Film listings


Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Dennis Harvey, Lynn Rapoport, and Sara Maria Vizcarrondo. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock.


Adventures of Serial Buddies Self-description: “the first serial killer buddy comedy.” (1:31) 1000 Van Ness.

Barbara The titular figure (Nina Hoss) looks the very picture of blonde Teutonic ice princess when she arrives — exiled from better prospects by some unspecified, politically ill-advised conduct — in at a rural 1980 East German hospital far from East Berlin’s relative glamour. She’s a pill, too, stiffly formal in dealings with curious locals and fellow staff including the disarmingly rumpled, gently amorous chief physician Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld). Yet her stern prowess as a pediatric doctor is softened by atypically protective behavior toward teen Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), a frequent escapee from prison-like juvenile care facilities. Barbara has secrets, however, and her juggling personal, ethical, and Stasi-fearing priorities will force some uncomfortable choices. It is evidently the moment for German writer-director Christian Petzold to get international recognition after nearly 20 years of equally fine, terse, revealing work in both big-screen and broadcast media (much with Hoss as his prime on-screen collaborator). This intelligent, dispassionate, eventually moving character study isn’t necessarily his best. But it is a compelling introduction. (1:45) Embarcadero. (Harvey)

Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin and the Farm Midwives When Ina May Gaskin had her first child, the hospital doctor used forceps (against her wishes) and her baby was sequestered for 24 hours immediately after birth. “When they brought her to me, I thought she was someone else’s,” Gaskin recalls in Sara Lamm and Mary Wigmore’s documentary. Gaskin was understandably flummoxed that her first experience with the most natural act a female body can endure was as inhuman as the subject of an Eric Schlosser exposé. A few years later, she met Stephen Gaskin, a professor who became her second husband, and the man who’d go on to co-found the Farm, America’s largest intentional community, in 1971. On the Farm, women had children, and in those confines, far from the iron fist of insurance companies, Gaskin discovered midwifery as her calling. She recruited others, and dedicated herself to preserving an art that dwindles as the medical industry strives to treat women’s bodies like profit machines. Her message is intended for a larger audience than granola-eating moms-to-be: we’re losing touch with our bodies. Lamm and Wigmore bravely cram a handful of live births into the film; footage of a breech birth implies this doc could go on to be a useful teaching tool for others interested in midwifery. (1:33) Roxie. (Vizcarrondo)

Dead Man Down Noomi Rapace reunites with her Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009) director, Niels Arden Oplev, for this crime thriller co-starring Colin Farrell. (1:50) Presidio.

Emperor This ponderously old-fashioned historical drama focuses on the negotiations around Japan’s surrender after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While many on the Allied side want the nation’s “Supreme Commander” Emperor Hirohito to pay for war crimes with his life, experts like bilingual Gen. Bonners Fellers (Matthew Fox) argue that the transition to peace can be achieved not by punishing but using this “living god” to wean the population off its ideological fanaticism. Fellers must ultimately sway gruff General MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) to the wisdom of this approach, while personally preoccupied with finding the onetime exchange-student love (Kaori Momoi) denied him by cultural divisions and escalating war rhetoric. Covering (albeit from the U.S. side) more or less the same events as Aleksandr Sokurov’s 2005 The Sun, Peter Webber’s movie is very different from that flawed effort, but also a lot worse. The corny Romeo and Juliet romance, the simplistic approach to explaining Japan’s “ancient warrior tradition” and anything else (via dialogue routinely as flat as “Things in Japan are not black and white!”), plus Alex Heffes’ bombastic old-school orchestral score, are all as banal as can be. Even the reliable Jones offers little more than conventional crustiness — as opposed to the inspired kind he does in Lincoln. (1:46) Embarcadero. (Harvey)

Greedy Lying Bastards Longtime activist Craig Rosebraugh (a former spokesperson for radical groups the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front) makes his directorial debut with Greedy Lying Bastards, a doc that examines the climate-change denial movement. The briskly-paced film — narrated in first person by Rosebraugh, and jam-packed with interviews — begins with stories from homeowners devastated by recent Colorado wildfires, and visits a tribal community perched on Alaska’s eroding shores. But while it touches on global warming’s causes, and the phenomenon’s inevitable outcome (see also: 2006’s An Inconvenient Truth), the film’s particular focus is lobbyists who’ve built careers off distorting the facts, leading Tea Party rallies, and chuckling condescendingly at environmentalists on Fox News — and the fat cats who’re pulling the strings: the dreaded Koch brothers, ExxonMobil execs, and others. Rosebraugh owes a hefty stylistic debt to Michael Moore — right down to his film’s attention-grabbing title — and, like Moore’s films, Greedy Lying Bastards seems destined to reach audiences who already agree with its message. Still, it’s undeniably provocative. (1:30) Grand Lake, Metreon. (Eddy)

Harvest of Empire This feature spin-off from Juan Gonzalez’s classic nonfiction tome aims to temper anti-immigration hysteria with evidence that the primarily Latino populations conservatives are so afraid of were largely invited or driven here by exploitative US policies toward Latin America. Dutifully marching through countries on a case-by-case basis, Peter Getzels and Eduardo Lopez’s documentary covers our annexing much of a neighboring country (Mexico) and using its citizens as a “reserve labor force;” encouraging mainland immigration elsewhere to strengthen a colonial bond (Puerto Rico); covertly funding overthrow of progressive governments and/or supporting repressive ones, creating floods of political asylum-seekers (Guatemala, Cuba, Nicaragua, El Salvador); and so on and so forth. Our government’s policies were often justified in the name of “fighting the spread of Communism,” but usually had a more pragmatic basis in protecting US business interests. The movie also touches on NAFTA’s disastrous trickle-up effect on local economies (especially agricultural ones), and interviews a number of high achievers from immigrant families (ACLU chief Anthony Romero, Geraldo Rivera) as well as various activists and experts, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu, while sampling recent years’ inflammatory anti-immigrant rhetoric. There’s a lot of important information here, though one might wish it were packaged in a documentary with a less primitive, classroom-ready episodic structure and less informercial-y style. (1:30) Opera Plaza. (Harvey)

Like Someone in Love A student apparently moonlighting as an escort, Akiko (Rin Takanashi) doesn’t seem to like her night job, and likes even less the fact that she’s forced into seeing a client while the doting, oblivious grandmother she’s been avoiding waits for her at the train station. But upon arriving at the apartment of the john, she finds sociology professor Takashi (Tadashi Okuno) courtly and distracted, uninterested in getting her in bed even when she climbs into it of her own volition. Their “date” extends into the next day, introducing him to the possessive, suspicious boyfriend she’s having problems with (Ryo Kase), who mistakes the prof for her grandfather. As with Abbas Kiorostami’s first feature to be shot outside his native Iran — the extraordinary European coproduction Certified Copy (2010) — this Japan set second lets its protagonists first play at being having different identities, then teases us with the notion that they are, in fact, those other people. It’s also another talk fest that might seem a little too nothing-happening, too idle-intellectual gamesmanship at a casual first glance, but could also grow increasingly fascinating and profound with repeat viewings. (1:49) Opera Plaza. (Harvey)

Long Distance Revolutionary: A Journey with Mumia Abu-Jamal Or, almost everything you ever wanted to know about the guy who inspired all those “Free Mumia” rallies, though Abu-Jamal’s status as a cause célèbre has become somewhat less urgent since his death sentence — for killing a Philadelphia police officer in 1981 — was commuted to life without parole in 2012. Stephen Vittoria’s doc assembles an array of heavy hitters (Alice Walker, Giancarlo Esposito, Cornel West, Angela Davis, Emory Douglas) to discuss Abu-Jamal’s life, from his childhood in Philly’s housing projects, to his teenage political awakening with the Black Panthers, to his career as a popular radio journalist — aided equally by his passion for reporting and his mellifluous voice. Now, of course, he’s best-known for the influential, eloquent books he’s penned since his 1982 incarceration, and for the worldwide activists who’re either convinced of his innocence or believe he didn’t receive a fair trial (or both). All worthy of further investigation, but Long Distance Revolutionary is overlong, fawning, and relentlessly one-sided — ultimately, a tiresome combination. Director Vittoria in person at the film’s two screenings, Fri/8 at 6:30pm and Sat/9 at 3:30pm. (2:00) New Parkway. (Eddy)

Oz the Great and Powerful Sam Raimi directs James Franco, Michelle Williams, and Rachel Weisz in this fantasy that imagines the origin story of L. Frank Baum’s Emerald City-dwelling wizard. (2:07) Balboa, Cerrito, Presidio.

Three Worlds A trio of lives intersect after a tragedy in French director Catherine Corsini’s drama. (1:51) Four Star.


Amour Arriving in local theaters atop a tidal wave of critical hosannas, Amour now seeks to tempt popular acclaim — though actually liking this perfectly crafted, intensely depressing film (from Austrian director Michael Haneke) may be nigh impossible for most audience members. Eightysomething former music teachers Georges and Anne (the flawless Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) are living out their days in their spacious Paris apartment, going to classical concerts and enjoying the comfort of their relationship. Early in the film, someone tries to break into their flat — and the rest of Amour unfolds with a series of invasions, with Anne’s declining health the most distressing, though there are also unwanted visits from the couple’s only daughter (an appropriately self-involved Isabelle Huppert), an inept nurse who disrespects Anne and curses out Georges, and even a rogue pigeon that wanders in more than once. As Anne fades into a hollow, twisted, babbling version of her former self, Georges also becomes hollow and twisted, taking care of her while grimly awaiting the inevitable. Of course, the movie’s called Amour, so there’s some tenderness involved. But if you seek heartwarming hope and last-act uplift, look anywhere but here. (2:07) Elmwood, Opera Plaza, Smith Rafael. (Eddy)

Argo If you didn’t know the particulars of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, you won’t be an expert after Argo, but the film does a good job of capturing America’s fearful reaction to the events that followed it — particularly the hostage crisis at the US embassy in Tehran. Argo zeroes in on the fate of six embassy staffers who managed to escape the building and flee to the home of the sympathetic Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). Back in Washington, short-tempered CIA agents (including a top-notch Bryan Cranston) cast about for ways to rescue them. Enter Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directs), exfil specialist and father to a youngster wrapped up in the era’s sci-fi craze. While watching 1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes, Tony comes up with what Cranston’s character calls “the best bad idea we have:” the CIA will fund a phony Canadian movie production (corny, intergalactic, and titled Argo) and pretend the six are part of the crew, visiting Iran for a few days on a location shoot. Tony will sneak in, deliver the necessary fake-ID documents, and escort them out. Neither his superiors, nor the six in hiding, have much faith in the idea. (“Is this the part where we say, ‘It’s so crazy it just might work?'” someone asks, beating the cliché to the punch.) Argo never lets you forget that lives are at stake; every painstakingly forged form, every bluff past a checkpoint official increases the anxiety (to the point of being laid on a bit thick by the end). But though Affleck builds the needed suspense with gusto, Argo comes alive in its Hollywood scenes. As the show-biz veterans who mull over Tony’s plan with a mix of Tinseltown cynicism and patiotic duty, John Goodman and Alan Arkin practically burst with in-joke brio. I could have watched an entire movie just about those two. (2:00) Elmwood, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

Beautiful Creatures In the tiny South Carolina town of Gatlin, a teenage boy named Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich) finds himself dreaming about a girl he’s never met (Alice Englert), until she shows up at school one day with an oddly behaving tattoo on her wrist and the power to disrupt local weather patterns when she loses her temper. Thus begins Richard LaGravenese’s adaptation of the first installment in Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl’s four-book YA series the Caster Chronicles. The girl of Ethan’s dreams, Lena Duchannes, is the youngest member of a reclusive local family long suspected by the town’s inhabitants of performing witchcraft and otherwise being in league with Satan. They’re at least half right, though Lena and her relatives (among them Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson, and Emmy Rossum) prefer the term caster to witch, a slur inflicted on them by mortals. As for the diabolical part, casters are, it seems, slaves to essentialism: their coming-of-age rite at age 16 entails learning whether their true nature will turn them toward the forces of darkness or light. Lena’s special birthday, as it happens, is coming up, a circumstance complicating the romance that sparks between her and Ethan. Though the altitude is lower, and the sweeping pans of coniferous forests have been replaced by claustrophobic shots of swampland and live oaks draped with Spanish moss, comparisons to the Twilight franchise are inevitable. But while we’re not unfamiliar with the arc of a human teenage protagonist who is drawn into the orbit of an alluring supernatural and finds life forever changed, Beautiful Creatures‘ young lovers are more relatable, less annoying and creepy, and smaller targets for an SNL spoof. (2:04) SF Center. (Rapoport)

Dark Skies The Barretts are a suburban family stuck together with firm-enough glue of love and habit, even if they’re suffering from some unfortunately typical current problems: architect dad (Josh Hamilton) has been out of work for some time, mom’s (Keri Russell) own job isn’t going gangbusters, they’re mortgaged to the hilt, and the fiscal prognosis is not good. These issues are stressing their marriage, and that vibe is stressing their sons, a 13-year-old (Dakota Goya) and a 6-year-old (Kadan Rockett). So initially it seems somebody might be acting out when they begin experiencing nocturnal disturbances that could be chalked up to an intruder if there were any sign of forced entry. But soon the disturbances grow inexplicable by any normal standard, and it begins to seem they might be having unwelcome “visitors” of the evil-E.T. kind. Writer-director Scott Stewart’s prior features were breathless, ludicrous, FX-cluttered fantasy action films (2010’s Legion, 2011’s Priest); this goes in the opposite direction by carefully building atmosphere, character, and credibility while withholding spectacle for as long as possible. That’s an admirable approach, and Dark Skies duly holds attention — but one wishes the basic ideas were a little more original, and the payoff a little more substantial. (1:35) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Harvey)

Django Unchained Quentin Tarantino’s spaghetti western homage features a cameo by the original Django (Franco Nero, star of the 1966 film), and solid performances by a meticulously assembled cast, including Jamie Foxx as the titular former slave who becomes a badass bounty hunter under the tutelage of Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Waltz, who won an Oscar for playing the evil yet befuddlingly delightful Nazi Hans Landa in Tarantino’s 2009 Inglourious Basterds, is just as memorable (and here, you can feel good about liking him) as a quick-witted, quick-drawing wayward German dentist. There are no Nazis in Django, of course, but Tarantino’s taboo du jour (slavery) more than supplies motivation for the filmmaker’s favorite theme (revenge). Once Django joins forces with Schultz, the natural-born partners hatch a scheme to rescue Django’s still-enslaved wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), whose German-language skills are as unlikely as they are convenient. Along the way (and it’s a long way; the movie runs 165 minutes), they encounter a cruel plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose main passion is the offensive, shocking “sport” of “Mandingo fighting,” and his right-hand man, played by Tarantino muse Samuel L. Jackson in a transcendently scandalous performance. And amid all the violence and racist language and Foxx vengeance-making, there are many moments of screaming hilarity, as when a character with the Old South 101 name of Big Daddy (Don Johnson) argues with the posse he’s rounded up over the proper construction of vigilante hoods. It’s a classic Tarantino moment: pausing the action so characters can blather on about something trivial before an epic scene of violence. Mr. Pink would approve. (2:45) Elmwood, Metreon, New Parkway, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

Escape from Planet Earth (1:35) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.

56 Up The world may be going to shit, but some things can be relied upon, like Michael Apted’s beloved series that’s traced the lives of 14 disparate Brits every seven years since original BBC documentary 7 Up in 1964. More happily still, this latest installment finds nearly all the participants shuffling toward the end of middle-age in more settled and contented form than ever before. There are exceptions: Jackie is surrounded by health and financial woes; special-needs librarian Lynn has been hit hard by the economic downturn; everybody’s favorite undiagnosed mental case, the formerly homeless Neil, is never going to fully comfortable in his own skin or in too close proximity to others. But for the most part, life is good. Back after 28 years is Peter, who’d quit being filmed when his anti-Thatcher comments provoked “malicious” responses, even if he’s returned mostly to promote his successful folk trio the Good Intentions. Particularly admirable and evidently fulfilling is the path that’s been taken by Symon, the only person of color here. Raised in government care, he and his wife have by now fostered 65 children — with near-infinite love and generosity, from all appearances. If you’re new to the Up series, you’ll be best off doing a Netflix retrospective as preparation for this chapter, starting with 28 Up. (2:24) New Parkway. (Harvey)

The Gatekeepers Coming hard on the heels of The Law in These Parts, which gave a dispassionate forum to the lawmakers who’ve shaped — some might say in pretzel form — the military legal system that’s been applied by Israelis to Palestinians for decades, Dror Moreh’s documentary provides another key insiders’ viewpoint on that endless occupation. His interviewees are six former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s secret service. Their top-secret decisions shaped the nation’s attempts to control terrorist sects and attacks, as seen in a nearly half-century parade of news clips showing violence and negotiation on both sides. Unlike the subjects of Law, who spoke a cool, often evasive legalese to avoid any awkward ethical issues, these men are at times frankly — and surprisingly — doubtful about the wisdom of some individual decisions, let alone about the seemingly ever-receding prospect of a diplomatic peace. They even advocate for a two-state solution, an idea the government they served no longer seems seriously interested in advancing. The Gatekeepers is an important document that offers recent history examined head-on by the hitherto generally close-mouthed people who were in a prime position to direct its course. (1:37) Embarcadero. (Harvey)

A Good Day to Die Hard A Good Day to Die Hard did me wrong. How did I miss the signs? Badass daddy rescues son. Perps cover up ’80s era misdeeds. They’re in Russia&ldots;Die Hard has become Taken. All it needs is someone to kidnap Bonnie Bedelia or deflower Jai Courtney and the transformation will be complete. What’s more, A Good Day is so obviously made for export it’s almost not trying to court the American audience for which the franchise is a staple. In a desperate reach for brand loyalty director John Moore (2001’s Behind Enemy Lines) has loaded the film with slight allusions to McClane’s past adventures. The McClanes shoot the ceiling and litter the floor with glass. John escapes a helicopter by leaping into a skyscraper window from the outside. John’s ringtone plays “Ode to Joy.” The glib rejoinders are all there but they’re smeared by crap direction and odd pacing that gives ample time to military vehicles tumbling down the highway but absolutely no time for Bruce’s declarations of “I’m on VACATION!” Which may be just as well — it’s no “Yipee kay yay, motherfucker.” When Willis says that in A Good Day, all the love’s gone out of it. I guess every romance has to end. (1:37) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Vizcarrondo)

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga The ever-intrepid Werner Herzog, with co-director Dmitry Vasyukov, pursues his fascination with extreme landscapes by chronicling a year deep within the Siberian Taiga. True to form, he doesn’t spend much time in the 300-inhabitant town nestled amid “endless wilderness,” accessible only by helicopter or boat (and only during the warmer seasons); instead, he seeks the most isolated environment possible, venturing into the frozen forest with fur trappers who augment their passed-down-over-generations job skills with the occasional modern assist (chainsaws and snowmobiles are key). Gorgeous cinematography and a curious, respectful tone elevate Happy People from mere ethnographic-film status, though that’s essentially what it is, as it records the men carving canoes, bear-proofing their cabins, interacting with their dogs, and generally being incredibly self-reliant amid some of the most rugged conditions imaginable. And since it’s Herzog, you know there’ll be a few gently bizarre moments, as when a politician’s summer campaign cruise brings a musical revue to town, or the director himself refers to “vodka — vicious as jet fuel” in his trademark droll voice over. (1:34) Magick Lantern, Smith Rafael. (Eddy)

Identity Thief America is made up of asshole winners and nice guy losers — or at least that’s the thesis of Identity Thief, a comedy about a crying-clown credit card bandit (Melissa McCarthy) and the sweet sucker (Jason Bateman) she lures into her web of chaos. Bateman plays Sandy, a typical middle-class dude with a wife, two kids, and a third on the way. He’s always struggling to break even and just when it seems like his ship’s come in, Diana (McCarthy) jacks his identity — a crime that requires just five minutes in a dark room with Sandy’s social security number. Suddenly, his good name is contaminated with her prior arrests, drug-dealer entanglements, and mounting debt; it’s like the capitalist version of VD. But as the “kind of person who has no friends,” Diana is as tragic as she is comic, providing McCarthy an acting opportunity no one saw coming when she was dispensing romantic advice on The Gilmore Girls. Director Seth Gordon (2011’s Horrible Bosses) treats this comedy like an action movie — as breakneck as slapstick gets — and he relies so heavily on discomfort humor that the film doesn’t just prompt laughs, it pokes you in the ribs until you laugh, man, LAUGH! While Identity Thief has a few complex moments about how defeating “sticking it to the man” can be (mostly because only middle men get hurt), it’s mostly as subtle as a pratfall and just as (un-)rewarding. (1:25) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Vizcarrondo)

Jack the Giant Slayer (1:55) Balboa, Cerrito, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio.

The Jeffrey Dahmer Files Chris James Thompson’s The Jeffrey Dahmer Files, a documentary with narrative re-enactments, is savvy to the fact that lurid outrageousness never gets old. It also plays off the contrast between Dahmer’s gruesome crimes and his seemingly mild-mannered personality; as real-life Dahmer neighbor Pamela Bass recalls here, the Jeff she knew (“kinda friendly, but introverted,” Bass says) hardly seemed like a murdering cannibal. Though homicide detective Pat Kennedy and medical examiner Dr. Jeffrey Jentzen both share compelling details about the case, Bass’ participation is key. Not only did she have to deal with the revelation that she’d been living next to a killer (“I remember a stench, an odor”), she found herself surrounded by a media circus, harassed by gawkers, and blamed by strangers for “not doing anything.” Even after she’d moved, the stigma of having been Dahmer’s neighbor lingered — lending a different meaning to the phrase “serial-killer victim.” Essental viewing for true-crime fiends. (1:16) Roxie. (Eddy)

The Last Exorcism Part II When last we saw home-schooled rural Louisiana teen Nell (Ashley Bell), she had just given birth to a demon baby in an al fresco Satanic ritual that also saw the violent demise of her father and brother, not to mention the visiting preacher and film crew who’d hoped to debunk exorcisms by recording a fake one. (They were mistaken on many levels.) We meet her again now … about five minutes later, as a traumatized survivor placed in a New Orleans halfway house for girls in need of a “fresh start.” Encouraged to view her recent past as the handywork of cult fanatics rather than supernatural forces, she’s soon adjusting surprisingly well to independence, secular humanism, and life in the big city. But of course malevolent spirit “Abalam” isn’t done with her yet. This sequel eschews the original’s found-footage conceit, stoking up a goodly fire of more traditional atmospherics and scares, albeit at the cost of simplified character and plot arcs. As PG-13 horror goes, it’s quite creepy — even if the finale paints this series into a corner from which it will require considerable future writing ingenuity to avoid pure silliness. (1:28) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Harvey)

Life of Pi Several filmmakers including Alfonso Cuarón, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and M. Night Shyamalan had a crack at Yann Martel’s “unfilmable” novel over the last decade, without success. That turns out to have been a very good thing, since Ang Lee and scenarist David Magee have made probably the best movie possible from the material — arguably even an improvement on it. Framed as the adult protagonist’s (Irrfan Khan) lengthy reminiscence to an interested writer (Rafe Spall) it chronicles his youthful experience accompanying his family and animals from their just shuttered zoo on a cargo ship voyage from India to Canada. But a storm capsizes the vessel, stranding teenaged Pi (Suraj Sharma) on a lifeboat with a mini menagerie — albeit one swiftly reduced by the food chain in action to one Richard Parker, a whimsically named Bengal tiger. This uneasy forced cohabitation between Hindu vegetarian and instinctual carnivore is an object lesson in survival as well as a fable about the existence of God, among other things. Shot in 3D, the movie has plenty of enchanted, original imagery, though its outstanding technical accomplishment may lie more in the application of CGI (rather than stereoscopic photography) to something reasonably intelligent for a change. First-time actor Sharma is a natural, while his costar gives the most remarkable performance by a wild animal this side of Joaquin Phoenix in The Master. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s a charmed, lovely experience. (2:00) Elmwood, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

Lincoln Distinguished subject matter and an A+ production team (Steven Spielberg directing, Daniel Day-Lewis starring, Tony Kushner adapting Doris Kearns Goodwin, John Williams scoring every emotion juuust so) mean Lincoln delivers about what you’d expect: a compelling (if verbose), emotionally resonant (and somehow suspenseful) dramatization of President Lincoln’s push to get the 13th amendment passed before the start of his second term. America’s neck-deep in the Civil War, and Congress, though now without Southern representation, is profoundly divided on the issue of abolition. Spielberg recreates 1865 Washington as a vibrant, exciting place, albeit one filled with so many recognizable stars it’s almost distracting wondering who’ll pop up in the next scene: Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant! Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Lincoln! Lena Dunham’s shirtless boyfriend on Girls (Adam Driver) as a soldier! Most notable among the huge cast are John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, and a daffy James Spader as a trio of lobbyists; Sally Field as the troubled First Lady; and likely Oscar contenders Tommy Lee Jones (as winningly cranky Rep. Thaddeus Stevens) and Day-Lewis, who does a reliably great job of disappearing into his iconic role. (2:30) Metreon, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

Lore Set in Germany amid the violent, chaotic aftermath of World War II, Lore levels some brutally frank lessons on its young protagonist. Pretty, smart 14-year-old Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) is tasked with caring for her twin brothers, sister, and infant brother when her SS officer father (Hans-Jochen Wagner) and true-believer mother (Ursina Lardi) depart. Her seemingly hopeless mission is to get what’s left of her family across a topsy-turvy countryside to her grandmother’s house, a journey that’s less a fairy tale than a kind of inverted nightmare — yet another dystopic vision — as seen by children who must beg, barter, and scrounge to survive when they aren’t singing songs in praise of the Third Reich. Enter magnetic mystery man Thomas (Kai Malina), who offers Lore life lessons about the assumed enemy. Tarrying briefly to savor the sensual pleasure of a river bath or the beauty of a spring landscape, albeit one riddled with bodies, director and co-writer Cate Shortland rarely averts her eyes from the sexual and psychological dangers of her charges’ circumstances, making us not only care for her players but also imparting the dark magic of a world destroyed then born anew. (1:48) Embarcadero. (Chun)

No Long before the Arab Spring, a people’s revolution went down in Chile when a 1988 referendum toppled the country’s dictator, Augusto Pinochet, thanks in part to an ad exec who dared to sell the dream to his countrymen and women — using the relentlessly upbeat, cheesy language of a Pepsi Generation. In No‘s dramatization of this true story, ad man Rene Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal) is approached by the opposition to Pinochet’s regime to help them on their campaign to encourage Chile’s people to vote “no” to eight more years under the brutal strongman. Rene’s well-aware of the horrors of the dictatorship; not only are the disappeared common knowledge, his activist ex (Antonia Zegers) has been beaten and jailed with seeming regularity. Going up against his boss (Alfredo Castro), who’s overseeing the Pinochet campaign, Rene takes the brilliant tact in the opposition’s TV programs of selling hope — sound familiar? — promising “Chile, happiness is coming!” amid corny mimes, dancers, and the like. Director-producer Pablo Larrain turns out to be just as genius, shooting with a grainy U-matic ’80s video camera to match his footage with 1988 archival imagery, including the original TV spots, in this invigorating spiritual kin of both 2012’s Argo and 1997’s Wag the Dog. (1:50) Embarcadero. (Chun)

Phantom (1:37) 1000 Van Ness.

A Place at the Table Obesity gets all the concern-trolling headlines, but America’s hunger crisis is also very real — and the two are closely related to each other, as Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush’s sobering, informative documentary investigates. A Place at the Table assembles a mix of talking-head experts, celebrities (actor and longtime hunger activist Jeff Bridges; celebrity chef Tom Colicchio, who’s married to Silverbush), and (most compellingly) average folks dealing with “food insecurity:” a Philadelphia single mom who joins the Witnesses to Hunger advocacy project; a pastor in small-town Colorado who oversees his struggling community’s crucial food bank; the Mississippi elementary-school teacher who uses her own struggles with diabetes to educate her students about nutrition. The film digs into the problem’s root causes (one being a government that prefers to subsidize mega-farming corporations that produce ingredients used in processed food), and conveys its message with authentic urgency. (1:24) Opera Plaza. (Eddy)

Quartet Every year there’s at least one: the adorable-old-cootfest, usually British, that proves harmless and reassuring and lightly tear/laughter producing enough to convince a certain demographic that it’s safe to go to the movies again. The last months have seen two, both starring Maggie Smith (who’s also queen of that audience’s home viewing via Downton Abbey). Last year’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, in which Smith played a bitchy old spinster appalled to find herself in India, has already filled the slot. It was formulaic, cute, and sentimental, yes, but it also practiced more restraint than one expected. Now here’s Quartet, which is basically the same flower arrangement with quite a bit more dust on it. Smith plays a bitchy old spinster appalled to find herself forced into spending her twilight years at a home for the elderly. It’s not just any such home, however, but Beecham House, whose residents are retired professional musicians. Gingerly peeking out from her room after a few days’ retreat from public gaze, Smith’s Jean Horton — a famed English soprano — spies a roomful of codgers rolling their hips to Afropop in a dance class. “This is not a retirement home — this is a madhouse!” she pronounces. Oh, the shitty lines that lazy writers have long depended on Smith to make sparkle. Quartet is full of such bunk, adapted with loving fidelity, no doubt, from his own 1999 play by Ronald Harwood, who as a scenarist has done some good adaptations of other people’s work (2002’s The Pianist). But as a generator of original material for about a half-century, he’s mostly proven that it is possible to prosper that long while being in entirely the wrong half-century. Making his directorial debut: 75-year-old Dustin Hoffman, which ought to have yielded a more interesting final product. But with its workmanlike gloss and head-on take on the script’s very predictable beats, Quartet could as well have been directed by any BBC veteran of no particular distinction. (1:38) Clay, Marina, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

Safe Haven Over a decade and a half, as one Nicholas Sparks novel after another has hit the shelves and inexorably been adapted for the big screen, we’ve come to expect a certain kind of end product: a romantic drama that manages, in its treacly messaging and relentless arc toward emotional resonance, to give us second thoughts about the redemptive power of love. The latest, Safe Haven, directed by Lasse Hallström (2011’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, 1993’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape), follows the formula fairly dutifully. Julianne Hough (2012’s Rock of Ages) plays Katie, a Boston woman on the run from the kind of terrifying event that causes a person to dye their hair platinum blond and board a Greyhound in the middle of the night, a trauma whose details are doled out to us in a series of flashbacks. Winding up in a small coastal town in North Carolina, she meets handsome widower and father of two Alex (Josh Duhamel), who runs the local general store and takes a shine to the unfriendly new girl. Viewers of last year’s Sparks adaptation The Lucky One will find some familiar elements (the healing balm of a good man’s love, cloying usage of the paranormal), as will viewers of 1991’s Sleeping with the Enemy, another film that presents the fantasy of a fresh start in Smalltown, U.S.A. (1:55) SF Center. (Rapoport)

Side Effects Though on the surface Channing Tatum appears to be his current muse, Steven Soderbergh seems to have gotten his smart, topical groove back, the one that spurred him to kick off his feature filmmaking career with the on-point Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989) and went missing with the fun, featherweight Ocean’s franchise. (Alas, he’s been making claims that Side Effects will be his last feature film.) Here, trendy designer antidepressants are the draw — mixed with the heady intoxicants of a murder mystery with a nice hard twist that would have intrigued either Hitchcock or Chabrol. As Side Effects opens, the waifish Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), whose inside-trading hubby (Tatum) has just been released from prison, looks like a big-eyed little basket of nerves ready to combust — internally, it seems, when she drives her car into a wall. Therapist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who begins to treat her after her hospital stay, seems to care about her, but nevertheless reflexively prescribes the latest anti-anxiety med of the day, on the advice of her former doctor (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Where does his responsibility for Emily’s subsequent actions begin and end? Soderbergh and his very able cast fill out the issues admirably, with the urgency that was missing from the more clinical Contagion (2011) and the, ahem, meaty intelligence that was lacking in all but the more ingenious strip scenes of last year’s Magic Mike. (1:30) Four Star, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

Silver Linings Playbook After guiding two actors to Best Supporting Oscars in 2010’s The Fighter, director David O. Russell returns (adapting his script from Matthew Quick’s novel) with another darkly comedic film about a complicated family that will probably earn some gold of its own. Though he’s obviously not ready to face the outside world, Pat (Bradley Cooper) checks out of the state institution he’s been court-ordered to spend eight months in after displaying some serious anger-management issues. He moves home with his football-obsessed father (Robert De Niro) and worrywart mother (Jacki Weaver of 2010’s Animal Kingdom), where he plunges into a plan to win back his estranged wife. Cooper plays Pat as a man vibrating with troubled energy — always in danger of flying into a rage, even as he pursues his forced-upbeat “silver linings” philosophy. But the movie belongs to Jennifer Lawrence, who proves the chops she showcased (pre-Hunger Games megafame) in 2010’s Winter’s Bone were no fluke. As the damaged-but-determined Tiffany, she’s the left-field element that jolts Pat out of his crazytown funk; she’s also the only reason Playbook‘s dance-competition subplot doesn’t feel eye-rollingly clichéd. The film’s not perfect, but Lawrence’s layered performance — emotional, demanding, bitchy, tough-yet-secretly-tender — damn near is. (2:01) Four Star, Marina, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

Snitch (1:35) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.

The Sweeney Based on the 1970s British TV series, Nick Love’s action drama is bolstered enormously by Ray Winstone’s snarling-bulldog lead performance. He plays skull-cracking cop Regan, head of an elite unit that has relied upon freely violent, rule-bending methods to bust many an in-progress armed robbery. As his worried boss (Homeland‘s Damian Lewis) warns, internal affairs has taken an interest in Regan’s activites, and the situation isn’t helped by the fact that Regan is having an affair with a comely co-worker (Hayley Atwell) who is married to IA’s prick-in-chief (Steven Mackintosh). When a Serbian assassin enters the picture and monkey-wrenches Regan’s career, love life, and tenuously calibrated moral compass, all hell predictably breaks loose. Shot in moody, London-appropriate gray and blue monochrome, and featuring bravura set pieces (a shootout in Trafalgar Square) and a supporting cast that includes rapper Ben Drew (a.k.a. Plan B) and Downtown Abbey‘s Allen Leech, The Sweeney doesn’t surprise much with its beat-by-beat plot. But it’s enjoyable — maybe not enough to travel to Antioch (its only local theatrical opening) to see it, but worth a look on its simultaneous VOD release. (1:52) AMC Deer Valley. (Eddy)

21 and Over (1:33) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.

Warm Bodies A decade and a half of torrid, tormented vampire-human entanglements has left us accustomed to rooting for romances involving the undead and the still-alive. Some might argue, however, that no amount of pop-cultural prepping could be sufficient to get us behind a human-zombie love story for the ages. Is guzzling human blood really measurably less gross than making a meal of someone’s brains and other body parts? Somehow, yes. Recognizing this perceptual hurdle, writer-director Jonathan Levine (2011’s 50/50, 2008’s The Wackness) secures our sympathies at the outset of Warm Bodies by situating us inside the surprisingly active brain of the film’s zombie protagonist. Zombies, it turns out, have internal monologues. R (Nicholas Hoult) can only remember the first letter of his former name, but as he shambles and shuffles and slumps his way through the terminals of a postapocalyptic airport overrun by his fellow corpses (as they’re called by the film’s human population), he fills us in as best he can on the global catastrophe that’s occurred and his own ensuing existential crisis. By the time he meets not-so-cute with Julie (Teresa Palmer), a young woman whose father (John Malkovich) is commander-in-chief of the human survivors living in a walled-off city center, we’ve learned that he collects vinyl, that he has a zombie best friend, and that he doesn’t want to be like this. We may still be flinching at the thought of his and Julie’s first kiss, but we’re also kind of rooting for him. The plot gapes in places, where a tenuous logic gets trampled and gives way, but Levine’s script, adapted from a novel by Isaac Marion, is full of funny riffs on the zombie condition, which Hoult invests with a comic sweetness as his character staggers toward the land of the living. (1:37) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Rapoport)

Zero Dark Thirty The extent to which torture was actually used in the hunt for Osama Bin Ladin may never be known, though popular opinion will surely be shaped by this film, as it’s produced with the same kind of “realness” that made Kathryn Bigelow’s previous film, the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker (2008), so potent. Zero Dark Thirty incorporates torture early in its chronology — which begins in 2003, after a brief opening that captures the terror of September 11, 2001 using only 911 phone calls — but the practice is discarded after 2008, a sea-change year marked by the sight of Obama on TV insisting that “America does not torture.” (The “any more” goes unspoken.) Most of Zero Dark Thirty is set in Pakistan and/or “CIA black sites” in undisclosed locations; it’s a suspenseful procedural that manages to make well-documented events (the July 2005 London bombings; the September 2008 Islamabad Marriott Hotel bombing) seem shocking and unexpected. Even the raid on Bin Ladin’s HQ is nail-bitingly intense. The film immerses the viewer in the clandestine world, tossing out abbreviations (“KSM” for al-Qaeda bigwig Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) and jargon (“tradecraft”) without pausing for a breath. It is thrilling, emotional, engrossing — the smartest, most tightly-constructed action film of the year. At the center of it all: a character allegedly based on a real person whose actual identity is kept top-secret by necessity. She’s interpreted here in the form of a steely CIA operative named Maya, played to likely Oscar-winning perfection by Jessica Chastain. No matter the film’s divisive subject matter, there’s no denying that this is a powerful performance. “Washington says she’s a killer,” a character remarks after meeting this seemingly delicate creature, and he’s proven right long before Bin Ladin goes down. Some critics have argued that character is underdeveloped, but anyone who says that isn’t watching closely enough. Maya may not be given a traditional backstory, but there’s plenty of interior life there, and it comes through in quick, vulnerable flashes — leading up to the payoff of the film’s devastating final shot. (2:39) 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)


Will it fly? Drones in Alameda County and (almost) San Francisco

During what one official called the “show-and-tell” portion of a public hearing held yesterday by a committee of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, a representative from the Sheriff’s Office held up a drone so the crowd of 100 or so attendees could have a look. The small, lightweight device consisted of a plastic box to house technical equipment, a camera, and four spidery legs affixed with tiny black propellers.

“It’s cuute!” someone exclaimed. But that was likely a sarcastic wisecrack – concerned citizens had packed the board chambers in hopes of convincing the two-person Public Protection Committee that the civil liberties implications of surveillance drones were too great to justify flying them over Oakland and other cities. 

Last summer, Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern submitted a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) grant request for an “unmanned aircraft system” (UAS), police-speak for drone. The agency intends to purchase one or two, depending on the manufacturer, for uses ranging from thermal imagery to crime detection.

The Sheriff now seeks supervisors’ approval, and is working to secure a Certificate of Authorization (COA) from the Federal Aviation Administration, required for aircraft flown at 400 feet. But the Sheriff’s plan has been met with strong resistance from civil liberties advocates worried that drones would open the gates to aerial surveillance and runaway data collection.

Concerns revolve around surveillance

Representatives from the Northern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the grassroots Alameda County Against Drones voiced myriad concerns about what they viewed as flimsy privacy protections put forward by the department. “The potential concerns with drones are too great to justify any use of drones at all in Alameda County,” said Nadia Kayyali of Alameda County Against Drones.

In turn, Sheriff representatives sought to defend its plan to use the devices, at one point practically asking critics to think of the children.

“We get several hundred calls a year for search and rescue, and deployment of our teams, to find lost children, lost hikers, or elderly persons,” Capt. Tom Madigan explained, and his co-presenter even referenced the case of famed kidnap victim Jaycee Dugard as a possible scenario where a drone could have been deployed. Commander Tom Wright assured supervisors that the drones would not be equipped with weapons, and stated that UAS devices would “not be used for indiscriminate mass surveillance.”

Yet the use of drones for surveillance and intelligence gathering lies at the heart of the controversy. “Data collected in the name of search and rescue could be retained for intelligence gathering and analysis,” ACLU staff attorney Linda Lye warned in comments delivered to the Public Protection Committee. “In conjunction with other existing policies, this would lead to the submission of UAS-collected data to the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, also known as a ‘fusion center,’ where data – in some instances, about constitutionally protected activity –are stockpiled and analyzed in the name of so-called terrorism prevention.”

According to documents obtained by EFF and MuckRock News, the Sheriff’s Office indicated in its grant request that the unmanned aircraft could be used for “surveillance (investigative and tactical),” “intelligence gathering,” “suspicious persons” or “large crowd control disturbances,” the latter bringing to mind street clashes that flared up in downtown Oakland in 2011 when riot police sought to crush protests organized under the banner of Occupy Oakland. 

If the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department obtains drones, the unmanned aircraft could be deployed anywhere from Monterey to the Oregon border, Madigan noted, if regional law enforcement agencies determined that emergency circumstances warranted jurisdictional waivers.

Technology advancing

Unlike helicopters, drones can gather high-resolution footage and other kinds of data without detection, transmitting live video feed to a command post for real-time viewing. While the Sheriff’s Department is eyeing drones that travel a quarter of a mile from base with a 25-minute flight time capacity, the technology is advancing quickly. It’s technically possible for drones to be equipped with facial recognition technology, radar, or license-plate readers.

Those growing capabilities are part of the reason civil liberties advocates are so focused on hammering out strong privacy safeguards. “We’re wading into uncharted waters here,” Lye cautioned, noting that any privacy safeguards established for these drones would apply to more advanced models down the line. “We have to bake in the privacy safeguards into this template.”

The Alameda County Board of Supervisors held off on approving a drone purchase by the Sheriff Department late last year when faced with controversy. It was originally included as an agenda item before any public meeting had been scheduled, but was later removed after civil liberties advocates intervened. At a December meeting, Undersheriff Richard Lucia told supervisors that including drone approval on the agenda had been “an oversight.”

If Alameda County obtains a drone, it will be the first California law enforcement agency to do so. Several other cities are proceeding cautiously: Last week, for example, Mayor Mike McGinn of Seattle canceled a drone program amid heated controversy.

San Francisco also sought a drone 

Meanwhile, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department is not the only Bay Area law enforcement agency eyeing unmanned aircraft devices. According to a document unearthed by an EFF and MuckRock News, the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) submitted a $100,000 funding request to the Bay Area Urban Areas Security Initiative for a “remote pilot video camera,” basically a drone, that could be outfitted to “transmit real-time, geo-coded data to command centers.” The SFPD initially hoped to clear the FAA approval process by June of 2013, according to the document. However, its funding request was rejected. (It is unclear why San Francisco’s funding request for a drone was more than three times the funding request submitted by Alameda County.)

The grant request form notes that Lieutenant Thomas Feledy of the SFPD’s Homeland Security Unit sought funding for “the deployment of mobile compact video cameras in the visual and infrared spectrum … to provide live overhead views of critical infrastructure” in the event of a terrorist attack or natural disaster.

“It was rejected,” Officer Albie Esparza told the Guardian when we called SFPD media relations to ask about it. “And we have no plans of getting a drone.”

The Cal GOP thinks the ACLU is “communist.”


It’s not a surprise that the California Republican Party is, ahem, a bit out of step with the mainstream of the state (you see a lot of Repubs holding statewide office right now? I don’t.) And of course a San Francisco woman of color who isn’t a complete right-wing loon is going to have trouble running for a state party office. But what made the Chron’s story on Harmeet Dhillon so amazing was this:

“This is not a personal attack against Harmeet,” Celeste Greig, president of the California Republican Assembly, said Tuesday. “The ACLU is a communist organization. Do we want somebody who is a member of a communist organization that has sued religious organizations numerous times because they don’t like the cross and the Menorah” displayed on public property, Greig said, in explaining why she considers the ACLU – which has no official political affiliation – to be communist.

Gawd, we don’t get to see that kind of red-baiting much any more. I used to get called a commie all the time; back in the 1980s, there really were some communists around, too. You’d see the RCP at rallies and events, and the CPUSA was still marginally functional, and there were Trots and Maoists and it was all very interesting, sorting them all out.

But outside of Cuba, there really aren’t a lot of old-fashioned commies left. I miss them; nobody could give a four-hour stemwinder of a rhetorical speech like a commie leader. In the old days of the RCP, if you got accused of violating party discipline, you were sentenced to re-read “Combatting Liberalism,” which was kind of like having a Catholic priest sentence you to saying ten Hail Marys for masturbating.

There aren’t any communists at the ALCU; maybe once upon a time, but the left in America has moved way beyond that (oh, and the real commies never liked the ACLU — they were never big on freedom of speech or the press.) Now we’ve got ten brands of anarchists, and a wide range of socialist types, and Greens, and progressives, and a whole lot of others with various ranges of economic critiques and analyses and social platforms, many of which I heartily endorse. But the commies have largely faded away. You’d think the GOP folks would know their enemies a little better.

Police gear up for round two on Tasers

On February 4, the San Francisco Police Commission will hold the second of three planned community meetings to gauge support for a pilot program to arm 100 SFPD officers with Tasers. The controversial proposal pits police Chief Greg Suhr, a proponent, against civil liberties organizations and homeless advocates who are mobilizing public opposition to the Taser initiative. 

Shortly after being appointed police chief in 2011, Suhr said arming the SFPD with Tasers would not be a top priority. But following the police shooting of a mentally ill man last July, Suhr has pushed the Police Commission to allow members of the cities Crisis Intervention Team (CIT)—who receive special training to deal with the mentally ill—to carry Tasers.

Since the shooting, Suhr has repeatedly argued that Tasers would help save lives and reduce instances of gun use. “You do have to have as many tools in the tool box before you go to guns,” he said at the first community forum.

The ACLU and local homeless advocates disagree.

“Every time there is an officer-involved shooting, the department uses it as an excuse to outfit officers with Tasers,” ACLU attorney Micaela Davis told the Guardian. “We continue to believe that Tasers are not a good alternative to firearms and we fear that officers run the risk of going to Tasers too early in a confrontation instead of using de-escalation techniques.”

Equipping CIT officers with Tasers would inject the controversial stun guns into already tense confrontations between the mentally ill and the SFPD.

Lisa Marie Alatorre, an organizer with the San Francisco Homelessness Coalition, argues Tasers could have a devastating effect on the city’s homeless population. “The CIT typically deals with people in crisis, people who are mentally ill, and people who are currently destitute and have nowhere to live,” she told the Guardian. “The use of Tasers in the midst of a crisis will cause severe trauma and could inflict significant psychological damage.”

Both the Coalition on Homelessness and the ACLU charge that the SFPD has dragged its feet in implementing the nonviolent components of the CIT program. Less than 75 officers have been trained in nonviolent confrontational strategies since the program’s adoption last summer, and Alatorre charges SFPD has yet to implement protocols that would bring the program to fruition.

Police Commissioner Angela Chan, a longtime proponent of the CIT program, echoed these concerns. “We need to improve our de-escalation tactics with regards to crisis intervention. Many of the steps to train and implement CIT have not yet been implemented and that’s where we need to focus our energies,” she told the Guardian.

Despite strong local opposition to Tasers, they are becoming standard equipment for police departments across the nation. SFPD officers are hopeful that public opposition does not kill this pilot program, like similar attempts before it.

Sgt. Michael Andraychak, a spokesperson with the SFPD, argued that equipping CIT officers with Tasers would give police more flexibility to use force without engaging their firearms.

“On the street, not every situation can be managed in a nonviolent fashion,” he told the Guardian. “CIT is a great program, and the implementation of Tasers would give those officers an additional tool to use before they have to escalate to deadly force.”

Police commissioners will make a final decision about Tasers after the third community meeting, which is scheduled for Feb. 11 at the Bayview Opera House.

The next community forum on the SFPD Taser pilot program will be held on Feb. 4 from 6-8pm at the Scottish Rite Center, 2850 19th Ave, in SF.  

Oakland to decide on controversial stop-and-frisk advocate Bill Bratton

On Tuesday, Oakland City Council will consider approving a $250,000 contract for an outside security consulting team, which could include controversial roving police chief and private security contractor William Bratton. With Oakland’s understaffed police department facing a 23 percent rise in violent crime over the past year, the Council’s Public Safety Committee unanimously recommended last week that the full Council approve a new round of funding for Boston-based police consultant Strategic Policy Partnership LLC. The firm intends to bring on Bratton as part of a new team of private policing experts to advise OPD.

At the five-hour Public Safety Committee meeting on Jan. 15, Oakland activists crowded into the chamber to voice concerns that Bratton—a nationally known proponent of “zero tolerance” policing and New York City’s extremely controversial stop-and-frisk policy—would be tapped as a member of the consulting team. Pressure from the community prompted committee members to tack on a provision suggesting that an alternative to Bratton be considered in the final contract.

Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and Police Chief Howard Jordan both voiced enthusiastic support for Bratton’s appointment.  In a letter sent last Wednesday urging the Council to approve the contract, Quan wrote: “Bratton is uniquely suited to helping us perfect how that system works here.” She went on to promise that racial profiling would not be tolerated in Oakland.

Oakland attorney Dan Siegel, a former legal advisor to Quan, expressed dismay over Bratton’s possible consultancy to a lively group of protesters outside last Tuesday’s meeting. “Stop-and-frisk does not work,” he said. “Bratton is exactly what we do not need in the city of Oakland.”

Although Bratton did not attend last Tuesday’s meeting, he has publicly expressed interest in working in Oakland, despite the vocal opposition.  “I’m still very desirous of working in Oakland … I think the assistance that I can provide will be of value to the city,” Bratton told the Oakland Tribune following Wednesday’s protests.

From Boston, to Los Angeles, to New York, Bratton has implemented and championed a controversial mix of anti-crime measures, making him one of the nation’s most divisive and visible law enforcement officials. 

Lauded by supporters as America’s “Top Cop,” he has twice served as president of the influential Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), which was responsible for coordinating a police response to the Occupy Wall Street Movement. He also serves as vice chair of the Homeland Security Advisory Council.

Serving as police chief in New York from 1994 to 1996 and Los Angeles from 2002 to 2009, Bratton built a national reputation as an outspoken proponent of stop-and-frisk, a tactic often linked with racial profiling. According to data compiled by the New York ACLU, the procedure disproportionally targets black and Latino residents. Earlier this month, a U.S. District Court Judge in New York deemed stop-and-frisk to be unconstitutional and issued an injunction limiting the policy in the Bronx. In July, when San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee suggested exploring stop-and-frisk in San Francisco, local civil liberties advocates balked.

Bratton is also an unabashed supporter of zero-tolerance policing, a method that stems from the “broken-windows theory” and encourages police to make arrests for minor infractions such as graffiti, litter, panhandling, prostitution or other petty offenses which are presumed to create an environment that breeds serious crime.

Bratton’s controversial tactics have been credited with reducing crime rates during his tenure in New York and Los Angeles. His work to diversify the LAPD and build closer ties between police and the community also drew praise from the Los Angeles chapter of the ACLU.

But in Oakland, local police reform advocates question the long-term efficacy of Bratton’s methods.

Rachel Herzing, co-director of Oakland-based Critical Resistance, an advocacy group that is part of a coalition of local organizations mobilizing against Bratton, charges that he deals in “quick fixes.” In the long run, she argues, his methods do not reduce crime but rather relocate it.

Bratton’s “all cops, no services approach does not work anywhere, and will not work in Oakland,” Herzing told the Guardian. “The aggressive sweeps Bratton is known for in New York ultimately just displace people, and drive them away from essential services. [These tactics] aren’t appropriate policing responses.”

The public outcry at last Tuesday’s Public Safety Committee meeting drew responses from new Council members Lynette Gibson McElhaney and Dan Kalb. McElhaney, whose District 3 includes some of the city’s lower-income neighborhoods plagued with high crime rates, told colleagues that Bratton may come with “too much baggage.” Ultimately, McElhaney said, his presence in Oakland might prove to be counterproductive.

Speaking to the Guardian on Jan. 21, McElhaney said she was not yet sure if she would vote to approve the contract. “We are wrestling with some very big issues here,” she said.  “I am clearly concerned about some of Bratton’s tactics but I am also interested in his results in some of the cities he has worked in. I do know he has lowered homicide rates.”

She added that the overarching goal of addressing crime in Oakland should not be lost in the debate surrounding Bratton. “There’s the totality of the contract I’m considering… in the end, I’m more interested in the outcome as opposed to the individuals.”

In an effort to diffuse controversy at the Jan. 15 meeting, McElhaney and Kalb successfully amended the committee recommendation to urge Strategic Policy Partnership to consider potential alternatives to Bratton.

But given Bratton’s national profile and controversial approach to policing, his inclusion in the consulting contract will likely take center stage at the full Council Meeting on Tuesday. Both Bratton’s opponents and supporters plan to arrive in force at Tuesday’s Council meeting, and as of yet it’s uncertain which side will prevail.

Welcome to San Francisco’s ‘Internet of Things’

In this week’s issue of the Guardian, we spotlight a pair of pilot projects that introduce a new technology to San Francisco.

Using converted streetlights that can do a lot more than just illuminate city blocks, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) ultimately hopes to link a variety of city operations and infrastructure into a centralized, digitally integrated network. Proponents have pronounced the initiative to be an exciting venture into an “Internet of Things” paradigm, in which services are organized around real-time data sharing.

With the pilot projects that are described in greater depth in this week’s issue, the SFPUC is testing clusters of energy-efficient LED streetlights that are linked via a wireless network. These “smart” streetlights will initially be used to remotely read city-owned electric meters, and to transmit data from previously installed Municipal Transportation Agency-owned traffic cameras.

The pilots will test how well the “smart” streetlights can manage tasks such as electric vehicle charging monitoring, MTA traffic signal data transmission, “adaptive lighting” that can respond to conditions, and other functions.

But according to a request for proposals (RFP) issued last June by the SFPUC to seek applications for one of these pilots, the list of uses could grow. “Future needs for the secure wireless transmission of data throughout the city,” the RFP states, may include “gunshot monitoring,” “street surveillance,” or “public information broadcasts.”

Marketing pitches from the companies that develop these systems and ancillary services provide an idea of the broader visions that are being presented to city governments. Here’s a promotional video by IntelliStreets, a firm that applied to test out its product with the SFPUC pilot program, showcasing internal cameras and speakers that a city could opt to add in as part of the package. The SFPUC rejected IntelliStreets’ application.

Phillips, a lighting company that is working with Paradox Engineering on a pilot that’s currently up and running in San Francisco, has some bright ideas for municipal use of “intelligent outdoor lighting systems.” And even Oracle has a plan for cash-strapped city governments that could use its tailored data-management platform in combination with “intelligent” infrastructure, according to the marketing brochure.

The use of “intelligent” digital systems for urban infrastructure still remains largely in the realm of big ideas. And so far, the city’s process of introducing this whole concept to the public has barely gotten underway. The SFPUC has initiated some outreach efforts  – via newsletters issued by local police captains  – in neighborhoods where dimmable “adaptive lighting” would be tested in the forthcoming pilot program.

Depending on whether the SFPUC decides to pursue a broader implementation of the integrated streetlights based on the results of the pilots, the potential exists for these digitally connected systems to be used for monitoring everything from street parking, to traffic flows, to activity on the street. This means a great deal of information could be gathered from public space in real time – and that raises a host of questions.

“Technology can be used for good and for ill,” points out American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Staff Attorney Linda Lye. It’s important to ask questions from the outset, she added, to avoid a scenario where “you have a government deploying new technology for one purpose, and using it for other purposes.”

Editor’s notes


EDITOR’S NOTES The two prominent lawyers who helped bring same-sex marriage to the US Supreme Court, Theodore Olson and David Boies, started out their case with the notion that it would get to the highest court, and that the Court would find a fundamental Constitutional right to marriage equality.

They’re both brilliant litigators who have argued more than 50 cases before the Supreme Court — and they think they know something. I can’t get into either man’s brain, but what legal scholars around the country are saying is that the fate (for now) of same-sex marriage may come down to one person, Justice Anthony Kennedy. And they figure he’s going to be on the right side.

I wouldn’t be surprised — those two have been here before, parsed this court, and been right enough to give them the benefit of the doubt. In fact, although 30-some states still ban same-sex marriage, I think the members of the Court see the direction that history is going. It’s moving fast, too — in five years, the tide will have fully turned, and the Court doesn’t want to be horribly embarrassed.

Kennedy, of course, is often the swing vote on the divided court — and in two prior cases, he wrote the decision affirming gay rights.

Kennedy was appointed by Ronald Reagan, but what hasn’t been mentioned much in the press was that he was a second choice. Reagan wanted Robert Bork in that position — and if Bork had gotten the job, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Bork is another Antonin Scalia and would have held down the right wing of the Court and ensured a 5-4 right-wing majority.

This goes back to 1987, ancient history for a lot of political people today. When Reagan, who mostly got his way, nominated Bork, an unheard-of coalition came together to oppose him. It seemed a long shot — it was rare for a Supreme Court nominee to get rejected. Some argued that it wouldn’t matter, anyway — if Bork lost, Reagan would nominate someone else just as bad.

But the opposition came together. The ACLU, which in its history had only opposed one other Supreme Court nominee, helped lead the way. Women’s groups around the country joined in, mostly because of Bork’s open hostility to abortion rights. The Guardian ran a front-page piece called “The case against Judge Bork.” It was a huge national issue.

Sen. Ted Kennedy led the Judiciary Committee opposition to Bork, and all of us were riveted to the proceedings, which aired on KPFA and NPR. Bork gave detailed answers to all the questions, explaining, for example, why he thought Roe v. Wade was “improperly decided.” In the end, his nomination was rejected, 58-42.

Reagan got the message. He nominated Anthony Kennedy — also a conservative, but not a Bork-style nut. And the course of legal history was changed.

So if the Court comes down 5-4 for same-sex marriage, and Kennedy is the fifth vote, we can all thank that massive mobilizing effort a quarter century ago that kept a young, healthy, wingnut who would still be there today from holding that critical seat.

IN OTHER NEWS: The mayor may think the scandal over Housing Authority Director Henry Alvarez is going to blow over, but he’s wrong. There are lots of problems in that agency. Among other things, as Citireport publisher Larry Bush has detailed over the past year, Alvarez used his official position (and city time) to go after a nonprofit, the Housing Rights Committee, that was advocating for public-housing tenants. Lee needs to distance himself from this guy, or he’s going to get dragged down with him.

Alameda County’s spy drone


We all knew it was coming, but the ACLU has the docs to prove it’s about to start happening here: The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office is trying to buy a drone aircraft in part to spy on people.

Now: Sheriff Gregory Ahern has insisted in public statements and in communications to the Board of Supervisors that he wants to use said drone only for search and rescue missions, disaster response, and checking out things like wildfires. But the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have documents they obtained under the California Public Records Act that show the sheriff intends to use the drone for “intelligence and information sharing” — oh, and to prevent terrorism. Which he’s not going to do by flying over wildfires and looking for lost kids.

The documents, which will be released in full Dec. 4 at a press conference on the steps of the County Administration Building, include a grant application to the state’s Emergency Management Agency which outlines the proposed uses. “Clearly, if the sheriff’s certification to Cal-EMA is true, his office intends to use the drone for surveillance and intelligence gathering, a purpose not clearly disclosed to the Board,” staff attorney Linda Lye notes in a letter to the supervisors.

There’s an item on the Dec. 4 board agenda giving the sheriff the ability to apply for and receive grants for the drone, and the ACLU, for very good reasons, wants the item continued until there can be some more discussion on this.

Here’s the thing about law-enforcement tools: You give the cops a weapon, they’re going to use it. Give ’em Tasers, they’ll zap people. Give ’em a spy drone, they’ll spy on us.

Can you imagine having a spy drone circling overhead when Occupy groups were meeting to discuss actions and tactics? You want it flying near the offices of political groups that the sheriff may consider a threat to public safety? You want it equipped with cameras and listening devices?

The county supervisors at this point have no policy positions on how a drone can be used, because they haven’t had to address it yet. But here it is — the sheriff has already solicited bids from suppliers, and is itching to get that spy baby up in the air. This whole thing needs to slow down.

In fact, state Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima) just introduced a bill to regulate drones in the state. “I am concerned because domestic drones have the potential to be used for surreptitious surveillance activities that infringe upon fundamental constitutional rights.  We must ensure that there are clear guidelines in place that protect the rights of all Californians,” Padilla says in a press release I just got in my email box.

Maybe the sheriff should hold off spending any money on this thing until there are state guidelines in place. At the very least, the county supervisors should hold off giving him approval until they have rules of their own — rules that specifically ban the use of the drone for spying. (Oh, and the flight logs need to be public records, so we can see what’s really going on with the eye in the sky.)


Life-and-death decision


Proposition 34, the initiative to end the death penalty in California, is trailing in the polls, but proponents are focusing on a surprisingly large voting block that could still put it over the top: undecided voters.

“Anything can happen on Election Day,” said Natasha Minsker, campaign manager for Yes on 34. “I think what this election comes down to is who’s able to reach the undecided voter.”

The Los Angeles Times reports the race is 38-51 against the measure, while the Field Poll survey has it at 42-45 against. Both polls report that 11-13 percent of voters were undecided, and a more recent poll conducted by SurveyUSA shows the undecided vote may have grown to 20 percent.

Those large numbers, with less than two weeks until the election, raise an interesting and troubling question: on a decision as serious as whether we allow the state to kill someone in our name — a practice that is as costly to state finances as it may be to our very souls — why have so many voters failed to form an opinion?


Leading the charge to win over these ambivalent voters is a coalition of justice organizations, supported by prominent individuals and groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Amnesty International.

The campaign has raised more than $6 million in less than a year, outspending the opposition 35-to-1. Minsker told us the campaign is focusing hard on undecided minority voters, devoting most of its resources to an area they believe will help them win.

“We have more of a focus on young Latino, Asian, and African American voters, specifically in LA County,” she said. “These are voters who, once they hear about the facts of the proposition, they vote for it.”

Prop. 34 would replace California’s death penalty with a maximum sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole. The proposition would also make convicted felons work to pay restitution to their victims’ families.

The Field Poll reports that of all the regions surveyed, Los Angeles County contains the highest percentage of undecided voters, at 17 percent. Once voters learn that executions don’t prevent murders (numerous studies show it doesn’t act as a deterrent to crime) or save money (life-in-prison is cheaper than housing someone on Death Row and hearing legal appeals), support for capital punishment falls.

The Field Poll reports that 15 percent of voters aged18-39 are undecided, while minority voters (Latino, Asian and African American) contain even higher rates of undecided voters, ranging from 16-19 percent, higher than undecided white voters, at 11 percent.

Unlike on many liberal-leaning campaigns, this one also has strong support from the Catholic Church.

“The energy the Catholic community has brought to the initiative has been fantastic,” Minsker said. “It is certainly one of the few issues to bring together the ACLU and the Catholic Church, but it’s just wonderful to see.”

But in order for the proposition to pass, undecided voters must decide soon.

Field Poll Director Mark Dicamillo said that at this stage in the contest, the team that is leading in the polls usually wins.

“In our experience, with [two] weeks left, undecided voters usually vote no, if they haven’t figured out where they stand yet,” he said.

But Jeanne Woodford, executive director of Death Penalty Focus, a nonprofit group dedicated to educating the public about capital punishment, says these undecided voters are taking their time to get the facts straight before they decide.

“I think that [undecided voters] are very thoughtful voters who are not going to vote on this issue from a moral perspective,” she said. “Those are voters who are going to want to know the facts.”


With the election just around the corner, why are so many “thoughtful voters” still undecided about ending the death penalty?

UC Berkeley Public Policy Professor Bruce Cain attributes the undecided electorate to the state’s inconsistency toward capital punishment.

“Historically, the state of California has flipped on its [death penalty] policy,” he said. “My guess is that it is a little bit hard for voters to navigate through now.”

But at a time when California is in a fiscal crisis and federal judges have ordered the state to substantially reduce the population in its overcrowded prison system, Prop. 34 proponents have been making fiscal arguments more than moral ones.

According to the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office, ending the Death Penalty would save taxpayers $130 million a year, and set aside a $100 million annual fund for law enforcement agencies to use in solving homicide and rape cases.

Prop 36, reform of the harsh Three Strikes and You’re Out law, is the other big sentencing reform initiative on the ballot. Prop 36 would save taxpayers about $100 million a year, yet it is a 3-1 favorite in the polls, a stark contrast to Prop 34.

“The death penalty has been overshadowed by the Three Strikes prop, and that’s possibly another aspect of the undecided voters,” Cain said. “But remember people that are undecided at the end are the people that only get information from their TV.”

That’s something that Yes on 34 is well aware of and about to address.

The campaign has reported spending more than $3 million since July producing television and cable ads, which are launching this week.

“You’ll be seeing TV and radio which will provide much more information to the public, and when they have that information, the facts speak for themselves,” Woodford said.

But No of 34 campaign has fear and emotional arguments on its side. Spokesperson Peter Demarco told us, “Prop 34 isn’t about saving money. It’s the centerpiece of the liberal ACLU’s agenda to weaken California’s public safety laws.”

Cain thinks Prop 34 has a chance, but the real test is yet to come.

“If indeed the no people plan to throw money into this and really land some hard-hitting emotional ads, then you could see voters being moved dramatically,” he said. “If people see these emotional ads and don’t move, then that tells you that the electorate has changed.”


Executions in California go back to its earliest settlements, and it was first authorized in the state’s penal code in 1872.

In 1972, the California Supreme Court ruled the death penalty cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the state’s constitution, commuting more than 100 death sentences to life in the prison without the possibility of parole.

Cain says that during the 1970s and ’80s, when California’s rising crime rate was making big news, the public began to embrace capital punishment.

“There were more violent murders, there was crack cocaine, there was a sense that people were going way over the line, and it was very much a moral issue,” he said.

In 1977, the California Legislature re-enacted the death penalty in first-degree murders only. In 1978, California voters broadened the number of crimes eligible for the death penalty. But polls show the pendulum swinging back.

“We haven’t seen a vote like this to abolish the death penalty in about 40 years,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of Death Penalty Information Center. “Just the fact that it’s happening is indicative to the growing skepticism toward the death penalty.”

The number of countries that have abolished the death penalty has doubled to more than 120 the past 25 years. In the US, Connecticut recently became the 17th state to abolish the death penalty, not including the District of Columbia. Will California be next?

“Ten years ago, it was 70-30 against ending the death penalty in California, but that’s changed and it’s closer now. The information is going to make a difference for undecided voters,” said Dieter.

Among that information, Minsker said, is the fact that “with the death penalty, we sometimes sentence innocent people.”

The University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law reports that in the last 23 years, more than 2,000 people convicted of serious crimes were exonerated in the US.

The Innocence Project, which assists prisoners using DNA testing, found that 18 people previously sentenced to death in the US have been exonerated.

“We have learned that innocent people have been sentenced to death,” said Innocence Project Policy Director Stephen Saloom. “States are increasingly abolishing the death penalty because it’s just not worth it.” According to the Death Penalty Information Center, since 1978 California has executed 13 out of 725 death row inmates, costing California taxpayers $4 billion. “It’s not worth keeping this lengthy, costly process any longer,” Saloom said, “and I think people are more likely to see that it’s not a very good government program.”




Culture as a weapon: poetry and storytelling SOUL School of Unity and Liberation, 1904 Franklin Suite 904, Oakl;, RSVP at 6:30pm, $5-25. The second in a three-part series exploring how art and culture can be a form of political resistance. At this workshop, learn from poet, writer, artist and organizer Erika Vivianna Céspedes about writing that helps build movements. RSVP is required, and if you can’t get into this one, try their next event in the series, an activist printmaking workshop on Oct. 25.

Fall of the I-Hotel film screening New Nothing Cinema, 16 Sherman, SF; 8pm, free. A screening of a film depicting the historic struggle between residents and supporters of the International Hotel and the landlords that wanted it razed and turned into a parking lot. After massive neighborhood “revitalization,” the I-Hotel was one of the last remnants of the once-lively Manilatown neighborhood. See how residents fought for it at a screening presenting by Shaping San Francisco, New Nothing Cinema, and the CIIS Anthropology and Social Change Department.


Say goodbye to condoms as evidence Jane Warner Plaza, 401 Castro, SF; 6-8pm, free. As we reported this week, SFPD has decided to temporarily end the controversial practice of using possession of condoms as evidence in prostitution cases. For a three to six month trial period, condoms will not be seized or photographed if a cop thinks someone might be a sex worker. A group that was planning to march in opposition to the practice will now march in celebration of the decision, and to urge the city to make the trial period permanent.

Disobeying with great love Powell Street Bart station, Powell and Market, SF; 6pm, free. A flash mob meditation in the middle of the Disneyland-like shopping district. What better way to relax amongst the chaos?


Op Trapwire Department of Homeland Security, 560 Golden Gate Ave, #36127, SF. WikiLeaks let loose information about Trapwire, the now-notorious company that uses surveillance and tracking to monitor people’s movements and aggregate them into patterns. It does this with a network of security cameras across the country, government and law enforcement uses its information, and the whole thing may be illegal. Some Occupy types have called for a national day of action against surveillance on Oct. 20, and San Francisco is joining in.

Picket Mi Pueblo market Mi Pueblo Mercado1630 High, Oakl; 1-4pm, free. Mi Pueblo Market is a successful and beloved grocery store chain. Workers were upset to learn that the company signed up to participate in E-Verify, a voluntary program that tracks the immigration status of all new hires. Managers say that the decision was made after serious pressure from ICE and the Department of Homeland Security. Workers and community supporters will picket the store in protest of the new policy.


Amy Goodman speaks First congregational church of Oakland, 2501 Harrison, Oakl; 7pm, $15 in advance. Amy Goodman co founded Democracy Now! The War and Peace Report in 1996. Since then, she has consistently brought progressive, hard hitting reporting to television screens and radios, authored a few books, and established herself as a distinctive voice in journalism. She’s also a kick ass speaker. Come hear her share her wisdom at a benefit for KPFA radio, where she’ll be speaking on “The Silenced Majority: Stories of Uprisings, Occupations, Resistance, and Hope”


Tasers forum Hamilton Recreation Center, 1900 Geary, SF; 5pm, free. The SFPD has called a public forum to discuss the possible introduction of tasers into the police arsenal. Come to share your thoughts on the idea. And if you want to hear more, show up a half hour early for a community-led forum. “This summer, ACLU delivered a report of 532 documented Taser related deaths in the US since 2001, but that has not stopped SF Police Chief Greg Suhr from pushing the fourth attempt to spend several million dollars to equip SFPD with these deadly weapons,” say organizers.

NY cops misuse Tasers; would it be different here?


In New York State, cops are routinely misusing Tasers, zapping suspects who are laready handcuffed, zapping people in the chest, zapping people who aren’t menacing or carrying any weapon … pretty much, it seems, zapping away at will.

This is the problem with so-called non-lethal weapons, and it’s why I get worried when SFPD Chief Greg Suhr talks about how he’d love to have the little zappers in his armory.  See, in theory, you can stun someone who has, say, a box cutter — which is, yeah, a lethal weapon, in theory, but maybe the person holding it didn’t have to die. So Suhr thinks if the officer had a stun gun, she could have zapped him and he’d still be alive.  (Actually, I wasn’t there, but I would think a professional law-enforcement officer with a nightstick and even basic self-defense training might have been able to keep the box-cutter guy at bay until backup arrived.)

I get it, the cops would rather not have to kill people — but it turns out, at least according the the NY ACLU, that once there’s another less-lethal alternative, it just gets used in a lot of situations where there was no need to shoot anyone with anything. Turns out, according the the ACLU, that if you give a cop a Taser and say it’s a weapon that won’t kill anyone, there’s less reason to use discretion.

So Tasers in SF are on hold for a while, but Suhr ought to take heed: If he wants Tasers, their use should be limited to the same situations where firearms are authorized, that is, to protect the life of an officer or another person — and not, for example, to subdue someone who’s resisting arrest. 

Berkeley Police implement new limits on spying and mutual aid


The Berkeley Police Department is undergoing some major policy changes after mounting pressure from the community to enact reforms, with new limits on its participation with other law enforcement agencies.  

“There will be some extra reporting standards required, but procedures have been put in place for us to handle these new requirements,” BPD’s Public Information Officer Jennifer Coats told us, although she did not provide details on how they will be implemented. “This will not affect the high level of service the Berkeley Police Department continues to provide the community.”

Sparked by overzealous police responses to the Occupy movement in neighboring Oakland and UC Berkeley and by the issue of local police agencies working with the FBI to spy on law-abiding citizens, community groups in Berkeley urged city officials to revise policies regarding surveillance, intelligence activities, and police mutual aide.  

Leading the charge was the Coalition for a Safe Berkeley and the ACLU of Northern California.  Both groups attended the Sept. 18th Berkeley City Council meeting where the council voted to modify the city’s policing procedures.

Berkeley police will no longer respond immediately and automatically to mutual aid requests from other police agencies. “The policy change that the council approved said that in a case in which there is not serious or violent crime or destruction of property, that our police will seriously evaluate whether or not to respond,” says Councilmember Jesse Arreguin.  “We won’t automatically respond in cases of civil disobedience or peaceful protest.”

Mutual aid agreements were suspended last year while the city adjusted its policies.

“The Berkeley Police Department has a strong working relationship with other police departments,” writes Coats via email. “We are able to review the need for services on a case by case basis and we look forward to continuing to work closely with other agencies.”

Other revisions include the end of surveillance and intelligence gathering of residents who participate in political activity or express First Amendment rights. Police must also have at least reasonable suspicion in order to submit a Suspicious Activity Report, which will then be reviewed by the City Manager for approval before being made available to other police agencies. 

The council postponed a decision on the issue of immigration jail detainers after the ACLU of Northern California expressed its concerns with the proposed policy. The changes come after a decade of police agencies nationwide upping their law enforcement efforts, particularly in border and coastal states like California where local police often work with federal immigration and customs officers.

“After 9/11, there were a lot of agencies reorganized under the Department of Homeland Security and they all started collaborating in ways they hadn’t before,” says Nadia Kayyali of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, which consulted with the Coalition for a Safe Berkeley.  “Federal and local collaborations are extending across the country and I have yet to see strong evidence that what they’re doing is making us any safer.”

It was almost one year ago that Occupy Oakland made international headlines as clashes between police and protesters turned violent.  The Oct. 25 melee pit police officers from Oakland, Berkeley, and San Francisco against protesters occupying Frank Ogawa Plaza, resulting in serious injuries to protesters.  The mutual aid deployed from Berkeley left many residents livid after watching their police officers assist in using force against peaceful protesters.  

“If you’re involved in something that hurts the rights and security of protesters in a public place, it raises questions of complicity.  We don’t want our police to be used to halt civil liberties,” says George Lippman of the Berkeley Peace and Justice Commission, which was involved in pushing the reforms. “There should be more oversight given to these types of activities of mutual aid when there are First Amendment activities going on.”

Lippman sees increased law enforcement as a growing trend to militarize local communities nationwide, and he points to the armored tank that Berkeley police almost acquired earlier this year as an example. The City Council blocked that effort and it remains unclear why exactly BPD wanted such a bellicose piece of equipment.  

“Fear is always a great substitute for rational thought in American politics,” says Lippman. “It’s also the benefit of those who profit from warfare to have something to base their weapon sales on.”

San Francisco has also taken steps to limit law enforcement practices. In May, the city implemented legislation that will force police officers collaborating with the FBI to adhere to privacy rights as stated in local and state laws.  Although hailed as a step in the right direction, that legislation was watered down after an earlier version was vetoed by Mayor Ed Lee.

Torture, for real


OPINION Last week I walked into my favorite café in SoMa and noticed the barista wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the black and orange word “torture.”

I froze. I knew I was holding up the line but I didn’t care. I had to ask about that shirt.

“Oh, it’s to promote the San Francisco Giants,” he said. He continued speaking, not noticing my umbrage. “So do you want your coffee hot or cold today?”

I wanted to keep talking about that shirt, but I didn’t know what to say. “I will have my coffee cold please,” I told him.

For the past ten years, torture has never been far from me. When I worked at Amnesty International, it was two doors down in the person of my colleague Kumar, who was tortured in Sri Lanka for advocating for Tamil rights. When I was on Capitol Hill as a foreign policy aide in the House of Representatives, I saw lawmakers justify President Obama’s lackadaisical attitude towards US torture.

One of the first things I learned at Amnesty International is the power and the responsibility of words. Human-rights work is about finding and verifying stories and then giving those stories names: war crime, rape, genocide … torture. It’s in the naming that our action begins. When we use the word torture it carries weight—and can heal wounds—because for so many people, their torture is denied, rationalized, or trivialized.

When I see the word torture on a t-shirt I do more than cringe: I mourn how far we are as a nation from a serious discussion of the use of torture by our own government.

Just last week Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department was closing the last two cases examining harsh CIA interrogation tactics during the Bush administration.

According to the ACLU, “(CIA) Interrogators were told they could use, among other tactics, extended sleep deprivation; ‘stress positions’ such as forced-standing, handcuffing in painful crouched positions and shackling people to the ceiling, usually for hours or even days; confining prisoners to small, coffin-like boxes with air and light cut off; extended forced nudity; sensory bombardment; extreme temperatures; hooding; and physical beatings, including slamming prisoners into walls.”

I can understand and I can attest that watching your team blow a lead in the bottom of the ninth is painful, excruciating even. It might cause you to drink or curse or smoke more. But it’s not torture. It doesn’t violate the core of your being. It doesn’t terrorize your nights.

Standing in line at the café that day, I thought of my friend Firoze who was tortured so badly he can no longer have sex. I wonder what he would say if were staring at the Barista with the “torture” t-shirt.

He would probably laugh and say it’s just a game. And then he might say what he told me each time we met: “People have no idea.”

Zahir Janmohamed recently completed a fellowship at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto and is writing a book about Juhapura, the largest ghetto of Muslims in India


Taser debate takes off once again at Police Commission


At a police commission meeting last night, commissioners delayed the vote on a controversial agenda item: adding tasers to the SFPD toolbelt. Specifically, Chief Greg Suhr proposed discussing a pilot program that would allow tasers for the 74 officers who have been trained through the department’s Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) program, created last year.

This is not the first time a police chief has introduced the possibility of tasers. In February of both 2010 and 2011, the police commission discussed adding the less-than-lethal weapon to the SFPD arsenal.  But community opposition, ACLU opinions, and commissioners concerned about the risks of tasers thwarted the effort.

Suhr says he brought up the issue in light of the July 18 killing of Pralith Pralourng. Suhr said he believes that if the officer involved had been equipped with a taser, Pralourng, who wielded only a boxcutter, may be alive today.

Several members of Proalong’s family attended the commission meeting last night. His sister, Savee Pralourng, read a statement asking that her brother’s death not be politicized for police department purposes.

“The SFPD wants to use his death to justify getting tasers,” said Pralourng.

She added other concerns about the police deparment’s handling of the death.“We have not been given any information about his last moments or how he died,” she said. “They need to know how to deal with mental illness, police need to address them differently.”

“This is an issue of the department having options available to them to mitigate the need for lethal force,” Commander Mikail Ali said at last night’s meeting.

But opponennents say that issuing tasers will lead to officers using them in questionable scenarios.

Tasers are called less-than-lethal, but can result in death. The risk of death is increased if the tased individual is child, elderly, pregrant, very thin, has acidoss, or on cocaine or methamphetamine. Police are trained to aim their guns for center mass, but with tasers the risk of death is increased if the subject is hit in the chest– the electric shock’s proxmimity to the heart can cause ventricular fibrillation.

“You have pepper spray, you have billy clubs, you have rubber bullets. What more do you need?” activist Debray “Fly Benzo” Carpenter admonished the police chief.

As a result of last year’s iteration of the year’s-long debate, the police department was tasked with preparing a report on the  potential use of tasers and what other less-lethal options were available.

The report was never completed.

This concerned several commissioners, as well as ACLU attorney Micaela Davis, who presented at the meeting. The ACLU sent a 12-page letter to Mayor Ed Lee outlinging their issues with tasers, and has reported in the past that police use of tasers in Northern California is dangerously unregulated and leads to death at a surprising rate.

Of the top 20 largest police departments in the coutry, San Francisco officers are the only ones without tasers. Even Memphis, the city with a police traning program for interacting with mentally ill people in crisis that has become a national model, recently voted to allow tasers. San Francisco’s CIT program is based on the Memphis model.

The conversation may have been happening for years but, commissioners decided, this new attempt was too hasty. Many were surprised to see the item on this week’s meeting agenda. Many members of the public were angered as well that no public comment period was sheduled for the item, and expressed their opposition to tasers during comment periods meant for other topics.

“The virtue of good government is patience and consideration,” said Commissioner Julius Turma. “I don’t feel fully informed on this issue.” Turman, along with Commissioner Angela Chan, called for a delay on the vote.

Commissioner Petra DeJesus said that if more notice had been given on the vote she would have “asked the city attorney’s office for an opinion on wheather we can tase just a certain population.” The proposed pilot program would put tasers in the hands of only officers who have been through CIT program, a training for interacting with mentally ill people.

Suhr said that was a false characterization. The police department would not be “singling out a demographic of people they might be used on,” he said. Instead, CIT officers simply “have done more training to deal with the mentally ill.”

The CIT program is meant to train officers who will be dispatched to respond to calls involving mentally ill people in crisis. However, these officers do not work exclusively in these situations.

The CIT training, whose formation marked a rare consensus between the police department, commission, community mental health organizations and advocacy groups, have begun but are running behind schedule. Davis argued that to distribute tasers to the officers in the training before they complete it would be premature– and that, if they know that at the end of the training they will get tasers, they may be less inclined to practice crisis intervention using other, less dangerous tools.

Carpenter, who was thrown out of the meeting after he and other activists shouted “he’s lying!” when Suhr reported the number of officer-involved shootings over the past year as well as other interuptions, said the prospect of tasers worries him. “I’ve been pepper sprayed for no reason before,” said Carpenter. “If they had tasers, would they have tased me?”

The comission will continue to research and discuss the issue, and, with more notice, public input into the issue promises to mount. The next police commission meeting will take place August 15. The controversial topic, which has produced what Police Commission Vice President Joe Marshall called “robust conversations” several times before, is likely to produce another in the next few weeks, both in and outside police comission meetings.

“The violence in the southeast sector over the past four days has been devastating to our City– we know we can do much better.  Let’s work together to and create San Francisco solutions to San Francisco problems. The Black Young Democratic Club is open to help facilitate this conversation,” reads a statement the club released yesterday in response to the taser proposal.

“I can guarantee you, you look at the communities of color, those are going to be the folks that are dealing with the police and the tasers,” said Theo Ellington, president of the San Francisco Black Young Democratic Club.

Corporations, people, money, and speech


On July 24, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors weighed in on a policy debate that’s become a powerful cause on the American left. By a unanimous vote, the supervisors placed on the November ballot a measure calling for a Constitutional amendment to end corporate personhood.

“We’re living in a time of trickle down economics and tax breaks for the rich,” Avalos said, later adding, “Big corporations [are] able to spend vast amounts of money” and have “the greatest influence on the outcome of elections.

“We need to look at our Constitution and have it amended so we aren’t looking at corporations as living, breathing people,” Avalos said.

That’s an immensely popular sentiment in this country, and it’s been stirred up by the US Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, a ruling that has come to represent all of the evils of big-money politics rolled into one two-word phrase.

More than 80 percent of Americans say they want the decision overturned. Six states, including California, have passed resolutions calling for a Constitutional amendment. Occupy protesters have made it a big issue. Marge Baker, policy vice president for People for the American Way, wrote a Huffington Post piece calling the campaign “A Movement Moment.”

But while Citizens United is a great rallying point, the challenge here goes way beyond one court decision. Citizens United didn’t create corporate personhood. Repealing the decision won’t end the flow of money in politics — and a lot of First Amendment experts are exceptionally nervous about anything that seeks to mess with this central part of the Bill of Rights.

And for all the denunciation of Citizens United, the solution — drafting the actual language of a new Constitutional amendment — turns out to be more than a little tricky.


Citizens United v. FEC has a complicated history. In 2002, Congress passed the McCain-Feingold Act, which barred corporations and unions from funding “electioneering” activities in the period right before an election.

The right-wing group Citizens United complained that Michael Moore’s documentary Fahrenheit 911 was an attack on George W. Bush and intended to influence the 2004 election, and the courts dismissed that complaint, saying that there was no evidence the independent documentary was an illegal campaign contribution.

Citizens United then started making its own “documentaries,” including one in 2008 that many saw as a campaign commercial against Hillary Clinton. The FEC found that the video was, in fact, “electioneering,” and the case wound up at the Supreme Court.

The legal decision was complicated, but among other things, the court ruled that a ban on independent corporate spending on election campaigns was a violation of the First Amendment rights of those business entities.

That was amplified when Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney uttered his famous line, “corporations are people.”

But in reality, Citizens United alone hasn’t caused the tsunami of big money that’s poured into elections, including the 2012 campaigns. Much of the cash contaminating the presidential coffers this year comes not from corporations effected by the ruling but from individuals and private trusts that have been free to throw money around for decades.

“The flood of money is disgusting and corrupting,” Peter Scheer, director of the California First Amendment Coalition, told us. “But it isn’t coming from public corporations. It’s mostly wealthy people and private trusts, and they didn’t need Citizens United to do this.”

In fact, the groundwork for modern sleaze was set a long time ago, in 1976, when the Supreme Court ruled in Buckley v. Valeo that, in effect, money was speech — and that any rich individual could spend all he or she wanted running for office.

What the Supreme Court has done, though, is set the modern political tone for campaign finance — among other things, invalidating a Montana law that barred corporate contributions to campaigns. And in the majority ruling and the assenting opinions, the court made clear that it doesn’t think government has any role in leveling the campaign playing field — that it’s not the business of government to decide that the money and speech of rich people and big business is drowning out the opinions and speech of the rest of the populace.


So now that every decent-thinking human being in the United States agrees that there’s too much sleazy money in politics and that it’s not a good thing for government to be for sale to the highest bidder, the really interesting — and difficult — question comes up: What do we do about it?

There are a lot of competing answers to that question. And frankly, none of them are perfect.

That may be one reason why the ACLU is mostly on the sidelines. When I contacted the national office to ask if anyone wanted to talk about the efforts to overturn Citizens United, spokesperson Molly Kaplan sent me an email saying “we actually don’t have anyone available for this.”

But on its website, the organization — in a nuanced statement on campaign reform — notes: “Any rule that requires the government to determine what political speech is legitimate and how much political speech is appropriate is difficult to reconcile with the First Amendment.”

In an ACLU blog post, Laura Murphy, director of the group’s Legislative Office in Washington DC, argues that “a Constitutional amendment—specifically an amendment limiting the right to political speech—would fundamentally ‘break’ the Constitution and endanger civil rights and civil liberties for generations.”

But David Cobb, one of the organizers of Move To Amend, which is pushing a Constitutional amendment, told me that “the idea that spending money is sacred is part of the problem, the reason that we don’t have a functioning democracy.”

There are two central parts to the problem: The notion that corporations have the same rights to free speech as people, and the notion that money is speech. Eliminate the first — which is immensely popular — and you still allow the Meg Whitmans and Koch brothers of the world to pour their personal fortunes into seeking political office or promoting other candidates.

Eliminate the second and you open a huge can of worms.

“It would be a disaster, in my view,” Scheer said. “As a general principle, I’m frightened by the concept of tampering with the Constitution.”

Money may not equal free speech, but it’s hard to exercise the right to free speech in a political campaign without money. And there are broader impacts that might be hard to predict.

But Peter Schurman, one of the founders of and a leader in Free Speech for the People, told me that “it’s a false premise that money equals speech. The point is to get a level playing field.”


Move to Amend and Free Speech for People are promoting similar approaches, Constitutional amendments that, in fairly simple terms, would radically and forever alter American politics. Several members of Congress have offered Constitutional amendments that include similar language.

The Move to Amend proposal is the broadest and cleanest. It states: “The rights protected by the Constitution of the United States are the rights of natural persons only. Artificial entities, such as corporations, limited liability companies, and other entities, established by the laws of any State, the United States, or any foreign state shall have no rights under this Constitution and are subject to regulation by the People, through Federal, State, or local law.”

It goes on to say: “Federal, State and local government shall regulate, limit, or prohibit contributions and expenditures, including a candidate’s own contributions and expenditures, for the purpose of influencing in any way the election of any candidate for public office or any ballot measure.”

It also includes this statement: “Nothing contained in this amendment shall be construed to abridge the freedom of the press.”

Free Speech for the People is simpler. It only addresses the corporate speech issue: “People, person, or persons as used in this Constitution does not include corporations, limited liability companies or other corporate entities established by the laws of any state, the United States, or any foreign state, and such corporate entities are subject to such regulations as the people, through their elected state and federal representatives, deem reasonable and are otherwise consistent with the powers of Congress and the States under this Constitution.”

Cobb notes that the Move to Amend measure doesn’t say how political speech should be regulated; it just opens the door to that kind of lawmaking. “The question of how to protect the integrity of the electoral process is a political question, not a Constitutional question,” he said. In the end, there’s a huge issue here. The framers of the Constitution, their political consciousness forged in a battle against big and repressive government, feared as much as anything the notion of rulers controlling the rights of the people to speak, write, assemble, publish (oh, and carry firearms) freely. Corporate interests (with the possible exception of the British East India Company, which monopolized the tea trade) weren’t a major concern.

And First Amendment purists still recoil at the idea that government, at any level, could make decisions limiting or regulating political speech. I sympathize. It’s scary. But in 2012, it’s easy to argue that the power of big money and big business has far eclipsed the power of government, that for all practical purposes, the rich and their corporate creations are the government of the United States — and that the people, assembled and exercising the power envisioned under the Constitution, need to make rules to, yes, level the playing field. Not rashly, not in crazy ways, with full cognizance of the risks — but also with the recognition that the current situation is fundamentally unacceptable, and that the potential dangers of messing with the First Amendment have to be balanced with the very real dangers of doing nothing.

Black Young Democrats rally against stop and frisk


A group organized by the San Francisco Black Young Democrats rallied at City Hall today. Their message: no to stop and frisk.

Members of the group, as well as the ACLU and the Asian Law Caucus, said the policy would violate the civil rights of San Franciscans.

Supervisors Malia Cohen, along with Avalos, Campos, and Mar also attended the rally and expressed their support. They co-sponsored a non-binding resolution, introduced by Cohen,  that condemned the idea of implementing stop and frisk in San Francisco.

Mayor Ed Lee said he was considering implementing the controversial policy a few weeks ago.

Under a stop and frisk policy, police have the leeway to stop and search people that they consider suspicious. On average, 85 percent of those stopped in New York City are young African American and Latino men.

Opponents say racial profiling is inevitably involved and that, for people who may be carrying minor contraband but no dangerous weapons, this racial profiling leads to selective enforcement of laws. About 87 percent of those stopped in New York were completely innocent, according to numbers compiled by the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Lee said he suggested the idea after a spike of gun violence in June. But it has generated a backlash, and at today’s rally about 75 showed up to present a petition signed by more than 2,000 asking the mayor not to implement the policy.

Joaquin Torres, director of that office, accepted it on Lee’s behalf.

Lee himself didn’t engage with the protesters, but he did issue a statement not an hour after they left City Hall “clarifying his position” on stop and frisk.

“I want to be clear that I have not considered implementing a policy in San Francisco that would violate anyone’s constitutional rights or that would result in racial profiling,” the statement reads.

Ellington said the statement was not enough. “We want Mayor Ed Lee to say that he will not implement stop and frisk in San Francisco, nor any policies that are like stop and frisk. No policies that infringe upon our civil liberties,” Ellington told the Guardian.

“These are predatory policing practices that we don’t want in our city,” he said.

Guardian Voices: Stop and Frisk didn’t work last time


Mayor Lee’s musings before the Chronicle editorial board, in which he revealed his thoughts about instituting a “stop and frisk” policy in San Francisco, set off a very quick negative responses from two of his high-profile supporters in the African American community, Willie Brown and Supervisor Malia Cohen. But that’s only part of the surprise the mayor will face if he pursues this policy.

It wasn’t a real good week for Mayor Lee, who seemed to repeatedly trip himself up:

— In  the chat about stop and frisk;
— In the admission at a Board of  Supervisors hearing by Sutter/CPMC that the economic modeling of the hospital chain’s proposed  project so undermined key elements of the deal that Mayor Lee demanded that it be redone;
— And in his testimony before the Ethics Commission on the Mirkarimi case that brought specific charges of  perjury he has yet to answer.

But the stop and frisk was the most sobering of the three, for it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the very nature of the city that he seeks to govern and an astounding insensitivity to its not-too-distant past.

The last time stop and frisk was implemented by the San Francisco Police Department was in 1974, at the height of the “Zebra” murders during which, over a six-month period from the end of 1973 to the beginning of 1974, 16 whites were murdered and another six wounded (one of whopm was a young Art Agnos) in shootings using a similar caliber hand gun. What made sensational headlines was the fact that the six survivors all agreed that the shooters were  black. 

Mayor Joe Alioto, facing a steep decline in tourist visits to the city and a drumbeat of headlines, surprised eferyone by announcing a stop and frisk policy aimed at young Black males. Within the first week some 500 stops were made. Not a single Zebra suspect was found.

The San Francisco NAACP and ACLU quickly filed suit in Federal Court where the policy was banned as being un-Constitutional racial profiling. The Zebra case was broken using the time tested technique of offering a reward for information. An informant stepped up, and in the summer of 1974, four men were arrested based upon his information. In 1976 the four men were convicted –and the stop and frisk policy had nothing to do with either their arrest or conviction.  Nothing remained of the failed policy for 38 years.

What did remain was a deep and bitter memory of stop and frisk in the San Francisco African-American community — a memory neither Willie Brown nor Malia Cohen forgot.

If the mayor really believes that stop and frisk will work in the face of deep seated community resentment, based on actual local historic experience – for his remarks were all about “getting the guns” off the street in African American neighborhoods — then he has a profound misunderstanding of the nature of San Francisco.

San Francisco is perhaps one of the two or three most humanly diverse cities in North America. There is a bewildering mix of humans in our city, which confronts any policy based upon appearances — such as stop and frisk — with complexities that often render its actual use on the street ineffective. Simply stated, people are not as they seem in San Francisco, and many San Franciscans prefer to live no other way. Good cops understand this and work hard to learn who is who on the street. That’s called community policing and it often works in San Francisco.  

But many times it doesn’t. Let me tell you a personal story.

During the school year, I try to pick up my two grandsons, Jalius and Jacob, every Tuesday. We spend some time together walking from their school, George Peabody, in the Inner Richmond, to the 33 Stanyan bus stop at Clement and Arguello for a bus ride back to the Haight-Ashbury. We walk and talk and then wait for the bus and talk some more.

A few months ago, we were waiting for the bus, the boys sitting on the bench, me standing and talking. I noticed a cop across the street doing a foot patrol, talking to merchants and customers. He kept looking at us. He was Chinese and my grandsons are half Chinese.  Finally, he walked over to us and with a polite smile asked me why was I talking to these children.

I had an idea that was why he came over so I was expecting the question. I smiled back to him and said, proudly, “these are my grandsons, Jalius and Jacob”.  He looked at me and then turned to the boys and said “is he?” They said “yes” and he looked back at me and said “just doing my job,”  and turned and walked away.

And what a tough job it is as people are often other than they look in San Francisco. Old white men are not always what they seem, and young black men are not always what they seem, no matter how low they ware their pants. Policies based upon things being exactly as they appear will be overwhelmed by the human reality of the City of St. Francis.

There is a connection between people in this physically compact city of ours that forms a foundation for a common political outlook when it comes to personal and group rights and freedoms. San Francisco is a center-left city on matters of civil and human rights. Local elections have shown time after time that on civil and human rights the usual political divisions between the various parts of San Francisco don’t obtain. Trying to push a center-right stop and frisk policy on San Francisco will politically isolate Ed Lee, making all other parts of his agenda that much more difficult to accomplish. And as a city we need to get some big things done, quickly. Let’s move on, together, and get them done.

Resisting the police state: Berkeley activists demand local control


Editor’s Note: This article supplements this week’s cover story on FBI surveillance

By Sasha Hippard

As the federal government battles presumed threats to national security in this post-9/11 world, once-important distinctions between local and national police agencies have been blurred. But as local officers get drawn into federal counterterrorism operations and immigration crackdowns, and as their departments beef up with tanks and other military hardware, citizens and civil libertarians are pushing back on the creeping police state.

In the last year, San Francisco, Portland, Ore., and other cities have set limits on the participation by local officers in FBI’s surveillance operations of law-abiding citizens. San Jose has refused to honor federal immigration holds, creating a model for other sanctuary cities. And in Berkeley, citizens and politicians have taken a deliberate approach to limit their police department’s cooperation with the feds on several fronts.

“I don’t think most people understand just how dramatically the balance between government power and individual liberties has shifted in the last 10 years,” says Shahid Buttar, executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, a Washington DC-based nonprofit that has worked with Berkeley, San Francisco, and other cities on the issue.

Local activist group Coalition for a Safe Berkeley, the city’s Peace and Justice Commission, and the ACLU of Northern California have asked the Berkeley City Council to bring police practices in line with local values and state constitutional standards.

They held a special town hall meeting on June 9 to discuss ways to limit the Berkeley Police Department’s cooperation with the larger police state, the latest step in a methodical political process that began last year (see “Policing the police,” 12/12/11).

Concerned citizens were joined by representatives from the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC), Berkeley Police Department, and the Berkeley Police Review Commission. The workshop highlighted how federal partnerships with local law enforcement take the power from the hands of the city and place it under the control of the federal government.

Activists urged the city to terminate its relationship with the NCRIC, a so-called “fusion center” that culls information gathered by local, state, and federal agencies in ways they believe violates the right to privacy that is enshrined in the California Constitution, at least until limits on the gathering and use of that information can be clearly established.

Like all fusion centers, NICRIC’s primary goal is to promote information-sharing between state and local government and various federal agencies such as the FBI, CIA, and Department of Homeland Security. Of particular concern are reports NICRIC issues about people who have caught the attention of authorities for one reason or another.

Suspicious Activity Reports, or SARs, serve as the primary source of information gathering for fusion centers, which ask law enforcement agents and civilians to report activity based on whether or not it would “rouse suspicion in a reasonable person.” NCRIC’s Mike Sean listed off a number of possible report-worthy actions that ranged from cyber attacks and theft to photographing a building and “questioning personnel beyond a level of curiosity.” SARs rely on the vague “reasonable suspicion standard” to determine whether or not there is criminal intent behind activities.

Buttar said many citizens assume that the federal police state excesses of old — such as the FBI’s notorious COINTELPRO program, which spied on and sabotaged people who were critical of the government — are no longer happening. But with technology making it easier to gather ever-more information about private citizens, “there’s even more reason to be concerned by this government surveillance now.”

State and local privacy protections, as well as court rulings interpreting them, generally require an “articulable criminal predicate” — or reasonable suspicion that the target is doing something illegal — before police agencies can conduct surveillance on people. 

But SARs flood local authorities with potentially false reports of criminal activity, opening the door to racial profiling and unwarranted surveillance and potentially pitting groups of citizens against one another, with implications that can last for years.

“What happens if my neighbor who really doesn’t like me makes a report and it makes it to the level of filing?” Berkeley City Council member Linda Maio asked at the meeting,  “How does that effect my future interactions with law enforcement?”

Civil libertarians say the answers to those questions are as unsettling as they are unclear, deliberately so, despite efforts to seek a fuller understanding on how the police state gathers and processes information.

“[The ACLU] has concerns about the plethora of information gathered by NICRIC” Julia Mass, an ACLU staff attorney, said at the hearing. She said police should be looking at reports of “reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, not reasonable suspicion of suspicious activity.”

The counterterrorism tactics taken on by local police forces are not limited to policy change. In Berkeley, a grant of $200,000 by the Department of Homeland Security’s Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) allowed the Berkeley Police Department to purchase a military-grade armored vehicle. This purchase went unnoticed by the City Council.

Berkeley Cop Watch, an all-volunteer organization that monitors police action, only discovered information about the purchase through a public records request. The police department’s request for the grant was a one-time cash request and therefore not presented to the council for approval.

While Police Chief Michael Meehan insisted the vehicle has “only defensive not offensive capabilities,” there is no difference between the tank in Berkeley and the tanks used by the military except that the weapons have been removed. As one audience member proclaimed during the meeting: “If they’ve got it, they’ll use it.”

The police chief went on to say that the decision to buy this vehicle was based on the “need to protect our officers” and an agreement between the city police and UC Berkeley Police Department has been made to store the tank on a campus with a history of clashes between police and peaceful protesters.

The purchase of the tank raises concerns not only about the increasing militarization of local police forces, but the lack of transparency in regards to agreements between federal agencies and local law enforcement. Sharon Adams of the Coalition for a Safe Berkeley said she feels “a level of betrayal that the police were doing this the whole time and we only found out through Cop Watch.”

The coalition seeks to terminate the relationship between Berkeley Police Department and UASI, which also funds NICRIC fusion centers. The increasingly close relationship between local police and federal agencies has had a particularly significant impact on immigration reform.

Through the Secure Communities database the federal government uses to track and hold detainees in local jails across the country, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) essentially coopts local police to act as federal immigration agents.   works with local police authorities to target and detain suspected undocumented immigrants. The Department of Homeland Security has recently made ICE a requirement for all jurisdictions in the nation, but the increase in non-crime related deportations that have occurred have caused many communities in the Bay Area to resist the partnership.

In response, Assembly memeber Tom Ammiano has been pushing for the approval of the state-wide TRUST Act, which would allow communities to op-out of Secure Communities, undoing what Mass calls “the lynch pin between local law enforcement and federal immigration officials.”

The city is not reimbursed for the holding fees by the federal government and it unfairly targets individuals who are not be involved in any criminal activity. While the Coalition and ACLU recommend the Berkeley Police Department not enforce civil immigration detainers under any circumstances, the Police Review Commission suggests instead that enforcement would only occur where an arrestee has been charged with a serious or violent felony offense in the last five years.

Although the work session was intended to present Council members with enough information to vote on various motions of revision to the Berkeley Police Department’s mutual aid memoranda of understanding with federal agencies, no decisions were made during the later City Council meeting. All proposals will be revisited in September.

The Feds are watching — badly


So, you’re a law enforcement officer in training for participation on a local Joint Terrorism Task Force. Or a student at the United States Military Academy at West Point, involved in the counterterrorism training program developed in partnership with the FBI. Or you’re an FBI agent training up to deal with terrorist threats.

Get ready for FBI training in dealing with Arab and Muslim populations.

Take note that “Western cultural values” include “rational, straight line thinking” and a tendency to “identify problems and solve them through logical decision-making process” — while “Arab cultural values” are “emotional based” and “facts are colored by emotion and subjectivity.”

Be advised that Arabs have “no concept of privacy” and “no concept of ‘constructive criticism'” and that in Arab culture it is “acceptable to interrupt conversations to convey information or make requests.”

“Westerners think, act, then feel,” an FBI powerpoint briefing notes, while “Arabs feel, act, then think.”

Those are some of the most dramatic examples of racial profiling and outright racist stereotyping revealed in thousands of pages of documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the Bay Guardian, the ACLU of Northern California and the Asian Law Caucus.

The documents show a pattern of cultural insensitivity, sometimes bordering on the ridiculous, not only tolerated by promoted as official instructions by the FBI. The records also show a broad pattern of surveillance of people who have engaged in no criminal activity and aren’t even suspected of crimes, but have been targeted because of their race or religion.

Pieces of this story have come out over the past year as the ACLU has charged the FBI with racial profiling and Attorney General Eric Holder has insisted it’s not happening. And some of the documents — which are not always properly dated — may be a few years old.

But none of it is ancient history: All of the material has been used by the FBI in the past few years, under the Obama administration.

This is the first complete report with the full details on a pattern of behavior that is, at the very least, disturbing — and in some parts, reminiscent of the notorious (and widely discredited) COINTELPRO program that sought to undermine and disrupt political groups in the 1960s.

The information suggests that the federal government is using methods that are not only imprecise and xenophobic but utterly ineffective in protecting the American public.

“This is the worst way to pursue security,” Hatem Bazian, professor of Near East Studies at UC Berkeley, told us.


Dozens of documents attempt to describe “Arabs and Muslims” but other groups aren’t left out of the sweeping stereotyping and blatant racism and xenophobia that the FBI has used in its training guides. One training presentation is titled “The Chinese.” The materials give such tips as “informality is perceived as disrespectful.” The presentation warns “expect your gift (money) to be refused” but advises to give “a simple gift with significant meaning- tangerines or oranges (with stems/leaves.)” But “never give a clock as a gift! (death!)”

And if those in the training on “The Chinese” find themselves in “interactions with the opposite sex,” then “touching, too many compliments, may imply a romantic liaison is desired — be careful!”

The vast majority of the “cultural awareness” training materials imply that the authors believe that the law enforcement personnel receiving the training will never be female or interact with female members of the groups they describe. Some warn repeatedly to never ask Arabs how “females in their family” are doing in polite conversation.

A presentation on “Arab and Muslim culture” compares the western thought process with that of all Arabs. According to the FBI, westerners are “rational” thinkers; Arabs, on the other hand, are “emotion based.” A slideshow on cross-cultural interrogation techniques says, “It is characteristic of the Arabic mind to be swayed more by words than ideas and more by ideas than facts.”

Bazian said the FBI’s generalizations about the Arab intellect are “ideological constructs reflective of the orientalist discourse.”

“Many of these individuals have not done any primary sociological, psychological, or historical work in the Arab/Muslim world,” said Bazian, who works on UC Berkeley’s Islamophobia Research & Documentation Project. “What they basically do is take a text from a particular historical period and pick these points and put it as reflective of contemporary Muslim society. Most of these statements have no basis in any critical analysis. They’re not rooted in any type of research.”

Included in the FBI’s recommended reading list for counterterrorism agents-in-training is the “Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam,” in which “Islam expert Robert Spencer reveals Islam’s ongoing, unshakeable quest for global conquest and why the West today faces the same threat as the Crusaders did.”

It’s not exactly an academically sound piece of work, Bazian told us. Spencer and his cohorts are “political hacks,” the professor said. “They come from neo-con backgrounds. Even saying ‘extreme right wing’ is giving them credit; they’re way down below the cliff. They create this contrast between western society and the rest of the world based on a nostalgic idea of western society.”

Arab culture is often the target these days, but the rhetoric recalls that used during the Chinese Exclusionary Act era, and toward Latinos in the United States today, Bazian said.

“They pick on the weakest, most vulnerable people in western society at a particular time and lay blame on them,” he said.

The FBI’s xenophobic approach to interrogation training—which involves warning new agents that “If an Arab is scared, he will often lie to try to avoid trouble”—is not even productive, Bazian said.

“If you go to people with professional training in interrogation and investigation, they’ll say none of this gives them access to security. If anything, it creates a greater global misunderstanding.”


And the creation of misunderstanding doesn’t stop there. The FBI is also involved in an intelligence-gathering method known as racial mapping. Racial mapping involves local FBI offices tracking groups in their “domains” based on race and ethnicity.

In blog post, the ACLU writes, “Empirical data show that terrorists and criminals do not fit neat racial, ethnic, nation-origin or religious stereotypes, and using such flawed profiles is a recipe for failure.” In the Counterterrorism Textbook read by all trainees the FBI seems to agree, warning multiple times that there is no such thing as a typical terrorist and that making assumptions based on stereotypes is dangerous and unproductive.

Yet the FBI files we’ve acquired reveal that the bureau consistently does just that. Though the Department of Justice prohibited race from being “used to any degree” in law enforcement investigations in 2003, a convenient and potentially unconstitutional exception allows racial profiling in national security matters.

When the FBI created its Domestic Investigation and Operations Guide in 2008, it used that loophole to permit the mapping of racial and ethnic demographic information and to keep tabs on “behavioral characteristics reasonably associated with a particular criminal or terrorist element of an ethnic community,” the ACLU reported.

Communities in San Francisco have been the victims of this prejudicial loophole more than once. In 2009, the ACLU reported that the FBI justified mapping and investigating the Chinese American population in the city because “within this community there has been organized crime for generations.” Likewise, the bureau collected demographic data on the Russian population because of the “Russian criminal enterprises” known to exist in San Francisco.

The loophole, however, may not even apply to these investigations in the first place.

According to Michael German, a 16-year veteran of the FBI and senior analyst with the ACLU, these investigations don’t fit the national security description. “In intelligence notes on Chinese and Russian organized crime, those are not national security issues,” German told us. “Those are all clearly criminal investigations.”

German has brought attention to another troubling use of racial mapping — documents revealing that the FBI’s Atlanta bureau tracks Georgia’s African American population.

The stated reason is a threat of black separatist groups; the documents name the New Black Panther Party and the Black Hebrew Israelites as the black separatist groups that pose a threat.

German wrote about this problematic practice in a May 29 article on the website Firedoglake.

“The problem with these documents,” German told us, “is that it’s not black separatists or alleged black separatists who are being tracked — it’s the entire black community in Georgia.”

“Those individuals and those communities are being targeted only for their race,” German said. “Were it not for their race they wouldn’t be part of that assessment. There is no reason to do that, accept to treat that community differently than the way it treats other communities. It’s problematic from a constitutional standpoint.”

The New Black Panther Party was founded in Dallas and has mostly East Coast chapters. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate United States hate groups, “The group portrays itself as a militant, modern-day expression of the black power movement (it frequently engages in armed protests of alleged police brutality and the like), but principals of the original Black Panther Party of the 1960s and 1970s— a militant, but non-racist, left-wing organization — have rejected the new Panthers as a ‘black racist hate group’ and contested their hijacking of the Panther name and symbol.” The Black Hebrew Israelites is another fringe group, an apocalyptic group whose ideology holds that black Americans are God’s chosen people.

Both groups have written and spoken record of racist and violent rhetoric, but record of violent or criminal acts are hard to find.

“I’d say they’re a fairly small part of the radical right, and generally quite small. As far as we know, there is virtually no connection between these groups and criminal activity,” Mark Potok, a senior fellow with the SPLC, told the Guardian.

According to Potok, the center’s list of hate groups in operation in 2011 includes four organizations classified as black separatist, which, between them, have 140 chapters. Those chapters are counted as 140 of the list’s 1,018 groups.

“Most of the rest of the list are white supremacist groups,” Potok notes. “There are some exceptions — anti-gay groups and anti-Muslim groups.” After a quick count, Potok found 688 groups to be “straight-up white supremacist.”

The majority of these hate groups may be white supremacist — but the FBI is not involved in tracking white populations.

Last October, the FBI’s press office responded to the ACLU’s concerns with racial mapping. “These efforts are intended to address specific threats, not particular communities,” the agency’s statement reads.

“These domain management efforts seek to use existing, available government data to locate and better understand the communities that are potential victims of the threats. There must be an understanding of the communities we protect in order to focus our limited human and financial resources in the areas where those resources are most needed.”

With that defense, resources continue to pour into racial mapping efforts.

Black separatist organizations are not the only groups to be targeted for political beliefs. Groups such as “anarchist extremists” and “animal rights/environmental extremists” are also, according to the FBI, groups to watch out for.

A training presentation for the Bay Area’s Joint Terrorism Task Force includes a list of those groups: “animal rights/eco terrorism, anarchists, white separatists, black separatists, militia/sovereign citizens, and ‘lone offender’.”

How do you spot a potential “animal rights extremist”? According to the documents, “ideology and concepts” found among this group includes a “complete vegan lifestyle,” and activities include the promotion of “anti-capitalist literature.” In other words, your roommate is probably a terrorist.


Racial mapping is not the only FBI practice that targets people just for being members of groups “associated with crimes.” The FBI routinely gathers information on Muslims through deceptive “community outreach” programs.

Memoranda we’ve obtained reveal that FBI agents, operating under the guise of community outreach, attended various events hosted by local Muslim organizations in order to gather intelligence between 2007 and 2009.

When agents attended Ramadan Iftar dinners in San Francisco, they wrote down participants’ contact information and documented their conversations and opinions. At an alleged outreach event at CSU Chico, they recorded a conversation with a student about the Saudi Student Association’s activities and even took the student’s picture. That information was sent to the FBI in Washington, DC, the ACLU reported.

Writing down information on individuals’ First Amendment activities—in this case without any evidence that they were notified or asked—violates the federal Privacy Act, the ACLU says. Using access to community events to gather personal information undermines the FBI’s stated effort to form relationships with Muslim leaders and community members.

And covert surveillance can also have an immediate and hazardous impact on the unwitting subjects.

“It’s becoming more of a public discourse that these FBI background checks are affecting immigration status, the ability to send money back home, and generally creating an environment of fear,” said Miriam Zouvounis, membership coordinator with San Francisco’s Arab Resource and Organizing Center.

The organization has helped clients who have been detained for months because their names were mistakenly placed on a no-fly list, and others whose immigration processes have taken up to ten years because they were erroneously perceived as threatening, Zouvounis said.

“The process of information collecting on covert and overt levels is accelerating, and definitely a present reality in San Francisco. People don’t want to be civically engaged if that material’s being used against them,” she said.


“Extremism online is the most serious international terrorist threat in the world.” Or so says FBI training materials in a presentation entitled “Extremism online,” meant for those training to be online covert employees. The documents teach OCEs to scan through comment threads and enter chat rooms, searching for people whose speech may be “operational.”

This surveillance has led to investigations.

Some of the documents are individual files and summaries of individual files, and many note that the person (often someone who was convicted, so the name isn’t redacted in the documents) was “detected via the Internet.” Some examples: “Mohamad Osman Mohamud, detected via the Internet, discussing Jihad plans” and “Hosam Smadi, detected via the Internet: online chats.” Both men were 19 when they were convicted of crimes.

These men — and the many more who have not been accused of any criminal activity but are likely under surveillance or investigation by OCEs — could have been “detected via the Internet” in a variety of ways, according to German.

“It could be that the chats were open source, or that an informant was in the chat room, or a person participating simply turned them over to the FBI, none of which would require any legal process,” German explained.

“It could also be monitored under FISA [ the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] or traditional criminal wiretaps, which would require court warrants (secret ones under FISA). Finally, the stored chat logs retained on third party servers could have been obtained with Patriot Act Section 215 orders, or what’s called a “D” order under the Stored Communications Act (if held for over 180 days),” German detailed in an email.

So what kind of speech are OCEs looking out for to peg potential terrorist threats? The Extremism Online presentation has a list of “major themes and language used in online extremist writings,” which includes Islam-related terms such as “Caliphate, Al-Ansar, Al-Rafidah, Mushrik, and Munafiq” as well as the Arabic words “Akhi, Uhkti, Ameen, Du’aa, Shari’ah, and Iman” (brother, sister, amen, prayer, Islamic law, and faith.) Other words the agents are told to look out for: “crusaders, hypocrites, dogs and pigs,” and any discussion of “occupation of Muslim lands.”

The FBI can really get into your business if agents confiscate your possessions. Personal computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices, according to the documents, are routinely checked out at Regional Computer Forensics Labs.

The nearest one to San Francisco is in Menlo Park, where employees brag of having investigated thousands of pieces of data.

Law enforcement routinely confiscates property after arrests, and if local cops are involved with the FBI through the Joint Terrorism Task Forces or other partnerships, they may very well send the belongings of those arrested to be checked out at a local RCFL. But there are other ways the FBI can obtain your electronics.

“Certainly the FBI has the authority to obtain computers and other devices with search warrants, either traditional search warrants where the individual is given notice or expedited warrants where the person isn’t aware,” German told the Guardian, noting that the second type of warrant is the preferred method, for obvious reasons, when the Feds plan to search a confiscated computer.

“The FBI also works with immigrations and customs enforcement, so laptops and other devices seized at the border the FBI can gain access to. There are myriad ways they can get them.”


A 2009 FBI memorandum on investigating suspected terrorists reveals that the Bureau encourages its agents to implement a “disruption strategy” that German wrote is “eerily reminiscent” of the COINTELPRO tactics used to stop political organizers in the1960s. “If the risk to public safety is too great, or if all significant intelligence has been collected, and/or the threat is otherwise resolved, investigators may, with substantive desk coordination and concurrence, implement a disruption strategy,” one memo reads. Investigators can conduct interviews, make arrests, or use any number of other undefined “tools” to “effectively disrupt subject’s [sic] activities.” Such disruption strategies have been used in the past to investigate and shut down First Amendment-protected activity, German said. The reintroduction of such tactics could open the door for a major breach of the subjects’ constitutional rights.


“After September 11th, 2001, the FBI realigned its mission and purpose to reflect the global and domestic threats that face the US,” begins an orientation packet for members of Joint Terrorism Task Forces. “FBI director Robert M. Meuller III defined the following as the top ten priorities (in order of importance) that confront the Bureau today,” Number one on the list: Protect the United States from terrorist attack.

Indeed, after 9/11, the FBI prioritized terrorism investigations, a shift from the previous focus on criminal investigations. Classified as national security threats, these investigations are not subject to the same type of privacy and anti-racial discrimination protections that other criminal investigations might be.

Terrorist threats, apparently, are to be found in mosques, in online conversations that involve criticism of US foreign policy, in entire populations of African Americans or Chinese Americans in given areas. In recent years, simply speaking Arabic online or being black makes a person a suspect and potential target of surveillance.

Look out America, especially members of that celebrated “melting pot.” The feds are watching.

FBI is scared of “black separatists”


The FBI is chasing “black separatist” groups and designating them as a potential threat — although there’s no evidence that any of the so-called separatist groups are actually a danger to national security — records obtained by the ACLU, the Asian Law Caucus and the Bay Guardian show.

The documents are the latest information we’ve received as a result of legal action demanding that the federal government reveal the extent of its domestic spying. Records released earlier this spring showed federal agents spying on mosques.

The docs released May 29 show that the FBI has identified two “separatist” groups — the New Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam. The NBPP is hardly a powerhouse organization, to the extent that it even exists, and while the Southern Poverty Law Center points to its racist and antisemitic rantings, there is zero evidence that it’s part of a serious terrorist plot. As ACLU senior policy counsel Michael German notes:

Internet searches of “Black Separatist terrorism,” “Black Separatist bombing,” and “Black Separatist shooting” fail to bring up any recent incidents that could be fairly described as terrorist violence. No “Black Separatist” terrorist incidents are included in the FBI’s list of “Major Terrorism Cases: Past and Present,” nor on the more comprehensive list of terrorist attacks going back to 1980, which are detailed in an FBI report entitled “Terrorism 2002-2005.” While Black nationalist groups like the Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Army were certainly involved in political violence back in the 1970s, they no longer exist, and the last acts of violence attributed to either group were more than two decades ago.

Among the others of concern to the feds: The Black Hebrew Israelite Movement, whose members are a bit odd and maybe annoying — but terrorists?

Here’s the basic problem, according to the ACLU:

First, for the FBI to produce training programs that portray groups as violent threats based on old and misleading evidence and false associations is improper, and can only misdirect investigative resources. And because the groups highlighted have little in common save their racial identities, these flawed trainings will encourage racial profiling, rather than fact-based investigations. Second, the presentations’ focus on the unconventional ideologies of these modern groups tends to suggest a direct connection between belief and violence, which will again lead to inappropriate investigations based on First Amendment-protected activities rather than evidence of criminal conduct. Finally, even where these inappropriate investigations based on race and ideology fail to find evidence of violence, under its new rules the FBI may continue to pursue these groups under what it calls a “disruption strategy.”

Some of the latest documents show that the FBI is way, way out of touch with political reality. The records include a training memo on anarchists that waxes nostalgic about the anarchists of old, who were “highly dedicates to a specific cause/ideoogy” and “turn[ed] to criminal activity out of frustration.” Oh, but the kids these days? They’re just “criminals seeking an ideology to justify their activities” and “generally unorganized and reactive.”

Damn. They haven’t met the same anarchists I’ve met.

Oh, but there’s more. These crazy folks are “paranoid/security conscious” and “distrustful/resentful of authority figures.”

I wonder how many special agents it took to figure that out.

For some random reason, the section on anarchists includes a photo of a German antinuclear demonstration and apparently notes (much is blacked out) that you can find directions for making bombs on the Internet.

There’s also a training section on “The Chinese” which the ACLU notes is full of racial stereotypes. It includes things like “The Classic fighting over the bill for lunch and dinner” and “too many compliments may imply a romantic liason is desired. Be careful!” Among the sources the FBI cites for this info? “The Idiot’s Guide to Modern China.” Wow.

All I can say is: Your tax dollars, hard at work.

Lee veto protects the SFPD’s ability to spy on you


Mayor Ed Lee yesterday vetoed legislation that would have banned San Francisco Police Department officers working with the FBI from conducting covert surveillance on law-abiding citizens. Not terrorists, not criminals, not foreign spies, but people like you (well, people like you who are Muslim, protesters, visitors to certain websites, or people who otherwise have caught the attention of the FBI) who are not even suspected of criminal activity.

While Lee says he will support a so-called “consensus ordinance” introduced yesterday by Sup. Jane Kim, the sponsor of the vetoed measure, his veto letter makes clear that he wants San Francisco to reserve the right to spy on whoever the FBI wants to, echoing post-9/11 fear-mongering and right-wing bait-and-switch tactics while still trying to placate civil libertarians with his rhetoric.

“This ordinance intends to amend the Administrative code to require the San Francisco Police Department to either terminate a counterterrorism Memorandum of Understanding with the Federal Bureau of Investigation or materially restrict the interaction between the two law enforcement bodies,” his veto letter begins.

That MOU with the FBI is the one that the SFPD secretly entered into back in 2007 (which was exposed last year by the American Civil Liberties Union after a long public records court battle) that placed SFPD officers under FBI control without recognizing state and local privacy and civil rights restrictions. The resulting scandal caused the SFPD to apologize and work with the Police Commission on a general order clarifying that local officers must obey those restrictions, which Lee, Police Chief Greg Suhr, and some supervisors have maintained is good enough.

But six members of the Board of Supervisors didn’t agree with this “trust us” approach, noting that future chiefs and Police Commissioners can change the policy at any time, and saying protecting the privacy and civil rights of city residents and visitors is an important enough issue to be formally codified in local law.

John Crew, the police practices expert for the ACLU, has said that the only reason to oppose the ordinance is if officials want to reserve the right to spy on law-abiding citizens, and Lee seemed to signal as much by writing “the restrictions it places on our Police Department overly constrain their ability to protect our City from very real threats.” And he enumerated those “threats” by equating those being spied on for their political beliefs or because of their ethnicity with terrorists who want to blow us up.

“Recently, the United States Department of Homeland Security raised San Francisco’s risk rating – we are now considered the fourth-highest terrorism target risk in the nation along with cities like New York and Washington, DC. Protecting San Franciscans is the most important responsibility I have as Mayor. This goal, however, does not justify a trampling of constitutionally protected principles, and we have a government structure in place to ensure this dichotomy never materializes,” Lee wrote.

See what he did there? There was nothing in this measure that limited the FBI or SFPD’s ability to monitor suspected terrorists, which they’re already free to broadly define, particularly since 9/11 and the USA Patriot Act and other police state changes, including the very creation of the Orwellian-named Department of Homeland Security. But civil libertarians have been trying to hold the line and prevent the FBI – which has a long and sordid history of spying on law-abiding citizens and using that intel for political sabotage – from going after anyone who looks different or criticizes this country’s leaders or policies.

It’s great that Lee, who was a civil rights attorney decades ago, gives lip service to that concern and says he’s willing to work with the Coalition for a Safe San Francisco on legislation that would allow a hearing by the Police Commission of any future JOAs with the FBI after it’s been signed. But Kim’s statement that, “It’s a compromise that essentially will accomplish the same thing” just isn’t true, as the activists who pushed this tell us. The vetoed measure was already a compromise, with Kim making many amendments at the request of Suhr and repeatedly delaying final consideration of the measure so any other concerns could be addressed.

The JOA should have been suspended and rewritten, as the city of Portland, Oregon did when these same concerns were raised there, with no detriment to its relationship with the FBI. But even that request to suspend our JOA had already been removed from the watered down ordinance that Lee vetoed. “When we work together to create solutions that represent our shared values, we make San Francisco a safer, better City together,” Lee piously wrote, glossing over his unwillingness to work with the coalition before vetoing the measure. “He won’t even meet with civil rights groups on this,” Crew told me last week, as the Coalition was trying to talk with Lee to head off a veto.

Activists like Shahid Buttar, executive director of Bill of Rights Defense Committee and a member of the Coalition, are trying to look on the bright side and they say they’re happy that Lee now wants to work with activists on the issue. But the compromise and consensus are what’s been happening over the last several months – now, it’s simply Lee bowing to the SFPD rather than trying to regulate it and trying to save face on a bad veto.

As Buttar told us, “It’s disappointing that Mayor Lee would choose to overrule the voice of residents of the city and their representatives on the Board of Supervisors.”