Volume 48 Number 01

Volume 48 Number 1 Flip-through Edition

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Hearts on fire

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arts@sfbg.com

THEATER An actor rakes a thick piece of chalk across the floor with a few swift, violent strokes, transforming a bare stage into the layout of an apartment or the plan of a Polish street. Three more actors join him in filling out the scenes, uprooted from time and rearranged in a deliberate design of their own — scenes erased and redrawn with practically every shift in a fluid, snaking narrative that joins the present day with World War II, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the career of a young Jewish woman named Izolda, who passes herself off as an Aryan in a heroic attempt to save herself and her husband from an apocalyptic night.

If the ghostly chalk outlines of the set morph with a brusqueness that suggests the ferocity of both war and time to remake the world, Izolda’s story of love and determination offers an agency of its own. Wrenched from the daunting numbers and general darkness of the Holocaust, they come into mesmerizing focus in The King of Hearts is Off Again, a barebones yet highly evocative piece of physical theater by Warsaw’s Studium Teatralne, which adapts Polish journalist-turned-author Hanna Krall’s internationally acclaimed 2006 novel, Chasing the King of Hearts (now available in an English translation from Peirene Press).

This week, in Studium Teatralne’s Bay Area debut, the San Francisco International Arts Festival presents The King of Hearts is Off Again in both San Francisco and the East Bay. Performed in Polish with English supertitles, the piece showcases the work of a company grounded in the influential career of Polish director Jerzy Grotowski (1933–1999), world-renowned innovator and practical theoretician of “poor theater.”

Piotr Borowski, who directed the production, was an actor and musician with Poland’s famed experimental company Teatr Gardzienice in the 1970s and ’80s. After that he joined the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski in Pantedera, Italy, where he stayed until 1994, when he became artistic director of Studium Teatralne.

“Mainly what I’ve acquired from working with Grotowski is a constant, systematic work on the harmony of three things: body, feelings, and intellect,” relates Borowski in a recent email exchange. “Incidentally, this idea is few thousand years old. On the other hand, the topics for my dramatic work flow directly from the circumstances of our contemporary times.”

The details and lacunae of Izolda’s dramatized but true story emerge from the ghostly outlines of a past now barely visible in Poland, suspended somewhere between blissful ignorance and perturbing rumination.

“In Poland, before World War II, Jews were about 10 percent of the population,” continues Borowski, “about three million people. The ones that were left numbered 20,000. We have struggled to convey this emptiness through the empty stage, minimal props, a small number of actors, in order to focus on the main idea. One of the most important things in the set is the floor. It is an old Synagogue’s polychrome. We are stepping on it, symbolically ruining it. The world’s culture of sacral paintings is being destroyed. There are hardly any Jews in Poland anymore. Most of all, there are hardly any traces of their culture left. Our viewers in Poland can feel that, and we talk about it a lot, especially with the younger generation.”

Grotowski and the refined aesthetics of poor theater grew in the 1960s in part as a response to the lavish spectacle offered by cinema, but also in a politically repressive period in which metaphor was key to discussing the lived reality shared by artists and their audience. Today’s Polish stage has evolved in strikingly different directions since 1989 and the fall of communism. The avant-garde today — in the work of Krystian Lupa or Krzysztof Warlikowski, for example — tends toward work of monumental proportions, as Borowski readily admits.

“When it comes to the direction of the Polish theater today I am not the go-to expert. I am still representing the off-center of theater whose significance is marginal today. It used to have a clear role in times of a system where censorship existed. But now, when we have freedom and a fierce market economy, the big productions and money become more important to people.”

Borowski adds that it is not a question of one approach or another, but rather of making work that confronts contemporary reality.

“It is essential that we create performances that are relevant for today. That has always been hard to do, as far as I can remember. The main goal that I had set out for myself is the goal towards human development, and what I’m trying to show on stage is the [way] beyond simple acceptance and habitual perception of so many things. Not a rebellion but an alternate perception.” *

THE KING OF HEARTS IS OFF AGAIN

Wed/2-Fri/4, 8pm, $18-25

Joe Goode Performance Annex

401 Alabama, SF

Sat/5, 8pm

University Theatre

CSU East Bay, 25800 Carlos Bee, Hayward

www.sfiaf.org

 

Drive time

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arts@sfbg.com

GAMER Yes, it’s time to talk again about the game in which you steal cars and kill prostitutes. And it’s another chance for the national news media to organize roundtables to discuss violence in video games, and the effects it might be having on the nation’s youth.

Let’s be honest: You know right now, before reading this article, whether or not the Grand Theft Auto series — which released GTA V (Rockstar North, Rockstar Games; PS3, Xbox 360) last month, and made a cool $1 billion in its first three days on sale — is something you want to play. And for developer Rockstar North, that’s both a blessing and a curse.
Perhaps surprising for those who haven’t played a game in the GTA series, the biggest draw isn’t the rampant violence but the experience of exploring a carnival funhouse version of present-day America.

GTA V’s look-alike setting of contemporary Los Angeles and its surrounding countryside, including windmill-strewn hills, mountain ranges, and a great salt sea is more than scenery. Billboards for fake reality shows and overwrought radio commercials shilling products like lap-band surgery and bottled water serve to drive home the absurdity of modern life. Buildings don’t just give the impression of a real city; each one has character, and often times a backstory. It is a city that feels alive. Amid the hail of gunfire, it’s easy to forget that Rockstar consistently pushes the limits of what a sandbox world can look like, with a level of detail that is unprecedented in a game of this size.

The story is divided among three protagonists: Michael, the ex-criminal trying to enjoy retirement in a posh house in the hills; Franklin, the hungry young gangster who dreams of making the big time; and Trevor, the lunatic. Though he is by far the most compelling character, it’s easy to see why Trevor isn’t the star of his own game — his complete lack of respect for human life or the rules of society make him an untenable prospect for a lead character in a title of this visibility. But, while his morals are despicable, he possesses a code of honor that’s difficult not to respect on some level.

Eventually, the three characters meet and perform heists and other criminal activities, and you are often allowed to switch from one character to another on the fly. Compared to GTA IV, the narrative — concerning a betrayal nine years previous and a number of government blackmail schemes — is wound much more tightly around the gameplay, and the draw of completing missions is in fleshing out the characters, rather than performing chores (something players have harped on in the past). However, the game does sometimes struggle, as if almost too big for its current-generation breeches. Pop-in and frame rate drops and ultra-compressed video prove that GTA V unfortunately is still working within the strict limits of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

Is it the biggest and best Grand Theft Auto game ever? Absolutely, but such a feat is no surprise considering the legacy the series has developed. And, being aware of that legacy is paramount to tempering your expectations; as much as the GTA series is targeted for being controversial and edgy, the formula isn’t exactly risky. People want to be told they can do anything they want. Buy a yacht. Do yoga. Trade on the stock market. Shop for cargo shorts. Drive a car out of an airplane and take a selfie to post on the internet when you land. For all its little refinements, GTA V doesn’t stray far from its roots as an over-the-top pastiche of crime movies and low-brow comedy.

Community reaction to 2008’s ambitious-but-flawed GTA IV has shifted so dramatically since its release that it’s tempting to be overly critical of GTA V’s more grating or game-y elements rather than risk being out-of-touch a year on. Ultimately this is a game that gives you exactly what you came for. But you knew that already.

Eat your meat

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cheryl@sfbg.com

FILM The title of Jim Mickle’s latest film sums up the attitude of the Parker family: We Are What We Are. We eat people. Our human-flesh cravings go back generations. Our dietary habits have become our religion. And that’s just the way it is — until teen sisters Iris (Ambyr Childers) and Rose (Julia Garner) start to have some doubts.

As We Are (a remake of Mexican director Jorge Michel Grau’s 2010 film) begins, the girls’ mother has suddenly died amid a punishing rainstorm — and their grief-stricken Dad (Bill Sage) has become awfully twitchy. As the local police, a suspicious doctor (Michael Parks), and a curious neighbor (Kelly McGillis) begin to poke into their business, the Parkers prep for “Lambs Day,” a feast that most definitely involves whoever is chained up in the basement.

Next up for Mickle and his co-writer Nick Damici — they’re best-known for 2010’s Stake Land, which starred Damici — is Cold in July, an actual non-horror film (though it is based on a novel by Bubba Ho-Tep author Joe R. Lansdale). But first: who’s hungry?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KXKogr0O-Zc

SF Bay Guardian How did the success of Stake Land affect your career?

Jim Mickle We Are What We Are is really more non-horror than it is horror, and I think Stake Land gave us the confidence to do that — to explore within the genre and try new things.

SFBG Can you expand on why you think We Are is more “non-horror”?

JM To me, it’s more of a dark story about faith and religion, even though the word “cannibal” is a horror idea, and there are obviously scenes that hit that. Stake Land is a vampire-apocalypse story with action scenes, but the heart of it was the orphaned [lead character] coming of age in a destroyed world. The horror elements are just kind of the sprinkles on the ice cream.

It was the same thing here. I was much more interested in the girls’ story, and the story of a family trying to hold together after a tragic event.

SFBG This film is a remake, but it seems you were pretty intent on putting your own stamp on the story.

JM Yeah, definitely. I’m one of the biggest haters of remakes. It’s funny, because I’ll see people online going, “Why did they redo this?” And usually, that’s me complaining. I’m a fan of so many of the horror movies that then get butchered by Hollywood. So when I was first [asked to do] an American version of this, I kind of rolled my eyes a little bit. And when [Damici] and I first watched the movie, we were like, “Why redo this? It’s a good movie!”

But then, over a couple of days, we started to sort of brainstorm ideas. The first thing was taking it out of a Mexican city and putting it into rural upstate New York. Instantly it’s very different, but it’s also something that I know very well and can talk about personally and uniquely.

Still, we wanted to hang onto [certain things] about the original. I loved what [Grau] did with the tone, and its restraint and simplicity.

SFBG Kelly McGillis was so memorable in Stake Land, and it’s great to see her back for We Are. What’s your relationship with her like?

JM I think she had a great time on Stake Land — she hadn’t done a movie in years before that. I like shoots that are fun, and I try to remember that getting to make movies is a privilege and that we should enjoy it as we go, and I think she has the same sense. We clicked instantly.

[Damici] wrote this character specifically for her. She’s very goofy in real life, and we wanted to play that up. It’s the perfect role for her, the wise-but-also-nosy neighbor. We called her about it, and before we had even said anything she said “I’ll do it! I can’t wait!” *

 

WE ARE WHAT WE ARE opens Fri/4 in San Francisco.

Go north, film fan

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If you’re gonna make the journey across the Golden Gate Bridge, the movie better be worth it, right? Fortunately, the 2013 Mill Valley Film Festival boasts a stellar schedule. Read on for our top picks.

Run & Jump (Steph Green, Ireland/Germany) San Francisco-born director Steph Green’s first feature is a likable seriocomedy about an Irish family trying to adjust to some drastic, unforeseen changes. After suffering a stroke and coming out of a coma, Conor Casey (Edward MacLiam) is a changed man — uncommunicative, sometimes volatile, seldom at all like the beloved husband and father he was. As wife Venetia (Maxine Peake) and their two kids tiptoe around him, they get a houseguest in the form of American neurologist Ted (Will Forte), who’s here to study Conor’s recovery (or lack thereof) with clinical detachment. The reserved, emotionally withdrawn Yank finds himself drawn into the Caseys’ shared warmth, particularly in its current need for a fill-in adult male — opening up to the children and, more riskily, striking romantic sparks with the Mrs. A bit formulaic but a crowd-pleaser nonetheless, the film is perhaps most notable for its winning dramatic turn by Saturday Night Live alum Forte, also at MVFF in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska. Fri/4, 9:15pm, and Sun/6, 1pm, Sequoia. (Dennis Harvey)

Imagine (Andrzej Jakimowski, Poland) Andrzej Jakimowski’s quiet yet sometimes exhilaratingly original film manages to make blindness relatable as perhaps never before in a primarily visual medium. Ian (Edward Hogg) is an enigmatic Englishman who shakes up a Lisbon facility for his fellow sightless with radical ideas and an insistence that residents push their limits — throwing away their canes, moving about more boldly in the world via developing almost superhuman attentiveness to sound reverberation as their guide. There are a couple astounding (and hair-raising) sequences where the viewer’s own sensory intake is focused in unfamiliar ways. Mysterious, peculiar, and wistful, Imagine is uneven but often arrestingly memorable, its biggest minus being a musical score that mistakenly thinks this is an antic comedy. Sat/5, 6:15pm, and Sun/6, 6:30pm, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

Desert Runners (Jennifer Steinman, US) It’s appropriate that Mill Valley, starting point of the legendary Dipsea Race, hosts the US premiere of this doc about a group of runners who attempt to complete the 4 Deserts Race Series, which stages ultramarathons across unforgiving terrain in Chile, China, Egypt, and Antarctica. Each athlete has his or her own stirring backstory, and each shows incredible grit in the face of injuries and intense dehydration. Darker moments come courtesy of petite Aussie Samantha’s mid-race encounter with a would-be rapist, and the news that a competitor (not featured in the film) has died along the trail. But Desert Runners is ultimately an admiring portrait of its charismatic subjects (all white, all presumably able to afford the $20,000-plus total cost of entering all four races) who willingly subject themselves to extreme bodily harm. It’s up to the viewer to decide if they’re inspirational, or kinda nuts. Or both. Sun/6, 2:15pm, Sequoia; Oct 12, 5:45pm, 142 Throckmorton. (Cheryl Eddy)

Le Week-End (Roger Michell, UK) Director Roger Michell and writer Hanif Kureishi first collaborated two decades ago on The Buddha of Suburbia, when the latter was still in the business of being Britain’s brashest multiculti hipster voice. But in the last 10 years they’ve made a habit of slowing down to sketching portraits of older lives — and providing great roles for the nation’s bottomless well of remarkable veteran actors. Here Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent play a pair of English academics trying to re-create their long-ago honeymoon’s magic on an anniversary weekend in Paris. They love each other, but their relationship is thorny and complicated in ways that time has done nothing to smooth over. This beautifully observed duet goes way beyond the usual adorable-old-coot terrain of such stories on screen; it has charm and humor, but these are unpredictable, fully rounded characters, not comforting caricatures. Briefly turning this into a seriocomedy three-way is Most Valuable Berserker Jeff Goldblum as an old friend encountered by chance. It’s not his story, but damned if he doesn’t just about steal the movie anyway. Mon/7, 6:30pm, and Oct 11, 5:15pm, Sequoia. (Harvey)

Like Father, Like Son (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan) A yuppie Tokyo couple are raising their only child in workaholic dad’s image, applying the pressure to excel at an early age. Imagine their distress when the hospital phones with some unpleasant news: It has only just been learned that a nurse mixed up their baby with another baby, with the result that both families have been raising the “wrong” children these six years. Polite, forced interaction with the other clan — a larger nuclear unit as warm, disorganized, and financially hapless as the first is formal, regimented, and upwardly mobile — reveals that both sides have something to learn about parenting. This latest from Japanese master Hirokazu Kore-eda (1998’s After Life, 2004’s Nobody Knows, 2008’s Still Walking) is, as usual, low-key, beautifully observed, and in the end deeply moving. Oct 9, 2:30pm, Smith Rafael; Oct 12, 8pm, Lark. (Harvey)

Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée, US) Jared Leto appears in person for this screening of Jean-Marc Vallée’s well-crafted, based-on-true events drama about the early days of the AIDS epidemic, specifically focusing on the struggles patients faced in getting safe, effective medication. Leto, who has lately been focusing on his music career, has a standout supporting turn as Rayon, a transgender woman who loves Marc Bolan, gowns, and sparring with business partner Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey). Look for Leto and McConaughey — the best he’s ever been, as a good ol’ boy and confirmed homophobe who becomes an activist and agitator after contracting HIV — to earn plenty of notice come awards season. Oct 10, 6:30pm, Smith Rafael. (Eddy)

At Middleton (Adam Rodgers, US) Star and co-producer Andy Garcia will be on hand for the local premiere of this romantic comedy co-starring Vera Farmiga. They play strangers paying introductory visits to the titular (fictive) college with offspring on the brink of leaving home and starting independent adult lives. Everyone is temperamentally ill-matched — jokester mom with humorless daughter, persnickety dad with laid-back son — but during the course of the day strolling around campus, frissons of romance and new self knowledge occur on both sides of the generation gap. Adam Rodgers’ feature is pleasant but a little too pat, relying overmuch on the appeal of lead actors who’ve been better served elsewhere. Oct 12, 5pm, and Oct 13, 11:15am, Sequoia. (Harvey)

All is Lost (J.C. Chandor, US) As other reviewers have pointed out, All is Lost‘s nearly dialogue-free script (OK, there is one really, really well-placed “Fuuuuuck!”) is about as far from J.C. Chandor’s Oscar-nominated script for 2011’s Margin Call as possible. Props to the filmmaker, then, for crafting as much pulse-pounding magic out of austerity as he did with that multi-character gabfest. Here, Robert Redford plays “Our Man,” a solo sailor whose race to survive begins along with the film, as his boat collides with a hunk of Indian Ocean detritus. Before long, he’s completely adrift, yet determined to outwit the forces of nature that seem intent on bringing him down. The 77-year-old Redford turns in a surprisingly physical performance that’s sure to be remembered as a late-career highlight. Oct 12, 3:30pm, Smith Rafael; Oct 13, 8:15pm, Sequoia. (Eddy)

The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh, Cambodia/France) Rithy Panh’s latest film about the homeland he fled as a teenager is atypically, directly autobiographical, and most unusually crafted. He re-creates his once comfortable Phnom Penh family’s grim fate after Pol Pot and company seized control of Cambodia in 1975 — as all fell prey to the starvation, forced labor, and other privations suffered by perceived “enemies” of the new regime — not by any conventional means but via elaborate dioramas of handmade clay figures depicted in prison camp life (and death). There’s also ample surviving propagandic footage of the Khmer Rouge trumpeting its “model society” that was in reality little more than an experiment in mass execution and torture. The result is a unique and powerful take on one of the 20th century’s worst crimes against humanity. Oct 12, 4:45pm, Lark; Oct 13, 5:30pm, Smith Rafael. (Harvey) *

The 36th Mill Valley Film Festival runs Oct. 3-13 (most shows $12.50-$14). Major venues are the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St, San Rafael; Cinéarts@Sequoia, 25 Throckmorton, Mill Valley; Lark Theater, 549 Magnolia, Larkspur; and 142 Throckmorton Theater, 142 Throckmorton, Mill Valley. Complete schedule at www.mvff.com.

City chicken

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marke@sfbg.com

SUPER EGO Where are the monkeys? Where are all the freakin’ monkeys?

If you’re a fan of Claude Vonstroke and his prolific dirtybird label — and there are millions of us now — that question might come howling to the fore after your first listen to nifty new album Urban Animal, his third. Vonstroke’s subversively relatable sound is so distinct that as soon as one of the tones of his sui generis sonic palette drops out — hooting monkeys, timpani rolls, zippy whistles, jungle beats, brass interjections, goofy bird puns, calliope synths, sly drops — you begin to wonder if bass music’s über-huggable jester has gotten all introspective on us.

No fear of that, although he has adopted a new way of working: “I didn’t even notice the chimps were missing,” Claude told me with a laugh on the phone from LA, where he’s currently staying (although he still considers SF his home). “But I did make this album in different way in general. Before, I would obsess about one track at a time until it was finished. But now I put down ideas as they come to me and mix them all together — a bass line from here, a drum track from there — from about 20 open folders. It worked out so much better that way.”

Thanks goddess for Vonstroke: he’s our biggest DJ export after Kaskade and Bassnectar — huge enough to play more mainstream gigs like Electric Daisy and HARD, yet his sound is so singular (and brilliant) that massive fest promoters don’t quite know what to do with him. “They usually give us our own space,” Vonstroke chuckles. “So much better than being sandwiched between a post-dubstep duo and a pop-EDM act and wondering what the hell to play.”

But more than that, he and his dirtybird crew bring an almost perfect version of the one thing dance music often gets horribly wrong: wit. They have an endlessly inventive way of mixing booty music’s delicious vulgarity with gorgeous production and a smart dose of melancholy to create a thoughtful, monumental running joke on the dance floor.

The sense of humor remains intact on Urban Animal. Despite lovely cover art collaging the industrial buildings of his Detroit youth into beautiful beasts, and pretty, spaced-out tracks like “The Bridge” and “Can’t Wait,” Vonstroke still buffs your funny bone.

Consider the pumping, woozy, operatic chipmunk-climaxing “Dood”: “I wanted to make a stoned California surfer track, but then the aliens got in there, and it went this kind of ‘beam me up’ way. Like that one friend on the couch at parties always saying ‘Dude, you won’t believe this thing that happened…’ and it’s actually a crazy thing that happened,” Claude told me.

Even the lilting, expansive “Can’t Wait” has its origins in a funny, familiar club moment. “I was outside a party in Ibiza” — where dirtybird just wrapped up a longtime party residency — “and this absolutely breathtaking track started to play as the sun came up. I still don’t know, don’t really want to know, the name of the track. But I resolved I would create something like it if I could. Kind of as a way of passing on that feeling.” (If it weren’t such a part of his DJ repertoire, I’d say that track was Andre Lodemann’s “Where Are You Now?”)

After wrapping up in Ibiza — an endeavor which, added to his monthly parties here at Mezzanine, a hectic appearance schedule, label duties, and mucho recording, sounds exhausting — Claude’s taking a break with his new family down south before hitting town to kick off the Urban Animal tour Fri/4 at the Regency Ballroom (9pm-late, $25–$30. 1290 Sutter, SF. www.theregencyballroom.com), and to spin at SF’s first installment of the great Boiler Room streaming live DJ series.

Expect no bells and whistles beyond those found in the stunning music, however. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to parachute in during a storm of lasers and fire canons,” Claude assures me. “We’re not the kind of ‘big DJs’ who have all these ’90s cartoons or my own name scrolling across humungous screens. I never really understood why you would want to make your party like watching a giant television. It should be about dancing.”

 

Quiet powerful

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arts@sfbg.com

DANCE Considering its name — Hush — it should have come as no surprise that Joe Goode’s latest look at the ultimate loneliness that infects us all, whether imposed or self-inflicted, is a very quiet piece. Being hushed is something we learn as babies, at the family table, in school, and at the movies. But more seriously, it becomes an essential tool for survival for those who may be perceived as “different.”

At barely an hour, Hush is another variation on a theme that has threaded itself through Goode’s works since the beginning. Unfortunately, unless you are a romantic or naïve, being on the outside happens to be a quintessential human condition. Goode approaches it from the particular perspective of a gay man. It’s his genius that he manages to frequently mine that driving concern for new and convincing theatrical expressions — a quality that distinguishes art from advocacy.

Hush feels like chamber music. It’s condensed, tight, and weaves a spell like a spider’s web. The tone is subdued, and there’s a film noir quality to Erik Flatmo’s set, with its half-empty bar. You can practically smell stale beer. Foley artist Sudhu Tewari’s brilliant sound effects suffuse this environment with a hyper-real vibe — somewhere between a comic strip and the proverbial nails on a chalkboard board.

While Goode doesn’t perform himself, you can hear him in the language for his characters, which is drawn from interviews with him (a practice he already used in last year’s When We Fall Apart). His own voice comes through most explicitly in Hush’s songs, some of whose lyrics were printed in the program. I do wish we had been given access to all of them.

But Hush can also feel like a musical in which dance stays subsidiary to other theatrical aspects. At its strongest, it takes over in ways that words cannot.

The piece focuses on two characters, portrayed by Melecio Estrella as a “sissy boy,” and Damara Vita Ganley, as a woman whose “body got touched on places I didn’t want to.” Neither of these creations accept victimhood. They refuse to be hushed. Both performers are accomplished actor-dancers who were a joy to watch every second they were on stage, and they happen to also be the company’s best singers. At first Estrella is hardly able to get a sound out in the bar’s open mic, but he learns quickly. Finally, he stands up to his bullying tormentors and spits out a lengthy scholarly disquisition on sexuality and asexuality that sounded like it was straight out of an academic paper. I have no idea whether this was science or imagination, but Estrella was magnificent in a feat of rhetoric that could not be ignored and ultimately empowered him.

Putting a rape scene on stage is probably the most daring thing Goode has done. I dreaded the prospect. On her way home — the road she follows looks like something out of The Wizard of Oz — Ganley drops her purse, stops to pick up a flower (a sentimental touch), and is attacked by three hooded individuals. In the choreography, performed in silence if I remember correctly, she gets lifted, pulled, yanked, and stretched for a considerable amount of time. In the end she picks up her purse and walks home, her heels clacking in the night. Later on, the laconic give-and-takes between her and Andrew Ward, who tries to help, beautifully suggests a relationship based on mutual respect.

Elsewhere, a gorgeous duet between Estrella and Felipe Barrueto-Cabello called up an increasingly passionate love affair. It started out with almost accidental touches and withdrawals — Barrueto-Cabello is a master of reticence — but gradually built into a tempestuous encounter when, the men having stripped off their undershirts, you couldn’t quite tell any more who was who.

If I have one regret about Hush is that the stories of the other characters were not more developed: Jessica Swanson as the driven career woman, Ward’s sympathetic bartender-listener, Alexander Zendzian’s vegetable lover, and Barrueto-Cabello’s moonstruck lover. The scene between the careerist Swanson and the pickle-making Zendzian — thank you, sound designer Tewari — sparkled with humor, but it just was too cartoonish to become emotionally resonant.

Hush ends with a rousing, operatic finale, a song-and-dance number in which the cast proclaimed its determination to be silenced no longer. No question that’s a welcome thought — but given the complexities of the issues involved, it also felt a little too much like Broadway. *

HUSH

Thu/3-Fri/4, 8pm; Sat/5, 7 and 9pm, $15-$70

Z Space

450 Florida, SF

www.joegoode.org

 

Whales protected from ships in SF Bay

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Whales and marine mammals in the San Francisco Bay and along the California coast are being protected by new policies that will help prevent them from being struck by ships, including new shipping policies and a whale tracker application.

An increasing number of deadly interactions between whales and ships drew attention in 2010 when at least five whales that had been struck by ships beached themselves and died. But that is thought to be only a small indicator of a much larger problem.

“According to experts, only about 10 percent of whales killed by strikes show up on beaches,” lead researcher Dr. Jamie Jahncke of Point Blue Conservation Society, which has been working with the Coast Guard on ways to make the bay safer for whales, told us.

The Coast Guard implemented narrower and longer shipping lanes beginning June 1 in San Francisco Bay, as well as in Los Angeles and Long Beach, in an attempt to reduce the number of whale strikes in these regions. The Coast Guard has also begun directing ships to reduce their speed when entering and exiting the bay to no more than 10 knots.

The purpose of the change in the shipping lanes is to keep ships out of primary whale habitats and other areas where they are typically found. Jahncke believes these changes will reduce the interaction between whales and ships by 70 percent.

Both Jahncke and Melissa Pitkin, also of Point Blue, see these new policies as a good thing.

Jahncke called the changes “very positive” and added they are good “for human safety and benefit wildlife as well.”

Pitkin says the Coast Guard “has been a great participant” and part of a “great collaborative effort” to make waters like San Francisco Bay safer for the whales.

While the new shipping lanes keep ships out of areas in which whales are most commonly found, the animals do not confine themselves to only those parts of the bay. Researchers go out on the bay to collect information on where the whales go and congregate, but they are only out there three to five weeks out of the year.

This is why, Jahncke says, they “need additional help… [and] eyes out on the water.”

Researchers have been seeking ways to further reduce the chances of ships striking whales in San Francisco Bay. They have recently decided to enlist the public’s help with the implementation of the new Whale Spotter app, which will allow anyone out on the water to report where they see whales.

The hope is that whale watchers, recreational fishers, and others will use the app to report any whale sightings. Point Blue will then be able to use the information provided via the app to “make maps and represent the data in a way NOAA can use it,” says Jahncke.

Pitkin said, “The goal is to get information available in real-time to mariners about where whale concentrations are so they know” how to alter their course or speed.

The app is not the only way members of the public can join in the efforts to protect local whales. Point Blue is seeking financial contributions to aid its effort to raise funds for the app and ongoing marine research. People can visit www.prbo.org to make a donation.

Meanwhile, on Sept. 25, a federal judge ruled the National Marine Fisheries Service failed to protect thousands of whales, dolphins, sea lions, seals, and porpoises from US Navy training exercises along the Pacific coast. It requires the agency to reconsider permits and whether exercises violated the Endangered Species Act. The case was filed by Earthjustice, whose attorney Steve Mashuda said, “This is a victory for dozens of protected species of marine mammals, including critically endangered Southern Resident orcas, blue whales, humpback whales, dolphins, and porpoises.”

Industrial hemp legalized in California

0

After being stuck in legislative limbo for 14 years, industrial hemp will soon be a legally sanctioned agricultural crop in the state of California.

The California Industrial Hemp Farming Act (SB 566) was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown on Sept. 25, ending years of deliberation dating back to 1999, a process that included multiple gubernatorial vetoes. The freshly signed law will allow approved California residents to grow hemp for industrial purposes by reclassifying the once-felonious plant as a “fiber or oilseed crop.”

SB 566, a bill championed since 2005 by Sen. Mark Leno (D-SF), defines industrial hemp as the “nonpsychoactive types of the plant Cannabis saliva L. and the seed produced therefrom, having no more than 3/10 of 1 percent of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) contained in the dried flowering tops.”

In simpler terms: It doesn’t protect marijuana, but rather marijuana’s less mind-bending cousin, which is far more useful as a raw industrial material.

“We are very pleased to have the signature,” Sen. Leno told the Guardian. “It’s been a 10-year effort to get here. It’s a job still, but [the passing of SB 566] will help sustain family farms in California for the future and likely create more job opportunities. Hemp is a $500 million a year industry in California, and it’s growing at 10 percent annually.”

California now follows in the footsteps of nine other states and 30 other countries that have reclassified the innocuous plant as a crop with agricultural and commercial value. And it is quite valuable.

“This is a miracle plant that has served the planet Earth well for, literally, millennia, and that we currently legally manufacture and sell thousands of hemp products including food, clothing, shelter, paper, fuel, all biodegradable products,” said Leno. “It’s renewable every 90 days, grows without herbicides, pesticides and fungicides, and needs less water than corn. It is the definition of sustainability.”

But the reputation of hemp hasn’t always had champions like Leno. Since the initial proposal of Assembly House Resolution 32 back in 1999, the legislation has been vetoed four times by three different governors. Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger cited a “false sense of security” he feared would be cultivated among the growers of the crop, due to its illegality at a federal level.

Gov. Brown had previously shot down the proposed legislation in 2011, citing a gap in state and federal law as the reason. However, he did remark in his veto message at the time that “it is absurd that hemp is being imported into the state, but our farmers cannot grow it.”

And it would seem that Brown’s recognition of hemp’s merits finally outweighed his concern over the potential for California growers to face federal prosecution, which is a major relief for the architects of SB 566. Now Californians can stop relying on imported hemp from Mexico and Canada (among other places) and start legally manufacturing their own.

“We currently manufacture literally thousands of [hemp] products — legally — and sell them,” said Leno. “This is why this issue has been so nonsensical.”

The “nonsensical” issue has had deep roots, given hemp’s historically ambiguous federal standing. As Brown’s 2011 veto message noted, “federal law clearly establishes that all cannabis plants, including industrial hemp, are marijuana, which is a federally regulated controlled substance.”

But that isn’t a universally held assertion. Back in 1970, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the federal Controlled Substances Act of 1970 “explicitly excludes nonpsychoactive hemp from the definition of marijuana,” a decision that the federal government never appealed. It’s a decision that Leno agrees with.

“We’ve always believed that there is no federal preemption, because we believe that that court case ruled that Congress had knowingly exempted industrial hemp from the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 –because it’s not a drug,” said Leno.

Now the state of California can do what more than 30 countries (including Canada, Great Britain, France, Germany, and China) and nine states are already doing: cultivating and processing a plant that many have touted as the “miracle plant.”

Now that SB 566 has passed, however, the looming question still remains as to how the federal government will respond. But Leno is confident that it will respect the will of California lawmakers.

“I have great confidence in a recent statement by Attorney General Eric Holder,” said Leno. “He’s said that if a state puts into place a legal allowance and regulatory scheme, that the federal government would not interfere with marijuana. Now, we need clarification between hemp and marijuana, but there’s no sensical way that that could be interpreted that hemp is excluded, given that hemp’s not a drug.”

Either way, hemp is on the horizon here in California.

Community not criminalization

8

 

By María Poblet

OPINION San Francisco is poised to break ground in defense of immigrants, an important step towards turning the tide against the criminalization of communities of color.

In a unanimous vote on September 24, the Board of Supervisors supported a due process ordinance that, after final approval, will reduce deportations by setting strict limits on collaboration between federal immigration enforcement and local authorities. Our city will make history by refusing to implement the federal Secure Communities program, which allows US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to request an immigration hold detention without cause, regardless of immigration status, at local expense.

This victory didn’t trickle down like fog from the “progressive Bay Area bubble.” It was hard fought, from the bottom up. Immigrant and undocumented people most impacted by the problems led the fight, and they built a movement too strong to ignore. Causa Justa::Just Cause helped organize the groundswell, as part of the San Francisco Immigrant Rights Defense Committee, a broad grassroots collaboration. We had support from progressive champions John Avalos, Eric Mar, David Campos, and five additional co-sponsors on the board.

This movement builds on the fights in the 1980s to make San Francisco a Sanctuary City, welcoming survivors of the wars in Central America. We build on the fights in the ’90s to re-commit to those values in the face of a new wave of migration, when economic refugees arrived, fleeing the hunger caused by US-imposed Free Trade Agreements. We build on the very personal fights of everyday people, like a woman we’ll call Silvia, a domestic violence survivor who met with the District Attorney repeatedly, demanded that he lead those meetings in Spanish so she could participate fully, advocated for herself and her community, and ultimately won his commitment of support for this ordinance. This victory belongs to the hundreds of community leaders who, like Silvia, overcame intimidation, organized their families and neighbors, and showed our elected officials the way forward.

In a national context, where states like Georgia, Alabama and Arizona hunt down immigrants, we in California, a majority immigrant, majority people of color state, have the opportunity, and the responsibility, to follow Silvia’s leadership. It’s time to reject criminalization, and build community.

Every time there’s a new way to label someone a “criminal,” more families and communities are torn apart. Millions of black and Latino people are behind bars already, thanks to criminalization policies like the war on drugs, structural unemployment, decades of divestment from working class communities, and racial discrimination. Creating new immigration violations only makes that problem worse, trapping whole new sectors of our society in the prison dragnet. This advance in San Francisco should inspire our state as a whole not only to reject S-Comm, but also to take bold action to address the profoundly problematic prison system, and challenge the racism and poverty it depends on.

But, for our state to stand up like that is going to take a serious transformation. Gov. Jerry Brown recently announced plans to expand the prison system with revenues from Prop. 30 — the grassroots progressive tax passed last year to support public schools and social services. Causa Justa::Just Cause, as part of California Calls, through SF Rising and Oakland Rising, was one of hundreds of community groups that helped pass this progressive tax. We are outraged to see the governor literally betting on the criminalization of the next generation, with money that was supposed to support their success.

Policies like S-Comm manufacture the need for more detention facilities, ultimately benefitting corporate interests like the GEO private prison group. Its lucrative business depends on criminalization, and a culture of fear. If politicians aren’t brave enough to survive the accusation that they are “soft on crime” in order to champion real change, then we the people will have to take it into our own hands. Immigrant communities, black communities, communities of color, and poor communities need to keep building the solidarity and the movement that will allow us to win, from San Francisco to Sacramento to DC. There is much more to be done, and we can only do it together.  

María Poblet is executive director of Causa Justa::Just Cause.

Rights and wrongs

11

news@sfbg.com

On a February evening in 2011, Derrick Walls ran into a friend at a bus stop near Third Street and Palou Avenue in the Bayview. Walls was headed to view a used car he thought he might be interested in buying. The men chatted briefly and, as the 44 bus rolled into sight, Walls shook his friend’s hand to say goodbye.

Seconds after they parted ways, a police cruiser passing on the other side of the street pulled a U-turn, screeched to a halt, and discharged police officers who quickly apprehended both men.

“I guess they thought they saw something,” recalled 43-year-old Walls. “I was just talking to my friend. I was going to leave because the bus was coming and I shook his hand to say ‘see you later’ and I guess the cops saw that and thought it was a transaction.”

The officers searched both men at the site. Their discovery of cash on Walls and drugs on the other man seemed to confirm that they had just witnessed a drug deal. The $1,680 Walls had saved up for a new car was alleged to be the sale’s proceeds and confiscated on the spot as evidence.

Later on at the station, a strip search of Walls yielded no evidence of drug possession or intent to sell. His friend copped to the drug charge but confessed that he’d purchased his stash elsewhere — not from Walls.

Three days later, Walls was released from custody and all charges against him were dropped. Two and a half years later, however, the city still has his money.

“I never went to court or anything,” recalled Walls. “You would think they would just give my money back right then. But they told me to go to [the civil courthouse on] McAllister Street to some other people.”

 

TWICE WRONGED

How assets seized in a criminal investigation migrate from the jailhouse to the civil courthouse — and how those wrongfully accused of crimes can get their money back — is not always clear.

“The state has such incredible power to wield and people have very little recourse,” says attorney Nick Gregoratos with Prisoner Legal Services, a division of the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department that helps the accused assert their rights.

San Francisco Police Department spokesperson Gordon Shyy would say only that the police follow the Department of Justice’s Asset Forfeiture Policy Manual and that they “don’t seize assets on the street, they take things as evidence.”

But that “evidence” often stays in the bank accounts of police or prosecutors, subsidizing their operations. DOJ guidelines say that when assets from a criminal investigation cease to have evidentiary value, they can be returned through an administrative or civil process.

“Approximately half the time, people contest the amount or contest it in its entirety,” said Assistant District Attorney Alex Bastian, who estimates that the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office handles 200 to 250 asset forfeiture cases per year.

“There are certain situations where if a charge is dropped, there is still, in fact, a forfeiture proceeding that goes forward,” Bastian explained. “There’s a criminal proceeding beyond a reasonable doubt and the civil [case] is a preponderance of evidence and the burden of proof is on the party contesting the forfeiture.”

Contesting an asset seizure can be difficult if the claimant is incarcerated or poor. Regulations seem designed to induce fatigue and resignation in those without a lawyer and the costs associated with retaining a lawyer often exceed the amount of money seized in the first place. In some cases, claimants have a right to court-appointed counsel, but they aren’t made aware of that fact.

Gregoratos represented Walls and has, over the years, worked with many others like him who have been deprived of their property without due process.

Gregoratos described another client who had cash seized by police as she was on her way to purchase a money order in SoMa to pay her rent. She was arrested on suspicion of drug sales, but there wasn’t enough evidence to support any charges against her.

The woman was instructed to file a claim within a month to get her money back. But she filed at the criminal rather than the civil court and administrators there waited until just before 30 days were up to notify the woman of her error.

The following morning, her $1,500 was considered officially forfeited because she had statutorily defaulted on her right to file claim.

“There would have been no way that they could have taken her money other than that she couldn’t figure out how to navigate the system and didn’t know her rights,” said Gregoratos, who later filed a motion opposing the default. “Essentially, she’s being precluded from having any judicial review.”

 

STACKED DECK

Many forfeiture cases unfold similarly, with the government capturing assets through a series of bureaucratic mechanisms stacked against individuals. Claimants are faced unexpectedly with the burden of proof that assets were lawfully obtained, even when law enforcement wasn’t able to meet that burden against them.

Often “the case is handled completely by the [prosecutorial] agency. There’s no judge, no hearing, no evidence, no appeal. So many people still lose by default,” commented Brenda Grantland, a Marin attorney who has fought government seizures for more than 30 years.

Civil asset forfeiture has a long and controversial history in the United States. In the Revolutionary War era, the British were known to impound the property of colonists who had fallen out of favor with the crown, without proof of guilt.

In the War on Drugs, forfeiture gained popularity as a way to strangle the financial channels underlying trafficking operations while providing a funding source for the law enforcement agencies that waged that war.

“The law is so complicated and the agencies are motivated to win these cases because it brings in money to their bank accounts. And they’re hooked on the money now. And the more money they get, the more corrupt they get,” said Grantland, who is president of the Forfeiture Endangers American Rights (FEAR) Foundation.

In 2010, the most recent year for which the California Department of Justice reported asset forfeiture statistics, San Francisco seized $391,643 in 115 separate actions completed in the city. Between 2002 and 2010, it seized nearly $6.5 million.

In most states, asset forfeitures follow federal regulations. In California, the Health and Safety Code dictates that 65 percent of assets forfeited are distributed to the local law enforcement agency responsible for the seizure, while 10 percent go to the prosecuting agency that processed the action and 1 percent go to train those who profit from forfeitures in the ethical application of related laws.

But Grantland says that training has done little to deter a “grab first, ask questions later,” approach. Critics have argued that the practice presents challenges to both the Fourth and 14th Amendments.

 

SCAMMING THE POOR

Police “don’t have to find any evidence of crime,” Grantland told us. “They have dogs that pretend to be clairvoyant. It’s all a hoax. I don’t care how much they’ve tested and trained those dogs, they can’t possibly know that’s drug money.”

Contrary to its original purpose, civil forfeitures at the local level tend to disproportionately target small-time offenders. Of the seizures completed in San Francisco in 2010, nearly half yielded under $1,000 and one as little as $242. More than three-quarters of forfeitures involved less than $2,000.

“They’re getting money from the weakest, poorest class of people,” Grantland said. “When you seize $500 or $600 every few minutes, it adds up pretty quickly.”

Though the San Francisco Police Department was the beneficiary of $254,568 in 2010 alone, SFPD’s Shyy denied that revenue from forfeitures — which funds equipment purchases, education, and training — influences its policies or tactics.

“If someone has a large amount of cash, we can’t just take it from them. That’s considered robbery,” Shyy said. But that’s pretty much what happened to Walls. “If I did that to somebody on street like that, I’d be in jail,” he said. “But they can just do it to me.”

In the last two years, Walls has complied with all the court’s discovery requests to prove the cash taken from him was lawfully obtained. He has provided paystubs from a longshoreman’s job he has held for eight years at the Port of Oakland.

Gregoratos said that the court “has people over a barrel” and will likely hold Walls’ cash for a full three years. The District Attorney has the option of re-filing a notice of forfeiture until the statute of limitations on the original criminal action is up.

“How are you going to re-file on something that was thrown out? That’s just an excuse to keep my money for a whole ‘nother year,” Walls argued. “I did everything I was supposed to do and they still haven’t given back my money.”

Endorsements 2013

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We’re heading into a lackluster election on Nov. 5. The four incumbents on the ballot have no serious challengers and voter turnout could hit an all-time low. That’s all the more reason to read up on the issues, show up at the polls, and exert an outsized influence on important questions concerning development standards and the fate of the city’s waterfront, the cost of prescription drugs, and the long-term fiscal health of the city.

 

PROP. A — RETIREE HEALTH CARE TRUST FUND

YES

Note: This article has been corrected from an earlier version, which incorrectly stated that Prop A increases employee contributions to health benefits.

Throughout the United States, the long-term employee pension and health care obligations of government agencies have been used as wedge issues for anti-government activists to attack public employee unions, even in San Francisco. The fiscal concerns are real, but they’re often exaggerated or manipulated for political reasons.

That’s one reason why the consensus-based approach to the issue that San Francisco has undertaken in recent years has been so important, and why we endorse Prop. A, which safeguards the city’s Retiree Health Care Trust Fund and helps solve this vexing problem.

Following up on the consensus pension reform measure Prop. B, which increased how much new city employees paid for lifetime health benefits, this year’s Prop. A puts the fund into a lock-box to ensure it is there to fund the city’s long-term retiree health care obligations, which are projected at $4.4 billion over the next 30 years.

“The core of it says you can’t touch the assets until it’s fully funded,” Sup. Mark Farrell, who has taken a lead role on addressing the issue, told us. “The notion of playing political football with employee health care will be gone.”

The measure has the support of the entire Board of Supervisors and the San Francisco Labor Council. Progressive Sup. David Campos strongly supports the measure and he told us, “I think it makes sense and is something that goes beyond political divides.”

There are provisions that would allow the city to tap the fund in emergencies, but only after it is fully funded or if the mayor, controller, the Trust Board, and two-thirds of the Board of Supervisors signs off, a very high bar. So vote yes and let’s put this distracting issue behind us.

 

PROP. B — 8 WASHINGTON SPECIAL USE DISTRICT

NO, NO, NO!

Well-meaning people can arrive at different conclusions on the 8 Washington project, the waterfront luxury condo development that was approved by the Board of Supervisors last year and challenged with a referendum that became Prop. C. But Prop. B is simply the developer writing his own rules and exempting them from normal city review.

We oppose the 8 Washington project, as we explain in our next endorsement, but we can understand how even some progressive-minded people might think the developers’ $11 million affordable housing and $4.8 million transit impact payments to the city are worth letting this project slide through.

But Prop. B is a different story, and it’s something that those who believe in honesty, accountability, and good planning should oppose on principle, even if they support the underlying project. Contrary to the well-funded deceptions its backers are circulating, claiming this measure is about parks, Prop. B is nothing more than a developer and his attorneys preventing meaningful review and enforcement by the city of their vague and deceptive promises.

It’s hard to know where to begin to refute the wall of mendacity its backers have erected to fool voters into supporting this measure, but we can start with their claim that it will “open the way for new public parks, increased access to the Embarcadero Waterfront, hundreds of construction jobs, new sustainable residential housing and funding for new affordable housing.”

There’s nothing the public will get from Prop. B that it won’t get from Prop. C or the already approved 8 Washington project. Nothing. Same parks, same jobs, same housing, same funding formulas. But the developer would get an unprecedented free pass, with the measure barring discretionary review by the Planning Department — which involves planners using their professional judgment to decide if the developer is really delivering what he’s promising — forcing them to rubber-stamp the myriad details still being developed rather than acting as advocates for the general public.

“This measure would also create a new ‘administrative clearance’ process that would limit the Planning Director’s time and discretion to review a proposed plan for the Site,” is how the official ballot summary describes that provision to voters.

Proponents of the measure also claim “it empowers voters with the decision on how to best utilize our waterfront,” which is another deception. Will you be able to tweak details of the project to make it better, as the Board of Supervisors was able to do, making a long list of changes to the deal’s terms? No. You’re simply being given the opportunity to approve a 34-page initiative, written by crafty attorneys for a developer who stands to make millions of dollars in profits, the fine details of which most people will never read nor fully understand.

Ballot box budgeting is bad, but ballot box regulation of complex development deals is even worse. And if it works here, we can all expect to see more ballot measures by developers who want to write their own “special use district” rules to tie the hands of planning professionals.

When we ask proponents of this measure why they needed Prop. B, they claimed that Prop. C limited them to just talking about the project’s building height increases, a ridiculous claim for a well-funded campaign now filling mailers and broadcast ads with all kinds of misleading propaganda.

With more than $1 million and counting being funneled into this measure by the developer and his allies, this measure amounts to an outrageous, shameless lie being told to voters, which Mayors Ed Lee and Gavin Newsom have shamefully chosen to align themselves with over the city they were elected to serve.

As we said, people can differ on how they see certain development deals. But we should all agree that it’s recipe for disaster when developers can write every last detail of their own deals and limit the ability of professional planners to act in the public interest. Don’t just vote no, vote hell no, or NO, No, no!

 

PROPOSITION C — 8 WASHINGTON REFERENDUM

NO

San Francisco’s northeastern waterfront is a special place, particularly since the old Embarcadero Freeway was removed, opening up views and public access to the Ferry Building and other recently renovated buildings, piers, and walkways along the Embarcadero.

The postcard-perfect stretch is a major draw for visiting tourists, and the waterfront is protected by state law as a public trust and overseen by multiple government agencies, all of whom have prevented development of residential or hotel high-rises along the Embarcadero.

Then along came developer Simon Snellgrove, who took advantage of the Port of San Francisco’s desperate financial situation, offered to buy its Seawall Lot 351 and adjacent property from the Bay Club at 8 Washington St., and won approval to build 134 luxury condos up to 12 stories high, exceeding the city’s height limit at the site by 62 percent.

So opponents challenged the project with a referendum, a rarely used but important tool for standing up to deep-pocketed developers who can exert an outsized influence on politicians. San Franciscans now have the chance to demand a project more in scale with its surroundings.

The waterfront is supposed to be for everyone, not just those who can afford the most expensive condominiums in the city, costing an average of $5 million each. The high-end project also violates city standards by creating a parking space for every unit and an additional 200 spots for the Port, on a property with the best public transit access and options in the city.

This would set a terrible precedent, encouraging other developers of properties on or near the waterfront to also seek taller high-rises and parking for more cars, changes that defy decades of good planning work done for the sensitive, high-stakes waterfront.

The developers would have you believe this is a battle between rival groups of rich people (noting that many opponents come from the million-dollar condos adjacent to the site), or that it’s a choice between parks and the surface parking lot and ugly green fence that now surrounds the Bay Club (the owner of which, who will profit from this project, has resisted petitions to open up the site).

But there’s a reason why the 8 Washington project has stirred more emotion and widespread opposition that any development project in recent years, which former City Attorney Louise Renne summed up when she told us, “I personally feel rich people shouldn’t monopolize the waterfront.”

A poll commissioned by project opponents recently found that 63 percent of respondents think the city is building too much luxury housing, which it certainly is. But it’s even more outrageous when that luxury housing uses valuable public land along our precious waterfront, and it can’t even play by the rules in doing so.

Vote no and send the 8 Washington project back to the drawing board.

 

PROP. D — PRESCRIPTION DRUG PURCHASING

YES

San Francisco is looking to rectify a problem consumers face every day in their local pharmacy: How can we save money on our prescription drugs?

Prop. D doesn’t solve that problem outright, but it mandates our politicians start the conversation on reducing the $23 million a year the city spends on pharmaceuticals, and to urge state and federal governments to negotiate for better drug prices as well.

San Francisco spends $3.5 million annually on HIV treatment alone, so it makes sense that the AIDS Healthcare Foundation is the main proponent of Prop. D, and funder of the Committee on Fair Drug Pricing. Being diagnosed as HIV positive can be life changing, not only for the health effects, but for the $2,000-5,000 monthly drug cost.

Drug prices have gotten so out-of-control that many consumers take the less than legal route of buying their drugs from Canada, because our neighbors up north put limits on what pharmaceutical companies can charge, resulting in prices at least half those of the United States.

The high price of pharmaceuticals affects our most vulnerable, the elderly and the infirm. Proponents of Prop. D are hopeful that a push from San Francisco could be the beginning of a social justice movement in cities to hold pharmaceutical companies to task, a place where the federal government has abundantly failed.

Even though Obamacare would aid some consumers, notably paying 100 percent of prescription drug purchases for some Medicare patients, the cost to government is still astronomically high. Turning that around could start here in San Francisco. Vote yes on D.

 

ASSESSOR-RECORDER

CARMEN CHU

With residential and commercial property in San Francisco assessed at around $177 billion, property taxes bring in enough revenue to make up roughly 40 percent of the city’s General Fund. That money can be allocated for anything from after-school programs and homeless services to maintaining vital civic infrastructure.

Former District 4 Sup. Carmen Chu was appointed by Mayor Ed Lee to serve as Assessor-Recorder when her predecessor, Phil Ting, was elected to the California Assembly. Six months later, she’s running an office responsible for property valuation and the recording of official documents like property deeds and marriage licenses (about 55 percent of marriage licenses since the Supreme Court decision on Prop. 8 have been issued to same-sex couples).

San Francisco property values rose nearly 5 percent in the past year, reflecting a $7.8 billion increase. Meanwhile, appeals have tripled from taxpayers disputing their assessments, challenging Chu’s staff and her resolve. As a district supervisor, Chu was a staunch fiscal conservative whose votes aligned with downtown and the mayor, so our endorsement isn’t without some serious reservations.

That said, she struck a few notes that resonated with the Guardian during our endorsement interview. She wants to create a system to automatically notify homeowners when banks begin the foreclosure process, to warn them and connect them with helpful resources before it’s too late. Why hasn’t this happened before?

She’s also interested in improving system to capture lost revenue in cases where property transfers are never officially recorded, continuing work that Ting began. We support the idea of giving this office the tools it needs to go out there and haul in the millions of potentially lost revenue that property owners may owe the city, and Chu has our support for that effort.

 

CITY ATTORNEY

DENNIS HERRERA

Dennis Herrera doesn’t claim to be a progressive, describing himself as a good liberal Democrat, but he’s been doing some of the most progressive deeds in City Hall these days: Challenging landlords, bad employers, rogue restaurants, PG&E, the healthcare industry, opponents of City College of San Francisco, and those who fought to keep same-sex marriage illegal.

The legal realm can be more decisive than the political, and it’s especially effective when they work together. Herrera has recently used his office to compel restaurants to meet their health care obligations to employees, enforcing an earlier legislative gain. And his long court battle to defend marriage equality in California validated an act by the executive branch.

But Herrera has also shown a willingness and skill to blaze new ground and carry on important regulation of corporate players that the political world seemed powerless to touch, from his near-constant legal battles with PG&E over various issues to defending tenants from illegal harassment and evictions to his recent lawsuit challenging the Accreditation Commission of Community and Junior Colleges over its threats to CCSF.

We have issues with some of the tactics his office used in its aggressive and unsuccessful effort to remove Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi from office. But we understand that is was his obligation to act on behalf of Mayor Ed Lee, and we admire Herrera’s professionalism, which he also exhibited by opposing the Central Subway as a mayoral candidate yet defending it as city attorney.

“How do you use the power of the law to make a difference in people’s lives every single day?” was the question that Herrera posed to us during his endorsement interview, one that he says is always on his mind.

We at the Guardian have been happy to watch how he’s answered that question for nearly 11 years, and we offer him our strong endorsement.

 

TREASURER/TAX COLLECTOR

JOSE CISNEROS

It’s hard not to like Treasurer/Tax Collector Jose Cisneros. He’s charming, smart, compassionate, and has run this important office well for nine years, just the person that we need there to implement the complicated, voter-approved transition to a new form of business tax, a truly gargantuan undertaking.

Even our recent conflicts with Cisneros — stemming from frustrations that he won’t assure the public that he’s doing something about hotel tax scofflaw Airbnb (see “Into thin air,” Aug. 6) — are dwarfed by our understanding of taxpayer privacy laws and admiration that Cisneros ruled against Airbnb and its ilk in the first place, defying political pressure to drop the rare tax interpretation.

So Cisneros has the Guardian’s enthusiastic endorsement. He also has our sympathies for having to create a new system for taxing local businesses based on their gross receipts rather than their payroll costs, more than doubling the number of affected businesses, placing them into one of eight different categories, and applying complex formulas assessing how much of their revenues comes from in the city.

“This is going to be the biggest change to taxes in a generation,” Cisneros told us of the system that he will start to implement next year, calling the new regime “a million times more complicated than the payroll tax.”

Yet Cisneros has still found time to delve into the controversial realm of short-term apartment sublets. Although he’s barred from saying precisely what he’s doing to make Airbnb pay the $1.8 million in Transient Occupancy Taxes that we have shown the company is dodging, he told us, “We are here to enforce the law and collect the taxes.”

And Cisneros has continued to expand his department’s financial empowerment programs such as Bank on San Francisco, which help low-income city residents establish bank accounts and avoid being gouged by the high interest rates of check cashing outlets. That and similar programs are now spreading to other cities, and we’re encouraged to see Cisneros enthusiastically exporting San Francisco values, which will be helped by his recent election as president of the League of California Cities.

 

SUPERVISOR, DIST. 4

KATY TANG

With just six months on the job after being appointed by Mayor Ed Lee, Sup. Katy Tang faces only token opposition in this race. She’s got a single opponent, accountant Ivan Seredni, who’s lived in San Francisco for three years and decided to run for office because his wife told him to “stop complaining and do something,” according to his ballot statement.

Tang worked in City Hall as a legislative aide to her predecessor, Carmen Chu, for six years. She told us she works well with Sups. Mark Farrell and Scott Wiener, who help make up the board’s conservative flank. In a predominantly Chinese district, where voters tend to be more conservative, Tang is a consistently moderate vote who grew up in the district and speaks Mandarin.

Representing the Sunset District, Tang, who is not yet 30 years old, faces some new challenges. Illegal “in-law” units are sprouting up in basements and backyards throughout the area. This presents the thorny dilemma of whether to crack down on unpermitted construction — thus hindering a source of housing stock that is at least within reach for lower-income residents — look the other way, or “legalize” the units in an effort to mitigate potential fire hazards or health risks. Tang told us one of the greatest concerns named by Sunset residents is the increasing cost of living in San Francisco; she’s even open to accepting a little more housing density in her district to deal with the issue.

Needless to say, the Guardian hasn’t exactly seen eye-to-eye with the board’s fiscally conservative supervisors, including Tang and her predecessor, Chu. We’re granting Tang an endorsement nevertheless, because she strikes us as dedicated to serving the Sunset over the long haul, and in touch with the concerns of young people who are finding it increasingly difficult to gain a foothold in San Francisco.

Project Censored

17

joe@sfbg.com

This year’s annual Project Censored list of the most underreported news stories includes the widening wealth gap, the trial of Pfc. Bradley Manning for leaking classified documents, and President Obama’s war on whistleblowers — all stories that actually received considerable news coverage.

So how exactly were they “censored” and what does that say of this venerable media watchdog project?

Project Censored isn’t only about stories that were deliberately buried or ignored. It’s about stories the media has covered poorly through a sort of false objectivity that skews the truth. Journalists do cry out against injustice, on occasion, but they don’t always do it well.

That’s why Project Censored was started back in 1976: to highlight stories the mainstream media missed or gave scant attention to. Although the project initially started in our backyard at Sonoma State University, now academics and students from 18 universities and community colleges across the country pore through hundreds of submissions of overlooked and underreported stories annually. A panel of academics and journalists then picks the top 25 stories and curates them into themed clusters. This year’s book, Censored 2014: Fearless Speech in Fearful Times, hits bookstores this week.

What causes the media to stumble? There are as many reasons as there are failures.

Brooke Gladstone, host of the radio program On the Media and writer of the graphic novel cum news media critique, The Influencing Machine, said the story of Manning (who now goes by the first name Chelsea) was the perfect example of the media trying to cover a story right, but getting it mostly wrong.

“The Bradley Manning case is for far too long centered on his personality rather than the nature of his revelations,” Gladstone told us. Manning’s career was sacrificed for sending 700,000 classified documents about the Iraq war to WikiLeaks. But the media coverage focused largely on Manning’s trial and subsequent change in gender identity.

Gladstone said that this is part of the media’s inability to deal with vast quantities of information which, she said, “is not what most of our standard media does all that well.”

The media mangling of Manning is number one on the Project Censored list, but the shallow coverage this story received is not unique. The news media is in a crisis, particularly in the US, and it’s getting worse.

 

WATCHING THE WATCHDOGS

The Project for Excellence in Journalism, which conducts an annual analysis of trends in news, found that as revenue in journalism declined, newsrooms have shed 30 percent of their staff in the last decade. In 2012, the number of reporters in the US dipped to its lowest level since 1978, with fewer than 40,000 reporters nationally. This creates a sense of desperation in the newsroom, and in the end, it’s the public that loses.

“What won out is something much more palpable to the advertisers,” says Robert McChesney, an author, longtime media reform advocate, professor at University of Illinois, and host of Media Matters from 2000-2012. Blandness beat out fearless truth-telling.

Even worse than kowtowing to advertisers is the false objectivity the media tries to achieve, McChesney told us, neutering its news to stay “neutral” on a topic. This handcuffs journalists into not drawing conclusions, even when they are well-supported by the facts.

In order to report a story, they rely on the words of others to make claims, limiting what they can report.

“You allow people in power to set the range of legitimate debate, and you report on it,” McChesney said.

Project Censored stories reflect that dynamic — many of them require journalists to take a stand or present an illuminating perspective on a set of dry facts. For example, reporting on the increasing gulf between the rich and the poor is easy, but talking about why the rich are getting richer is where journalists begin to worry about their objectivity, Gladstone said.

“I think that there is a desire to stay away from stories that will inspire rhetoric of class warfare,” she said.

Unable to tell the story of a trend and unable to talk about rising inequality for fear of appearing partisan, reporters often fail to connect the dots for their readers.

One of Project Censored stories this year, “Bank Interests Inflate Global Prices by 35 to 40 Percent,” is a good example of the need for a media watchdog. Researchers point to interest payments as the primary way wealth is transferred from Main Street to Wall Street.

It’s how the banks are picking the pockets of the 99 percent. But if no politician is calling out the banks on this practice, if no advocacy group is gaining enough traction, shouldn’t it be the media’s role to protect the public and sound the battle cry?

“So much of media criticism is really political commentary squeezed through a media squeezer,” Gladstone said, “and it comes out media shaped.”

 

SHAPING THE MEDIA

McChesney says journalism should be a proactive watchdog by independently stating that something needs to be done. He said there’s more watchdog journalism calling out inequity in democracies where there is a more robust and funded media.

And they often have one thing we in US don’t — government subsidies for journalism.

“All the other democracies in the world, there are huge subsidies for public media and journalism,” McChesney said. “They not only rank ahead of us in terms of being democratic, they also rank ahead of us in terms of having a free press. Our press is shrinking.”

No matter what the ultimate economic solution is, the crisis of reporting is largely a crisis of money. McChesney calls it a “whole knife in the heart of journalism.”

For American journalism to revive itself, it has to move beyond its corporate ties. It has to become a truly free press. It’s time to end the myth that corporate journalism is the only way for media to be objective, monolithic, and correct.

The failures of that prescription are clear in Project Censored’s top 10 stories of the year:

1. Manning and the Failure of Corporate Media

Untold stories of Iraqi civilian deaths by American soldiers, US diplomats pushing aircraft sales on foreign royalty, uninvestigated abuse by Iraqi allies, the perils of the rise in private war contractors — this is what Manning exposed. They were stories that challenge the US political elite, and they were only made possible by a sacrifice.

Manning got a 35-year prison sentence for the revelation of state secrets to WikiLeaks, a story told countless times in corporate media. But as Project Censored posits, the failure of our media was not in the lack of coverage of Manning, but in its focus.

Though The New York Times partnered with WikiLeaks to release stories based on the documents, many published in 2010 through 2011, news from the leaks have since slowed to a trickle — a waste of over 700,000 pieces of classified intelligence giving unparalleled ground level views of America’s costly wars.

The media quickly took a scathing indictment of US military policy and spun it into a story about Manning’s politics and patriotism. As Rolling Stone pointed out (“Did the Media Fail Bradley Manning?”), Manning initially took the trove of leaks to The Washington Post and The New York Times, only to be turned away.

Alexa O’Brien, a former Occupy activist, scooped most of the media by actually attending Manning’s trial. She produced tens of thousands of words in transcriptions of the court hearings, one of the only reporters on the beat.

2. Richest Global 1 Percent Hide Billions in Tax Havens

Global corporate fatcats hold $21-32 trillion in offshore havens, money hidden from government taxation that would benefit people around the world, according to findings by James S. Henry, the former chief economist of the global management firm McKinsey & Company.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists obtained a leak in April 2013, revealing how widespread the buy-in was to these tax havens. The findings were damning: government officials in Canada, Russia, and other countries have embraced offshore accounts, the world’s top banks (including Deutsche Bank) have worked to maintain them, and the tax havens are used in Ponzi schemes.

Moving money offshore has implications that ripped through the world economy. Part of Greece’s economic collapse was due to these tax havens, ICIJ reporter Gerard Ryle told Gladstone on her radio show. “It’s because people don’t want to pay taxes,” he said. “You avoid taxes by going offshore and playing by different rules.”

US Senator Carl Levin, D-Michigan, introduced legislation to combat the practice, SB1533, The Stop Tax Haven Abuse Act, but so far the bill has had little play in the media.

Researcher James Henry said the hidden wealth was a “huge black hole” in the world economy that has never been measured, which could generate income tax revenues between $190-280 billion a year.

3. Trans-Pacific Partnership

Take 600 corporate advisors, mix in officials from 11 international governments, let it bake for about two years, and out pops international partnerships that threaten to cripple progressive movements worldwide.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a trade agreement, but leaked texts show it may allow foreign investors to use “investor-state” tribunals to extract extravagant extra damages for “expected future profits,” according to the Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch.

The trade watch group investigated the TPP and is the main advocate in opposition of its policies. The AFL-CIO, Sierra Club, and other organizations have also had growing concerns about the level of access granted to corporations in these agreements.

With extra powers granted to foreign firms, the possibility that companies would continue moving offshore could grow. But even with the risks of outsized corporate influence, the US has a strong interest in the TPP in order to maintain trade agreements with Asia.

The balancing act between corporate and public interests is at stake, but until the US releases more documents from negotiations, the American people will remain in the dark.

4. Obama’s War on Whistleblowers

President Obama has invoked the Espionage Act of 1917 more than every other president combined. Seven times, Obama has pursued leakers with the act, against Thomas Drake, Shamai Leibowitz, Bradley Manning, Stephen Kim, Jeffrey Sterling, John Kiriakou and most recently, Edward Snowden. All had ties to the State Department, FBI, CIA, or NSA, and all of them leaked to journalists.

“Neither party is raising hell over this. This is the sort of story that sort of slips through the cracks,” McChesney said. And when the politicians don’t raise a fuss, neither does the media.

Pro Publica covered the issue, constructing timelines and mapping out the various arrests and indictments. But where Project Censored points out the lack of coverage is in Obama’s hypocrisy — only a year before, he signed The Whistleblower Protection Act.

Later on, he said he wouldn’t follow every letter of the law in the bill he had only just signed.

“Certain provisions in the Act threaten to interfere with my constitutional duty to supervise the executive branch,” Obama said. “As my Administration previously informed the Congress, I will interpret those sections consistent with my authority.”

5. Hate Groups and Antigovernment Groups on Rise across US

Hate groups in the US are on the rise, according to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center. There are 1,007 known hate groups operating across the country, it wrote, including neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan, white nationalists, neo-Confederates, racist skinheads, black separatists, border vigilantes, and others.

Since 2000, those groups have grown by over half, and there was a “powerful resurgence” of Patriot groups, the likes of which were involved in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Worst of all, the huge growth in armed militias seems to have conspicuous timing with Obama’s election.

“The number of Patriot groups, including armed militias, has grown 813 percent since Obama was elected — from 149 in 2008 to 1,360 in 2012,” the SPLC reported.

Though traditionally those groups were race motivated, the report noted that now they are gunning for government. There was a smattering of news coverage when the SPLC released its report, but not much since.

6. Billionaires’ Rising Wealth Intensifies Poverty and Inequality

The world’s billionaires added $241 billion to their collective net worth in 2012. That’s an economic recovery, right?

That gain, coupled with the world’s richest peoples’ new total worth of $1.9 trillion (more than the GDP of Canada), wasn’t reported by some kooky socialist group, but by Bloomberg News. But few journalists are asking the important question: Why?

Project Censored points to journalist George Monbiot, who highlights a reduction of taxes and tax enforcement, the privatization of public assets, and the weakening of labor unions.

His conclusions are backed up by the United Nations’ Trade and Development Report from 2012, which noted how the trend hurts everyone: “Recent empirical and analytical work reviewed here mostly shows a negative correlation between inequality and growth.”

7. Merchant of Death and Nuclear Weapons

The report highlighted by Project Censored on the threat of nuclear war is an example not of censorship, strictly, but a desire for media reform.

Project Censored highlighted a study from the The Physicians for Social Responsibility that said 1 billion people could starve in the decade after a nuclear detonation. Corn production in the US would decline by an average of 10 percent for an entire decade and food prices would make food inaccessible to hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest.

This is not journalism in the classic sense, Gladstone said. In traditional journalism, as it’s played out since the early 20th century, news requires an element of something new in order to garner reporting — not a looming threat or danger.

So in this case, what Project Censored identified was the need for a new kind of journalism, what it calls “solutions journalism.”

“Solutions journalism,” Sarah van Gelder wrote in the foreword to Censored 2014, “must investigate not only the individual innovations, but also the larger pattern of change — the emerging ethics, institutions, and ways of life that are coming into existence.”

8. Bank Interests Inflate Global Prices by 35 to 40 Percent

Does 35 percent of everything bought in the United States go to interest? Professor Margrit Kennedy of the University of Hanover thinks so, and she says it’s a major funnel of money from the 99 percent to the rich.

In her 2012 book, Occupy Money, Kennedy wrote that tradespeople, suppliers, wholesalers, and retailers along the chain of production rely on credit. Her figures were initially drawn from the German economy, but Ellen Brown of the Web of Debt and Global Research said she found similar patterns in the US.

This “hidden interest” has sapped the growth of other industries, she said, lining the pockets of the financial sector.

So if interest is stagnating so many industries, why would journalists avoid the topic?

Few economists have echoed her views, and few experts emerged to back up her assertions. Notably, she’s a professor in an architectural school, with no formal credentials in economics.

From her own website, she said she became an “expert” in economics “through her continuous research and scrutiny.”

Without people in power pushing the topic, McChesney said that a mainstream journalist would be seen as going out on a limb.

“The reporters raise an issue the elites are not raising themselves, then you’re ideological, have an axe to grind, sort of a hack,” he said. “It makes journalism worthless on pretty important issues.”

9. Icelanders Vote to Include Commons in Their Constitution

In 2012, Icelandic citizens voted in referendum to change the country’s 1944 constitution. When asked, “In the new constitution, do you want natural resources that are not privately owned to be declared national property?” its citizens voted 81 percent in favor.

Project Censored says this is important for us to know, but in the end, US journalism is notably American-centric. Even the Nieman Watchdog, a foundation for journalism at Harvard University, issued a report in 2011 citing the lack of reporting on a war the US funneled over $4 trillion into over the past decade, not to mention the cost in human lives.

If we don’t pay attention to our own wars, why exactly does Project Censored think we’d pay attention to Iceland?

“The constitutional reforms are a direct response to the nation’s 2008 financial crash,” Project Censored wrote, “when Iceland’s unregulated banks borrowed more than the country’s gross domestic product from international wholesale money markets.”

Solutions-based journalism rears its head again, and the idea is that the US has much to learn from Iceland, but even Gladstone was dubious.

“Iceland is being undercovered, goddamnit! Where is our Iceland news?” she joked with us. Certainly I agree with some of this list, Bradley Manning was covered badly, I was sad the tax haven story didn’t get more coverage. But when has anyone cared about Iceland?”

10. A “Culture of Cruelty” along Mexico–US Border

The plight of Mexican border crossings usually involves three types of stories in US press: deaths in the stretch of desert beyond the border, the horrors of drug cartels, and heroic journeys of border crossings by sympathetic workers. But a report released a year ago by the organization No More Deaths snags the 10th spot for overlooked stories in Project Censored.

The report asserts that people arrested by Border Patrol while crossing were denied water and told to let their sick die. No More Deaths conducted more than 12,000 interviews to form the basis of its study in three Mexican cities: Nacos, Nogales and Agua Prieta. The report cites grossly ineffective oversight from the Department of Homeland Security. This has received some coverage, from Salon showcasing video of Border Patrol agents destroying jugs of water meant for crossers to a recent New York Times piece citing a lack of oversight for Border Patrol’s excessive force.

The ACLU lobbied the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to call international attention to the plight of these border crossers at the hands of US law enforcement.

If ever an issue flew under the radar, this is it.