Volume 48 Number 10

Volume 48 Number 10 Flip-through Edition

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Eat your heart out

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arts@sfbg.com

THEATER Crowd-pleasing can sometimes sound like a put-down — hey, sometimes it is — but it becomes a virtue in Kneehigh’s Tristan & Yseult. The Cornwall-based company (already known locally for Brief Encounter at ACT in 2009 and The Wild Bride at Berkeley Rep last winter) has returned to Berkeley Rep with a remounting of its 2003 hit. And it proves as accomplished and intelligent as it is shamelessly entertaining.

Adapted and directed by Kneehigh’s joint artistic director Emma Rice from the triangular love story of Tristan, Yseult, and Mark (a medieval courtly love tale that may well have been the inspiration for the fraught triangle of Lancelot, Guinevere, and Arthur as well as numerous works of art on down, including one of Wagner’s operas), this rousing and continually resourceful production (written by Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy) uses the multiple versions of the legend as an excuse for a music-fueled formal mélange of influences and references that plumb the wider seas of love in all its forms.

The basic storyline is as follows: Cornwall’s wise King Mark (Kneehigh’s founder and joint artistic director Mike Shepherd) defeats an invasion by Irish interloper Morholt (Craig Johnson) with the help of a mysterious French-speaking knight, Tristan (a dashing Andrew Durand). Charmed by the young man, Mark sends Tristan to find Morholt’s sister, Yseult (a smoldering, violin-wielding Patrycja Kujawska), so that the king might marry her and make amends with Ireland. But Tristan has sustained critical wounds in the battle that leave him fading away on a faraway shore, until he is nursed back to health by a smitten healer — the aforementioned Yseult, naturally. Their mutual attraction turns to discord when Yseult learns she’s just fallen for the man who murdered her beloved brother. But a little love potion, and equal parts sweet wine, solve that issue soon enough.

No longer a virgin, however, Yseult must substitute on the royal wedding night her hymen-ready servant Brangian (Craig Johnson again, hilarious and surprisingly sympathetic in drab drag and sparkling comic timing). The ruse works, and Mark remains happily ignorant of Tristan and Yseult’s liaison until the king’s obsequious servant, Frocin (Giles King), offers proof of the lovers’ deceit and Mark has them (and the nosey, needy Frocin) banished. Too in love with both of them to have them killed yet still too hurt to forgive them, Mark leaves his dagger near where he finds the lovers sleeping in the forest. They awake soon after and reflect on the hurt they’ve caused. They decide to part ways, Tristan taking to the sea and Yseult returning to Mark, whom she has grown to love (if in a mellower way). But the lovers promise to be there for each other when needed.

Years later, as Tristan lies dying from his old wound beside his unloved wife — significantly, also named Yseult but known to the chorus as Whitehands, our mysterious narrator (Carly Bawden) — he asks if the ship sailing into port has a white or black sail (the former means Yseult is aboard, the latter that she is not coming). Consumed with hurt and jealousy, the second Yseult answers negatively, with tragic consequences all around.

That may sound like too much information, but the joy of the production rests in the telling (and the deft performances doing the telling) more than in the tale itself. This is best left a surprise. Suffice to say that the production, set on Berkeley Rep’s large Roda stage with full use of the aisles and other parts of the house, takes supreme advantage of an open aesthetic in which the presence of the audience and the mechanics of the staging are both readily acknowledged and built upon.

Indeed, Rice’s direction is so skillful and subtle that objects, characters, and actions can seem to pop out of nowhere despite an aesthetic that largely does away with hidden stagecraft, preferring to revel in what it reveals — as when, for example, the two lovers down their love potion and sweet wine and drink themselves silly, literally feet-off-the-floor high, dangling from aerial bands hoisted by members of the chorus of the unloved. (The latter is a comical Python-esque troupe of “lovespotters” dressed as proverbial birdwatchers or trainspotters in matching rain ponchos and wool headgear). Meanwhile, a live band (under musical director Ian Ross) casts a deliciously forlorn nightclub atmosphere throughout, including pre-curtain and entr’acte.

That sad-sack chorus, and various supporting characters who get their due here, also flags the thematic breadth of the play: Tristan & Yseult is about love in all its elusiveness and inconstant variety; love that alternately supports and belies the romantic ideal represented by the title characters. At the same time, the serious charm offensive underway points to another, complimentary end: the successful wooing of an audience through the sheer bliss of theatrical virtuosity. *

TRISTAN & YSEULT

Through Jan 6, $17.50-$81

Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre

2025 Addison, Berk

www.berkeleyrep.org

Reassemblage

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arts@sfbg.com

MUSIC Fans of the Dismemberment Plan may have found initial listens to Uncanney Valley (Partisan Records), the group’s new post-breakup album and first original material in a dozen years, a little jarring. For a band that built its reputation upon jittery post-punk freakouts and raw, cathartic lyrical output, the more streamlined approach could take a little getting used to.

But from the nervous angst of 1999’s Emergency & I, to the more somber and reflective comedown of 2001’s Change, the four-piece has always managed to hold a mirror to the time and place its members were in at the time. Now, they’re in (or approaching) their 40s, and are spread all over the East Coast with marriages and full-time jobs occupying their time. The new material is a flawed but ultimately rewarding reflection of the Dismemberment Plan, now.

Formed in 1993 and steeped in the Washington, DC post-hardcore and art-punk traditions of bands like Fugazi and Jawbox, the Dismemberment Plan’s success came slowly but surely over the following decade. The band’s signatures — including its inventive rhythm section (propelled by the manic drumming of Joe Easley), injection of synthesizers, and erratically sharp vocals of frontperson Travis Morrison — came into perfect alignment on Emergency & I, one of the finest indie rock albums of the 1990s. When the band called it quits soon after touring to support its follow-up, Change, it all felt a little premature — though there certainly weren’t any expectations by fans or the band itself for an eventual reunion. That all changed in 2010, when the group got back together for a brief tour to commemorate Barsuk Record’s reissue of Emergency & I.

Though the band had previously reunited for a couple of one-off shows in 2007, something about the lead-up and aftermath of this tour was different.

“In rehearsals we started jamming more and more, and we really liked what we were coming up with,” Morrison said. “That led us to continue getting together to play when we didn’t have any shows booked, where we’d have to be rehearsing old songs, making sure we know them and stuff like that. So that was the impetus.”

That this led not only to more touring, but also to an album full of new material was extra surprising, considering Morrison, after a couple of post-Plan solo albums, claimed to have “retired” from music in 2009. With a move to New York City, a full-time gig at the Huffington Post, the co-founding of a music start-up (called Shoutabl), and a marriage all coming within the past five or so years, some time off from music definitely made sense, though Morrison has obviously since backed off of the finality that retirement represents.

“I just wanted to take a year off after moving to New York where I didn’t have any shows, didn’t have any bands, no records coming out … I just wanted to live,” he said. “I wanted a sabbatical — but ‘retired’ is so much more fun to say than sabbatical.”

For all of its shimmery pop leanings and at times perhaps overly-comfortable grooves, Uncanney Valley isn’t without many of the strengths and idiosyncrasies that make the Dismemberment Plan the Dismemberment Plan. Synths are expertly layered throughout, Easley’s drumming and Eric Axelson’s bass playing are as locked in as ever, and Morrison can still surprise you with odd little one-liners that wind up rattling around in your head for days. Lyrically, the album is all over the map and ventures into a lot of uncharted territory for the band: the sacrifices of fatherhood (“Daddy Was A Real Good Dancer”); the comfort found in long-term, post-infatuation relationships (“Lookin'”); the anxiety and loneliness of moving to a new city (“Invisible”). This is grown-up shit, being explored admirably. Still, you have to wonder how this will juxtapose in a live setting with all the older material, which feels like a lifetime away from where the band is now. Morrison for one, isn’t worried.

“There aren’t too many of our older songs that are solely based on adolescence or adolescent issues,” he said. “There are very few songs where we accused someone of not understanding us, which is a very young thing to do. I think there’s a lot of philosophical distance or perspective, where when I sing those songs now, I think, ‘Wow, we must have been little old men when we were like 23.’ The fact that there aren’t many accusatory songs makes it easier to convey the older stuff now at 40 years old.”

Whether Uncanney Valley represents an official final chapter in the Dismemberment Plan’s career or the first in a series of new band happenings remains to be seen. The group is taking it all one day at a time, and Morrison certainly wouldn’t want it any other way.

“Someone told me once that Bill Murray tells everyone that he’s retired, but then just comes out of retirement whenever there’s something exciting or interesting to do and I really like that attitude,” he said. “So whatever Bill Murray does, I do.” *

DISMEMBERMENT PLAN

Tue/10, 8pm, $28

Fillmore

1805 Geary, SF

www.thefillmore.com

Pros and cons(oles)

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arts@sfbg.com

GAMER The next generation of game consoles is officially in stores and consumers demand to know — definitively — which is the superior console. Is it the PlayStation 4 or the Xbox One?

Unfortunately, the comparison isn’t that simple. Although both are sleek, state-of-the-art devices that play video games, we’re talking about two machines with different aims. Sony hopes the PS4 will lure back gamers that it disenfranchised with the expensive, non-intuitive and difficult-to-love PlayStation 3 by making things simple, fun, and focused on playing and sharing games. Microsoft is high on the success of the Xbox 360 and looking to dominate home media on all fronts, creating in the Xbox One an all-in-one device that allows you to control your TV, movies, and other digital downloads.

Strictly speaking, if you want to just play games and have an experience that is the same but prettier, Sony has your interests at heart. It’s the more powerful machine, current games look a bit better, and navigating the PS4 generally is an all-around smooth experience. Upon booting the system up, you’re greeted with soothing music and a fairly straightforward, simple interface. I was able to find all my games, apps, and settings within seconds, rather than minutes. The new DualShock 4 controller has a touch pad and a light bar for motion gaming (provided you have a PlayStation camera) and it performs these new functions with a minimum of hassle.

The most “next gen” aspect of the PS4 is the share button. A new button on the DualShock 4 is dedicated to sharing your experiences with friends, whether what’s being shared is video clips or actual streams of gameplay that can be viewed on another PlayStation, computer, or phone. Game streams and Let’s Plays have become their own genre on YouTube, and, by giving people that experience on day one (Xbox One’s streaming services are set to launch next year), Sony has a real upper hand on conquering the online gaming community that enjoys watching other people play games.

The PS4 is a machine that plays games, plain and simple, and right now the games it plays are only so-so. You’ve got a new Killzone, Shadow Fall; first-party beat ’em up Knack; and a few multi-platform — and cross-generationtitles that are likely to do well, but the must-have next-gen gaming experience just isn’t here yet.

The Xbox One is not nearly as intuitive as the PS4 and your first few hours with the machine will require patience and a bit of learning. Applications and settings are hidden in sub-menus and the revelatory Kinect voice commands are exhilarating when they work and aggravating when they inevitably do not. Growing pains were inevitable; Microsoft is attempting things that have never been done on a gaming machine before — like the ability to route your cable box into the Xbox One and change channels with your voice — and, if their history of iteration is to be trusted, it’s likely that the issues with organization and un-matched voice commands will melt away sooner rather than later.

Xbox’s launch games are favorable only in comparison with the PS4’s meager lineup. Forza Motorsport 5 is a wonderful showcase for what the Xbox One is capable of, and the best buy on either console so far, but the other exclusives are essentially limited to Dead Rising 3 and Ryse: Son of Rome, which are fun in spurts but offer nothing you haven’t hacked or slashed before.

Which leaves the question, what do you want from your “next-gen” console? If you’re in the market for a new device, you’re not wrong to expect improved graphics or increased resolution and frame rate. You want games to look better. And that’s at least partially there if you want it, but it doesn’t seem to be the current focus for either machine. Even on the PS4, the visual leap we’re seeing right now isn’t worth the $400 asking price, and the lower-spec’d Xbox One is tagged at a whopping $500 for a system bundled with Kinect.

In spite of all the internet furor spouted by gamers in the past few months about sub-standard resolution and graphics, perhaps Microsoft and Sony both realize the real coup is getting people who aren’t gamers to buy these consoles. In that area, Xbox One’s ambition to do more than play games is a risky pursuit, but one that could make all the difference for consumers who have only a passing interest in traditional gaming.

Time will tell which console resonates more with the public and some day financial reports aplenty will give us a definitive resolution on which console is more successful. But calling this a “console war” is more than a little sensational. Both the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One currently offer incrementally better experiences than their previous-gen counterparts, and the world of popular consumer electronics has proven a little better is often just enough. *

 

Riot acts

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arts@sfbg.com

FILM It was strange when Kathleen Hanna — riot grrrl activist, iconic Bikini Kill battle cry leader, electro-popping Le Tigre singer — went silent.

Though she was not entirely absent from the public eye, she did not make any new music or tour for nearly a decade. Beat down by a mysterious illness, she seemingly tumbled into hardcore self-preservation mode, contributing her personal files of zines, show flyers, and lyrics to the “Riot Grrrl Collection” at New York University’s Fales Library.

This archival material would prove key to Sini Anderson’s new documentary about Hanna, The Punk Singer. The film includes many lesser-seen clips from the early days of Bikini Kill, the band’s tours through Europe, and rare early moments with Hanna’s husband, Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz.

“There’s some unfortunate and there’s some fortunate in this,” says Anderson, speaking to me in a hotel in San Francisco ahead of the film’s Bay Area premiere at the Oakland Underground Film Festival in September. “The unfortunate is that Kathleen started getting incredibly sick, and she was getting worse and worse. [But then] she decided to pull all her materials together and start archiving them. So she had a few interns and for a couple of years they just pulled all this stuff from all over the place, so by the time we started the film project, a lot of this was in one place.”

Anderson is a Portland, Ore.-based feminist artist who co-founded Sister Spit while living in SF and has worked in film for a decade, though this is her first documentary. She suggested the idea to Hanna while Le Tigre was making 2011 doc Who Took The Bomp? Le Tigre on Tour. While Hanna became the reluctant face of the riot grrrl movement in the ’90s, she’d never granted the media access to her whole story, at least partially because she didn’t want to be misunderstood.

“She had been out of music for six years at that point, and in [the realms of feminism and politics], there just didn’t seem to be any kind of action going on. Things seemed complacent,” Anderson says. “I said, ‘Kathleen, people need to hear your story, and they need to hear it now.'”

Using archival footage and present-day interviews, the doc covers Hanna’s childhood, the beginning of the riot grrrl movement, Le Tigre, and the resurrection of her post-Bikini Kill solo project, the Julie Ruin. Anderson interviewed Hanna in a series of intimate, enlightening sit-downs at her lake house, which are delicately spliced throughout the film between older clips and interviews with Hanna’s contemporaries: Bikini Kill’s Tobi Vail, Billy Karren, and Kathi Wilcox (now of the Julie Ruin); Kim Gordon; Joan Jett; Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker; and teenage Rookie Magazine editor Tavi Gevinson, who wears the colorful “Feminist” sweater gifted to her by Hanna.

The main bulk of filming was done over the course of a year — and it was a momentous one. Countless doctors had misdiagnosed Hanna by the time Anderson began filming, without an end in sight. Halfway through filming, she finally had a name for her illness: late-stage neurological Lyme disease. When she began treatments, filmmaker and subject decided not to shy away from the vulnerability of moments like Hanna taking her meds and experiencing their uncomfortable after-effects.

“Once she started treatment, it was a roller coaster — she got worse, and then she got better, then she got worse. We had to plan the interviews around when she was up for it,” — explains Anderson, who, incredibly, was also diagnosed with Lyme disease during filming, from an unrelated incident. “I really believe there’s so much power and strength in that vulnerability. It really is important for other women to see that we can tell our truth, we can let people see what’s going on — that doesn’t make us weak, that makes us stronger.” Anderson is now working on another documentary specifically about Lyme disease.

During filming for The Punk Singer, Hanna decided to put together the Julie Ruin, her first new musical act since the end of Le Tigre. This year, the band released its full-length, Run Fast, on Dischord Records.

“She says it really eloquently in the film: when she realized that she may never again be able to do this thing she loves, she realized she wanted it more than ever,” Anderson says.

For the director, one of the biggest moments during filming came from this realization. Hanna sits by her fireplace, surprising herself as she talks about why she quit music — why it was easier to just say she’d already said everything she’d needed to sing. She didn’t want to admit to anyone, including herself, that she was quitting because she was sick. In the doc, Hanna seems taken aback and tears up a bit, but gives the go-ahead to keep filming.

The Punk Singer‘s other epiphany comes at the very end, on the last day of filming, in what became the last scene of the film. Hanna asks, “What is my story? I have no idea,” and begins mentioning moments from her life. “I thought, who is going to believe me? Other women will believe me.”

Says Anderson, “It was about being believed, and being heard, and having her truth be validated. That’s [her] story.” *

 

THE PUNK SINGER opens Fri/6 in San Francisco.

School gaze

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cheryl@sfbg.com

FILM At Berkeley, the latest documentary from the great Frederick Wiseman, runs 244 minutes — a time commitment intimidating enough to deter any casual viewer. But viewers intrigued by Wiseman’s long tradition of filming institutions (a small sampling: 1968’s High School; 1973’s Juvenile Court; 1985’s Racetrack; 2011’s Crazy Horse — the latter about a Parisian nude-dancing establishment) with fly-on-the-wall curiosity will want to carve out an afternoon for At Berkeley, as will those interested in 21st century educational issues, California’s financial crisis, and the care and maintenance of UC Berkeley’s free-spirited image, among other topics.

UC Berkeley students and grads also seem like a built-in audience, which means the film’s local screenings are likely to be more populated than they would be elsewhere. Folks who attended while Wiseman was filming (he shot 250 hours of footage over 12 weeks in what appears to be mid- to late-2011) might even catch a glimpse of themselves in crowd scenes and shots of casual moments on campus, which comprise the smallest portion of At Berkeley‘s divided interests. But the local-color moments do much to flesh out what’s not seen in the classroom and administrative-meeting sequences: the fading-hippie glow of Telegraph Avenue; two men with impressive yo-yo skills; a student tussling with his bicycle; a couple napping on a grassy expanse.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3L2_yLBrQsM

We’re also shown what goes into the maintenance of that postcard-perfect campus. Berkeley’s landscaping starts looking especially impressive when — during a retreat of school bigwigs that Wiseman had apparent free rein to shoot — one administrator points out that budget cuts mean the school employs just one person to mow all of its lawns. “Well, he’s doing a good job!” interjects Robert J. Birgeneau, chancellor of the school 2004-2013. At the time of filming, UC Berkeley was weathering a series of painful fee increases, staff furloughs and layoffs, and widespread budget cutbacks, with Birgeneau serving as its pragmatic, stern-yet-sympathetic eye of the storm.

Birgeneau, like everyone else in the film (including probably the most recognizable figure: former Clinton cabinet member Robert Reich, now a Berkeley prof), is never identified by name. At first, this feels disorienting; most docs strive to hook the viewer with first-act exposition, but At Berkeley simply plunges in with a woman (a teacher? a student?) regaling (a class? an extracurricular club?) with a myth about Berkeley’s origins (spoiler alert: it wasn’t founded by gamblers) that leads into a broader rumination on what the school represents. “A sense of imagination, of diversity,” she says. “An ideal.”

Before long, it’s obvious that we don’t need to know the back stories of everyone who appears in the film. This portrait of UC Berkeley — as a complex place, not without unrest, but also not without spontaneous a capella performances — emerges with all of its subjects sharing equal footing, their experiences and points of view presented with equal interest. Some of the most compelling scenes take place in classrooms, with remarkably articulate students (though, yes, Wiseman’s camera does catch a few looking sleepy and bored) discussing subjects as wildly diverse as poverty in America, advancements in robotics, Thoreau, and racism. There are also fascinating snippets of lectures, including an amusing, anecdote-heavy treatise from Reich on the importance of self-evaluation.

“The film has to work on both a literal level and a metaphoric, or abstract, level,” Wiseman writes in his At Berkeley director’s note. Filmgoers grasping for a through line will pick up on the financial stress that permeates every corner of the school. A student who describes herself as middle-class weeps at the financial burden she’s imposing on her parents. A professor advises a pair of eager students that their engineering dreams will require raising funds from government entities. Another professor expresses her concerns that increasing student fees will encourage new grads to seek out big paychecks to pay off their debts, rather than lower-paying jobs that might be more socially conscious.

The unrest percolating throughout the film culminates in coverage of a late-2011 Occupy Cal demonstration, in which the main campus library is overtaken by passionate protestors. The focus shifts away from the chanting students to UC Berkeley’s behind-the-scenes response, or rather, the phone calls and meetings that decide what the response should be (a “generic acknowledgement” is met by jeers from the protestors; a heavy police presence is suggested, but not visually documented).

In the library, a young man grasps the bullhorn and advises his fellow students that they need to organize their guiding principles more efficiently — an observation echoed later by Birgeneau. Unlike the headline-grabbing demonstrations that fill UC Berkeley’s storied past — its rabble-rousing legacy gets surprisingly few mentions here — there’s no underlying philosophy, he points out. A few moments later, we’re in a classroom, listening to students grumble about how the protests disrupted their midterms.

As its fourth hour draws to a close, At Berkeley‘s final sequence leaps from a discussion of one of John Donne’s sexier poems into a science class discussing interplanetary space travel. Sure, it’s possible, the affably geeky instructor says — but the practical concerns (like building a vessel with incredibly robust power sources that could sustain life for generations upon generations) tend to get in the way of one’s brilliant ideas and imagination. Here Wiseman’s affection for metaphor is made abundantly clear. *

 

AT BERKELEY opens Fri/6 in Bay Area theaters.

Suspending judgment

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joe@sfbg.com

The Guardian is publishing only the first names of minors and their relatives named in this story, to protect their privacy.

In San Francisco public schools students can be sent home for talking back to a teacher, wearing a hat indoors, or sporting sagging pants. These infractions sound like the daily life of a kid, but the state calls them “willful defiance,” a category of suspensions that are nebulous to define at best.

Like the old saying about pornography, teachers say they know it when they see it, but students and parents alike are now calling foul on the practice.

The suspensions are so abundant in the San Francisco Unified School District that a movement has risen up against it. Sending kids home not only is an ineffective punishment, opponents say, it also can lead youth into the criminal justice system.

Now San Francisco Board of Education Commissioner Matt Haney is proposing a resolution that would ban willful defiance suspensions in San Francisco schools altogether.

“There will still be situations where we need to send a student home, but willful defiance will not be one of those reasons,” he told the Guardian. “Change is hard, complicated, and messy. But we can no longer deal with discipline or interactions with our students in that sort of way.”

He plans to introduce the resolution at the Dec. 10 Board of Education meeting, and if it passes, he said full implementation may take until the next school year.

There’s a fight to ban willful defiance suspensions statewide as well, but so far it’s been stymied. Just last month, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed Assembly Bill 420, a bill mirroring aspects of Haney’s proposal. Those advocating for such a ban say it’s an issue of racial justice.

San Francisco’s African American and Latino students together suffer 80 percent of willful defiance suspensions, according to SFUSD data. The nonprofit student group Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth decried this statistic as an injustice, supporting the ban.

The San Francisco Board of Education took tentative steps to reduce suspensions as a whole in 2010, voting to introduce a new disciplinary system called Restorative Practices district wide. It’s complex, but basically asks students to talk things out in what are called “restorative circles” that include everyone involved in an incident, like a fight.

It’s also about changing the culture around discipline. It encourages teachers and students to establish a rapport, turning around the way some schools have practiced authority for decades.

At the time, there was hope. Fast forward three years, and that hope has dwindled.

Early evidence shows that Restorative Practices work better than suspensions, and prevent behavioral problems down the road, too. But out of SFUSD’s more than 100 schools, less than half of them started to implement the new reform.

Few schools have fully integrated the change, officials told us. Haney’s resolution addresses this with a mandate: SFUSD must implement Restorative Practices throughout the San Francisco school district.

The program is important, proponents say, because the majority of the 55,000 students a year moving through San Francisco schools still face school discipline that can set them way back in school and later may lead to incarceration. And suspensions can be levied for the smallest of infractions.

Cupcakes and justice

Xochitl is a 15-year-old SFUSD sophomore with long brown hair. She watches the TV show Supernatural (Dean is cuter than Sam) and yearns to one day live with her relatives in Nicaragua. Years ago on her middle school playground, she once faced a hungry child’s ultimate temptation: Free cupcakes.

The baked goods sat in a box on the cement by the playground, unattended. The frosting sat un-licked, the wrappers unwrapped.

She and her friend looked around, searching for a possible pastry owner nearby. Runners circled around the track in the distance, but no one else was around. The cupcakes met a satisfying fate inside Xochitl’s belly. The next morning went decidedly downhill.

As she walked into school, the counselor told her to go home: she was suspended.

“The cupcakes belonged to this girl because it was her birthday,” Xochitl said, something she found out only once she was being punished. “They went straight to suspension, they didn’t even let me speak.”

Restorative practices would have sat her with the birthday girl to explain her mistake and apologize. Maybe she would’ve bought the girl new cupcakes. That wasn’t what happened.

Suspended, Xochitl spent the day at her grandparents’ house. Not every suspended student has a safe place to go. Some turn to the streets.

stats

In October a group of mostly black young students marched to the Board of Education to protest willful defiance suspensions. The group, 100 Percent College Prep Institute, formed in the ashes of violence.

“I drive a school bus for a living, and I had a boy on my bus who was not bad, but not good,” said 100 Percent College Prep Institute co-founder Jackie Cohen, speaking with the Guardian as she marched with her students. “When we got back from Christmas break, he wasn’t back on the bus. Turns out he decided to ‘live that life.’ Three days later, I found he was shot and killed.”

In some communities the jaws of crime and drugs are forever nipping at their children’s heels. A child inside school is safe. Suspensions throw the most vulnerable students into the wild.

“Preventing crime in San Francisco begins with keeping children in the classroom,” SFPD Chief Greg Suhr wrote in a letter to the SF Examiner last year. “Proactive policies, such as the ‘restorative practices’ implemented by the SFUSD, emphasize the importance of building positive relationships while holding kids accountable for their actions.”

Black students make up about 10 percent of SFUSD’s population, but they represented 46 percent of SFUSD’s total suspensions in 2012, according to SFUSD data. Latino students represented about 30 percent of suspensions.

The racial disparity of suspensions mirror the disparity of incarceration. A study by nonprofit group The Advancement Project found that in 2002, African American youths made up 16 percent of the juvenile population but were 43 percent of juvenile arrests.

Xochitl sees that with her own eyes every day.

“Some kids turn to the streets, you know. I’ve seen people younger than me go to jail,” Xochitl said. “I was on Instagram and saw a friend locked up. I knew that girl, she’s in my PE class.”

It’s one of our country’s many shameful open secrets. Nearly half of all adult men in the United States serving life sentences are African Americans, and one in six is Latino, according to data from the nonprofit group the Sentencing Project.

Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, all trapped in a cycle of poverty to prisons that for some starts at school.

“As a school district, when that’s staring us in the face, we can’t not do something about it,” Haney said.

Sometimes it begins when students are still learning their ABC’s.

Bruises inside and out

Restorative Practices are implemented from kindergarten to high school.

“If [students] don’t have a sense of belonging… that’s going to prevent schools from addressing behavior,” Kerry Berkowitz, the district’s program administrator of Restorative Practices, told us. The seeds of mistrust are planted when students are young.

Desamuel could not yet spell the world “police” when he first met them.

He was five years old, and as kindergartners sometimes do, he threw a temper tantrum. In the school’s desperation to contain him, officials called the SFPD.

“The police only came one time,” Desamuel, now seven, told the Guardian. Sitting in his San Francisco home with his uncle Lionel, Desamuel sounded ashamed. “But I didn’t go to jail because they only put kids in jail for being bad, like kids taking guns to school.”

The memory angers Desamuel’s uncle, who feels restorative practices would have prevented the misunderstanding. His home is a testament to bridge building.

Lionel, his brothers and mother all pitch in to take care of Desamuel while the boy’s father makes what he calls “a transition.” The home is large by San Francisco standards. Drawings of Spiderman and Batman line the wall, equal in number only to the portraits of their family, most of whom live in the city. There’s a lot of care in Desamuel’s life. That hasn’t stopped his tantrums, though.

The family tried to get him therapy, psychological analysis, anything to help. But as any parent can tell you, sometimes a child just needs love.

Lionel struggled with the school’s administration, and asked them to try less punitive ways of handling his nephew. “I told them to just hug the boy. Their response was ‘it’s hard to hug someone swinging at you.'”

The last time Desamuel fought a student he was tackled to the ground by a school security guard. The now-second grader came home with a bruise on his face.

“When I was bad I hurted the children. I wasn’t supposed to get up, and couldn’t get up off the ground. He took me by the arms and legs,” Desamuel said.

The problem with outsize use of suspensions and punitive action, Berkowitz said, is that it breeds a fear of school that shouldn’t exist. Desamuel is no different.

“I got sent to the office and I had to go to the principal’s office and they talked about me being bad,” Desamuel said. “I think because I make too much trouble I have a lot of problems and they don’t want me to be there.”

Cat Reyes is a history teacher who is now a Restorative Practices coach at Mission High School. She said transformation in behavior is the whole point.

She told the Guardian about a student recorded a fight on film. The two fighting teenagers tried to let the incident go, but with the video online for all to see their pride came between them. If the school suspended the girl who recorded the fight there may never have been resolution. The wounds would fester.

But now the girl will join a restorative circle and explain her actions to those involved in the fight, and their parents. That’s far more daunting to kids than simply going home for a day, Reyes said. It doesn’t just stop at the talk though. “On one end she has to say sorry,” Reyes said. “But now she may go to the media center and create a [movie] about it on our closed circuit TV. The consequence fits the crime.”

As students talk out their differences enemies can become friends, she said. After all, the goal is to correct bad behavior and break destructive cycles. Yet less than half of the schools in SFUSD are employing Restorative Practices.

Slowly but surely

One of the biggest critiques of Restorative Practices is that it removes consequences. That’s the wrong way to look at it, Berkowitz said: “When people say consequences, they mean punishment. We want to work with students to find root causes.”

The numbers back her up: 2,700 SFUSD staff members have trained in Restorative Practices, according to data provided by the district. This consequently led to a strong reduction in suspensions, the district says, from more than 3,000 in 2009 to about 1,800 last year.

SFUSD recognized a good thing when it saw it, growing the Restorative Practices budget from $650,000 in 2009 to $900,000 in 2013.

But only about 25 schools started measurable implementation, Berkowitz said. She put it plainly, saying the program is in its infancy. “Are they ‘there’ yet?” she said. “No.”

“Our team is pretty maxed out,” she said. “To really bring this to scale and implement Restorative Practices, there’d need to be a lot of discussions around that.”

Asked how much she’d need to fully fund the program across all schools, she was evasive. Haney was more direct. When asked if his resolution tied funding to the mandate of implementing Restorative Practices district-wide, he admitted that a funding source hadn’t yet been identified.

“Mostly we hear there needs to be more: more support, more social workers, more people in schools to make this functional,” he said. “It’s a longer term challenge.”

That solution may emerge as the resolution goes through the approval process, but the program faces other problems besides funding.

Teachers have depended on suspensions as a tool for years. Money is one thing, but changing educators’ minds about discipline is another.

The “R” word

Martin Luther King Jr. fought for the integration of schools, but in a speech about Vietnam he said something that could apply to the SFUSD today.

“Life and history give eloquent testimony to the fact that conflicts are never resolved without trustful give and take on both sides,” the southern preacher said in one of his last speeches before his death.

There is one issue simmering under this entire debate, festering, unspoken. Why are black and Latino students suspended more than other groups? Is this system inherently racist?

It’s a tough question. Teachers are notoriously underpaid, overworked, under supported, and asked to enforce the newest policies at the drop of a hat. The teachers the Guardian spoke to all described a packed year filled with new methods to learn, all with a common purpose — a love of their profession and a love of their students.

“There’s a hesitancy to talk about race with this,” said Kevin Boggess, civic engagement leader for Coleman Advocates, the group leading the charge for the willful defiance ban.

Nevertheless the question of racism permeates the discussion. Xochitl felt persecuted as one of the few Latinas in a mostly Asian middle school.

In the case of Desamuel, the young black child who had the police called on him at age five, his uncle stressed the need for culturally aware teaching. Lionel said Desamuel was well-behaved when he had an authoritative, elderly black female teacher, but acted up in the hands of substitutes who weren’t black and whom he characterized as “young and new” to teaching. Then again, the principal who called the police to handle Desamuel was herself black.

Norm “Math” Mattox is a former James Lick Middle School math and science teacher, and he said from his perspective as an African American he’s seen the issues Haney’s resolution addresses clear as day.

“My sense is that teachers might be blowing the alarm a little bit too soon as far as their brown and black students are concerned, especially the boys. They don’t know how to manage them,” he said. In his experience, misbehaving children are sent out of the room too soon.

In the short term, suspensions are an expedient tool, but punishment without communication does long lasting damage. “The dynamic between teacher and student did not get resolved inside of the class,” he said.

One SFUSD school tackled the specter of racism head on. Mission High School is at the vanguard of what its principal calls “anti-racist teaching.”

Mission High has a higher African American student college placement rate than many SFUSD schools, a group that struggles to perform elsewhere. And as a designated “newcomer pathway” for new immigrants, the school has 40 percent English language learners.

Mission High’s principal, Eric Guthertz, is energized by the challenge. He revamped the way the school teaches to address race and ethnicity directly.

The geometry teachers use Bayview district planning data to illustrate mathematical lessons, and teachers look at grades by ethnicity and address disparities directly.

Guthertz credited Restorative Practices with lowering the school’s suspensions. SFUSD data shows Mission High’s steady suspension decline, with a 14 percent suspension rate in 2009, before the program started, and down to a 0.4 percent suspension rate by 2012.

missionprincipal

Mission High School Principal Eric Guthertz. Guardian photo by Brittany M. Powell

“We’ve deeply embraced Restorative Practices,” he said.

Next week San Francisco will see if the Board of Education will take the same leap Gutherz did. As he is quick to point out, shifting the culture at Mission High School took years.

The Guardian contacted members of the school board, but did not hear back from them before press time to see how they may vote.

Either way, it’s time for SFUSD to change its ways, Haney said. But no matter what side of the matter you fall on, he said, it’s important to remember one thing.

“Everyone involved in this conversation wants to do better by these students,” he said.

The San Francisco Board of Education will vote on the ban of willful defiance suspensions and full implementation of Restorative Practices at their Dec. 10 meeting.

Development must protect the arts

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By Stephanie Weisman

OPINION Recently, the Bay Guardian ran an article critical of The Marsh theater’s position on the condo development proposed for 1050 Valencia St. (see “Street Fight: Driving us crazy,” 11/12). It incorrectly claimed that we oppose the project. Thank you, Guardian, for now giving us the opportunity to set the record straight.

The Marsh does not oppose a proposal to develop condominiums and commercial space next door to us at 1050 Valencia St. Rather, we are trying to get conditions attached to the project’s building permit — for both during and after construction — that reflect that this developer chose to build up against a world-renowned, community-based theater. We believe it is reasonable to expect the developer to be a good neighbor.

For almost 25 years, The Marsh has developed solo performances, presenting nearly 700 performances annually with 400 in our Mission location alone. We also offer solo performance workshops and year-round after-school classes and camps for youth where no child — toddler through teen — is turned away because of lack of money. We foster risk-taking and diverse artists from novices to those with worldwide acclaim, giving voice to the vital stories of our times.

The construction plans for 1050 Valencia directly affect our theater space and our ability to continue to host live performance. As currently designed, the plans for both construction and occupancy could mean noise that would drown out unamplified solo performance. The project will also reduce theater lighting and ventilation.

We’ve seen the history of new affluent residents in fancy SoMa live/work lofts who didn’t like living next to the loud music and milling crowds they chose to move near. These wealthy newcomers could afford to hire lawyers and fight expensive legal battles, and they successfully closed down entertainment venues that had defined SoMa for decades. We seek conditions to prevent this from happening to us.

We are requesting the large open deck adjacent to our building be moved behind a sound barrier. We are concerned that when residents have a party or open their windows with music blaring, the sound will disrupt our performances. This endangers our existence. We are also asking for conditions prohibiting the commercial space next to us from having live entertainment that would impact our performances.

Without specific legally enforceable conditions attached to the permits, we have no recourse if the developer or subsequent property owners lack good faith. To date, based on developer Mark Rutherford’s treatment of us, we have no reason to believe in his good faith. San Francisco’s development history shows that only legally enforceable conditions really protect the public interest over the “lifetime” of a building’s construction and use.

The Marsh is a metaphor for the current displacement of people and culture in the Mission District. Miraculously, we were able to purchase our building in 1996, a market low, with the support of our artists, patrons, board, and forward-looking foundation and nonprofit and commercial loan entities. Otherwise, The Marsh would not exist today. We would never have been able to afford today’s market-rate rent.

We are now a safe house for artists to develop their work at our space, for the children who take our affordable classes, and the audiences who attend our critically-acclaimed shows. But we are not indestructible. If protective conditions are not written into the building permit, and we end up with disrupted programs and performances, we will not survive artistically or financially.

Will The Marsh go the way of our neighbors? Will we be developed into a bunch of two-bedroom condos selling for $1.75-2.25 million, like the ones at 19th and Valencia? With maybe two below-market rate units set aside, as planned for 1050 Valencia, where “below market” could mean $1 million. But where will the artists go? Where will young aspiring performers go? The audiences?

Please join us and stand up for The Marsh at the Board of Appeals Hearing, City Hall, Dec. 11, 5pm.

Stephanie Weisman is the founder and artistic director of The Marsh

 

A new holiday tradition: workers’ rights

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The holiday season has officially started, and if you’re any kind of American, you know what that means. Hordes of wild-eyed shoppers have descended upon us.

If early morning stampedes at chain retailers and other hallmarks of the Black Friday phenomenon seem like a peculiar tradition, recent offshoots of the trend may prove even more bizarre. One is business’ attempt to claim other Thanksgiving week calendar slots as holiday-shopping bonanzas in their own right. Cyber Monday is the busiest online shopping day of the year, we’re told, while a growing number of intrepid early-birds skipped out on Turkey Day altogether to go bargain hunting on the woefully titled “Brown Thursday.”

Then there are the growing ranks of cynics who’ve found creative ways to critique in-your-face consumerism as a cultural deficiency, a sort of anti-Black Friday tradition. There’s Buy Nothing Day, an alt standby appealing to the conscience of the thoughtful consumer.

The web-based Black Friday Death Count (www.blackfridaydeathcount.com), documenting six years of violent incidents stemming from holiday shopping frenzies, reads like a stark condemnation of petty greed. Viral YouTube videos of squabbling gift buyers, meanwhile, suggest that a mass audience of Internet viewers is reaching for the popcorn and taking it all in, perhaps with the glee of blood-sport spectators.

Yet a different aspect of Black Friday 2013 deserves a second look. This year, low-wage employees who generally make Black Friday profits possible got louder in their demands for better working conditions.

Look at Walmart. It’s the nation’s largest employer, but its employees earn notoriously low wages — a fact highlighted by Black Friday protests staged outside Walmart stores nationwide, including in the Bay Area. For low-wage retail workers who can barely make ends meet let alone leave gift-wrapped digital devices under the tree, momentum seems to be building. The National Labor Relations Board recently announced its intention to pursue complaints against Walmart for illegally threatening and firing employees who participated in last year’s Black Friday protests.

Further up the supply chain, the Port of Oakland saw a work stoppage from a group of truckers last week who have fallen into dire straits financially. Classified as owner-operators instead of employees and therefore unable to unionize, many face potential job loss because they can’t afford engine retrofits needed to comply with new environmental regulations. The timing of their quasi-strike, just as container ships were coming into port with cargo destined for Black Friday sales shelves, was no coincidence.

All of which begs the question: If Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Buy Nothing Day can all be incorporated as modern American traditions that directly follow Thanksgiving, why not claim a slice of the pie as well for workers putting themselves at risk in the name of better conditions? If these struggles are effective, it will be one more thing to give thanks for.

 

Last stand at the Bulb

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news@sfbg.com

As the squatter residents of Albany Bulb make one final push against being evicted from their home in a former landfill, the city of Albany is pushing forward with its plan to change the untamed space into a waterfront state park (see “Battle of the bulb,” Sept. 24).

The first signs of the transition came on Nov. 22, when a temporary shelter was set up for residents whose camps would be cleared. The shelter came after a disappointing week in court left the 50 to 60 residents of the Bulb without the stay-away order their advocates had sought, which they intended to use to keep the city and police at bay during the winter.

On Nov. 18, the residents and their attorneys received word that the stay-away order was denied by U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer. After the decision and an Albany City Council meeting later that evening, campers and area activists set up a permanent settlement against the eviction after marching through the streets of Albany.

Barricades made of rocks were set up at the Bulb to resist police getting into the camps. However, the rain that followed for a few nights inhibited their efforts, according to activists involved in the action. And the police, using a backhoe, destroyed the rock barricades. The city of Albany, according to a press release, is calling the transition “ACT” which includes, “Assistance to homeless, including housing-centered outreach, transitional services, support, and shelter; Cleanup and maintenance of the Bulb; and Transfer of the Bulb to McLaughlin Eastshore State Park.” “As part of the City Council’s Strategic Planning Process conducted in 2012, the City Council identified key goals for the City,” Albany City Clerk Nicole Almaguer wrote in an email to the Guardian. “One of which is to ‘Maximize Park and Open Space’ including developing a plan to transition the Bulb into Eastshore State Park, and to improve accessibility for general public use of all of the Albany Bulb as a waterfront park.” Almaguer stated that part of the plan included a temporary shelter and support services, which started this summer and is headed by Berkeley Food and Housing Project. The BFHP also provides case management for the Albany campers interested in securing housing outside of the Bulb.

While the city has provided a housing subsidy program to help Bulb residents with rent, a portion of it will also need to be covered by the tenant. Many of the Bulb residents are only supported through government programs such as SSI, and cannot afford housing costs.

In addition, most residents, and their attorney Osha Neumann, who is also a longtime contributor to art at the Bulb, say that the city does not have any affordable housing in which the residents can transition into. Managed by Operation Dignity, a nonprofit designed to help homeless veterans, the transitional shelter is set up by Golden Gate Fields racetrack near the entryway into the Bulb.

“I was out… talking to people and was overwhelmed by the fragility and vulnerability of many of them, as well as their strengths,” Neumann said of the residents in an email to the Guardian. “The portables are awful. You look at the Bulb and all the life and beauty that’s out there, and then you look at those anonymous utilitarian boxes, and really you expect it all to be stuffed into those containers? 22 men in one, eight women in the other? It’s all really appalling.” According to the shelter’s posted rules, the doors for the shelter open at 5:30pm and close at 8:30am. Showers may be taken 8:30-9:30pm, and breakfast is served 7-8am. The sexes are separated, and pets must stay in kennels outside of the shelter. There are also no “in and out privileges” and if a person doesn’t return by 8pm they are not admitted into the shelter. No one stayed in the shelter the first three nights it was available, according to city reports. Amber Lynn Whitson, a Bulb resident, said that access to the shelter is difficult for people, and doesn’t address the need for people with disabilities to access a bed during the day. “At least two individuals were turned away at the door to the shelter, due to their names not being on ‘the list’, she said in an email. “Both were told that they could stay in the shelter, despite their names not currently being on ‘the list,’ but only after getting ‘a voucher’ from BFHP.” The transitional shelter came to the residents’ lives after Breyer rejected the campers’ request for an injunction to block the eviction with a temporary restraining order. A lawsuit also filed by the residents against the eviction remains open, according to Neumann.

Based on information obtained in court documents, $570,000 was allocated to remove the Bulb residents, based on a Albany City Council decision made on Oct. 21, with $171,000 spent on the cleanup of the campsites and the remainder spent on the two portable trailers with bunk beds to serve as transitional housing for six months. As of now, the shelter’s efficacy to get the campers off the Bulb, as well as the residents’ efforts to resist the transition, remains unclear.

 

BULB ART TO BE CLEARED

The Albany Bulb, a wild shoreline space near Golden Gate Fields and a former landfill for BART construction and other industries, is well known for its art. Now that a transitional shelter looms over the entrance as part of the city’s plan to remove the residents from the Bulb, campers, activists, and artists came together this past weekend for a festival of resistance against the eviction.

The rubble and sculpture filled space will soon be transformed into part of the Eastshore State Park system. The event drew around 60 people, according to resident Amber Whitson. She led an art walk on Nov. 29, giving the history of the art at the Bulb and explaining why it’s important to preserve it as a cultural resource.

“Some things should remain sacred, and Sniff paintings are out on the Albany Bulb,” she said, referencing works by a group of Oakland-based artists.

Other prominent Bulb artists, such as Osha Neumann and Jason DeAntonis, who built massive sculptures made of found wood and parts along the shoreline, were on hand to speak about their contributions and the personal significance the Bulb holds for them.

While residents have come and gone throughout the years, the art has remained a constant draw. Graffiti artists practice their craft, and sculptors work undisturbed, using debris that is scattered around. Even some of the campers’ shelters, makeshift shanties of concrete, wood and tarp, could be considered artistic.

Once the transition of the Bulb from untamed outcrop to a state park of well-kept trails is further along, the city plans to remove most of the art currently installed there.

The campers and activists organized the art walk as part of a three-day festival of trainings, workshops, and music, to enjoy the space, but also to educate residents and others about how the space could be kept in its current state. “I know that organizing is continuing, and again, the shape it takes will depend on how the city goes about the planned evictions,” said Neumann in an email to the Guardian.

For now though, the art stands, in between garbage, rubble, trees and shrubs, a constant reminder that artists and Bulb dwellers are still around.