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Return of the messenger

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By Melinda Welsh

news@sfbg.com

This one has all the ingredients of a dreamed-up Hollywood blockbuster: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist uncovers a big story involving drugs, the CIA, and a guerrilla army. Despite threats and intimidation, he writes an explosive exposé and catches national attention. But the fates shift. Our reporter’s story is torn apart by the country’s leading media; he is betrayed by his own newspaper. Though the big story turns out to be true, the writer commits suicide and becomes a cautionary tale.

Hold on, though. The above is not fiction.

Kill the Messenger, an actual film coming soon to a theater near you, is the true story of Sacramento-based investigative reporter Gary Webb, who earned both acclaim and notoriety for his 1996 San Jose Mercury News series that revealed the CIA had turned a blind eye to the U.S.-backed Nicaraguan Contras trafficking crack cocaine in South Central Los Angeles and elsewhere in urban America in the 1980s. One of the first-ever newspaper investigations to be published on the Internet, Webb’s story gained a massive readership and stirred up a firestorm of controversy and repudiation.

After being deemed a pariah by media giants like The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, and being disowned by his own paper, Webb eventually came to work in August 2004 at Sacramento News & Review. Four months later, he committed suicide at age 49. He left behind a grieving family — and some trenchant questions:

Why did the media giants attack him so aggressively, thereby protecting the government secrets he revealed? Why did he decide to end his own life? What, ultimately, is the legacy of Gary Webb?

Like others working at our newsweekly in the brief time he was here, I knew Webb as a colleague and was terribly saddened by his death. Those of us who attended his unhappy memorial service at the Doubletree Hotel in Sacramento a week after he died thought that day surely marked a conclusion to the tragic tale of Gary Webb.

But no.

Because here comes Kill the Messenger, a Hollywood film starring Jeremy Renner as Webb; Rosemarie DeWitt as Webb’s then wife, Sue Bell (now Stokes); Oliver Platt as Webb’s top editor, Jerry Ceppos; and a litany of other distinguished actors, including Michael K. Williams, Ray Liotta, Andy Garcia, and Robert Patrick. Directed by Michael Cuesta (executive producer of the TV series Homeland), the film opens in a “soft launch” across the country and in Bay Area theaters on Oct. 10.

Members of Webb’s immediate family—including his son Eric, who lives near Sacramento State and plans a career in journalism—expect to feel a measure of solace upon the release of Kill the Messenger.

“The movie is going to vindicate my dad,” he said.

For Renner — who grew up in Modesto and is best known for his roles in The Bourne Legacy, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, The Avengers and The Hurt Locker — the film was a chance to explore a part unlike any he’d played before. During a break in filming Mission Impossible 5, he spoke to us about his choice to star in and co-produce Kill the Messenger.

“The story is important,” said Renner. “It resonated with me. It has a David and Goliath aspect.

“He was brave, he was flawed. … I fell in love with Gary Webb.”

 

EARLY VIRAL JOURNALISM

There’s a scene in Kill the Messenger that will make every investigative journalist in America break into an insider’s grin. It’s the one where — after a year of tough investigative slogging that had taken him from the halls of power in Washington, D.C., to a moldering jail in Central America to the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles — Renner as Webb begins to write the big story. In an absorbing film montage, Renner is at the keyboard as it all comes together — the facts, the settings, the sources. The truth. The Clash provides the soundtrack, with Joe Strummer howling: Know your rights / these are your rights … You have the right to free speech / as long as you’re not dumb enough to actually try it.

It took the real Gary Webb a long time to get to this point in his career.

His father, a U.S. Marine, moved Webb around a lot in his youth, from California to Indiana to Kentucky to Ohio. He wound up marrying his high school sweetheart, Sue Bell, with whom he had three children. Inspired by the reporting that uncovered Watergate and in need of income, he left college three units shy of a degree and went to work at The Kentucky Post, then The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, where he rose quickly through the ranks of grunt reporters. Dogged in his pursuit of stories, Webb landed a job at the Mercury News in 1988 and became part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for reporting on the Loma Prieta earthquake.

It was the summer of 1996 when the lone-wolf journalist handed his editors a draft of what would become the three-part, 20,000-word exposé “Dark Alliance.” The series was exhaustive and complex. But its nugget put human faces on how CIA operatives had been aware that the Contras (who had been recruited and trained by the CIA to topple the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua) had smuggled cocaine into the United States and, through drug dealers, fueled an inner-city crack-cocaine epidemic.

When “Dark Alliance” was published on Aug. 18 of that year, it was as if a bomb had exploded at the Mercury News. That’s because it was one of the first stories to go globally viral online on the paper’s then state-of-the-art website. It was 1996; the series attracted an unprecedented 1.3 million hits per day. Webb and his editors were flooded with letters and emails. Requests for appearances piled in from national TV news shows.

“Gary’s story was the first Internet-age big journalism exposé,” said Nick Schou, who wrote the book Kill the Messenger, on which the movie is partially based, along with Webb’s own book version of the series, Dark Alliance. “If the series had happened a year earlier it, ‘Dark Alliance’ just would have come and gone,” said Schou.

As word of the story spread, black communities across America — especially in South Central Los Angeles — grew outraged and demanded answers. At the time, crack cocaine was swallowing up neighborhoods whole, fueling an epidemic of addiction and crime. Rocked by the revelations, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, congresswoman for Los Angeles’s urban core to this day, used her bully pulpit to call for official investigations.

But after a six-week honeymoon for Webb and his editors, the winds shifted. The attacks began.

On Oct. 4, The Washington Post stunned the Mercury News by publishing five articles assaulting the veracity of Webb’s story, leading the package from page one. A few weeks later, The New York Times joined with similar intent.

The ultimate injury came when the L.A. Times unleashed a veritable army of 17 journalists (known internally as the “Get Gary Webb Team”) on the case, writing a three-part series demolishing “Dark Alliance.” The L.A. paper — which appeared to onlookers to have missed a giant story in its own backyard — was exhaustive in its deconstruction, claiming the series “was vague” and overreached. “Oliver Stone, check your voice mail,” summed Post media columnist Howard Kurtz.

Now, even some of Webb’s supporters admitted that his series could have benefited from more judicious editing. But why were the “big three” so intent on tearing down Webb’s work rather than attempting to further the story, as competing papers had done back in the day when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke the Watergate scandal?

Some say it was the long arm of former President Ronald Reagan and his team’s ability to manipulate the gatekeepers of old media to its purposes. (Reagan had, after all, publicly compared the Contras to “our Founding Fathers” and supported the CIA-led attempt to topple the Sandinista government.)

Others say that editors at the “big three” were simply affronted to have a midsize paper like the Mercury News beat them on such a big story. An article in the Columbia Journalism Review claimed some L.A. Times reporters bragged in the office about denying Webb a Pulitzer.

One of their big criticisms was that the story didn’t include a comment from the CIA. When reporters at the big three asked the agency if Webb’s story was true, they were told no. The denial was printed in the mainstream media as if it were golden truth.

Other issues fueled controversy around Webb’s story. For example: It was falsely reported in some media outlets — and proclaimed by many activists in the black community — that Webb had proven the CIA was directly involved in drug trafficking that targeted blacks. He simply did not make this claim.

In some ways, Webb became the first reporter ever to benefit from, and then become the victim of, a story that went viral online.

After triumphing in the early success of the series, Webb’s editors at the Mercury News became unnerved and eventually backed down under the pressure. Jerry Ceppos, the paper’s executive editor, published an unprecedented column on May 11, 1997, that was widely considered an apology for the series, saying it “fell short” in editing and execution.

When contacted by us, Ceppos, now dean of the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University, said he was only barely aware of the film coming out and wasn’t familiar with the acting career of Oliver Platt, who plays him in the movie. “I’m the wrong person to ask about popular culture,” he said.

Asked if he would do anything differently today regarding Gary Webb’s series, Ceppos, whose apologia did partially defend the series, responded with an unambiguous “no.”

“It seems to me, 18 years later, that everything still holds up. … Everything is not black and white. If you portrayed it that way, then you need to set the record straight. I’m very proud that we were willing to do that.”

Some find irony in the fact that Ceppos, in the wake of the controversy, was given the 1997 Ethics in Journalism Award by the Society of Professional Journalists.

Webb, once heralded as a groundbreaking investigative reporter, was soon banished to the paper’s Cupertino bureau, a spot he considered “the newspaper’s version of Siberia.” In 1997, after additional run-ins with his editors, including their refusal to run his follow-up reporting on the “Dark Alliance” series, he quit the paper altogether.

But a year later, he was redeemed when CIA’s inspector general, Frederick Hitz, released his 1998 report admitting that the CIA had known all along that the Contras had been trafficking cocaine. Reporter Robert Parry, who covered the Iran-Contra scandal for The Associated Press, called the report “an extraordinary admission of institutional guilt by the CIA.” But the revelation fell on deaf ears. It went basically unnoticed by the newspapers that had attacked Webb’s series. A later internal investigation by the Justice Department echoed the CIA report.

But no apology was forthcoming to Webb, despite the fact that the central finding of his series had been proven correct after all.

 

‘STAND UP AND RISK IT ALL’

It was eight days after Webb’s death when a few hundred of us gathered in Sacramento Doubletree Hotel’s downstairs conference room for an afternoon memorial service. Photo collages of Webb were posted on tables as mourners filed into the room. There he was featured in an Esquire magazine article recounting his saga. Family members and friends, longtime colleagues, and SN&R staffers packed into the room.

My own distress at Webb’s passing wasn’t fully realized until my eyes lit on his Pulitzer Prize propped on a table just inside the entryway. It was the first one I’d ever seen. I wondered how many more exceptional stories he could have produced if things had gone differently.

“He wanted to write for one of the big three,” said Webb’s brother Kurt. “Unfortunately, the big three turned [on him].”

Praise for the absent journalist — his smarts, guts, and tenacity — flowed from friends, colleagues and VIPs at the event. A statement from now U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, then a senator, had been emailed to SN&R: “Because of [Webb]’s work, the CIA launched an Inspector General’s investigation that found dozens of troubling connections to drug-runners. That wouldn’t have happened if Gary Webb hadn’t been willing to stand up and risk it all.”

Renner was hesitant to say if those who watch Kill the Messenger will leave with any particular take-home lesson. “I want the audience to walk away and debate and argue about it all,” he said of his David and Goliath tale. And then, “I do believe [the film] might help create some awareness and accountability in government and newspapers.” And what would the real live protagonist of Kill the Messenger have thought of it all? It’s at least certain he’d have been unrepentant. In the goodbye letter his ex-wife received on the day of his suicide, Gary Webb told her: “Tell them I never regretted anything I wrote.”

Alerts: Oct 8-14, 2014

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WEDNESDAY 8

Supervisor/Assembly candidates offer views on city parks


Hall of Flowers, Golden Gate Park, SF. social@sfparkalliance.org. 6-8pm. Join candidates in supervisor Districts 2,4,6,8 and 10, who raised $5,000 for the Parks Alliance by the June 30th deadline, as well as candidates David Chiu and David Campos for Assembly District 17, in a public forum to hear all positions on issues such as parks funding. The San Francisco Parks Alliance and Friends of the Urban Forest are hosting this event.


THURSDAY 9

November 2014 Election: The Equity Debate


University of San Francisco, Maier Room, Fromm Hall (behind St. Ignatius church), 2497 Golden Gate, SF. www.usfca.edu/artsci/pols/events. 6-8pm, free. Candidates from three local races — Assembly District 17, Board of Supervisors District 10, and San Francisco Unified School Board — will discuss their platforms surrounding issues of inequality in San Francisco. The forum will be moderated by Professor James Taylor of the Department of Politics, and is sponsored by the Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good along with a host of community organizations.


Bridging the Gap — A Bay Guardian Transit Riders Union community forum


San Francisco LGBT Center, 1800 Market Street, SF. tinyurl.com/transithousing. 6-8pm. In collaboration with the San Francisco Transit Riders Union, the Bay Guardian hosts this community forum to explore a central issue facing our city. San Francisco needs more affordable housing, a robust public transit system, and fully funded social services if it is to remain an efficient, diverse, compassionate city. Unfortunately, some political leaders have pitted transportation and housing activists against one another in recent years, particularly so in the upcoming election on Propositions A, B, K, and L. We’ll examine why that happened, the political tactics that are being employed, and what can be done to bridge the gap along with a panel of activists and experts.

SATURDAY 11

Cleve Jones 60th birthday and San Francisco AIDS Foundation benefit


The Cafe, 2368 Market, SF. sfaf.org/morecleve. 9pm-2am, $30 general, $80 VIP. Celebrate Cleve Jones—activist, advocate, and SFAF co-founder—at a party hosted by celebrated drag performer Juanita MORE! Featuring the best dance tunes of the past four decades, special guest appearances by Dustin Lance Black and more, and a very special performance by actor and singer Jonathan Groff, all proceeds from this event will benefit the Cleve Jones Fund to end HIV transmission.

Prop. L puts cars over people

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By Fran Taylor

OPINION Just as climate change most affects people who contributed little or nothing to causing it, pollution and injury from traffic most affect communities least likely to create traffic. Nationally, people of color are four times more likely than whites to rely on public transportation. At the same time, African Americans have a pedestrian fatality rate 60 percent higher than that of whites. For Latinos, that rate is 43 percent higher.

Locally, Chinatown and the Tenderloin have some of the lowest rates of car ownership in San Francisco. Yet these poor neighborhoods suffer some of the highest rates of pedestrian injury and death, including a woman killed in a crosswalk at Stockton just last month.

Instead of acknowledging these inequities, the proponents of Proposition L on the November ballot have cast themselves as victims, claiming that pedestrian and bicycle safety improvements create impediments to their ability to drive fast and park easily.

But streetscape improvements don’t make it impossible to drive. They help make it possible to not drive. And the ability to get around without a car benefits everyone, as a matter of health and fairness.

Fewer speeding cars on the road means fewer injuries and deaths, which in San Francisco disproportionately affect people walking. Of the 19 traffic deaths so far in 2014, 13 have been pedestrians. In the wider Bay Area, these pedestrian deaths are almost twice as likely to occur in poor communities.

The Prop. L campaign claims that streetscape improvements worsen pollution by forcing drivers to idle engines and circle for parking. Free-flowing car movement is the measure’s goal. If fast traffic is so much healthier, freeways must be the healthiest of neighbors. Yet studies show that not only is asthma much more widespread near freeways, but uncontrolled asthma is twice as prevalent within two miles of that ideal zooming traffic. Meanwhile, lack of walkable access to schools and parks contributes to epidemic levels of obesity and diabetes, particularly in low-income populations and communities of color.

Medical costs throughout the city for pedestrian injuries alone amount to about $15 million a year, while the total annual health-related costs of traffic, including asthma and other conditions, come to $564 million, according to the San Francisco Department of Public Health.

The national average annual cost of owning a car is close to $10,000, likely more in San Francisco. Were families more easily able to reduce that cost by having one car instead of two or living car-free entirely, they would free up needed money for food, housing, and education. And that housing would be cheaper without parking requirements. The construction of off-street parking can add costs of up to 20 percent per unit. Prop. L demands more garages, so cars can have homes in a city where so many humans lack them.

The recent transformation of Cesar Chavez Street, led by the community group CC Puede, personifies the type of project Prop. L proponents object to. Changing a six-lane freeway on the ground did indeed slow traffic and remove some parking at intersections to accommodate pedestrian bulbouts and improve visibility, both proven safety fixes. It also made it easier for parents to cross the street with their children to Flynn and St. Anthony’s elementary schools. It made it safer for seniors and pregnant women to reach St. Luke’s Hospital. Bicycle ridership on the street has increased 400 percent. Lately, no cars have crashed into homes, a regular occurrence on the old six-lane speedway.

Prop. L proponents decry the loss of parking, but where are those spaces going? A parking lot at 17th Street between Folsom and Shotwell in the Mission is about to be ripped up to make a park designed in part by children living nearby. In a dense neighborhood with little greenery, half of the parking lot will give families crammed into crowded housing a place to walk to. The other half will eventually be used for affordable housing.

We could hardly have a clearer choice of priorities. Parking lots or parks? Parking lots or affordable housing? Prop. L is a vote for parking over people. Vote No on L.

Fran Taylor is cochair of CC Puede.

 

End mass incarceration

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EDITORIAL We at the Bay Guardian wholeheartedly support the Stop Mass Incarceration Network and its call for the month of October to be “a month of resistance to mass incarceration, police terror, repression, and the criminalization of a generation.” It’s time to rediscover our humanity, redirect our resources, and invest in this country’s underclass instead of attacking it.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, 717 per 100,000 citizens last year, or about 2.3 million people behind bars. Put another way, the US has about 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, costing this country over $60 billion a year.

San Francisco has long been a leader in criminal justice reform, pursuing policies based on rehabilitation and redemption instead of the mindless “tough-on-crimes” approach of other jurisdictions. Two of our state legislators, Sen. Mark Leno and Assemblymember Tom Ammiano, have chaired their respective Public Safety Committees and been important statewide leaders on prison reform.

Yet it hasn’t been enough in a state that still has among the world’s highest incarceration rates, and which is still resisting demands by federal judges that we reduce our prison population to address severe overcrowding and its unconstitutionally inadequate health care system.

So we need to join this broad and growing national movement that seeks to drastically reduce our prison population and redirect those resources into social services, education, and other more productive pursuits.

The Stop Mass Incarceration Network began in 2011 with a proclamation by Carl Dix and Cornell West, two important thinkers who have highlighted the disproportionately high arrest and incarceration rates of Latino and African American young men.

“If you don’t want to live in a world where people’s humanity is routinely violated because of the color of their skin, JOIN US. And if you are shocked to hear that this kind of thing happens in this so-called homeland of freedom and democracy — it does happen, all the damned time — you need to JOIN US too — you can’t stand aside and let this injustice be done in your name,” they wrote.

Recently, this movement has been joined by a wide variety of activists from the Bay Area, including Van Jones and Matt Haney, who have co-founded #50Cut, an initiative focused on cutting the US prison population in half in the next 10 years (see “Schools not prisons,” 9/3/14).

While dissident Chinese artist Ai WeiWei laudably uses his new exhibit on Alcatraz Island to focus attention on political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, the injustice of incarceration here in the US is even broader and deeper, affecting entire generations of young people and their families. It must end.

 

Project Censored 2014

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joe@sfbg.com

Our oceans are acidifying — even if the nightly news hasn’t told you yet.

As humanity continues to fill the atmosphere with harmful gases, the planet is becoming less hospitable to life as we know it. The vast oceans absorb much of the carbon dioxide we have produced, from the industrial revolution through the rise of global capitalism. Earth’s self-sacrifice spared the atmosphere nearly 25 percent of humanity’s CO2 emissions, slowing the onslaught of many severe weather consequences.

Although the news media have increasingly covered the climate weirding of global warming — hurricane superstorms, fierce tornado clusters, overwhelming snowstorms, and record-setting global high temperatures — our ocean’s peril has largely stayed submerged below the biggest news stories.

The rising carbon dioxide in our oceans burns up and deforms the smallest, most abundant food at the bottom of the deep blue food chain. One vulnerable population is the tiny shelled swimmers known as the sea butterfly. In only a few short decades, the death and deformation of this fragile and translucent species could endanger predators all along the oceanic food web, scientists warn.

This “butterfly effect,” once unleashed, potentially threatens fisheries that feed over 1 billion people worldwide.

Since ancient times, humans fished the oceans for food. Now, we’re frying ocean life before we even catch it, starving future generations in the process. Largely left out of national news coverage, this dire report was brought to light by a handful of independent-minded journalists: Craig Welch from the Seattle Times, Julia Whitty of Mother Jones, and Eli Kintisch of ScienceNOW.

It is also the top story of Project Censored, an annual book and reporting project that features the year’s most underreported news stories, striving to unmask censorship, self-censorship, and propaganda in corporate-controlled media outlets. The book is set for release in late October.

“Information is the currency of democracy,” Ralph Nader, the prominent consumer advocate and many-time presidential candidate, wrote in his foreword to this year’s Project Censored 2015. But with most mass media owned by narrow corporate interests, “the general public remains uninformed.”

Whereas the mainstream media poke and peck at noteworthy events at single points in time, often devoid of historical context or analysis, Project Censored seeks to clarify understanding of real world issues and focus on what’s important. Context is key, and many of its “top censored” stories highlight deeply entrenched policy issues that require more explanation than a simple sound bite can provide.

Campus and faculty from over two dozen colleges and universities join in this ongoing effort, headquartered at Sonoma State University. Some 260 students and 49 faculty vet thousands of news stories on select criteria: importance, timeliness, quality of sources, and the level of corporate news coverage.

The top 25 finalists are sent to Project Censored’s panel of judges, who then rank the entries, with ocean acidification topping this year’s list.

“There are outlets, regular daily papers, who are independent and they’re out there,” Andy Lee Roth, associate director of Project Censored, told us. Too many news outlets are beholden to corporate interests, but Welch of the Seattle Times bucked the trend, Roth said, by writing some of the deepest coverage yet on ocean acidification.

“There are reporters doing the highest quality of work, as evidenced by being included in our list,” Roth said. “But the challenge is reaching as big an audience as [the story] should.”

Indeed, though Welch’s story was reported in the Seattle Times, a mid-sized daily newspaper, this warning is relevant to the entire world. To understand the impact of ocean acidification, Welch asks readers to “imagine every person on earth tossing a hunk of CO2 as heavy as a bowling ball into the sea. That’s what we do to the oceans every day.”

Computer modeler Isaac Kaplan, at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration office in Seattle, told Welch that his early work predicts significant declines in sharks, skates and rays, some types of flounder and sole, and Pacific whiting, the most frequently caught commercial fish off the coast of Washington, Oregon, and California.

Acidification may also harm fisheries in the farthest corners of the earth: A study by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme outlines acidification’s threat to the arctic food chain.

“Decreases in seawater pH of about 0.02 per decade have been observed since the late 1960s in the Iceland and Barents Seas,” the study’s authors wrote in the executive summary. And destroying fisheries means wiping out the livelihoods of the native peoples of the Antarctic.

Acidification can even rewire the brains of fish, Welch’s story demonstrated. Studies found rising CO2 levels cause clown fish to gain athleticism, but have their sense of smell redirected. This transforms them into “dumb jocks,” scientists said, swimming faster and more vigorously straight into the mouths of their predators.

These Frankenstein fish were found to be five times more likely to die in the natural world. What a fitting metaphor for humanity, as our outsized consumption propels us towards an equally dangerous fate.

“It’s not as dramatic as say, an asteroid is hitting us from outer space,” Roth said of this slowly unfolding disaster, which is likely why such a looming threat to our food chain escapes much mainstream news coverage.

Journalism tends to be more “action focused,” Roth said, looking to define conflict in everything it sees. A recently top-featured story on CNN focused on President Barack Obama’s “awkward coffee cup salute” to a Marine, which ranks only slightly below around-the-clock coverage of the president’s ugly tan suit as a low point in mainstream media’s focus on the trivial.

As Nader noted, “‘important stories’ are often viewed as dull by reporters and therefore unworthy of coverage.” But mainstream media do cover some serious topics with weight, as it did in the wake of the police officer shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. So what’s the deciding factor?

As Roth tells it, corporate news focuses on “drama, and the most dramatic action is of course violence.”

But the changes caused by ocean acidification are gradual. Sea butterflies are among the most abundant creatures in our oceans, and are increasingly born with shells that look like cauliflower or sandpaper, making this and similar species more susceptible to infection and predators.

“Ocean acidification is changing the chemistry of the world’s water faster than ever before, and faster than the world’s leading scientists predicted,” Welch said, but it’s not getting the attention is deserves. “Combined nationwide spending on acidification research for eight federal agencies, including grants to university scientists by the National Science Foundation, totals about $30 million a year — less than the annual budget for the coastal Washington city of Hoquiam, population 10,000.”

Our oceans may slowly cook our food chain into new forms with potentially catastrophic consequences. Certainly 20 years from now, when communities around the world lose their main source of sustenance, the news will catch on. But will the problem make the front page tomorrow, while there’s still time to act?

Probably not, and that’s why we have Project Censored and its annual list:

 

2. TOP 10 US AID RECIPIENTS PRACTICE TORTURE

Sexual abuse, children kept in cages, extra-judicial murder. While these sound like horrors the United States would stand against, the reverse is true: This country is funding these practices.

The US is a signatory of the United Nations’ Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, but the top 10 international recipients of US foreign assistance in 2014 all practice torture, according to human rights groups, as reported by Daniel Wickham of online outlet Left Foot Forward.

Israel received over $3 billion in US aid for fiscal year 2013-14, according to a Congressional Research Service report. Israel was criticized by the country’s own Public Defender’s Office for torturing children suspected of minor crimes.

“During our visit, held during a fierce storm that hit the state, attorneys met detainees who described to them a shocking picture: in the middle of the night dozens of detainees were transferred to the external iron cages built outside the IPS transition facility in Ramla,” the PDO wrote, according to The Independent.

The next top recipients of US foreign aid were Afghanistan, Egypt, Pakistan, Nigeria, Jordan, Iraq, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. All countries were accused of torture by human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Kenyan police in Nairobi tortured, raped, or otherwise abused more than 1,000 refugees from 2012 to 2013, Human Rights Watch found. The Kenyan government received $564 million from the United States in 2013-14.

When the US funds a highway or other project that it’s proud of, it plants a huge sign proclaiming “your tax dollars at work.” When the US funds torturers, the corporate media bury the story, or worse, don’t report it at all.

 

3. TRANS-PACIFIC PARTNERSHIP, A SECRET DEAL TO HELP CORPORATIONS

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is like the Stop Online Piracy Act on steroids, yet few have heard of it, let alone enough people to start an Internet campaign to topple it. Despite details revealed by Wikileaks, the nascent agreement has been largely ignored by the corporate media.

Even the world’s elite are out of the loop: Only three officials in each of the 12 signatory countries have access to this developing trade agreement that potentially impacts over 800 million people.

The agreement touches on intellectual property rights and the regulation of private enterprise between nations, and is open to negotiation and viewing by 600 “corporate advisors” from big oil, pharmaceutical, to entertainment companies.

Meanwhile, more than 150 House Democrats signed a letter urging President Obama to halt his efforts to fast-track negotiations, and to allow Congress the ability to weigh in now on an agreement only the White House has seen.

Many criticized the secrecy surrounding the TPP, arguing the real world consequences may be grave. Doctors Without Borders wrote, “If harmful provisions in the US proposals for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement are not removed before it is finalized, this trade deal will have a real cost in human lives.”

 

4. CORPORATE INTERNET PROVIDERS THREATEN NET NEUTRALITY

This entry demonstrates the nuance in Project Censored’s media critique. Verizon v. FCC may weaken Internet regulation, which Electronic Frontier Foundation and other digital freedom advocates allege would create a two-tiered Internet system. Under the FCC’s proposed new rules, corporate behemoths such as Comcast or Verizon could charge entities to use faster bandwidth, which advocates say would create financial barriers to free speech and encourage censorship.

Project Censored alleges corporate outlets such as The New York Times and Forbes “tend to highlight the business aspects of the case, skimming over vital particulars affecting the public and the Internet’s future.”

Yet this is a case where corporate media were circumvented by power of the viral web. John Oliver, comedian and host of Last Week Tonight on HBO, recently gave a stirring 13-minute treatise on the importance of stopping the FCC’s new rules, resulting in a flood of comments to the FCC defending a more open Internet. The particulars of net neutrality have since been thoroughly reported in the corporate media.

But, as Project Censored notes, mass media coverage only came after the FCC’s rule change was proposed, giving activists little time to right any wrongs. It’s a subtle but important distinction.

 

5. BANKERS REMAIN ON WALL STREET DESPITE MAJOR CRIMES

Bankers responsible for rigging municipal bonds and bilking billions of dollars from American cities have largely escaped criminal charges. Every day in the US, low-level drug dealers get more prison time than these scheming bankers who, while working for GE Capital, allegedly skimmed money from public schools, hospitals, libraries, and nursing homes, according to Rolling Stone.

Dominick Carollo, Steven Goldberg, and Peter Grimm were dubbed a part of the “modern American mafia,” by the magazine’s Matt Taibbi, one of the few journalists to consistently cover their trial. Meanwhile, disturbingly uninformed cable media “journalists” defended the bankers, saying they shouldn’t be prosecuted for “failure,” as if cheating vulnerable Americans were a bad business deal.

“Had the US authorities decided to press criminal charges,” Assistant US Attorney General Lanny Breuer told Taibbi. “HSBC (a British bank) would almost certainly have lost its banking license in the US, the future of the institution would have been under threat, and the entire banking system would have been destabilized.”

Over the course of decades, the nation’s bankers transformed into the modern mafioso. Unfortunately, our modern media changed as well, and are no longer equipped to tackle systemic, complex stories.

 

6. THE “DEEP STATE” OF PLUTOCRATIC CONTROL

What’s frightening about the puppeteers who pull the strings of our national government is not how hidden they are, but how hidden they are not.

From defense contractors to multinational corporations, a wealthy elite using an estimated $32 trillion in tax-exempt offshore havens are the masters of our publicly elected officials. In an essay written for Moyer and Company by Mike Lofgren, a congressional staffer of 28 years focused on national security, this cabal of wealthy interests comprise our nation’s “Deep State.”

As Lofgren writes for Moyers, “The Deep State is the big story of our time. It is the red thread that runs through the war on terrorism, the financialization and deindustrialization of the American economy, the rise of a plutocratic social structure and political dysfunction.”

This is a story that truly challenges the mass media, which do report on the power of wealth, in bits and pieces. But although the cabal’s disparate threads are occasionally pulled, the spider’s web of corruption largely escapes corporate media’s larger narrative.

The myopic view censors the full story as surely as outright silence would. The problem deepens every year.

“There are now 854,000 contract personnel with top-secret clearances — a number greater than that of top-secret-cleared civilian employees of the government,” Lofgren wrote, of a group that together would “occupy the floor space of almost three Pentagons — about 17 million square feet.”

 

7. FBI DISMISSES PLOT AGAINST OCCUPY AS NSA CRACKS DOWN ON DISSENT

Nationally, law enforcement worked in the background to monitor and suppress the Occupy Wall Street movement, a story the mainstream press has shown little interest in covering.

A document obtained in FOIA request by David Lindorff of Who, What WHY from the FBI office in Houston,, Texas revealed an alleged assassination plot targeting a Occupy group, which the FBI allegedly did not warn the movement about.

From the redacted document: “An identified [DELETED] as of October planned to engage in sniper attacks against protestors (sic) in Houston, Texas if deemed necessary. An identified [DELETED] had received intelligence that indicated the protesters in New York and Seattle planned similar protests in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin, Texas. [DELETED] planned to gather intelligence against the leaders of the protest groups and obtain photographs, then formulate a plan to kill the leadership via suppressed sniper rifles.”

Lindorff confirmed the document’s veracity with the FBI. When contacted by Lindorff, Houston Police were uninterested, and seemingly (according to Lindorff), uninformed.

In Arizona, law enforcement exchanged information of possible Occupy efforts with JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, according to a report by the Center for Media and Democracy titled Dissent on Terror. The CEO meant to evade possible protests, and local law enforcement was happy to help.

Law enforcement’s all-seeing eyes broadened through the national rise of “fusion centers” over the past decade, hubs through which state agencies exchange tracking data on groups exercising free speech. And as we share, “like,” and “check-in” online with ever-more frequency, that data becomes more robust by the day.

 

8. IGNORING EXTREME WEATHER CONNECTION TO GLOBAL WARMING

In what can only be responded to with a resounding “duh,” news analyses have found mainstream media frequently report on severe weather changes without referring to global warming as the context or cause, even as a question.

As Project Censored notes, a study by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting found extreme weather events in 2013 spurred 450 broadcast news segments, only 16 of which even mentioned climate change. National news outlets have fallen on the job as well, as The New York Times recently shuttered its environmental desk and its Green blog, reducing the number of reporters exclusively chasing down climate change stories.

Unlike many journalists, ordinary people often recognize the threat of our warming planet. Just as this story on Project Censored went to press, over 400,000 protested in the People’s Climate March in New York City alone, while simultaneous protests erupted across the globe, calling for government, corporate, and media leaders to address the problem.

“There is a huge mismatch between the magnitude of the challenge and the response we heard here today,” Graca Machel, the widow of former South African President Nelson Mandela, told the United Nations conference on climate change. “The scale is much more than we have achieved.”

 

9. US MEDIA HYPOCRISY IN COVERING UKRAINE CRISIS

The US battle with Russia over Ukraine’s independence is actually an energy pipeline squabble, a narrative lost by mainstream media coverage, Project Censored alleges.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has drawn fire from the media as a tyrant, without complex analyses of his country’s socio-economic interests, according to Project Censored. As the media often do, they have turned the conflict into a cult of personality, talking up Putin’s shirtless horseback riding and his hard-line style with deftness missing from their political analysis.

As The Guardian UK’s Nafeez Ahmed reported, a recent US State Department-sponsored report noted “Ukraine’s strategic location between the main energy producers (Russia and the Caspian Sea area) and consumers in the Eurasian region, its large transit network, and its available underground gas storage capacities,” highlighting its economic importance to the US and its allies.

 

10. WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION SUPPRESSES REPORT ON IRAQ IMPACTS

The United States’ legacy in Iraq possibly goes beyond death to a living nightmare of cancer and birth defects, due to the military’s use of depleted uranium weapons, a World Health Organization study found. Iraq is poisoned. Much of the report’s contents were leaked to the BBC during its creation. But the release of the report, completed in 2012 by WHO, has stalled. Critics allege the US is deliberately blocking its release, masking a damning Middle East legacy rivaling the horrors of Agent Orange in Vietnam. But Iraq will never forget the US intervention, as mothers cradle babies bearing scars obtained in the womb, the continuing gifts of our invasion.

Money for Muni

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news@sfbg.com

STREET FIGHT San Francisco’s November ballot is crowded. With 12 local measures and seven state measures, sifting through them can be daunting. Three local measures, Propositions A, B, and L, involve transportation and have great bearing on the city’s future.

Not to belittle the other ballot measures, some of which address critical health and housing problems, these three transit-related measures say a lot of how the city is addressing — and failing to address — the need for a sustainable transportation system.

 

TRANSPORTATION BOND

Prop. A is the most important of the three transportation measures on the ballot, but also the most difficult to pass because it requires approval from two-thirds of voters.

It would provide $500 million for Muni, street repaving, and pedestrian and bicycle safety projects. That’s a modest sum compared to the $10 billion the city should really be spending, but it would help make 15 of the city’s busiest transit routes 20 percent faster and more reliable.

Portions of the funds would go to modernizing Muni’s maintenance shops, which need upgraded ventilation, fueling, and washing facilities and to new elevators and passenger platforms to make Muni more accessible to the elderly and disabled. Prop. A’s campaign also touts $142 million going towards pedestrian, bicycle, and motorist safety in corridors where the most death and injury have occurred.

Prop. A should really be thought of as two parts, one good, one not so good. The first part involves up to $55 million in annual revenue coming from property assessments. Since Prop. A simply replaces retiring city debt, it does not raise property taxes, but rather it sustains existing rates.

This links property values to what makes property valuable in the first place — public investment in infrastructure. As long as Prop. A is used for those 15 Muni corridors and safer streets, it is sound public policy.

The second part of Prop. A involves bonds, or borrowing money and paying interest to financiers. This is a long-used method of infrastructure finance, and was in fact how Muni got started in 1909 when voters approved creating public transit. The taxation will pay off the capital debt.

But bonds are a funding scheme that involves interest and fees that go to Wall Street — not the most progressive approach to infrastructure finance. While no one can say for sure, some critics suggest up to $350 million in debt would be incurred over the life of the bond scheme, which means Prop. A is really an $850 million package.

Ultimately, this is a regressive approach to transport finance and needs to be replaced by a more pay-as-you-go approach.

We are stuck between a rock and a hard place on Prop. A. Floating this bond now would bring in money very quickly, improving everyone’s commute, especially lower- and middle-income transit passengers. If approved it will also leverage state and federal matching funds, such as new cap-and-trade funding, hastening shovel-ready projects that many San Franciscans are clamoring to get done.

Getting transportation projects going now is less expensive than waiting while construction costs climb. Prop. A funds vitally important transportation infrastructure projects and it deserves support.

 

GROWTH AND MUNI

While Prop. A deals with streets and capital projects for Muni, it can’t be used to fund acquisition of new vehicles or Muni operations. This is where Prop. B comes in because it specifically involves an annual set-aside of about $22 million from the city’s General Fund to provide new vehicles and operating funds.

Prop. B is a well-intentioned linkage of population growth to transit capacity. The money goes towards Muni capacity expansion, based on population growth over the past decade, would increase with population growth in future years, about $1.5 million per year based on past trends.

There’s no doubt that transportation is failing to keep up with San Francisco’s boom. New housing and offices are coming into neighborhoods where buses are already jam-packed and streets saturated with traffic. But there are a couple of problems with Prop. B.

First, Prop. B is promised as a short-term measure because the mayor can end this general fund set-aside if a local increase in the vehicle license fee is approved by voters in 2016. The VLF, which was gutted by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003, would bring in about $75 million to the city annually.

That the mayor would voluntarily (and it is the mayor’s discretion) sunset B in two years is a big “if” and voters are notoriously forgetful.

In the meantime, Prop. B does not come with a revenue source to account for this increasing set-aside for Muni, so something else in the General Fund must give. What that would be, nobody can say, but advocates for social service and affordable housing fear more vulnerable San Franciscans will be hurt in the 2015 city budget.

Given the incredibly slow city response to the gentrification and displacement crisis, their fears may be warranted.

 

GLOOMY REALITY

My hesitation about Prop. B and tepid support for Prop. A stem from a gloomy reality in San Francisco’s politics of mobility. Today, it is easier for politicians to raise transit fares on the working poor, divert funds from social services and housing, or incur massive debt through bonds than it is to raise taxes on downtown commercial real estate and charge wealthier motorists for their detrimental impact to the city and society — both of which would be fairer ways to finance transportation.

Twenty years ago, it was estimated that a modest tax assessment on downtown offices and their impact to the transportation system would bring in $54 million a year. Today, that would likely be well over $100 million annually. But with land-owning elites and tech barons calling the shots in City Hall, there is a de facto gag order on what would be the most progressive approach to Muni finance.

Meanwhile, had Mayor Ed Lee not pandered to wealthier motorists, Sunday metering would be providing millions annually in Muni operating fees. Sup. Scott Wiener, the author of Prop. B, and his colleagues on the board, were shamefully silent about blowing that $10 million hole in Muni’s budget. They were also silent or complicit in stopping expansion of SF Park, which is smart management of our streets and would provide millions more in operations funding for Muni without needing to dip into the city General Fund to plug gaps.

Meanwhile, congestion pricing — or charging drivers to access the most traffic-snarled portions of the city during peak hours — could bring in up to $80 million annually. Together with a reestablished VLF, that would simultaneously erase the need to do Prop. B and reduce our need to incur more wasteful debt.

Instead of bonds, Prop. A’s $55 million could be coupled with an annual downtown property assessment, an annual VLF, a congestion charging zone, and revenue from an expanded SF Park, the city could borrow less, manage traffic wisely, and keep transit capacity at pace with population growth. We could avoid raiding the General Fund to subsidize Muni operations and could reduce debt simultaneously.

Transit advocates are right to cry foul when other revenue sources have been removed from consideration, mostly because of gutless reluctance to challenge wealthy landowners and motorists. This is the crux of why transit advocates, backed into a corner by Mayor Lee’s repeal of Sunday meters and the VLF, are supporting Prop. B. The “B” in Prop. B basically stands for backfilling broken promises.

But ultimately, all of the supervisors, including Wiener, are complicit in the mayor’s mess. Why didn’t the supervisors speak up when Sunday metering was repealed? Why didn’t the supervisors insist on placing the VLF on this year’s ballot? With a two-thirds vote of the board, it would be on the ballot now. And unlike Prop. A, the VLF only needs a simple majority to pass.

And now, because the mayor and supervisors have pandered to motorists to the umpteenth degree, a small group of them feel even more emboldened and entitled to grab more. That takes us to Prop. L.

 

TRANSIT-LAST

Prop. L, which seeks to reorder transportation priorities in San Francisco, is awful. It comes from an angry, spiteful, ill-informed, knee-jerk lack of understanding of the benefits of parking management (which makes parking easier and more sensible for drivers). It is a purely emotional backlash that seeks to tap into anyone angry about getting a parking ticket.

Although a nonbinding policy statement, the basic demand of Prop. L is that the city change transportation priorities to a regressive cars-first orientation. It calls for freezing parking meter rates for five years while also using parking revenue to build more parking garages. The costs of these garages would dwarf parking revenue, and these pro-car zealots don’t say where these garages would be built, or that it would ultimately siphon more money from Muni.

Prop. L demands “smoother flowing streets,” which is a deceitful way of saying that buses, bikes, and pedestrians need to get out of the way of speeding car drivers who believe they are entitled to cross the city fast as they want and park for free. It conjures up a fantasy orgy of cars and freeways long ago rejected as foolish and destructive to cities.

Proponents on this so-called Restore Transportation Balance initiative don’t really care about “transportation balance.” When you consider the origins and backers of Prop L, it’s mainly well-to-do motorists with a conservative ideology about the car. These are the very same people who have opposed bicycle lanes on Polk, Masonic, Oak, and Fell streets, and throughout the city.

These are the very same people who decried expansion of SF Park, thus making it harder, to find parking, not easier. These are the same people who complain about Muni but offer zero ideas about how to make it better. These disparate reactionaries have banded together around their animosity toward cyclists and Muni.

In the 1950s, when the love affair with cars was on the rise, San Francisco had about 5,000 motor vehicles per square mile. To accommodate more cars, planners required all new housing to have parking, made it easy to deface Victorians to insert garages, and proposed a massive freeway system that would have eviscerated much of the city.

Thankfully, neighborhood and environmental activists fended off most of the freeways, but San Franciscans failed to really take on the car. So by 1970, despite the freeway revolts and commitment to BART, automobile density rose to over 6,000 cars per square mile.

By 1990, San Francisco had almost 7,000 motor vehicles per square mile, even as population leveled off.

The current density of cars and trucks — now approaching 10,000 per square mile — is one of the highest in the nation and in the world. To put that into context, Los Angeles has less than 4,000 cars per square mile, and Houston less than 2,000 per square mile, but these are largely unwalkable cities with notorious environmental problems.

Do San Franciscans want to tear apart their beautiful city to be able to drive and park like Houstonians?

If proponents of Prop. L were truthful about “restoring balance” they would instead advocate a return to the car density of the 1950s, when San Francisco had just under 5,000 motor vehicles per square mile, Muni was more stable due to fairer taxes, and many of the streets in the city had yet to be widened, their sidewalks yet to be cut back.

Prop. L is tantamount to hammering square pegs into round holes. Jamming more cars into San Francisco would be a disaster for everyone. Don’t be misled, Prop. L would make the city too dumb to move. It would deepen and confuse already vitriolic political fissures on our streets and it would do nothing to make it easier to drive or park, despite its intention.

Prop. L must not only lose at the ballot, it must lose big, so that maybe our politicians will get the message that we want a sustainable, equitable, and transit-first city.

Alerts: Sept. 24 – 30, 2014

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THURSDAY 25

 

The Free Speech Movement — 50 Years Later

First Unitarian Church, 1187 Franklin Street, SF. 7pm, free. Join three veterans of the Free Speech Movement — Lynne Hollander Savio, Mike Smith, and Jack Weinberg — as they discuss their participation in the monumental events that took place in Berkeley 50 years ago, with emphasis on how the movement retains its relevance in the 21st century. The event is sponsored by Progressive Democrats of America San Francisco in connection with the 50th Anniversary Free Speech Celebration in Berkeley, beginning Fri/26.

SATURDAY 27

 

Women Walk for Campos

Dolores Park, Dolores and 19th, SF. davidcampossf.com. 10am, free. Join in a walk in support for David Campos for California State Assembly, who is seeking to represent the 17th District in the upcoming election. Start the day with a little exercise and spread the word about Campos’s campaign for issues such as women’s health, LGBT rights, affordability, and public safety.

 

47th Birthday Beer Bust for Community Housing Partnership

SF Eagle, 398 12th St., SF. chp-sf.org/donatenow. 3-6pm, $12. Enjoy beer, food and music at a fundraiser for the Community Housing Partnership. Featuring performances by Degentrified, a ukelele percussion band with Jason Smart (aka Frieda Laye) and Glendon Hyde (aka Anna Conda). DJ set by Dirty Knees of Charlie Horse and Hot Rod. San Francisco Black Leadership Forum Endorsement Meeting 5126 Third Street, SF. sfblf2002@yahoo.com. 10am-4pm, free. Join the San Francisco Black Leadership Forum, local candidates, and ballot measure representatives for a full day of interviews and discussion on how the issues will impact the black community in San Francisco and beyond. Eligible members will be asked to stay and vote on BLF Endorsements for the November election.

Guardian Intelligence: Sept. 24 – 30, 2014

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MASONIC MOONWALK

Beck brought his endlessly funky band to the new Masonic Sept. 19 for opening night, where they ran through melancholy new tunes from this year’s Moon Phase before switching gears toward his more upbeat hits for a serious dance party (there was caution tape involved). See a full review and more photos on our Noise blog at SFBG.com PHOTO BY ERIN CONGER

TIFF TAKES

Bay Guardian film festival correspondent Jesse Hawthorne Ficks returned from the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, having deployed his usual tactic of seeing as many films as possible — and then writing about them at length on the Pixel Vision blog at SFBG.com. Visit the Pixel Vision blog for his series of posts, including takes on the trend toward ultra-long films (FYI, he’s a huge Lav Diaz fan…), Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence (pictured), Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, and other buzzed-about titles. PHOTO COURTESY OF TIFF

DEATH TO CAPITALISM!

The Bay Area’s edition on the Sept. 21 Global Climate Convergence was held on the edge of Lake Merritt in Oakland, where some of the best speakers went full-on commie in connecting capitalism to the climate crisis, calling for revolutionary change. Socialist Action’s Jeff Mackler brought the old-school Trotskyite class analysis while up-and-coming Socialist Alternative (the party of Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant) had a strong presence. The Coup’s Boots Riley opened with an a cappella “Love for the Underdog,” followed by some fiery oratory and a couple more strong songs, including the militant anthem “Ghetto Blaster.” Power to the people!

EXPORTING CYCLETRACKS

San Francisco pushed the envelope in building cycletracks, bike lanes physically separated from cars, before state law allowed them. But on Sept. 20, when Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB 1193, a bill by Assemblymember Phil Ting (D-SF) that inserted cycletrack standards into state transportation codes, they suddenly became a legal, easy option for cities around the state to start building, just like they already do in Europe. So as cyclist safety improves in California, they can have San Francisco to thanks. You’re welcome.

GLOVER INSPIRES

Major kudos to actor and local hero Danny Glover for his recent visit to the San Francisco County Jail Reentry Pod. “With that great smile and laid-back style, Danny connected with inmates about preparing to get out and staying out,” said Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, who spent some time with Glover and inmates preparing for release. “Be the example.” The reentry pod stems from a collaboration between the Sheriff’s Department and Adult Probation, to prepare AB109 prisoners from state realignment for their release. PHOTO COURTESY SF SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT

EVICTION PROTECTION

Now you can don condoms against evictions! At Folsom Street Fair, activists handed out condoms adorned by the face of Ellis Act evictor (and leather lover) Jack Halprin. Why are the protesters equating him with an ejaculate receptacle? Halprin purchased a San Francisco property on Guerrero two years ago and filed to evict the tenants under the Ellis Act, one of whom is a San Francisco elementary school teacher with a 2-year-old son. From the condom wrapper: “Jack be simple, Jack’s a dick! Jack’s evictions make us sick!”

TRI-VALLEY POUR-A-THON

This issue of the Guardian is all about delicious travel — here’s something close to home that will have beer lovers gripping their steins. The new Tri-Valley Beer Trail lights up Pleasanton, Livermore, San Ramon, Dublin and Danville with foamy craft goodness — reinstating that area as one of the original homes of California beer (the region formerly contained one of the largest hops farms in the world). Fifteen stops, innumerable beers to try, and warm weather all the way. See www.visittrivalley.com for more details.

OPEN SEASON

Art Explosion Studios, the Mission’s largest artist collective, prides itself on supplying affordable studio space to local painters, sculptors, photographers, jewelers, fashion designers, and other creative types. An affordable situation for artists? In the Mission? What is this, 1994? Support this organization and meet the artists (over 100 in total) right where they do their makin’ at the annual Art Explosion Fall Open Studios. Hit up the opening gala Fri/26, 7-11pm, or stop by Sat/27-Sun/28 from noon-5pm. 2425 17th St, SF; 744 Alabama, SF; www.artexplosionstudios.com.

SHADY TRANSIT DEAL

A wonky tale of woe just got a happy ending. Developers looking to make big bucks from the construction of the new Transbay Terminal tower, now the SalesForce tower, were looking to skim money off San Francisco by reneging on their required taxes, possibly costing the city $1.4 billion dollars. After the developers hired slick ex-Mayor, lobbyist, and SF Chronicle columnist Willie Brown to smooth the deal, they almost got away with saving hundreds of millions of dollars that would go to Muni, pedestrian safety, and infrastructure. At the last minute, the city changed its tune, and now the SoMa area will get the funding it was promised. The people win, and the fat cats lose.

 

Changing the climate in SF

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EDITORIAL As hundreds of thousands of people filled the streets of New York City and other cities around the world for a Global Climate Convergence on Sept. 21, demanding that our political and business leaders finally get serious about global warming (see “Flooding the streets“), there was no such gathering in San Francisco.

Sure, there were a few thousand Bay Area activists who gathered for the climate change event along Lake Merritt in Oakland, which included many groups and individuals from San Francisco. But we found it telling symbolism that San Francisco, as a city, was absent from this important political moment.

A city that was once a trailblazing leader on environmental issues such as solid waste reduction, transit-first policies, and adopting the precautionary principle — which calls on city officials to avoid policies and purchases that have the potential to cause environmental harm — has instead become a city guided by the logic and imperatives of capitalism, eager to grow and consume at any cost.

Speaker after speaker in New York City, Oakland, and other cities called for humanity to wake up to the realities of global climate change, slow down the wasteful economic churn and rapid depletion of important natural resources, and pursue fundamental changes to the system.

But in San Francisco, we appear to be headed in the opposite direction. The Mayor’s Office unceremoniously killed CleanPowerSF, the city’s only plan for offering more renewable energy to city residents. And it has pandered to motorists in ways that have taken millions of dollars away from public transit (see “Money for Muni“), encouraging more driving in the process even though we know that adds to global warming.

It isn’t just the neoliberals in City Hall, but the entire institutional structure of the city. Even SEIU Local 1021, long a stalwart supporter of progressive causes, has strangely endorsed the pro-automobile Prop. L and is aggressively supporting BART Board member James Fang, a Republican who supports costly extensions of the system rather than projects that promote more intensive transit uses in the urban core.

Finally, there’s this city’s monomaniacal promotion of the energy-intensive technology industry. Americans emit more greenhouse gases per capita than anyone, and recent reports show that reality is compounded by massive increases in China’s greenhouse gas emissions — which is partly because Bay Area companies produce their tech gadgets and other toys in China, which we then consume here.

San Franciscans need to stop being such voracious consumers and strive to be true innovators who accept our responsibilities and work to disrupt the rapid descent into a dangerously warming world.

 

Flooding the streets

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news@sfbg.com

In New York City’s Times Square on a muggy, gray Sunday afternoon at the historic People’s Climate March, everything went silent for a minute as a massive crowd, led by indigenous people from around the world, raised fists in the air to support communities suffering the harshest effects of climate change.

In this canyon of glittering commerce, surrounded by corporate icons such as Chase Bank, Bank of America, Gap, McDonald’s, and Dow Jones, the silent coalition then burst into a thunderous crescendo meant to symbolize action and demand climate justice.

On Sept. 21, a veritable ocean of humanity, estimated at up to half a million people — a diverse global tapestry hailing from South Bronx to South Dakota, Kenya to the Philippines — flooded Manhattan’s streets with calls for climate change action two days before a major United Nations Climate Summit that few expected to produce much, if any, change. The next day [Mon/22], a more confrontational “Flood Wall Street” civil disobedience action drew thousands.

The New York march, part of a worldwide day of action spanning more than 2,700 rallies in 159 countries, represented the largest, loudest sign yet that the world is waking up en masse to the climate crisis. Stretching for miles through Manhattan’s mid-section, wave after wave of contingents illustrated the crisis’ universal effects and broadening response: Indigenous people’s groups from around the world, labor unions, faith and LGBTQ groups, low-income communities of color. More than 1,400 organizations endorsed the march.

The People’s Climate March also reflected the urgency and rising response from communities of color and indigenous people who bear the brunt of climate disasters. As many attested, these climate-hammered communities are bringing economic and ecological justice issues to the forefront of a movement often criticized for being predominantly white.

“I’m here because I have a chronically asthmatic daughter,” said Tanya Fields, a 34-year-old mother of five and executive director of the Bronx-based Black Project. In poor waterfront communities from New York’s Far Rockaway and the Bronx, to New Orleans, “communities are not being prepared for the inevitable repercussions” of climate change, Fields said. “When you look at the intersection of climate change and capitalism, those who are have-nots clearly are much more vulnerable. When we talk about creating a more resilient world, we’re also talking about protecting the most marginalized.”

Iya’falolah Omobola, marching with a Mississippi environmental justice group called Cooperation Jackson, said her community has been hit hard by a confluence of climate change, poverty, and health struggles.

“We have a lot of issues directly related to climate, but also to the fact that there are no jobs, there’s no public transportation to get people to jobs,” she said. “There has to be a community-led solution as opposed to the system that keeps compounding the problem.”

Behind a banner stating, “Climate affects us the most,” 300 or so marched from the Brooklyn-based El Puente Leadership for Peace and Justice, including many youth.

“Many of our young people are from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. We know what’s happening to our people there in terms of climate change, so we’re coming together,” said El Puente Executive Director Frances Lucerna. “The connection between what happened here when Hurricane Sandy hit and what’s happening in our islands, in terms of beach erosion and extinction of species, is devastating.”

Marchers from Africa, Latin America, South Asia, and beyond highlighted the underlying “first world” causes behind the climate crisis. Marifel Macalanda, of the Asian Pacific Indigenous Youth Network in the Philippines, said she was in New York “in solidarity with indigenous peoples worldwide,” urging corporations to “stop plundering our resources. They are the primary reasons we are having this climate crisis right now.”

Meima Mpoke, who traveled from Kenya along with 20 of his compatriots, added, “We are here to say to the industrialized world, you are the cause of this.” The UN Summit, Mpoke said, “should produce some action, particularly to show who is causing the climate change.”

Marching with a large Bronx contingent of Percent for Green, Alicia Grullon emphasized similar struggles in poor US communities. The South Bronx is “a dumping ground” for New York’s toxins, and “the asthma capital of the country,” she said. The UN summit presented “an unusual gift for policymakers to do something new … and we’re afraid they’re not going to do that and we’re here to remind them of that great opportunity they have.” However, she added, the Summit gave corporations a big seat at the table: “That’s not representing needs of the people.”

Mychal Johnson, co-founder of South Bronx Unite, was one of just 38 civil society representatives invited to attend the UN Summit. “I won’t have a speaking role,” he said, but “our presence hopefully will speak volumes.” The gulf between the massive public march and the closed-doors UN summit was “a grave contrast,” Johnson said. “A great deal of corporations have been invited, but for so long, the voices of the many have not been heard. We know what corporations are doing to cause harm to the planet, and hopefully this [march] will show people coming together all over world to make sure that legally binding agreements come out of these climate talks.”

 

DIM HOPES FOR UN SUMMIT

Billing itself as “catalyzing action,” Tuesday’s UN Climate Summit issued bold pronouncements ahead of its proceedings — but social justice groups from around the world were not buying it.

“The Climate Summit will be about action and solutions that are focused on accelerating progress in areas that can significantly contribute to reducing emissions and strengthening resilience,” the Summit website promoted. “Eradicating poverty and restructuring the global economy to hold global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius are goals that — acted on together — can provide prosperity and security for this and future generations.”

But critics blasted the UN climate agenda for emphasizing voluntary reforms and “partnerships” with businesses and industries that are fundamentally part of the problem. One week before the People’s Climate March, global social movements including La Via Campesina, Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, and Indigenous Environmental Network — representing a total of more than 200 million people — issued a statement decrying the “corporate takeover of the UN and the climate negotiations process,” Common Dreams reported.

“The Summit has been surrounded by a lot of fanfare but proposes voluntary pledges for emissions cuts, market-based and destructive public-private partnership initiatives such as REDD+, Climate-Smart Agriculture and the Sustainable Energy for All Initiative,” according to the statement. “These are all false solutions of the green economy that seeks to further commodify life and nature and further capitalist profit.”

 

BIGGER TENT, SMALLER MESSAGE?

Despite concerns about the Summit, the People’s Climate March drew criticism from some activists for not making any demands, and for spending big on public relations while opting for a nonconfrontational “big tent” that some said diluted the movement’s message and impact.

A “Flood Wall Street” direct action Monday drew thousands for civil disobedience, issuing a strong message: “Stop Capitalism. End the Climate Crisis. Flood, blockade, sit-in, and shut down the institutions that are profiting from the climate crisis,” the event’s website urged. “After the People’s Climate March, wearing blue, we will bring the crisis to its cause with a mass sit-in at the heart of capital.”

Flood Wall Street’s more confrontational approach and its naming of capital illustrates unresolved differences about where the movement should focus its energy: Will it work for market reforms, such as 350.org’s popular fossil fuels divestment campaign, or press for larger systemic change? As it erects a big political tent drawing broad mainstream support, will the climate movement be able or willing to push bold demands that may confront capital and corporate power?

In a widely read critique for Counterpunch, writer Arun Gupta argued that the focus on drawing a big crowd came at the expense of a sharper message and impact. “[W]hen the overriding demand is for numbers, which is about visuals, which is about PR and marketing, everything becomes lowest common denominator. The lack of politics is a political decision.”

In an e-mail comment, Bobby Wengronowitz, who helped organize for the Flood Wall Street actions, said he supported the big march, but added, “We need to match the scale of the crisis. We need to get the US and other rich countries on a 10 percent emissions reductions per year plan. That requires white privileged folks to do what indigenous people have been doing for 500 years — to put their bodies on the line … I’m all for big tent, but this march, even if the final tally is 500K does NOT do it.”

A three-day Climate Convergence, featuring talks, films, and teach-ins, offered protesters a dose of critical thinking, urging, “Demand an end to fossil fuels, mobilize for system change, living wage jobs now!” At an event on climate change and the public sector, a panel of organizers and authors raised questions about the focus on market-driven approaches, discussing the potential for addressing climate change through a revitalized public sector.

 

NEW COALITIONS AND HOPE

On the day of the big march, the sheer immensity of the gathering and the expressions of hope were palpable.

“Today I marched peacefully alongside humans of all class and race, of all gender and sexuality, among anarchist, indigenous, labor unions, different political parties and so many more,” said Patrick Collins, who rode the People’s Climate Train from San Francisco. “[S]eeing the over 1,000 different groups come together in the march who all have different ideologies but are willing to look past differences and agree on common ground does give me some sort of hope.”

Many marchers also expressed hope for new coalitions to pack a potent punch in the fight for climate justice. Labor unions were out in force — teachers, nurses, janitors, food workers, and farmworkers — marching for economic justice, green jobs, and more.

Erin Carrera, a registered nurse and member of National Nurses United, said it was “a monumental moment to be here today with all these labor organizations, because labor and environmentalists have not always been on same page—but I think everyone’s coming to realize that there are no jobs on a dead planet.” Organized labor, Carrera said, “needs skin in the game, because it’s the working class that’s going to be most vulnerable … today gives me so much hope that we have turned a corner in people waking up and working together.”

 

 

 

Aboard the People’s Climate Train

As our cross-country People’s Climate Train passed through Azure, Colo., above a stunning crimson and white rock gorge under a deep-blue sky, James Blakely delivered a presentation on the ecological crisis in the Alberta Tar Sands. Blakely, an activist with 350.org in Idaho, described toxic tailing ponds filled with mining refuse, polluted waterways, dust clouds, and buffalo die-offs. Aboard the train, one of two ferrying hundreds from California to New York’s mass mobilization, our group — ranging in age from 19 to 68 — alternated between snapping photos of the awe-inspiring beauty outside, to probing conversations about rescuing our imperiled planet. Through the Amtrak window, California’s drought-withered cornfields stood wilted and barren, skeleton-like. In the Sierras, forest fires blurred the horizon with smoky haze. Late at night in the Nevada desert, huge factories and refineries churned away. Coal trains traversed the land, spewing fossil fuels. There were reminders of beauty, too. At about 5am, my sleepless eyes took in an ethereal pre-dawn scene. Gnarled sandstone rock formations rose near the tracks in Utah like moon faces; followed by a salmon-hued sunrise splashing across mesas tufted with sage and juniper. Liz Lamar, an activist with the Sierra Club and the Climate Reality Project in Oxnard said the cross-country passage made her “even more passionate about going on the march, by passing through such beautiful scenery.” The People’s Climate Train provided an apt backdrop for workshops and conversations about the causes and victims of climate crisis, and the prodigious challenges ahead. Sonny Lawrence Alea, a recent environmental studies graduate from San Francisco State University, said the ride offered “a great reminder of what we’re going to New York for. This land is full of opportunities, and we get to connect with the environment, take in the beauty, and reflect on the history of the land.” (Christopher D. Cook)

Alerts: Sept 17-23, 2014

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Leather and Feathers: AIDS Emergency Fund’s Annual Gala

Temple Nightclub, 540 Howard, SF. 7pm, $125. For the second year, the San Francisco AIDS Emergency Fund is hosting its annual gala, Leather and Feathers, to raise money for clients. This year, the organization is proud to debut Fantasy Runway, where community members will strut their finest leather, fetish gear, and drag.

FRIDAY 19

 

League of Women Voters’ District 6 Candidate Forum

Golden Gate University, Room 2201, 536 Mission, SF. 6-8pm, free. Incumbent Jane Kim, and challengers Michael Nulty, David Carlos Salaverry, and Jamie Whitaker are invited to take questions from the San Francisco League of Women Voters and audience members regarding the race for the District 6 supervisor position. The forum is free and open to the public, with seating on a first-come, first-serve basis.

 

Dan Choi: Fight for City College

Barry’s Bootcamp, 236 King Street, SF. pro-choi.com. 9:00pm-midnight, $25 pre-sale, $50 at door. Dan Choi, a candidate for the City College Board and a key player in the “Don’t Ask, Don’t tell” repeal movement, will host this event and fundraiser for Fight for City College. That organization is fighting to save the threatened LGBT studies program at City College of San Francisco. Enjoy cocktails and hors d’oeuvres by Skyy Cocktails, as well as musical entertainment, during the event.

SUNDAY 21

 

Transit History Bicycle Tour

Eric Quezada Center for Culture and Politics, 518 Valencia, SF. noon-3pm, $15–$50 suggested donation. Chris Carlsson, of Shaping San Francisco, will lead this bicycle tour of San Francisco’s transit history. He’ll highlight locations linked to San Francisco transit history, such as the Freeway Revolt in Hayes Valley, the creation of The Wiggle, Critical Mass and bicycle activism in San Francisco, the United Railroads Strike, and nostalgic F-line cars. The tour will wrap up at Pier 36 with a look at San Francisco’s first Clipper ships. NorCal People’s Climate Rally Lake Merritt Amphitheater, Lake Merritt Blvd and 12th St., Oakl. peoplesclimatemarch.org. 2-5pm, free. Join activists and community members in a family-friendly settling for a rally in solidarity with the People’s Climate Rally in NYC, which will bring together environmental organizations, trade unions, and social justice groups nationwide for a gathering just before the Sept. 24th UN Climate Summit of world leaders. The Oakland demonstration, in support of the larger movement in NYC, will feature “Climate Fair” with a host of Bay Area environmental organizations that are focused on climate change.

Head First

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HEAD FIRST I never liked anything in my ass until I spent a couple hours with Charlie Glickman. I met him at a party in Oakland while I was complaining about 20-something guys and their tendency to try to spear my anus with their dicks. Having spent most of my life in suburban America, I was only exposed to boys who had nothing but Internet porn and impatience, so even though I’d been interested in trying butt stuff, I never had the opportunity. I was close to giving up hope.

So in a small huddle of party goers, I voiced my desperation for someone who knew how to touch an asshole. I needed an expert. A hero.

“You know I wrote a book on that, right?” Glickman chimed in, holding his paper plate of vegetable kabobs out in front of him. He had a confident grin. So a few weeks later, I gave him the chance to back it up.

I didn’t know there were such things as sexological bodyworkers. But apparently, there are people certified by the state of California to stick their fingers inside of you and figure out why you can’t come as hard as you’d like. Glickman is one of those people. Don’t get it twisted, though: body workers are like private tutors for people who want to have better sex and experience more pleasure in their bodies. Their aim is to teach. They’re not prostitutes.

A few weeks post-party, I was sitting in his office, which is a small room with a window, a couch, and a massage table draped in a white sheet. Before I arrived I’d spoken on the phone with him about what to expect during the session and had filled out an intake form about my sexual history. We sat on the couch and talked about how we could do anal massage for relaxation only, but we could also do an erotic massage (with orgasms), if I so chose. And I did indeed choose.

He took my hand. It was time to practice consent.

“Tell me to take my hands off you,” Glickman said.

So I did. Then I told him to put them back. This was his way of showing me I had control over what happened in the session. I wasn’t worried.

He instructed me to sit on the massage table and told me he was going to teach me to breathe through my ass, which meant pushing out with my butt hole.

“I want you to try to kiss the table with your anus when you inhale,” Glickman said. He breathed in and out with me as my asshole made out with the table’s surface. My body relaxed with each breath of my badonk.

I took off my clothes and lied face down on the massage table, wondering if he saw the pimple next to my nipple. I shrugged. This guy probably gets poop on his gloves. My zit is the least of his worries.

If you think it’s strange that I’d put myself in such a compromising position after having so many bad experiences in the past, I don’t blame you. It’s not like I forgot the burning sensation of many a helmet head diving into my foxhole. So why risk putting myself through more misery?

Though some may see my tenacious try-try again attitude as ignorant, I’d like to see my curiosity not as something to kill the cat, but something to nurture the sex kitten within. If all the women who had endured some kind of sexual abuse just closed their legs and asses up for good, the human race would probably be doomed. The world needs brave ladies.

Plus, I came to San Francisco to try the things that small Maryland towns can’t offer. I came here to do the things other women don’t have the courage to try. I came here to be the ray of sexual hope in the dark hole that is this universe.

So there I was, ass out on the table, ready to take one for humanity.

Glickman rubbed me down with some coconut oil and massaged me a bit before putting on a pair of purple, non-latex gloves. He asked me if it was okay if he touched my ass. I gave him an “Mhm.”

Glickman ran his finger around the outside of my asshole for awhile to get my ass to relax, explaining that the external sphincter muscles were the ones I could control. After asking if I was ready, he started to rub the inside, telling me that he was touching the internal sphincter muscles, which I had no control over.

“Is that why this feels like I’m taking a shit?” I asked.

“It can mimic that sensation,” he replied.

The littlest movement of his finger created huge waves of feeling in my butt. Sometimes, without warning, my ass would clamp down defensively on his finger like a bear trap. The idea that dudes just wanted to immediately cram their dicks into that tiny hole became even more unbelievable as Glickman moved his finger inside of me. I wanted to smack all those dumb 20-somethings upside their heads. Like, what the fuck, guys?

We did the relaxing anal massage for awhile, and Glickman asked me if I wanted the session to get erotic. I was down. So I flipped over onto my back.

He handed me a mirror and I held it between my legs so he could show me what he was doing. He did things that no man or woman had ever done to me, and he taught me to do them to myself. (By the way, there’s this particular way of rubbing the insides of the outer labia that makes your crotch freak out in a good way. FREAK…OUT!)

All of it felt so good that before I knew it, I was ready for a finger all the way in my ass. Then there were fingers in my vagina. Then there were fingers on my clitoris. Then there were TWO fingers in my ass. It felt like there were fingers everywhere. “How many fingers does this guy have?” I thought, as I had a bunch of big, sweaty orgasms.

When the session was over, he left me to bask in the aftermath of coming a lot. I slowly sat up and stared through the back window at a few construction dudes throwing lumber into a truck in the parking lot below. I felt completely relaxed and grounded in my body. My hands and feet tingled. I got up to take a piss.

So now I know that I can have an orgasm with something in my ass, but only when someone is stimulating my cooch. (The clitoris will always be the MVP.) Ass play isn’t a hopeless venture, but any guys who try to rip me a new one certainly are.

As I slinked out of the bathroom and curled up on the couch, Glickman said I looked like a cat who’d eaten something delicious. I nodded and smiled, and he had a look of pride, like he’d saved a stray in need. He proved that fingers in the ass ain’t bad — I took two for humanity.

You can read Krissy Eliot’s Head First column every Thursday on the Guardian’s Sex SF blog (www.sfbg.com/sexsf) and read her past work at www.krissyeliot.com.

Water with a price tag

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Rebecca@sfbg.com

At the tail end of a dry, dusty summer, California continues to weather the effects of an extraordinary drought.

Wildfires have swept through forestlands in the Sierra Nevada foothills, Mendocino County, and near Yosemite recently, making for smoky skies and glaring red sunsets. Meanwhile, shrinking reservoirs have prompted the state to issue formal crackdowns on watering lawns and washing cars.

These extreme circumstances may be linked to why voter support for Proposition 1, a $7.5 billion general obligation bond for water-related projects, has initially registered high. Elected officials have trumpeted Prop. 1 as a measure that will alleviate the worst impacts of the drought.

In the Bay Area, 62 percent of likely voters said they’d vote in favor Prop. 1, while that support came in at 52 percent statewide, according to a recent Field Poll. The bill that became Prop. 1 won bipartisan support in the Legislature after lawmakers struck a deal to kill an earlier $11 billion proposal and replace it instead with the slimmed-down version.

Despite the rare consensus, opponents charge that Prop. 1 won’t actually address the water crisis.

“We really don’t deal with the drought here,” said Connor Everts, executive director of the California Watershed Alliance, after reviewing the details.

Everts spoke during a Sept. 11 conference call organized by opponents of Prop. 1. They reject the water bond mainly because it dedicates a significant chunk of funding, $2.7 billion, toward new dam projects. They view this as an unacceptable tradeoff.

“We can’t conjure water out of thin air with new dams,” pointed out Barbara Barrigan-Parilla, the opposition campaign director, who runs a grassroots organization advocating for sustainable management of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. More should go toward conservation measures, she said.

The Delta has suffered hefty ecological impacts from freshwater pumping to feed the state’s water-delivery system. “Protect the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta” is the first guiding principle to appear in a policy document establishing the basis for Prop. 1, but Barrigan-Parilla and others remain skeptical. Friends of the River has also come out against Prop. 1, as have many members the Environmental Water Caucus, a statewide coalition of grassroots organizations.

State lawmakers have been trying to pass a water bond since 2009, but earlier versions were shot down as bloated and pork-laden, failing to gain traction.

In June, Gov. Jerry Brown called for a $6 billion bond that would throw $2 billion toward dam projects, but the needle moved after Republicans — taking advantage of the fact that it needed a two-thirds majority vote to pass — withheld support unless they were promised more money for dams.

Water storage is a high priority for agribusiness farmers, whose sprawling croplands soak up vast quantities of water. A whopping 70 percent of all water rights claims issued by the State Water Resources Control Board are for agriculture, according to a University of California at Davis study.

“If these dams actually get built, we believe they will take more water out of the rivers that are dammed, and there will be less to come out of all of the environmental benefits,” envisioned by other provisions in the bill, said Carolee Krieger, executive director of the California Water Impact Network (C-WIN). “In the long run, we believe it would be way worse for the environment.”

Adam Scow, speaking during the conference call on behalf of San Francisco-based Food and Water Watch, pointed out that California desperately needs to invest in basic water needs, like fixing old leaky pipes. Nevertheless, Prop. 1 is “just prolonging these fights over new, silly dam projects,” Scow said.

Significant Prop. 1 funds would also be committed toward cleaning up groundwater, restoring damaged watersheds, advancing water-treatment technology, and ensuring safe drinking water access for low-income communities. The Sierra Club issued a statement announcing that while it’s supportive of these good programs, its official stance on Prop. 1 is “no position.”

Opponents of Prop. 1 noted during the call that California faces a fundamental problem that won’t be addressed by the water bond: The amount of water allocated by water rights claims is five times higher than what actual river flows provide in an average year.

“The one thing that must be done is to balance water rights claims to actual supplies,” Krieger said. The difference between real supplies and what’s promised in a contract, she added, is called “paper water.” This means many users receive less water in practice than what they’re technically promised, but those unrealistic promises make for confusing and conflict-heavy management of scarce water resources. The bizarre dysfunction is well-documented in a UC Davis study published in February. Of 27 major rivers, the study found, 16 had allocation levels “greater than 100 percent of natural supplies.”

The state “simply does not have accurate knowledge of how much water is being used by most water rights holders,” the UC Davis study noted, making it “nearly impossible” to reduce consumption or manage water supplies in a way that’s more equitable and environmentally responsible.

If voters grant their stamp of approval for the $7.5 billion water bond, the state may well move forward with important environmental initiatives, as well as multi-billion dollar dam projects that will take decades to build.

But no matter what happens, money still can’t buy snowfall in the Sierras, and it’s going to take more than cash to get to the root of California’s water woes.

Reform BART’s approach to labor

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By Christina Olague

OPINION If BART is part of your daily commute, you know how critical a reliable system is to Bay Area working people. If you don’t ride BART, all you have to do it think about all the cars that the system keeps off the road every day.

That’s why everyone — most of all the BART unions and their supporters — found last year’s strike so upsetting. And now, a new report commissioned in part by BART Board member James Fang shows how unnecessary it was for management to drive workers to walk off the job.

In fact, the report says, hiring a union-busting outside negotiator was a serious mistake. Allowing that hired gun to pursue an extremist bargaining strategy was a major cause of the labor unrest.

The report, conducted by an outside consultant, involved interviews with dozens of workers, managers, and negotiators. The document is riddled with references to war: Bomb-throwing, Vietnam, a labor “massacre.” It shows how badly the executive management at BART allowed the climate for negotiations to deteriorate — and how hard it will be to repair the damage.

Here’s how one manager put it: “This strike was not productive. We never did a course correction and then there was another strike. Two people got killed. We spent millions to end up getting creamed, and engendering hate.”

The report notes how BART executive management and their notorious chief negotiator refused to take seriously the concerns workers expressed about safety.

“Key points made about safety in bargaining sessions fell on deaf ears…because management thought the unions were just posturing and the unions thought the management was refusing to engage,” it states.

Safety concerns were a central part of the negotiations from the workers’ perspective, and by dismissing those concerns as a tactic, BART’s consultant not only made an agreement more difficult but gambled with the safety of workers and riders in order get concessions from workers.

Fang, head of the BART Board’s Labor Negotiation Review Committee, is asking that the board adopt the report’s recommendations to prevent this from happening again. These recommendations include more transparency around the agency’s finances, a much earlier start to negotiations — and if needed, bringing in mediators, not outside anti-union consultants.

Once the rest of our elected BART Board of Directors became more involved, management found a reasonable solution that both sides could live with. Why didn’t that happen at the beginning of negotiations?

That’s what the BART Board needs to be asking itself. A fair post-mortem puts much of the blame on management — a general manager who had little experience in labor negotiations and a board that failed to show leadership and independence.

Fang, who is the one board member who joined workers on the picket lines, says it’s time for management to change its approach. He’s calling for a strike-prevention plan that starts with honest, fair labor relations.

We’ve heard from some politicians looking to score easy points from frustrated riders that BART strikes ought to be banned. And it’s easy to imagine frustrated commuters, stuck far from work when the trains weren’t running, feeling sympathetic.

But if workers don’t have the right to strike, they are powerless to speak out against dangerous working conditions to a recalcitrant and, in this case, misdirected management. That leads to a more dangerous system for all of us.

Recognizing this, BART Board President Joel Keller just withdrew his suggestion that strikes be banned.

The much better approach for riders like me is to follow Fang’s prevention plan: Hold management accountable for its failures and to make sure that both sides can work together better in the future.

BART is a phenomenally successful system. Ridership has doubled in recent years, to 440,000 trips a day. With trained and experienced BART workers, the system’s on-time performance has risen to 95 percent. That’s not the result of some high-paid labor negotiator — it’s the work of a dedicated and hard-working staff.

If you ride BART every day, you deserve to know that the trains will be running, that you can count on the system to get you to work on time. Between now and 2017, when the next contract will be negotiated, the BART Board needs to learn from its past mistakes and find a different, more collaborative approach. Christina Olague is a community activist and former member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

Bridge the housing-Muni divide

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EDITORIAL One the most frustrating political conflicts in San Francisco this election season is the schism between sustainable transportation activists and affordable housing advocates, a split that unnecessarily divides the progressive movement and one that has been cynically manipulated by the Mayor’s Office and its political allies.

We at the Bay Guardian haven’t yet decided what position we’ll take on Props. A and B — both of which would give more money to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency for Muni and other transportation needs — or Prop. K, the affordable housing measure that was heavily watered down by the Mayor’s Office. Our endorsements come out Oct. 8.

But we can say that we’ve been concerned with how housing and transportations needs have been pitted against one another — and by the political tactics that are being used to create that false choice in the minds of voters, often by those who have a financial self-interest in making misleading arguments.

San Francisco needs more affordable housing, a robust public transit system, and fully funded social services if it is to remain an efficient, diverse, compassionate city. We need all of those things, now, before we experience even more impacts from the rapid growth now underway.

Mayor Ed Lee chose to break his promise to place a local vehicle license fee increase on the fall ballot, so Sup. Scott Wiener and others placed Prop. B on the ballot instead. It would tie the city’s General Fund contributions to Muni to city population growth, but it would also allow the mayor to end that subsidy if voters approve the VLF increase in a future election.

Several local journalists have reported on the carrots and sticks that members of the Mayor’s Office have used to try to sink Prop. B and maintain affordable housing advocates’ support for Prop. K (see “Mayoral meltdown,” Aug. 5), pitting transportation and housing activists against one another, either by accident or design.

But San Francisco can’t afford this false dichotomy, and it’s high time to finally have this discussion openly and honestly. So the next Bay Guardian Community Forum — on Oct. 9 from 6-8pm in the LGBT Center, 1800 Market Street — will focus on bridging this gap. We’ll be inviting key players on both sides and we hope that you, dear readers, will join us as well.

The same players in this city who are urging San Francisco to rapidly grow as an economic and population center are sabotaging the political alliances and funding mechanisms that we need to handle that growth. It’s time for a forthright, public discussion about the city’s many long-term needs and how to finance them.

 

Deadly gamble

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joe@sfbg.com

As BART management and unions were locked in dysfunctional contract negotiations that would result in two strikes and two deaths last year, the district and the media scoffed at workers safety concerns and waged a media campaign demonizing the unions. Now, a new report commissioned by the district calls that strategy a horrible mistake.

The report from independent investigators Agreement Dynamics Inc., “Bay Area Rapid Transit Collective Bargaining Report and Recommendations,” reveals BART management perceived the Bay Area as anti-union. This guided its decision to hire Tom Hock as a contract negotiator and adopt a union-bashing public relations strategy that was then amplified by most local mainstream media outlets.

“In interviews, Tom Hock said he believed the strike would be very short and the unions would have to come back and reach an agreement,” the report, which was based on more than 200 hours of interviews of 60 BART employees, managers, and contractors, found. “He said media reports also heavily favored the management perspective.”

The San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News attacked BART’s workers in their news and editorial pages, stoking the flames of anger. “As to union claims that this is all about safety — how stupid do they think the public is?” the Merc opined in a July 2013 editorial. The Chronicle struck a similar tone in its Oct. 18 editorial, blaming workers and writing “the walkout is the height of irresponsibility.”

The unions warned management not to run the trains during the second strike, but those safety warnings went unheeded. A contract deal was reached only after two men working on the tracks during the strike, Laurence Daniels and Christopher Sheppard, were accidentally run down during what was later revealed as a replacement driver training exercise — warnings be damned.

“Some in management believed they had a good media strategy that put the public on their side,” the report found. Therefore, “the public was angry with the unions for demanding too much in their contracts.”

BART approved a contract from big-time public relations firm Singer Associates in April last year. Sam Singer and his firm are well-known for pulling the strings of local journalists and using scorched-earth tactics. As a result, articles highlighted riders woes and selected employee salaries while discounting safety and other concerns raised by workers.

But BART management and its board had longstanding CAL-OSHA violations, some of which were the subject of labor negotiations leading up to the strike. Notably, BART’s now-defunct “simple approval” policy, by which workers verbally notified management they would be working on the tracks, was one that both workers and state regulators long urged the district to change. The two deaths were linked to that controversial practice, which BART has since ended (see “Tragedy follows strike,” 10/23/13).

State regulators have fined BART for that fatal misjudgment and a final report from the National Transportation Safety Board is expected in the coming months. Only The Nation, East Bay Express, and Bay Guardian covered BART safety concerns with any depth or gravity before the two workers’ deaths. It’s hard to tell who led the dance — did the mainstream media embolden management, or did management lead on the media? Either way, safety was not a priority for BART managers during negotiations.

“Key points made about safety in bargaining sessions, as reported to us, fell on deaf ears,” the report’s authors noted. “Management thought the unions were just posturing, and the unions thought management was refusing to engage.”

The unions, the report found, “voiced frustration that they have raised these issues repeatedly, and management was not responsive…The ‘simple approval’ policy was seen as indicative of management’s unwillingness to deal with safety concerns until two workers were killed during the second strike in 2013.”

BART’s next contract negotiation is set for 2017. The transit agency has much work to do to repair its lingering culture of distrust, but so-called unbiased media need to cop to their anti-union slants. It took two deaths to show how relevant safety concerns really were.

Still not sharing

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news@sfbg.com

As controversial legislation to legalize and regulate Airbnb and other short-term housing rental services operating in San Francisco headed for another contentious City Hall hearing on Sept. 15, the San Francisco Treasurer & Tax Collector’s Office quietly unveiled new policies and mechanisms for hosts to finally start paying long-overdue local taxes on their rentals.

Board of Supervisors President David Chiu’s legislation attempts to strike a balance between protecting housing for permanent city residents — including tenants in rent-controlled units who are being displaced in favor of visiting tourists — and allowing San Franciscans to sometimes rent out rooms through companies such as Airbnb. That practice has mushroomed during the Great Recession even though such short-term rentals of residential units have long been illegal in San Francisco (see “Into thin air,” 8/20/13).

Among other provisions, Chiu’s legislation would require hosts to register with the city and live in their units for at least 275 days per year (thus limiting rental nights to 90), create enforcement procedures for city agencies, and protect below-market-rate and single-room occupancy units from being used as short-term rentals.

But Airbnb has also been snubbing the city for more than two years since the Tax Collector’s Office held public hearings and concluded that short-term rental companies and their hosts are required to collect and pay the city’s Transient Occupancy Tax (aka, the hotel tax), a surcharge of about 15 percent on room rentals usually paid by visiting guests (see “Airbnb isn’t sharing,” 3/19/13).

After other media outlets finally joined the Bay Guardian in raising questions about the impact that Airbnb and other companies was having on San Francisco — and with cities New York City, Berlin, and other cities taking steps to ban short-term rentals — Airbnb announced in March that it would begin collecting and paying the TOT in San Francisco sometime this summer.

But that still hasn’t happened, even though Tax Collector Jose Cisneros recently unveiled a new website clarifying that Airbnb hosts must register as businesses and pay taxes and created a streamlined system for doing so. The office is even allowing Airbnb and other companies to register as “qualified website companies” that collect and pay these taxes on behalf of hosts.

“The law does apply to these transactions,” Cisneros told us. “And the set of requirements are the same for the hosts and the website companies.”

Airbnb didn’t respond to Guardian inquiries for this story.

Meanwhile, an unusually diverse coalition of critics continues to raise concerns about Airbnb and the regulatory legislation, including renter and landlord groups, neighborhood and affordable housing activists, labor leaders, and former members of the Board of Supervisors (including Chiu predecessor, Aaron Peskin) and Planning Commission. They penned a Sept. 15 to Chiu calling for him to delay the legislation.

“Individually and collectively, we have advanced nearly two dozen additional amendments that address the issues raised by short-term residential rentals. While we are not of one mind on every issue or every suggested amendment, we are unanimous in our belief that the process you are pursuing is rushed,” they wrote. “The City will live with the intended (and unintended) consequences of your legislation for many, many years.”

Sources in Chiu’s office had already told the Guardian that he planned to keep the legislation in committee for at least one more hearing so the myriad details can be worked out, as Chiu said at the hearing as well.

“We want to have the time to continue to vet and hear all of the perspectives, and at the end of the day what I hope to do is to be able to move forward and build incentives around something that is far better than our current status quo,” Chiu said at the hearing. “This is a very complicated issue, and we all know that we need to get this policy as right as we can.”

Planning Director John Rahaim conveyed concerns from the Planning Commission that the legislation beef up the city’s ability to regulate short-term rentals.

“The commission does believe that the law should be updated to create a legal avenue for those who do want to host,” Rahaim said. “However, currently there are about 5,000 units in the city engaging in short-term rentals. It’s very difficult to know if there are units not being lived in by a full-time resident.”

A long line of speakers wound completely around the packed chamber in City Hall, awaiting their turn to speak publicly to supervisors and city residents, from 20-somethings making a lives renting out their homes to longtime tenants fearing that home-sharing will hurt city’s character.

Airbnb was represented at the hearing by David Owen, a former City Hall staffer who is now director of public policy for the company, and he was publicly confronted by Chiu on the tax issue. Chiu criticized Airbnb for failing to start collecting those taxes as promised.

“As of now, we are extremely close and you will be hearing from us about that in the near future,” Owen said, provoking audible disbelief from many in the crowd. “We have been working diligently alongside the city. This is a complicated set of issues and those involved have all worked in earnest to facilitate this request.”

When Owen was asked about enforcement of the maximum number of nights a tenant has rented out his unit, he said Airbnb’s cooperation is “akin to the city asking Home Depot.com for a list of home care purchases to see if anyone had illegally renovated their bathroom.” But city officials say they need the company’s cooperation to address its impacts. “We don’t want data, just the number of nights per permanent resident so that we can ensure that the bad outcomes of this setup aren’t occurring,” Sup. Jane Kim said. “Airbnb profits from this industry, and therefore [is] accountable to the city.”

To the classrooms, Baby Boomers

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OPINION As long as I’ve been substitute teaching, people have asked what I thought we could do to improve public schools. With all of the classrooms I’ve been in, they figured I might know something. But I’ve never had a simple answer for them, because I don’t actually think there is a single overriding educational crisis.

For most kids, the system works okay, or at least as well as it always has. At the same time, there are large groups of kids clearly struggling — black students most obviously, but not only. If we’re serious about fixing the educational problems of the nation’s “disadvantaged” kids, we need to improve the overall circumstances of their lives.

I’d say there is one surefire thing we can do to improve America’s classrooms: Put more adults in them — and not just teachers.

Think of how seldom the question of class size makes it into the highly politicized national education debate. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think it must be an insignificant element. But if you really want to know if class size is a big deal, just ask someone who teaches. Or if you want private sector confirmation of this, check out the private school brochures or websites, which tout their smaller class sizes.

So why don’t we hear more about this? Maybe because there’s no major corporate or political interests pushing it, as opposed to charter schools — or the various tenure, curriculum, or discipline reforms that vie to become panacea of the moment.

For instance, you’ll likely hear more about the problem of inadequate textbooks in “poor schools” than the too-large classes in them. Could this be related to the fact that the only part of the publishing industry that isn’t struggling these days is the educational sector?

The world’s four largest publishers produce educational materials, and they’re out there making their case and drumming up business all the time. There’s a lot of money to be made selling $85 world history texts to middle school classes of 35 students. Again, if you’re not sure yourself, ask any teacher which would help more: the latest textbook or a smaller class?

Moving from business to politics, the Obama Administration has recently expressed interest in reforming school discipline policy, but it says so little about the surest route to reducing classroom problems: a lower student-teacher ratio. The reason for the silence is pretty obvious. More teachers cost more money. This means higher taxes (or maybe reduced military spending). New textbooks cost money too, of course. The difference, however, is that there are no giant corporations pushing for hiring more teachers — there’s simply no money in it for them.

Yet we could put more adults into the mix even when we can’t actually reduce class size. I’ve been in classrooms where it seemed like the adult-to-child ratio needed to really give kids a shot was something like one-to-five-or-six — and this was not special ed. And I’ve seen combinations of teachers, paraprofessionals (aka teachers’ aides), student teachers, parents, or volunteers from the community that achieved that goal — at least for a little while. I’ve also seen situations where an additional person helped a kid who would have otherwise likely disrupted an entire class and not only prevented that, but got him to produce something useful.

After I had expounded on this idea at a recent gathering in Boston, an old friend came up to me and said, “Look around this room,” noting the crowd of Baby Boomers who are soon retiring and will have considerably more time on their hands. All had an interest in public education.

What if even a small percentage of them could find their way to helping public schools by actually spending time assisting in a classroom? Wouldn’t we have a significant asset on our hands? I think he was right.

Tom Gallagher is a San Francisco substitute teacher and the author of Sub: My Years Underground in America’s Schools (Coast to Coast Publishing, 2014). He can be reached at tgtgtgtgtg@aol.com. To submit a guest editorial, contact news@sfbg.com.