than Depp, who spends the whole movie caked in either old-age make-up or campy face paint. They are mere plot devices, there to give contemporary audiences a reason to feel outraged when an evil railroad baron lays his tracks through their land and raids their silver mine. “Our time has passed,” an elderly Indian character tells the Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer, whose role literally consists of riding a horse and reacting to Depp’s scenery-chewing buffoonery). “We are already ghosts.”

But back up, kemo sabe. Racism may be The Lone Ranger‘s worst problem, but it’s not the film’s only problem. There’s also its bloated length (nearly three hours); its score, which dares to introduce an Ennio Morricone homage into a film Sergio Leone wouldn’t line his gatto‘s litter box with; its waste of some great character actors (Barry Pepper, William Fichtner); its assumption that having random characters ask the Lone Ranger “What’s with the mask?” over and over is the funniest joke ever; and its failure to follow through on its few inventive elements — that herd of Monty Python-inspired rabbits, for example.

And another thing: if the moral of The Lone Ranger — spelled out with all the delicate subtlety of a fiery train crash — is “greed is bad,” why did El Deppo sign onto this piece of crap in the first place? *

 

THE LONE RANGER opens Wed/3 in Bay Area theaters.

So now what?

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EDITORIAL The scene at City Hall on Friday, June 28 could have been a video rewind of 2004’s Winter of Love: a surprise announcement granting same-sex marriage licenses; a breathless rush of couples to the civic altar, led by two brave, symbolic women (lesbian groundbreakers Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon in 2004 and anti-Prop 8 plaintiffs Kris Perry and Sandy Stier in 2013), a city erupting with good will and cheer, dazed by the speed of luck and history. Earlier, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, teeth and hair and all, was making grand pronouncements, strutting about like he was mayor of the place again.

Back in 2004, the city was scarred and drained from the first great Internet bust, and still reeling from the losses of AIDS. San Francisco was a mess, but it was starting to recover. People who had been forced to move out by the city’s skyrocketing rents and evictions in the early 2000s were beginning to trickle back in, and many of those beached by the boom’s collapse were turning into the very freaks, artists, and innovators they had helped displace. When Newsom launched SF’s same-sex marriage rebellion, it was an act of great civic uplift, burnishing SF’s progressive image in the eyes of the world, while boosting the city’s self-confidence. (Not to mention its economy, which benefited greatly from the wedding explosion.)

The act also burnished Newsom’s own reputation. Previously reviled for his “Care Not Cash” policies that demonized the poor and homeless, a significant percentage of LGBTQ people among them, he was suddenly a posterboy for civil rights. Now of course, San Francisco is supposedly on the arc of an economic boom, skyrocketing evictions included, and not in the dregs of a bust. So it was with a regretful shudder that we noticed some more ominous similarities between 2004 and 2013.

A week before this year’s Pride, and right before the wave of marriage elation overtook the festivities, the city’s homeless census was released. Out of the total count of 6,436 homeless people, a figure emerged that stunned many: 29 percent of 1000 people specifically asked identified themselves as LGBTQ, and it’s assumed that the actual percentage of queer homeless people is in fact higher, due to factors like closeting and mental health. A large portion of LGBTQ homeless are youth, still drawn here by San Francisco’s promise of inclusion and shelter from abusive and rejective backgrounds.

While the city celebrates the achievement of grand ideals of equality, we are failing the very people for whom those ideals may be most valuable. Currently, Dolores Street Services, along with help from Sup. David Campos and the city’s “homeless czar” Bevan Dufty, is working towards the building of a 24-bed shelter specific aimed to service LGBTQ homeless people. But that’s just a drop in the bucket. We need much more.

Now that DOMA has been overturned and Prop. 8 kicked to the curb, there’s a lot of discussion about what the powerful, energized “gay lobby” should take on next. Righting the horrible Supreme Court decision gutting the Voting Rights Act and achieving marriage equality in 37 more states are valiant, necessary goals. But turning toward the actual problems in our own backyard is another imperative.

As the Pride celebration in the Civic Center was winding down on the evening of Sunday, June 30, a group of young women emerged seemingly out of nowhere among the trash-strewn streets and beeping trucks being loaded with the party’s massive detritus. The women quietly dispersed among the leftover crowd, hauling sacks of bread on their shoulders. They made their way toward those lying on the street or huddled in doorways, distributing loaves in a matter-of-fact manner to people in need. It was a perfect reminder of the real spirit of Pride — an inclusivity that benefits all, empowered by actions on a one-to-one, human scale.

Parents, behind bars

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By Ross Mirkarimi

OPINION Nearly 50 percent of the 2.7 million people incarcerated in US prisons and jails are mothers and fathers. In San Francisco, about 40 percent of the prisoners are parents. For their children, the punishment does not fit the crime.

Federal and state recidivism registers at 78 percent; locally the rate is 65 percent and dropping. If we’re serious about breaking the cycle of incarceration, we must get serious about restoring the family ties of the incarcerated.

Studies support what common sense suggests — strengthening the parent-child bond reduces recidivism. It also reduces the prospect that children of the incarcerated are more likely to violate the law. While maintaining appropriate safety and legal protocols, the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department is reexamining policies that invariably damage or strain relationships between an inmate parent and child, starting with birth. In honor of Mother’s Day, on May 9, the Community Works Jail Arts Program, with our department, converted the lobby of the SF women’s jail into a temporary gallery of art created by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated mothers.

That provided a warm environment to announce a policy first in California: The Birth Justice Project, designed to affirm the reproductive rights of all incarcerated women and provide prenatal and postpartum care during the transformative experience of pregnancy, birth and parenthood. With the stewardship of Dr. Carolyn Sufrin, an OB/GYN from UCSF, along with the Department of Public Health, Zellerbach Foundation, and our volunteer doulas (professional birth assistants), we’re radically distancing ourselves from the barbaric attitude of 33 states that still shackle women during labor. Rather, we seek to nurture the inimitable bond between mother and child.

While most jails and prisons shun a lactation policy, we’ve unveiled our pro-lactation program. Breast pumps, refrigeration, and delivery are provided around the clock, facilitated by our jail health professionals. While the arcane national practice is to separate baby and mother after the third day of birth, we’re working to maintain the connection. If we can’t do it through diversion (alternatives to incarceration), then we’ll continue to assess our facility in allowing mother and baby to stay together. I look forward to promoting breast feeding in San Francisco’s jails.

For children of incarcerated parents, the absence of a mother is the loss of a primary caregiver. Ninety percent of incarcerated fathers in the US report that while away, their children live with the child’s mother. In contrast, only 28 percent of incarcerated mothers report that their children live with their father. Routinely, her children are cared for by a grandparent or relative — and about 11 percent are placed in foster care. Many children are bounced from caregiver to caregiver during their parent’s incarceration.

These disruptions to a child’s life negatively affect their social and mental development. Acknowledging the sense of disconnection experienced by children whose parents are incarcerated also means we must grapple with the emotional poverty that increases the likelihood of criminal behavior. In San Francisco, we’re taking steps to bridge this disconnection by reforming visitation policies to facilitating regular contact between children and incarcerated parents.

The people in our jails will eventually be released and will return to communities that historically have been underserved. We’re trying to intensify resources toward exit planning for newly incarcerated parents and guardians. Depending on individuals cases, that could include a regiment of parenting classes, substance abuse and mental health treatment, domestic violence counseling, reunification counseling for parent and child, reading and writing comprehension, high school completion, life skills such as financial literacy, and vocational training.

Many people don’t know what the Sheriff’s Department does or the difference between us and the SFPD; we’ve launched a monthly e-newsletter to keep the public informed. To sign up or contact us at: Ross.Mirkarimi@SFgov.org

Ross Mirkarimi is sheriff of San Francisco

Wedding bells and Pride protests

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rebecca@sfbg.com ; steve@sfbg.com

The city of San Francisco was a complete whirlwind from June 26 to June 30. First came the historic Supreme Court ruling that ended the ban on same-sex marriage in California and struck down the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act. The historic decision, handed down just before the city’s Pride festivities got underway and as a rare heat wave gripped the city, unleashed widespread celebration June 26, culminating with a rally and dance party in the streets of the Castro.

The Supreme Court ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal recognition of same-sex marriage, “is unconstitutional as a deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment.” According to the majority opinion, “DOMA’s principal effect is to identify a subset of state sanctioned marriages and make them unequal.”

Hollingsworth v. Perry, the Prop 8 case, was dismissed on standing due to the fact that the State of California refused to defend it in court. That meant the previous ruling invalidating Prop 8, by Judge Vaughan Walker and upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court, was upheld.

City Hall was totally packed at 7am when the Court convened, with hordes of journalists, gay and lesbian couples, and sign-wielding activists in the crowd. Cheers erupted when the decision was announced striking down DOMA. When the Prop 8 statement came down, the room went nuts.

“It feels good to have love triumph over ignorance,” said Mayor Ed Lee, who joined Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom in escorting a fragile Phyllis Lyon down the stairway. When Lyon married the late Del Martin, they became the first same-sex couple to get legally married in California in 2004.

“San Francisco is not a city of dreamers, but a city of doers,” Newsom said. “Here we don’t just tolerate diversity, we celebrate our diversity.” He thanked City Attorney Dennis Herrera and others who’d contributed to the fight to for marriage equality. “It’s people with a true commitment to equality that brought us here.”

When Herrera took the podium, he turned to Newsom, and said, “Now you can say, ‘Whether you like it or not!'” — a joking reference to Newsom’s same-sex marriage rallying cry, which some blamed for boosting the anti-same-sex marriage cause. “We wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for Gavin Newsom’s leadership,” Herrera continued. “I remember in 2004 when people were saying it was too fast, too soon, too much.” Herrera also pledged to continue the fight that began here in City Hall more than nine years ago: “We will not rest until we have marriage equality throughout this country.”

Later that afternoon, clergy from a variety of faiths including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and the Church of Latter Day Saints gathered on the steps of Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill for a buoyant press conference to celebrate the court’s rulings.

“For 20 years I’ve been marrying gay and lesbian couples, because in the eyes of God, that love and commitment was real, even when it wasn’t in the eyes of the state,” said Rabbi Michael Lerner of the Beyt Tikkun Synagogue. “We as religious people have to apologize to the gay community,” he added, for religious texts that gave opponents of gay marriage ammunition to advance an agenda of discrimination.

He added that the take-home message of the long fight for marriage equality is, “don’t be ‘realistic.’ Thank God the gay community vigorously fought for the right to be married — because they were not ‘realistic,’ the reality changed. Do not limit your vision to what the politicians and the media tell you is possible.”

Mitch Mayne introduced himself as “an openly gay, active Mormon,” which is significant since the Mormon Church was a major funder of Prop 8. He called it “one of the most un-Christlike things we have ever done as a religion,” but noted that the sordid affair had brought on “a mighty change in heart from inside the Mormon community, with greater tolerance than ever before,” with many Mormons going out and marching in solidary with gay and lesbian couples, he said.

Then on June 28, earlier than expected, the County Clerk started issuing same-sex marriage licenses. Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, plaintiffs in the case against Prop. 8, became the first of dozens of happy couples to be married at City Hall that evening, and the marriages continued in the days that followed.

And as if that weren’t enough excitement, it all happened before the weekend, when Pride festivities got underway. This year featured not only the official Pride parade and myriad performances, but also an “Alternative to Pride Parade,” signifying that a radical Pride-questioning movement has been reawakened in San Francisco.

“Have you had enough with the poor political choices of some community leaders that claim to represent you? Are you over the over-corporatizing of SF Pride? Or just tired of the same old events that don’t reflect who you are, and how you want to celebrate your queer pride?” organizers wrote in a statement announcing the event.

The parade itself, meanwhile, also featured some dissenters. The third annual Bradley Manning Support Network contingent swelled in ranks this year, due to the political maelstrom touched off when the Pride Board rescinded Manning’s appointment as Grand Marshal.

The Bradley Manning Support Network contingent attracted more than 2,000 supporters who marched to show solidarity with the openly gay whistleblower, comprising the largest non-corporate contingent in the Parade. Former military strategist Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked secret government documents known as the Pentagon Papers to the press in 1971, donned a pink boa and rode alongside his wife, Patricia, in a pick-up truck labeled “Bradley Manning Grand Marshal.” Patricia told the Bay Guardian, “There is something about the energy and triumph of this beautiful event … Just as the gays have made a tremendous difference with marriage, we have to do the same with wars and aggression” in U.S. foreign policy.

Pride’s legal counsel, Brooke Oliver — who resigned over the Pride Board’s handling of the Manning debacle — marched along with the Bradley Manning contingent. Bevan Dufty, former SF Supervisor and now the mayor’s point person on homelessness, stepped down as a Grand Marshal, also because of the Pride Board’s actions, but didn’t march with the contingent.

Nor were the Bradley Manning supporters the only protest contingent to take part in the parade. A group seized the opportunity to make a political statement by marching with a faux Google bus, an action meant to call attention to gentrification and evictions in San Francisco. They rented a white coach and covered it with signs printed up in a similar font to Google’s corporate logo, proclaiming: “Gentrification & Eviction Technologies (GET) OUT: Integrated Displacement and Cultural Erasure.”

Some trailed the faux Google bus with an 8-foot banner depicting a blown-up version of an Ellis Act evictions map. Others donned red droplets stamped with “evicted” to signify Google map markers, while a few toted suitcases to represent tenants who’d been sent packing. However, their ranks were thin in comparison with the parade contingents surrounding them, which included crowds of workers representing eBay, DropBox, and, of course, Google — the largest corporate contingent in the parade.

“The organizers of this anti-gentrification and displacement contingent are not ‘proud’ that folks are being kicked out of this city that was once their refuge,” organizers of the faux Google bus contingent wrote in a press statement. “The 2013 SF Homeless Count and Survey shows that 29 percent of the city’s homeless population is ‘LGB and other.’ The Castro is experiencing the highest number of evictions in the city. Meanwhile, the SF Pride Parade is becoming as gentrified as SF. This group is calling on Pride to remember its roots.”

 

Hungry for reform

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news@sfbg.com

Sitawa Jamaa is among the thousands of California inmates who, two years ago this summer, took part in the largest prison hunger strike in US history to protest harsh conditions and their invisibility to those outside prison walls.

Now, Jamaa and other prisoners are about to launch another hunger strike to highlight the system’s unfulfilled promises and the persistence of inhumane conditions.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) counted 6,000 prisoners throughout the state who refused food over several weeks in July 2011. During a follow-up strike that September, the number of prisoners missing meals swelled to 12,000, according to the federal receiver who was appointed by the courts to oversee reforms in the system. At least one inmate starved to death.

As one of four inmates who call themselves the Short Corridor Collective, Jamaa was a key organizer of the hunger strike. The group of inmates drafted a list of core demands calling for the strike when they weren’t met.

That was no easy task for Jamaa, who has spent most of the last 28 years alone in a windowless, 8-by-10 foot concrete cell in Pelican Bay State Prison, a supermax facility not far from the Oregon border, where some 1,200 men are held in similar conditions.

Inmates held in solitary confinement (in government lingo: “Segregated Housing Units”, or “SHU” for short) aren’t supposed to communicate with each other, verbally or through the mail. But they were able to organize with the help of their lawyers, who they are allowed to communicate with, and prison reform advocates outside.

Jamaa and other inmates are planning to launch a second hunger strike on July 8. The Short Corridor Collective has drafted a list of 45 demands, reflecting concerns ranging from inadequate health care to extreme solitary confinement—conditions that prison advocates characterize as cruel and unusual punishment.

The list is an extension of the five initial demands that Pelican Bay inmates presented in 2011 before initiating a hunger strike. Most of those demands were never met, or they were met only with lip service, leading prisoners back to where they started.

 

 

CONFINEMENT AS TORTURE

High on the list are concerns about conditions in the SHU, the amount of time prisoners can be made to spend in isolation, and the public’s inability to monitor the situation.

“I feel dead. It’s been 13 years since I have shaken someone’s hand and I fear I’ll forget the feel of human contact,” Pelican Bay prisoner Luis Esquivel told attorneys with the Center for Constitutional Rights in an interview.

Along with Jamaa and others, Esquivel is a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the state of California that would effectively cap the time someone can spend in solitary confinement to 10 years.

“The hunger strike is an extreme act,” says Terry Kupers, a Piedmont-based psychology professor and clinical psychiatrist who has testified before the California State Assembly on long-term solitary confinement. “It’s very dangerous, and you can die. So when a group of prisoners go on hunger strike, it means they’ve exhausted all ways of expressing themselves and having their demands considered. And that’s very much the case here—some of these guys have been in SHU for 30 or 40 years.”

Kupers believes solitary confinement in California prisons violates the 8th Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, a view echoed by activists who’ve launched a statewide effort called the Stop the Torture Campaign.

United Nations Special Rapporteur Juan Méndez, an expert on torture, has called for a ban on solitary confinement where inmates are kept in isolation for 22 hours a day or more, saying the practice should only be used in very exceptional circumstances and for short time periods.

The CDCR has made some concessions and reforms since the 2011 hunger strikes, but critical issues have gone unaddressed. In Pelican Bay’s SHU, the men are now allowed beanie caps for when it gets cold. They can now have wall calendars to track time and bring a human touch to their surroundings.

Some prisoners have received exercise equipment, such as a handball or pull-up bar. Each year, they now have permission to have one photograph of themselves taken to send to family members, and prison administrators have signaled that they are looking into extending Pelican Bay’s visitation hours.

But more pressing issues have yet to be resolved, so the prisoners who drafted the 45 demands are resorting to starvation once again, despite official statements that it will do little to improve their conditions.

“Negotiation is something the department does not do,” says Terry Thornton, a spokesperson for CDCR. But the department has met periodically with a mediation team, consisting of lawyers and prison activists, who have communicated the inmates’ concerns and gone over their demands with prison authorities.

 

 

RESISTING REFORM

In 2002, the state of California was sued, and lost, in an 8th Amendment class-action lawsuit: Plata v. Davis. The federal judge overseeing the case called the medical treatment in California prisons “horrifying,” sinking “below gross negligence to outright cruelty,” ordering improved treatment and reductions in severe prison overcrowding.

A court-appointed doctor found that out of 193 deaths over the course of one year, 34 were “probably preventable,” but medical staff gave “well below even minimal standards of care.” Eleven years later, the state is still under federal receivership, until it can show that conditions have actually improved.

Court-appointed consultant Dr. Raymond Patterson wrote his 14th annual assessment report last April, blaming high suicide rates behind bars on a lack of “adequate assessment, treatment or intervention.” After it was released, he quit the post in frustration, writing: “It has become apparent that continued repetition of these recommendations would be a further waste of time and effort.”

So inmates are taking in upon themselves to accomplish what the courts and consultants have failed to do: reform conditions in the prisons.

As happened in 2011, in spite of what is planned to be a peaceful protest, prisons housing strikers will be, according to Thornton, on “modified program” (or “lockdown,” as prisoners call it). Generally, that means inmates aren’t allowed to leave their cells, even to shower.

New regulations created after the 2011 strikes call for no visits for striking prisoners, and for their canteen food to be confiscated. In addition, “inmate(s) identified as strike leaders, instrumental in organizing, planning, and perpetuating a hunger strike, shall be isolated from non-participating inmates.”

Since March of this year, the Guantanamo Bay prisoner hunger strike has made news around the world for highlighting alleged violations of international law. There, when a striker goes below 85 percent Ideal Body Weight, regulations dictate that he or she be shackled to a chair, fitted with a mask, and have tubes inserted through their nostrils into their stomachs for up to two hours at a time.

That didn’t happen in California back during the 2011 strikes, but the Division of Correctional Health Care Services devotes five pages of its policy handbook to outlining specific instructions for dealing with hunger strikers, including transfers to prison medical facilities where they could potentially be force-fed, another practice the UN regards as torture.

Prisoners and activists believe the policy was instituted as preemptive attack on the upcoming hunger strike. “We are concerned that, under the pretext of ‘welfare’ checks, prisoners are being harassed, targeted, and deprived of sleep as the date of planned hunger strikes and work stoppages approaches,” said Isaac Ontiveros of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity group. “Whatever the case, new CDCR Secretary Jeffery Beard has an opportunity to avoid the strike and begin to undo the indescribable harm that the California prison system has caused.”

 

 

DANGEROUS ASSOCIATIONS

Problems associated with solitary confinement are closely connected to CDCR’s most commonly used tool for sending prisoners like Jamaa into the SHU: the controversial “gang validation” process.

Once an inmate is listed in prison records as a gang member, he or she loses multiple rights on the assumption that they’re a threat to the order of the prison. With no disciplinary write-ups since 1995, Jamaa would have been eligible for parole in 2004, except for the gang validation that led to his indefinite SHU sentence.

Getting pegged as a member of a gang can happen easily. Guards can write prisoners up for anything from the possession of artwork deemed to be gang-related, to information obtained from confidential informants whose claims prisoners often aren’t allowed to refute and whose identities remain unknown to the targeted prisoners.

Last year, in the wake of hunger strikes, CDCR announced a “complex retooling” of the gang validation practices. The so-called Step Down process, created in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security, is meant to transition inmates out of gangs over the course of four years, with privileges gained over that time.

It might be the most significant of the reforms that followed the last hunger strike, but prisoners and their advocates criticize it as too lengthy of a process, subject to the arbitrary whims of the correctional officers overseeing a given prisoner. In fact, they say it may widen the definition of who counts as a gang member.

Manuel Sanchez, who is participating in the Step Down program at Corcoran State Prison, wrote in a letter that he is “seriously considering returning to SHU, where I’d be less harassed and I’d get more yard access more consistently.”

Compounding the problems in the prisons is a lack of transparency and public accountability.

“It’s like mentioning July 8 is anathema,” says San Francisco Bay View Editor Mary Ratcliff, whose African American-focused newspaper has been a CDCR censorship target.

From January to April of this year, Ratcliff said papers were being returned from Pelican Bay undelivered because they included articles about the hunger strikes, representing “material inciting participation in a mass disturbance,” and “a serious threat to the safety and security” of the prison, according to CDCR Administrator R.K. Swift.

“I think it’s remarkable that hunger strikes are considered a ‘disturbance,'” says Ratcliff. “A disturbance is supposed to mean a fight—something that threatens people. A hunger strike is a threat to no one except the people who are participating in it.”

Just as inmates can’t get news from the outside, they are also walled off from journalists who might cover them and the conditions they live in.

Since 1996, the CDCR has limited reporters to only interviewing prisoners they’ve selected. Last September, Governor Jerry Brown vetoed legislation that would have opened up media access to the prisons. “Giving criminals celebrity status through repeated appearances on television will glorify their crimes and hurt victims and their families,” he wrote, citing the media spectacle around Charles Manson.

But activists say the nearly $2 million Brown received from the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) during his successful bid for governor in 2010 had more to do with it than infamous serial killers.

Assembly member Tom Ammiano, who authored the most recent bill, stressed that “Press access isn’t just to sell newspapers. It’s a way for the public to know that the prisons it pays for are well-run. I invite the governor to visit the SHU to see for himself why media access is so important.”

 

 

DRASTIC MEASURES

Last time around, Jamaa lost 19 pounds. Deprived of sunlight, the Oakland-born man has developed melanin and vitamin D deficiencies that have lightened his normally dark brown skin. He suffers stomach problems and swollen thyroid glands that he didn’t have before prison. Starvation is a possibly lethal proposition. “Make no mistake, none of us wants to die. But we are prepared to, if that’s what it takes to force a real reform,” he and other strike leaders wrote in a statement last December. Jamaa’s sister, Marie Levin, who has organized monthly vigils for the strikers at Oakland’s monthly First Fridays/Art Murmur event, is worried about how her brother’s body will cope this time around. “It’s something that we as family members don’t want them to have to experience again,” she notes with anxiety. Yet both the prisoners and their advocates on the outside say they can’t simply let dehumanizing conditions in California’s prison system continue indefinitely. “I think things have changed, but not substantially in terms of actual conditions,” Kupers argues. “What is changed is the CDCR had to recognize the strikers, and conceded some of the things. And subsequently, the various prisoner groups have come together and made a commitment not to have violence between groups inside the prisons. This is huge advancement.” But unless all 45 demands are met, they say the strike will commence July 8. For now, Jamaa and others are readying their bodies for hunger, for a cause they believe goes far beyond prison walls. “Know this,” he wrote from SHU, words that needed to be smuggled out through unconventional means to get around an official wall of silence. “I am a … Prisoner of War, and I serve the interest of all people.”

Diversity in motion

37

arts@sfbg.com

DANCE Last weekend, World Arts West’s San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival closed out four almost completely sold-out weekends of performances. It is tempting to take this 35-year-old celebration for granted. Yet despite universal accolades, excellent audiences, a steadily improving roster of artists, an increase in live music, and ever-better production values, EDF still does not receive the support it deserves.

Consider this: according to its own numbers, EDF’s budget this year was two-thirds of what it was five years ago. Foundation and corporate support is down, between 30 and 50 percent. This time around, even Grants for the Arts — a stalwart champion of the festival since the beginning — had to cut its contribution by close to 20 percent.

Add to these challenges the fact that in 2011, due to the complications of the Doyle Drive construction, EDF lost its home at the Palace of Fine Arts. The much smaller Lam Research Theater at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts cannot make up the lost ticket sales.

Of course, in these mean and lean times, all the arts suffer. But other institutions of similar size, track record, and scope have endowments that help tie them over. Not EDF. It’s paycheck to paycheck. One reason for EDF’s survival, however, is that the biggest supporters of the arts have always been the artists themselves. Most of this year’s 500 dancers and musicians performed for free. (Their companies get a small stipend.)

So perhaps it’s appropriate to give a small bouquet to these eminent artists who may have come from places most of us will never visit — 19 countries on five continents — but are bringing to both fellow dancers and audiences their perspectives on what dance can tell us about being human.

While the Palace’s loss deprived EDF of its preferred stage, spreading the dance to different venues was a successful experiment. On June 7, a free, mid-day gala opening rocked the rotunda at San Francisco City Hall; the following day, Charya Burt’s reimagining of sculptor Auguste Rodin’s 1906 encounter with classical Cambodian dance brought East and West together at the Legion of Honor Museum’s jewel box theater. Later in the festival, one could walk across the lawn at Yerba Buena Gardens, where Patrick Makuakane was teaching light-hearted contemporary hula — and then, at YBCA, watch Halau o Keikiali’i present dignified re-interpretations of sacred Hawaiian rituals, offering an inkling of the complexities of culturally-specific dance.

EDF presents cultural traditions that range from high classicism (Chinese Performing Arts of America) to folkloric community celebrations (Lowiczanie Polish Folk Ensemble). But the fest also embraces change within continuity. It gives newcomers a chance, and welcomes re-interpretations of the past.

Nine of this year’s 33 participants made their EDF debuts. Among them were Colectivo Anqari, which charmed with an urban reinterpretation of popular dance from the Andes in which the men both danced and played the pan pipes. The women’s contribution almost looked like an afterthought. Ceremonially stepping dancers, drummers, and a flute player from Ensohza Minyoushu performed Sansador from Northern Japan, its high degree of formality leavened by a leaping masked “spirit.” Antoine Hunter’s short Risk showed a fascinating mix of jazz and sign language by this deaf dancer. High fives, however, must go to the two dozen youngsters of Mona Khan Company Emerging Performers. Their rousing, Bollywood-inspired Jalsa showed them to be disciplined, tough, and exuberant.

A relatively recent phenomenon is dancers and companies who rethink their heritage and reframe it into the kind of individual expression that Western art encourages. Charya Burt is one of them. Another is La Tania Baile Flamenco, whose Tierra translated the quintessential male farruca into a women’s dance. The trio became a striking expression of female power — rigorous and utterly convincing. Solo artist Oreet incorporated modern and ballet vocabulary into her spunky belly dancing, making it a decidedly contemporary expression of womanhood.

I do find it problematic, however, that dance from Mexico — there are over two dozen folklórico groups in the Bay Area — inevitably is represented by suites that are happy, fast, and loud. Surely there are more varied ways to showcase that culture’s rich variety of traditions.

The Palace of Fine Arts is scheduled to re-open in 2015. The people at World Arts West would like the complex to become a center for art and culture from around the globe. Sounds like a good idea to me.

Live to tell

1

arts@sfbg.com

FILM The most popular feel-good documentary last year was Searching for Sugar Man, Malik Bendjelloul’s film about the somewhat mysterious Rodriguez — a talented singer-songwriter who recorded two major-label albums in the early 1970s, attracted no notice whatsoever, then disappeared from any public view. Unbeknownst to him (or to his bank account, since the royalties seem to have vanished more completely than he did), the records were a big hit in South Africa, where fans eventually tracked him down and informed him that he was, well, a star. So, decades after falling into obscurity, he was playing before large audiences he’d never known he had, and (via the film) getting new ones.

Sugar Man made you wonder how many other such stories might be waiting to be excavated. We’ve probably all seen or heard acts that deserved some commercial success, but never got close to it. More than ever, the musical mainstream seems more about marketing a package than promoting genuine, idiosyncratic talent. And examples of the latter slip through the cracks all the time, hopefully getting re-discovered later — for instance Nick Drake, sainted godhead of sensitive singer-songwriters, was barely a blip on the public-awareness horizon during his life. It was only after he’d died that the cult, and record sales, began to swell.

A Band Called Death is a similar story of recognition delayed so long that the principal vindicated character was no longer alive to enjoy it. Sons of a Detroit Baptist minister, David, Dannis, and Bobby Hackney were enamored with rock music from the time the family sat down to watch the Beatles play The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. By 1971 they were calling themselves Rock Fire Funk Express — but exposure to live hard-rock acts like the Who and Alice Cooper convinced them to ditch the funk part completely. Their father’s tragic death (he was killed by a drunk driver while taking an injured coworker to the hospital) hit all of them hard, but especially guitarist David, who had a spiritual awakening of sorts and insisted their band be named after what he now considered “the ultimate trip:” Death.

It seemed a career-killing moniker if ever there was one. (Though by 1983 Orlando’s death metal pioneers would have no trouble using the same name.) Nor did the trio’s loud, fast, heavy sound — their rehearsals drove the neighbors nuts — make sense for an African American outfit in a city where Motown ruled. Though their parents had always encouraged them, nearly everyone else took a “Why are you playing that white boy music?” stance. Nonetheless, they found a supporter at local studio-music publisher Groovesville Records, recorded some tracks, and shopped them around to every imaginable label here and abroad. After innumerable rejections, they seemingly hit the jackpot with Columbia Records prez Clive Davis, who was eager to sign them … if they’d just change that name. As the band’s “visionary,” however, David Hackney was unwilling to budge on his total “concept.” The offer was withdrawn.

Defeated and exasperated, the brothers accepted a relative’s invite to stay with him in Burlington, Vt., and wound up relocating there — but when they put up Death posters around town, the unamused local cops assumed this was some sort of gang-activity threat. That was the last straw; Dave reluctantly agreed on a name change, to the 4th Movement. In that form they played some gigs and recorded a couple albums — but their new, more overtly spiritual emphasis didn’t play well with rock audiences who really didn’t want to flick their Bics to lyrics about Jesus Christ.

A man with a plan — but no backup plan — Dave eventually slunk back to Detroit, and was dismayed when his brothers moved on musically, experiencing some success with a reggae band called Lambsbread. Death wasn’t just forgotten; it had never really been noticed. Its only material issue was a self-distributed 1974 single of “Politicians in My Eyes” b/w “Keep on Knockin'” that had scored just token local radio play. But three decades later some of its 500 pressings started surfacing on underground DJ’s turntables, rare-record collectors’ wish lists, and on eBay (at $800 a pop). What could be a more fascinating enigma and find than an unknown African American group making music that was precociously protopunk (with some psych influences) well before even the Ramones’ first album in ’76?

Eventually the surviving members saw their ancient masters released at last, and toured clubs as a reformed Death with Lambsbread’s guitarist taking cancer-felled Dave’s place. It was all made sweeter by the fact that three of Bobby’s sons now had their own band, named Rough Francis after their late uncle’s last recording pseudonym.

A bit overlong, the documentary nonetheless ingratiates with its surprising wealth of home-movie footage, commentary from the very genial Hackney clan, and testimony from latter-day fans like Henry Rollins, Jello Biafra, Kid Rock, and Questlove.

 

A BAND CALLED DEATH opens Fri/5 at the Roxie Theater.

Get trashed

3

emilysavage@sfbg.com

MUSIC During high school one day in a sleepy Marin County enclave, Tina “Boom Boom” Lucchesi went to a local record shop where Erik Meade of Jackson Saints and the Pukes worked, and he put on a Redd Kross album. “Total obsession,” Lucchesi says now, a few decades later, from her punky, vintage-filled Peewee’s Playhouse home in Oakland. “He was playing the Teen Babes from Monsanto record, and I was like, I’m going to buy that — and I did.”

This week, Lucchesi’s early 1990s-born wild surf-punk group the Trashwomen will play alongside Redd Kross for the first time ever, during the two-day slackfest Burger Boogaloo (Sat/6-Sun/7, noon-9pm, $25/day. Mosswood Park, 3612 Webster, Oakl., www.burgerboogaloo.com). The Boogaloo, a yearly collaboration between Orange County, Calif. label and shop Burger Records, and East Bay promoters Total Trash Booking, is known for bringing an eclectic, sometimes manic mix of surf, punk, garage, doo-wop, and retro rock’n’roll acts commonly associated with both organizers.

This year, for the first time, it’s all outdoors, and the headliners are impressive: Redd Kross, Jonathan Richman, the Zeroes, the Oblivions, Fuzz, the Trashwomen. The rest of the lineup is too, including Audacity, Mean Jeans, Shannon and the Clams, Mikal Cronin, Guantanamo Baywatch, and more.

The Trashwomen immediately stuck out in the stellar lineup, mostly because the other groups are all active bands. The Trashwomen haven’t played together in four years (during a brief reunion for Budget Rock in ’08), and before that, they’d been broken up since ’97. So why now?

For Total Trash’s Marc Ribak, the choice was obvious. “In the Total Trash babe bible, Trashwomen rank number one!”

But for said babes, it was all about Redd Kross. “Redd Kross is playing! We’re all big fans, so we were like,’we’ve got to do it!'” says drummer Lucchesi, sitting on a teal patterned couch in her home next to bassist Danielle “Lead Pedal” Pimm, and guitarist Elka “Kitten Kaboodle” Zolot.

Though they also mention getting stoked to see Mexican punk legends the Zeros, and Portland, Ore. sloppy surf-rock group Guantanamo Baywatch.

“We’ve gotten a lot of offers, but we all have busy lives. There was a time when we were doing it but then you know, it kind of fizzled out,” she adds. “In the early ’90s, when the garage thing was so great in San Francisco, we played with the Mummies, the Phantom Surfers, Supercharger, we all played together. And then it just kind of died out, and we did get sick of it, and each other. But it’s fun, I like getting together and playing with these guys once in awhile.”

While their initial run ended in ’97, the group left a lasting impression on future generations of San Francisco garage groups, particularly girl groups, which has surprised Zolot. “I have my Instagram, and a lot of young bands that are still in high school [post on there] like ‘oh I look up to you,’ ‘you inspire me to write music and be a girl on guitar,’ and I’m like, how did you even hear about us? It’s cool, but sometimes it shocks me that young people know who we are.”

It’s a combination of sound, style, and era that carries on the Trashwomen torch. Likely the Internet accessibility of music had a hand in it too. The music itself, on albums like debut ’93 record Spend the Night with the Trashwomen (Estrus), is a raucous jumble of raunchy original garage anthems (“Cum on Baby,” “I’m Trash”), syrupy rock’n’roll numbers (“Daddy Love”), and surf-punk covers of rare ’60s gems like the Fender Four’s “Mar Guya” and Starfire’s “Space Needle.”

The aesthetic was based in high camp and cheap glamour — also seen on the cover of Spend the Night with the Trashwomen, the trio lounging in bed together, dolled up and looking tough in leopard print bras, red lace crop tops, and black babydoll dresses.

“It came from a lot of pin-up stuff and ’60s go-go girls. We wanted to have a weird persona, I think, like Russ Meyer bad girls,” Lucchesi says.

The group was known to play live in matching outfits, often trashy lingerie. “I don’t know if you’ll see us wearing lingerie on stage again though,” Zolot says.

Though Lucchesi and Pimm do mysteriously mention possible planned outfits for Burger Boogaloo, noting that they’re working on a little something.

“There may be just a little flair,” Pimm says with a laugh.

“No bikinis though!” Zolot again reminds everyone.

The three have an easy rapport, which Pimm says took only about 22 years to master. Each time they get back together in Lucchesi’s garage, it’s like starting over fresh, but the songs eventually come rumbling back to them, she says. They’ve been practicing for about two months this time around, going back through the classic tracks, with no intention of writing new ones. “I get disappointed when I see an older band and they don’t play much of their stuff that we all grow up with,” Zolot says. Everyone nods in agreement.

The group originally came together fresh out of high school. Lucchesi and Pimm had gone to school together in Corte Madera and both moved to San Francisco at age 18, where they met Elka. She’d grown up in Los Angeles, and moved to SF, forming the psychobilly group Eightball Scratch.

The Trashwomen were supposed to be a one-off Trashmen cover band for a New Year’s party at a long-gone venue called the Chameleon, kicking off 1992 in surf garage style. The idea was masterminded by Mike Lucas from the Phantom Surfers, then a popular local surf band.

For NYE, they learned a handful of Trashmen songs, got drunk, and played the set twice.

“After that, people kept calling, so we realized, we better write a bunch of songs,” Zolot says.

Since she’d been in Eightball Scratch, she’d already been playing punk and rockabilly guitar parts, so she continued to do so in the Trashwomen, adding even more surfy reverb.

She’s been playing music since before she can remember, and as a teenager was influenced by the Go-Go’s. “I’d listen to the Go-Go’s and pretend I was on stage.”

“I think every girl did that when that album came out,” says Lucchesi, who since the Trashwomen has gone on to front a dozen bands, including the Bobbyteens. “The Ramones definitely got me more into guitar. Every day after work I would just come home and play to the tape.”

Their personal influences all seem to overlap with those creepy-sexy goth punks, the Cramps. “All the great punk stuff, and new wave, all that stuff was happening. We were lucky we got to see it,” Lucchesi says. Putting on a mock cranky-old-lady accent she adds, “Kids today, they don’t kno-ow.”

In the early days of the Trashwomen, the threesome often played the Chameleon (in the space formerly known as Chatterbox and which is now Amnesia), and also the Purple Onion, frequently popping up at lesbian nights at clubs, warehouse parties, or underground house shows. They once wore bras scrawled with the word “Feminist” to the Faster Pussycat lesbian night at FireHouse 7 in Oakland. Often, fights would break out at their shows at the Purple Onion, just the high drama of the scene.

They also once played Bimbo’s, opening up for Nina Hagen, and they flew to New York to play CBGBs, which was monumental for all three. The day after the show, they went to Coney Island, ate hot dogs, and rode the Cyclone — on which Zolot severely injured her back; she has yet to go on a rollercoaster since. They were also heckled along the boardwalk, Pimm says. “Some of the girls at Coney Island, they were like, ‘excuse me, B-52s!'”

The band also toured Europe and Japan briefly, playing alongside its Japanese equivalent, the 5.6.7.8’s.

“The Germany shows were weird,” Pimm says. “We played somewhere in East Berlin, and all these metalheads walked in and we were like, ‘this is our audience? They’re going to hate us!’ The crowd ended up not letting the Trashwomen leave the stage, standing up front with folded arms, begging them to play more.

From all the stories, it seems like an aggressive, wildly exciting time for the band, but it’s easy to see why it eventually fizzled. Lucchesi has gone on to form acts like the aforementioned Bobbyteens, and is also currently in two-person garage-punk band Cyclops with her boyfriend Jonny Cat, and Midnite Snaxxx, with former Bay Guardian staffer Dulcinea Gonzalez. She also runs Down at Lulu’s a little vintage shop and hair salon in Oakland she opened seven years back with Seth Bogart, a.k.a. Hunx, and now runs solo.

Pimm too opened a salon, Marquee, last year in Oakland, near 1-2-3-4 Go! Records.

Zolot works in catering at wineries in the Napa area, dressing like a pin-up girl and shucking oysters with a mobile oyster bar, and also does photography. She’s not currently in another band, but says she has some secret music projects in the works.

“We didn’t even know that!” Lucchesi says when Zolot reveals this.

“It’s not the same style as people would expect, so I don’t talk about it much,” Zolot says.

“I want to know — is it hip-hop?” Lucchesi jokes.

“No! That’s for Tasha, she’s got that covered,” Zolot says, speaking of her daughter, Natassia Zolot, a.k.a rapper Kreayshawn. (Kreay can be heard at age five screaming the lead on the Trashwomen single “Boys Are Toys.”)

“That’s for the younger generation,” Pimm says.

New Zealand’s Cup

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news@sfbg.com

A few weeks ago I was walking down the dock in the marina where I live, in Wellington, New Zealand, when I passed a woman and a young boy. I’d never seen them before, which is uncommon here in this municipal marina — about 100 boats — in a small suburb of the country’s capital.

The boy was walking from berth to berth pointing out certain rig and hull features and expounding on them as only a future aficionado can. “Lots of different boats, huh?” I asked as I passed.

“Different than America,” he confirmed in an accent the same as mine.

The kid is sharp, I thought, or maybe it’s just obvious, even to an eight-year-old from Chicago. The New Zealand sailing scene is vastly different than its American counterpart, which is not to say there’s no comparing — they’re not exactly navigating carved logs with gunnysack sails down here.

But the boats in my marina are, in fact, mostly homebuilt from steel, cement, aluminum, and wood. They appear a motley crew compared to the cookie-cutter production fiberglass Beneteaus, Catalinas, and Hunters, with their identical pacific blue sail covers lined up in San Francisco’s South Beach Marina.

In New Zealand, a boat is rarely a status symbol — it’s part of the middle-class way of life, the home base for holidays and weekend fishing trips and lots and lots of competitive racing. If I’ve noticed one thing since I arrived in this country (aboard a sailboat, after leaving San Francisco and my job as a Bay Guardian staff writer), it’s that every little harbor town has a yacht club and an awful lot of Kiwis own boats — and they sail the shit out of them.

Which is part of the reason why the New Zealand government is willing to invest NZ$36 million (US$27 million) to compete in the 34th America’s Cup against some of the richest men in the world in a race that has become so elite there’s barely any competition.

Small as the field is, Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ) is quickly shaping up to be the team to beat if you’re on a high-speed, air-catching AC72 catamaran. If they succeed, it will show that developing an America’s Cup team doesn’t have to come from having deep pockets in your Nantucket Red pants — it comes from having the sport ingrained in your culture, filtered through affordable local boat clubs, city-run facilities, volunteer programs, publicly accessible shorefronts, and an innovative marine industry.

In fact, without New Zealand’s maritime way of life, Larry Ellison wouldn’t have much of a team: of the 27 sailors and management crew aboard Oracle, a third are Kiwis. Another third are Australians. If you count Ellison, there are only three Americans aboard. Just one of them — tactician and grinder John Kostecki — grew up sailing on San Francisco Bay.

Ellison’s boat is mostly a Kiwi production, too — the fixed-wing sails and structural components for Oracle’s two AC72s were made in New Zealand, as were the boats, sails, and rigs for ETNZ and Luna Rossa. The only other syndicate competing, Sweden’s Artemis, in the wind since the death of crewmember Andrew Simpson, is the outlier, but they still have eight New Zealanders on board.

America’s Cup is looking more and more like it owes a lot to New Zealand. Is the Cup doing as much for San Francisco as it is for this little island nation, with a population just a tenth of California’s?

“If it wasn’t called Team New Zealand, we wouldn’t get a lot out of it,” says Sven Pannell, a competitive dinghy racer and employee of the economic development agency Grow Wellington. “The numbers of boat builders, carbon fabricators, sail makers, yacht designers coming out of New Zealand are the reason we’re still at the top of the global game. If we can bring the Cup home that means a lot for our country.”

It may also save America’s Cup from becoming even more out of touch with reality.

 

IT’S THE CULTURE, STUPID

It’s June 8, summer in San Francisco but winter in Wellington. The first race of the 2013 Winter Series at Evans Bay Boat Club hits hypothermic seas beneath steely overcast skies and 20-30 knots of wind — “perfect conditions,” one sailor enthuses. Tame, actually, for Wellington. A week ago, wind blew out the fifth story windows of a building downtown.

Sven Pannell has just finished racing a 12-foot skiff, a super lightweight, often homebuilt boat that probably originated in Australia and is almost exclusively raced in the Southern Hemisphere, though an 18-foot version will be showcased in San Francisco this September alongside the America’s Cup finals. Weighing about 100 pounds, with no class restrictions on sail area, they rooster-tail around Wellington harbor, bow high, barely in the water. They seem to require a similar caliber of nerve as the AC72s.

Which Pannell, who won today, evidently has. He grew up sailing as a kid, as did his crew, Craig Anderson. Neither of them can think of anyone who didn’t get into sailing as a child.

“A lot of people around the world think yachting is a well-heeled sport, but not in New Zealand,” he says. “There’s a reason that half those [America’s Cup] boats are full of Kiwis and Aussies. Go out and see the number of eight-year-olds in Optis in all kinds of weather here. A high number of people sailing at that age creates a deep pool of sailors in demand.”

“America’s Cup is about stretching the limits, but it starts here, when you’re eight years old,” he adds.

Eager to get out of the icy Antarctic wind, I enter the boat club where about 35 people are gathered at the bar, buzzing from adrenalin, barefoot and wet from spray or capsizes, gripping ginger beers and green bottles of Steinlager, the Budweiser of New Zealand. It’s a humble looking crowd — no flash gear or cashmere.

I’m introduced to Mike Rhodes, 26, wearing a blue sweatshirt and camo pants. He’d love to race an America’s Cup boat, but he also satisfies himself with a 12-foot skiff, which he stripped and rebuilt, fashioning the stainless steel fittings himself — he’s a sheet metal worker.

“New Zealand sailing is all about learning and moving forward,” he says. “The boats we’re sailing are always changing. We have set rules for weight, width, and length. After that it’s wide open. You can put up as much rig as you can handle. We went out in 50 knots last weekend. It was insane. We probably had boat speeds of 30 knots.”

The speed and innovations are what appeal to Rhodes and also connect to the America’s Cup, which has been an historic proving ground for leaps forward in boat design. “Who thought New Zealand could make the boat fly first?” he says of ETNZ’s proficiency at foiling the AC72 — going so fast the hull actually lifts off the water.

We’re soon joined by Laura Hutton, a 30-year-old from Cape Cod. She’s raced dinghies, coached and taught sailing for years. Now a speech therapist, she moved to New Zealand three months ago and immediately hooked into the local yachting scene. It’s palpably different than what she’s used to in the States. Here, she says, “It’s a lot more laid back. It’s more inclusive than exclusive. I used to go to events at New York Yacht Club in Newport and I felt so uncomfortable there. It’s the most elite, snobby place.”

“You can’t get coaching in the US unless you’re part of a yacht club or go to a school with a racing team,” she adds, and there’s often a huge cost to enter the sport. “Here, I can join the local yacht club for $35 a month,” she deadpans.

I spend more money riding the bus, I tell her, but I wouldn’t in San Francisco, where it’s cheap to catch a bus but where most people rarely board boats.

The American yacht club tradition has a certain “if you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it” attitude. Ellison is one of 300 members of Golden Gate Yacht Club, official host for the Cup. Its neighbor, St. Francis Yacht Club, 2,300 strong, also has a role in the festivities. Both are exclusive, members-only clubs and neither would tell me what their members pay for the club’s privileges.

However, they’re officially nonprofit organizations and filings with the IRS show St. Francis made nearly $13 million in 2011. Golden Gate Yacht Club took home $660,000 the same year. Ironically, both clubs are on public lands, leased from San Francisco’s Recreation and Parks Department for $231,125 and $64,000 annually respectively.

Both clubs run learn-to-sail programs for kids — $350 for St. Francis and $200 for GGYC — which seem affordable, but what’s the next step? Joining the club, but apparently it’s too rude to query the price.

By contrast, Wellington’s Evans Bay Boat Club charges NZ$281 (US$210) to join and Royal Port Nicholson Yacht Club, which is a sister club to St. Francis, costs NZ$160 (US $120). The Bay Area is lucky — Berkeley and Treasure Island both have affordable clubs, however one could argue that if St. Francis and GGYC are on public lands, they should be paying more in dues to the city.

If there’s a posh club in Auckland, it’s ETNZ’s home — the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron. “But it’s a Kiwi version of posh, nothing like some of the yacht clubs I have been to in places like England, where women aren’t allowed to order drinks at the bar,” says Ben Gladwell, a journalist for Boating New Zealand who will be racing an 18 foot skiff in San Francisco in a regatta concurrent with the Cup finals. “At the Squaddy, there are obviously rules, like no cell phones, and dress codes and such like, but the fees are still only a few hundred dollars per year and it is much more inclusive than other yacht clubs around the world.”

Gladwell explored the health of New Zealand’s sailing culture in a story called “State of the Racing Nation” for Boating New Zealand. He found that although there is a drop-off in interest during university years, many yacht clubs have created partnerships to keep kids in the sport, there are mobile learn-to-sail units roaming the country, and lots of accessible city-run programs for kids. Couple that with low lifetime fees to stay in the sport and you see healthy clubs like Evans Bay, where people of all ages are out racing every weekend, all year round.

“Having so many people involved in sailing is a major reason we are successful,” he says. “Children are introduced to it at such a young age…by the time they come to competing at youth international regattas, they are hugely experienced and winning becomes a habit.”

 

“AMERICA’S CUP IS NOW NEW ZEALAND’S CUP”

In 1995, when Black Magic smoked Dennis Connor’s Stars and Stripes in a five-race shut-out, commentator Peter Montgomery famously quipped “America’s Cup is now New Zealand’s cup,” a line that’s gone down in Kiwi history like the “I have a dream” speech.

For the first time, the Auld Mug would be defended in New Zealand. Back then, Auckland’s Viaduct Harbor probably looked a lot like parts of San Francisco’s waterfront does today — dilapidated piers and old industrial buildings crumbling on their pilings. It would cost of NZ$58 million (US$29 million at the time) to dredge the harbor and spruce up the waterfront for the Cup.

The city made its money back. Hosting for two years, in 2000 and 2003, brought NZ$1 billion (US$500 million, at the time) in economic benefits to the country, about 85 percent of that going to Auckland’s local businesses, mostly from visiting megayachts and the services required for the nine syndicates that competed — twice as many as are in San Francisco today.

And Auckland made a lot less than the US$900 million predicted for San Francisco, already trimmed from the US$1.4 billion initially estimated. What the city actually gains from the $22.5 million investment they’ve been forced to make remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Auckland continues to benefit from the race.

It’s been estimated that the four Cup contenders have collectively spent half a billion on their campaigns and a decent chunk of that has been in Auckland, particularly during the AC72 design, build, and testing phases. Already, taxes paid by ETNZ employees amount to NZ$22.4 million (US$16.5 million). That doesn’t include the employee payroll taxes of all the businesses doing Cup-related activity, like the boat builders, riggers, and sailmakers.

ETNZ CEO Grant Dalton has netted sponsorships from more than 100 companies and argues that the Cup efforts have kept many marine businesses afloat that would have otherwise shuttered. Kiwis have not been immune to the world financial situation: the high New Zealand dollar hurting exports and the NZ$30 billion (US$22.5 billion) price tag for the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake have stressed the country’s coffers.

Because of that, funding ETNZ has been as contentious here as hosting Ellison’s party has been to San Franciscans. The agreement was signed in 2007 by a Labour Party-led government and when National Party’s John Key won the Prime Minister’s seat in 2008, he looked into breaking the contract, a move supported by other parties. “Funding the America’s Cup is surely a ‘nice to have’, rather than essential spending, in the current economic climate,” said Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei at the time.

The government was advised they’d still be legally on the hook for the money if they broke the contract, so ETNZ proceeded, but proof of economic return was a contingency and Dalton has taken pains to keep the public good in the conversation, a sharp contrast to Ellison’s attitude toward San Francisco. Dalton has said if New Zealand wins, the world should expect a sharp scaling back of costs. “We stand for nationality rule and we stand for real budget numbers that real people can raise,” he has said.

There’s definitely a sense that this could be New Zealand’s last chance to bring the Auld Mug home. If they don’t, the America’s Cup also loses. Who else will save it from American-style exclusiveness?

Volume 47 Number 40 Flip-through Edition

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