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SF’s private police force


Since long before the turn of the century, San Francisco has had a posse of private police officers patrolling the streets. Back in the 1870s, they were effectively vigilantes; by 1935 they’d become a bit more controlled in their behavior and won official recognition in the City Charter. They’re called patrol specials.

For years a fairly small number (there are now 41) have been walking neighborhood beats, hired by local merchants who don’t think the San Francisco Police Department is providing enough protection. Legally, the patrol specials are an odd amalgam: They’re licensed to carry handguns but not to make arrests. Most of them have some law-enforcement training, but not typically from a traditional police academy. In theory they report to the chief of police, but in practice they’re private businesspeople who are hired by, and do the bidding of, merchant groups.

The head of their association, Jane Warner, thinks they’re the future of neighborhood policing, and she, like other patrol special fans, openly calls for increased privatization of law enforcement. And the association is asking the San Francisco Police Commission to make it easier to expand its operations.

The patrol specials are mostly an archaic anomaly right now — but the trend toward privatizing the police force is frightening, and the commission ought to put a clear halt to it.

The rules governing patrol specials were forged in a very different era. The city is divided up into beats, and the patrol specials can buy up beats, then charge local businesses for protection. They can hire their own officers, subject to a background check and Police Commission approval. If they see any wrongdoing they’re supposed to call the cops — but in many cases they just go ahead and act like real police. "I’ve arrested hundreds of people," Warner, who owns beats in the Mission and West Portal, told the Guardian recently.

It’s more than a little bit weird to still have armed civilians, in uniform, with badges, walking around making arrests when they aren’t really accountable to anyone. The potential for problems is obvious: A merchant group might, for example, direct the local patrol special to focus on getting homeless people out of doorways — something that the city has established as not just a police priority but a social issue. The patrol specials aren’t taking orders from police headquarters though; they have to do what their customers want. And if they are accused of misconduct, they aren’t accountable to the Office of Citizen Complaints (OCC), which oversees all complaints against sworn officers; instead, the department’s Management Control Division — which has never been good at disciplining cops — is the final authority.

Nobody paid much attention to the patrol specials until the 1990s, when the San Francisco Police Officers Association — whose members make nice little chunks of change providing off-duty private security and saw them as competition — started complaining. Still, the policies haven’t really been updated in decades.

At the very least, the Police Commission needs to completely overhaul the rules for these quasi cops, establishing clear training guidelines, shifting disciplinary authority to the OCC, and demanding direct oversight over hiring and beat sales. But these kinds of private police fiefdoms make us very, very nervous — and the idea that the patrol specials’ turf may be expanding is a scary prospect.

The commission could make a clear policy statement opposing any privatization of local law enforcement, and that would be a positive step. But that agency can only go so far — the authority for the patrol specials is enshrined in the City Charter. So the supervisors need to take this up, posthaste — and amend the charter either to more tightly control and regulate the patrol specials, or eliminate them altogether. *

Don’t deregulate cabs


It’s not a great time to be a San Francisco taxi driver. High gas prices are taking cash directly out of drivers’ pockets, and fares haven’t kept pace. The only thing that seems to be solid is industry profits: According to a December 2005 city controller’s office report, cab companies have been making healthy returns even in bad economic times.

The way the companies make money, of course, is by leasing cabs to drivers, who are independent contractors. The "gate" — the cash the driver has to pay for the right to use a legal, properly permitted cab — runs about $91 for a 12-hour shift. That’s a lot of money to collect in fares before the driver makes a single penny, and it’s one of the reasons why driving a cab is less attractive today as a long-term occupation. Each year, the United Taxicab Workers union says, up to 25 percent of the city’s drivers turn over, meaning that one out of every four drivers has less than a year’s experience.

It’s possible the situation will take a turn for the better this spring, if the city moves forward with a plan to require cab companies and permit holders — who have the lucrative license to lease out their cabs to other drivers for profit — to help pay for health insurance for the drivers. It’s also possible things will get substantially worse, if Sup. Fiona Ma manages to win approval for legislation completely abolishing city controls on gate fees and allowing cab companies to charge drivers whatever the market will bear.

What the cab industry needs is more regulation, not less. In fact, it’s astonishing to see a San Francisco supervisor who is running for state assembly propose such a Bush-style deregulation plan that would enrich a few at the expense of many.

The Taxi Commission is slated to discuss the health insurance plan March 28. There are several options for how payment would be allocated; ideally, the drivers, permit holders, and cab companies would all pick up a share. But the Health Department has concluded that a working plan is possible — and the commissioners and supervisors should make sure one is put into action as soon as possible. *

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So let’s get this straight:

The lieutenant governor is running for insurance commissioner. The insurance commissioner is running for lieutenant governor. The former governor is running for attorney general. The attorney general is running for treasurer.

Round and round and round we spin. Talk about a clusterfuck.

There was a time, and it wasn’t all that long ago, when every single constitutional office in California was held by a Democrat. And it’s entirely possible that this fall — with the Republican president and Republican governor in political free fall — the Democrats will actually lose some top jobs in Sacramento.

Let me humbly suggest one reason why: We have a bunch of people running for office who really ought to find something else to do with their lives.

I’m not the only one who thinks this. If you talk to people who think about the future of the California Democratic Party — people who might actually play a role in it, say, 10 years from now — what you hear is this: Why are the same old names bouncing around like petrified Ping-Pong balls?

John Garamendi has been running for some office or other (including unsuccessfully for governor) for the past 20 years. He’s been insurance commissioner twice. Now, since he clearly can’t get the top job, he’s angling for number two.

Cruz Bustamante has virtually disappeared since he dared run in the recall election that brought Arnold Schwarzenegger to power. Perhaps he can slip into Garamendi’s post for a while, while he figures out what else to do. Bill Lockyer thought about running for governor but realized he wasn’t going to win, and although he’s not a terrible attorney general, he’s decided to run for treasurer, which makes no sense unless he’s waiting around to try another office at some point.

Jerry Brown was governor once, and after a period of self-imposed exile, he decided to run for president (of the United States), then mayor of Oakland. By the way, he’s a lawyer, so now he wants to be attorney general.

None of these people is evil, and the state could do worse — way worse — than electing any of them. But is anyone else getting the distinct feeling that we’re the party of, well, yesterday?

Just thought I’d ask.

One of my favorite political movies is Robocop, the 1987 Paul Verhoeven sci-fi film that is not generally considered a great social statement about anything. But when you pay attention (and watch it with the right, um, mind-set), Robocop is actually a story about privatization: Detroit has turned over its police force to the Omni Consumer Products Corporation, which decides to save money (for the company’s bottom line) by cutting staff and squeezing pay — to the point where there’s inadequate backup when our hero gets into a firefight with the bad guys and almost gets shot to bits. They revive him as a cyborg, and he tries to be an honest cop — but deep in his electronic DNA is a rule that he can’t arrest or harm any officer of the Omni Consumer Products Corporation.

I thought about that when I heard that the patrol specials — a crew of private armed civilians who wear uniforms and badges and walk the streets under a 19th-century tradition — was asking for expanded authority in San Francisco (see page 5). The message that the group recently sent to the Police Commission: Privatization is the wave of the future in urban law enforcement.

Yikes. *

Spy on yourself


“Wow,” my hacker friend Mason breathed as he looked at my computer monitor. “That’s really horrendously fucking evil.”

He was responding to the sight of my account with Root Vaults (, a Web service with hazy goals but an interesting tool: If you sign up and download a plug-in for Firefox, Root Vaults will record your entire clickstream. When I go anywhere or click on anything online, the plug-in records it and sends the data to my account at Root Vaults. A nifty graphical interface shows me what sites I visited, including the most popular ones, as well as what I searched for on both Google and Yahoo!.

Since I was just testing Root Vaults, I tried to search for important things like “horse porn” and “cute kitties.” As a result, my clickstream looked sort of like this: (the clickstream from this one yielded some interesting results, as it appears some scamster was trying to make it look like I was clicking on the ads on the site, even though I wasn’t); (too bad Root Vaults couldn’t measure my utter joy in looking at this site packed with a zillion cute animals);;

Now imagine that I spent all week sending my clickstream to Root Vaults. Instead of seeing searches I don’t normally do (well, OK, sometimes I do search for cute kitties), I’d have a record of everything I’d wanted to see and everything I did see. Seth Goldstein, inventor of Root Vaults, calls it the “record of your attention,” and he wants to sell it.

Like Google, Claria, and dozens of other companies that record what you do online, Root Vaults doesn’t quite have a business model for all the data it’s aggregating. Right now Goldstein uses the information he’s gathered to sell “leads” to mortgage and insurance companies looking for people whose clickstream makes them seem like good prospects. Later he might use all the consumer data in Root Vaults to sell companies information about who clicks on what and when. Or maybe he’ll try to sell futures in consumers by claiming he’s got a batch of people whose attention data show they’re on the cusp of buying something big because they’ve been visiting and trolling

Unlike its sister companies, Root Vaults is letting users see the data it collects. That’s why I don’t entirely agree with Mason’s damning assessment of the service. Certainly clickstream snooping is a privacy invasion, but what’s worse is that it’s something few people understand. For example, when you download the toolbars from Google, Yahoo!, or Microsoft, each one sends the very same kind of data that Root Vaults collects right back to its mother company. So if you want to know how much Yahoo! knows about you, sign up for Root Vaults, watch your clickstream get recorded, and find out.

Goldstein is excited about this idea. As a founder of Attention Trust, a nonprofit whose goal is to regulate the clickstream-tracking industry, he’s intrigued by the idea of corporate scruples in a space that’s best known for spyware. “This tool could be for self-education,” he enthuses. “The same way Fast Food Nation taught us what we’re really eating, Root Vaults could teach you what kind of data companies are really gathering about you.”

You’ll be truly weirded out to discover how easy it is for a tiny little browser plug-in to send every online move you make to a third party. Once you’ve completed your experiment, though, delete all the data from your Root Vaults account, then delete the extension from Firefox. And just to be safe, don’t click on anything you’d be afraid to share with the world.

Although Root Vaults is setting a new standard for transparency in clickstream tracking, one telling detail is still obscured. Goldstein insists each vault “belongs to you.” But it doesn’t. Whenever anything of “yours” is stored on someone else’s computer, it’s not highly protected by privacy laws, largely under the assumption that it must not be as private as the stuff you store on your own computer. So the government or an attorney can get access to this data without contacting you personally, and often with very little court oversight. So remember, kids, just because something’s in your account on Root Vaults, that doesn’t make it yours.

And just because you can’t see your own clickstream most of the time doesn’t mean somebody else isn’t watching it. *

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who can draw a heart in the snow with her clickstream.

The Dirt-y north


Though Noise Pop 2006 technically begins on Monday, March 27, it doesn’t officially get rocking until Detroit’s Dirtbombs “Start the Party,” as they said on 2003’s Dangerous Magical Noise (In the Red). The Bombs feature two drummers and two bassists, which, for the uninitiated, may instill fear of Grateful Dead

Flaming creatures


The Flaming Lips headlining Noise Pop

Hater raid


On their hysterical Web site, We Are Scientists send out a warning to would-be critics.

“Journalists beware!” the New York trio declares. “An example has been made of a reporter who dared to impugn WAS!” It turns out that a certain writer, who had gone out of his way to trash the band, was recently busted for fabricating part of a story in the Village Voice. The lesson to be learned, according to WAS, is that criticizing them results in some serious karmic retribution. “If [writers] must vent negative feelings,” the band helpfully advises, “they should cloak them in a thick blanket of bone-dry sarcasm so that most readers think the article is actually positive.”

WAS may have their tongues planted firmly in their cheeks, but they have reason to feel a bit defensive. After all, singer-guitarist-heartthrob Keith Murray, bassist Chris Cain, and drummer Michael Tapper are often snubbed by indier-than-thou listeners, particularly in the blogosphere, who begrudge the band for its radio-friendly sound and burgeoning success, which, since last summer, has included a heavily hyped UK tour opening for the Arctic Monkeys and a major-label record deal. What’s more, despite forming in 2000, they’ve been largely dismissed by critics as latecomers to today’s trendy post-punk party.

On its recent debut, With Love and Squalor (Virgin), however, the band distinguishes itself from ’80s-influenced peers such as Hot Hot Heat and Franz Ferdinand by elevating relationship anxiety to an art form. In songs like “The Great Escape” and “Inaction,” propulsive, herky-jerky rhythms underscore Murray’s dread about car-wreck romances that he can’t quite peel himself away from, singing, “Everybody knows how it’s gonna end / Why doesn’t someone stop me?!” The entire album, in fact, is permeated with a nervous, deeply compelling tension due to Murray’s panicked yelp and lyrics that, in his words, attempt to express “a core of existential despair.”

If that sounds pretentious, at least it’s more refreshingly earnest than, say, the arch observations that Franz Ferdinand pass off as profundity in last fall’s lame hit “Do You Want To.” It’s also catchier than anything the ’80s revivalists have released since the Killers’ “Somebody Told Me”

A deep breath for city planning


It was, as housing activist Calvin Welch explained to the Planning Commission March 16, the “canary in the coal mine.” A decision by the Board of Supervisors demanding further environmental review of new market-rate housing projects has thrown the future of development on the eastern side of the city into doubt

The three-year nightmare


The air of unreality in Washington, DC, is, well, unreal. On Face the Nation March 19, Vice President Dick Cheney proclaimed that the war in Iraq is going well, that the insurgency had reached "a stage of desperation" — and that the prediction that Americans would be greeted as liberators was "basically accurate." There’s no civil war, the administration insists, no catastrophic political failure, no evidence that the war is well on its way to becoming the new Vietnam. No, Cheney insists, the problem is just the overcritical news media.

For the record, more than 2,300 United States soldiers are dead. So are as many as 37,000 Iraqis. Countless more have been maimed, lost limbs, seen their lives destroyed. And three years after the invasion, there is no end in sight. More than 130,000 US troops are still fighting in Iraq, and they are utterly unable to keep the peace. The Iraqi forces are poorly trained and can do little to help.

Ayad Allawi, former acting prime minister and a man Bush used to see as a key ally, isn’t mincing words: "If this is not civil war," he told the BBC, "then God knows what civil war is."

To say the Bush administration lied about the invasion is a severe understatement. Bush and his team are lying every day. And at this rate, the US death toll could be in the tens of thousands by the time the nation extricates itself from this morass.

And yet the Democratic Party leadership is still way too tentative about making this the defining issue of the midterm elections. That’s crazy: Even in the red states, the war is increasingly unpopular. And Bush’s insistence on staying the course is starting to sound like Richard Nixon’s secret plan to end the Vietnam War.

The truth is, Iraq is an artificial construct, a nation pieced together from three ethnic and religious groups that have never gotten along. If it weren’t for the oil (ah, it’s always the oil), Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis might each have their own states.

Perhaps a working government can still be created with all three parties involved. But the presence of huge numbers of US troops isn’t, and won’t, help that process.

The Democrats need to get behind Rep. John Murtha (D-PA) and demand a timetable for withdrawal of all troops. That might even lead to a Democratic Congress. *



It still boggles my mind: One of the most significant development issues in years came to a head last week at the City Planning Commission — and none of the news media seem to have noticed. G.W. Schulz describes the situation in depth on page 18, but here’s the short version: City planners have acknowledged they can’t allow any more market-rate housing in the eastern neighborhoods for the indefinite future.

At least they seem to have acknowledged that. The real test is still to come, when the next development comes along, but either way this is pretty big news — and I haven’t read a word about it in the Chron or the Ex.

I shouldn’t be surprised anymore.

Now this: The San Francisco Democratic Party is in a bit of a tizzy over something that ought to be basic common sense.

Sup. Chris Daly has put a measure on the June 6 ballot, Prop. C, that would make the Transbay Joint Powers Authority more directly accountable to voters. The TJPA is pretty important: It controls the Transbay Terminal project, which will determine the city’s transit future for many years to come. But right now, two of the city’s three representatives are basically bureaucrats (one from the Mayor’s Office, one from Muni) who answer (it often seems) to nobody.

Daly wants to make the mayor, the city’s representative to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (currently Sup. Tom Ammiano), and the supervisor from District 6 (Daly, who’s already on the TJPA) serve on the panel.

Sounds like alphabet soup and nothing to make a fuss over — except that the mayor would suddenly have to focus on this project because he’d be on the board. He might even have to go to a meeting or two. And everyone on that key panel would have to answer directly to the voters.

And for some reason (perhaps the thought of actually sitting through a TJPA meeting) this has Gavin Newsom up in arms. The Democratic County Central Committee, which makes policy for the local party, was set to endorse Prop. C last week until Newsom began twisting arms. Then a bunch of people (including state assemblymember Mark Leno and state senator Carole Migden) couldn’t be counted in the yes camp, so the whole thing was postponed until March 21, when Daly, the Sierra Club, and all of the city’s transit activists were set to square off against Newsom and the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR).

It will be a nice test: Can the County Committee stand up to the mayor? Will Migden and Leno?

And this: Caroline Grannan, a normally well-meaning and hardworking advocate for the public schools, is having a strange fit of indignation over our articles on school board expenses. The stories focused mostly on how former superintendent Arlene Ackerman pissed away public money on posh dining and accommodations, but Grannan is mad that we even mentioned board member Jill Wynns, who also spends district money on travel (but has run up nowhere near the sort of tab that Ackerman did).

Her complaint is on page 7, and I think she’s way overreacting here, but she makes one valid point: The school board members are essentially volunteers who earn all of $500 a month. That’s silly. A school board member ought to be a full-time job with full-time pay.

And board members’ salaries and expenses should be very much the public’s business. *



In the transgender community, to have full-time work is to be in the minority. In fact, a new survey of 194 trans people conducted by the Transgender Law Center (TLC), with support from the Guardian, found that only one out of every four respondents has a full-time job. Another 16 percent work part-time.

What’s more, 59 percent of respondents reported an annual salary of less than $15,333. Only 4 percent reported making more than $61,200, which is about the median income in the Bay Area.

In other words, more than half of local transgender people live in poverty, and 96 percent earn less than the median income. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that 40 percent of those surveyed don’t even have a bank account.

TLC doesn’t claim the study is strictly scientific — all respondents were identified through trans organizations or outreach workers. But the data give a fairly good picture of how hard it is for transgender people to find and keep decent jobs, even in the city that is supposed to be most accepting of them.

It’s been more than a decade since San Francisco expanded local nondiscrimination laws to cover trans people, but transphobic discrimination remains rampant. Fifty-seven percent of survey respondents said they’ve experienced some form of employment discrimination.

And interviews show that job woes are hardly straightforward.

Navigating the job-application process after a gender transition can be extraordinarily difficult. Trans people run up against fairly entrenched biases about what kind of work they’re suited for. Sometimes those who are lucky enough to find work can’t tolerate insensitive, or even abusive, coworkers.

Marilyn Robinson turned tricks for almost 20 years before she decided to look for legal employment. She got her GED and, eventually, a job at an insurance company. The first six months went OK, but then a supervisor "thought he had the right to call me RuPaul," she told us. "And I look nothing like RuPaul." Suddenly the women in the office refused to use the bathroom if Robinson was around. She left within a month.

Once again, Robinson was on the job hunt. She interviewed for a receptionist position, and thought it went well. But on her way out, she saw the interviewer toss her application into the trash with a giggle.

"The reality is, even a hoagie shop in the Castro — they might not hire you," she said.

Still, many activists say the increased attention being paid to trans employment issues is promising.

Cecelia Chung from the Transgender Law Center told us there’s a "silver lining" in the effort the "community is putting into really changing the playing field. We’re in a really different place than we were five years ago."

Activists say true progress will require broad education efforts and the cooperation of business owners throughout the Bay Area. But the project is well under way, with San Francisco Transgender Empowerment, Advocacy and Mentorship, a trans collaborative, hosting its second annual Transgender Job Fair March 22. More than a dozen employers have signed up for the fair, including UCSF, Goodwill Industries, and Bank of America.


Imagine trying to find a job with no references from previous employers. Now envision how it might feel to have interviewer after interviewer look at you askance — or even ask if you’ve had surgery on a fairly private part of your body.

These are just a couple of the predicaments trans job-seekers face.

Kenneth Stram runs the Economic Development Office at the San Francisco LGBT Community Center. "In San Francisco there are the best intentions," he told us. "But when you scratch the surface, there are all these procedural hurdles that need to be addressed." As examples, he pointed to job-training classes where fellow students may act hostile, or arduous application processes.

Giving a prospective employer a reference may seem like a fairly straightforward task, but what if your old employer knew an employee of a different gender? Do you call the old boss and announce your new identity? Even if he or she is supportive, experience can be hard to erase. Will the manager who worked with Jim be able to speak convincingly about Jeanine? And what about your work history — should you eliminate the jobs where you were known as a different gender?

Most trans people can’t make it through the application process without either outing themselves or lying.

Marcus Arana decided to face this issue head-on and wrote about his transition from living as a woman to living as a man in his cover letter.

"It became a matter of curiosity," Arana told us. "I would have employers ask about my surgical status."

It took him a year and a half to find a job. Fortunately, it’s one he loves. Arana investigates most complaints of gender identity–related discrimination that are made to San Francisco’s city government. (Another investigator handles housing-oriented complaints.)

When he started his job, in 2000, about three quarters of the complaints Arana saw were related to public accommodations — a transwoman had been refused service at a restaurant, say, or a bank employee had given a cross-dressing man grief about the gender listed on his driver’s license.

Today, Arana told us, at least half of the cases he looks into are work-related — something he attributes to both progress in accommodations issues and stagnation on the job front.

TG workers, he said, confront two common problems: resistance to a changed name or pronoun preference and controversy over which bathroom they use.

The name and pronoun problems can often be addressed through sensitivity training, though Arana said that even in the Bay Area, it’s not unheard of for some coworkers to simply refuse to alter how they refer to a trans colleague.

Nine out of ten bathroom issues concern male-to-female trans folk — despite the fact that the police department has never gotten a single report of a transwoman harassing another person in a bathroom. One complaint Arana investigated involved a woman sticking a compact mirror under a bathroom stall in an effort to see her trans coworker’s genitalia.

But a hostile workplace is more often made up of dozens of subtle discomforts rather than a single drama-filled incident.

Robinson told us the constant whispering of "is that a man?" can make an otherwise decent job intolerable: "It’s why most of the girls — and I will speak for myself — are prostitutes. Because it’s easier."

The second and third most common forms of work-related discrimination cited by respondents in the TLC survey were sexual harassment and verbal harassment.

But only 12 percent of those who reported discrimination also filed some kind of formal complaint. That may be because of the widespread feeling that doing so can make it that much harder to keep a job — or find another one. Mara Keisling, director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, in Washington, DC, said that "it’s a common understanding within the transgender community that when you lose your job, you generally lose your career."


Most of the trans people we spoke to expressed resentment at being tracked into certain jobs — usually related to health care or government.

Part of that is because public entities have been quicker to adopt nondiscriminatory policies. San Francisco city government created a splash in 2001 when it granted trans employees access to full health benefits, including sex-reassignment surgery. The University of California followed suit last year.

But it’s also because of deeply ingrained prejudices about what kind of work transgender people are suited to.

Claudia Cabrera was born in Guatemala but fled to the Bay Area in 2000 to get away from the constant insults and occasional violence that befell her. Despite her education in electrical engineering and business and 13 years of tech work, it was difficult for her to find a job — even after she was granted political asylum. In 2002 a local nonprofit she had originally turned to for help offered her a position doing outreach within the queer community.

Cabrera doesn’t make much money, and she sends some of it back to her two kids in Guatemala. But that’s not the only reason she would like another job. She wants to have broader responsibilities and to employ her tech savvy.

"There is a stereotype here in San Francisco [that] transgender folk are only good for doing HIV work — or just outreach in general," she said.

Whenever she’s gotten an interview for another kind of job, she’s been told she is overqualified. Does she believe that’s why she hasn’t been hired? "No," she laughed. But she also acknowledged, "Even though there is discrimination going on here, this is the safest city for me to be in."

Cabrera is now on the board of TLC and is working to create more job opportunities for herself and others in the trans community. She often repeats this mantra: "As a transsexual woman, I am not asking for anything that doesn’t belong to me. I am demanding my rights to live as a human being." *


March 22

1–4 p.m.

SF LGBT Community Center, Ceremonial Room

1800 Market, SF

(415) 865-5555

Marry, marry quite contrary


In the coming year the federal government will unfurl a $500 million grant program with the sole purpose of encouraging low-income people to get hitched. The idea is that advertising, counseling, and mentoring by real, live married couples will increase the marriage rate in "at-risk" communities — leading to increased prosperity.

Conservatives have long argued that pushing marriage is just smart social policy. After all, studies have shown that married people tend to have more stable, financially secure lives that are more conducive to child rearing. Though the jury is still out on exactly how this correlation works (it’s possible that financially secure people are simply that much more likely to wed, rather than the other way around), President George W. Bush has been championing marriage since at least 2001.

His plan to promote the institution among the poor immediately generated opposition from feminists, domestic violence activists, libertarians, and advocates for the poor. And Congress proved unwilling to find the money — until this month.

Buried in the federal budget reconciliation bill approved Feb. 1 was language that directs up to $150 million a year through 2010 to programs meant to encourage marriage and "responsible fatherhood." Each year up to $50 million will go to "father-oriented" grants; the rest will go to promoting wedlock.

Though the funding got almost no press coverage, skepticism remains high among advocates for women and the poor. And it’s fed by a seemingly inconsistent provision in the bill, one that will make it so that two-parent families on welfare are less likely to get cash assistance — just because they’re married.

The first and probably most obvious complaint about marriage promotion is that the state should not be involved in people’s personal decisions about if, when, and whom to marry. For some, the emphasis on traditional, heterosexual unions also smacks of religious and moral fundamentalism.

There’s also the fact that a marriage — no matter how loving, satisfying, or good for the kids — doesn’t directly help someone’s economic standing. Some advocates for the poor would prefer to see money invested directly in services, job training, or cash grants.

Plus, some marriages just aren’t loving or satisfying or good for the kids. Studies have shown that roughly 65 percent of women who are receiving welfare have been battered during the past three years. Pushing victims of domestic violence into unions could have tragic consequences, activists say.

But the most basic criticism of this approach — and one that’s particularly common among women who are familiar with the welfare system — is that having a man around doesn’t necessarily improve a woman’s economic status, no matter how much more men tend to be paid.

Albany resident Renita Pitts, who has five kids and was married for close to 20 years, told us that having a husband can often feel like "having another child — another grown child. At least the little ones mind."

Pitts says that, except for a few years when she was working, she and her ex-husband spent most of their marriage on welfare and using drugs. On occasion, he also beat her.

"The minute my husband left, I was able to get off drugs," she said. "My whole life just opened up. I started going to school full time; I became a citizen in my community. It seemed like my life improved financially, emotionally, and physically."

Pitts is now getting a Bachelor of Arts from UC Berkeley, where she also hopes to complete a PhD in African American Studies. In her free time she works with the Women of Color Resource Center because she wants to show other women that even when it doesn’t seem like it, they have options.

Pitts is worried about marriage-promotion policies, which she described as "another way or form to control low-income women’s bodies." If the government wanted to help women find stability, she said, they would focus on education, health care, and job training. Saying the bill is "contradictory in so many ways," Pitts pointed out the inherent discrimination against gays and lesbians and the incongruence with welfare laws that privilege single-parent families.

As the director of Welfare Policy for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank in Washington, DC, Sharon Parrott was one of the first people to note that particular inconsistency. In a Jan. 31 policy paper, she pointed out that during legislative negotiations Republicans had backed off of earlier plans to eliminate rules that penalize married couples. This resulted in a strange contradiction in the bill: It earmarks unprecedented funding for marriage promotion, but also requires states to enforce newer, tighter work requirements for two-parent families on welfare. Those requirements are so strict that analysts like Parrott believe states that offer assistance to two-parent families will be penalized automatically — and might stop giving couples the same kind of help that’s currently available to single adults.

Parrott told us that the contradiction seems to be the result of complicated legislative rules dictating what can or cannot be included in a budget bill — rather than some intentional and nefarious plot to reduce welfare rolls. But she said that the contradiction shows that, "for all the lip service they’ve played to marriage, when it comes to helping poor two-parent families, they are not so committed."

She also pointed out that the fiscal 2007 budget proposal Bush sent to Congress Feb. 6 suggests upping the annual investment in marriage and fatherhood promotion to $250 million per year. *



Preserving affordable housing

It is a pity the San Francisco Bay Guardian published a narrow-minded article about the National Farm Workers Service Center ["Solidarity Never," 12/23/05].

Founded in 1966 by C ésar Ch ?

Bolivia’s ballot-box revolution


 The timid rays of the sun receded from the Bolivian tropical savannas, bathing the valleys and disappearing behind the Andean mountains, on the afternoon of Dec. 18. They seemed to foretell that the Bolivian schizophrenic "political culture" was dying. And it happened.

On that day, indigenous Bolivia came out of political anonymity. In a move unprecedented in Bolivian and Latin American democratic history, the great indigenous majority, previously excluded and subordinated, elected one of our own, using the power of responsible and conscientious votes.

An indigenous man, Evo Morales Ayma, is our president! Yes, the llama herder from the forgotten Orinoca village. The man who as a child survived by following sheep and llamas and eating the dried orange peels the truck drivers threw out on the roadside, who as a ragged boy "celebrated" his "joy of living" once in awhile with a dishful of hank’akipa (cornmeal soup); a Bolivian who was born on his mother’s skirts (not in a hospital) under the dim light of a homemade oil lamp; a man who, like many others, dreamed of one day attending a university and becoming a professional but learned that, because of the exclusionary political culture and abject poverty, those dreams were unattainable.

Evo learned the lessons of political leadership in the school of life while working with the unions in Chapare (the tropical province of Cochabamba where he emigrated with his parents because of dire poverty in the highlands). He was deeply moved and outraged when he learned one of the coca growers’ leaders had been burned alive by the military. Later on, the union would open his eyes, mind, and heart to understand the causes of poverty of the Bolivian people.

The Bolivian neoliberal elite, promoted by the United States, tried very hard to avoid and stop the democratic revolution of the indigenous people, but it was too late. The contained anger and outrage on the face of so much corruption and betrayal by the shameless traditional politicians had reached the limits. Now was the time. Indigenous movements, laborers, farmworkers, social organizations, professionals, intellectuals, students, women, day laborers and theunemployed got together, armed with voting ballots and voting booths, to start a democratic revolution.

Before today the Bolivian social movements were labeled as communist and anarchic, or as drug dealers and disrupters of order by the official national and international media. By now the world knows by the results that we Bolivians are not terrorists or drug dealers. We are only people who want to live, people capable of solving our own historic problems using the democratic tools of the game.

The sun shone bright on the morning of Dec. 19. It washed away 180 years of exclusionary darkness and subordination of the indigenous people of Bolivia.

Never again against us! Never again without us! All of us together make Bolivia! Our destiny calls us to work in unity on the multicolored fabric of our national identity!

 Jubenal Quispe

Quispe is a Bolivian lawyer and activist who accompanied a San Francisco Presbyterian Church delegation known as Joining Hands Against Hunger on a recent tour of Bolivia. Translated from the spanish by Nancy Gruel.

For more information see "Evo Presidente!"

Making a splash


"One, two, three, four – squeeze your butt, Paul! – seven, eight," coach Suzanne Baker says into the microphone, pacing the poolside deck and counting the beats to a techno remix of "Another One Bites the Dust."

The members of Tsunami Tsynchro are in the water doing leg splits in the air. The first time they try it, legs bash into heads. "OK, OK, I can fix this," says Baker. She has them add more space by pushing off each other’s shoulders with their feet. They practice the new move repeatedly. "Again. Under. Again. Under," Baker commands.

Tsunami Tsynchro is the country’s first – and right now, only – male synchronized swimming team. It grew out of the Tsunami Swim Team, a gay and lesbian masters team, started two years ago as a synchro team for gay men (though it now includes several women).

They practice twice a week, today holding their underwater positions with the help of empty milk containers. "The bottles force you to find your body mass," Baker explains as they work to mobilize their bodies. The team is preparing its technical routine, a 90-second display of its most difficult moves that will be performed at this summer’s Gay Games in Chicago, where Tsunami Tsynchro will compete for the first time, alongside all-women’s teams.

It will be a big summer for the team, but it could’ve been bigger. In August the XI Fédération Internationale de Natation World Masters Championships are coming to the United States for the second time ever, but the Tsunami team isn’t allowed to compete. When the Bay Area hosts the FINA Championships at the Stanford Aquatic Center, the nation’s first male synchro team will be just a Caltrain ride away from the bleachers, but a lot farther from being permitted into the pool.
Image problems

Synchronized swimming combines rigorous physical exertion with the demands of polished performance. During routines, swimmers can’t touch the pool’s walls or bottom at any time. They spend a good portion of each routine with their heads underwater and bodies vertical, being judged on how high their legs reach. Coach Baker compares performing a synchro routine to "having to race a 400 individual medley in swimming, holding your breath every third lap, and smiling the entire time."

Stephen Houghton comes to the team with a history of Iron Man competitions and a seven-day stage race across the Sahara desert. He says synchro is tougher, and credits his one advantage not to his years of endurance sports but rather to his ballet training as a kid. "It gave me flexibility, and the ability to count to eight. You’d be surprised how many men can’t count to eight."

Underwater, the swimmers have to do more than count and hold their breath; they also have to control their heart rate. "If you’re pumped up and excited, you burn up all your oxygen," says Stuart Hills, a brown belt in tae kwon do and a former competitive swimmer. "You have to get into a relaxation state."

Pool time can be perilous too. Complicated lifts can lead to injury – bloody and broken noses, for example, and one bad incident involving a knee splintering a set of goggles. But during the routines, the difficulty of the sport has to melt away from the performance. "It’s tough," Hills says, "but you’re supposed to make it look easy."

Image is key to synchro – in a couple of ways. On the one hand, swimmers are judged by the attitude they project during routines; on the other, they must fight the image problem that has hindered their sport’s mainstream acceptance.

Synchronized swimming is a sport almost defined by the mockeries made of it, including the classic Saturday Night Live skits involving a pair of male synchronized swimmers, one wearing floaties. You’re more likely to find synchro on Comedy Central – in movies ranging from Austin Powers to Mel Brooks’s History of the World: Part I – than on ESPN. That’s made Tsunami Tsynchro’s quest for acceptance all the more difficult.

"This is really the last area men haven’t been able to compete [in]," says Bob Wheeler, one of the team’s founding members. Unlike female-dominated sports such as figure skating and gymnastics, synchronized swimming has no male or mixed category. "You don’t have many young boys doing synchro," Baker notes, "so they don’t see a need to make a category yet."

Beyond gender bias, there are other barriers to creating male synchro teams. In general, new synchro teams are not started very often because it’s an expensive sport. The underwater speaker system cost the Tsunami team $3,000. Synchro teams also have fewer swimmers than most swim teams, yet they need more attention and more pool time to hone their routines, so each member must pay more in coaching and pool fees. And in order to develop and practice routines, all the team members must be present.

"This is in no way an individual sport," says Baker.

If new synchro teams are rare, new male synchro teams are even more elusive, the white tiger of aquatic sports. It’s not a sport in which men find it easy to participate. When Wheeler created his profile, he debated whether or not to put down synchronized swimming as one of his hobbies. As it turned out, Wheeler began dating Kurt Kleespies, a longtime swimmer, who’s now the newest member of the team.

Officially, men aren’t welcome under the sport’s highest guidelines. Though they are allowed to compete domestically under US Synchro rules, FINA, the worldwide governing body of aquatic sports, doesn’t allow men to compete at an international level.

"In theory," Baker admits, "women shouldn’t compete directly with men." At the Olympic level, she says, the rule makes sense since men have the capacity for greater strength. But at the masters level, she argues, the genders are much more evenly matched. Most women competing at the masters level have been longtime synchro swimmers. The men are almost all beginners. And when they’re starting out, she says, men face several significant barriers: "Women tend to be more flexible. Men are denser and therefore less buoyant. These guys are all trained swimmers…. They were sinkers from the get-go."
No men allowed

More than 8,000 international masters athletes will hit the Bay Area in August for the FINA championships in swimming, diving, water polo, and – for women only – synchronized swimming.

Because of the FINA rule, the World Masters Championships can’t allow men to compete. "We are all for people competing in whatever sport they want to compete," says Anne Cribbs, chair of the Bay Area Sports Organizing Committee and executive director of the FINA championships. She supports male participation in the sport if approved by FINA, but can’t permit it in international competition until it’s officially accepted.

Not so long ago, the rule seemed poised for change. "In 2000 I thought it might happen," says Don Kane, competition director for synchronized swimming at the World Masters. Five years ago a proposal was brought before the FINA General Conference to allow men to compete. It was passed by the FINA Congress, but then overruled by FINA president Mustapha Larfaoui, from Algeria, and FINA executive director Cornell Marculescu, from Romania, who cited a lack of male teams. Or, as Kane suggests, concerns by "male-dominated cultures."

The prospects for men competing internationally are not bright in the immediate future, Kane surmises. At the Athens Olympics, Larfaoui had the FINA rules changed so he could run for office again, and Kane doesn’t foresee the synchro rules changing under his command.

As for the Tsunamis, "we thought about registering as a female team and trying to pass as women," coach Baker jokes. She turns serious, though, saying, "These guys are doing a lot of hard work. They should be allowed to compete."

The team is hoping to put on an exhibition routine, though they’ll need FINA permission even for that. But Tsunami board member Brad Hise is optimistic about their chances, saying, "This is the Bay Area; men do things here that people don’t typically associate with us."

Synchro is a sport of physical challenge, artistic movement, jazzy music, gender conflict, and international cultural clashes. And one more thing, says Stevens: It’s also a sport of total surprise. "People disappear underwater, and you think, what will they do when they come up?"

In Melinda’s memory


On her very first day at Next Door, a homeless shelter that occupies a nondescript building on Polk Street, Yalaanda Ellsberry met Melinda Lindsey.

"This is my first time in a shelter," Elsberry told us recently. "And I’ve found a lot of people are very closed off." Lindsey, however, was open and friendly, and they became fast friends.

Ellsberry knew that early on Christmas Eve, Lindsey was scheduled to catch a bus to go visit relatives near Monterey. So she was surprised to see Lindsey still in bed when the overhead lights were switched on at 6:30 a.m. She shook her friend’s shoulders, trying to rouse her.

"For some reason, this particular time, I just knew to check for rigor mortis," Ellsberry said. When Lindsey’s hand moved in response, "I thought, good – get that thought out of your head, girl." But when she touched her friend’s forehead, it felt cool.

Word of Lindsey’s questionable condition spread across the fourth floor of the shelter quickly. But, said Ellsberry and other residents we interviewed, staff members were slow to react and basically left the residents to try to revive Lindsey on their own. The residents summoned a woman who was staying there who happened to be a registered nurse, and she began to perform CPR.

The nurse, who asked us not to print her name, said she was dismayed to find that none of the standard medical equipment was available – neither face masks for performing CPR nor the defibrillator paddles that can sometimes shock a person back to life after a heart attack.

Forty-three-year-old Lindsey, who had serious heart problems, was pronounced dead soon after the paramedics arrived. Her body lay on the floor, covered by a blanket, for close to two hours before being picked up by the coroner.

Several Next Door residents told us they were horrified by the shelter’s response to the emergency. The nurse said that neither of the staffers who were there "would attempt CPR. They didn’t even go anywhere near her."

Ken Reggio, executive director of Episcopal Community Services (ECS), which holds the city contract to run Next Door, said that based on everything he’s reviewed, the shelter handled Lindsey’s death just fine: "I think we had a client who was seriously ill and passed away in her sleep." He added that residents stepped in to perform CPR while a staffer phoned the paramedics, but that the shelter’s whole staff is "trained in CPR and capable of administering it."

But no matter what exactly happened on Dec. 24, Lindsey’s death has prompted some residents to band together and demand that Next Door improve its plans for dealing with medical emergencies. They have appealed to outside groups and city government for help, saying they want to be treated more humanely.

"My thing is," Ellsberry said, "I want to see a change."

.  .  .

Next Door – which used to be known by the catchy name Multi-Service Center North – is one of San Francisco’s largest homeless facilities. City officials often hold it up as a model program.

Today the shelter has room for 280 people, divided by gender, and a 30-bed "respite care" program, run in partnership with the Department of Public Health, that’s meant for homeless people with health problems. In the past couple of years, Next Door has been transformed into a longer-term shelter where residents can stay up to six months. That alone makes it more appealing than most city shelters, where beds are typically rotated every one to seven days.

Residents we interviewed said their main concern about Next Door is that it doesn’t seem equipped to handle medical emergencies. But they had significant gripes about aspects of everyday life at the shelter, including cleanliness and food. And their many and varied complaints had an underlying theme: that staffers often treat residents callously, as though they are something less than human – even when they’re dying.

"Workers here talk to us any kind of way because we’re homeless," said LaJuana Tucker, who has been living at Next Door for three months. She added that many of the people staying at Next Door are struggling with health issues but that staffers are not very understanding: "If [residents] aren’t feeling well and want to lie down, they give them a hard time."

The women we spoke with said the disparaging attitude was also apparent in the shelter’s response to Melinda Lindsey’s death.

Three days after her apparent heart attack, they told us, shelter director Linzie Coleman set up a "grief meeting." But the residents who attended say that before their grief was addressed in any way, Coleman emphasized that related complaints were to be handled internally and that residents should not take their concerns to people outside of the shelter hierarchy.

Coleman disputed their account, telling us she stopped by merely "to say that I had gotten their complaints and their complaints would be investigated."

She said first-aid kits and CPR masks are usually available throughout the shelter and just needed to be "replenished" and that staffers treat Next Door’s clientele with "dignity and respect."

"I’ve been here nine years and four months, and we’ve only had seven deaths at the shelter," she said. "And every one but this last one, the staff has done CPR."

.  .  .

Undeterred by what they say were efforts to silence them, in early January Next Door residents approached the Shelter Monitoring Committee, an oversight panel created by the Board of Supervisors, about Lindsey’s death. After taking verbal and written statements from several of them, the committee tried to gather more information from the shelter.

According to a Jan. 9 letter the committee sent to several city agencies, "We immediately contacted the Director to confirm details. Our representative was met with an unprofessional and demeaning attitude and a generally hostile response to his inquiry."

Coleman said she doesn’t understand the characterization of her response, but Diana Valentine, who chairs the Shelter Monitoring Committee, told us point blank, "We were treated very hostilely."

More important, she said that when members of her committee visited Next Door on Jan. 6, they found no first-aid kits or other medical equipment on the floors where most residents stay. When they asked staff people whether they’d been trained in CPR, she added, several said no. And in the short time since Lindsey’s death, the committee has received another complaint about a medical emergency at Next Door that "resulted in injury to the resident."

"There’s been no training, and there’s absolutely no first-aid supplies available – and this is weeks after this woman’s death," Valentine said. "We haven’t seen any changes, consequences, or accountability."

In its letter, the committee asked the Human Services Agency, the DPH, and ECS to launch inquiries into Lindsey’s death, Next Door’s general policies and conditions, and how city-funded shelters are supposed to respond to emergency situations.

Dariush Kayhan, director of Housing and Homeless Programs for the Human Services Agency, told us he’s waiting to see a final report from ECS on the Lindsey incident but that, at this point, the HSA has no reason to think anything improper occurred.

Regardless, Kayhan said, "we’re going to use what happened as a springboard," by asking the DPH to do a thorough review of the medical protocols, training, and equipment at each and every city shelter.

Evo presidente!


MEXICO CITY – Latin America’s estimated 60 million indigenous peoples are on the move, from Tijuana to Tierra del Fuego – but in dramatically distinct directions.

While Mexico’s profoundly Mayan Zapatista Army of National Liberation launches a vehement anti-electoral campaign, disusing the political class, eschewing power, and seeking to build autonomous alliances down below, Eva Morales, a 46-year-old acculturated Quechua Indian farm leader, will take power from the top when he is sworn in as the first Indian president of majority-Indian Bolivia.

Morales, recently snapped wearing his ratty old alpaca sweater during an audience with the king of Spain (to the enormous disdain of fashion-conscious diplomats everywhere), has also been photographed whispering in Fidel Castro’s ear, conducting an entourage of women leaders of his cocalero (coca-growers) federation wearing polleras (Indian skirts) through the streets of old Havana, and nuzzling Venezuela’s Hugo Ch?

Enforcing a hidden anti-eviction law


As the Board of Supervisors was in the process of approving a measure to require a public hearing before converting rental units into condominiums – a measure Mayor Gavin Newsom has shamefully pledged to veto – Sup. Chris Daly told his progressive colleagues they shouldn’t be cowed by accusations that they are against home-ownership opportunities.

He’s exactly right. The city’s building new condos at a rapid clip, with more than 9,000 for-sale units in the pipeline right now, while rental units are disappearing. It’s more fair to accuse Newsom and his allies of being hostile to renters than to somehow say progressives oppose home ownership.

In fact, as Daly pointed out Jan. 10, the city isn’t even using existing tools to help tenants.

Six months ago, the San Francisco Tenants Union and Sup. Aaron Peskin unearthed a 25-year-old city law that could prevent many future condo conversions. Section 1386 of the city’s subdivision code, approved in 1981, requires city planners to reject condo conversions in which evictions or steep rent hikes have been used to clear the building for sale.

The law is a bit outdated – it requires landlords to provide only a five-year history of building occupancy. The supervisors should amend it to allow city officials to consider how a building was cleared out of tenants, whenever that occurred, and if Newsom wants to be seen as anything more than a fan of evictions and a shill for speculators, he should direct planning officials to start aggressively enforcing the law’s provisions.

That’s just one step the supervisors can take to deal with a mayor who seems unwilling to take even modest steps to slow the flood of evictions and the loss of rental housing. Newsom insists smaller condo conversions – ones involving fewer than five units – shouldn’t even be subject to Planning Commission hearings because that august body needs to save its time and energy for larger land-use issues.

So tenant activists and Peskin are pursuing with the City Attorney’s Office the possibility of requiring public notice for all condo conversions, of any size, which would give tenant activists the ability to appeal those permits to the full Board of Supervisors. It’s a good idea: If the poor, overworked planners are too busy to protect rental housing, and the supervisors want to take on the job, it will be hard for Newsom to say no.

Bail out the schools – once


The San Francisco school-closure process has been about as bad as it possibly could be. Information about the potential closings came late out of the district office. The criteria for inclusion on the closure list were hard to understand – and harder to comprehend. The district kept parents out of the process until the very end and then restricted community input to a few moments at a series of crammed hearings. In many instances, representatives from the endangered schools had only 10 minutes to make their cases at last-minute hearings attended by only a few of the school board members.

And in the end, all that came out was a short-term solution to a very long-term, pressing problem.

It’s no surprise that the proposed closure list has very real problems – and that community leaders in the Western Addition and Bayview-Hunters Point, which would be the hardest hit neighborhoods, are outraged. Now the board, which, on Jan. 12, decided to put off making the decision, is scrambling to find a way to restore some degree of fairness and credibility to the process.

It’s an impossible task: After the mess of the past month, there’s simply no way to make a fair decision about school closures right now. And the way things are going in the district these days, it’s likely the exact same ugly and poorly thought-out process will take place next fall, and the year after, and the year after that.

It’s time to put a halt to the madness, for good. Mayor Gavin Newsom should drop his opposition to bailing out the schools; the city needs to step in and give the district the cash to stave off most of the closures for a year. But there has to be a condition: The school board and administration must undertake a real, credible, effective long-term planning effort, starting now, to determine how to handle declining enrollment in a fair and comprehensive fashion.

.  .  .

Just about everyone agrees that some San Francisco public schools have to close. The district is losing roughly 1,000 students a year, and has been since the early 1980s. But schools aren’t just buildings; they’re communities, they’re part of their neighborhoods – and closing them down is by definition going to be traumatic.

So at the very least, there needs to be some overall logic and educational policy behind the decisions. And right now that’s badly lacking. The main criteria for closures – declining enrollment and low test scores – virtually guarantee that low-income neighborhoods will be the hardest hit. And the proposed mergers would bring together two small, low-performing schools to make one larger school that will still have the same (or worse) issues.

There are all sorts of other alternatives. Could some of the most popular schools, the ones with huge waiting lists and stellar test scores, be expanded to take over empty space in under-enrolled schools? Would mergers between top schools and low-performing schools give low-income kids a better chance?

More important, how many schools will San Francisco need in 10 years, and where should they be located? Is there a way to phase some schools out without shutting them down altogether? Is there a way to promise parents who want their children to stay in the public schools that their schools – their communities – won’t be destroyed next year, or the year after?

If – and only if – the district is willing to commit to a credible planning process, with parents, teachers, community leaders, and someone from City Hall (perhaps a member of the Board of Supervisors) involved from the start, to create a facilities plan for the next decade, the supervisors and the mayor should look for the $5 million it would take to stave off most closures for this year. And if the city won’t do that, the District should look into using reserve funds to cover the gap. Sup. Ross Mirkarimi had the right line when he testified at the Jan. 12 school board meeting: The city should help the schools out – as long as the district can promise that this utter disaster of a process will never happen again.

True grits


Punk doesn’t get much more soulful – or outta hand – than Beth Ditto. After watching her tear up the stage at Bottom of the Hill, pulling her enraptured audience members up to dance and taking on "I Wanna Be Your Dog," I shouldn’t have been surprised to find myself chasing the Gossip vocalist down for a phone interview over the course of days, hooking up at the absolute last second. I, like all her other fans, wanna be led around on a leash by the baby-faced diva from Searcy, Ark.

On the line from Portland, Ore., late on a recent midweek evening, Ditto proves that she gives just as good phone as she does soul-stirring performance. Fresh from viewing The Exorcism of Emily Rose ("It was an advertisement for Gambutrol as much as it was an ad for the Catholic Church – they only said it every other sentence!"), Ditto is so winning, earthy, and outright fun in conversation you completely forget about the terrors that came with getting in touch with her in the first place. Runaround – what runaround? I’d much rather get the scoop on Ditto; guitarist Nathan Howdeshell, 26; and their new drummer, Hannah Blilie, 24 (Shoplifting).

"I’m such a grandma," the 24-year-old Ditto says disarmingly. "I’m no good after 11. I got my face off, my glasses on, bra’s off, and my tits are sagging."

SFBG: Were you into punk rock early on?

Beth Ditto: I really identified a lot with Mama Cass. I really like Wizard of Oz. My mom listened to Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd and my dad listened to a lot of Patsy Cline, Kool and the Gang, and the Bee Gees. And, of course, there was a lot of gospel music around. I was a choir kid.

SFBG: How did you come to riot grrrl?

BD: I was a feminist before I was a riot grrrl. I just hated so many things about the world, growing up, in elementary school, my stepdads, and I thought it was annoying how irresponsible they were. I got sick of that. I heard the word feminist, and I thought that’s what I am. I was 13. I did my seventh grade speech on Gloria Steinem.

SFBG: Now the Gossip are huge in the queer music community.

BD: I think the first time it dawned on me was a few months ago, when I realized that people are listening to Gossip records the way I used to listen to Bikini Kill and Need records. That’s crazy because now when I go out to a party, there’s at least one drunk girl who will stop me and talk about that.

SFBG: Do you feel any pressure?

BD: Those are my people. I feel more pressure from the music industry to be more straight-laced or be more thin or to be more toned down. The hardest part is definitely the pressure to be something I’m not.

SFBG: What about your fat activism – has that become more challenging?

BD: The bigger we get the more challenging it is. No pun intended. I think it is hard now because we’re dealing with people who have no fucking idea who Nomy Lamm is, people who have no idea what fat activism is. They don’t have a smidgen of an idea, which tells me they haven’t even dabbled in anything remotely punk or feminist or political. I have my shit figured out, and you realize you live in a bubble with people you think, or hope, have your back.

SFBG: Who turned out to be clueless, in your experience?

BD: People who do your makeup and hair at photo shoots, for fucking sure! Clueless! Not all of them but a lot of them! I can’t have someone do my makeup if they don’t know who I’m talking about if they ask me if I have any ideas and I can’t say, "Debbie Harry ’79" or "Divine the last scene in Female Trouble." If they look at me and say, "Who’s Divine …?" It doesn’t make you a bad person, but I don’t think you should be doing my makeup.

SFBG: What did you want to accomplish with Standing in the Way of Control?

BD: We had a goal of finishing it. We hadn’t put out a record since 2003. Our old drummer was busy all the time. It was obvious that her heart wasn’t in music anymore – she wanted to be a midwife, and she was in school all the time. We toured very seldomly, and we had to say no to all these things we wanted to do.

SFBG: Will you be touring now?

BD: That’s where I’ll be for the next year – on the road, in a van. I’m excited about the West Coast and Europe, but separately – I can definitely not do three months consecutively again. Time home is really important for me. My best friend just pointed out to me, "Beth, you need to be grounded." By grounded, she means being around all of my shoes instead of 10 pair. It drives me crazy. And all of my makeup. I need to be around all of my clothes. Leaving my sweetie [Freddie Fagula] is really hard.

SFBG: How many pairs of shoes do you have? That’s very Imelda-like.

BD: I know it is! I don’t know. Sometimes I’m afraid to know. I’m a high punk femme!

SFBG: Any good gossip?

BD: I burnt some oatmeal cookies. I cook with meat. I’m so meat-and-potatoes – I was raised so Southern. I make chicken and dumplings and cornbread and biscuits and gravy. When it comes to vegetarian things, I’m not a good cook, but I will sure eat the hell out of it.

I had this one person in a band say to me once – we were going out to eat somewhere – "Do you guys eat meat?" I said, "I’ll eat anything. I’ll eat dirt." And he turned around and looked at me and said, "Well, meat is murder." And I said, "No fucking shit! Just turn around and drive the car!" Like I didn’t live in Olympia for four years. "Oh, thanks, you’re really clueing me in." This particular person was just so self-righteous.

SFBG: What did you think of Walk the Line?

BD: Being Arkansan, my Aunt Mary picked cotton with Johnny Cash when they were kids. She used to say to my mom, "Well. He ain’t much. He just that old Cash boy."

Didja hear?


"Our mission is to make you dance & if yr not gonna dance, just stay at home," the Gossip once posted on the K Records Web site. But even if the best introduction to the Portland, Ore., blues punks is through their notoriously sweat-inducing live shows, two left feet needn’t deter anyone from checking out the trio. With three albums, two EPs, one live record, and a handful of singles, split releases, and compilation tracks to the band’s name, there are plenty of ways for wallflowers to enjoy the Gossip in the privacy of their own homes. Try these career-spanning highlights a greatest-hits mix that, even if public displays on the dance floor ain’t your thing, should get you busting moves in the bedroom mirror.


After 2000’s promising self-titled debut on K Records, Thats Not What I Heard offered the first hint that the Gossip’s gutbucket blues were more than just a vehicle for Beth Ditto to wail about her unquenchable sexual desire. Sure, there’s plenty of that "Where the Girls Are" and the gospel-queering "Swing Low" are irresistible testaments to graphic Sapphic expression but it’s "Bones," the story of a woman who offs her abusive husband then hits the road, that best captures their explosive energy.


"Put your hand up my skirt! Push it in, pull it out, make it hurt!" Ditto shouts. It’s the relentless hand claps as subtle as a barrage of open-handed bitch slaps and Gories-ripped riffs that truly turn this ode to, uh, digital love into their filthiest romp. Talk to the hand, girl!


With references to women workin’ hard for the money too hard for too little, that is and small towns full of even smaller minds, this rallying cry sets the Gossip’s slow-burning political fury ablaze. On "(Take Back) the Revolution," Ditto demands an overhaul in how people think about class, gender, and body image. "All you do is criticize my body, my hair, or the clothes I wear," she hollers at the haters. Certainly for many "kids stuck in a shitty small town," to whom Arkansas Heat is dedicated, it provides much-needed hope.


Movement‘s title doesn’t refer to artistic growth the band’s second album is essentially more of the same. But frantic, frug-worthy stompers like "Confess" prove that’s certainly not a bad thing. Then there’s the raucous "Fire/Sign," which comes off like Ditto’s ominous, don’t-go-there warning to a gay friend not to be wasting time on undeserving dudes. "Now Mary, what are you thinking?" she tsk-tsks, assuming her role as rock’s fag-haggiest soul mama.



These little-heard gems suggest that, like her band’s deceptively simple music, sometimes less can be best when it comes to Ditto’s voice. "Do you understand what a mess you’re making?" she calmly asks her thoughtless lover on the girl group<\d>inspired "Snake Appeal," letting the subtle, oh-no-you-didn’t tone in her voice provide a bigger eff-you than any bloozy bombast ever could.


Considering the dramatic depth of Ditto’s voice has always rivaled that of today’s finest dance divas, it’s surprising that it took the Gossip so long to get their asses to the discotheque. If only they’d do it more often: This Le Tigre remix upgrades an already superb dance-punk track into the sort of deeply uplifting anthem for which shedding your inhibitions along with some serious blood, sweat, and tears under the mirror ball is made. Now you too can dance for inspiration.

Third time’s a charm


It says so right there in the bio: A rock album that all others will be judged against this year was recorded in the same spot where Lionel Ritchie created "Dancing on the Ceiling."

Bear Creek Studios no longer has so much to answer for. To others, that name may conjure visions of an ex-Commodore tripping the light Astaire-style on some drywall. To me, it’s now known as the birthplace of Standing in the Way of Control (Kill Rock Stars).

In my household, up until now, the word on the Gossip has been that their recordings don’t catch the wildfire of their live shows. When Beth Ditto and company first toured the United States with Sleater-Kinney, Ditto was already hinting she could make punk’s great siren of the ’90s sound small, but you wouldn’t find proof in the pinched, monochromatic quality of the 2001 debut album, That’s Not What I Heard, on which each track largely resembled the one before or after it.

The first big hint of a difference came with 2003’s Movement. Some people think its songs aren’t as strong, but the first things I noticed were that the drums had more kick, Ditto’s voice didn’t sound like it had been shrunk by a cramped studio and crappy mic, and the ballad "Yesterday’s News" showed her blues were getting deeper and darker. C’mon, I thought. Bring it.

Then, early last fall, I walked from Bimbo’s 365 Club’s lush lobby into the main room and saw and heard the Gossip that you’ll find on their amazing new album. Ditto had ditched the swirl ’do and basic black fashions for shoulder-length straight hair and a striped, strapless dress. Together with guitarist Nathan Howdeshell and excellent new drummer Hannah Blilie, Ditto launched into what I now know is the title track, and it was obvious from the bumptious hooks and beats that the Gossip were communicating with post-punk disco’s rawest queer spirits, both alive (ESG) and dead (Arthur Russell). This was a band reborn.

Except "born again" doesn’t quite fit the Gossip, who’ve been true believers in a lot of great things like the power of a woman who says what she wants to say and does what she wants to do from day one of their life in the Arkansas swamplands. Strong enough to initially work over both Olympia labels that begin with a K, their guitar-drums-voice approach may have owed some spare change to the Spinanes, or come across as the fun flipside of Heavens to Betsy’s extreme angst, but when it first hit town, you best believe it scorched Fifth Avenue, Washington Street, and the heartless Martin.

Standing in the Way of Control isn’t rocket science just a recording by Guy Picciotto, of Fugazi, that finally captures the sweaty, untamed energy of Ditto and company in concert, letting you start your own dance party whenever and wherever. With a band this great this alive that’s no small feat. The strut of Ditto’s voice is lighter and there’s more snare happening in the rhythms. On "Listen Up!" a cowbell kicks in behind her as she schools children: "There’s some people that you just can’t trust … on the playground, you learn so much."

Ditto’s awesome voice is a source of pure energy and uplift there’s something wonderful about the way it acquires a razor’s edge as it reaches higher on a ferocious anthem like "Yr Mangled Heart." Yet while she sounds upbeat, her words on these songs are haunted. The title track’s stance of defiance amid the everyday-and-endless brainwash bullshit of the Bush era is typically stressed-out.

One song later, on the somewhat Romeo Void<\d>ish "Jealous Girls," Ditto’s wrestling with a feeling that kills girl love and doing so in way that goes beyond sloganeering she explores the pain of the emotion, and the paths that lead to and away from it, before tacking a declaration of independence ("No matter what the price, they can’t take me") to a chugga-chugga finale.

"Coal to Diamonds" could almost be a ballad by the Soul Queen of New Orleans, Irma Thomas from its empty nighttime atmosphere to its sudden, bereft ending. Even if the instrumentation doesn’t move beyond thrift-punk sparseness to include a string arrangement, Ditto is still more than equipped to carry the song on her own. One thing is for sure: There isn’t a more powerful or charismatic frontwoman frontperson in rock these days. Karen O? Please. Frankly, Ditto could teach most of today’s slick R&B ladies with the exception of Mary J. and Keyshia how to go rage as they race up and down the scales.

At the moment, the Gossip have 4,305 friends on MySpace. That number is about to grow. Listening to Standing in the Way of Control, I can only back up what one of those friends has to say: "It even got the little hair on the back of my neck dancin’."


With Numbers, Tussle, and Dynasty Handbag

Jan. 27, 9:30 p.m.

Bottom of the Hill

1233 17th St., SF


(415) 474-0365

Mystic ore


The roiling ghosts of mercury-tainted miners. Petrified Keebler elves. An entrance to Fingal’s Cave. The One Ring. These are the sorts of magical things any sensible, perhaps slightly stoned backpacker (or Rush fan) could hope to find in a glaciated valley called Mineral King, whose jagged dogwood- and spruce-steeped slopes lie at the southern tip of Sequoia National Park, in the Sierras. Marmots drunk on antifreeze are not. Nor, surely, is a squeaky gaggle of buxom, bleached-blond suburbanite moms gathered in a spirit circle for Sunday Campfire Worship, singing "He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands" and wiping $10 chicken salad sandwiches off their kids’ faces. Yet somehow, on a recent camping trip, the pickled vermin and swaying kumbaya-yas seemed to tie in perfectly with the region’s fool’s gold mythology.

 The sense of accomplishment once you turn off the "main" Mineral King road and into the region itself is overwhelming. Lone, half-starved prospectors in the 1870s used to journey for weeks to reach this ore-rich spot, and you can’t help admiring their greed. The valley now encompasses a loose collection of scattered campgrounds, half-constructed lodges, and broad-chested ranger stations covering 12,600 acres. The campgrounds are first-come, first pitch and, despite the torture of arrival, can fill up quickly with Gwen Stefani-blasting family reunions and that most ubiquitous of modern campground-dwellers, the Loud Nirvana Fan with Acoustic Guitar.

 Hiking is the main draw of Mineral King, and the hiking bible for the area, touted at all the local bookstores, is Day Hiking Sequoia, by Steve Sorensen. Do not buy this book. Although it tells you a lot about the area’s history, after five hours of wrestling with its skeletal mapping system, we eventually just gave up and got lost. (The best bet is to check in at the ranger stations and ask for more detailed directions.) We never made it to the fabled Mosquito Lakes or the treacherous Timber Gap, but we lunched under Mosquito Creek waterfalls, rolled in a zillion wildflowers, sniffed bear droppings on rounded slate outcrops, and picked up Casey, a pale monarch butterfly who hitched with us a couple miles. Most important, we went a whole day without seeing other people. It was heaven.

 Silver City has also undergone a recent plague of cable-chewing marmots, addicted to antifreeze highs. Visitors everywhere are warned ("Warning: Marmots!") to check under their hoods before driving off, potentially transferring dozens of tipsy little mammals out of their natural habitat and into the wilds of Metropolitan Los Angeles. Alas, we saw no neon-lipped marmots, nor entrances to Fingal’s Cave. But Mineral King was still a mythic trip.

Trip planner

Silver City Resort, on Mineral King Road, three miles west of the main ranger station. Open Memorial Day through October. 1-805-528-0730

Glamorous disease


 DO YOU LIKE  to celebrate Christmas? Do television commercials fill you with desire for the products advertised? Do you wear gender-appropriate clothing and hairstyles? Do you think everyone should have a job, get married, and have children? Have you ever laughed at someone for acting "weird"?

 If you answered yes to any of those questions, you might just be a neurotypical. The term, coined by autism and Asperger’s syndrome activists in the neurodiversity movement, is being used more and more within this community to describe the sort of person whose fixation on "normal" mental activity is tantamount to discrimination. As diagnoses of Asperger’s and autism skyrocket, especially among the most driven members of the scientific and arts communities, the idea that people whose minds work atypically are suffering from a terrible disease is starting to ring false. That’s why the non-neurotypicals are rebelling.

 At the Institute for the Study of the Neurologically Typical, a parody site that has lived since 1998 at, a pissed-off autistic writes about the spreading problem of normal personality, which is "a neurobiological disorder characterized by preoccupation with social concerns, delusions of superiority, and obsession with conformity."

 On Wikipedia you can find lists of famous people who have Asperger’s, including electronic music pioneer Gary Numan and Steven Spielberg. For anyone familiar with minority politics, it should be no surprise that there are also lists of people who might be non-neurotypical because they exhibit autistic traits. Bill Gates usually tops such lists. It reminds me of similar lists on queer rights Web sites, in which activists try to figure out which famous people might be gay.

 When BitTorrent programmer Bram Cohen came out last year as having Asperger’s, it was like a 1960s rock star saying he’d done LSD. His altered mental state became part of his allure, part of what inspires him to think creatively. Among the geekigentsia these days, you just aren’t glamorous unless you can lay claim to being a little obsessive-compulsive sometimes, or at least unable to engage in ordinary social interactions.

 In another era, non-neurotypicals would probably have been called eccentrics: notoriously weird but still lovable and socially useful. Nicola Tesla, who invented AC power and only ate food whose volume he had calculated before consuming it, would certainly have been one. Modernist poet Wallace Stevens, who wrote by dictating poems to his secretary at Hartford Insurance, would have been another. The novels of Charles Dickens are full of such characters. They’re weird but certainly not diseased, and they even have an honored place in their communities.

 Clearly, the neurodiversity movement is aiming at a similar kind of acceptance for autistics and Aspies. As someone who could hardly be accused of neurotypicality, I can’t say this isn’t a worthy goal. But there’s an important difference between celebrating eccentricity and glamorizing Asperger’s. Eccentricity describes a behavior, while Asperger’s is an identity.

 The non-neurotypicals may have taken the pathologizing sting out of the names for their conditions, but they’re still rallying around the words that doctors came up with to label them freaks. Even this strategy isn’t a bad one. I love it when epithets like queer become badges of pride; even better is when a term like hysterical, spawned by a sexist medical community hell-bent on suppressing women’s sexuality, gradually gets converted into a slang term for something that’s hilariously funny.

 But I must admit to a bit of a squicky feeling when people seek to define their entire identities in terms of one particular thing, whether that’s Asperger’s or femininity or being an alcoholic. I’m especially leery when that particular thing, in this case Asperger’s, becomes a kind of personality chic.

 The glamour of being non-neurotypical elides the very real issues people face when they suffer from full-blown neurological trauma. It also, in some sense, deprives people of the ability to take credit for their own behavior. Cohen’s considerable talent with the Python language becomes not a spectacular behavior but merely an outgrowth of being an Aspie. I guess what I’m saying is that I’d rather act eccentric than be non-neurotypical. The former lets me take responsibility for my weirdness, and the latter lets other people define me by it.

 Annalee Newitz ( is a surly media nerd who refuses to eat chocolate-covered garlic. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley’s weekly newspaper.