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Editors Notes

Editor’s notes



When I was working on my college paper, the vice-president for academic affairs, a rather serious man named William Brennan, delivered a lecture on some obscure topic to a group of, I think, economic majors, and somehow, a Wesleyan Argus reporter was there to cover it. The young journalist gave a fair rendition of the event, and the headline an editor wrote was about the most accurate thing I’ve ever seen in a newspaper. It read:

“Brennan bores small crowd.”

The New York Times, which never runs headlines like that, is having an internal debate over — seriously — whether its reporters should be free to tell the truth.

That’s right: The Public Editor, Arthur S. Brisbane, asked in his Jan. 12 column whether “reporters should challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.”

In other words, if the president tells an obvious, outright lie, should the Times point that out — or just repeat his inaccurate statement as fact, since in fact the president said it?

Should newspaper reporters be reporters, or stenographers?

It’s so silly, but it reminds me of what’s always annoyed me about the skilled, highly trained and often brilliant staff people at the Times: They’re not allowed to tell the truth.

After just about every press conference on the War in Iraq, for example, I would have written:

“President Bush lied to the public again today, noting — in direct contrast to the evidence on the ground — that the war is going well and that the invasion had nothing to do with oil.”

I know the Times would never go that far, but Brisbane actually had to ask:

“On the campaign trail, Mitt Romney often says President Obama has made speeches ‘apologizing for America,’ a phrase to which Paul Krugman objected in a Dec. 23 column, arguing that politics has advanced to the ‘post-truth’ stage.

“As an Op-Ed columnist, Mr. Krugman clearly has the freedom to call out what he thinks is a lie. My question for readers is: should news reporters do the same?”

Huh? Should reporters be able to report that the likely Republican candidate for president is making stuff up that he knows or ought to know has no basis in factual reality? Is that something the voters need to know?

And the big papers wonder why they’re losing readers.

Editor’s notes



It’s hard for California cities to raise taxes. Almost anything that amounts to a tax hike has to go before the voters, and most of the time, it requires a two-thirds vote.

But in a year when the local legislators are also up for election — and six of the supervisorial districts are up this fall — the voters can pass taxes with a simple majority.

That’s one reason that 2012 is a perfect year for tax reform in San Francisco. The other is the spirit of Occupy.

The tent-city protests changed the political dynamics all over the country, putting the message of economic injustice on the agenda and on the front pages. That’s even more true in this city, which was one of the epicenters of the national movement.

Mayor Ed Lee announced in his inauguration speech that he’s going to be the mayor “of the 100 percent,” an effort to preach the message that we’re all good pals and we all love each other here in this great city of ours, but the truth is we aren’t, and we don’t. The very rich in San Francisco not only have little in common with the rest of us; for the most part, they like it that way. The biggest corporations and wealthiest individuals have an interest in preserving economic injustice, and they’ve shown repeatedly that they will go to great lengths to prevent progressive change.

San Francisco needs to change the way it raises revenue, and one of the key elements of that is the local business tax. Right now it’s a flat tax on payroll, and a lot of people (including me) don’t like it. So there’s movement for a new type of tax, maybe on gross receipts.

That’s fine — but it has to be more than a shift in how taxes are determined. San Francisco desperately needs more money — probably at least $250 million a year — to balance the budget without further cuts and to make up for what the state and federal government have taken away. And a new business tax needs to be progressive — to hit the biggest and the richest harder than the small and struggling.

I fear the mayor is not going to be pushing that kind of agenda, so someone on the board has to do it. This is the year that a “tax the one percent” measure can win. But we need to get started now.

Editor’s notes



My gut response to the America’s Cup was always like this: I love a party. I love a big party, and a party that brings lots of visitors and money into San Francisco is a great thing. But you have to remember that at some point the party will be over, and somebody’s got to clean up the mess and pay for the damage.

And right now, in San Francisco, when the party’s over, the big winner will be a multibillionaire named Larry Ellison, and the rest of us will be paying for it.

That said, the party’s going to happen. There may be a little bluster about the Environmental Impact Report, but the 34th America’s Cup race will take place in the waters of the San Francisco Bay, and a whole lot of people will be coming into town to see it.

So we better be ready, and I’m not sure we are.

I read the draft EIR section dealing with transportation and traffic, and it’s kind of crazy. The planners are projecting about 25,000 new vehicle trips a day — and that’s just into San Francisco. Sausalito and the East Bay cities will have their own issues. There are pictures of projected parking areas along the waterfront, including Crissy Field. There are plans to close the Embarcadero, but only the northbound lanes.

Additional Muni service will be able to handle about 1,200 riders a day. That’s way less than five percent of the number of people who are projected to be getting around by car.

So maybe San Francisco should try something radical that would last way beyond the sailing event. Why don’t we see what it would look like if we banned cars from the entire waterfront, closed all the streets and created a real transit-first city — at a time when the whole world will be watching?

No cars at all. Buses for seniors and people with disabilities. Everyone else walks, bikes, or takes a pedicab (that’s a whole lot of jobs, by the way, particularly for young people who can pedal). Could one of the most environmentally conscious cities in the world pull that off? It’s worth a try.

Editor’s notes



I’m not good at holidays. When your world is made of deadlines, the holidays are just one more — gotta get the kids presents, gotta get the tree, gotta make plans, gotta do dinner … one more set of hassles. Bah humbug.

And I’ve never been a big fan of New Year’s Eve. Too many people acting like they’ve never been drunk before and will never be drunk again, and everything costs too much. I drink every day; I can miss New Year’s Eve. Party pooper.

So I don’t do my own new year’s resolutions; I do them for other people. This is what I would like everyone else to do in 2012:

I would like the Occupy organizers to put together a massive day of teach-ins and a march on Washington in the spring, to keep the movement alive and bring in a lot more people.

I would like my fellow dog owners to pick up the shit off the sidewalks.

I would like the Department of Parking and Traffic to put up No Left Turn signs on 16th Street at Potrero and Bryant.

I would like Visconti to lower the price on that really cool lava fountain pen.

I would like the transportation whizzes at City Hall to figure out how to put bike lanes on Oak Street so I can ride back from Golden Gate Park as safely as I can ride to the park.

I would like the supervisors to change the rules for Question Time so the mayor doesn’t get all the questions in advance and there’s a chance for real discussion that isn’t stupid and boring.

I would like middle school English teachers in San Francisco to explain to their students that homeless people are not “hobos.”

I would like the Obama Administration to quit hassling pot dispensaries.

I would like the airlines to start serving cocktails before takeoff.

I would like the thriller writers of America to learn how to write decent sex scenes.

I would like Jerry Brown to endorse the initiative to outlaw the death penalty.

I would like everyone in politics to stop saying the words “together” and “shared” since we aren’t together and I don’t want to share with the rich.

Anything else? Happy New Year.

Editor’s notes



Hugely influential political figures died in the last week: Czech playwright-turned-president Vaclav Havel, North Korea’s “dear leader” Kim Jong-Il, and writer Christopher Hitchens, who shaped perceptions of war and religion. But it was the death of investment banker Warren Hellman that has most affected me and the rest of San Francisco.

It wasn’t just because I knew and greatly respected the man, but it was how I came to know Warren and the unique role that he played in this polarized city. Up until 2007, I saw Hellman as just another wealthy Republican power broker pumping money into conservative campaigns that the Bay Guardian and progressives were constantly fighting.

Even before Occupy coined that new paradigm, I saw him as part of the one percent working to keep the 99 percent down, and I bitterly resented what the very rich were doing to San Francisco. But increasingly, Hellman began to break with his downtown allies, partnering with bicyclists, burners, and music lovers on various pursuits. So I decided to do an in-depth profile of this courageously independent man (see “Out of downtown,” 5/19/07) and that evolved into an ongoing relationship.

Like everyone else, I appreciate what Warren has done for San Francisco, particularly his creation of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, the Bay Citizen, the San Francisco Foundation, and other important institutions. He felt an obligation to use his wealth for the common good.

But even more striking was his humble and cooperative approach. He believed luck matters more than ability in people’s socioeconomic status. So Warren brought goodwill and real curiosity to all his interactions — he wanted to learn from San Franciscans of all kinds, to let them shape him and this city. I can think of no better example to follow during this holiday season and the fraught political year that follows.

Editor’s notes



Twenty years ago, if you mapped income distribution in San Francisco on a standard graph, you’d see what the economist call a bell curve: At one end were a small number of very poor families, at the other a small number of very rich, and in between the bulk of the city was somewhere roughly close to what you could call middle class.

Take the 2012 census data and make that graph today and you get the opposite — it’s becoming a U-shape, with more people in poverty and more gross wealth and not as much in the center.

You could see that on stark display at City Hall Dec 12.

At 10 a.m., the City Operations and Neighborhood Services Committee heard several hours of testimony on the alarming rise in the number of homeless families. In the end, the Mayor’s Office agreed to find $3 million to help out.

At 1 p.m., the Land Use and Economic Development Committee heard testimony on a plan to build more housing — on the waterfront, for the top one quarter of the top one percent of the richest people in America, people who will need more than $3 million just for the downpayment on their new digs.

The plan calls for 145 of what Port of San Francisco officials call “high end” or “luxury” condominiums, along with 400 underground parking spaces. “It’s going to be tight on three levels,” a Port official testified. “Most of it will be valet parking.” The developer wants to raise the height limit along the waterfront for the first time in half a century.

The Port, which controls some of the land, will get a cut of all the condo sales, maybe as much as $500,000 a year; that money will go to rebuild old piers and fund a long list of Port projects — including the America’s Cup. (Ted Gullicksen of the San Francisco Tenants Union was sitting next to me at the hearing, and he shook his head at that bit of news. “Condos for rich people to pay for boats for rich people,” he said.)

A long list of people, including former City Planning Director Alan Jacobs and former City Attorney Louise Renne — spoke against the project. Jacobs and Renne both explained that this was single-site spot zoning that would change the half-century consensus that the city should “decrease height toward the waterfront so the people can see and enjoy the meeting of land and water,” as Jacobs put it.

Jacobs gave the committee members his one “absolute truth” about city planning: “If a developer accepts and knows that a rule can’t be broken, then it will be economical to build within it. If he or she think it can be changed, then suddenly it will not be economical. It’s called greed.”

In other words, Simon Snellgrove, the developer of 8 Washington, could make money with a lower-scale project that conforms to existing height limits. But he can make more money if the city gives him a big honkin favor.

But it’s not all about height limits for me. It’s not even about the fact that the project will chop up a tennis and swimming club that serves about 2,000 more-or-less middle-class people in an effort to make life nicer for about 145 very rich people.

It’s about what kind of housing we’re building in San Francisco. “Every study that we’ve seen shows that we’ve vastly overbuilt housing for the wealthy,” Gullicksen testified.

And we’re not just talking the ordinary wealthy here. The most compelling testimony came from Frederick Allardyce, a real-estate broker from Sotheby’s who said he had been involved in the sale of about 70 percent of all luxury condos sold from Washington St. to the waterfront. He gave us a glimpse of who would be living — sort of — at 8 Washington.

The cheapest condos would require an income of $469,000, a downpayment of $625,000, and another $493,000 of liquid reserves. Monthly payment: $13,699. The higher-end units would require an annual income of $1.029 million and a downpayment of $6.5 million.

“That’s not the one percent,” he said. “It’s the top one quarter of the top one percent.”

And, Allardyce explained, most of the people who buy that level of property are so rich that they don’t actually live there. It’s a second or third or fourth home, a place to stay a few weeks out of the year. And since the project involves chopping up a tennis and swim club used by some 2,000 people (who are nowhere near that rich), “you’re eliminating the use of that land by the general public” in favor of a tiny elite.

The developer says that the city will get money to build 33 below-market-rate units. That’s nice; by that standard, 80 percent of the new housing goes to the richest people in the world, and 20 percent for everyone else. That percentage ought to be reversed — and until it is (or at least, until we have a plan to build enough affordable housing for the people who really need a place to live in San Francisco) I can’t imagine why we’d want to be doing favors to feed the greed of developers.

What we’re doing in this city is making life harder for low-income people who are increasingly living on the streets and doing big favors for the spectacularly wealthy. There’s no sanity in our housing policy — except to turn San Francisco even more into a city of the rich.

Editor’s notes



The private sector that Republicans see as our economic savior has been creating jobs. Not a lot, a few hundred thousand a month, but some. And yet the unemployment rate remains stubbornly high.

There’s a reason for that, one politicians from San Francisco to Washington D.C. don’t want to talk about. But the New York Times put it nicely in a Dec. 5 editorial:

“While the private sector has been adding jobs since the end of 2009, more than half a million government positions have been lost since the recession…”

“The cutbacks hurt more than just services. As Timothy Williams of the Times reported last week, they hit black workers particularly hard. Millions of African Americans — one in five who are employed — have entered the middle class through government employment, and they tend to make 25 percent more than other black workers. Now tens of thousands are leaving both their jobs and the middle class.”

Remember: Most of the biggest employers in this city are not corporations; they’re government agencies. The City and County of San Francisco, the University of California, the State of California, the United States Postal Service, City College and the San Francisco Unified School District drive the local economy more than any one private company. Between them, those public-sector operations employ more than 60,000 people. The largest single private employer, Wells Fargo, has fewer than one sixth of that number.

Most of the those public-sector jobs are unionized and offer decent benefits. They are such an important part of the city’s economic development future that it’s impossible to talk about jobs in San Francisco unless you start the conversation with the public sector.

Mayor Ed Lee is about to enter negotiations with unions representing 24,000 city employees. His office is already indicating that cost savings will be a big part of the discussion. I know there are cost savings out there — you can’t spend $2 billion on payroll and not have some waste somewhere in the package.

But if he’s serious about his campaign mantra — jobs, jobs, jobs — I hope he remembers what the Republicans don’t: Government jobs count, too.

Editor’s Notes



I want to take a few Republicans on a road trip.

A few days after the GOP-led Congress cut off funding for high-speed rail in California, I drove to Los Angeles for Thanksgiving. I wish the critics of the project were with me in the car, with two kids fighting in the back seat, constant traffic delays, and about as unpleasant an automobile excursion as you can imagine.

I hate driving. When I was 16, in the New York suburbs, all I wanted to do was drive; now I can’t stand it. But when you’re invited to a friend’s house 380 miles away and flying is too expensive and the one rail line that lumbers along the north-south corridor takes 14 hours and is always three or four hours late, there’s not much of an option.

And even by my standards, I-5 is a miserable experience. It’s crowded, it stinks like the piss of 5,000 doomed cows, and it goes on forever. On and on and on, through fields where big agricultural corporations using heavily subsidized water grow cotton in the desert, up the grapevine, down the grapevine, fighting trucks and too many cars, no place to stop and stretch your legs … I-5 isn’t a working road like 101, where people commute to work and go shopping and get on and off after a few miles. Most of the way from Sacramento to L.A., there’s nowhere to go — 40 miles or more between exits. Everybody on the road — all 10,000 or 20,000 or 50,000 or however many gasoline-powered steel boxes were crammed onto the concrete ribbon Thanksgiving week — were in it for the long haul. People drive I-5 to get from one end of the state to the other; that’s why the thing exists.

And that’s why it’s about the best place in the country to run a high-speed rail line.

Seriously: I bet 90 percent of the people on that wretched roadway Thanksgiving week would have been thrilled to take a train directly from downtown San Francisco (or Sacramento) to Union Station in L.A. — particularly if the ride took half the time of the drive and cost about the same.

I can talk forever about fossil fuels and climate change and air pollution and all the reasons people should get out of their cars. But all you have to do to convince any reasonable person that driving from S.F. to L.A. is a bad idea is to do it.

Editor’s notes



Occupy Oakland has been very good at exposing one local problem — police brutality. The first raids, and the tear gas and rubber bullets that flew afterward — showed the world how poorly trained the Oakland cops are and how unprepared they were for a largely peaceful demonstration.

But overall, the Occupy movement has been about national issues — or rather, The National Issue, which is income inequality. Nothing else going on in the United States compares. On an economic level, I could argue that nothing else matters — until we resolve the wealth and income gap, the recession will never end, the deficit will never improve, the unemployment rate won’t stabilize, the nation will grow weaker and weaker and more and more unstable … basically, we’re doomed.

But while there have been marches on local banks and corporations, not a lot of Occupy attention has gone to local inequality — to what the folks at San Francisco City Hall, and Oakland City Hall are doing to make the one percent in our own backyards pay its fair share for the services that most impact many of our lives. Mayor Jean Quan got booed for calling in the riot cops, but Mayor Ed Lee isn’t getting booed for corporate tax breaks.

The OccupySF people came out in force to a Board of Supervisors hearing to demand that their camp be left alone. But they aren’t out in force to demand, say, a local fee on bank foreclosures.

That’s not a criticism of a movement that continues to inspire me every day; it’s just a statement about tactics and strategy. And it’s one we all ought to be thinking about.

In a brilliant opinion piece this week, Raj Jayadev, director of Silicon Valley Debug, notes:

“In San Jose, the city that used to promote itself as the capitol of Silicon Valley, city budget cuts have either eliminated or dramatically slashed hours for youth sanctuaries like libraries and community centers. … For us, the one percent are just up the street -– the 101 to be precise. Those tech giants exist in the same Silicon Valley that cannot even keep its library doors open. Why have they not given? Why have we not demanded?”

Good question.

Editor’s notes



I really can’t get that upset about the broken bank windows in Oakland. This is minor stuff, a tiny part of what has been largely a peaceful Occupy movement. The windows have been replaced, the banks and their insurance companies have paid for it, the Occupy people helped clean up … whatever.

The problem was that the folks who went a bit Seattle ’99 on Oakland weren’t thinking too clearly — or else they didn’t care about the differences between then and now, and here and there, and why property destruction in downtown Oakland in the fall of 2011 is a bad strategic idea.

There are always folks at a big Bay Area demonstration who want to cause some mayhem. It happened during the protests against the Iraq War, and it happened during the Oscar Grant protests, and I figured it would happen when thousands of people convenened in the East Bay for what was dubbed a general strike. Sometimes it’s spontaneous anger (see: Oscar Grant), and it’s hard to argue with; sometimes it’s sparked by police riots and violence, and while it’s hard to blame protesters for fighting back.

I’m not here to attack the black bloc or denounce anarchists or get into the whole battle over whether property destruction counts as violence. Been there, done that, got the circle-A t-shirt. I just want the Occupy movement, in Oakland and San Francisco and the rest of the country, to continue to grow and develop and become an agent of real change in a way that we haven’t seen in decades. The potential is there; this could really happen.

And that requires not just debate and discussion and theory and action; it requires political strategy.

I’m not talking about turning the refreshingly leaderless and nonhierarchical, consensus-based structure into something more traditional. I’m talking about the protesters considering the way their actions are portrayed in the news media, their ability to build crucial alliances — and frankly, their willingness to be good neighbors.

Folks: You now live in downtown Oakland and downtown San Francisco. You’ve turned empty public spaces into lively, exciting communities. That’s a positive thing.

There are other people who share downtown Oakland, and some of them are evil corporations but some are small local businesses who are hurting, just like the rest of the 99 percent. So make alliances, shop local, and don’t trash the place. That’s just smart politics.

Editor’s notes



One cool October day in 1985, when I was a young reporter at the Guardian, a friend who was visiting from New York where she was working with Gay Men’s Health Crisis, called me with an urgent message:

City employees were out with water hoses, trying to force a couple of HIV-positive men from camping in front of a federal office building at U.N. Plaza. I ran down there; she had photos. I talked to the men, who were tired and wet, but determined not to leave — and within a few days after my story ran (“AIDS vigil under attack,” 11/6/85), they were joined by dozens more.

And as the months passed, the AIDS vigil grew and grew. It raised awareness of the federal government’s criminal lack of attention to the epidemic. It became a tent city, a small community in the middle of San Francisco with donated food and supplies. Every once in a while, a politician or a media celebrity would spend a night there.

The feds backed off with the hoses and the city figured out that the encampment was no danger to anyone and was making an important political statement. And it remained there — with tents and tarps — for ten years.

I was at the OccupySF camp Oct. 3rd to do a live KPFA broadcast with Mitch Jeserich, and the place was clean, peaceful and well-organized. A couple of cops walked through while we were on the air; they were smiling and chatting with the protesters, who were negotiation with the Department of Public Works about vacating the grassy areas to allow watering. I saw none of the filth that the daily newspapers have talked about.

The only real health and safety problem was the lack of portable toilets — the seven on site weren’t enough for the number of people there. So if the city wants to keep things sanitary, Mayor Ed Lee ought to send in some more. Oh, and the medical tent needs supplies, particularly ice packs and sterile gauze.

A woman from Occupy Vancouver was down visiting and showing solidarity; she said that protesters all over the continent were looking to San Francisco and Oakland for inspiration.

This is a good thing. The protests may not have an agenda, but they have a message, and it’s getting to big and too loud to ignore. I hope it doesn’t take ten years for politicians at the local, state and federal level to respond — but as long as nobody’s addressing economic inequality, OccupySF is and ought to be here to stay.

Editor’s notes



I say it over and over again, because some people clearly aren’t paying attention:

Corruption matters.

When the mayor of San Francisco surrounds himself with people who don’t show any respect for campaign finance or ethics regulations, who think it’s fine to skirt (and possibly break) election laws, it undermines faith in local government.

And at a time when conservatives at the national and state level are mounting a concerted campaign to shrink, weaken and ultimately burn down government, the last thing San Francisco needs is to give them fuel.

Listen: When Willie Brown was mayor, a tax lawyer named Ron Chun was running for assessor. Generally a good guy, generally progressive, full of creative ideas. But when I asked him about how to get more revenue into the city, he said:

“Why should we bring in more revenue? Willie Brown’s just going to waste it on his cronies anyway.”

He wasn’t alone. A lot of generally progressive people felt as if paying taxes was throwing money down the sewer. Because everyone knew that Brown was hiring unqualified people, pouring cash into contracts for his pals, handing out raises and benefits to city workers who supported him — and treating critics as if they were traitors to the nation.

Mayor Lee says he doesn’t approve of what looks an awful lot like voter fraud and doesn’t support what the independent expenditure committees are doing in his name. But anyone with any sense knows that the IE groups and the Lee campaign and the Lee administration are all parts of a permanent floating crap game where the players move around but everybody knows everybody else and there’s no way to keep communications completely shut off. If Lee wanted these “independent” groups to quit using stencils to make sure voters choose him for mayor, these operators would stop.

But he talks to people like Brown, people who have disdain for honest, open government, and they tell him not to worry. These things blow over. Once he wins the election, it won’t matter.

But when you have a mayor who invites corrupt actors into the house, it does matter. It matters a lot.

Editor’s notes



I feel like was just getting over the 40th anniversary party, and now here comes 45. Guardian anniversaries are like birthday parties; they keep creeping up on you. Except that, in this case, getting older isn’t something to worry about. It’s a sign of strength that a weekly paper founded with a little money scraped together by two Midwesterners in 1966 has survived, grown, and become a standard-bearer for the alternative press in America.

I missed 15, but I was here for 16, and 20, and 25, and 30, and 40, and I’ve watched the Guardian — and San Francisco — emerge and change. And I can say, after almost 30 years as a reporter and editor here, that the demise of the old Brown Machine and the advent of district elections in 2000 were the most important advances in modern local political history.

District elections diffused power at City Hall. You didn’t need a huge downtown-funded campaign war chest to get elected supervisor. You didn’t need the support of the power brokers. And all parts of the city were represented.

By the time Willie Brown left office in 2004 — mostly in political disgrace — a long era of corrupt machine politics was ending. He had lost control of the Board of Supervisors. Almost none of the candidates he endorsed got elected. His approach to running the city was utterly repudiated by the voters. It was like the city drew a collective breath of very fresh air.

Yeah, we had to fight with Gavin Newsom. Yeah, we lost some critical battles. Yeah, the city’s till building housing just for millionaires. But at least with Brown gone and district supervisors calling the shots, I always thought we had a chance.

And maybe we will with Mayor Ed Lee, too, if, as projected, he wins in November. Maybe he can show some independence. Maybe the Ed Lee who started as a tenant lawyer will arise again in Room 200.

But Brown doesn’t think so. Neither do the billionaires and lobbyists and a cast of dozens from the old Brown Machine. They think they’re coming back into power.

And these folks are savvy, experienced and clever. They don’t put this sort of money and personal clout into candidates unless they’re pretty damn sure they’ll get a return on their investment. That’s how it works in Willie’s World.

Editor’s notes



It’s nice to see that the days when you could get away with calling protesters commies are back. CNBC says that the Occupy Wall Street activists are “anarchists” who are “aligned with Lenin.” Actually, none of the anarchists I know are remotely Leninist. The communists of old were all for the creation of a powerful state. Lenin read Bakunin in his early years, but later declared that anarchists were “bourgeois revolutionaries.”

But I wouldn’t expect Larry Kudlow, Jim Cramer and Joe Kernan to be up on their radical history. They clearly haven’t spent much time with the people of the Occupy Wall Street movement, either. If they did, they’d realize that — like most of the left-wing movements that have sprung up with young people at the forefront in the United States over the past half century — the essential politics of Occupy Wall Street aren’t derived from Lenin, Marx, Castro, the Sandinistas, or Hugo Chavez. It’s about self-reliance, about community control and free expression, and in its purest form, it’s a rejection of the old role of leaders and authority. It would have driven Lenin mad.

I grew up on that side of politics. In college, the anti-apartheid and antinuclear movements were all about consensus process, all about the rejection of any sort of power relationships. We had no elected presidents or chairpeople. We didn’t vote on anything — voting disempowers the losing side. We took no action until we could reach consensus; everyone had to agree with everything.

What ultimately happened was that the people who could stick around for very long meetings, typically very late at night, where everybody had a lot to say and nobody got to tell anyone to cut it short, made the decisions. I never lasted.

When you’re all at an encampment with nowhere to go, it’s a thrilling exercise in real, direct democracy. When you’re trying to do organizing involving people who have jobs, kids, and lives that can’t fit three-hour (at best) meetings into the schedule, you leave a lot of your potential allies out.

The most interesting thing, though, is that the organizing principle of the protests, by its nature, involves distrusting government. That’s been part of the young left for a long time — and for those of us who believe in a strong public sector, it’s a bit, as they say, challenging.

Editor’s notes



Every mayoral candidate who wants the progressive vote showed up for the Guardian forum Sept. 21. Everyone except Mayor Ed Lee.

Yeah, the mayor’s a busy guy. But state senators and city attorneys and public defenders and city assessors and supervisors are busy, too, and those people managed to get to the LGBT Center, where more than 100 people were packed into the fourth floor room.

Jeff Adachi made a point of talking about “showing up” — and everyone knew exactly what he was saying. Where was Ed?

Well, maybe the mayor isn’t interested in votes from the city’s left, but I kind of doubt he’s written off such a huge sector of the population. In fact, by that standard, he would have written off most of the neighborhoods, and most of the political clubs. Because the mayor isn’t showing up much at all.

There have been more than 50 forums, debates and candidates nights over the course of the election season. Sure, some of them happened before Lee got in the race — but since the day he filed his papers, the other candidates have gone to between 12 and 15 events. Lee has made it to maybe two or three — and when he does show up, he often answers one question then leaves.

I get the strategy: Lee is pretending to be above the political fray. He’s the incumbent in the Rose Garden, refusing to lower himself to the level of all that riffraff out there trying to communicate with the voters. He’s making sure nobody gets to ask him any embarrassing questions; that way he won’t make any mistakes. And his entire reelection will be one big scripted event, paid for with big corporate money and managed from behind the scenes by the same slick operators who brought you Gavin Newsom.

Do we really want four more years of that?

Tony Winnicker, who was Newsom’s press secretary, is now handing the media for Lee. He’s just as hostile and dismissive of legitimate journalistic inquiries as he ever was, just as full of spin and vinegar. He acts as if campaigning — you know, the stuff all the others are doing — is beneath the dignity of His Honor.

Come on, Mr. Mayor. Come out and campaign like everyone else. We’re starting to wonder what you’re trying to hide.

Editor’s notes



So the people who advise President Obama have finally figured out that he was on the road to becoming a one-term president — and the United States was on the road to ruin under President Perry. Whatever combination of self-preservation and fear was at work, it worked, at least for the moment.

Obama is now on record as refusing to accept any cuts in entitlements for poor people unless the rich people give a little, too. It’s a pretty good political statement — in every single major poll taken in the past year, an overwhelming majority of Americans agreed that higher taxes on the wealthy should be part of any deficit-reduction package. And it’s a no-brainer economic statement — the fundamental problem with the U.S. economy is a lack of consumer demand, which is tied directly to the fact that all of the wealth over the past 20 years has gone to the top and the middle class doesn’t have enough money to spend.

But what’s it’s really done is kicked the proverbial tax can — and thus, unfortunately, economic recovery — down the proverbial road another 13 months. Because the Republicans won’t accept higher taxes, and if Obama keeps his newfound spine, he won’t accept any cuts in Medicare and Medicaid, and nobody is talking about cutting the military, so nothing is going to happen.

Instead, this is the launch of Campaign 2012. Obama’s got a tough sell — the number on issue for most voters is jobs, and while I personally believe that the first stimulus plan kept the recession from getting worse, that’s not enough. Things are supposed to get better, and when they don’t, the guy at the top gets the blame.

So Obama has a problem: It’s all his fault, but he can’t do anything about it, and that’s what the Republicans are counting on. His only choice is to come roaring out like Harry Truman, and blame the “do-nothing” Republican Congress for blocking economic growth (and, if he has any sense, will say that the GOP is holding a jobs program hostage to protect the interests of the millionaires), and the Democrats will try to use that message to take back the House — and if it works, we might just possibly get things back on track in 2013. If it doesn’t, it’s going to be a very ugly decade.

Editor’s notes



If you want to put more money in the pockets of working people, cutting the federal payroll tax — which, for many, is a larger tax burden than the income tax — makes perfect sense.

If you want to create jobs, cutting the payroll tax for businesses is a risky proposition.

Most new jobs in the United States are created by small businesses — and the payroll tax, while significant, isn’t a dramatic hindrance to job growth.

I work for a small business, and I ran the numbers with our controller, and if the Obama stimulus bill passes, the Bay Guardian will probably have enough extra money to hire one part-time employee — as long as we don’t pay that person much more than the city’s minimum wage. That’s something, I suppose. But even multiplied by the millions of small businesses in the country, there’s no guarantee it will lead to millions of jobs — particularly since so many small businesses in this country are deeply in debt, scraping for profits and likely to use the extra money for something other than hiring.

And a lot of big businesses already have the cash on hand to hire new workers, but they aren’t doing it.

That’s because businesses don’t make hiring decisions based just on taxes and cash — they hire people when they need workers to fill demand for their products and services. And the fundamental problem with the American economy today is that the very rich, who don’t spend most of their money, keep getting more of it, and the middle class doesn’t have enough to stimulate demand.

Here’s what makes me crazy: The government knows how to create jobs. If that’s what Obama wants to do, why not just .. do it?

Let’s say you want to create a million new jobs that pay a living wage (say, $50,000). If, instead of hoping that the private sector will be the middleman, Obama directed federal, state, and local governments to hire people to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, teach in public schools etc, that would cost …. oh, about $500 billion.

So for $447 billion, you might only get 800,000 jobs. But that increased economic activity, and the demand it would create, would almost certainly lead to more jobs, probably at least another 400,000 jobs. That’s more than a million; the unemployment rate just dropped a full percentage point, and the recovery is well under way.

Why is nobody even talking about this?

Editor’s notes



I’ve been wondering for months now how all of the rich people who come into San Francisco for the America’s Cup are going to get around. The event plans call for the Embarcadero to be closed during the festivities, which means no cars. The F-line is nice, but slow — and even with new trains, has limited capacity. And I don’t expect to see a lot of the millionaire yachting types riding the bus with us commoners.

Walk? Yeah, from a couple of blocks away, but not from hotels South of Market or on Nob Hill or Union Square. Not in their $500 shoes. Cabs? The traffic will be unbearable.

So here’s an idea I’ve heard floating around: The city makes the project sponsor (that’s you, Larry) buy a fleet of several hundred pedicabs, bicycle-powered taxis. Then the city hires hundreds of unemployed teenagers to drive the visitors from their hotels to the waterfront, giving local youth a chance to earn some money off the cup events. Ban all forms of motorized transportation — no limos, no town cars.

Advantages: Zero carbon emissions. No traffic jams. Youth employment. Healthy exercise. And think about the chariot-race-and-bumper-cars action that will give the swells a thrill. It’s a winner for everyone.

I’ve also been thinking about how the abomination of a condo project at 8 Washington is going to affect the festivities — and it’s a concern. The city has published reports on both the luxury condo project and the cup, and the folks working on the two don’t seem to be talking.

For example, the 8 Washington developer wants to excavate 110,000 tons of soil for a massive parking garage, from a spot right on the edge of the Embarcadero, right while all the cup events are taking place. Where are the dump trucks (hundreds of them every week) going to go if the Embarcadero is closed? How will that construction add to the congestion mess?

I’m not a fan of 8 Washington anyway. It’s a project designed to create the most expensive condos ever built in San Francisco — which is just what the city needs. More second or third homes for very rich people who won’t live here more than a few weeks a year. Another project that will put the city further out of synch with its own General Plan goals for affordable housing.

And building these units for the rich will interfere with the entertainment for the rich that’s supposed to trickle down to the rest of us. I wish it were just funny.

Editor’s Notes



I have friends — progressives, activists, good people — who support Ed Lee for mayor. They tell me that Lee is accessible, that he listens to labor and grassroots community groups, that he’s going to be good on a lot of issues and that, compared to the mayors we’ve had in the past 30 years or so, he won’t be all that bad.

I respect that. I understand. But I try to remind them, and anyone else who’s listening, that the years when Willie Brown ran this town were really, really bad.

At the height of the Brown era, during the dot-com boom, hundreds of evictions were filed every single month. Thousands and thousands of low-income and working-class tenants were displaced, tossed out of San Francisco forever. Blue-collar jobs were destroyed as high-tech offices took over industrial space. Every single developer who waved money at the mayor got a permit, no matter how ridiculous, dangerous or crazy the project was.

In 1999, Paulina Borsook wrote a famous piece for Salon called “How the Internet ruined San Francisco.” But the Internet was just technology; what damaged this city so badly was a mayor who didn’t care what happened to the most vulnerable populations. At one point, Brown even said that poor people shouldn’t live in this city. We called his policies “the economic cleansing of San Francisco.”

He controlled local politics — brutally. If you didn’t kiss the mayor’s ring, you were crushed. He announced one day that the supervisors (then elected citywide) were nothing but “mistresses who have to be serviced” — and since most of them were utterly subservient to Brown, they didn’t even complain. Only one person on the board — Tom Ammiano — regularly defied the mayor; occasionally, Leland Yee and Sue Bierman joined him. But that was it.

The corruption was rampant. People who paid to play got in the door; nobody else came close. You did a favor for Brown and you got a commission appointment or a high-paid job, even if you weren’t remotely qualified.

The ones who suffered most were the poorest residents, particularly tenants, particularly on the east side of town. Brown didn’t seem to care that his appointments, deals and policies were causing terrible pain on the ground; it was as if politics was just a fun game, as if he were some sort of royal potentate, partying in the executive suites and ignoring what was happening on the streets.

There are people who believe that Ed Lee can be independent of Brown, and I hope they’re right. But Lee and Brown are close, and Brown helped put him in office — and the thought of even a small part of that rotten era of sleaze coming back makes me very, very nervous.

Editor’s notes



Gavin Newsom rode into the Mayor’s Office with a campaign to take welfare money away from homeless people. Jeff Adachi’s campaign for mayor is fueled by his attempt to cut city-employee pension costs. It’s an effective tactic: You put an initiative on the ballot and campaign as its sponsor, with your name attached — and while direct fundraising for mayoral candidates is tightly restricted (contribution limits, no corporate money), ballot-measure campaigns can collect unlimited cash, from almost anyone. Pick a popular issue (and attacking homeless people and city workers seems to have a lot of traction these days) and your chances of getting elected get a nice boost.

So why has no candidate running for citywide office in San Francisco ever made tax reform the center of his or her campaign?

I realize that tax reform is boring. Slogans like “shared progressive values” and words like “together” play much better in the focus groups. But think about it: Nearly every major national poll shows that the voters — by a margin of roughly 2-1 — think that tax increases should be part of the solution to the nation’s budget woes. Since San Francisco is way more liberal than the nation as a whole, the margin in this city is probably about 3-1.

Naturally, the poll numbers depend on how you ask the question, so let me suggest a way to frame it that’s entirely honest and consistent with what I suspect most the voters in this city believe. “Since 400 American families now own more wealth than 50 percent of the entire population put together, should San Francisco’s budget problems be solved in part with higher taxes on very rich residents and businesses?”

You might actually get 90 percent support on that one.

Look: Warren Buffett, one of the richest people in the world, recently wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times saying that his class isn’t paying its fair share. Warren Hellman, one of the richest people in San Francisco, told me the same thing a couple of months ago. (In 2006, in a particularly revealing interview, Buffett told economics writer Ben Stein that “there’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”) This is mainstream stuff now.

And I know some of the candidates, particularly Sup. John Avalos, support new taxes on the wealthy, and Assessor Phil Ting wants to repeal parts of Prop. 13. But nobody has ever made this a signature issue. Nobody’s ever made taxing the rich his or her version of Care Not Cash. I’m thinking maybe it’s time.

Editor’s Notes



August is a bad time to split town. When I left for vacation a couple of weeks ago, Ed Lee was just starting to act like a candidate in a slow-developing mayor’s race. Nobody except my lunatic pal h. brown had any inkling that Public Defender Jeff Adachi would jump into the Room 200 sweepstakes at the last minute. And the Giants were three games up.

Now Lee is the clear front-runner, Adachi — a guy who defends criminals for a living — is the darling of a some anti-government conservatives, there are Avalos signs all over the Mission, and nobody knows exactly how to figure this all out.

Oh, and Arizona — which I hate (yeah, I hate the entire state, including the governor, the baseball team and the newspaper chain that’s based there) — is leading the National League West.

Welcome home, I guess.

The first thing I want to say about the mayor’s race is that none of this would be possible without ranked-choice voting and public financing. Think about it: Five serious Asian candidates, two of them leading in the polls and at least three of them real contenders — and nobody’s complaining that Adachi or Lee will “split” the Asian vote. If anything, several strong Asian candidates help each other; the supporters of Ed Lee and Leland Yee may be trashing the opposition day and night, but in the end, a lot of Chinese voters will probably still rank the incumbent mayor and the man who’s been elected citywide four times as two of their three choices.

And without public financing, the race would be dominated by one or two contenders — the ones who could privately raise $1 million or more to stay in the game. Instead, we have at least four and perhaps as many as five or six candidates who have a real chance of finishing on top. Already, the Chron and the Ex are complaining about the cost of public financing; the cost of closed elections where only those with big-business connections could win was much, much higher.

The other factor that will make this fascinating is that Lee’s job just got much, much harder. He’s not the amiable technocrat who comes to work early and gets the job done anymore; now he’s an ambitious pol who has never had to stand up to the heat of a tough campaign. He’s going to have to be a candidate, and campaign, and answer some hard questions about some of his political allies and supporters. That’s not the gig he wanted in February. And I don’t know how well he’s going to handle it.

Editor’s notes



“We live in turbulent times,” my uncle observed last Saturday. He’s right: the world is roiling.

This past week alone: 100,000 students marched in Santiago, Chile to protest education cuts. (The protest turned violent on Friday when police used excessive force and tear-gassed the crowd.) On Saturday, 300,000 people from across the political spectrum marched in Israel, mainly to protest rising housing costs. (A million-person march is planned for next week.)

Syria saw probably its bloodiest weekend of protests yet, as the government sent in more forces to crush anti-authoritarian uprisings. In Spain, a resurgent M-15 — the huge yet ambiguous protest organization that occupied Madrid’s main square this summer — was blocked by anti-riot police from re-occupying Puerto del Sol. And, in Tottenham, London, a peaceful vigil for a man slain by police was stoked into a weekend of riots that is spreading throughout the city as of this writing.

The swelling protests are all unique in their ways, but we certainly seem to be in the midst of a global “protest movement movement.” Many of the demonstrations — at least the nonviolent ones — have been presented in the media as a continuation of the Arab Spring, due to the important role of online social media and the peaceful, game-changing aspirations of participants. And in most of the recent protests, there is evidence of a frightened and over-reactive government (the Chinese government, quaking over growing unrest due to its cover-up of a train crash last month, is flailing at online censorship) or a woefully unprepared police force (the Tottenham police were severely late in addressing public questions about the shooting, and failed to heed community leader warnings about potential violence).

But all have to do with economic inequality, an overwhelming feeling of powerlessness in the face of ineffectual governance, and an onslaught of austerity cuts imposed from above. Last week’s odious debt ceiling charade by American “leaders” has just ensured massive national austerity cuts, and made the economy a lot more anxious (and unequal). Hands up if you feel powerless.

I think of two recent large examples of Bay Area economic unrest: the 2009 student demonstrations against University of California tuition hikes and the reaction to the Mehserle verdict last year. Are we prepared to channel the coming frustration into an expansive, nonviolent popular movement that builds on positive momentum, includes everyone, and brings a whiff of the Arab Spring to our shores?

Editor’s Notes



When a crowd of less than two dozen people watched an eight-foot wooden man burn on Baker Beach during the Summer Solstice of 1986, could any of them have possibly imagined that the ritual would repeat itself 25 years later in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert before a sold-out crowd of more than 50,000 people?

Even if man-builder Larry Harvey could have dreamed that big and strangely — and, most assuredly, he did not — it’s even harder to imagine the dimensions, staying power, and creativity of the massive temporal city that has formed up around the Man, Black Rock City, or the impact that it’s had on the hundreds of thousands of people who have cycled through it.

I first attended Burning Man in 2001, when the event was half its current size and when the country’s sociopolitical landscape was about to undergo a profound and lasting change, with 9/11 and the launching of a war in Afghanistan that continues to his day. It is against that backdrop that this culture — with its core values of self-expression, communal effort, and rejection of commodification — has flourished.

I’ve had the privilege of closely covering Burning Man and its many leaders and luminaries continuously since 2004, when I launched a long series of Guardian articles that later evolved into my book, The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture (2011, CCC Publishing), so I’ve had plenty of time to ponder what has always seemed to me the central question: Why?

Why do so many people devote so much of their time, energy, and resources to preparing for the pilgrimage to the playa? And we’re talking months worth of work, in drab workspaces around the Bay Area, sacrificing other social and economic opportunities and sometimes even their sanity. Why do they do it, and why do so many burners find that experience so transformative?

There are, of course, the obvious answers. There’s the mind-blowing art pieces, which seem to get more ambitious and innovative each year. It’s also the greatest party on the planet, a truly 24-7 city with engaged citizens exploring endless options, all offered for free. Then there’s the surreal setting, the DIY spirit, the gift economy, the experiments in urbanism and community, its smoldering sensuality, and an endless list of other appeals.

And that’s all great, but I’ve come to believe that there’s something else at the core of the question: Why do we do this? We do it because we have to, because we can’t think of any sane way to respond to the insanity of modern American life. So we pursue our mad visions, and organize our lives and social circles around that pursuit, collectively building a fake, doomed city in the desert that seems to us so much more real and authentic and purposeful than anything the default world is providing.

We do it because it’s become our home, a place that is now an important part of who we are. And we at the Guardian hope the burners among you find some useful tidbits in our first-ever playa prep guide.


Editor’s notes


So now I’m really confused.

State Assemblymember Tom Ammiano met July 18 with representatives of BART and the BART Police (three BART lobbyists, a deputy chief, and a sergeant). He wanted to get some sense of what’s going on with the investigation into the Civic Center shooting. Ammiano had pushed last year for legislation forcing BART to create a civilian oversight agency for the cops; instead, BART created its own police auditor position.

Ammiano asked when BART would start releasing information, starting with the station video of the event, which ended with a homeless man dead on the platform. BART, Ammiano told me, said the whole thing had been turned over to the San Francisco Police Department.

But the SFPD Public Affairs Office tells me that it won’t release anything — that all information has to come from BART. Linton Johnson, BART’s public affairs person, tells me that it’s SFPD’s investigation and nothing will be forthcoming until SFPD turns its files over to the district attorney — but yes, even then, thanks to an interagency deal, all info will have to come from BART.

Round and round and round we spin. And nobody tells us anything.

There are some serious questions here. BART officials told Ammiano that Charles Hill, the dead man, was “armed with two knives and a bottle.” That’s the current narrative — that the guy was a mortal threat to the officers, who had the discretion to use lethal force.

Quintin Mecke, Ammiano’s press aide, asked the obvious question: Was Hill in fact wielding the weapons in a threatening way? Were the knives later found on his body? Did he throw the bottle or was it in his hand?

BART’s response: “They told me that was part of the investigation,” Mecke said.

As for the SFPD, Mecke said he’s been told that the investigation should be concluded in 45 days — which is crazy. I can’t imagine why it takes that long to review a police shooting that took place on a public train platform — and was recorded on video. “It is,” Mecke told me, “a stonewall all around.”

The good news is that BART now has an official police auditor. His name is Mark Smith. He has no staff at all, so he can’t investigate the case — but that’s okay, because the BART police are offering to help him.

For the record, I remain dubious.