Volume 47 Number 43

Volume 47 Number 43 Flip-through Edition

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Damaged goods

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emilysavage@sfbg.com

TOFU AND WHISKEY Jello Biafra could be your theatrical political science professor. The still-charismatic frontperson and song-composer has long spewed knowledge deep from the underbelly of political theater, from his influential early 1980s Bay Area punk band Dead Kennedys, and projects like the band Lard, through his nine dense spoken word albums, and up to his newest musical endeavor, louder than ever in his 50s, Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine.

That band, which also includes Victims Family guitarist Ralph Spight, plays the Uptown this weekend with D.I., the Divvys, and Gir-illa Biscuits — an excellent local Gorilla Biscuits tribute act (Fri/26, 9pm, $15. Uptown, 1928 Telegraph, Oakl. www.uptownnightclub.com.)

Given Biafra’s affinity for weaving news-worthy (though oft-overlooked) scandals into contextual lyrics, I have often wondered from where he gathered his news. “Why, the Bay Guardian, of course! Where would a local voter be without your fine rag?” Biafra tells me from his San Francisco home, while finishing up making a juice of apples and greens. Is he mocking me? “I just hope the new ownership and staff goes pedal to the metal to keep up the standard of muckraking and ethics. There’s so much corruption to dig up in this area.” No, his tone is just often sarcastic.

“Locally, we have you folks, among others. And then you know, the Nation, Progressive, Mother Jones, interesting things people send me in the mail, digitally or otherwise, putting two and two together — trying to write songs about stuff that no one else has. Or at least, not in the same way.”

He continues: “It’s just filling in the gaps with what’s interesting. I’m proud that no two of my music albums sound alike. Not even the Lard albums sound alike. From Dead Kennedys onward my mission as the main lyricist and composer of the damn tunes, I kind of stick to my punk core — whether I intend to or not, it’s just who and what I am —but widen the base of the pyramid to what you can do with that energy.”

Guantanamo School of Medicine’s White People and the Damage Done (Alternative Tentacles, 2013) is the group’s most recent album. A semi-concept album, Biafra says it’s about “grand theft austerity, and how unnecessary it is.”

He explains, “People have asked me…what I think is the biggest problem in the world today and they expect me to say something like ‘climate change’… or inequality, or war, or whatever. I say you know, there’s a worse one, it’s corruption. Because that is what’s blocking anything constructive from being done about all those other problems.”

The title track of White People and the Damage Done, a pounding, guitar-heavy, Dead Kennedys-esque song, explicitly points a finger toward attitudes of the higher-ups in the US and EU regarding countries run by people of color, and the need to step in and take control.

Anthemic single “Shock-U-Py!” has a chantable chorus, and moment-in-time impact. In it, Biafra howls “Wake up and smell the noise/We can’t take it any more/Corporate coup must go/We will Occupy/We will Shock-U-py.” The Occupy movement may have left the mainstream radar for now, but Biafra’s song commemorated the moment, much like he did in early career chants calling out yuppies and atrocities in places like Cambodia, in the early ’80s. His lyrics are typically both rooted in the present, and packed with historical references.

A fast-paced earlier released track (still with that Biafra-esque carnivalian breakdown), “Dot Com Holocaust,” recorded at the time of the The Audacity of Hype EP (AT, 2009), touched on problems more local to Biafra and this rag, of gentrification and a new class of tasteless techies coming in to the Bay. Dripping with satire, the song seemed to have touched a nerve when first released, and garnered scores of angry, faceless Internet comments.

“I had this funny feeling we weren’t done with the Dot Com Holocaust. Sure enough, now it’s more aggressive and obnoxious than ever. Dot Com Monte Carlo — that’s kind of what Willie Brown’s puppets are trying to turn this city into, yet again,” he says. “It has been really sad for me to see so many cool people and artists and service-workers and people of color just bulldozed out of this town to make room for more mini little yuppies who treat San Francisco as a suburb of Silly-clone Valley.” Yes, Biafra talks like he sings.

When we discuss newer bands, he notes many acts are fleeing SF for the East Bay, something bands across genre styles and influences have brought up with me during casual conversations and interviews.

“Now you don’t see people like me when I was 19, just moving out to San Francisco [from Boulder, Colo.], chasing a dream. There was a time when the vitality of the underground was maintained by entire bands moving here as a unit. Everybody from MDC and the Dicks to DRI and later, Zen Guerilla.”

But as an underground label owner (Alternative Tentacles) he knows times are tough for both bands and music fans, with a poisonous combination of the crashed economy and rampant file-sharing affecting all involved. “I wonder how many people save up money from their shitty jobs for years in order to make some really cool piece of music only to find that nobody actually gives anything back,” he says. “Maybe the solution for people who want to get their friends into really cool music, don’t just send them the whole album, pick some favorites and send them a little teaser package, a little file to inspire them to check out them more.”

For the complete Jello Biafra Q&A, see SFBG.com/Noise.

 

YASSOU BENEDICT

Counterpoint, there are still some bands and artist types heading way out west to San Francisco in these turbulent, high-priced times: Yassou Benedict. This band is not in the slightest akin to Biafra’s people, though it is a group of hopeful young dreamers.

The shoegazing dreampop four-piece formed at a small high school in Upstate New York. While most bands from the area would migrate south to New York City, Yassou Benedict made the “fairly random” decision to head to SF. “We all got into a Subaru Forrester with a Great Dane in the back and all our stuff in a trailer and drove across country,” says guitarist James Jackson, who traveled with singer-bassist Lilie Bytheway-Hoy, guitarist-keyboardist A.J. Krumholz, and drummer Patrick Aguirre.

Now in the Bay, they work as servers at Outerlands, a cook at Beauty Bagels and Wise Sons, a bartender at the Boxing Room, and a pizza-dealer at Lanesplitter Pizza and Pub.

But more importantly, the group of 20-somethings recently released its debut EP, In Fits in Dreams, a moody, complex, emotionally fraught record that leaves the listener itching for a full-length, and touches on themes of “anxiety, and wanting to be weightless, the desire to run through wide open spaces.” The album release party was actually a few weeks back, but you can catch the band this week at Milk Bar with Beautiful Machines, Hotel Eden, and NVO (Fri/26, 8:30pm, $10. Milk Bar, 1840 Haight, SF. www.milksf.com).

Led by Bytheway-Hoy’s dramatic, high-ranging vocals, and unconventional song structures (like shifting time signatures) In Fits in Dreams also features guest vocals by Hole’s Melissa Auf Der Maur on track “Cloisters.”

The subtle beats and rolling vocals of “Cloisters” feels like a doomed march toward the unknown, while closer “Last Cicada” ventures more into Radiohead In Rainbows territory (the band has been known to cover “Jigsaw Falling Into Place”). There’s also the church-like pop hymn of “Back Roads that Dead End,” which begins as an anxious vocal solo with faraway chimes, the beats and guitars slowing filtering in.

It’s surely been noted elsewhere on the blogosphere, but there’s something strangely seductive within Yassou Benedict, which I mention to Jackson. “I am not sure why that is. If we are making people feel, whether it is the desire to make love, or children or anything else, than we are succeeding. It is kind of strange though. Our music is fairly depressing. Now I’m just imaging people holding each other and crying while they listen. Lilie’s voice probably has a lot to do with that.” Bytheway-Hoy’s voice is indeed both haunting and captivating.

There’s also a cinematic quality to In Fits in Dreams, likely driven by that high emotional tug. Given the soundtrack capabilities, I asked Jackson what type of film would best be suited to Yassou Benedict and he picked a future Wes Anderson film, also noting that a dream opening slot would be an imaginary Radiohead show in an intimate venue (no arenas!).

While the record was recorded and produced back in Hudson, NY (with Steve Durand at Dioramaland Studios), the band is touring on it from its new homebase in the Bay.

 

Soul-savers

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arts@sfbg.com

MUSIC “That’s it, I’m done. In love.” This is what Erykah Badu had to say, late last year, upon discovering Hiatus Kaiyote: an unsigned “future soul” ensemble from Melbourne, Australia, with a Bandcamp page, a single EP to its name, no marketing budget, and everything to prove.

Now, less than a year later, the band has found itself reissuing its self-released debut LP via Sony (with a newly added guest spot from Q-Tip, no less) and co-headlining a highly anticipated bill with D’Angelo and Badu herself, in Detroit later this summer.

This Sunday, Hiatus Kaiyote will grace the Independent, in its first ever SF appearance, with local R&B powerhouse, the Seshen, featured in the opening slot.

So, how does an unassuming four-piece band, from halfway across the world, find itself on the radar of America’s neo-soul elite?

The answer to that question lies almost entirely in the strength of Tawk Tomahawk: Hiatus Kaiyote’s inaugural statement as a group, which rips through its 30-minute runtime with incendiary force, and a mind-boggling flair for invention and appropriation.

West African polyrhythms intermingle with sludgy, offbeat grooves á la J Dilla. And 1970s electric piano-washes bounce off harsher, synth textures resembling IDM and the LA beat scene as led by Flying Lotus. All the while, the production sound switches between clean lushness, and uncompromising rawness, at the drop of a hat.

Hiatus Kaiyote might identify as a “future soul” ensemble, and Nai Palm’s impassioned, show-stopping vocals surely establish a strong R&B foundation, but in the end, Tawk Tomahawk sounds less like a soul LP than an unfiltered rush of creative energy, heaping countless ideas and influences into an ecstatic vision of musical possibility.

This anything-goes approach is largely the result of all four members’ divergent musical backgrounds, and the varying influences they bring to the table. Vocalist and guitarist Nai Palm is the band’s principal songwriter, whose intricately layered, shapeshifting compositions move with Jeff Buckley-esque vertigo.

Drummer Perrin Moss is an accomplished MC, whose hip-hop background is evident in the lumbering chug of his grooves, often recalling Questlove’s work on D’Angelo’s Voodoo.

Bassist Paul Bender, a former student of University of Miami’s jazz program, lays down basslines as intricately fingerpicked as they are viciously slapped and primally funky.

Keyboardist Simon Mavin has found himself inhabiting a range of scenes, from Latin, to soul, to dub-reggae, which comes through in the lush, diversely textured tonal layering he brings to Hiatus Kaiyote’s sound.

“I think if you listen to our music enough, you sort of start to realize that it’s not just a soul band, or a jazz band… Our influences are pretty vast,” Mavin told the Guardian via Skype, from a hotel room in Mulhouse, France, the night before an eagerly anticipated appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. “We’re all in it because we want to be creatively intense, and stimulate each other through our ideas.”

This potency of ideas, and resistance to categorization, is likely what caught the ear of BBC’s tastemaker-in-chief Gilles Peterson, the famed radio DJ and musical ambassador who first brought Hiatus Kaiyote’s sound to international attention.

Not long after, the Twittersphere went abuzz; when everyone from Badu to the Roots’ indispensable Questlove began singing its praises, Palm, Mavin, Bender, and Moss were vindicated (in small circles, anyway) as saviors of soul music, transitioning it from a largely revivalist, wheel-spinning art-form, into a musical attitude with the ability to transcend genres as freely as it consumes them.

After its first American tour this spring, (including stops at SXSW and Questlove’s big-deal club night at Brooklyn Bowl), Hiatus Kaiyote signed a contract with Flying Buddha records, a subsidiary of Sony, which re-released Tawk Tomahawk last week, featuring a guest spot from A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip added to their breakthrough track, “Nakamarra.” A sophomore LP is in the works as well; however, the band doesn’t plan on significantly altering its homegrown, independent recording process.

“Sonically, the reason we signed this record deal is because it enables us 100 percent creative freedom, even down to the point of mixing it,” Palm explained. “So, we’re gonna be recording it in our own setup… same home studio vibe.”

The magic of Hiatus Kaiyote can be found in this balance between the otherworldly thrust of its music, and its insistence on this humble, DIY approach to songcraft. By rejecting the interference of producers, engineers, and other outside forces, Palm, Mavin, Bender, and Moss have generated a sound that bears the single-minded vision of a great auteur, yet with the richness of ideas allowed by the collaboration of harmonious minds.

If Hiatus Kaiyote’s ascent continues, Erykah Badu could end up with some serious competition atop the soul pyramid.

HIATUS KAIYOTE

With the Seshen, Bells Atlas

Sun/28, 9pm, $22

Independent

628 Divisadero, SF

(415) 771-1421

www.theindependentsf.com

 

The truth hurts

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cheryl@sfbg.com

SAN FRANCISCO JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL The 33rd San Francisco Jewish Film Festival broadens its scope this year with a theme — “Life Through a Jew(ish) Lens” — that allows it to encompass a wide spectrum of films. Though plenty of SFJFF’s programs do specifically address Jewish religion and culture, some of the films I watched were only tangentially “Jew(ish)” — as in, they simply happened to be made by a Jewish filmmaker. For fans of quality programming, however, that’s a moot point: SFJFF 2013 is a solid if eclectic festival, with a typically strong showing of documentaries well worth seeking out.

Previously seen locally at the San Francisco International Film Festival, Martha Shane and Lana Wilson’s After Tiller is as timely as ever, with the advent of increasingly restrictive abortion legislation in states like Texas and North Carolina. This doc focuses on the four (yes, only four) doctors in America who are able to perform late-term abortions — all colleagues of Dr. George Tiller, assassinated in 2009 by a militant anti-abortionist.

The film highlights the struggles of what’s inherently a deeply difficult job; even without sign-toting (and possibly gun-toting) protestors lurking outside their offices, and ever-shifting laws dictating the legality of their practices, the situations the doctors confront on a daily basis are harrowing. We sit in as couples make the painful decision to abort babies with “horrific fetal abnormalities;” a rape victim feels guilt and relief after terminating a most unwanted pregnancy; a 16-year-old Catholic girl in no position to raise a child worries that her decision to abort will haunt her forever; and a European woman who decides she can’t handle another kid tries to buy her way into the procedure. The patients’ faces aren’t shown, but the doctors allow full access to their lives and emotions — heavy stuff.

Similarly devastating is Brave Miss World, Cecilia Peck’s portrait of Israeli activist Linor Abargil, who survived a violent rape just weeks before she won the Miss World pageant in 1998. As Linor travels around the world on her mission to help others heal from their own sexual assaults, it becomes clear that she still has some lingering issues of her own to deal with. Taking action — working tirelessly to keep her rapist in prison; making a painful return trip to Milan, where the attack happened — only brings a certain amount of closure. Her emotional fragility manifests itself in a newfound embrace of religion (much to the confusion of her largely secular family, fiancé, and gay best friend), which is somewhat at odds with Brave Miss World‘s female-empowerment message. Still, though it gets a bit documentary-as-therapy, Brave Miss World offers a compelling look at one woman’s determined quest to help others who’ve suffered similar traumas — urging them, through sheer force of personality, to speak out and become activists themselves.

More cinematic therapy is offered up by the structurally similar Here One Day and My Father and the Man in Black. In both of these first-person docs, the filmmaker remembers a parent who committed suicide, making extensive use (in both cases) of remarkably candid audio and written diaries that were left behind. In Here One Day, Kathy Leichter delves into her troubled mother’s manic depression as she cleans out the closets of the New York City apartment where she grew up — and where her own young family now resides. Even more fraught with meaning than her mother’s physical leftovers — a mix of both meaningful (her writings and recordings) and pack-ratty (a trash-scavenged Marie Antoinette bust, a Coca-Cola memorabilia collection) — is the window where she leapt to her death in 1995. Leichter’s father, longtime New York State Senator Franz Leichter, is among the family members who speak openly about the event.

Filmmaker Jonathan Holiff’s My Father and the Man in Black is no less personal, but it offers slightly broader appeal, weaving the tale of Holiff’s father, Saul Holiff, and his stint as Johnny Cash’s manager from 1960-73. Holiff’s association with Cash coincided with the musician’s At Folsom Prison triumph, but also with the height of his raging drug problem; the beleaguered Holiff spent much of his time doing damage control in the wake of cancelled (or should-have-been cancelled) concerts. Parenting wasn’t a high priority, the younger Holiff recalls, but once the filmmaker discovers his father’s memoir and memorabilia-stuffed storage locker, he’s able to piece together the man behind the anger (and the drinking problem). The film relies perhaps too heavily on re-enactments (that, in turn, are heavily inspired by 2005’s Walk the Line), but it offers a not-often-seen perspective on show biz’s darker aspects, as witnessed by a man tasked with managing a superstar whose addictions often threatened to overtake his talent.

Beyond parental angst, another favorite theme among SFJFF doc-makers is race. Paul Saltzman builds off an incident in his own life for The Last White Knight, an insightful but at-times difficult to watch film anchored by an interview with Delay De La Beckwith, aging racist. (His father, the late Byron De La Beckwith, was finally convicted in 1997 of killing civil rights leader Medgar Evers in 1963.) Saltzman and the younger Beckwith, who are around the same age, first met in 1965: one, an idealistic student who traveled to Mississippi to help register African American voters; the other, a proud KKK member who punched Saltzman in the face because he didn’t care much for meddling outsiders. Welcome to the South!

Using animation, interviews with other civil rights activists (including Harry Belafonte and Morgan Freeman — though the latter insists “I don’t talk race”), and personal reflections, The Last White Knight strives to explore the current state of race in America. At its heart, though, it’s about the two men who form a surprising friendship of sorts, despite their combative past. It’s unclear, after all these years, if Beckwith is truly a chuckling specter of evil (“Got what they deserved,” he drawls when asked about the 1964 murders of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner), or a simple-minded man who thinks nothing of saying “Obama is a direct descendent of the devil” — and, while smiling and chatting with a man he knows is Jewish, “Jews control all the money and the media.” Jaw-dropping doesn’t begin to cover it, but Saltzman remains admirably composed throughout.

Race also factors, inevitably, into The Trials of Muhammad Ali, Bill Siegel’s lively investigation of the boxing champ’s Nation of Islam conversion, name change, and refusal to fight in Vietnam. If you’ve seen an Ali doc before (or even the 2001 biopic), a lot of the footage and material will feel familiar. But Trials, which offers interviews with Louis Farrakhan and Ali’s former wife Khalilah, among others, does well to narrow its focus onto one specific — albeit complicated and controversial — aspect of Ali’s life.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=99HMxN94bEc

Contemporary civil rights struggles factor heavily in Dawn Porter’s Gideon’s Army (first screened here at DocFest), about a trio of public defenders struggling with daunting work loads (one women has 180 clients at a time) and a system seemingly rigged against low-income defendants, many of whom plead guilty, whether or not they actually are, because they simply have no other options. Like After Tiller, it’s a doc that offers a sobering, eye-opening look at a job you wouldn’t want — yet makes you glad that those who do it are such steadfast characters.

And if all that sounds too intense, take note of these two films: Mehrnaz Saeedvafa’s Jerry and Me, in which the filmmaker and teacher reflects on Hollywood’s influence on her pre-revolutionary Tehran youth (including her love of Jerry Lewis; if you’ve ever wanted to see clips of 1960’s Cinderfella dubbed in Persian, this is your chance); and Amy Winehouse: The Day She Came to Dingle, a made-for-Irish-TV concert film that spotlights the singer in 2006, before her slide into addiction derailed her career and ended her life. Here, her voice sounds stunning as she croons her hits in a tiny, 200-year-old church; she’s also sweetly jazzed to discuss her influences (dig her story of hearing Ray Charles for the first time) in an accompanying sit-down interview that reveals how endearing and intelligent she could be. *

SAN FRANCISCO JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL

July 25-Aug 12, most shows $12

Various venues in SF, Berk, Oakl, San Rafael, and Palo Alto

www.sfjff.org

 

The death aquatic

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cheryl@sfbg.com

FILM The 911 call placed from SeaWorld Orlando on February 24, 2010 imparted a uniquely horrific emergency: “A whale has eaten one of the trainers.” That revelation opens Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish, a powerful doc that puts forth a compelling argument against keeping orcas in captivity, much less making them do choreographed tricks in front of tourists at Shamu Stadium.

Whale experts, former SeaWorld employees, and civilian eyewitnesses step forward to illuminate an industry that seemingly places a higher value on profits than on safety — skewed priorities that made headlines after veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed by Tilikum, a massive bull who’d been involved in two prior deaths. (Though SeaWorld refused to speak with Cowperthwaite on camera, they recently released a statement calling Blackfish “shamefully dishonest, deliberately misleading, and scientifically inaccurate;” read the filmmaker’s response to SeaWorld’s criticisms at film blog Indiewire.) Blackfish, which premiered locally at the San Francisco International Film Festival, opens theatrically this week. I spoke with Cowperthwaite ahead of its release.

SF Bay Guardian Blackfish uses home-movie footage to illustrate training accidents, whale misbehavior, and so forth. I’m guessing a company as image-conscious as SeaWorld would strive to keep that kind of material out of the public eye. How did you get ahold of it?

Gabriela Cowperthwaite It came from every source imaginable: personal archives, historical archives, people who happened to be filming shows when they were visitors at the park. We had to vet every piece of footage, figure out the original owner, and go from there. It was the most time-consuming process imaginable — but we really needed to be inside the park to tell the story, so we had no choice but to really do the detective work to find out where every little bit came from.

SFBG Did you do any of your own clandestine filming at SeaWorld?

GC We kind of had to. I had to “meet” Tilikum, you know? Whatever we could do to get footage that could truthfully represent the story, we did.

SFBG The film interviews several former SeaWorld trainers who seem eager to speak out against the park. How did you find them?

GC When they heard how SeaWorld responded to Dawn Brancheau’s death in the news, they knew something was amiss and they began speaking out. In terms of them being comfortable [with being in] the film, they had spoken to author Tim Zimmerman [for the] Outside magazine article “Killer in the Pool,” and had felt a level of comfort with him. His article was one of the best articles I read about the Brancheau case. So from that, I was able to contact them. Their only caveat was that the film [would have to] be truthful, and I told them I planned to do a fact-based narrative that wasn’t sensationalized or gratuitous. Because we saw eye to eye on that approach, they agreed to be interviewed.

SFBG Blackfish highlights the disconnect between SeaWorld’s version of Brancheau’s death and what the trainers suspect actually happened. Their analysis of the video shot in the moments leading up to the attack is very effective.

GC It’s exactly what you want to know because you can’t understand what’s happening. The lay viewer sees a whale circling a pool; there’s nothing other than, “Isn’t this a cute trick?” Audience members at these shows are trained just as much as the whales are, to respond and laugh and clap on cue. And yet, to have a trainer say, “Oh no, this session is going badly” — that was so eye opening for me, and I could only learn that from these former trainers.

SFBG What do you think would be the best-case scenario for whales in captivity, going forward?

GC If SeaWorld were to stop its breeding program, that would be hugely important. And one of the best alternatives [for whales in the park] is instituting a sea pen, which is essentially cordoning off part of an ocean cove with a big net. You can’t just dump [the whales] into the ocean because they don’t know how to eat live fish, and a lot of them are hopped up on antibiotics. But you could soft-release them and keep them in a place where you could monitor their health, and yet allow them to be in an ocean environment. That would be an amazing thing that SeaWorld could do.

SFBG You mentioned that you had gone to see Tilikum in person. What was that like?

GC I was terrified of Tilikum when I first started making the documentary — I think because I’d read [Brancheau’s] autopsy report early on, and it was the stuff of nightmares. But when I started unpacking his life to try and understand [him], I started feeling this empathy. It culminated with me seeing him and truly feeling sorry for this tremendous, impossible animal — relegated to doing this silly lap around the pool and splashing everybody, and then going right back into his little pool.

SFBG And SeaWorld doesn’t acknowledge that it’s the whale that killed the trainer, of course.

GC Oh no. Absolutely not. They just don’t talk about it. And remember, they call everything Shamu. That’s the easiest way not to have to deal with the Tilikum factor.

BLACKFISH opens Fri/26 in Bay Area theaters.

The ascendants

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arts@sfbg.com

DANCE Though only in its fourth season, Robert Dekkers’ Post:Ballet has already gained an enthusiastic, impressively large following that has allowed the company to move from the Cowell to the Herbst to this year’s Lam Research Theater at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. It’s easy to see the reason for Dekkers’ success.

While his dance making is clearly ballet-based, his works have an expansive sense of freedom that makes them welcoming and easy on the eye. By choosing to perform in the summer when other companies are on break, he can also work with highly trained professionals otherwise unavailable to a small (ten-person) ensemble like his. This year they came from Houston Ballet and Ballet Arizona, as well as the local Smuin Ballet, Alonzo King LINES Ballet, and Company C Contemporary Ballet.

Perhaps most intriguing is the ease with which Dekkers’ choreography embraces the ground and the air as one liquid continuum. His dancers crawl, slither, and slide along the floor like billowing smoke — and then rise into space as if born to it.

The world premiere for seven dancers, field the present shifts, is probably Dekkers’ most ambitious piece yet. It is a problematic work. A collaboration with architects Robert Gilson and Catherine Caldwell and a commissioned score, performed live by Matthew Pierce, it also features gorgeous magenta body-hugging costumes by Christine Darch, and a richly varied lighting design by David Robertson.

According to the program notes, field examines complex relationships. Within a given set of parameters, the piece also allows for individual decision-making by everyone involved. It added up to a lot of in-the-moment choices by a lot of people, and the results did not convince.

Visually, however, field was a feast for the senses. The dancers flew at each other like arrows, bunched up into swaying unisons as if buffeted by some gale force wind. They gathered on individual squares of light, responded to each other across the stage, and seemed to walk on water. They rolled into somersaults and carefully explored and yanked at each other. What I missed was an encompassing frame that held these individual units together. Also, a sense of uncertainty marred some the canons and unisons.

The two designers came up with what looked like huge sheaves of wheat hung upside down; at one point, they were lowered, presumably for the dancers to interact with. Few of them did. So what was the point? The distinct character of each of the ten or so sections of Pierce’s score for five violins, however, was a pleasure to hear.

The evening opened with the reworked Colouring II from 2011, danced with great authority by Ashley Flaner and Domenico Luciano. The piece traced the making of a pas de deux, developing at the same time as Enrico Quintero’s creation of a large, calligraphy-inspired painting. The dancers, approaching each other from opposite sides, added another gesture with each encounter, suggesting an almost filmic sense of accumulation. Daniel Berkman’s score, performed live, contributed his own voice to this intriguing process. This was watching visual and kinetic art in the making, and it was a delight. However, Dekkers standing on the sidelines, cueing the process, seemed intrusive. He should have trusted his artists.

Sixes and Seven, also from 2011, is a solo, here danced delicately yet firmly by Jessica Collado. This was richly varied choreography in which the dancer made full use of her body, including an excellent use of gestural language. At times, Collado appeared to withdraw into herself, but she also reacted to invisible external forces that impinged on her. You got a sense that she was living in a rich world. If the use of an excerpt from Philip Glass’s Einstein at the Beach meant to suggest some kind of cosmic existence, the choice was perfect.

Last year’s When in Doubt ended awkwardly in a wobbly pyramid, and used a distracting word-and-sound score by Jacob Wolkenhauer. But Dekkers showed considerable choreographic chops in the way he used his septet of dancers both in unisons and in smaller units. With the women on pointe walking in plié, and Robertson’s stark lighting that pulled the dancers across the stage with a quasi magnetic force, When began to feel ominous. This was even true for the two very different duets for Raychel Weiner and Christian Squire, and Collado and Jane Hope Rehm.

Dressing the women in black leotards and the topless men in black tights was inspired because the dancers could almost disappear into each other. The women were dark from the waist up, the men from the waist down. The color scheme abstracted personal interactions and sequences into two-dimensional patterns — thus foregoing overly eager tendencies to read narrative intentions into Dekkers’ choreography. *

 

Phone home

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culture@sfbg.com

COCKTAIL HOUR I’m not sure whether it was completely unintended, but after my night at new SoMa gastropub the Willows, one thing was clear: I need to call my mother.

A sister bar to the Mission’s Sycamore, the Willows opened a few weeks ago on the corner of Folsom and 12th, in one of those cursed spots that’s seen a lot of turnover ever since Hamburger Mary’s decamped a decade ago. (Here’s hoping the Willows breaks the curse and settles in.) It’s walking distance from my job, and at 6pm I had a serious case of the Mondays and was ready to drink.

The place is divided into two parts: a main bar room and a smaller, cozier room dedicated to serving craft beers. The main room is huge with large windows letting in lots of natural light. There were couples sitting at tables doing whatever couples do, people playing pool near the door, and arcade games in the back of the bar. Just a nice open space.

As befits the Willows’ arboreal name, the craft beer room has wooden walls and a few wooden tables out in the open, with a couple of intimate booths as well. Relieved by the emptiness, I took a seat in the smaller room and ordered a malt beer. I chatted with the bartender — a friendly young man who looked like a lost member of Vampire Weekend — and waited for my friends to arrive.

When they showed up, we all dove into the menu. This is when you get a bit of nostalgia for home. The food menu takes you right back to your childhood: burgers, roast beef, sloppy Joes (“Just like Mom’s” was the caption on the menu), and the aptly titled “Mom’s Meatloaf.” Just reading it makes you feel like a kid waiting anxiously at the dinner table. Unfortunately, we weren’t too hungry at the time. But we decided to order the pork-belly donuts anyway. I mean, how could you not?

They were delicious. And then came the drinks. Most of the cocktail menu consists of traditional classics with a tiny twist — but I think what we enjoyed most was the menu itself. Filled with fun names (Oh, Trisha!, Mom’s Mai Tai, Donkey Show) and captions (“A distinctive drink for a discerning drinker” for the 007 Perfect Martini), we had a blast reading it. There was even had a drink called Fuck You, Grandpa!, which is something my mom would totally say.

My buds and I all ordered a couple each. They were pretty good for the most part, but the hands-down winner was the Willows’ version of a sidecar. At $12, it was the most expensive drink on the menu and worth every penny — and having ordered about four, there were a lot of pennies. When ordering the last of these, the bartender told me rather candidly that she hadn’t memorized the bar’s recipe yet.

“This is just how my mom likes it,” she shrugged. I should have asked if her mom was a bartender.

So, to recap: The Willows may not be the place to take your mom — but if you want to feel right at home, here you go.

THE WILLOWS 1582 Folsom, SF. (415) 529-2039, www.thewillowssf.com

 

New Guardian leadership wants your input

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San Francisco Print Media Company last week named Marke Bieschke as publisher and Steven T. Jones as editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, elevating two longtime Guardianistas into the top spots, guaranteeing them editorial autonomy, and letting them work with the community to chart its future.

As a first step in that process, the Guardian will hold a public forum on July 31 from 6-8pm in the LGBT Center, 1800 Market Street, to solicit input and discuss the Guardian’s unique role in the Bay Area’s political and journalistic landscape. Helping to coordinate the forum is Guardian writer Rebecca Bowe, who has accepted the position of news editor. The forum and subsequent discussions will form the basis for a strategic plan that will help guide the Guardian into a new era.

The newspaper’s future was uncertain a month ago following the abrupt departure of longtime Guardian Editor-Publisher Tim Redmond in a dispute with the owners over layoffs and the Guardian’s autonomy. The company’s Vice President of Editorial Operations Stephen Buel, who is also editor of the San Francisco Examiner, was named interim Guardian publisher and Bieschke its interim editor.

Heeding concerns in the community about whether the Guardian would remain an independent, progressive voice in San Francisco, Bieschke and Jones negotiated terms with SF Print Media Company CEO Todd Vogt that guarantee them full editorial control, the addition of three new advertising sales positions and another staff writer, and guaranteed minimum staffing levels during a rebuilding period.

Bieschke and Jones, who are in their early 40s and have been with the Guardian for around 10 years each, say they are excited for the opportunity to work collaboratively with Guardian staff and its community to rejuvenate the paper, attract new readers, and achieve economic sustainability.

“Losing Tim’s leadership was hard on all of us at the Guardian, and we struggled with what to do next. But ultimately, the Guardian plays such an important role in San Francisco — particularly now, at a pivotal moment for this gentrifying city and its progressive movement — that we wanted to find a way to keep that voice alive, maintain our credibility, and reach out to a new generation of Bay Area residents,” Jones said.

The San Francisco Bay Guardian was founded in 1966 by Jean Dibble and Bruce B. Brugmann, who continues to blog and serve as editor-at-large for the Guardian. The couple retired from regular duties when the financially troubled paper was sold to Canadian investors headed by Vogt in the spring of 2012, a deal engineered by Redmond, whose writing is always welcome in the pages of the Guardian as he pursues a new media venture.

“I’m stoked to bring a different energy and openness to innovation to the Guardian, while respecting our legacy and strengthening our bonds with the progressive, alternative community,” Bieschke said. “Obviously, Steve Jones and I stand on the shoulders of giants, and we’re so grateful to our Guardian family, past and present, for blazing a trail for world class progressive journalism, arts and culture coverage, and community-building in the Bay Area. In that spirit, I’m eager to reconnect with our readers and partner with them to amplify the Guardian voice and continue to change the Bay Area for the better.”

Vogt said he’s excited by the prospects of new generation of Guardian leadership: “I’m happy about this. I think it’s appropriate that two recognized leaders in the progressive community are in charge of the Guardian and I look forward to seeing what they do with it.”

Years of cutbacks have distilled the Guardian newsroom down to just a few excellent journalists, but all say they’re excited for the chance to rejuvenate the paper, build its readership and revenues, and work more closely with the community.

“We all hope you’ll help us to guard San Francisco’s values, appreciating all of its best cultural, artistic, and culinary offerings in the process,” Jones said. “We love the San Francisco Bay Area, in all its messy urban glory, and we think it’s worth fighting for.”

New director triggers a brain drain at SFDPH

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The San Francisco Department of Public Health has seen an exodus of top officials over the 18 months since Barbara Garcia took the reins from longtime chief Mitch Katz, the most recent being Environmental Health Director Dr. Rajiv Bhatia, who was placed on administrative leave last month pending an investigation into unspecified concerns.

Bhatia has been a hero to many progressive San Franciscans and public health professionals for his innovative work supporting expanded worker protections, regulation of cannabis dispensaries and restaurants, environmental justice initiatives, and other work that has landed him in the pages of the Guardian many, many times.

“The poorest Americans are about two times as likely to die. People in low-wage jobs have less access to health care … food, shelter, clothing, and transit,” Bhatia testified during the 2002 Board of Supervisors hearing that led to the creation of a city minimum wage.

Neither Bhatia nor the department would comment on his leave, although sources tell us that he has not been informed of the charges against him (which an item in the Chronicle last month suggested was a possible conflict of interest issue relating to his regulation of restaurants) and that Garcia has clashed with many top officials in the department since taking over.

Among those who have left the department are Dr. Susan Fernyak, Director of Communicable Disease Prevention and Control; Dr. Masae Kawamura, Director of TB Control; Dr. Grant Colfax, Director of HIV Prevention; Elizabeth Jacobi, Director of Human Resources; Tangerine Brigham, Director of Healthy San Francisco; Mark Trotz, Director of Housing and Urban Health; and Dr. Erica Pan, Director of Emergency Preparedness.

“SFDPH has a national and worldwide reputation for innovative solutions to traditional public health problems. As a citizen of this city, I’m concerned that the current leadership is fostering an environment that is driving out and stifling that innovation to the detriment of all of us. A number of staff people have told me they have been instructed not to stretch themselves to innovate, to do only what their job description says and no more,” said the source, who works for a nonprofit that partners with the department.

Asked to comment on the exodus and her role in it, Garcia issued the following statement in response to questions from the Guardian: “Three staff that reported to me directly were recruited and provided promotions in the Los Angeles Department of Health Services. I’m very proud of these staff who are now involved with Health Care Reform efforts for the Los Angeles area. Several other staff that reported to our Public Health Division left for positions that were closer to home and the majority of these departures were promotions. All staff left in good standing with the San Francisco Department of Public Health.”

Meanwhile, 93 “members of the public health, social and environmental justice, foundation and education communities” wrote a signed letter to Mayor Ed Lee on July 10 on behalf of Dr. Bhatia, highlighting his work and appealing for a just resolution to the situation.

“Many across the nation have been grappling with how to improve the social and environmental conditions that are the cause of poor health and health inequities. Under Dr. Bhatia’s leadership, the San Francisco Department of Public Health Environmental Health Section has found practical ways — using research, policy, regulation, and cross-sector collaboration — to produce measurable improvements to environmental and social conditions throughout San Francisco’s diverse communities,” they wrote.

While writing that they “have no knowledge or commentary on the details of the leave or investigations, they went on to note the initiative that Bhatia has shown in going beyond his prescribed duties to work with various San Francisco constituencies to support equitable solutions to this city’s problems: “He takes his responsibilities as a public servant seriously, working well beyond required hours, and he is committed to improving the life-chances of socially, economically, and politically marginalized communities.”

After Oscar, after Trayvon…

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rebecca@sfbg.com

Even before Cephus “Uncle Bobby” Johnson picked up the phone on Feb. 27, 2012, he wasn’t having an easy day. His nephew, Oscar Grant, would have celebrated his 26th birthday on that date if he had not been killed by a gunshot wound on Jan. 1, 2009.

Grant was shot by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle while lying face down on a train platform, an incident that was caught on film, prompted riots in Oakland, drew international scrutiny, and became the subject of the award-winning film Fruitvale Station by Oakland filmmaker Ryan Coogler.

In the years since Grant’s death, Johnson and his wife, Beatrice X, founded the Oscar Grant Foundation to develop a support network for families who’ve lost loved ones due to police violence. It was his involvement in this work that led Johnson to be contacted that day, and informed that a 17-year-old boy named Trayvon Martin had been gunned down in Florida one day earlier.

It wasn’t a police shooting but nevertheless, “We knew at this point that we had to go to Florida,” Johnson recalled. “What we’ve decided is that whenever a family experienced that, we would definitely try and get to them.”

Fast forward to July 13, almost exactly three years after violent protests erupted in Oakland following the news that Mehserle, who was charged with second degree murder, had been convicted of involuntary manslaughter instead. A new wave of demonstrations flared up as word spread that George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who killed Martin, had been acquitted.

“We weren’t surprised,” Johnson, who returned to Florida last month to observe the jury selection process for Zimmerman’s trial, told the Guardian. “But it was still painful.”

The verdict in this high-profile case has brought discussions about racial profiling and unequal treatment in the criminal justice system to the forefront. Even President Barack Obama touched on the theme in comments to White House reporters on July 19, saying, “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”

At the national level, new findings on “implicit bias” — unconscious prejudices that research in psychology has shown can persist in individuals (including poorly trained police officers), even if they consciously reject racial stereotypes — has started to inform policy debates around racial profiling.

“Policy needs to recognize that implicit bias exists,” Maya Wiley, founder and president of the New York City-based Center for Social Inclusion, told us. “Rep. John Conyers introduced a bill last year to prohibit racial profiling in law enforcement. That bill, if made law, would collect data on stops by race, as well as provide resources for training. That is a step in the right direction.”

But things get complicated, Wiley says, because “research shows that people of color, women, the elderly, may all experience discrimination as a result of implicit bias. There is no remedy in the law for this. … I think what is important now is to fight Stand Your Ground Laws which empower people to act on their implicit biases.”

At a July 16 rally held on the steps of San Francisco City Hall, Rev. Malcolm Byrd, pastor of San Francisco’s First A.M.E. Zion Church, illustrated his point about racial profiling by donning a hoodie and sneakers at the rally.

“I wanted to come looking suspicious,” he explained. “I wanted to give you an image that America has of young black men. I look suspicious. This is my country. I love my country. Yet, I look suspicious.”

Last year, Mayor Ed Lee’s proposal to introduce a stop-and-frisk policy, which would have allowed police officers to randomly stop individuals who appeared to be suspicious in an effort to get weapons off the streets, was abandoned in the face of widespread community concern.

Officers who undergo training at the San Francisco Police Department Academy must complete 52 hours of “cultural diversity” training, according to SFPD spokesperson Sgt. Dennis Toomer, which includes a mandatory four-hour intensive geared toward preventing racial profiling. State law mandates just 16 hours for such training for law enforcement agencies, Toomer told us.

But despite supplemental police training and the efforts of grassroots organizations that carefully monitor police activity, the Bay Area has witnessed a number of fatal shootings at the hands of police since Grant’s death, and many draw a link between these cases and the broader issue of racial profiling.

When asked about the outreach efforts of the Oscar Grant Foundation, Johnson began to rattle off a long list of names — mostly young black men, from places ranging from Oakland to Vallejo to Stockton to San Leandro — who were killed by police, and whose families his organization has reached out to.

They have also been in touch with several families in New York City who lost loved ones in similar situations, Johnson said. In many cases, the individuals were killed despite being unarmed, and officers later explained their actions by saying they’d mistakenly believed the shooting victims had firearms.

After several years of taking an up-close look at the investigative and legal proceedings that unfold in the aftermath of officer-involved shootings, Johnson has reached the conclusion that from case to case, “The playbook is pretty much the same. The officer first alleges he felt threatened — it’s all about the thought process of the officer. It’s always found to be justifiable because the officer feared for his life.”

One long-term goal of the Oscar Grant Foundation is to build up a coalition that can mount a meaningful challenge to the California Peace Officers Bill of Rights, a law enacted some 30 years ago that affords special protections for law enforcement officers facing misconduct charges. Johnson and others are critical of provisions such as officers’ rights to keep confidential information out of their personnel files, which can prevent significant information from being disclosed during a criminal trial. Meanwhile, others throughout the Bay Area seem primed to push for change in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict. “On Sunday, every black church in the nation was talking about what? Trayvon Martin, and what we need to do,” Andrea Shorter, a member of the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women, said during the July 16 rally. “Two weeks ago, and we were all standing here as San Franciscans to rejoice … because we knew that LGBT people could be treated as first class citizens. The job is not done.” San Francisco NAACP President Rev. Amos Brown, who organized the rally, vowed that his organization “will push for a civil suit to bring this Zimmerman gentlemen to justice.” The national NAACP is petitioning U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to open a civil rights case against Zimmerman. Sups. London Breed, Malia Cohen, Jane Kim, and David Campos also delivered speeches at the rally. “For the first time in my life, after growing up and going to funeral after funeral after funeral after funeral, of all boys and black men throughout my life, I see people in this audience who are not African American, who are just as hurt as I am, who are just as sick of this as I am,” Breed said. “And we are all in this together. We have got to work together if we want to change it.”

Striking Out

21

news@sfbg.com

Today marks 1,575 days since concession workers at AT&T Park have had a raise, during which time the San Francisco Giants have been fabulously successful, both on and off the playing field.

The 750 workers represented by UNITE-HERE Local 2 are currently involved in frustrating and fruitless negotiations with their employer, Centerplate, a South Carolina-based food service company contracted by the Giants to sell beer, garlic fries, and other overpriced consumables at games.

The Giants and its front office seem fairly unconcerned about the plight of workers who proudly don the team’s logo and pad its revenues. Not a single concession worker that we interviewed for this article said that they work for Centerplate — each of them said that they work for the Giants.

Since the last contract expired in March 2010, the Giants have won two World Series championships, raised the average ticket price by 20 percent, and have seen the value of the team shoot up by $223 million. The only thing that hasn’t improved are the wages of the concession workers.

Cashiers currently make $16.40 per hour, in-seat runners make $13.40, and some entry-level workers make just $10.45, which is actually less the city’s minimum wage. That’s only legal because those workers were under contract for $10.45 per hour when the wage increased to $10.55 at the beginning of this year. And Centerplate won’t even let Giants workers have a tip jar to augment their substandard wages.

Local 2 reports that revenue from concessions is divided up in a 55-45 split between the team and Centerplate (the Giants PR office disputes this number, but it won’t divulge the actual split). So when a fan spends $17 for a hot dog and 16oz beer, Centerplate and its workers get $7.65 and the Giants get $9.35, all of it pure profit. And the Giants executives even set the concession prices, not Centerplate.

But the team says the plight of these workers isn’t its problem. “We continue to urge both parties to get back to the bargaining table and to have productive discussions so the matter can be resolved as quickly as possible. This dispute is between Centerplate and Local 2, not the Giants,” is the team’s public position on the issue.

The Giants communications office responded with this stance to every question the Guardian asked about the issues involved: What have you done to “urge” Centerplate to settle the contract? Couldn’t the Giants force a settlement if it really wanted to? Why haven’t concessions workers shared in the team’s success and rising revenues? How can you claim to support the community if you can’t even ensure the people who work in your stadium are paid minimum wage?

The Giants had nothing to say about a petition signed by 600 of the workers urging the team and Centerplate to agree to a deal, instituting a company-wide no-comment policy on the standoff with concession workers.

“It would be nice if they would come in and talk—not be a mediator, but to know what we’re asking for and say why they’re not providing it or why they feel they shouldn’t provide certain information,” Billie Feliciano, who has worked as a Giants cashier for more than 30 years, told us. “They could talk to the president of the union on that if they wanted to. You know, we’re not asking you to tell us how you spend your money. We just want to know how much control you have of this situation.”

Feliciano and her fellow workers just want the Giants to be team players.

 

 

WHO’S IN CONTROL?

Contrary to what the Giants may say, there is one pressing issue—job security for the workers—that is nearly impossible for the workers and Centerplate to resolve. Every worker interviewed for this story has explicitly said that job security is their most important goal.

Even Centerplate says only the Giants can offer job security to concession workers. If Centerplate goes out of business or loses its contract, the concession workers will likely lose their jobs, which is why they’re advocating for a succesorship clause that would guarantee their employment in that scenario.

When The Guardian inquired with the Giants office about the issue, its spokesperson once again responded, “This is an issue between the workers and Centerplate, not the Giants.”

But with the Giants controlling who runs its concession and how much they charge the fans, is Centerplate just an easy scapegoat for squeezing more profits from workers? Because on the subject of health benefits and wages, the two camps are separated by a wide chasm.

In order to qualify for healthcare, the workers need to work at least 10 games in a month (they’re eligible for health insurance only from June 1 through December 1) to have coverage a month later, which means that the health and well-being of the 750 workers hinges on Major League Baseball’s scheduler.

Workers almost got denied coverage for August because June only had nine games, but they ended up qualifying because they worked a private event at AT&T Park for the biotechnology firm Genentech.

Yet Centerplate wants to raise the number of qualifying games to 12, while Local 2 wants to keep it at 10 and grant healthcare coverage to workers who work every game in months with less than 10 games.

On wages, Centerplate has offered 25-cent increase in hourly pay, no retro raises for the years worked under the expired contract, and a $500 bonus. Though Local 2 has not put out an exact number on their wage demands, its spokesperson says Centerplate’s wage offers are beyond unacceptable; they’re insulting.

Centerplate’s main message in this quarrel is its insistence that the concessions workers are among the highest paid in the nation and that they accrue more benefits than most part-time workers. But the workers say that claim is misleading given the high cost of living in the Bay Area.

“If we were living in Dallas, Texas, I’d say yeah, we’re probably overpaid. But we’re not,” Anthony Wendelburger, who has been a cook for three years, told us.

The Bay Area is among the most expensive metropolitan areas in the nation. Last month, the business consultant Kiplinger published a list of the top 10 most expensive cities in the U.S. San Francisco was third behind Honolulu and New York, with nearby San Jose in fourth and Oakland eighth.

The average concessions worker makes around $11,000 in a year while some make upwards of $13,000 during the regular season. Based on differences in the cost of living, we calculate (using www.bankrate.com) that $11,000 translates to $7,760 if they served food and drinks for the Seattle Mariners, $7,880 for the Chicago Cubs or White Sox, and $6,530 for the Atlanta Braves.

 

 

THE OLD BALLGAME

At the Giants-Padres game on June 18, a Tuesday, several hundred protesters gathered at a rally to show support for the Giants concession workers. Most were affiliated with Local 2, but a few off-duty concession workers came to join the demonstration.

They implored the fans—most whom seemed to be just learning about the dispute—to abstain from purchasing any concession stand products. The rally started an hour before game time engulfed fans waiting in line with chants of “No justice, no garlic fries!” and “Ain’t no protest like an union protest because an union protest don’t stop!”

Inside the stadium, 44 protesters (all of whom had purchased tickets) staged a sit-in in front the garlic fries stand situated behind sections 122 and 123. Their numbers withered as the game progressed and by the fourth inning, the area in front of the stand was cleared and business resumed, with 10 protesters arrested for refusing to disperse.

That protest followed a more significant action on May 25, when all of the 750 workers staged an one day strike, authorized by a 500-16 vote by workers. For that game, Centerplate employed volunteer workers who only got paid in tips. Yes, the scabs got the tips that the regular workers are being denied.

Food and drink service during that game was significantly slower than normal, as even the Giants acknowledged. There were reports of fans standing up to 40 minutes in line for a beer, which is usually more than two innings, an amount of playing time that few true baseball fan would ever give up for a beer run.

Critics—including several passerby fans who were loudly expressing their disdain for the demonstrators at the Giants-Padres game—say the workers should be content with what they have, perhaps assuming the workers were getting more from that $10 beer than they really are.

When Pearlie Jones started working concessions at Giants games 22 years ago, hot dogs were $3. Today they sell for twice that amount at the stand that Jones now manages.

We met Jones at the Local 2 building in the Tenderloin. She lives in Daly City, survives on unemployment during the off-season, and has no other source for health insurance. With nervous laughter, Jones told us she “prays to God during [the off season] that I don’t get sick.”

Wendelburger, who has to commute almost two hours each way to the ball park, works as a bartender during the off-season, although he can only get three days a week. When asked about health insurance during the off-season, this husband and father of two says, “Unless I’m going to die, I’m not going to see a doctor.”

But Jones says that as important as improved wages and healthcare benefits are to her and other employees, they really fear losing their jobs: “Our job security is the main issue that we’re pushing for right now.”

One issue that seems telling of the way Centerplate and the Giants are treating concession workers is on the issue of tips. The workers are currently not allowed a tip jar or a tip line on credit card receipts, a standard feature of food service, particularly here in the Bay Area, where even butchers and bakers have tip jars.

Ramirez says she’s utterly baffled by Centerplate’s stubbornness on the issue. “A tip line is something that doesn’t cost management anything and requires a small change in the computer system and is something the customers are actually demanding. We have a great experience with our fans and customers and they want to share their gratitude and they can’t,” she told us.

Another seemingly minor yet deadlocked issue is the request for benches for in-seat food runners. These workers currently have nowhere to sit for breaks or in between food runs, yet Centerplate has refused to budge on that issue.

When asked about these minor demands, a Centerplate spokesperson said that they have not seen any list of demands from Local 2, a statement disputed by workers and Local 2.

Centerplate has cast workers as greedy, even filing a lawsuit against Local 2 claiming that the union and the workers are trying to exploit the Giants’ World Series championships, an action that the union and its workers heard about from reporters, adding to the aura of mistrust hanging over these negotiations.

 

 

LONG STANDOFF

Both sides have accused the other of not operating in good faith, something they both hope will change when negotiations resume on July 29.

Centerplate says it wants to give the workers a contract, but blames the deadlocked negotiations on Local 2 head Mike Casey, who also serves as the elected president of the San Francisco Labor Council.

“Unfortunately, Local 2 and its leader Mike Casey have not responded to our economic proposal. Our employees, and Local 2 members, remain without a contract, raise, bonus, and health security all because of Casey’s failures,” Centerplate spokesperson Gina Antonini told us.

But the concession workers seem to strongly support Casey, who was on vacation and unavailable for comment. “I have tremendous faith in our Local 2 union leadership. Mike Casey is brilliant,” Patricia Ramirez, a line cook of 14 years, told us. “I think Casey and [Local 2 organizer] Alphonso Pines are leading us in the right way and I think we’re going to win because of their guidance.”

Centerplate seemed unaware of Casey’s local reputation and community support. “The entire labor community is supporting Local 2 and our message is clear: If you have to go to the games, don’t buy the food” San Francisco Labor Council Executive Director Tim Paulson told us.

Local 2’s tough, deliberate, long-term strategy is one that has paid big dividends numerous times in its history, even if it has resulted in long standoffs with management, as was been the case with hotel workers in San Francisco.

“We have seen plenty of times that they have deadlocked for a period of time, they hold out, they tend to fight as long as it takes, and they tend to win” said Ken Jacobs, chair of the UC Berkeley Labor Center.

For their part, concession workers involved in the negotiations blame Centerplate lawyer and lead negotiator George Aude and his abrasive style for the impasse and the tense relations. Several workers we talked to cited Aude’s disrespectful demeanor, with one worker calling him a “giant hothead”.

In one of the negotiations, Aude made several irate comments, which Local 2 took as a threat. They say Aude demanded of the Local 2, “If you don’t stop all these actions you’ve been doing, we’ll offer you less money.”

We reached Aude to comment on the contract talks, he said simply “unsatisfied,” and when we asked for further details, Aude hung up and refused to answer our calls.

 

 

SUPPORTING THE TEAM

Mayor Ed Lee says he’s urging the two sides to settle the standoff and that he has offered to help, although he’s leaving it to the mediators involved. So for those keeping score, City Hall has offered help but the Giants organization has not.

Yet Lee’s half-hearted offer to help Giants workers belies his zealous efforts to promote the Giants and its brand. In February, Lee and the Giants launched a citywide anti-litter program called “The Giant Sweep,” named in honor of the Giants’ sweep of the Detroit Tigers in the 2012 World Series.

“Last year the Giants showed us that winning the World Series took a team effort that went far beyond individual heroics. It required the effort of every player, coach, manager, and support staff — not to mention the fans — to build a championship team. The same approach is needed to attack San Francisco’s litter problem. The Giant Sweep will help San Francisco remain a place where people want to live, work and visit,” the Mayor’s Office said in announcing the program.

Mayor Lee and Gavin Newsom awarded the Giants a “Key to the City” for their World Series wins. Pitcher Matt Cain was awarded a “Key” last year for his perfect game against the Houston Astros. Even disgraced slugger Barry Bonds was given a “Key” after passing Hank Aaron on the all time home run list in August 2007.

“You know, we usually give keys to individual dignitaries who have accomplished great things, whether it was the president of Ireland, or Tony Bennett, or even a Matt Cain on his wonderful perfect game in San Francisco,” Lee said during last year’s celebration. “We normally celebrate those individual accomplishments, but today, we’re gonna break with that tradition and present this key to the entire team and coaching staff, everybody involved in the Giants, the investors, their front office. Congratulations to a team that doesn’t know how to quit, never gives up, and defied the odds at every opportunity.”

Then the city spent nearly a reported quarter-million-dollars to throw its team a massive victory parade and San Franciscans went wild in celebrating the Giants, once again, as the concession workers waited to feel like part of the team.

Could Lee or other City Hall figures help solve the standoff? Other mayors have successfully intervened in situations like this before. In 2004, then-Mayor Newsom sided with the 4,300 picketing hotel workers after the hotels refused his request to end a lockout.

Less than a year before that, Newsom ran for mayor as a “business friendly centrist” who raised millions of dollars from the hotel industry and other downtown business interests. But when he saw that hotel management wasn’t being reasonable, he used the power of his office to help broker an agreement.

It would seem Lee could do the same thing if he wanted, particularly given that the Giants are currently asking the city for land and support to help grow its business.

STADIUM SPRAWL

The Giants organization is currently working on a $1.6 billion, 27-acre development project at Pier 48, located on the opposite side of Mission Creek from AT&T Park. The gargantuan project will include 1,000 housing units, 125,000 square feet of retail, 1.7 million square feet of office space, 2,690 garage parking spaces, and more than eight acres of public space. The project is on public land and will be subject to numerous approval processes, by both the city and the Port of San Francisco. Pier 48 and Seawall Lot 337 are some of the last valuable, easily developable sections of waterfront in San Francisco, so one might say the team is asking a lot from the community. And of course, Mayor Lee offered unqualified, enthusiastic support for the project, telling the Chronicle, “Among my highest priorities is to make sure our homegrown companies can stay, grow, and hire right here in San Francisco, driving job growth, improving our neighborhoods, and in this case our world-class waterfront.” But Lee, Centerplate, and the Giants seem to think that just creating jobs is enough, regardless of pay, benefits, and job security. “The success of a Major League Baseball club is measured by more than game-winning rallies and pennant drives. Beyond the box scores, a ballclub has a unique opportunity to create partnerships to improve the quality of life in its community,” the Giants proclaim on its community page. But for Giants workers, such sentiments have done little to improve their quality of life.

Privatizing the Botanical Gardens

48

news@sfbg.com

The Board of Supervisors last week voted to continue the collection of “non-resident fees” at the Botanical Gardens in Golden Gate Park for a minimum 10-year period. Then it approved a companion measure to allow construction of a new, privately run nursery that will be the home of corporate parties and members-only activities, giving a private group unusual control over a public space.

The proposed plan will replace the existing nursery with a new Center For Sustainable Growth, funded as a “gift-in place” from the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society, a nonprofit that has supported the gardens since 1955, when it was known as Strybing Arboretum.

“This vote means we are basically privatizing 55 acres of Golden Gate Park and handing it over to a nonprofit with no public accountability,” Harry Pariser, a longtime resident of the Inner Sunset, activist, and author told the Bay Guardian. “Essentially we’re allowing the government to make us show an ID to come onto public land. It’s also going to be a space where there’s going to be a lot more commercial activity. I think inevitably there is going to be fees for everyone.”

The new agreement consists of demolishing an existing 4,600 square foot greenhouse, which will be replaced by a new 9,800 square foot nursery. A real estate evaluation report on the nursery project performed by Clifford Advisory, a limited liability corporation, compares the project to allegedly positive public-private development efforts such as the Hunter’s Point Shipyard project.

The lease agreement between the Botanical Garden Society and the City of San Francisco allows the society to use the premises for “special events,” designate members-only hours for the facility, and waive the non-resident fee for those events. According to the lease, the city shall avoid interfering with the Society’s “quiet use and enjoyment of the premises,” namely by allowing them to throw private parties.

“The Botanical Gardens is an incredible asset to the city, it’s a great place for families and kids, and now they’re no longer treating it as a public asset,” Sup. John Avalos, who recently voted against the non-resident fees and the lease agreement, told the Guardian. “They’re making it more exclusive.”

 

LAND GRAB

The SFBGS has a history of campaigning for private exclusivity on public land as well as generating new revenue sources. In 2010, Avalos pushed a plan to replace the revenue brought in by non-resident fees with $250,000 pulled from the city’s real estate transfer tax.

SFBGS, backed by London Breed before she was elected the supervisor of District 5, which includes the Botanical Gardens, opposed Avalos’ effort and helped shoot down the proposed plans, continuing the fee collections.

A large part of the board’s approval is derived from the lobbying efforts of Sam Lauter, a lobbyist hired by SFBGS who has continually pushed for permanent fees and the new conservatory. Lauter also helped support and fund Breed’s supervisorial campaign last year.

While the lease and management agreement purports that the SFBGS’s management shall be subject to the city’s definition of the gardens as a public space, it offers an exception in cases of SFBGS-sponsored special events, circumventing its status as a public space. The lease also allows the Society to use other buildings on the premises, such as the County Fair Building, for special events, free of charge.

Although the SFBGS is essentially taking over operation of the gardens, the city will continue to pay for utilities and offer a “rent credit” that requires the Society to pay just $100 in rent annually. Additionally, SFBGS will be reimbursed for non-resident fee collection expenses.

“We understand the logic of providing benefits for people who donate to the facility,” Breed legislative aide Conor Johnston told us. “It’s very important to remember all San Francisco residents have free access and [organized groups of] youth from outside the city have free access. This structure allows the arboretum to stay open.”

While San Francisco residents still have free access, the agreements with the SFBGS strongly limit this access by instituting members-only hours, forcing residents to show identification at security gates, and renting out buildings for exclusive corporate parties.

Another part of the Botanical Garden’s master plan consists of providing food services in a new visitors center. Consequently, the “public” gardens will enforce a rule barring visitors from bringing in outside food. The plan also details the SFBGS’s plan to bring in new revenue streams through corporate events.

“This is about weeding people out, controlling people and deciding who has access to this place,” said Pariser. “They put up a wall that must cost thousands of dollars and they destroyed this meadow that even London Breed was appalled by. They control this place like it’s a domain and you’re not allowed to say anything.”

 

QUIET TRANSFER

The lack of public outreach and input on the SFBGS’s buyout has left residents like Pariser feeling robbed of public land that their taxes pay to support. Nancy McNally, founder of the San Francisco AIDS Grove, voiced similar concerns regarding the misplaced priorities of both SFBGS and the Recreation and Parks Department, which in recent years has been under growing criticism for monetizing public spaces (see “Parks Inc.,” 7/12/11).

“For me, I can’t even be in the same room as Recreation and Park Director Phil Ginsburg. I think he has done so much harm to the parks,” McNally told us. “He’s created a ton of positions in the marketing and PR department. What do they need four people for to run public marketing for a public space?”

Frederick Law Olmsted, the co-designer of Central Park, is said to have influenced the style of Golden Gate Park. Olmsted’s theory was to bring wilderness into the city. For McNally, this non-manicured, rustic aspect of Golden Gate Park is what makes it so appealing.

“They’re taking away the basic foundation of the park, which is wildness,” said McNally. “The new building is so big, obtrusive, and unnecessary. It’s only about income for the Botanical Society’s select group.”

McNally views the RPD and SFBGS as predatory entities who target residents attempting to use the land by charging egregious fees for weddings, memorials, and other events.

McNally recalled a friend who wanted to have a memorial for another gardening enthusiast in the Arboretum. For 10 people, the RPD wanted $1,000 and to hire a security guard for a group of elderly gardening enthusiasts.

SFRPD did not return the Guardian’s phone calls regarding the management under the SFBGS, which also did not return our call.

Jane Glasby, an ex-librarian for the SFBGS, whose job was terminated in 2010 due to widespread cuts to the garden’s education program, expressed her inside views on the changing tides of park’s atmosphere in a letter written to “friends and garden lovers” as her tenure came to an end.

“Over the last few years, the library budget has been slashed, the children’s program cut back, and the adult education program all but eliminated,” Glasby wrote at the time. ‘With money available to pay a firm to lobby for an entrance fee $10,000 every month for at least the last seven months, it looks very odd to close the library [that was at the Arboretum] with the excuse of saving just $10,000 a year. Charging admissions would put the garden in danger of becoming an exclusive but shallow and flashy entertainment (I am thinking of the Tea Garden and the Academy [of Science]), rather than the living museum that we all love and respect.”

While Glasby’s comments refer to cutbacks dating back to 2010, her experience denotes what is seemingly becoming the protocol of SFBGS. Three years later, the Society has succeeded in charging non-residents indefinitely and turning what was once a public place of solitude for residents and non-residents alike into an increasingly privatized hub for members willing to pay extra for exclusivity of an allegedly public space.

McNally, who is now retired, has taken it upon herself to document the decreasing local attendance of the arboretum, which was once a frequent lunch spot for residents and nearby UCSF students. “On a sunny day at noon it used to be to be carpeted with people having lunch. It’s not anymore,” said McNally. “I have four years of documentation of that empty lawn at high noon, showing it completely empty, with just geese shitting everywhere.”

 

Corrections: The permit fee for the gardening club was corrected. We also added the parenthetical to Johnston’s quote to clarify visitor fees.

 

 

 

Why democracy matters

21

EDITORIAL There’s a troubling anti-democratic trend taking place in this country, one that’s been recently reflected everywhere from the US Supreme Court’s decision to strike down key provisions of the landmark Voting Rights Act to City College of San Francisco losing its accreditation and being placed under state control.

Maybe you’ve only been passively following the City College story, either because it doesn’t seem to directly affect you or simply because of mid-summer distractions, but here’s why you should care: power has been unilaterally stripped from the Board of Trustees, the people we elect to carry out our will, spend our money (including the parcel tax for CCSF that local voters overwhelmingly approved just last year), and strike the right balance between training students for jobs and universities and offering more community-based programming.

That can be a difficult balance to strike in San Francisco, with its multitude of interests and needs, and we can legitimately criticize how decisions are made or not made by this often dysfunctional board (as we’ve repeatedly done in these pages over the years). Democracy isn’t always the cleanest or most effective way to govern, but we as a country long ago decided that it’s an important experiment worth trying, and that it beats more autocratic alternatives.

But Mayor Ed Lee has been all too eager to give up on that experiment when it comes to City College, as he’s made clear in repeated public statements since the decision. Asked about the issue during the July 9 Board of Supervisors meeting, including the loss of local control over vital public assets and meeting halls, Lee once again praised the move “to save City College through a state intervention.”

Maybe that’s not a surprising position coming from a career bureaucrat who was appointed mayor with the support of powerful economic interests, but it should trouble those of us who haven’t yet given up on democracy, which is the stuff that happens between elections even more than casting ballots every couple years.

It’s about process and protests, coalitions and consensus-building, trial and error. As strange as it may seem to some, the Egyptian military’s recent removal of President Mohamed Morsi, whose unilateral dismantling of democratic mechanisms prompted widespread protests, was essentially a democratic act (albeit an imperfect choice between untenable options). That’s because that unilateral action was driven by popular will and accompanied by strong assurances to rapidly restore democratic institutions and leadership — something that has not yet happened in relation to City College.

Detroit has long been one of the most troubled big cities in the US, thanks to this country’s evaporating industrial sector and other factors. But when Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder implemented a state takeover of the city in March, fully half of the state’s African-American population was denied democratic representation. And since then, Snyder and other Republican leaders have magically found the funds that could and should have been offered in the first place to bail this city out. Instead, they’ve begun packaging up Detroit for the capitalist speculators.

If we aren’t vigilant, financially troubled California cities such as Vallejo and Stockton could be next on the urban auction block, and that list could grow from there given the ability of coordinated capitalists to withdraw investments and cripple any jurisdiction that opposes their interests (as writer Naomi Klein compellingly showed in her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism).

Are we being a little alarmist about the state takeover of one, small democratic institution? Maybe, but there is good reason to draw bright, clear lines in defense of our experiment in democracy. The conservative-dominated US Supreme Court has already signaled its willingness to grease this slippery slope, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, who clearly is playing the long game and will likely be quarterbacking this effort for decades to come.

As the New York Times and other legal analysts noted after the court’s latest session ended, Roberts has been carefully laying the groundwork for an undermining of democracy, even when issuing rulings that ostensibly side with the liberals, as he did in helping strike down Prop. 8.

While we in San Francisco cheered the resulting legalization of same-sex marriage, what the ruling actually did was limit the power of the people to defend decisions made through the initiative process. And earlier that week, Roberts also wrote the ruling that the racial discrimination guarded against in the Voting Rights Act no longer existed, despite aggressive current efforts by Republicans to disenfranchise African American, Hispanic, and poor voters through disingenuous voter fraud laws, scrubbing voter rolls, and other mechanisms.

It was Thomas Jefferson, the greatest advocate for democracy among our founding fathers, who said, “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” In other words, we lose our liberty a chunk at a time if we don’t resist those who would trade democracy for efficiency (or in the parlance of Mayor Lee, “getting things done.”).

So the loss of local control over City College is something that should not stand, and we should all put be putting pressure on Lee and other locally elected representatives to demand a clear plan for when and how this important institution will be returned to local democratic control. If the Egyptian military can do it, clearly state education officials can as well.