Media misses connection between BART tragedy and settlement


BART continues to stonewall important questions about whether it was training scab drivers to break the recent strike by its unions when its trainee-driven train killed two workers on Oct. 19 — a stance made possible by the failure of the mainstream media to connect the dots or correct the anti-union bias that characterized its coverage of this long labor impasse.

The failure of local journalists to highlight the connection between that tragedy and the subsequent decision by the district to suddenly soften its stance and sweeten its offer — within hours of the National Transportation Safety Board revealing that a trainee was driving and that BART’s “maintenance run” story was a deception — is as myopic as it is appalling.

After all, the daily newpapers, television stations, and wire services did finally, dutifully report that a trainee was driving, even as they failed to point out to readers and viewers the significance of that disclosure or ask the district, “Why were you training drivers during a strike? Were you planning to offer service during the strike?”

We have asked those questions of the district, and when we got misleading obfuscations, we asked again and again, and our questions are still being largely ignored (actually, we just got a limited but important response, see below). And here’s why they matter: Because if the district was planning to run trains during the strike, it reinforces the unions’ contention that the district was hard-bargaining to force a strike that it was preparing to break, a plan that became untenable when two people died, just as the unions warned might happen if the district ran trains without experienced drivers.

This should be a huge scandal, the kind of thing that might force General Manager Grace Crunican to resign and BART directors to lose their seats — except for the fact that the media is ignoring this simple, obvious narrative and failing to do its job.

The East Bay Express, which today published an excellent article on how the San Francisco Chronicle and Bay Area News Group (which includes the Oakland Tribune, Contra Costa Times, and San Jose Mercury News) mislead the public about the BART standoff, is the only other media outlet in the region to join the Bay Guardian in highlighting the relevant facts in this story.

Not only have these newspapers written some truly atrociously anti-worker editorials, but even the supposedly objective news stories have been clearly biased in their emphasis and omissions. Why else would they repeatedly emphasize a proposal by an obscure Republican member of the Orinda City Council to prohibit future BART strikes — a bit of election-related grandstanding that has no chance of passing in Democrat-controlled Sacramento — while failing to analyze why BART suddenly sweetened its offer beyond what Crunican said the district could afford?

But this could be a situation that backfires on local media managers considering that the truth will probably come out eventually, even if it’s long after the media spotlight has moved on. NTSB investigations can take up to a year, but they are remarkably thorough and it will probably eventually discuss why these drivers were being trained.

The Assembly Committee on Labor and Employment announced yesterday that it will also hold a hearing to “get to the bottom” of the tragedy, and one can only hope that someone on that committee will grill the district about its intentions in running that ill-fated train and conducting new driver training just one day into the latest strike.

UPDATE: As I was posting this story, I finally heard back from BART spokesperson Alicia Trost, who made it sound like preparations to break the strike weren’t news — even though it may be news to most newspaper readers.

“The District has publicly acknowledged, dating back to a September 13, 2013 Metropolitan Transportation Commission subcommitee meeting, that BART has been training some non-union employees to operate limited passenger train service in the event of an extended strike if so authorized by the Board of Director. The Board was never requested to authorize revenue service during the strike,” she wrote by email.

Yet those public aknowledgements don’t appear to have made it to the public. And when the Chronicle’s Matier & Ross did run an anonymously sourced item breaking the news that BART may be training replacement drivers, BART refused to comment, the duo soft-peddled the scoop, and the relevation failed to make it into the larger narratives the newspaper offered about BART.

And even now, Trost followed up her admission by minimizing its importance, saying that the ill-fated train was also being run for maintenance purposes, which the NTSB had also reported.

“BART has to ‘exercise the system’ by running trains on the tracks to prevent rust build up. Rust can build up quickly and will interfere with train service. BART continued to run inspection trains throughout the entire strike just as it did during the July strike,” she wrote.

But the real issue is whether the district deliberately triggered two strikes that the heavily impacted public angrily blamed on workers, thanks largely to how the standoff had been cast by the mainstream media and the district. After all, BART chose a notoriously anti-union labor consultant as its lead negotiator, a decision that even Willie Brown criticized in his Sunday column, although Brown cast the district as just dumb instead of intentionally forcing a strike.

I’m still waiting for Trost to answer my follow-up questions, and I’ll update this post if and when I hear back. I’m also still waiting to hear from BART Board President Tom Radulovich, whose progressive credibility has been tarnished in the eyes of some for playing such a lead role in BART’s media strategy.

Thankfully, the divisive standoff between BART and its unions seems to be over, but the questions about what really drove it and how its conclusion came about are still relevant and largely unanswered. And that says a great deal about the state of journalism today.

Meister: A Halloween invasion from Mars


Guardian columnist Dick Meister is a longtime Bay Area journalist.

“2X2L calling CQ … 2X2L calling CQ, New York … Isn’t there anyone on the
air? Isn’t there anyone on the air? Isn’t there anyone?”

Millions of Americans — panic-stricken, many of them — waited anxiously
for a response to the message, delivered over the CBS radio network in slow,
flat, mournful tones on the crisp Halloween eve of Oct. 30, 1938.

“Isn’t … there … anyone?”

There wasn’t. Listeners heard only the slapping sounds of the Hudson River.

Many of New York’s residents were dead. The others had fled in panic from
“five great machines,” as tall as the tallest of the city’s skyscrapers,
that the radio announcer at CQ, New York, had described in the last words he
would ever utter. The metallic monsters had crossed the Hudson “like a man
wading a brook,” destroying all who stood in their way.

“Our army is wiped out, artillery, air force — everything wiped out,”
gasped the radio announcer.

It was the War of the Worlds, Mars versus Earth, and the Martians were
winning with horrifying ease. Their giant machines had landed in the New
Jersey village of Grovers Mill, and soon they would be coming to your town,
too … and yours … and yours. Nothing could stop them.

The War of the Worlds had sprung with frightening clarity from the extremely
fertile imagination of Orson Welles and the other young members of the
Mercury Theater of the Air who adopted Wells’ novel and dramatized it so
brilliantly — and believably — from the CBS radio studios on that long ago
Halloween eve.

Their use of realistic sounding bulletins and other tools of radio news
departments made it sound as if Martian machines truly were everywhere, and
everywhere invincible.

Studies done at the time show that at least one million of the program’s
estimated six million listeners panicked.

“People all over the United States were praying, crying, fleeing frantically
to escape death from the Martians,” noted Hadley Cantril, an actual
Princeton professor who directed the most detailed study of the panic that
was caused in part by the pronouncements of “Richard Pierson,” a bogus
Princeton professor played by Welles.

“Some ran to rescue loved ones. Others telephoned farewells or warnings,
hurried to inform neighbors … summoned ambulances and police cars … For
weeks after the broadcast, newspapers carried human interest stories
relating the shock and terror of local citizens.”

“When the Martians started coming north from Trenton we really got scared,”
a New Jerseyian told one of Professor Cantril’s interviewers. “They would
soon be in our town. I drove right through Newberg and never even knew I
went through it … I was going eighty miles an hour most of the way. I
remember not giving a damn, as what difference did it make which way I’d get

Those who didn’t join the streams of cars that clogged the highways clogged
the phone lines or huddled in cellars and living rooms to await the end,
some with pitchfork, shotgun or Bible in hand.

“I knew it was something terrible and I was frightened,” a woman recalled.
“When they told us what road to take, and to get up over the hills, and the
children began to cry, the family decided to go. We took blankets and my
granddaughter wanted to take the cat and the canary.”

It was an extremely rare occurrence., as Cantril noted: “Probably never
before have so many people in all walks of life and in all parts of the
country become so suddenly and so intensely disturbed …”

And never since then has the country experienced such deep and widespread
fear and anxiety. Not even after Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor
three years later. Not even in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept.
11, 2001.

It was a unique display of widespread panic. Many people actually believed
their very world was coming to an end and there was nothing anyone could do
to stop it.

Welles had made clear at the start that the presentation was fictional. But
radio listeners generally paid little attention to opening announcements,
and many Sunday night listeners commonly turned first to the very popular
Edgar Bergen-Charley McCarthy show that was broadcast over another network
in the same 8 p.m. time slot, turning to the Mercury Theater out of
curiosity only later.

What they heard that Sunday were primarily news reports and commentaries
ingeniously patterned on the real reports and commentaries that were
constantly interrupting programs to report the aggressive actions of Nazi
Germany and other events that would shortly lead to the outbreak of World
War II.

People expected to hear the worst. Most also expected that what they heard
would be accurate, radio having supplanted newspapers as the most trusted
and relied upon of the mass media.

It helped, too, that much of the information was presented by “experts” …
Welles and other make-believe professors from universities around the world,
supposed astronomers, army officers and Red Cross officials, even the
otherwise unidentified “secretary of the interior.”

“I believed the broadcast as soon as I heard the professor from Princeton
and the officials in Washington,” as one listener recalled.

Even relatively sophisticated and well-informed listeners were fooled by
what Cantril cited as the program’s “sheer dramatic excellence.”

Events developed slowly, starting with the relatively credible — brief news
bulletins calmly reporting some “atmospheric disturbances,” later some
“explosions of incandescent gas,” and finally the discovery of what appeared
to be a large meteorite. Only then came the incredible — the discovery that
the “meteorite” was a Martian spaceship, reported in a halting, incredulous
manner by the “reporter” supposedly broadcasting live from Grovers Mill.

The police, the New Jersey State Guard, the army — none could subdue the
invaders. Finally, the “secretary of the interior” announced that man could
do no more, that the only hope for deliverance from the Martians was to
“place our faith in God.”

Few listeners were in a position to make independent judgements about
matters Martian. Few knew astronomy, and what standards does one use to
judge an invasion from Mars anyway?

Listeners could easily have turned to other radio networks for the truth, of
course, but many were too caught up in the masterful drama of the CBS
program to think of that.

Even some people who lived near the alleged invasion site were fooled. “I
looked out the window and everything was the same as usual,” said one, “so I
thought it hadn’t reached our section yet.”

The second half of the hour-long broadcast, with “Professor Pierson”
wandering dazedly through the deserted and ravaged streets of New York,
should have made it obvious to even the most gullible that they had been
listening to drama rather than news. Welles, shocked and shaken by the
listener response, followed that quickly with an ad-libbed assurance that it
had all been make-believe.

But by then, many people had left their radios. They had other ways in which
to spend their last hours on earth.

Copyright © 2013 Dick Meister
Guardian columnist Dick Meister is a longtime Bay Area journalist

Friends in the shadows


It’s a simple fact of life: Money buys influence. But in San Francisco, despite strict sunshine laws to illuminate donations to city agencies and gifts to the regulators from the regulated, money still circulates in the shadows when it flows through the coffers of “Friends” in high places.

Major real estate developers, city contractors, and large corporations often lend financial support to San Francisco city departments, to the tune of millions of dollars every year. But the money doesn’t just flow directly to city agencies, where it’s easily tracked by disclosure laws. Instead, it goes through private nonprofits that sometimes label themselves as “Friends Of…” these departments.

They include Friends of City Planning, Friends of the Library, a foundation formerly known as Friends of the San Francisco Department of Public Health, Friends of SF Environment, and Friends of San Francisco Animal Care and Control.

The Friends pay for programs the departments supposedly cannot cover on their own. Bond money can build a skyscraper, but sometimes not fill it with furniture. Agencies are barred by law from funding an employee mixer or a conference trip, so departments turn to their Friends to fill in the gaps. Adding bells and whistles to city websites, holding lunchtime lectures, hiring a grant writer — or, in the case of the Department of Public Health, bolstering health services for vulnerable populations — these are all examples of what gets funded.

The extra help can clearly be a good thing, but the lack of transparency around who’s giving money raises questions — especially if it’s a business gunning for a major contract or a permit to build a high-rise.

City agencies receive outside funding from a wide variety of sources. Sometimes grants are made by the federal government, or a well-established philanthropic foundation — and according to city law, gifts of $10,000 or higher must be approved by the Board of Supervisors. But in the case of organizations like Friends, which are created specifically to assist city government agencies, the original funders aren’t always identifiable. And the collaboration is frequently much closer, with city staff members serving on Friends boards in a few cases.

the circle of donations to "friends of" foundations

Friends board members told the Guardian that their partnership with government helps bolster city agencies in a time of increasing austerity, in service of the public good. But do the special relationships these influential insiders hold with high-ranking city officials come into play when awarding a contract, issuing a permit, making a hiring decision, or determining whether a developer’s request for a rule exemption should be honored? Without more transparency, it’s tough to tell.

City disclosure rules state that any gift to a department must be prominently displayed on that department’s website, along with any financial interest the donor has involving the city. But Friends and other outside funders are under no obligation to share their supporters’ names, much less financial ties, when they distribute grants. Meanwhile, the disclosure rules that are on the books seem to be frequently ignored, misunderstood, or unenforced, our investigation discovered.

How are donors repaid for their support? Consider the controversy earlier this year around Pet Food Express, which won approval in June for another store in the Marina District despite opposition from four locally owned pet stores in the area that fear competing with a large national chain. Pet Food Express won the unlikely support of the city’s Small Business Commissioners, some of whom reversed their 2009 positions opposing the chain’s previous application.

SF Animal Care and Control Director Rebecca Katz personally lobbied the commission to support Pet Food Express, at least partially because the company has donated pet supplies valued at $50,000 to $70,000 per year to the department. That’s a lot of money for a cash-strapped city department, but a pittance compared to the profits of an expanding national chain.

It’s moments of clarity like those, when the public can easily trace the line from donations to political influence, that show why disclosure is so crucial. But those moments are few and far between when trying to trace the funders of private foundations and Friends organizations, where deals often happen in the dark.



At the Merchant Exchange Building in May, a crowd of high-profile real-estate developers mixed and mingled with city planners, commissioners, and even Mayor Ed Lee, wine glasses in hand. Sources told the Guardian that most of the planning staff was present, and not all were happy about having ribbons and name tags affixed to their shirts, as if they were being auctioned off.

With around 500 in attendance, the event was an annual fundraiser hosted by the Friends of San Francisco City Planning, a nonprofit organization that accepts contributions of up to $2,500 per individual to lend a helping hand to the Planning Department. This year’s event was titled “Incubator Startups, New Jobs for the Future,” hinting that the development community shares the mayor’s affinity for new tech startups and the droves of high-salaried IT professionals they’ve attracted to the city.

Some Friends of City Planning board members are major real-estate developers who routinely seek approval for major construction projects. Others are former planning commissioners, or have a background in community advocacy.

Amid widespread concern about displacement, gentrification, and the overall character of San Francisco’s built environment, no city department has greater influence than Planning. An individual’s interpretation of the Planning Code can carry tremendous weight; it’s a series of small decisions that shape a project’s profits and the look and feel of San Francisco’s future. And with cranes dotting the city’s skyline and market-rate construction catering to the wealthy while middle income residents get priced out, the amount of capital flowing through the development sector these days is astonishing.

In this dizzy climate, there might seem to be something askew about affluent developers and land-use attorneys rubbing elbows with city regulators, all eager to pass the hat for the Planning Department. Whiff of impropriety or no, the fundraiser appears to be totally legal.

“We aren’t violating the law — that I know,” Friends of City Planning Chair Dennis Antenore told the Guardian. “We’ve had legal advice on that for years.”

There is close collaboration between Friends of San Francisco City Planning and the Planning Department — a partnership so entrenched that it’s almost as if the nonprofit is an unofficial, private-sector branch of the agency.

“We are certainly thankful and appreciative,” Planning spokesperson Joanna Linsangan told the Guardian. “They’ve helped us for many, many years.” The additional funding is needed, she said, because “there isn’t a lot of wiggle room” in the departmental budget.

Each year, Planning Director John Rahaim submits a wish list to the Friends, outlining projects he wants funding for. This year, he requested $122,000 for a variety of initiatives, including training support to help planners assess proposals for formula retail (read: chain stores). That’s a hot-button issue lately, and one that shows how seemingly small decisions by planners can have big impacts.

When the department’s zoning administrator ruled that Jack Spade, a high-end clothing chain that opened up in the old Adobe Books location on 16th Street, wasn’t considered formula retail and therefore didn’t need a conditional use permit, neither widespread community outrage nor a majority vote by the Board of Appeals could reverse that flawed decision. It was a similar story with the Planning Commission’s Oct. 3 approval of the 555 Fulton mixed use project, where Planning Department support for exempting the grocery store for the area’s formula retail ban made it happen, to the delight of that developer.

Even though the planning director makes specific funding requests each year to the Friends and pitches the projects in person at their meetings — and the Friends publishes a list of the grants it awards to the department online — the Planning Department is not reporting those gifts to the Board of Supervisors.

“I confirm that the Planning Department did not receive any gifts,” Finance and IT Manager Keith DeMartini wrote in official gift reports submitted to the Board of Supervisors for the years 2011-12 and 2012-13. Those reports were sent to the board on Oct. 7 and Oct. 4, respectively, well after the July filing deadline and after the Guardian requested the missing reports.

The Friends typically funds two-thirds of the requests, said board member Alec Bash, totaling around $80,000 a year. In 2012, the Friends awarded a $25,000 grant to make the department’s new online permit-tracking system more user-friendly, making life a lot easier for developers.

When asked what safeguards are in place to prevent undue influence when the director is soliciting funding from a nonprofit partially controlled by developers, Linsangan responded, “those are two very separate things. One does not influence the other.”

She stated repeatedly that planners are not privy to information about individual contributors — but the fundraisers are organized by a board that includes identifiable developers, and anyone who attends can plainly see the donors in attendance. Nevertheless, Linsangan insisted that planners would not be swayed by this special relationship, saying, “That’s simply not the way we do things around here. We do things according to the Planning Code.”

But as the ruling on Jack Spade shows, as well as countless rulings by planners on whether a project is categorically exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act, interpreting the codes can involve considerable discretion.

The public can’t review a list of who wrote checks to the Friends of San Francisco City Planning for the May fundraiser. Since the organization waits a year between collecting the money and disbursing grants, donors stay shielded from required annual disclosures in tax filings.

But Antenore says the system was established with the public interest in mind. “We don’t reveal the contributors, because we don’t want anybody to have increased influence by a donation,” he insisted. Bash echoed this idea, saying the delay was to “allow for some breathing room.”

Unlike some of his fellow board members from the high-end development sector, Antenore has a history of being aligned with neighborhood interests on planning issues, helping author a 1986 ballot measure limiting downtown high-rise development. He emphasized that the developers on the Friends board are balanced out by more civic-minded individuals.

Still, developers who regularly submit permit applications for major construction projects sit on the Friends board. Among them are Larry Nibbi, a partial owner of Nibbi Bros.; Clark Manus, CEO of Heller Manus Architects; and Oz Erikson, CEO of the Emerald Fund development firm.

“We’re not making use of [the funding] in a way that benefits these people,” Antenore said. “I wouldn’t do this if I thought otherwise. I have been careful to maintain the integrity of this organization.” The money is meant to facilitate better planning, he added. “I don’t think there’s any conspiracy,” he said. “We’re not financing anything evil.”

Both the Planning Department and its Friends dismissed the idea that the donations could open the door to favoritism or undue influence. So why isn’t the department reporting gifts it receives from the Friends to the Board of Supervisors, or disclosing them on its website, as required by city law?

According to a 2008 City Attorney memo on reporting gifts to city departments, when an agency receives a gift of $100 or more, it “must report the gift in a public record and on the department’s website. The public disclosure must include the name of the donor(s) and the amount of the gift [and] a statement as to any financial interest the contributor has involving the city.”

John St. Croix, director of the San Francisco Ethics Commission, confirmed that’s the current standard, telling us, “The actual disclosure should be on the website of the department that received the gift.”

Linsangan said records of the gifts are indeed available — listed as “grants” in the department’s Annual Report. But while the 2011-12 report lists grants from sources such as the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency, there was no mention of Friends of City Planning.

The memo also says any gift of $10,000 and above must first be approved by a resolution of the Board of Supervisors. But last year, when the Friends provided $25,000 to upgrade the permit-tracking system, it wasn’t sanctioned by a board resolution. Asked why, Linsangan made it clear that she was not aware of any such requirement.

As is common, when it comes to adhering to disclosure laws, confusion abounds. And sometimes, only sometimes, politicos get caught.



When the head of a city agency fails to report gifts totaling $130,000, how much do you think he is fined?

City Librarian Luis Herrera failed to report receiving that amount in gifts and he was fined exactly $600 by the California Fair Political Practices Commission on Sept. 19. Specifically, Herrera had to file a form 700 with the FPPC to state the gifts he received. From 2008-2010, the forms he turned in had the “no reportable interests” box checked.

The money was used in what he calls the City Librarian’s Fund, which is the money he keeps on hand to pay for office parties and giving honorariums to poets and speakers who perform at the library’s branches, money that wasn’t disclosed on the very forms designed for reporting it.

There are two stories of how the fine came about. Longtime library advocate James Chaffee said that it was the result of a complaint he filed with the FPPC in April, and indeed, he sought and obtained many public documents revealing the money trail. San Francisco Public Library spokesperson Michelle Jeffers disagreed, saying that the fine was the result of an ongoing conversation with the FPPC to figure how exactly to file the gifts appropriately.

“The law wasn’t clear around these forms and it wasn’t clear if he had to report them,” she told the Guardian. “For amending the reports you have to pay a $200 fine for every year it was proposed. We keep scrupulous records on every pizza party we have.”

When government officials receive “gift of cash or goods,” they must report them annually in statements of economic interest, known as a Form 700, to the city Controller’s Office. The form is kind of a running tally of who is receiving gifts from whom, a way for the public to track money’s influence in government.

The gifts came from the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library, another nonprofit that bolsters city agency funding. Now Herrera has to list the $130,000 gifts from fiscal years 2008-09 and 2009-10 on his website.

What exactly does that accomplish? As it turns out, not a whole lot.

City Administrative Code 67.29-6 defines the reporting of gifts to city departments, and one of those requirements is to make a statement of “any financial interest the contributor has involving the city.” Now that Herrera lists the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library as donors on the department website, the statement of financial interest by the friends group is this: “none.”

There are myriad donors to the Friends of the SFPL, and the group doesn’t have to state the economic interests of its donors, or even mention who its donors are. The code requires gifts be reported to the controller, and the deputy city controller told us this doesn’t apply to the “friends of” organizations, or any nonprofit foundation arms of city departments.

“If gifts are made to a department, yes, they have to disclose, so people don’t get preferential interest in getting city contracts,” Deputy Controller Monique Zmuda told us. “I know it’s a fine line. The foundations don’t provide us with anything.”

Friends of the SFPL doesn’t provide money just for pizza parties. A breakdown of a funding request from the library to its Friends shows requests up to $750,000 to advertise the library on Muni and in newspapers, funding for permanent exhibits, and the City Librarian’s personal fund. That’s just the money it gives to the library. Other monies are spent directly on activities supporting the library.

As Jeffers pointed out to the Guardian, the money isn’t spent on “trips to Tahiti.” Friends of the SPL do good city works, from a neighborhood photo project in the Bayview branch library to providing books for children. But the question is: Who’s buying that goodwill and why?

The millions of dollars in donations made to the Friends of the SFPL don’t need to be approved by the Board of Supervisors, like gifts to departments do. They’re not checked for conflicts of interest or financial interest by any governmental body. Donors give and the Friends of SFPL spend freely, financial interest or not.

When our research for this story began, no financial statements were available of the Friends of the SFPL website. After a few days of inquiries, the most recent year’s financial statements from 2011-12 were posted to the website.

Ultimately, the San Francisco Public Library is one of the smaller city departments, with an annual budget that hovers around $86 million. The Department of Public Health is a much bigger beast, with a 2011-12 budget of around $1.5 billion.

One of its main foundations, the San Francisco General Hospital Foundation, is also one of the largest nonprofits that supplements city spending. In many ways, it could be described as the model of disclosure for city foundations, although its disclosures are not by law, but by choice.



The Department of Public Health relies on a few entities that fundraise on its behalf: the San Francisco Public Health Foundation, the Friends of Laguna Honda Hospital, and the San Francisco General Hospital Foundation.

“They’re private nonprofit entities that are separate from the department,” CFO Greg Wagner told us. “But their roles are to support the department in its efforts.” He cited examples such as sending its staff to conferences or hosting meetings, “things that we don’t have the budget for or don’t have the staff or resources.”

The lion’s share of the DPH’s gifts are funneled through the SFGHF. Unlike many of the assorted Friends groups or foundations that support city services, the SFGHF extensively reports the sources of its $5 million in donations. The donors include a veritable who’s who of San Francisco: the Giants, Sutter Health, Xerox, Pacific Union, and Kohl’s all donated between $1,000 and $10,000 in the past two years.

But the largest gifts to the SFGHF came from Kaiser Permanente, and its financial interests in the city run deep. Kaiser came into the city’s crosshairs in July, when the Board of Supervisors passed a resolution calling on Kaiser to disclose its pricing model after a sudden, unexplained increase in health care costs for city employees. Kaiser holds a $323 million city contract to provide health coverage, and supervisors took the healthcare giant to task for failing to produce data to back up its rate hikes.

In the meantime, Kaiser has also been a generous donor. It contributed $364,950 toward SFGHF and another $25,000 to SFPHF in fiscal year 2011-12.

The funding from Kaiser and a host of other contributors — which include Chevron, Intel, Genentech, Macy’s, Wells Fargo (another city contractor), and a pharmaceutical company called Vertex — does support needed programs. They include research into the health of marginalized communities, services through Project Homeless Connect, screening for HIV, and immunization shots for travelers.

But because DPH doesn’t count much of this support as “gifts” formally received by the city, it isn’t subject to prior approval by the Board of Supervisors, or posted on the department’s website along with the contributors’ financial interests. Major contributions are disclosed in a report to the Health Commission, something Wagner described as a voluntary gesture in response to commissioners’ requests.

“Most gifts to foundations are donations to a nonprofit and do not come through the city or DPH at all,” he noted.

This distance is maintained on paper despite close collaboration with the department. In the case of Project Homeless Connect, a program that holds a bimonthly event to aid the homeless, it supports programs headquartered in city facilities. Penny Eardley, executive director of SFPHF— which used to be called Friends of San Francisco Public Health — noted that her organization occasionally makes grants or seeks funding in response to department requests. And Deputy Director of Health Colleen Chawla is a foundation board member. It’s almost like these foundations are extensions of the department, except they’re not.

SFPHF also earns revenue as a city contractor. When DPH received a grant from the Centers for Disease Control, it contracted with SFPHF to manage subcontracts with about a dozen community-based organizations.

The web gets even more tangled. The president of SFPHF is Randy Wittorp — who’s also Director of Public Affairs for Kaiser Permanente’s San Francisco Service Area. It’s a similar story with SFGHF, whose board includes several General Hospital administrators, including CEO Susan Currin.

Former Health Commissioner James Illig said people shouldn’t worry, that hospital the staff would never direct foundation funds to pet projects or mishandle funds. They maintain a separation and a firewall,” he said, for example noting, “Sue Currin is not directing funds to her own hospital.”

But he did admit that since SFGHF’s minutes are not public documents, that “raises a few concerns,” arguing the public should be able to inspect financial documents to decide if the foundations are directing funds lawfully to city departments.

Even when the public by law has a right to access financial records of a city department, rooting out corruption can be like pushing a boulder up a San Francisco hill.



In 2010 and 2011, Laguna Honda Hospital administrators and staff used money from the hospital’s patient gift fund to throw a party. And then they spent it on airfare. And then they gave laser-engraved pedometers to the staff. All told, they spent nearly $350,000 meant for the dying and the infirm, nearly half of the total funds.

The incident was big, messy, and out in the public eye. It was an all-too-rare glimpse into the shady use of public funds by public officials. But when hospital staff members Dr. Derek Kerr and Dr. Maria Rivero blew the whistle on Laguna Honda’s misuse of patient funds in 2010, they were drummed out of their jobs.

Eventually litigation on behalf of the whistleblowers and their complaints of corruption were found to have merit.

Kerr’s vindication came at a meeting of the Health Commission in April 2013. In the packed City Hall meeting room, the public watched as Laguna Honda Executive Director Mivic Hirose read her apology to Kerr and Rivero aloud, even announcing a plaque in Kerr’s honor.

“The hospital will install the plaque in the South 3 Hospice,” she read, stiltedly, from a written statement, surrounded by microphones at the podium. “The plaque will say: In recognition of Derek Kerr MD of his contributions to the Laguna Honda’s hospice and palliative care program 1989-2010.”

Kerr received a settlement of $750,000 and something more important: His good name cleared.

But that conflict of interest was rooted out only after years of litigation that revealed the financial abuse through legal discovery of the department’s documents — documents that should’ve been public in the first place. ABC 7’s I-Team broke the story and did much of the reporting at the time, otherwise the entire affair may have been swept under the rug.

The misuse of funds was only brought to light with the revelation of public documents — revelations not possible with most Friends groups. The Laguna Honda Hospital Foundation has also had financial dealings with potential conflicts and a lack of transparency.

The now-defunct LHHF’s board chair, former City Attorney Louise Renne, made an interesting choice for her vice chair after she formed the nonprofit in 2003. Derek Parker was vice chair of the LHHF while simultaneously heading architecture firm Anshen-Allen, with a $585 million city contract to rebuild the hospital.

So he was not only rebuilding Laguna Honda under city contract, but soliciting and spending donations meant to supplement his project. Renne wrote to the Health Commission in December 2011 that LHHF’s purpose was to manage over $15 million in donations meant to furnish the hospital with beds, chairs, and other necessities. Eventually, then-Mayor Willie Brown found funding for the hospital, reducing the foundation’s role.

In a phone interview with the Guardian, Renne said the goals of the LHHF were only ever to furnish the newly christened hospital. “Our purpose was to fill the void, if you will, for what the city and its services could not do,” she said.

But in her letter, Renne advocated for LHHF to take an active role in fundraising for the hospital for years to come. “Today, the members of the Board of Directors of the Foundation continue to assist the hospital in various phases of its new projects and operations with projects approved by the City and/or the hospital administration,” she wrote to the Health Commission.

And Parker would have potentially managed millions of dollars flowing through donations for countless other hospital projects, while heading an architectural firm with contracts to build in San Francisco. We were unable to reach Parker for comment.

“I never saw Derek use his position as an architect or position for any political gain, I never saw it,” Renne told us. But no one else would see it either, because organizations like the now closed Laguna Honda Hospital Foundation operate without public oversight.

The Health Commission itself even noted this in its March 2012 meeting, the minutes describing then-commissioner James Illig as critiquing the foundation for not being open about its source of funding.

“Commissioner Illig thanks Ms. Renne and Mr. Parker for coming to the Commission,” the minutes read. “Because (LHHF) is a project of Community Initiatives, a fiscal sponsor for nonprofits, it is not possible to find basic financial information about the Foundation or its activities.”

Divided interests on hospital board

Due to a quirk of her foundation being under the “umbrella” of a separate entity, Community Initiatives, Illig was never able to even get the LHHF’s IRS forms, he told us. “We tried to get information and reports, and the Community Initiatives [Form] 990 was giant,” Illig said. “It didn’t separate anything out.”

Illig told us that it made sense to have Parker on the board because he is monied and well connected, making it easier to solicit donations. But insiders close to the board told us that Parker’s position may have made it easier to swing getting other contracts for his firm.

Parker got another city contract building the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital at Mission Bay, slated to open in 2015. No doubt his firm got the job partly due to his reputation as pioneering architecture that leads to healthy patient outcomes — but then again, the board he served on also approved donations to research at UCSF.

Laguna Honda Hospital Foundation may now be defunct, but it serves to illustrate the lack of controls and oversight of the foundations beyond even gift disclosure.



It might be characterized as a web of influence, cronyism, or just the way business is done. But is there something improper about all of this?

Private funding often represents a needed boost that allows for important work to take place beyond what could happen under ordinary budgeting. At the same time, it smacks of privatization. While departments and funders point to lean times in the public sector to justify the need for this help, the funding continues to flow whether it’s a good year or a bad year for city government. And at the end of the day, the most glaring issue of all seems to be the lack of transparency.

Are city departments ever tempted to bend the rules to lend a little help to their Friends? As long as the funding is in the dark, the public has no way of knowing.

Ethics chief St. Croix told us his office lacks the resources to visit every city website and check up on whether departments are following the disclosure rules. “If someone brought it to my attention that a department received a gift and didn’t post it [on the website],” he said, “we would look into it.”

But if the watchdogs need watchdogs, citizens who can’t even review documents that should be publicly available, then these quasi-governmental functions and the people who fund them will remain in the shadows.  

Danielle Parenteau contributed to this report.  


When city funders operate in the dark, one of the best ways to learn about corrupt influence, misuse of funds, and other transgressions is from whistleblowers. If you have a tip for us, send us snail mail at SAN FRANCISCO BAY GUARDIAN, 225 Bush, 17th Floor, San Francisco, CA 94104. Or email us at Just make sure not to use an email address provided by your workplace, which is less secure.

Drawn together


CAREERS AND ED Longtime Bay Area comics superhero Justin Hall basically wrote the textbook on LGBT comics-as-artform (No Straight Lines: Four Decades of Queer Comics, Fantagraphics, 2011) and just came back from a trip to Southeast Asia, where he taught Buddhist monks to express themselves via comic strips.

So when the California College of the Arts launched its new MFA program in comics, Hall was a natural pick to be among the first professors to teach the art, craft, and history of graphic storytelling on a graduate level. The two-year (with summer sessions) 60-student, low-residency program features classes, workshops, talks, and mentorship opportunities designed to immerse students in comics and begin to build an academic base for their study. It looks really cool.

SFBG How do you form a teaching curriculum for something like comics? 

Justin Hall I teach the History and Cultural Impact class during the program’s first summer session. It’s a pretty intense class; for three hours a day I give lectures on the artistic and political history and cultural diversity of the art form, and hold critical discussions on selected readings.

We cover everything from the remarkable rise of the comic strip in the early American newspapers; to the explosion of manga in post-WWII Japan; to the Comics Code Authority and how it wiped out the majority of American romance, horror, and crime comics in the 1950s; to the reimagining of the superhero in the Silver Age; to the development of the competing “clean line” and “comic dynamic” styles in Franco-Belgian comics; to the outrageous work of the underground comix creators, many of them who based here in San Francisco.

I’ve taught some great undergraduate comics classes over the years, but the graduate students are engaged on a different level. I can lecture for hours on the subversive aspects of Wonder Woman, the influences of Japanese woodblocks on Tintin comics, and the artistic legacy of Little Nemo in Slumberland, and their brains don’t melt. They just ask for more. I love it! It’s a slice of geek heaven.

SFBG What’s the homework like? 

JH Over the course of the two years and three Julys, the students will have the majority of work finished on a book-length graphic novel or comics collection, which they can then self-publish on the web or in print, or take to publishers. That’s in addition to individual workshop and online assignments.

SFBG What kind of career opportunities are there for graduates who aren’t immediately contracted to Marvel? 

JH We certainly hope that our graduates find success as creators of comics and graphic novels. There is an exciting expansion of material happening right now in North America, moving beyond the traditional superhero stories and into every genre. While comics are certainly no get-rich-quick scheme, they can allow creators to develop their story ideas with complete control, which can result in a property like The Walking Dead.

Outside of the traditional comic book market, book publishers are now interested in graphic novels, as evinced by the success of works like Alison Bechdel’s bestselling Fun Home. The internet is opening up new territories of creative and professional expansion;

we’re also going to see comics academia snowball, and our graduates will be poised to get those teaching jobs. Comics classes prove extremely popular across the board at high schools, community centers, colleges, and universities, and I have no doubt we’ll see more programs like CCA’s pop up.

Finally, the skills developed at the MFA in Comics don’t just apply to comics themselves; after all, comics require a complex toolbox of writing, illustration, design, calligraphy, color theory, etc. Ultimately, what we’re teaching is how to develop narrative in both verbal and visual ways, and those skills will prove extremely useful in a world that increasingly blends the two. I imagine many of our graduates will wind up in related fields such as animation, advertising, book art, and design, but with a unique perspective on storytelling and communication.

Our plan ends, of course, with comics conquering the world!

For more info, see


New generation of Guardian leadership seeks community partnership


San Francisco Print Media Company has named Marke Bieschke as publisher and Steven T. Jones as editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, elevating two longtime Guardianistas into the top spots, guaranteeing them editorial autonomy, and letting them work with the community to chart its future.

As a first step in that process, the Guardian will hold a public forum on July 31 from 6-8pm in the LGBT Center, 1800 Market Street, to solicit input and discuss the Guardian’s unique role in the Bay Area’s political and journalistic landscape. Helping to coordinate the forum is Guardian writer Rebecca Bowe, who has accepted the position of news editor. The forum and subsequent discussions will form the basis for a strategic plan that will help guide the Guardian into a new era.

The newspaper’s future was uncertain a month ago following the abrupt departure of longtime Guardian Editor-Publisher Tim Redmond in a dispute with the owners over layoffs and the Guardian’s autonomy. The company’s Vice President of Editorial Operations Stephen Buel, who is also editor of the San Francisco Examiner, was named interim Guardian publisher and Bieschke its interim editor.

Heeding concerns in the community about whether the Guardian would remain an independent, progressive voice in San Francisco, Bieschke and Jones negotiated terms with SF Print Media Company CEO Todd Vogt that guarantee them full editorial control, the addition of three new advertising sales positions and another staff writer, and guaranteed minimum staffing levels during a rebuilding period.

Bieschke and Jones, who are in their early 40s and have been with the Guardian for around 10 years each, say they are excited for the opportunity to work collaboratively with Guardian staff and its community to rejuvenate the paper, attract new readers, and achieve economic sustainability.

“Losing Tim’s leadership was hard on all of us at the Guardian, and we struggled with what to do next. But ultimately, the Guardian plays such an important role in San Francisco — particularly now, at a pivotal moment for this gentrifying city and its progressive movement — that we wanted to find a way to keep that voice alive, maintain our credibility, and reach out to a new generation of Bay Area residents,” Jones said.

The San Francisco Bay Guardian was founded in 1966 by Jean Dibble and Bruce B. Brugmann, who continues to blog and serve as editor-at-large for the Guardian. The couple retired from regular duties when the financially troubled paper was sold to Canadian investors headed by Vogt in the spring of 2012, a deal engineered by Redmond, who is always welcome in the pages of the Guardian as he pursues a new media venture.

“I’m stoked to bring a different energy and openness to innovation to the Guardian, while respecting our legacy and strengthening our bonds with the progressive, alternative community,” Bieschke said. “Obviously, Steve Jones and I stand on the shoulders of giants, and we’re so grateful to our Guardian family, past and present, for blazing a trail for world class progressive journalism, arts and culture coverage, and community-building in the Bay Area. In that spirit, I’m eager to reconnect with our readers and partner with them to amplify the Guardian voice and continue to change the Bay Area for the better.”

Vogt said he’s excited by the prospects of new generation of Guardian leadership: “I’m happy about this. I think it’s appropriate that two recognized leaders in the progressive community are in charge of the Guardian and I look forward to seeing what they do with it.”

Bieschke joined the Bay Guardian in 2005 as culture editor, coming on staff after covering nightlife in his Super Ego column, and he was made managing editor in 2010. His background includes online editorial and management level positions at Citysearch and PlanetOut Partners, as well as managing a bookstore in the Inner Richmond.

“I’m also excited to help diversify San Francisco’s media environment by bringing two decades of queer Arab-American activist experience to the role,” Bieschke said.

Jones is a Northern California native who was hired as the Guardian’s city editor in 2003, coming from Sacramento News & Review, where he served as news editor. Before that, he was a full-time staff writer for two other alternative newsweeklies, two daily newspapers, and one community weekly, all in California, since graduating from Cal Poly-SLO with a journalism degree in 1991.

Years of cutbacks have distilled the Guardian newsroom down to just a few excellent journalists: senior editor Cheryl Eddy, who has shaped the paper’s film and arts coverage since 1999; Bowe, an award-winning investigative reporter who returned to the Guardian in January from a one-year stint with the Electronic Frontier Foundation; and Music Editor Emily Savage, who knows the beats of this city better than anyone; with Art Director Brooke Robertson leading the Guardian’s creative presentation.

“We all hope you’ll help us to guard San Francisco’s values, appreciating all of its best cultural, artistic, and culinary offerings in the process,” Jones said. “We love the San Francisco Bay Area, in all its messy urban glory, and we think it’s worth fighting for.”

Depp stinks but Death rules: new movies!


By now you’ve heard how much The Lone Ranger sucks (for more on that, my review here), so what else should you be spending your weekly movie-theater budget on? Well, the Roxie just opened a doc about Detroit band Death (Dennis Harvey breaks it down here), plus there’s a new Pedro Almodóvar joint, a coming-of-age summer flick starring Sam Rockwell and Steve Carell as cool and not-so-cool father figures, and (since one Carell movie ain’t enough) Despicable Me 2  — just the thing for the kidz who’ve already seen Monsters University.

Read on for our takes on these films, and more!

Augustine When a 19-year-old Parisian kitchen maid (single-named French musician Soko) has a dramatic seizure during dinner service, she makes for Salpêtrière Hospital, where she becomes the superstar patient of Dr. Charcot (Vincent Lindon) — a real-life 19th century professor and neurologist who later mentored Sigmund Freud. There’s no “talking cure” at work here, though; Augustine’s medical treatment consists mostly of naked poking and prodding, as well as hypnosis-induced episodes of her increasingly sexualized “ovarian hysteria.” The tension builds as Charcot struggles against popular disdain for his methods (read aloud to him from newspapers by his coolly elegant wife), as well as his forbidden attraction to Augustine. Occupying the same moody, sensual milieu as David Cronenberg’s too-talky A Dangerous Method (2011), first-time feature writer-director Alice Winocour approaches her tale of misunderstood madness from a point of view that’s more emotionally-driven, with some subtle feminist undercurrents. Points deducted, though, for some obvious symbolism — like costuming Augustine in a brand-new red dress right after she starts her period for the first time. (1:42) (Cheryl Eddy)

Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay David Mamet fans will recognize Ricky Jay from multiple appearances in the director’s work; he’s also been in films like Boogie Nights and Tomorrow Never Dies (both 1997). But Jay’s true passion is stage magic, specifically card and other sleight-of-hand tricks, performed with a skill so dazzling that it’s tempting to believe he really does have supernatural powers. He’s also a witty, self-deprecating, and sometimes “irascible” (to quote a word used in Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein’s doc) character — and has a vast, ever-expanding interest in magic history. Using first-hand interviews, TV and stage-show clips, and some wonderful vintage footage, Deceptive Practice traces Jay’s career (he was a child prodigy in the 1950s, thanks to his supportive grandfather), pausing along the way to pay tribute to the men who influenced him and, in many cases, taught him their top-secret techniques. Throughout, Jay is seen demonstrating his own mind-bending tricks — as “simple” as changing a card’s suit, as elaborate as making it sail across the room and plunge like a knife into a watermelon rind — although never, of course, revealing how he does it. (1:28) (Cheryl Eddy)

Despicable Me 2 The laughs come quick and sweet now that Gru (Steve Carell) has abandoned his super-villainy to become a dad and “legitimate businessman” — though he still applies world-class gravitas to everyday events. (His daughter’s overproduced birthday party is a riot of medieval festoonage.) But like all the best reformed baddies, the Feds, or in this case the Anti-Villain League, recruit him to uncover the next international arch-nemesis. Now a spy, he gets a goofy but highly competent partner (Kristen Wiig) and a cupcake shop at the mall to facilitate sniffing out the criminal. This sequel surpasses the original in charm, cleverness, and general lovability, and it’s not just because they upped the number of minion-related gags, or because Wiig joined the cast; she ultimately gets the short end of the stick as the latecomer love-interest (her spy gadgets are also just so-so). However, Carell kills it as Gru 2 — his faux-Russian accent and awkward timing are more lived-in. Maybe the jokes are about more familiar stuff (like the niggling disappointments of family life) but they’re also sharper and more surprising. And though the minions seemed like one-trick ponies in the first film, those gibberish-talking jellybeans outdo themselves in the sequel’s climax. (1:38) (Sara Maria Vizcarrondo)

I’m So Excited I’m So Excited may be to Pedro Almodóvar what Hairspray (1988) was for director John Waters: a kind of low-intensity, high-fluff gateway drug for a filmmaker who’s otherwise an “acquired taste.” (Note: unlike Hairspray, this is not a family movie.) Almodóvar’s previous pictures were far more explicit about their obsessive thinking: mothers suffered (1999’s All About My Mother); sex was deadly (1990’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!) and men were dishonorable (all of them). But in this drug and booze-addled flame-fest, Almodóvar takes one of his lesser themes (the joy of confinement) and transforms a flight from Madrid to Mexico into the funniest soap opera to ever feature cabaret and S&M talk. Early in the flight we learn the landing gear is shot; this means the flight’s dueling pilots have to find a place to host an emergency landing while Europe is on holiday. They anesthetize all of coach (um…metaphor, anyone?), leaving the rich to bellyache over their lost children, lost happiness, and stubborn virginity. Business class is full of drama queens so the flamboyantly gay attendants spike a cocktail with ecstasy (to make everyone get along) and an orgy ensues, complete with a seemingly victimless rape and multiple change-overs from hetero to homo. Almodóvar does have a knack for make-believe, but his biggest gift for fantasy happens in his stress-free transitions; oh, that coming out could be so liberating — but living in a Catholic country lousy with sexual disorientations, maybe the only place that can happen is at 30,000 feet. (1:35) (Sara Maria Vizcarrondo)

Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain The comedian (2012’s Think Like a Man) performs in this concert film, shot at Madison Square Garden during his 2012 stand-up tour. (1:15)

Maniac And it came to pass that William Lustig’s trashy classic Maniac (1980) was remade, with Elijah Wood assuming the role of twisted killer Frank, a role closely associated with its originator, the late, great cult actor Joe Spinell. Lustig is credited with a producing credit on this otherwise largely French effort, directed by Franck Khalfoun and co-written by Alejandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur — who also worked together on the 2006 remake of The Hills Have Eyes. Though it’s set in contemporary Los Angeles (complete with dating websites and cell phones), Maniac is shot to mimic the original film’s late-1970s New York (cabs, deserted subways, grimy streetscapes), with a synth-heavy score enhancing the retro vibe. Frank is still obsessed with mannequins, scalps, and his dead mother, with shades of both Psycho (1960) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991) filtering through. When Frank meets Anna (Nora Arnezeder), a beautiful French photographer whose preferred subject is mannequins, he grows ever more confused — and more violent. The entire movie is shot from Frank’s POV (we see Wood’s face only in mirrors and photographs), an off-putting gimmick that fails to add much in the way of suspense or scares. As for the gore, there’s nothing amid the CG enhancements that matches the work of special effects genius Tom Savini, whose memorable exploding-head scene plays just as repulsively effective in 2013 as it did in 1980. If you really wanna be freaked out by a movie maniac, skip this so-so do-over and spend some quality time with Spinell instead. (1:29) Roxie. (Cheryl Eddy)

The Way, Way Back Duncan (Liam James) is 14, and if you remember being that age you remember the awkwardness, the ambivalence, and the confusion that went along with it. Duncan’s mother (Toni Collette) takes him along for an “important summer” with her jerky boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell) — and despite being the least important guy at the summer cottage, Duncan’s only marginally sympathetic. Most every actor surrounding him plays against type (Rob Corddry is an unfunny, whipped husband; Allison Janney is a drunk, desperate divorcee), and since the cast is a cattle call for anyone with indie cred, you’ll wonder why they’re grouped for such a dull movie. Writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash previously wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for 2011’s The Descendants, but The Way, Way Back doesn’t match that film’s caliber of intelligent, dry wit. Cast members take turns resuscitating the movie, but only Sam Rockwell saves the day, at least during the scenes he’s in. Playing another lovable loser, Rockwell’s Owen dropped out of life and into a pattern of house painting and water-park management in the fashion of a conscientious objector. Owen is antithetical to Trent’s crappy example of manhood, and raises his water wing to let Duncan in. The short stint Duncan has working at Water Wizz is a blossoming that leads to a minor romance (with AnnaSophia Robb) and a major confrontation with Trent, some of which is affecting, but none of which will help you remember the movie after credits roll. (1:42) (Sara Maria Vizcarrondo)

Hungry for reform


Sitawa Jamaa is among the thousands of California inmates who, two years ago this summer, took part in the largest prison hunger strike in US history to protest harsh conditions and their invisibility to those outside prison walls.

Now, Jamaa and other prisoners are about to launch another hunger strike to highlight the system’s unfulfilled promises and the persistence of inhumane conditions.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) counted 6,000 prisoners throughout the state who refused food over several weeks in July 2011. During a follow-up strike that September, the number of prisoners missing meals swelled to 12,000, according to the federal receiver who was appointed by the courts to oversee reforms in the system. At least one inmate starved to death.

As one of four inmates who call themselves the Short Corridor Collective, Jamaa was a key organizer of the hunger strike. The group of inmates drafted a list of core demands calling for the strike when they weren’t met.

That was no easy task for Jamaa, who has spent most of the last 28 years alone in a windowless, 8-by-10 foot concrete cell in Pelican Bay State Prison, a supermax facility not far from the Oregon border, where some 1,200 men are held in similar conditions.

Inmates held in solitary confinement (in government lingo: “Segregated Housing Units”, or “SHU” for short) aren’t supposed to communicate with each other, verbally or through the mail. But they were able to organize with the help of their lawyers, who they are allowed to communicate with, and prison reform advocates outside.

Jamaa and other inmates are planning to launch a second hunger strike on July 8. The Short Corridor Collective has drafted a list of 45 demands, reflecting concerns ranging from inadequate health care to extreme solitary confinement—conditions that prison advocates characterize as cruel and unusual punishment.

The list is an extension of the five initial demands that Pelican Bay inmates presented in 2011 before initiating a hunger strike. Most of those demands were never met, or they were met only with lip service, leading prisoners back to where they started.




High on the list are concerns about conditions in the SHU, the amount of time prisoners can be made to spend in isolation, and the public’s inability to monitor the situation.

“I feel dead. It’s been 13 years since I have shaken someone’s hand and I fear I’ll forget the feel of human contact,” Pelican Bay prisoner Luis Esquivel told attorneys with the Center for Constitutional Rights in an interview.

Along with Jamaa and others, Esquivel is a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the state of California that would effectively cap the time someone can spend in solitary confinement to 10 years.

“The hunger strike is an extreme act,” says Terry Kupers, a Piedmont-based psychology professor and clinical psychiatrist who has testified before the California State Assembly on long-term solitary confinement. “It’s very dangerous, and you can die. So when a group of prisoners go on hunger strike, it means they’ve exhausted all ways of expressing themselves and having their demands considered. And that’s very much the case here—some of these guys have been in SHU for 30 or 40 years.”

Kupers believes solitary confinement in California prisons violates the 8th Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, a view echoed by activists who’ve launched a statewide effort called the Stop the Torture Campaign.

United Nations Special Rapporteur Juan Méndez, an expert on torture, has called for a ban on solitary confinement where inmates are kept in isolation for 22 hours a day or more, saying the practice should only be used in very exceptional circumstances and for short time periods.

The CDCR has made some concessions and reforms since the 2011 hunger strikes, but critical issues have gone unaddressed. In Pelican Bay’s SHU, the men are now allowed beanie caps for when it gets cold. They can now have wall calendars to track time and bring a human touch to their surroundings.

Some prisoners have received exercise equipment, such as a handball or pull-up bar. Each year, they now have permission to have one photograph of themselves taken to send to family members, and prison administrators have signaled that they are looking into extending Pelican Bay’s visitation hours.

But more pressing issues have yet to be resolved, so the prisoners who drafted the 45 demands are resorting to starvation once again, despite official statements that it will do little to improve their conditions.

“Negotiation is something the department does not do,” says Terry Thornton, a spokesperson for CDCR. But the department has met periodically with a mediation team, consisting of lawyers and prison activists, who have communicated the inmates’ concerns and gone over their demands with prison authorities.




In 2002, the state of California was sued, and lost, in an 8th Amendment class-action lawsuit: Plata v. Davis. The federal judge overseeing the case called the medical treatment in California prisons “horrifying,” sinking “below gross negligence to outright cruelty,” ordering improved treatment and reductions in severe prison overcrowding.

A court-appointed doctor found that out of 193 deaths over the course of one year, 34 were “probably preventable,” but medical staff gave “well below even minimal standards of care.” Eleven years later, the state is still under federal receivership, until it can show that conditions have actually improved.

Court-appointed consultant Dr. Raymond Patterson wrote his 14th annual assessment report last April, blaming high suicide rates behind bars on a lack of “adequate assessment, treatment or intervention.” After it was released, he quit the post in frustration, writing: “It has become apparent that continued repetition of these recommendations would be a further waste of time and effort.”

So inmates are taking in upon themselves to accomplish what the courts and consultants have failed to do: reform conditions in the prisons.

As happened in 2011, in spite of what is planned to be a peaceful protest, prisons housing strikers will be, according to Thornton, on “modified program” (or “lockdown,” as prisoners call it). Generally, that means inmates aren’t allowed to leave their cells, even to shower.

New regulations created after the 2011 strikes call for no visits for striking prisoners, and for their canteen food to be confiscated. In addition, “inmate(s) identified as strike leaders, instrumental in organizing, planning, and perpetuating a hunger strike, shall be isolated from non-participating inmates.”

Since March of this year, the Guantanamo Bay prisoner hunger strike has made news around the world for highlighting alleged violations of international law. There, when a striker goes below 85 percent Ideal Body Weight, regulations dictate that he or she be shackled to a chair, fitted with a mask, and have tubes inserted through their nostrils into their stomachs for up to two hours at a time.

That didn’t happen in California back during the 2011 strikes, but the Division of Correctional Health Care Services devotes five pages of its policy handbook to outlining specific instructions for dealing with hunger strikers, including transfers to prison medical facilities where they could potentially be force-fed, another practice the UN regards as torture.

Prisoners and activists believe the policy was instituted as preemptive attack on the upcoming hunger strike. “We are concerned that, under the pretext of ‘welfare’ checks, prisoners are being harassed, targeted, and deprived of sleep as the date of planned hunger strikes and work stoppages approaches,” said Isaac Ontiveros of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity group. “Whatever the case, new CDCR Secretary Jeffery Beard has an opportunity to avoid the strike and begin to undo the indescribable harm that the California prison system has caused.”




Problems associated with solitary confinement are closely connected to CDCR’s most commonly used tool for sending prisoners like Jamaa into the SHU: the controversial “gang validation” process.

Once an inmate is listed in prison records as a gang member, he or she loses multiple rights on the assumption that they’re a threat to the order of the prison. With no disciplinary write-ups since 1995, Jamaa would have been eligible for parole in 2004, except for the gang validation that led to his indefinite SHU sentence.

Getting pegged as a member of a gang can happen easily. Guards can write prisoners up for anything from the possession of artwork deemed to be gang-related, to information obtained from confidential informants whose claims prisoners often aren’t allowed to refute and whose identities remain unknown to the targeted prisoners.

Last year, in the wake of hunger strikes, CDCR announced a “complex retooling” of the gang validation practices. The so-called Step Down process, created in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security, is meant to transition inmates out of gangs over the course of four years, with privileges gained over that time.

It might be the most significant of the reforms that followed the last hunger strike, but prisoners and their advocates criticize it as too lengthy of a process, subject to the arbitrary whims of the correctional officers overseeing a given prisoner. In fact, they say it may widen the definition of who counts as a gang member.

Manuel Sanchez, who is participating in the Step Down program at Corcoran State Prison, wrote in a letter that he is “seriously considering returning to SHU, where I’d be less harassed and I’d get more yard access more consistently.”

Compounding the problems in the prisons is a lack of transparency and public accountability.

“It’s like mentioning July 8 is anathema,” says San Francisco Bay View Editor Mary Ratcliff, whose African American-focused newspaper has been a CDCR censorship target.

From January to April of this year, Ratcliff said papers were being returned from Pelican Bay undelivered because they included articles about the hunger strikes, representing “material inciting participation in a mass disturbance,” and “a serious threat to the safety and security” of the prison, according to CDCR Administrator R.K. Swift.

“I think it’s remarkable that hunger strikes are considered a ‘disturbance,'” says Ratcliff. “A disturbance is supposed to mean a fight—something that threatens people. A hunger strike is a threat to no one except the people who are participating in it.”

Just as inmates can’t get news from the outside, they are also walled off from journalists who might cover them and the conditions they live in.

Since 1996, the CDCR has limited reporters to only interviewing prisoners they’ve selected. Last September, Governor Jerry Brown vetoed legislation that would have opened up media access to the prisons. “Giving criminals celebrity status through repeated appearances on television will glorify their crimes and hurt victims and their families,” he wrote, citing the media spectacle around Charles Manson.

But activists say the nearly $2 million Brown received from the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) during his successful bid for governor in 2010 had more to do with it than infamous serial killers.

Assembly member Tom Ammiano, who authored the most recent bill, stressed that “Press access isn’t just to sell newspapers. It’s a way for the public to know that the prisons it pays for are well-run. I invite the governor to visit the SHU to see for himself why media access is so important.”




Last time around, Jamaa lost 19 pounds. Deprived of sunlight, the Oakland-born man has developed melanin and vitamin D deficiencies that have lightened his normally dark brown skin. He suffers stomach problems and swollen thyroid glands that he didn’t have before prison. Starvation is a possibly lethal proposition. “Make no mistake, none of us wants to die. But we are prepared to, if that’s what it takes to force a real reform,” he and other strike leaders wrote in a statement last December. Jamaa’s sister, Marie Levin, who has organized monthly vigils for the strikers at Oakland’s monthly First Fridays/Art Murmur event, is worried about how her brother’s body will cope this time around. “It’s something that we as family members don’t want them to have to experience again,” she notes with anxiety. Yet both the prisoners and their advocates on the outside say they can’t simply let dehumanizing conditions in California’s prison system continue indefinitely. “I think things have changed, but not substantially in terms of actual conditions,” Kupers argues. “What is changed is the CDCR had to recognize the strikers, and conceded some of the things. And subsequently, the various prisoner groups have come together and made a commitment not to have violence between groups inside the prisons. This is huge advancement.” But unless all 45 demands are met, they say the strike will commence July 8. For now, Jamaa and others are readying their bodies for hunger, for a cause they believe goes far beyond prison walls. “Know this,” he wrote from SHU, words that needed to be smuggled out through unconventional means to get around an official wall of silence. “I am a … Prisoner of War, and I serve the interest of all people.”

SFIFF report: French glam … and grit


At the outset of Friday evening’s SFIFF screening of the ’50s-set French film Populaire, director Régis Roinsard offered two hints as to what lay ahead — noting that his SF sightseeing agenda had included a visit to Jimmy Stewart’s Lombard Street Vertigo residence, and encouraging the audience to stick around for a Q&A sampling of his Borat-level English proficiency. As it turned out, Roinsard handled the post-screening questions with slightly awkward but un-Borat-like charm (and occasional interpreter assistance). And the film itself — while featuring a man gripped by a daffy obsession involving a beautiful blond, who, come to think of it, is often seen sporting an updo — has a considerably lighter mood than the Hitchcock thriller, finding its tense plot turns and clacking rhythms within the fast-paced world of competitive typing.

Yes, typing, and perhaps if it weren’t the ’50s, this would be the fluorescent-lit story of a soul-sucking data entry job and the office drone who supplements it with a moonlighting gig. But it is the ’50s, a cheery, upbeat, non–Far from Heaven version, and Populaire invests with a shiny glamour the transformation of small-town girl Rose Pamphyle (Déborah François) from an incompetent but feisty secretary with mad hunting-and-pecking skills into a celebrated and adored speed-typing champion. The daffy obsessed guy is her boss, Louis Échard (Romain Duris), a handsome young insurance salesman who bullies her, but very charmingly, into competing against a vast secretarial pool in a series of hectic, nail-biting tourneys, which treat typing as a sporting event for perhaps the first time in cinematic history. (See also: scenes of Rose cranking up her physical endurance with daily jogs and cross-training at the piano.)
The glamour slips a touch when Populaire (Roinsard said he took the title from the Nada Surf song “Popular”; the word also translates as “working-class”) starts to delve into psychological motivations to rationalize some of Louis’s more caddish maneuvers. But meanwhile, back in the arena, bets are made, words-per-minute stats are quoted by screaming, tearful fans in the bleachers, hearts are won and bruised, a jazz band performs that classic tune “Les Secrétaires Cha Cha Cha,” and we find ourselves rooting passionately for Rose to best the reigning champ’s 312(!)-wpm record.

Fast-forwarding a few days and a couple decades, Olivier Assayas’s Something in the Air, which screened Monday night and opens theatrically May 17, depicts a France far removed from the modern-fairy-tale setting of Populaire. Set a few years after the strikes and street battles of May ’68 (the film’s original title is Après Mai, or “After May”), Something centers on a group of radical teenagers in the Paris suburbs grappling with riot police and questions of what use to make of themselves in the world. Only loosely plotted, the film is more a series of vignettes, tracking the restless progress of Gilles (Clément Métayer) and a handful of his cohorts through school’s end, their flight to an Italian squat for the summer after a political action at home turns violent, and the dispersal of the group to various world-map points.

School seems to be mainly a place to sell movement newspapers to other students, or to wheat-paste and graffiti-bomb the walls at night. Conversations revolve around political sectarianism and the pitfalls of bourgeois documentary-filmmaking impulses. And position speeches on revolutionary tactics and relationships alike are delivered with a flat dogmatism (Gilles’s friend Alain makes it through the entire two-hour film without cracking a smile) as the characters attempt to sort out their allegiances to political revolt, art making, and romantic entanglement.

While the youth of Assayas’s film seem to view their lives and actions against a vast panorama of political and social import, the heroine of Justine Malle’s Youth keeps her gaze trained on a smaller circle encompassing academic ambition, romantic and sexual exploration, and family, though the order of precedence shifts several times over the course of this small, somewhat slight coming-of-age film. Malle is the daughter of celebrated French director Louis Malle, who passed away in 1995, and Youth is a semi-autobiographical examination of a 20-year-old girl’s experience of losing her father amid a period of personal upheaval.
Juliette (Esther Garrel, daughter of director Philippe and sister of actor Louis) is in the midst of studying for entrance exams and falling in love (she believes) for the fourth time when she learns that her father has been diagnosed with a fatal and quickly moving virus. Unable or unwilling to fully register this terrible new reality, she spends little time with him at the country house where he lives with his third wife and their daughter, choosing to stay in Paris cramming for her exams and pursuing a lengthier sexual résumé.

This is some dark material to mold into story form, and in certain ways it feels as if Malle had trouble looking at it as she worked with script cowriter Cécile Vargaftig. It’s hard to know how much overlap exists between the events Malle experienced nearly 20 years ago and those Juliette goes through on-screen, but the film has the feel of a tight fit, with little room leftover to step back and gain perspective.

SFIFF continues through May 9.

Covering the Boston bombing


Ever since the horrible, awful bombing at the Boston Marathon, I’ve been doing what every crazy newshound does and spending far too much time on the Internet trying to get the latest scrap of information. This morning, none of us could drag ourselves away from the developing story.

And I have to say: There are thousands of web sites covering this, mostly be aggregating other people’s content. But the real work of finding and reporting news has been done by the old-fashioned traditional mainstream media that we all so freely dismiss as dinosaurs.  The New York Times and The Boston Globe have done an exceptional job, as has the Associated Press. That’s in large part because they still employ significant numbers of staff reporters, with the experience and contacts to accurately cover this kind of story.

The MSM screws up a lot, and allows politicians to avoid accountability, and has all sorts of biases. But nobody else has the ability to cover a tragedy and disaster like this.

Of course, not all is perfect. The New York Daily News and CNN have screwed up badly. The rightwingosphere is so obsessed with Muslim Terrorists that it’s seeing them everywhere, creating them out of paranoid visions if necessary.

But if there weren’t newspapers and broadcast outlets with old-fashioned reporting staff, we’d be far less informed and more reliant on official law-enforcement sources. The old business model is falling apart, but there’s still a need for actual news outlets.

And for my money, the absolute best source of accurate, fair, complete, and insightful coverage has been that very, very old medium — raido — and that old goverment-funded institution, NPR.

Something to think about when a real major news event happens.

Looking over the Overlook


FILM Though he’s now living in Los Angeles, Rodney Ascher was a San Franciscan “for years and years,” he says, adding that he used to spend “a lot of time at Craig Baldwin’s Other Cinema.” He also has praise for the Roxie, the venue that’ll be hosting the local premiere of his Room 237 — a fascinating, kinda disturbing documentary that burrows deep down the rabbit hole with people who are obsessed with Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror masterpiece The Shining.

The Roxie screens that film Thu/18, and opens Ascher’s doc Fri/19; Ascher hints that he’ll journey to SF for the occasion. I spoke with him about Kubrick, Italian horror, and other mind-bending topics.

San Francisco Bay Guardian How did you find your five subjects?

Rodney Ascher Before I did the first interview, [producer] Tim Kirk and I spent maybe a year researching different theories about The Shining and people who were writing about it. Some people were fairly well-known to us, like Bill Blakemore, who has the Native American [theory]. His article was syndicated in newspapers in 1987, and has been reprinted all over the internet, so he was a person that we always wanted to talk to. Jay Weidner, who talks about subliminal techniques and allusions to the space program — his essay has circulated pretty widely online too.

So we started with them, and we would find other people as we went. The writer Jonathan Lethem, who’s had a lot of interesting things to say about The Shining, turned me on to John Fell Ryan, a guy in Brooklyn who’d been screening the movie backwards and forwards at the same time. Not only was that amazing in and of itself, but like a lot of this other stuff we were finding, it was amazing that it had only happened in the time since we’d started the project. A lot of [Room 237] is about the substance of what people are saying about The Shining — but it’s also very concerned with this phenomenon at the beginning of the 21st century, where an awful lot of people seem obsessed with this movie made in 1980, and isn’t that interesting, and why is that happening?

SFBG What was the interview process like?

RA I mailed [each subject] a digital audio recorder, and I would talk to them via Skype from my studio. I’d have a list of questions based on what I knew about what they had written, but oftentimes the more open-ended questions would lead in more interesting directions: “What was the first time you saw The Shining?” or “When did you figure out this idea? How did it come to you?”

I read someplace that one of the best interview questions is just, “Why?” I don’t have much of a hard-core documentary background, so I haven’t interviewed tons of people, but I figured out pretty quickly that the less I said, the better.

SFBG What role do you think the internet has played in this growing obsession with The Shining?

RA I think it’s got everything to do with it. Things like YouTube videos and digital technology in general allow us to look at movies more carefully. We try to have a little bit of a subplot of people being able to watch the movie in theaters, and then on home video, on DVD, Blu-ray, YouTube. As [the opportunity to watch the film again] increases, the way we watch it changes.

But it’s also things like comment threads and blog postings, which allow people to share ideas with other folks in a way that was never possible before. Even if you could write a newspaper article or a magazine entry, there are very practical length considerations that you’d have to work with. But now, if you feel like writing a 125-page article about the manager of the Overlook Hotel, you can put it up on your blog, and there’s no limit to how much detail you can include.

SFBG Both your 2010 short The S From Hell and Room 237 are about hidden meanings and subtexts. What draws you to those themes?

RA The S From Hell started because I read about these people who had a childhood phobia of the old Screen Gems logo, and I had a flashback to myself at the age of three. Although my experience wasn’t quite as intense, I had a similar strong, confused reaction to that thing. And I’ve watched The Shining again and again, and have been obsessed with it, even if I haven’t come close to deciphering it. So it may be that — although I barely appear in these movies — there’s an autobiographical quality to this, that I’m recognizing aspects of myself in what these folks are doing. But maybe it’s not best for me to try to analyze Room 237 too deeply!

SFBG The Shining isn’t the only film used to illustrate Room 237. How did you decide what else to use? I spotted clips from Lamberto Bava’s Demons (1985), for example.

RA It was kind of instinctual. I tried to [gather] movies from a similar time or place to The Shining, but in all respects, I’m making a connection between The Shining and these other films. Sometimes it might be very literal, sometimes it might be personal to my own history.

In a big-picture sense, I think we’re talking about the ways movies get into our heads. Bill Blakemore, one of our interviewees, has a great phrase where he compares The Shining to a dream, and Stanley Kubrick’s process of filmmaking to dreaming — that you condense everything that’s happened in your life up to that point, and then it comes out in dreams, in some kind of strange new version.

Demons is a movie about the line between what’s happening on the screen, and what’s happening in the audience, getting very blurry. So for people who are familiar with Demons, the connection might play very clearly; but for people who aren’t, they’re still seeing a really stylishly shot scene of people in a theater in the early ’80s who are struggling to understand this very baffling movie they’ve been presented with.

SFBG Room 237‘s sound design is very distinctive. Can you talk about how that came together?

RA The sound design is by Ian Herzon, an amazing guy who was able to create this heavy, atmospheric mix. It was important to me that Room 237 played more as an immersive experience than as a dry piece of journalism. In a weird way I wanted it to be kind of a horror movie in itself. And Ian has worked on some of the Resident Evil movies, so that was a style that he was comfortable with.

The music is by William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes, who specialize in [horror themes]. Jonathan plays in a band called Nilbog, which performs, like, music from Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Suspiria (1977) live in concert. Their studio looks like a museum of analog synthesizers. So when I was discussing the music I wanted for the film, and I was talking about the early ’80s, Italian synthesizer scores, or John Carpenter music, or Tangerine Dream’s score for Sorcerer (1977), we spoke the same language very quickly. I love the way the synth scores have this trance-inducing, meditative effect. They sometimes have even quasi-religious aspects to them, which seemed kind of appropriate, since we’re looking at The Shining the way some people interpret the Bible.

SFBG What is your reaction when you hear people say, “After seeing Room 237, I’ll never watch The Shining the same way again?”

RA That’s great! And another thing that a lot of them say is, “I’m gonna go and immediately re-watch The Shining,” which is awesome. The Shining is a maze that certainly me and the people that we talked to can’t get out of — so there’s something satisfying about luring other people back into the middle of it. 

ROOM 237 opens Fri/19 at the Roxie.

Behind the Chron’s paywall


I wish the Chronicle luck at its experiment with a “paywall.” Once upon a time, we used to call that a “subscription” — that is, you pay money and someone delivers to you something worthwhile to read. Since nobody much likes to pay to read anything any more, it’s considered risky and a bit radical for a newspaper to charge money for access to the work that it pays a staff a fair amount of money to produce.

Let’s do the nice thing here, shall we, and set aside the question of whether the journalism the Chron produces is of such high quality that people ought to pay a premium for it. I have my gripes with the Chron, and always have, but seriously: Having a local newspaper that tells you what’s going on in town — even if it doesn’t always do it well — is worth a dollar a day. Which is what the print version costs.

Writers need to get paid. Reporters are necessary to the function of democracy, and if they can’t make a living doing the job, it’s not going to get done. Since most young people aren’t used to paying to read anything these days, the only option has been selling (more and more) ads.

That’s actually a model the alternative press has followed for decades, and it’s worked fine. In the days before cable, that’s how TV worked, too — it comes in free, and you pay for it by watching (annoying) ads.

But it’s a problem on the web, where ads don’t bring in the revenue they once did in print, so everyone’s scrambling to find a way to pay the bills. If you’re Markos over at Daily Kos, you build a huge, huge community that loves what you’re doing, and keep the staff fairly modest, and sell enough ads and bring in enough donations to pay for it all. If you’re Nick Denton’s Gawker Media Empire, you keep costs very low by hiring very limited staff (certainly not a lot of reporters) and sell ads ads ads everywhere, including “sponored posts.”

But if you’re the San Francisco Chronicle, with 280-plus reporters who need health care, and lots of editors and executives, and the Hearst Corp. demanding impossible profits, you’re kind of SOL.

Thus: Paywall.

These things don’t tend to work very well. Sfgate had a paywall for “premium content” years ago, and it just sort of faded away. The Wall Street Journal and the Business Times pubs get away with it, because people who read biz pubs are used to paying for information. I’m not sure how many truly loyal Chron readers there are who are willing to pay to read Matier and Ross and Chuck Nevius on the web. Most of those people already pay for a print subscription.
The other problem is that it’s really unclear what the identities of the two sites, sfgate and sfchronicle, will be. They look different (sfgate looks like a newsy website, sfchronicle looks like a print newspaper), but where do you go every day for news? If you read sfgate, you’re missing stuff that only appears on sfchronicle, but if you read sfchronicle, you’re missing stuff that appears on sfgate. It’s not like you get a “premium” edition of the paper in one place; you have to check two sites to get your local news, not one.

For example, today you can get The Chron’s own Carolyn Lochhead on the same-sex marriage case at sfgate. If you pay extra, you can go to sfchronicle and get an AP story that’s not exclusive and will run in lots of papers.

Why does this make me want to pay?

So I don’t know; it’s going to take a lot of evolving to make this work. Again, I wish them luck; anyone who’s trying to find a way to keep paying a news staff deserves credit. But at this point, it seems like a pretty dubious plan.

Does Mayor Lee support Airbnb dodging its $1.8 million tax debt to SF?


My story in this week’s Guardian about how Airbnb appears to be refusing to pay the hotel taxes it owes to the city has gotten a lot of attention. But I’m still getting stonewalled by representatives from the company and Mayor Ed Lee, who apparently refuses to take a public stand against corporate tax evasion, even when it means thousands of San Franciscans could get stuck with an unexpected tax bill.

How much money are we talking about? According to a study that Airbnb commissioned and publicized late last year, its hosts in San Francisco collect $12.7 million from their guests every year. That means that if the company was charging the 14 percent Transient Occupancy Tax – as the Tax Collector’s Office last year ruled that it must – it would be paying the city nearly $1.8 million annually.

But that doesn’t seem to be happening, although only Airbnb can say for sure, which is why its spokespeople have been dodging my questions for more than a week. As I reported, taxpayer privacy laws prevent city officials from disclosing how much individual businesses pay in local taxes, but we do know Airbnb doesn’t add the TOT to the online transactions it facilitates or specifically encourage its San Francisco hosts to collect the taxes (even though the tax codes make the hosts and Airbnb jointly responsible for this growing debt to city coffers). And with the company charging 6-12 percent per transaction, it’s a safe bet that it isn’t simply paying the taxes itself.

What makes this particular case of corporate tax dodging even more interesting is the fact that Mayor Lee has a close connection to this particular San Francisco-based corporation. Venture capitalist Ron Conway is a top investor in both Airbnb and Mayor Lee’s political campaigns, creating a potential conflict-of-interest in Room 200. Last year, Mayor Lee personally lobbied against the interpretation by the Tax Collector’s Office, and now he appears to be silently backing Airbnb’s resistance to paying its taxes.

Last week, when I was trying to get a comment for Lee spokesperson Francis Tsang on Airbnb’s apparent tax dodge, he replied, “It’s an incorrect assumption that Airbnb and hosts haven’t been paying any transient occupancy tax..” Of course, because of the taxpayer privacy laws, Tsang can’t actually support that statement and I responded by laying out the evidence that the city is getting stiffed by Airbnb.

Then, he and Airbnb simply stopped responding to my questions, even though I’ve made repeated inquiries and asked only whether Mayor Lee was willing to make a public statement calling for a major San Francisco corporation to meet its local tax obligations. And in the interests of fully transparency, I’ll close with the email that I sent to spokespersons for Airbnb and the Mayor’s Office on Wednesday as my story came out, along with their emails in case you want to push for answers yourself.,,

Dear Airbnb and mayoral spokespeople,

Since I couldn’t get responsive answers from any of you about why Airbnb isn’t collecting the Transient Occupancy Tax from its guests, I wanted to forward the link to my story on the topic in our latest issue ( and to let you know that I will continue covering this issue in the Guardian and our sister newspapers until you address it publicly.

Because of privacy laws that limit the Tax Collector’s Office from addressing this directly, only Airbnb can say whether they’re paying any of the hotel taxes that the city last year conclusively ruled that they owe. As I reported in my story, that tax obligation is shared jointly by Airbnb and its hosts, who don’t appear to have been warned of this by the company, making this an issue of consumer protection as well as corporate greed.

Will the Mayor’s Office make a public statement opposing tax evasion? Will it stand up for San Franciscans who may be unwittingly stuck with the tax bill by Airbnb? Or will Mayor Lee stick up for a tax-dodging corporation funded by the same billionaire that funds his political campaigns? And how will people feel about San Franciscans and the city treasury paying for his political ambitions?

These are all questions that I plan to air and explore in the Guardian, and I think that our readers and the general public deserve answers to those questions. If there are reasons why Airbnb guests aren’t being charged the TOT, some other arrangement that has been made, or some other complex reasons why Airbnb feels it can’t comply with last year’s ruling by the Tax Collector’s Office, I’ll be happy to hear it and let you make your case to our readers. But I don’t think that continuing to stonewall me is going to be a viable strategy for any of you. I hope to hear from you soon.

Cristian Mungiu on his stark, stunning ‘Beyond the Hills’


Cristian Mungiu — one of the main reasons everyone’s all excited about the Romanian New Wave — follows up his Palme d’Or winner, 2007’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, with another stark look at a troubled friendship between two women. Beyond the Hills‘ Voichita and Alina (Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur, who shared the Best Actress prize at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival; for his part, Mungiu won Best Screenplay) were BFFs and, we slowly realize, lovers while growing up at a Romanian orphanage.

When they aged out of the facility, the reserved Voichita moved to a rural monastery to become a nun, and the outburst-prone Alina pinballed around, doing a stint as a barmaid in Germany before turning up in Voichita’s village, lugging emotional baggage of the jealous, needy, possibly mentally ill, and definitely misunderstood variety. It can’t end well for anyone, as all involved — dismissive local doctors, Alina’s no-longer-accommodating foster family, the priest (Valeriu Andriuta), and the other nuns — would rather not spend any time or energy caring for a troubled, destitute outsider. Even Voichita can only look on helplessly as an exorcism, a brutal and cruel procedure, is decided upon as Alina’s last, best hope.

Based on a real 2005 incident in Moldavia, Mungiu’s unsettling film is a masterpiece of exquisitely composed shots, harsh themes, and naturalistic performances. I conducted the following email interview with Mungiu ahead of Beyond the Hills‘ Fri/15 Bay Area release.

San Francisco Bay Guardian Both Beyond the Hills and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days are about female friendships — troubled female friendships, to be specific, with shared secrets and repressed emotions. What interests you about these relationships, and telling these kinds of stories?

Cristian Mungiu My films are story-driven rather than character driven and I always start from some true story that I heard about. So, as much as these films could be depicted as films about female relationships, for me the starting points were different. For 4 Months, I mostly wanted to talk about freedom, compromise, responsibility, and circumstances when such an important issue as maternity is involved. In Beyond the Hills I was interested in understanding how violence progresses in a small community and I needed to talk about different kinds of love, social responsibility, and indifference, about the differences between religion and superstition, about the relationship between the level of education and free will.

I don’t think in terms of male/female characters when I think about my characters: I believe that as a storyteller, you either understand the human nature or you don’t — gender is irrelevant.

SFBG Both films also deal with medical issues, though in Beyond the Hills Alina’s suffering is more abstract and seems to be tied into a number of factors: her illness is mental, not physical; also, she is poor and has no family looking out for her. Does the portrayal of doctors and hospitals in Beyond the Hills reflect Romania’s treatment of “outsiders,” and what do you hope audiences take away from this?

CM It would be wrong to consider that the portrayal of the doctors in Beyond the Hills can be generalized to all doctors in Romania nowadays. I don’t think that any film should be taken as a relevant portrait of a country — it would be the same mistake we use to make in the ’80s, thinking about US as being primarily a country of mobsters (after watching The Godfather — that was very popular and highly appreciated).

I would rather say that Beyond the Hills speaks about dysfunctional institutions in general, about the side effects of incompetence and of superstitions in society — and it shows how empathy for the one next to you is influenced by poverty and how the decision to help him is influenced by your level of education.

SFBG Beyond the Hills might show the most realistic (and therefore, probably one of the scariest), take on an exorcism ever filmed. Why did you choose to take on a topic that’s primarily horror-movie element? Is it true the film is based on a true incident, and how did you hear about it?

CM The film is inspired by a couple of non-fictional novels documenting a real incident that happened in Romania in 2005. It was on the first page on the newspapers for weeks and months, it shattered the Romanian public opinion, and it generated a more general debate about the role of religion in the modern society and about some of the rituals in churches.

The film’s the main story line is quite close to what happened in reality so I didn’t choose to bring in an exorcism scene — it was pretty much there already — I just tried to treat it as non-spectacular and as realistic as possible, as it was important for me to avoid the possible tabloid perspective about this issue. It is part of a certain kind of realism that we are looking for in our films — a realism which is present at all levels — from the way of treating the subject to the
way of shooting and to handling filmic time — every scene is depicted in just one continuous shot in the film, no matter how complex or long it is.

SFBG Nuns are another familiar movie element — I’m thinking of everything from The Sound of Music to Sister Act to (most closely) Black Narcissus. How do you go about recreating such a private, closed-off world, and what were the challenges involved in doing that?

CM The greatest challenge always is to fight stereotypes: yours and others. I based my portrayal of the nuns on my observation about religious people, about the psychology of people living in small isolated communities and on my experience of talking to institutionalized children – but at the end of the day, again, we need to understand that nuns are also human beings with emotions, fears, doubts, and so on.

One of the major challenges was to instruct the actresses about the appropriate behavior and attitude their character would have in each given situation and to specifically ask them never to be judgmental about their characters. The screenplay was already depicting in detail most of the monastery routine — and before the shooting we sent the girls to a monastery — to spend some time with some real nuns because there are small things that, as an actor, you need to notice yourself.

SFBG The stark, austere landscape of Beyond the Hills is practically a character in the story. How did you find that location and what approach did you take to filming to heighten the story’s elements? I especially appreciated how key moments — Alina being carried into the church, for instance — happen in the background of long shots.

CM We started by visiting the site of the real incident and then we scouted for a barren hill with some solemnity, no electricity poles around — and having a direct view to a small town. It was quite a complicated scouting and finally we came across this hill — some 100 kilometers up- north Bucharest — where we built the whole Monastery and all the surrounding buildings.

When you decide to only shoot long takes you need to learn how to use the depth of field, the off camera, and the sound. My idea was that it’s more important to show the characters’ reaction to what happens than what happens — and therefore I decided for example that in the most of the violent scenes we’ll be with the camera on the nuns and not on Alina. A crucial decision regards the wideness of the framing — we try to match it always with the content of the scene and with its degree of intimacy. But filmmaking is not a science and you need to keep your mind free and your eyes open, to experiment on the set and to feel which is the most powerful and appropriate way of shooting each moment.

SFBG What does the title mean to you?

CM It refers to realities which are not in full view, which happen somewhere deep down — in our mind or in the world — but I don’t think film titles should be perfectly explicit in connection to the story.

Beyond the Hills opens Fri/15 in Bay Area theaters.

“Unlikely trio” of supervisors saves CPMC hospital deal


An ideologically diverse trio of supervisors, a community-minded mediator, and a deliberate negotiations process (one that that involved local stakeholders and verified corporate claims) has managed to do what the Mayor’s Office couldn’t: reach an agreement that seems to be a good deal for the city and has broad political support for California Pacific Medical Center to build two new full-service hospitals in town.

It differs from the disastrous deal announced by Mayor Ed Lee last year in key ways. St. Luke’s Hospital – a staple of care for low-income San Franciscans that must to rebuilt to meet new state earthquake safety standards – will be about 50 percent larger than previously proposed, while the new luxury hospital that CPMC has been trying to build on Cathedral Hill will be about 50 percent smaller.

That simple flip alleviated much of the Cathedral Hill project’s impact on traffic and affordable housing – which CPMC will still pay $14 million and $36.5 million respectively to mitigate, more than in the previous agreement and part of a roughly $80 million payment to the city – and overcame community concerns about the company’s commitment to St. Luke’s.

The new deal also has stronger local hiring requirements and more stringent guarantees that CPMC will serve MediCal patients and provide more charity care to the poor, regardless of the company’s financial situation, while maintaining contributions to community-based organizations at the same level as under the previous agreement.

In many ways, the agreement repudiates the deal cut last year by Mayor Ed Lee, which CPMC refused to significantly modify or even support with verifiable financial claims even as it fell apart in spectacular fashion under scrutiny last year by the Board of Supervisors, particularly during hearings at the Land Use Committee chaired by Sup. Eric Mar.

That flawed deal was rushed to completion just as the Saleforce headquarters expansion that had been trumpeted by Lee and the America’s Cup real estate deal both fell apart, which sources tell the Guardian put pressure on Lee to quickly deliver something to the business community and building trades (read tomorrow’s Guardian for more on Lee’s approach to tough negotiations and its implications).

But today’s press conference to announce the new deal at St. Luke’s was a forward-looking celebration of what was universally lauded as a big victory for the community. And most of the credit seems to go to mediator Lou Giraudo, who owns Boudin Bakery, and Sups. David Campos, David Chiu, and Mark Farrell, who all stepped up late last summer to salvage the project.

“There are two stories: the deal itself and the process,” Giraudo told the crowd. He said that he had some trepidation going in and that all he knew of the supervisors was what he read in the newspapers, and that the three represented the left (Campos), right (Farrell), and center (Chiu). Giraudo said they were the keys to making this deal happen.

“I have never been so impressed by politicians to come together as one,” Giraudo said, praising the trio for working hard, bringing in outside expertise to verify CPMC’s financial claims, and working with their constituencies. “We depoliticized together and then we built trust.”

Farrell also praised both the deal – “It ensures we have access to quality health care for years to come in San Francisco.” – and the process, in which the three supervisors worked well together. “I think about the future of the Board of Supervisors and us working together as colleagues,” he said. “None of us have spent more time on anything than we have CPMC.”

Campos echoed the point. “I really cannot be more proud of the work that we as the Board of Supervisors did here,” Campos said, noting how they had all committed to work together for the good of the city, demonstrating “how we, as the Board of Supervisors, can work on even the most difficult issues and resolve them.”

He also praised his constituents in the community coalition of labor, housing, and social justice advocates – including San Franciscans for Healthcare, Housing, Jobs, and Justice – who had pushed for a better deal for San Francisco. “This is a victory for them at the end of the day,” Campos said, singling out their consultant Paul Kumar for helping shape a deal that ensures that, “St. Luke’s plays a large role in the CPMC system.”

Kumar, a consultant with the National Union of Healthcare Workers who wasn’t at the event, later told the Guardian, “This is a victory for democratic planning.” He noted that CPMC and its parent company, Sutter Health, are notoriously hard-nosed negotiators and that he’s hoping this agreement represents a turning point in their relationship with the community and their employees.

“The question is if we can parlay this into a better and more responsible relationship between Sutter and the city,” Kumar said.

Chiu – who has been at the center of several difficult city negotiations in recent years, and who helped lead the board’s charge against CPMC last year – told the conference, “When we started this process, I was not hugely optimistic we would get here,” calling the supervisors “an unlikely trio.” But he praised all parties involved for working to get a deal with strong local hiring and charity care provisions.

“This is a comprehensive project,” Chiu said.

When Lee spoke, he praised the deal and the crucial role played by the three supervisors. “This project would not have gotten done without their direct involvement,” said Lee, who didn’t attend any of the dozens of negotiating sessions, although Ken Rich from the Mayor’s Office was involved. Yet the unusually grim-faced mayor also seemed to bring up the only doubts expressed about the deal, saying “The job is never done, this is an announcement about where we are today” and vaguely warning that, “It’s sensitive, people do have trepidation about what this will mean to them going forward.”

Afterward, Lee took reporters’ questions while walking steadily to his car, without pausing to get into what he was alluded to or why this deal seems so much better than the one he cut, except to say that the “health care landscape has changed.” Later, a mayoral staffer who would only speak on background, said one key to this deal was that CPMC had decided that demand for hospital beds would drop in the future and that they needed fewer in San Francisco.

CPMC CEO Dr. Warren Browner, who had some tough clashes with supervisors last year, didn’t go into the reasons behind the sweetened deal during his presentation (except to contest Giraudo’s comment that he had fought through “deal fatigue and was weary at times” by saying that he actually had a lingering case of “walking pneumonia” that he thanked CPMC’s medical staff for helping to cure.).

After comparing the negotiations to the legend of Sisyphus repeatedly pushing a boulder uphill, Browner said, “We are looking forward to going through the process and putting shovels in the ground, hopefully in 2013.”


Terms of the deal, which were formally introduced at today’s Board of Supervisors meeting, include:

  • Permits for a 120-bed St. Luke’s Hospital, 274-bed Cathedral Hill Hospital (or an additional 30 beds if St. Luke’s operates at 75 percent capacity), medical office buildings at both hospitals, a parking garage with up to 990 spaces (limited to CPMC staff and patients only) on Cathedral Hill, and a new Neurosciences Institute at Davies Medical Center.

  • St. Luke’s Hospital will have a number of specified services – including acute care, senior and community health care, labor and delivery, intensive care, cancer treatment, mental health services, and outpatient care – to ensure it remains a full-service hospital.

  • CPMC caring for 30,000 charity care and 5,400 Medi-Cal managed care patients per year, limits on healthcare cost increases to city employees, and CPMC endowing a new $9 million Healthcare Innovation Fund to increase capacity at local clinics.

  • CPMC contributing $36.5 million to the city’s affordable housing fund and paying $4.1 million to replace the homes it displaces on Cathedral Hill.

  • At least 30 percent of construction job and 40 percent of the permanent entry-level positions in the new facilities will be San Franciscans, and CPMC will contribute $4 million to job training.

  • To offset transportation impacts at Cathedral Hill, CPMC will give $14 million to the SFMTA and “institute a robust transportation demand management program,” as well as spending $13 million on pedestrian safety and streetscape improvements at all its San Francisco facilities.



Happy International Women’s Day: There’s a long way to go

This coming Friday marks International Women’s Day, an event geared toward promoting gender equality across the globe. As women seek greater representation in politics, media, tech and other professional realms, controversies around gender equality issues continue to arise – even in San Francisco, a city nationally recognized for its progressive commitment to equality.

Last week, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee landed in hot water with a comment that led some to question if he was implying that women with kids don’t have the time to serve as elected officials.

A few weeks before that, San Francisco blogger and programmer Shanley Kane shook things up with a widely circulated essay blasting Silicon Valley’s “toxic lies about culture,” in which she paints the start-up world as limiting for women despite oft-expressed ideals of inclusivity:

“What your culture might actually be saying is … We have a team of primarily women supporting the eating, drinking, management and social functions of a primarily male workforce whose output is considered more valuable. We struggle to hire women in non-administrative positions and most gender diversity in our company is centralized in social and admin work.” 

And when we dropped by the RSA Security Conference last week at San Francisco’s Moscone Center out of sheer curiosity to hear what the founder of Wikipedia had to say, we learned that even people who strive for an internationally inclusive open-source encyclopedia project are experiencing lopsided gender representation, and struggling to address it.

Jimmy Wales, who started Wikipedia about 12 years ago, asked his audience to “imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of human knowledge” as the foundational goal of the global endeavor, which is headquartered in San Francisco. But despite this lofty objective of global inclusivity, he admitted that Wikipedia is struggling to attract more female participation when it comes to the people who are writing articles for it.

As things stand, the people who contribute entries to Wikipedia are 87 percent male, he said. “We’re not happy about that number,” Wales said, noting that it is reflective of the gender imbalance in the tech community in general. “This is a really important goal for us: To improve female participation,” he added.

Dishearteningly, it seems to follow a broader trend of a lack of female representation in traditional media. A report released a couple weeks ago by the Women’s Media Center included some eye-opening stats:

  • At the current pace, it will take until 2085 for women to reach parity with men in leadership roles in government/politics, business, entrepreneurship and nonprofits.
  • By a nearly 3 to 1 margin, male front-page bylines at top newspapers outnumbered female bylines in coverage of the 2012 presidential election. Men were also far more likely to be quoted than women in newspapers, television and public radio. That’s also the case in coverage of abortion, birth control, Planned Parenthood and women’s rights.
  • Forty-seven percent of gamers are women, but 88 percent of video game developers are male.
  • The percentage of women who are television news directors edged up from the previous year, reaching 30 percent for the first time.

This may not sound like a lot to celebrate, but come Friday, the ongoing struggle for gender equality might just give you the inspiration to check out some local activities commemorating International Women’s Day, Women’s History Month or just some remarkable female-driven projects in the Bay Area.

Pick up a copy of the Guardian tomorrow and check out our special Women’s History Month event listings, where we’ll highlight everything from a gathering honoring female media professionals, to meet-ups for female coders, to murals painted by women, courtesy of Guardian Culture Editor Caitlin Donohue.

Ten years after Powell’s U.N. speech, old hands are ready for more blood


By Norman Solomon

Norman Solomon is the author of “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.” He is the founding director of the Institute for Public Accuracy and co-founder of

When Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke to the U.N. Security Council on February 5, 2003, countless journalists in the United States extolled him for a masterful performance — making the case that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The fact that the speech later became notorious should not obscure how easily truth becomes irrelevant in the process of going to war.

Ten years later — with Powell’s speech a historic testament of shameless deception leading to vast carnage — we may not remember the extent of the fervent accolades. At the time, fawning praise was profuse across the USA’s mainline media spectrum, including the nation’s reputedly great newspapers.

The New York Times editorialized that Powell “was all the more convincing because he dispensed with apocalyptic invocations of a struggle of good and evil and focused on shaping a sober, factual case against Mr. Hussein’s regime.” The Washington Post was more war-crazed, headlining its editorial “Irrefutable” and declaring that after Powell’s U.N. presentation “it is hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction.”

Yet basic flaws in Powell’s U.N. speech were abundant. Slanted translations of phone intercepts rendered them sinister. Interpretations of unclear surveillance photos stretched to concoct the worst. Summaries of cherry-picked intelligence detoured around evidence that Iraq no longer had WMDs. Ballyhooed documents about an Iraqi quest for uranium were forgeries.

Assumptions about U.S. prerogatives also went largely unquestioned. In response to Powell’s warning that the U.N. Security Council would place itself “in danger of irrelevance” by failing to endorse a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the adulation from U.S. media embraced the notion that the United Nations could only be “relevant” by bending to Washington’s wishes. A combination of cooked intelligence and geopolitical arrogance, served up to rapturous reviews at home, set the stage for what was to come.

The invasion began six weeks after Powell’s tour de force at the United Nations. Soon, a search for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was in full swing. None turned up. In January 2004 — 11 months after Powell’s U.N. speech — the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace released a report concluding that top officials in the Bush administration “systematically misrepresented the threat from Iraq’s WMD and ballistic missile programs.”

Left twisting in the wind was Powell’s speech to the U.N. Security Council, where he’d issued a “conservative estimate” that Iraq “has a stockpile of between 100 and 500 tons of chemical weapons agent.” The secretary of state had declared: “There can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more.”

Nineteen months after the speech, in mid-September 2004, Powell made a terse public acknowledgment. “I think it’s unlikely that we will find any stockpiles,” he said. But no gingerly climb-down could mitigate the bloodshed that continued in Iraq.

A decade ago,  Powell played a starring role in a recurring type of political dramaturgy. Scripts vary, while similar dramas play out on a variety of scales. Behind a gauzy curtain, top officials engage in decision-making on war that gives democracy short shrift. For the public, crucial information that bears on the wisdom of warfare remains opaque or out of sight.

Among the powerful and not-so-powerful, in mass media and on Capitol Hill, the default position is still to defer to presidential momentum for war. Public candor and policy introspection remain in short supply.

The new secretary of state, John Kerry — like the one he just replaced, Hillary Clinton — voted for the Iraq war resolution in the Senate, nearly four months before Powell went to the U.N. Security Council. During the crucial lead-up months, Senator Kerry was at pains to show his avid support for an invasion. In early October 2002, appearing for an hour on MSNBC’s “Hardball” program live from The Citadel as an audience of young cadets filled the screen, Kerry said: “I’m prepared to go. I think people understand that Saddam Hussein is a danger.”

Since then, Kerry has publicly said that he would have voted for the war resolution even if he’d known that Iraq actually had no weapons of mass destruction. But on the Senate floor, Kerry prefaced his vote for war by rhetorically demanding to know why Saddam Hussein was “attempting to develop nuclear weapons when most nations don’t even try.” The senator emphasized that “according to intelligence, Iraq has chemical and biological weapons.”

Months later, when Powell trumpeted that theme at the United Nations, the landslide of testimonials included this one from a future U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice: “I think he has proved that Iraq has these weapons and is hiding them, and I don’t think many informed people doubted that.”

Meanwhile, the Washington Post edition with the editorial headlined “Irrefutable” also included unanimous agreement from each of the opinion columns on the facing page.

Longtime Post columnist Richard Cohen attested to Powell’s unquestionable veracity with these words: “The evidence he presented to the United Nations — some of it circumstantial, some of it absolutely bone-chilling in its detail — had to prove to anyone that Iraq not only hasn’t accounted for its weapons of mass destruction but without a doubt still retains them. Only a fool — or possibly a Frenchman – could conclude otherwise.”

Inches away, another venerable pundit held forth. Powell managed to “present the world with a convincing and detailed X-ray of Iraq’s secret weapons and terrorism programs yesterday,” wrote Jim Hoagland, a Post foreign-policy specialist. He concluded: “To continue to say that the Bush administration has not made its case, you must now believe that Colin Powell lied in the most serious statement he will ever make, or was taken in by manufactured evidence. I don’t believe that. Today, neither should you.”

Fast forward to the current era. What are Richard Cohen and Jim Hoagland writing — about Iran?

On February 6, 2012, exactly nine years after proclaiming that “only a fool” could doubt Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, Cohen’s column declared flatly: “The ultimate remedy is Iranian regime change.” Four months ago, Cohen wrapped up a column by observing “there is still time for Iran to back down before President Obama’s red line — no nuclear weapon — is crossed. This is a war whose time has not yet come.” Not yet.

Hoagland — a decade after telling readers they should put their trust in Colin Powell’s “convincing and detailed X-ray of Iraq’s secret weapons” — is now making clear that his patience with Iran is wearing thin. “Until recently,” Hoagland wrote five weeks ago, “I had been relatively comfortable with Obama’s assertions that there is time to reach a peaceful resolution with Iran.” Hoagland’s column went on to say that military strikes on Iran “threaten disastrous political and economic consequences for the world,” so diplomatic efforts should try to avert the need for such strikes — before they become necessary.

So goes the dominant spectrum of opinionating and policymaking for war, from eagerness to reluctance. Propaganda lead-ups to warfare are as varied as wars themselves; and yet every style of such propaganda relies on deception, and every war is unspeakable horror.

After jumping onto ghastly bandwagons for one war after another, the nation’s media establishment is available to do it again. So is the current U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. So is the new secretary of state. They’re old hands, dripping with blood. They have not had enough.

Norman Solomon is the author of “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.” He is the founding director of the Institute for Public Accuracy and co-founder of

On the Cheap Listings


On the Cheap listings compiled by Cortney Clift. Submit items for the listings at For further information on how to submit items for listings, see Picks.


“Red Bull Curates: The Canvas Cooler Project” Public Works, 161 Erie, SF. 9pm, free. The Canvas Cooler Project pairs selected artists with local bar, lounge, and restaurant owners. Artists are then given 24 hours to transform a blank, canvas wrapped Red Bull Cooler into a work of art representative of their venue. The end results will be on display tonight where guests and selected judges vote on each piece — the winners get a trip to Miami for Art Basel week 2013.


“Voices of Japan: Tanka after the Tsunami” SFSU Cesar Chavez Student Center, 1650 Holloway, SF. . Through Feb. 14. Opening reception: 5-8pm, free. Since the traumatic tsunami hit Japan in March of 2011, the country’s newspapers have been publishing tanka poems written by a wide range of Japanese citizens affected by the natural disaster. This exhibit takes a look at what these victims had to say, showing 29 selected poems from the papers. Photo collages, calligraphy, and video will also be on display alongside the translated words. Tonight’s reception will include a live calligraphy and story-telling performance.


“A Hella Space” MOCO gallery, 371 17th St., Oakl. . Through Feb. 21. Opening reception: 6-10pm, free. Long time friends and artists Sam Turner, Meighan Moore, and Noelle Dexter share their artistic interpretation of life in Oakland through digital prints, watercolor, and pen and ink drawings. Tonight’s reception will also include a musical act by Noelle Dexter.

“Peace, Pies & Prophets: I’d Like to Buy and Enemy” First Presbyterian Church, 2619 Broadway, Oakl. 7pm, $12 donation accepted. There will be pie. And comedy. Need we say more? This Positive Peace Warrior and Christian Peacemaker Team fundraiser will include a homemade pie auction and a performance addressing issues of peace and justice in a comedic light.


Fourth Annual German Family Karneval 1581 LeRoy, Berk. . 3-7pm, free. Bring the little ones out to help support the German School of Silicon Valley’s growing Berkeley campus. Enjoy a performance by a Brazilian-style marching band, snack on German food and drink, and let the kiddos take part in the various children’s activities offered.

Chantey Sing at Hyde Street Pier” San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, 499 Jefferson, SF. (415) 561-7171. 8pm-midnight, free. RSVP by phone, required. Pick out your best blue-and-white striped shirt and channel your inner Popeye for this sailor sing along. Park rangers will lead you in sea chanteys under the stars and aboard a historic ship at San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. Bring your own mug and soothe your vocal chords with free cider.

“Mud & Blood: A Swamp Noir Fairy Tale” The Lost Church, 65 Capp, SF. . 8pm, $10. Singer-songwriter Wesley Morgan introduces you to a new sort of story time. Through a mixture of story and song, Morgan and his guitar tell a Gothic, fantastical tale of a boy found in the mud, still attached to his mother in the aftermath of a tragic flood. Years later, the boy sets out on an adventure where he meets intoxicating temptresses, precious songbirds, and more.

Tomboy Tailors store opening Crocker Galleria, 50 Post, first floor, SF. . 2-6pm, free. Eventbrite RSVP requested. Tomboy Tailors, a fine clothier specializing in made-to-measure, custom suits for the butch among us, is opening up shop this afternoon in its new retail space. Check out the new store with champagne in one hand and hor d’oeuvres in the other. Maybe even get fitted for a suit while live jazz plays in the background?


“Janet Jackson Flash Mob ‘Together Again'” Dance Mission Theatre, 3316 24th St., SF. . Noon-2pm, $3. On May 18th Bay Area Flash Mob will gather in various locations around San Francisco to perform “Together Again” in honor of Janet Jackson’s birthday. But before you can be part of the flash mob fun you’ve got to master the moves. Get some knowledge of the dance beforehand with free online tutorial videos and then join your mob mates this afternoon to learn part four of eight to the dance.

Fourth Annual Super Bowl Heavy Metal Chili Cookoff Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St., SF. . 1-6:30pm. Doors open at 1pm, game at 3:30pm, free. Spice up your Super Bowl Sunday with some home-style cooking. To give this cook-off an extra kick, all participants must also give their dish a heavy metal name. Prizes will be given away at halftime for best chili, best chili (popular vote), and best heavy metal name. Chili entrants must RSVP in advance. Everyone else is free to bring other food to share.


“Quiet Lighting’s Tour Through Town”826 Valencia, SF. . 6:30pm, $5 donation accepted. Quiet Lightning kicks off their citywide tour alongside Valencia Street literary staple, 826 Valencia for its first show of the year. Snack on some goodies from Bi-Rite Market, OneBar, and Cheddar and Chutney, sit back, relax and enjoy an evening of poetry and fiction readings by some of the city’s best young authors. This specific Quiet Lighting event will showcase pieces by written by six to 18-year-olds.


The Guardian, the Examiner, and the Weekly


As you can all imagine, I’m getting calls and emails, so let me clear it up: Yes, San Francisco Newspaper Co. has bought SF Weekly.

Yes, Todd Vogt is the co-owner of the Examiner, Guardian and now Weekly, but for the record, I am the editor and publisher of the Guardian.

No, there are no plans to merge the two weeklies or consolidate them or combine the editorial staffs. We will continue to do our best to be the progressive voice of San Francisco; the Weekly, I assume, will continue to do its own different thing.

And no, this doesn’t mean that I’m going to suddenly be BFFs with Joe Eskenazi. We have our view of things; he has his. I fervently believe that we will continue to disagree, and the city will be served by the ongoing debate. (Unless Joe comes to his senses and realizes that I’m always right.)


The Latin dish


San Francisco is a literate community, always has been. Bookstores abound, perhaps not as much as bars, but that’s fish for another soup. The literary scene is uber-vibrant, as highlighted by the recent Litquake Festival with more than 800 writers reading in hundreds of venues.

But looked at from another perspective, the most recent study on adult literacy reveals startling numbers: Nationwide one in seven adults is illiterate, about 14 percent of the adult population. The same study cited San Francisco with an adult illiteracy rate of 18 percent, or nearly one in five adults (National Assessment of Adult Literacy, 2003).

One out of five adults in San Francisco is illiterate and we have 11 supervisors—it’s scary, right? If I think too much about this it keeps me up at night.

So I am proposing that our elected officials, especially our supervisors, post their reading lists on their websites, for the electorate to view, perhaps to even offer comments or questions.

Nothing reveals more about the human heart—who you are, your world view, your interests—than what you’re reading. Where do they get the recipes for all the laws they cook up? Do they read newspapers—I mean community newspapers? Poetry? Fiction? Non-fiction? Adrian Rich? Isabel Allende? Machiavelli? I would like to see the list of their dictionaries, and I hope to see lots of bilingual ones—like Spanish-English, Cantonese-English, Tagalog-Spanish-English, Russian-English. Caló. Me entiendes, Méndez? Or is it English-only dictionaries?

In the best of worlds we would find on their reading lists poetry, novels, history, art, philosophy.

One way out of this morass of violence brought to us in burning color by the powers that be…might just be a poem. Something created by another human being, easy to hold in one hand, or folded in the pocket—sometimes the gift of peace is as simple as that.

It’s not just about books, but writing and stories that speaks to us, our sense of who we are, who we have been—and, if there’s any time left on this planet, where we might be going.

One of the biggest problems in our society right now is that too many politicos run around downplaying reading and writing—proud of the fact they’ve never read a book, don’t know cacahuates about poetry or literature, much less art or music, and could care less. But we live in one of the great literary cities, rich with song and poetry going way back before any Euro cats showed up trapping beavers or digging for gold. So to ignore this heritage would be foolish for any politician. After all—as the wise poet once said, “Poetry is the best word in the best place.”

If we are truly a literate city—the City of Poets — then it must be all of us, from four-year-olds to 100-year-olds. We must all be good readers: From the Rammaytush songs still drifting in the fog that sweeps over Twin Peaks, to Maria Amparo Ruíz de Burton to Oscar Zeta Acosta, the Brown Buffalo, to Roberto Frost. Or any of the past poet laureates will do just fine, Ferlinghetti, Mirikitani, major, Hirschman, di Prima, a virtual all-star lists of voices, styles, visions.

As part of a literacy campaign aimed at city officials and our elected leaders, two poets Virginia Barrett and Bobby Coleman, have put together an anthology Occupy SF: poems from the movement that includes more than 100 poets, from Lawrence Ferlinghetti, devorah major and Jack Hirschman to many emerging poets. The two editors have launched a campaign to place this anthology in the hands of every city bureaucrat and elected official. They are operating as a nonprofit, and all proceeds go to benefit the evolving Occupy movement. The anthology is published by Jambu Press/Studio Saraswati, which can be contacted via email: or snail mail at PO Box 720050, SF 94172.

And please, political leaders — no excuses about how busy you are. If that’s the case maybe you should retire so you can take some time to read.





All the ingredients can be found

At your local bookstore


Take the honey from many languages

The poetic juice from many cultures

The crying songs of many lands

The spices of diverse foods

The love a parent has for a child

The love a child has for the wind

Include an image of bound feet

Discovered in a 19th century photo book

Plus the history of war crimes

Seasoned with the salt of exile

The lovers’ caress before sex

Blend them together In any order You will find wisdom in every bite

Alejandro Murguía is San Francisco’s poet laureate. His column will appear regularly.