President Barack Obama

Should Occupy pull back and reinvent itself?


Maybe it’s time for the Occupy movement to simply take a bow, step off the national stage for now, and start planning its next big production. Because at this point, Occupy has been a smashing success – winning over its audiences and key critics, influencing the national debate – but it’s in danger of losing that luster if its lingers too long in its current form.

Consider the events of this week. When OccupySF’s long-standing encampment was finally removed by police and city workers, the general public barely noticed or reacted. Unlike during previous police raids, hundreds of supporters didn’t pour in to defend the camp and social media sites didn’t light up with messages of indignation and solidarity.

Why? Well it’s not because people don’t support the movement. Polls have consistently shown most people back Occupy, and even higher percentages support its basic message that the 99 percent are being screwed over by the 1 percent. Top political leaders at every level – Mayor Ed Lee, Gov. Jerry Brown, and President Barack Obama – made statements and speeches this week that echo the themes and ideas that Occupy has injected into the national dialogue.

But the tactic of occupation was only going to get us so far. It was a great way to start a conversation and demonstrate a broad discontent with this country’s inequities and plutocratic excess. Finally, the people have started to challenge those who are exploiting them, and it’s been particularly exciting to see young people fighting to reclaim their stolen futures.

That energy hasn’t dissipated, and it’s interesting to see it morphing into other campaigns, such as the recent takeovers of vacant foreclosed homes, the human rights march planned for tomorrow, and West Coast port shutdown scheduled for Monday. But I predict the crowds blockading the Port of Oakland will be a fraction of the size of the tens of thousands who took to the streets during the Oakland General Strike on Nov. 2.

Then, people were reacting to police violently crushing Occupy Oakland’s peaceful political assembly on Oct. 25, a galvanizing event, much like the raid on Occupy Wall Street and the abusive police tactics against occupiers on the UC Berkeley and UC Davis campuses. Each example showcased the police state’s willingness to use a heavy hand against peaceful protesters, demonstrating for a global audience what an important struggle this is and what we’re up against.

Yet it was hard to summon up much indignation over this week’s raid on OccupySF, even as protesters complained about being given just five minutes to get out and having their belonging seized and destroyed. Mayor Lee had been threatening the raid for weeks and had offered the group a free new home in the Mission – an offer they probably should have taken, one that would have allowed the group to declare victory and have a base of operations throughout the winter.

But unlike my cranky, “you kids get off my lawn” colleagues in the mainstream press, who have consistently derided the movement and valued anti-camping laws over the core constitutional right to peaceably assemble to petition for a redress of grievances, I think Occupy has been extremely important and effective. My desire is to see it evolve and continue.

Mayor Lee and other city officials have praised the goals and worldview of Occupy at every turn, even as they oppose the tactic of camping. As Police Chief Greg Suhr raided OccupySF, he told reporters that “part of the 99 percent removed part of the 99 percent to give the other part of 99 percent some relief,” tipping his hat to Occupy’s basic paradigm. Gov. Brown echoed Occupy’s economic inequity language in his call for higher taxes on the rich this week.

“I’m here in Kansas to reaffirm my deep conviction that we’re greater together than we are on our own. I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules. These aren’t Democratic values or Republican values. These aren’t 1 percent values or 99 percent values. They’re American values. And we have to reclaim them,” Obama said in his big speech this week, embracing the Occupy paradigm even as he tried to transcend it. But go back and read the whole speech and you’ll see that it would have fit right in during any Occupy General Assembly, with its regular calls to tax the rich, something this movement has given him the political cover to more forcefully advocate.

So the conversation has now begun, thanks largely to this movement. But, as most supporters of Occupy already know, our elected officials won’t simply enact the reforms we need on their own. They will need to be pushed and prodded relentlessly by a restive public, so the supporters of Occupy still have a lot of work to do.

How will they do that and what will it look like? I don’t know, but after watching these smart, creative, courageous, and committed young people and their supporters change the political dynamics of this country over the last three months, I’m anxious to see what they come up with and I stand read to chronicle and support the next phase, whatever it’s called and whenever it begins.




Occupy San Francisco

Inspired by the activism and events of the Occupy Wall Street movement that began Sept. 17 in New York, protesters with Occupy San Francisco have camped outside the Federal Reserve building in SF for weeks (see our Politics blog for coverage of the movement and its Sept. 29 march through the Financial District). Supporters from labor and other progressive organizations will join the occupiers for another march in support of what protesters call “the 99 percent,” those of us suffering from the greed and corruption of the wealthiest 1 percent, including the financial institutions that got taxpayer bailouts after crashing the economy.

Noon, free

Federal Reserve

101 Market, SF



Solidarity action

As the burgeoning Occupy Wall Street movement spreads to Washingon D.C. — for a “Stop the machine! Create a new world!” action that organizers intend to be a month-long occupation of Freedom Plaza — Bay Area activists will be holding a solidarity event at the Federal Building in San Francisco. Speakers include Global Exchange co-founder Kevin Danaher and Michael Eisenscher, national coordinator of US Labor Against the War. After the event, activists interested in planning further actions can join a general assembly nearby in the main library’s Koret Auditorium from 6-7 p.m.

3-6 p.m., free

Federal Building

Mission and Seventh St., SF




Protest the long war

Mark the 10th anniversary of the U.S. military campaign against Afghanistan — a still-deadly conflict that was escalated by President Barack Obama — by taking part in this rally, die-in, and march starting at the Federal Building. The event was organized by the ANSWER Coalition’s San Francisco chapter — which says “It’s time to connect the crimes of Wall Street to the crimes of the Pentagon” — and is supported by groups ranging from Code Pink to a variety of labor unions to World Can’t Wait. The march will culminate at the Grand Hyatt on Sutter and Stockton to show solidarity with hotel workers from Unite-Here Local 2, which has called for a boycott of the hotel chain.

4:30 p.m., free

Federal Building

Mission and Seventh St., SF


The price of civilization: high taxes to support a high level of government services


Jeffrey D. Sachs
Jeffrey D. Sachs is Professor of Economics and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He is also Special Adviser to United Nations Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals.

NEW YORK – We live in an era in which the most important forces affecting every economy are global, not local. What happens “abroad” – in China, India, and elsewhere – powerfully affects even an economy as large as the United States. 

Economic globalization has, of course, produced some large benefits for the world, including the rapid spread of advanced technologies such as the Internet and mobile telephony. It has also reduced poverty sharply in many emerging economies – indeed, for this reason alone, the world economy needs to remain open and interconnected.

Yet globalization has also created major problems that need to be addressed. First, it has increased the scope for tax evasion, owing to a rapid proliferation of tax havens around the world. Multinational companies have many more opportunities than before to dodge their fair and efficient share of taxation.

Moreover, globalization has created losers as well as winners. In high-income countries, notably the US, Europe, and Japan, the biggest losers are workers who lack the education to compete effectively with low-paid workers in developing countries. Hardest hit are workers in rich countries who lack a college education. Such workers have lost jobs by the millions. Those who have kept their jobs have seen their wages stagnate or decline.

Globalization has also fueled contagion. The 2008 financial crisis started on Wall Street, but quickly spread to the entire world, pointing to the need for global cooperation on banking and finance. Climate change, infectious diseases, terrorism, and other ills that can easily cross borders demand a similar global response. 

What globalization requires, therefore, are smart government policies. Governments should promote high-quality education, to ensure that young people are prepared to face global competition. They should raise productivity by building modern infrastructure and promoting science and technology. And governments should cooperate globally to regulate those parts of the economy – notably finance and the environment – in which problems in one country can spill over to other parts of the world.

The need for highly effective government in the era of globalization is the key message of my new book, The Price of Civilization. Simply put, we need more government nowadays, not less. Yet the role of government also needs to be modernized, in line with the specific challenges posed by an interconnected world economy.

I wrote The Price of Civilization out of the conviction that the US government has failed to understand and respond to the challenges of globalization ever since it began to impact America’s economy in the 1970’s. Rather than respond to globalization with more government spending on education, infrastructure, and technology, Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980 by pledging to slash government spending and cut taxes.

For 30 years, the US has been going in the wrong direction, cutting the role of government in the domestic economy rather than promoting the investments needed to modernize the economy and workforce. The rich have benefited in the short run, by getting massive tax breaks. The poor have suffered from job losses and cuts in government services. Economic inequality has reached a high not seen since the Great Depression.

These adverse trends have been exacerbated by domestic politics. The rich have used their wealth to strengthen their grip on power. They pay for the expensive campaigns of presidents and congressmen, so presidents and congressmen help the rich – often at the expense of the rest of society.  The same syndrome – in which the rich have gained control of the political system (or strengthened their control of it) – now afflicts many other countries.

Yet there are some important signs around the world that people are fed up with governments that cater to the rich while ignoring everyone else. Start with the growing calls for greater social justice. The upheavals in Tunis and Cairo were first called the Arab Spring, because they seemed to be contained to the Arab world. But then we saw protests in Tel Aviv, Santiago, London, and now even in the US. These protests have called first and foremost for more inclusive politics, rather than the corrupt politics of oligarchy.

Moreover, US President Barack Obama is gradually shifting toward the left. After three years in which his administration coddled corporate lobbyists, he has finally begun to emphasize the need for the rich to pay more taxes. This has come late in his term, and he might well continue to favor the rich and Wall Street in exchange for campaign contributions in 2012, but there is a glimmer of hope that Obama will defend a fairer budget policy.

Several European governments, including Spain, Denmark, and Greece, also seem to be moving in the same direction. Spain recently imposed a new wealth tax on high-net-worth taxpayers. Denmark elected a center-left government committed to higher government spending financed by new taxes on the rich. And Greece has just voted for a new property tax to help close its yawning fiscal deficit.

The European Commission has also called for a new Financial Transactions Tax (FTT) to raise around $75 billion per year. The Commission has finally agreed that Europe’s financial sector has been under-taxed. The new FTT might still face political opposition in Europe, especially in the United Kingdom, with its large and influential banking sector, but at least the principle of greater tax fairness is high on the European agenda.

The world’s most successful economies today are not in Asia, but in Scandinavia. By using high taxes to finance a high level of government services, these countries have balanced high prosperity with social justice and environmental sustainability. This is the key to well-being in today’s globalized economy. Perhaps more parts of the world – and especially the world’s young people – are beginning to recognize this new reality.

Jeffrey D. Sachs is Professor of Economics and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He is also Special Adviser to United Nations Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.

Free at last


An ordeal lasting more than two years for Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal came to an end in Iran today, when the two 29-year-old University of California Berkeley grads were freed at last from Tehran’s Evin Prison.

CNN reports that Bauer and Fattal were transported from the Iranian prison to an international airport just before nightfall, accompanied by Swiss and Omani officials. They were bound for Muscat, the Omani capital, where arrangements had been made for them to meet with their families and Sarah Shourd, Bauer’s fiancee, who was arrested along with them in July of 2009 while on a hiking trip in Iraqi Kurdistan. Shourd was released in what Iran characterized as a humanitarian gesture last year, after spending 410 days in solitary confinement.

“Today can only be described as the best day of our lives,” a statement from the families said in response to the news that they had finally been released. “We have waited for nearly 26 months for this moment and the joy and relief we feel at Shane and Josh’s long-awaited freedom knows no bounds. We now all want nothing more than to wrap Shane and Josh in our arms, catch up on two lost years and make a new beginning, for them and for all of us.”

Last month, Bauer and Fattal were convicted of spying and illegally entering the country and sentenced to eight years in prison each, despite a lack of evidence and repeated statements by President Barack Obama that they had never worked for the U.S. government.

Yet human rights activists advocating for their release have characterized the Iranian government’s decision to continue holding them as a political tactic to begin with, and some observers didn’t take the outcome of the trial at face value.

The fact that they stood trial after two years of being detained was interpreted as potentially a positive signal by some supporters advocating for their release.
News of their conviction and harsh eight-year sentences also brought kernels of hope, ironically, for some who speculated that the severe outcome of their trial might figure into a broader plan to grant their pardon, setting the Iranian government up for an opportuinity to take credit on the world stage for a merciful act just as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad headed to the United States for the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

However, unexpected delays and hints that the hikers were caught up amid an internal power struggle in Iran kept friends and supporters in a state of agonizing suspense over the past week. On Sept. 13, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stated publicly that Bauer and Fattal could be freed “in a couple of days.”
But that statement had come to nothing by Sept. 16, when supporters from the Bay Area gathered in San Francisco in hopes that an announcement would be made. The following day, reports surfaced that an Iranian lawyer trying to free them was waiting on the signature of a judge who was on vacation until Sept. 20 before their release could go forward.

Bauer and Fattal were released on $1 million bail, a sum CNN reported was paid by the Omani government.

Bauer, Fattal and Shourd are social-justice advocates, antiwar activists, writers, environmentalists, travelers, and creative thinkers with deep ties to the Bay Area. Shourd and Bauer had been living in Syria when they joined with Fattal, who was visiting, and embarked on the ill-fated hiking trip in Iraqi Kurdistan in July of 2009. Shourd, who lives in Oakland, was teaching English to Iraqi refugees when she was in Syria, as well as practicing some journalism. Fattal, who taught at Aprovecho — an education center in Oregon focused on sustainability and permaculture — had been traveling to India, South Africa, and other places through the International Honors Program to lead workshops on health and sustainable technology before visiting his friends in Syria.

Bauer wrote for publications such as The Nation, Mother Jones, and the Christian Science Monitor, and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. A photojournalist who has won multiple awards and had his work published internationally, he’s documented stories ranging from tenant conditions in San Francisco SROs to conflict-ridden regions in Africa and the Middle East.

Their imprisonment prompted an international response. Calls for their release were issued by Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, human rights activists, religious leaders, authors, celebrities, and hundreds of supporters who wrote letters, displayed banners, and raised money for efforts pushing for their release. A host of family members, friends, and supporters organized under an effort called Free the Hikers worked steadily to free them, and their long-anticipated reunion with Bauer and Fattal has finally arrived.

Imprisoned hikers’ families react to sentencing


The families of Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal issued a statement yesterday (Sun/21) after receiving confirmation that the two men, both 29, had been sentenced to eight years in prison after an Iranian court found them guilty of illegal entry into Iran and espionage on behalf of the United States.

“Of the 751 days of Shane and Josh’s imprisonment, yesterday and today have been the most difficult for our families,” the statement notes. “Shane and Josh are innocent and have never posed any threat to the Islamic Republic of Iran, its government or its people.

“We are encouraged that the Iranian Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, has said he hopes the case will proceed in a manner that will result in Shane and Josh’s freedom. We appeal to the authorities in Iran to show compassion and allow them to return home to our families without delay.

“We also ask everyone around the world who trusts in the benevolence of the Iranian people and their leaders to join us in praying that Shane and Josh will now be released.”

Bauer and Fattal were arrested with Bauer’s fiancée, Sarah Shourd, on July 31, 2009 on the unmarked border between Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan where the three had been hiking during a vacation. Shourd, 32, was released on humanitarian grounds last September after spending 410 days in solitary confinement. Bauer and Fattal were sentenced after more than two years of detainment awaiting trial.

“We have repeatedly called for the release of Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal,” U.S. State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland told the Guardian. “Shane and Josh have been imprisoned too long, and it is time to reunite them with their families.”

The United States maintains the two men have no connection to the United States government. Speaking earlier on the issue, President Barack Obama said, “I want to be perfectly clear: Sarah, Shane and Josh have never worked for the United States government. They are simply open-minded and adventurous young people who represent the best of America, and of the human spirit.”

Iraqi Kurdistan, the region where the three had been hiking, is a semi-autonomous region of northern Iraq that has been notably more stable then other areas of Iraq since the 2003 U.S. lead invasion. The U.S. State department had affirmed the relative safety of travel in the Kurdistan region of Iraq just weeks before their ill-fated trip.

Bauer, a freelance writer and photojournalist who has written for the Guardian and other Bay Area news outlets, and Fattal, an environmental advocate, are both graduates of UC Berkeley had both traveled extensively abroad pursuing their vocations and interests.

Shourd has indicated that she does not plan to return to Iran to stand trial, but has been a constant advocate for the release of her traveling companions. Supporters have organized several events in the Bay Area, including an art auction and film screening, to assist in the efforts calling for the hikers’ release from Iran.

Bauer and Fattal appeared in court only once on February 6 this year when they testified to their innocence verbally and in writing. Their Iranian lawyer, Masoud Shafiee, has said he will appeal the verdict. It remains unclear if the time they have served thus far will apply to the court sentence.

Speaking about the case, Secretary Of State Hillary Clinton said, “We continue to express our hope that the Iranian authorities will exercise the humanitarian option of releasing these two young men.”

The Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations has not yet returned the Guardian’s request for comment.

Rebecca Bowe contributed to this report.

The Keynes vs. Hayek rematch


By Robert Skidelsky

Robert Skidelsky, a member of the British House of Lords, is Professor Emeritus of Political Economy at Warwick University.

LONDON – The Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek, who died in 1992 at the age of 93, once remarked that to have the last word requires only outliving your opponents. His great good fortune was to outlive Keynes by almost 50 years, and thus to claim a posthumous victory over a rival who had savaged him intellectually while he was alive.

Hayek’s apotheosis came in the 1980’s, when British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher took to quoting from The Road to Serfdom (1944), his classic attack on central planning. But in economics there are never any final verdicts. While Hayek’s defense of the market system against the gross inefficiency of central planning won increasing assent, Keynes’s view that market systems require continuous stabilization lingered on in finance ministries and central banks.

Both traditions, though, were eclipsed by the Chicago school of “rational expectations,” which has dominated mainstream economics for the last twenty-five years. With economic agents supposedly possessing perfect information about all possible contingencies, systemic crises could never happen except as a result of accidents and surprises beyond the reach of economic theory.

The global economic collapse of 2007-2008 discredited “rational expectations” economics (though its high priests have yet to recognize this) and brought both Keynes and Hayek back into posthumous contention. The issues have not changed much since their argument began in the Great Depression of the 1930’s. What causes market economies to collapse? What is the right response to a collapse? What is the best way to prevent future collapses?

For Hayek in the early 1930’s, and for Hayek’s followers today, the “crisis” results from over-investment relative to the supply of savings, made possible by excessive credit expansion. Banks lend at lower interest rates than genuine savers would have demanded, making all kinds of investment projects temporarily profitable.

But, because these investments do not reflect the real preferences of agents for future over current consumption, the savings necessary to complete them are not available. They can be kept going for a time by monetary injections from the central bank. But market participants eventually realize that there are not enough savings to complete all the investment projects. At that point, boom turns to bust.

Every artificial boom thus carries the seeds of its own destruction. Recovery consists of liquidating the misallocations, reducing consumption, and increasing saving.

Keynes (and Keynesians today) would think of the crisis as resulting from the opposite cause:  under-investment relative to the supply of saving – that is, too little consumption or aggregate demand to maintain a full-employment level of investment – which is bound to lead to a collapse of profit expectations.

Again, the situation can be kept going for a time by resorting to consumer-debt finance, but eventually consumers become over-leveraged and curtail their purchases. Indeed, the Keynesian and Hayekian explanations of the origins of the crisis are actually not very different, with over-indebtedness playing the key role in both accounts. But the conclusions to which the two theories point are very different.

Whereas for Hayek recovery requires the liquidation of excessive investments and an increase in consumer saving, for Keynes it consists in reducing the propensity to save and increasing consumption in order to sustain companies’ profit expectations. Hayek demands more austerity, Keynes more spending.

We have here a clue as to why Hayek lost his great battle with Keynes in the 1930’s. It was not just that the policy of liquidating excesses was politically catastrophic: in Germany, it brought Hitler to power. As Keynes pointed out, if everyone – households, firms, and governments – all started trying to increase their saving simultaneously, there would be no way to stop the economy from running down until people became too poor to save.

It was this flaw in Hayek’s reasoning that caused most economists to desert the Hayekian camp and embrace Keynesian “stimulus” policies. As the economist Lionel Robbins recalled:  “Confronted with the freezing deflation of those days, the idea that the prime essential was the writing down of mistaken investments and…fostering the disposition to save was…as unsuitable as denying blankets and stimulus to a drunk who has fallen into an icy pond, on the ground that his original trouble was overheating.”

Except to Hayekian fanatics, it seems obvious that the coordinated global stimulus of 2009 stopped the slide into another Great Depression. To be sure, the cost to many governments of rescuing their banks and keeping their economies afloat in the face of business collapse damaged or destroyed their creditworthiness. But it is increasingly recognized that public-sector austerity at a time of weak private-sector spending guarantees years of stagnation, if not further collapse.

So policy will have to change. Little can be hoped for in Europe; the real question is whether President Barack Obama has it in him to don the mantle of President Franklin Roosevelt.

To prevent further crises of equal severity in the future, Keynesians would argue for strengthening the tools of macroeconomic management. Hayekians have nothing sensible to contribute. It is far too late for one of their favorite remedies – abolition of central banks, supposedly the source of excessive credit creation. Even an economy without central banks will be subject to errors of optimism and pessimism. And an attitude of indifference to the fallout of these mistakes is bad politics and bad morals.

So, for all his distinction as a philosopher of freedom, Hayek deserved to lose his battle with Keynes in the 1930’s. He deserves to lose today’s rematch as well.

Robert Skidelsky, a member of the British House of Lords, is Professor Emeritus of Political Economy at Warwick University.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.

Politicians have a limited time offer for you


As politicians push to maximize their campaign contributions before the semi-annual reporting deadline of tonight (Thu/30) at midnight – a big measure of the strength of their campaigns and sure-fire way to keep the money flowing in – our e-mail in-boxes at the Guardian have been flooded with urgent pleas for cash.

There’s a real art to these appeals, which generally rely on some combination of fear, humor, “we’re so close” appeals to “put us over the top,” and earnest calls for support in order to get people to open their wallets. We won’t find out how the campaigns really did for another month when the forms are due, but we thought we’d offer a sampling of our favorite pitches of the season.

President Barack Obama is offering to join you for dinner if you give his presidential campaign even a few bucks: “ I wanted to say thank you before the midnight deadline passes. And I’m looking forward to thanking four of you in person over dinner sometime soon. If you haven’t thrown your name in the hat yet, make a donation of $5 or more before midnight tonight — you’ll be automatically entered for a chance to be one of our guests.”

Democratic Party consultant James Carville sent out a funny one entitled “Backwards tattoo” on behalf of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee: “FEC deadline is midnight, and here’s a number to ponder: 90%. It’s so important, you should tattoo it backwards on your forehead so you read it every time you brush your teeth:

  • 90% of donations to Karl Rove’s American Crossroads this year came from 3 billionaire donors bent on destroying President Obama.

  • 90% of donations to the DSCC come from grassroots supporters.”

Comedian and U.S. Sen. Al Franken always writes great appeals. I liked his previous one, “Oatmeal,” better than his current one, “Cake,” but it’s still pretty good: “Remember Election Night 2010? Remember watching Democrats you admired—progressive champions—giving concession speeches?  Remember shaking your head as radical right-wingers were declared winners?  Remember the first moment you realized that John Boehner was going to become Speaker of the House? Not fun memories.  But here’s the thing: In a lot of states, the cake was baked a long time before the polls closed—not in 2010, but in 2009. Every cycle, races are won and lost—months before anyone votes—because one side builds an early advantage that proves to be insurmountable.”

On the other side other aisle, the National Republican Senatorial Committee is offering signed lithographs of the U.S. Capitol (huh?) for donations of $125 or more, or you can give just $4 to help elect four more GOP senators because, “Even with the support of all 47 Republican Senators for a Balanced Budget Amendment, Harry Reid blocking its progress every step of the way will be nearly impossible to overcome.”

GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney writes that, “Your donation will build the campaign needed to defeat the Obama juggernaut in 2012.”

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) issued a national appeal for his efforts to stand “up to leaders of both parties” and the scheming capitalist forces: “Across the country, corporate forces have been pushing for draconian cuts to the social safety net, making it harder for all Americans to have a better quality of life.”

SF District Attorney candidate David Onek used his wife – Kara Dukakis, daughter of former Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis – to make his fundraising plea today: “I’m writing today to ask for your help. As you already know, my husband, David Onek, is running to be San Francisco’s next District Attorney to reform our broken criminal justice system. The deadline for our fundraising period is midnight tonight and it is crucial that we make a strong showing.”

U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer even acknowledged the barrage of funding appeals as she sought money for her PAC for Change: “I know you may be getting a flurry of these June 30 fundraising emails today, so let me get right to the point: We’ve already raised more than $44,000 toward our $50,000 end-of-quarter grassroots goal — but if we’re going to make it, and fight back against the millions that Karl Rove and our opponents are already spending against us, I need your support before midnight tonight.”

SF Mayoral candidate Leland Yee sent out an appeal this morning with the subject line, “An amazing couple months…14 hours to go before the deadline,” in which he touted his campaign’s endorsements and accomplishments but asked people to dig deeper: “Even if you have donated to the campaign already, a contribution before midnight tonight will make a huge difference. Every dollar counts and no amount is too small.”

Mayoral candidate Dennis Herrera exclaimed: “Wow! It’s been just seven hours since I sent an email to each of you asking for your support in sponsoring my field team’s 10,000 signatures by matching them with a fundraising goal of $10,000 – and we have made some serious progress. “

And then tomorrow, after a likely round of “thank you, we did it!” self-congratulatory messages, it’s back to summer as usual.

The failed experiment


For three decades we have conducted a massive economic experiment, testing a theory known as supply-side economics. The theory goes like this: Lower tax rates will encourage more investment, which in turn will mean more jobs and greater prosperity — so much so that tax revenues will go up, despite lower rates.

The late Milton Friedman, the libertarian economist who wanted to shut down public parks because he considered them socialism, promoted this strategy. Ronald Reagan embraced Friedman’s ideas and made them into policy when he was elected president in 1980.

For the past decade, we have doubled down on this theory of supply-side economics with the tax cuts sponsored by President George W. Bush in 2001 and 2003, which President Barack Obama has agreed to continue for two years.

You would think that whether this grand experiment worked would be settled after three decades. You would think the practitioners of the dismal science of economics would look at their demand curves and the data on incomes and taxes and pronounce a verdict, the way Galileo and Copernicus did when they showed that geocentrism was a fantasy because the Earth revolves around the sun (known as heliocentrism). But economics is not like that. It is not like physics with its laws and arithmetic with its absolute values.

Tax policy is something the framers of the Constitution left to politics. And in politics, the facts often matter less then who has the biggest bullhorn.

The Mad Men who once ran campaigns featuring doctors extolling the health benefits of smoking are now busy marketing the dogma that tax cuts mean broad prosperity, no matter what the facts show.

As millions of Americans prepare to file their annual taxes, they do so in an environment of media-perpetuated tax myths. Here are a few points about taxes and the economy that you may not know, to consider as you prepare to file your taxes. (All figures are inflation adjusted.)

1. Poor Americans do pay taxes.

Gretchen Carlson, the Fox News host, said last year “47 percent of Americans don’t pay any taxes.” John McCain and Sarah Palin both said similar things during the 2008 campaign about the bottom half of Americans.

Ari Fleischer, the former Bush White House spokesman, once said “50 percent of the country gets benefits without paying for them.”

Actually, they pay lots of taxes — just not lots of federal income taxes.

Data from the Tax Foundation shows that in 2008, the average income for the bottom half of taxpayers was $15,300.

This year the first $9,350 of income is exempt from taxes for singles and $18,700 for married couples, just slightly more than in 2008. That means millions of the poor do not make enough to owe income taxes.

But they still pay plenty of other taxes, including federal payroll taxes. Between gas taxes, sales taxes, utility taxes and other taxes, no one lives tax free in America.

When it comes to state and local taxes, the poor bear a heavier burden than the rich in every state except Vermont, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy calculated from official data. In Alabama, for example, the burden on the poor is more than twice that of the top 1 percent. The one-fifth of Alabama families making less than $13,000 pay almost 11 percent of their income in state and local taxes, compared with less than 4 percent for those who make $229,000 or more.

2. The wealthiest Americans don’t carry the burden.

This is one of those oft-used canards. Senator Rand Paul, the tea party favorite from Kentucky, told David Letterman recently that “the wealthy do pay most of the taxes in this country.”

The Internet is awash with statements that the top 1 percent pays, depending on the year, 38 percent or more than 40 percent of taxes.

It’s true that the top 1 percent of wage earners paid 38 percent of the federal income taxes in 2008 (the most recent year for which data is available). But people forget that the income tax is less than half of federal taxes and only one-fifth of taxes at all levels of government.

Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment insurance taxes (known as payroll taxes) are paid mostly by the bottom 90 percent of wage earners. That’s because, once you reach $106,800 of income, you pay no more for Social Security, though the much smaller Medicare tax applies to all wages. Warren Buffett pays the exact same amount of Social Security taxes as someone who earns $106,800.

3. In fact, the wealthy are paying less taxes.

The Internal Revenue Service issues an annual report on the 400 highest income-tax payers. In 1961, there were 398 taxpayers who made $1 million or more, so I compared their income tax burdens from that year to 2007.

Despite skyrocketing incomes, the federal tax burden on the richest 400 has been slashed, thanks for a variety of loopholes, allowable deductions and other tools. The actual share of their income paid in taxes, according to the IRS, is 16.6 percent. Adding payroll taxes barely nudges that number.

Compare that to the vast majority of Americans, whose share of their income going to federal taxes increased from 13.1 percent in 1961 to 22.5 percent in 2007.

(By the way, during seven of the eight Bush years, the IRS report on the top 400 taxpayers was labeled a state secret, a policy that the Obama overturned almost instantly after his inauguration.)

4. Many of the very richest pay no current income taxes at all.

John Paulson, the most successful hedge fund manager of all, bet against the mortgage market one year and then bet with Glenn Beck in the gold market the next. Paulson made himself $9 billion in fees in just two years. His current tax bill on that $9 billion? Zero.

Congress lets hedge fund managers earn all they can now and pay their taxes years from now.

In 2007, Congress debated whether hedge fund managers should pay the top tax rate that applies to wages, bonuses and other compensation for their labors, which is 35 percent. That tax rate starts at about $300,000 of taxable income; not even pocket change to Paulson, but almost 12 years of gross pay to the median-wage worker.

The Republicans and a key Democrat, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, fought to keep the tax rate on hedge fund managers at 15 percent, arguing that the profits from hedge funds should be considered capital gains, not ordinary income, which got a lot of attention in the news.

What the news media missed is that hedge fund managers don’t even pay 15 percent. At least, not currently. So long as they leave their money, known as “carried interest,” in the hedge fund, their taxes are deferred. They only pay taxes when they cash out, which could be decades from now for younger managers. How do these hedge fund managers get money in the meantime? By borrowing against the carried interest, often at absurdly low rates — currently about 2 percent.

Lots of other people live tax-free, too. I have Donald Trump’s tax records for four years early in his career. He paid no taxes for two of those years. Big real-estate investors enjoy tax-free living under a 1993 law President Clinton signed. It lets “professional” real-estate investors use paper losses like depreciation on their buildings against any cash income, even if they end up with negative incomes like Trump.

Frank and Jamie McCourt, who own the Los Angeles Dodgers, have not paid any income taxes since at least 2004, their divorce case revealed. Yet they spent $45 million one year alone. How? They just borrowed against Dodger ticket revenue and other assets. To the IRS, they look like paupers.

In Wisconsin, Terrence Wall, who unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in 2010, paid no income taxes on as much as $14 million of recent income, his disclosure forms showed. Asked about his living tax-free while working people pay taxes, he had a simple response: everyone should pay less.

5. And (surprise!) since Reagan , only the wealthy have gained significant income.

The Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, and similar conservative marketing organizations tell us relentlessly that lower tax rates will make us all better off.

“When tax rates are reduced, the economy’s growth rate improves and living standards increase,” according to Daniel J. Mitchell, an economist at Heritage until he joined Cato. He says that supply-side economics is “the simple notion that lower tax rates will boost work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.”

When Reagan was elected president, the marginal tax rate for income was 70 percent. He cut it to 50 percent and then 28 percent starting in 1987. It was raised by George H.W. Bush and Clinton and then cut by George W. Bush. The top rate is now 35 percent.

Since 1980, when President Reagan won election promising prosperity through tax cuts, the average income of the vast majority — the bottom 90 percent of Americans — has increased a meager $303, or 1 percent. Put another way, for each dollar people in the vast majority made in 1980, in 2008 their income was up to $1.01.

Those at the top did better. The top 1 percent’s average income more than doubled to $1.1 million, according to an analysis of tax data by economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez. The really rich, the top 10th of 1 percent, each enjoyed almost $4 in 2008 for each dollar in 1980.

The top 300,000 Americans now enjoy almost as much income as the bottom 150 million, the data show.

6. When it comes to corporations, the story is much the same — less taxes.

Corporate profits in 2008, the latest year for which data is available, were $1.8 billion, up almost 12 percent from $1.6 billion in 2000. Yet even though corporate tax rates have not been cut, corporate income-tax revenues fell to $230 billion from $249 billion — an 8 percent decline, thanks to a number of loopholes. The official 2010 profit numbers are not added up and released by the government, but the amount paid in corporate taxes is: in 2010 they fell further, to $191 billion — a decline of more than 23 percent compared with 2000.

7. Some corporate tax breaks destroy jobs.

Despite all the noise that America has the world’s second highest corporate tax rate, the actual taxes paid by corporations are falling because of the growing number of loopholes and companies shifting profits to tax havens like the Cayman Islands.

And right now America’s corporations are sitting on close to $2 trillion in cash that is not being used to build factories, create jobs or anything else, but act as an insurance policy for managers unwilling to take the risk of actually building the businesses they are paid so well to run. That cash hoard, by the way, works out to nearly $13,000 per taxpaying household.

A corporate tax rate that is too low actually destroys jobs. That’s because a higher tax rate encourages businesses (who don’t want to pay taxes) to keep the profits in the business and reinvest, rather than pull them out as profits and have to pay high taxes.

The 2004 American Jobs Creation Act, which passed with bipartisan support, allowed more than 800 companies to bring profits that were untaxed but overseas back to the United States. Instead of paying the usual 35 percent tax, the companies paid just 5.25 percent.

The companies said bringing the money home — “repatriating” it, they called it — would mean lots of jobs. Sen. John Ensign, the Nevada Republican, put the figure at 660,000 new jobs.

Pfizer, the drug company, was the biggest beneficiary. It brought home $37 billion, saving $11 billion in taxes. Almost immediately it started firing people. Since the law took effect, it has let 40,000 workers go. In all, it appears that at least 100,000 jobs were destroyed.

Now Congressional Republicans and some Democrats are gearing up again to pass another tax holiday, promoting a new Jobs Creation Act. It would affect 10 times as much money as the 2004 law.

8. Republicans like taxes too.

President Reagan signed into law 11 tax increases, targeted at people down the income ladder. His administration and the Washington press corps called the increases “revenue enhancers.” Among other things, Reagan hiked Social Security taxes so high that by the end of 2008, the government had collected more than $2 trillion in surplus tax.

George W. Bush signed a tax increase, too, in 2006, despite his written ironclad pledge to never raise taxes on anyone. It raised taxes on teenagers by requiring kids up to age 17, who earned money, to pay taxes at their parents’ tax rate, which would almost always be higher than the rate they would otherwise pay. It was a story that ran buried inside The New York Times one Sunday, but nowhere else.

In fact, thanks to Republicans, one in three Americans will pay higher taxes this year than they did last year.

First, some history. In 2009, President Obama pushed his own tax cut—for the working class. He persuaded Congress to enact the Making Work Pay Tax Credit. Over the two years 2009 and 2010, it saved single workers up to $800 and married heterosexual couples up to $1,600, even if only one spouse worked. The top 5 percent or so of taxpayers were denied this tax break.

The Obama administration called it “the biggest middle-class tax cut” ever. Yet last December the Republicans, poised to regain control of the House of Representatives, killed Obama’s Making Work Pay Credit while extending the Bush tax cuts for two more years — a policy Obama agreed to.

By doing so, Congressional Republican leaders increased taxes on a third of Americans, virtually all of them the working poor, this year.

As a result, of the 155 million households in the tax system, 51 million will pay an average of $129 more this year. That is $6.6 billion in higher taxes for the working poor, the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center estimated.

In addition, the Republicans changed the rate of workers’ FICA contributions, which finances half of Social Security. The result:

If you are single and make less than $20,000, or married and less than $40,000, you lose under this plan.

But the top 5 percent, people who make more than $106,800, will save $2,136 ($4,272 for two-career couples).

9. Other countries do it better.

We measure our economic progress, and our elected leaders debate tax policy, in terms of a crude measure known as gross domestic product. The way the official statistics are put together, each dollar spent buying solar energy equipment counts the same as each dollar spent investigating murders.

We do not give any measure of value to time spent rearing children or growing our own vegetables or to time off for leisure and community service.

And we do not measure the economic damage done by shocks, such as losing a job, which means not only loss of income and depletion of savings, but loss of health insurance, which a Harvard Medical School study found results in 45,000 unnecessary deaths each year

Compare this to Germany, one of many countries with a smarter tax system and smarter spending policies.

Germans work less, make more per hour and get much better parental leave than Americans, many of whom get no fringe benefits such as health care, pensions or even a retirement savings plan. By many measures the vast majority live better in Germany than in America.

To achieve this, single German workers on average pay 52 percent of their income in taxes. Americans average 30 percent, according to the Organizations for Economic Cooperation and Development.

At first blush, the German tax burden seems horrendous. But in Germany (as well as Britain, France, Scandinavia, Canada, Australia, and Japan), tax-supported institutions provide many of the things Americans pay for with after-tax dollars. Buying wholesale rather than retail saves money.

A proper comparison would take the 30 percent average tax on American workers and add their out-of-pocket spending on health care, college tuition, and fees for services and compare that with taxes that the average German pays. Add it all up and the combination of tax and personal spending is roughly equal in both countries, but with a large risk of catastrophic loss in America, and a tiny risk in Germany.

Americans take on $85 billion of debt each year for higher education, while college is financed by taxes in Germany and tuition is cheap to free in other modern countries. While soaring medical costs are a key reason that since 1980 bankruptcy in America has increased 15 times faster than population growth, no one in Germany or the rest of the modern world goes broke because of accident or illness. And child poverty in America is the highest among modern countries — almost twice the rate in Germany, which is close to the average of modern countries.

On the corporate tax side, the Germans encourage reinvestment at home and the outsourcing of low-value work, like auto assembly, and German rules tightly control accounting so that profits earned at home cannot be made to appear as profits earned in tax havens.

Adopting the German system is not the answer for America. But crafting a tax system that benefits the vast majority, reduces risks, provides universal health care and focuses on diplomacy rather than militarism abroad (and at home) would be a lot smarter than what we have now.

Here is a question to ask yourself: We started down this road with Reagan’s election in 1980 and upped the ante in this century with George W. Bush.

How long does it take to conclude that a policy has failed to fulfill its promises? And as you think of that, keep in mind George Washington. When he fell ill his doctors followed the common wisdom of the era. They cut him and bled him to remove bad blood. As Washington’s condition grew worse, they bled him more. And like the mantra of tax cuts for the rich, they kept applying the same treatment until they killed him.

Luckily we don’t bleed the sick anymore, but we are bleeding our government to death.



David Cay Johnston is a columnist for and teaches the tax, property, and regulatory law of the ancient world at Syracuse University College of Law and Whitman School of Management. He has also been called the “de facto chief tax enforcement officer of the United States” because his reporting in The New York Times shut down many tax dodges and schemes, just two of them valued by Congress at $260 billion.

Johnston received a 2001 Pulitzer Prize for exposing tax loopholes and inequities. He wrote two bestsellers on taxes, Perfectly Legal and Free Lunch. Later this year David Cay Johnston will be out with a new book, The Fine Print, revealing how big business, with help from politicians, abuses plain English to rob you blind.


Brown goes nonpartisan while Obama stays the course


Gov. Jerry Brown gave a brilliant State of the State speech this evening, validating those who hoped that he would have the wisdom, courage, and candor to properly frame this difficult political moment. And it was great because he abandoned tired calls for bipartisanship and opted to go straight to the people, even citing Egypt and Tunisia as cautionary examples of the peril and potential of real democracy.
Contrast that with President Barack Obama, whose White House today indicated it would plow forward with a health care reform package – crafted entirely by politicians and corporate lobbyists – that nobody really likes even after another federal judge ruled its central tenet unconstitutional and House Republicans have threatened jihad over.

Liberals never did buy into this reform after Obama abandoned single payer and even the public option compromise, and its seems conservatives and teabaggers have been whipped up into a froth over its real and imagined provisions. So Obama has some pretty thin backing to fight through the fairly reasonable ruling that the federal government can’t make it a crime not to want to be health insurance company customers.

Both Brown and Obama correctly gauge that “something is profoundly wrong,” as Brown put it. “They see that their leaders are divided when they should be decisive and acting with clear purpose.”

Obama’s solution is bipartisanship, even though Republicans seem incapable of dealing with him or the public in good faith these days. So he makes attempts at bland compromises that please nobody – from escalating war in Afghanistan with a fake exit strategy to extending jobless benefits and billionaire tax cuts – feeding the public perception that both major parties are hopelessly corrupt and ineffective.
Brown is taking a different tact: nonpartisanship. He’s crafted a bold effort at compromise that neither political party likes, but one that will probably prove reasonable to most people if sold properly (unless we are indeed incapable of self-governance at this point, a possibility the I allow and which would require solutions like breaking California up into multiple states or accepting anarchy). And hopefully creative progressive legislators will even give multiple options to the people, including increasing taxes on the richest individuals and corporations to lessen the cuts even more, as long as we’re placing our faith in the people. Hell, I don’t even mind putting a conservative package of deep cuts to government on the ballot as well, just so we can show them how unpopular the right-wing stance really is in California.
Brown doesn’t preclude the future possibilities of bipartisanship, but he also correctly says that the political gridlock is just too strong in Sacramento right now. After punting the budget to the people, maybe they can start doing old-fashioned governance again.

“But let’s not forget that Job Number 1 – make no mistake about it – is fixing our state budget and getting our spending in line with our revenue. Once we do that, the rest will be easy—at least easier because we will have learned to work together and earned back the respect and trust of the people we serve,” he closed. “I look forward to working with all of you.”

Protest in solidarity with Egypt and Tunisia uprising


As President Barack Obama insists that governments must maintain power “through consent and not coercion” organizers have announced a protest this Saturday, January 29, in San Francisco, in solidarity with people in Egypt, Tunisia, and other countries struggling against 30 years of dictatorship, poverty, unemployment and torture–and are condemning what they call Obama’s “refusal to condemn the Mubarak regime.”

In a press release, Mohammed Talat, an Egyptian organizer of Saturday’s protest commented that “Despite the extreme Egyptian government repression of its citizens on the streets, mass police violence, killings, and arrests, the blocking of internet and cell phone communication, the US government is still refusing to condemn the Mubarak regime.  As individuals in the US, we protest this inaction and express support for our brothers and sisters in Egypt.”

The protest begins noon, Saturday, at Montgomery BART, followed by a march to the UN Plaza.

Getting free


Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal have been held captive in Evin Prison in Tehran for more than 540 days, and their friends and supporters in the Bay Area have been mounting an extraordinary campaign pushing for their release.

On July 31, 2009, Bauer and Fattal were hiking with Sarah Shourd, who is Bauer’s fiancée, through green mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan. The three UC Berkeley graduates had traveled from Damascus for a recreational visit. They were wandering nearby Ahmed Awa, a popular tourist destination where hundreds of people had flocked to camp, to visit a waterfall and enjoy the peace and quiet of the mountains.

They say they didn’t realize how close they were to Iran, which has no diplomatic ties to the United States.

Shourd told the Guardian she’s not sure whether they accidentally traversed the Iranian border, because it was unmarked. “We had no intention of being anywhere near Iran,” she said. “And if we were, we’re very sorry.”

Iranian officials surrounded them, speaking in Farsi, which they couldn’t understand. They were arrested on suspicion of spying and taken into custody. Before being taken to prison, one phoned a friend, Shon MeckFessel — who had been traveling with them but opted not to go on the hike because he wasn’t feeling well — to alert him that something had gone wrong. That would be the last communication any of them would have with close friends or family members for months.

Shourd was finally released on bail Sept. 14, 2010 on humanitarian grounds after spending 410 days in solitary confinement. She was reunited with family and friends — but Bauer and Fattal have remained in detainment ever since.

Since returning to the United States, Shourd has thrown her energy into advocating for their release — and she’s not alone. “Everyone in the family has been working tirelessly for all 18 months,” she said, “which is far, far longer than we ever imagined in our worst nightmares.”



While Shourd was still in prison, her mother, Nora, gave up her home and job to move in with Bauer’s mother, Cindy Hickey, and work for their release full-time. Fattal’s older brother, Alex, suspended his graduate studies at Harvard to dedicate himself to the campaign. His mother, Laura Fattal, stopped working to devote herself to the campaign.

“That’s just family alone,” Shourd noted. “If you start to look to how many people have contributed to our campaign and how many ways, it just blows your mind.” Soon after her release, Shourd put out a call for people to hang banners proclaiming the innocence of Bauer and Fattal and calling for their release. In response, nearly 60 banners were unfurled in 25 different countries.

Shourd has made countless media appearances since her release, and even put out an MP3 of a song she composed while in solitary confinement, which can be downloaded as a way to support the Free the Hikers campaign. Their story has drawn the interest of prominent figures. On Jan. 19, Noam Chomsky released a video offering to testify on their behalf if a trial is held, saying Bauer and Fattal “have dedicated themselves to advocating for social and environmental justice in Africa and elsewhere, and they truly embody the spirit of humanitarianism.”

Others who have publicly defended the trio include President Barack Obama, who issued a statement in July saying none of the hikers ever worked for the U.S. government, addressing Iranian accusations that they were there to commit espionage. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and the Archbishop Desmond Tutu have called for their release. A documentary has been produced about their plight, and a second one is in the works.

In San Francisco, artists and musicians have responded in droves to a call for support. An art auction that will benefit the campaign is planned for Jan. 29, featuring the work of more than 80 artists, plus live musical performances. As a nod toward Bauer’s work in photojournalism, the event will emphasize photography, and notables such as Mimi Chakrova, Taj Forer, Roberto Bear Guerra, Ken Light, the LUCEO Photo Collective, Susan Meiselas, Lianne Milton, Mark Murrmann, Alec Soth, and others have donated work. Among the artists who donated pieces are Marianne Bland, Mark Brecke, Teresa Camozzi, Andreina Davila, Eric Drooker, and former Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzalez.

In early February, a music benefit will be held at the Bottom of the Hill to benefit the campaign. Titled “They Sing These Songs In Prison,” the event will feature performances of The Nightwatchman — that’s Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine — plus Jolie Holland, accordionist Jason Webley, and Ryan Harvey & Lia Rose.

“The funding is to support the campaign to free Shane and Josh, and it goes to a wide array of needs that we have, like translation into Farsi, travel for media, and meeting with some various embassies and governments that are involved in advocating for Shane and Josh’s release,” Shourd explained. “Also, some of the money will probably go toward legal fees, and website fees, and materials for the campaign from flyers to business cards to t-shirts.”



The campaign to advocate for their release has been tagged Free the Hikers, but the identities of the three young people (Bauer and Fattal are both 28, Shourd is 32) go much deeper than that. They’re social-justice advocates, antiwar activists, writers, environmentalists, travelers, and creative thinkers with deep ties to the Bay Area.

Shourd, who lives in Oakland, was teaching English to Iraqi refugees when she was in Syria, as well as practicing some journalism. Fattal, who taught at Aprovecho — an education center in Oregon focused on sustainability and permaculture — had been traveling to India, South Africa, and other places through the International Honors Program to lead workshops on health and sustainable technology before visiting his friends in Syria.

“Josh is an environmentalist, he’s a teacher, he’s an incredible, incredible, generous and selfless man,” Shourd said. “As soon as you meet him, you feel what an extraordinary and unique human being he is. I was friends with him for years before he came to visit us in Damascus, and he decided to travel with us to Northern Iraq to Iraqi Kurdistan to learn about Kurdish culture, to see another diverse aspect of the Middle East.”

Bauer wrote for publications such as The Nation, Mother Jones, and the Christian Science Monitor. A photojournalist who has won multiple awards and had his work published internationally, Bauer has documented everything from tenant conditions in San Francisco SROs to conflict-ridden regions in Africa and the Middle East. Bauer also wrote an article for the Guardian about an Oakland residence that is famous among East Bay anarchists (See “Hellarity burns,” May 27, 2008).

“Shane has an incredible passion for pursuing truth and complicating our ideas about other parts of the world, about conflicts around the world and at home,” Shourd noted. She added that many of his stories serve to highlight “some of the very specific ways that the U.S. presence in Iraq has taken a toll on innocent people.”

Before their ill-fated excursion, Shourd said she’d heard from multiple westerners and her Arabic tutor that Iraqi Kurdistan was a safe and enjoyable place to visit. “It’s often referred to as ‘the other Iraq’ because it’s a semiautonomous region designated as a no-fly zone by the U.S. government,” she explained. “It’s actually a part of the Middle East that has a very positive fingerprint from the U.S. government because they helped protect the Kurdish people from Saddam Hussein. So Northern Iraq is not a dangerous place for Americans or westerners to go, and no American has ever been killed in Northern Iraq, which is just phenomenal after a decade of war and occupation.”

She said Bauer, Fattal, and MeckFessel were all enthusiastic about the trip, and after researching it online, the four felt they had enough information to travel there. “We ordered a special Lonely Planet guide of Northern Iraq, and a friend of ours who went a month before we did borrowed it and lost it, so we didn’t have the Lonely Planet guide,” she noted. “But we still felt we had enough information about it to travel there and really believed we had nothing to fear.”



Shourd credits her fiancé and her friend with helping her through “every minute of prison,” even though she was alone in her cell for 23 hours a day. At first she wasn’t allowed to see them at all, but after some time had passed, guards allowed her to visit with them in an outdoor courtyard for 30 minutes a day. Later, that brief time together was increased to an hour.

“There’s no way I could have maintained hope and maintained my own sanity and the strength that it took to get through every day of isolation and depravity and uncertainty and fear,” she said. “The emotional strength that that took, and the discipline that it took, really Shane and Josh and I all created together in the little time that we had, through the unconditional support and love we had for each other.”

Since they didn’t speak Farsi and the guards spoke very little English, it was difficult to communicate basic needs, and Shourd described the experience as being surrounded by hostility.

“Whenever I just started to slip away mentally, Shane and Josh would bring me back, and the knowledge that they were going to be there for me was the only thing that got me through 410 days of solitary confinement,” she said. The three thought up activities to give themselves something to look forward to, like marking time with small courtyard celebrations and special food they saved to share together or discussing topics in an organized format. “We had almost like a curriculum that we followed of study, and sort of intellectual exploration,” she explained.

They were only allowed to have pens for one month — that was the easiest month, Shourd said. But the rest of the time, even though they weren’t permitted to write things down, they were allowed to read. “Books were our lifeline. We read the same books in concert, we took turns reading books and passed them back and forth when we saw each other in the courtyard. And we would memorize dates and memorize poetry and recite poetry to each other and test each other on dates,” Shourd said.

“Josh would give me math problems to do in my head because he knew I was trying to get better with algebra. We had a dictionary that we passed back and forth, and we would make stories from words in the dictionary and tell each other these really intricate fantastical stories that we came up with. Anything to keep your mind busy.”

Beginning in her second month in prison, Shourd also passed the time by composing songs. A month went by before she was able to share the first one with Bauer and Fattal, but when she did finally sing it for them, they learned the words and sang it with her. “When we were together in the outdoor courtyard, they would just tell me to sing louder,” Shourd said. “I know they’re singing those songs now.”

The intellectual drills, storytelling, math problems, and singing weren’t merely a remedy for boredom. “You have to really keep your mind strong and busy so that you don’t get sort of swallowed up by the abyss of fear and loneliness that encroaches on you day by day in that kind of situation,” she said.



Despite the time, energy, and effort spent on the campaign to free all three, no one can say for sure just when Bauer and Fattal will finally be reunited with family and friends. In November, Iranian authorities said that a trial previously scheduled for that month had been postponed, but the Free the Hikers campaign is calling for them to be released without a trial.

“They don’t deserve to be there one minute longer than I was, and they never deserved to be there in the first place,” Shourd said. “They should be shown the same kind of humanitarianism that they have put into action in their lives, through their work.”

Amnesty International is among many of the groups that have called for the Iranian government to release the two young men. “One year after their arrest, the Iranian authorities’ failure to charge them with illegal entry into Iran or more serious charges, such as espionage, has fueled speculation that the Iranian authorities are holding them as a bargaining chip,” notes a statement released July 2010 by Amnesty International, an international human rights organization.

Meanwhile, Shourd has been contemplating what her experience would have been like if the U.S. and Iran actually maintained diplomatic ties, and she published an opinion piece on CNN International calling for greater communication between the governments.

“I think it’s their responsibility to their people to do that, and I think it’s a tragedy that there’s been 30 years of practically no relationship between Iran and the U.S.,” Shourd said. “It’s a tragedy for countless Iranian Americans in this country who have a hard time visiting their relatives in Iran, sending them money, even just getting information about them or visiting their homeland.”

She began her opinion piece by recounting the time that a prison guard brought her freshly picked roses, an uncommon gesture of kindness during her incarceration. “In the worst of circumstances, the most extraordinary acts of human kindness emerge,” she told the Guardian. “They were rare. The vast majority of my experience was empty and desolate. But the times that the guards were kind to me … will stay with me for the rest of my life.” *


Saturday, Jan. 29, 7 p.m.

SomArts Cultural Center

934 Brannan, SF

Musical performances by The Ferocious Few, Devon McClive and Sons, Grant Hazard and Lorin Station


Featuring The Nighwatchman, Jolie Holland, Jason Webley, Ryan Harvey & Lia Rose

Thursday, Feb. 10, 8:30 p.m., $12–$18

Bottom of the Hill

1233 17 St., SF

To learn more, visit,

Joining the journey


Malcolm X once said “Tomorrow is for those who prepare for it today.” And today, Malcolm Shabazz, the eldest grandson of Malcolm X, says he is trying to carry on the storied legacy of the radical advocate for African American civil rights and leading voice for the Nation of Islam.

Shabazz, 26, was recently in San Francisco discussing that legacy, as well as his own spiritual and personal journeys, which included making the pilgrimage to Mecca for the hajj in November, a requirement for Muslims that his grandfather also undertook in 1964, the year before he was assassinated.

It was the latest chapter in a long and complicated story. At the age of 12, Shabazz started a fire in his Yonkers home that left his grandmother (Malcolm X’s wife, Betty) with burns over 80 percent of her body, which led to her death a few days later. Shabazz has spent more of his adolescence and adulthood in prisons and other institutions than in the real world.

After serving four years in juvenile correctional facilities for arson and manslaughter charges for the fire, Shabazz pleaded guilty to attempted robbery in 2002. He served three and a half years in prison for that crime and then went back to prison months after his release for punching a hole in a store window.

Although he is often portrayed in media accounts as disturbed, Shabazz seemed calm and reflective during a two-hour interview with the Guardian. A soft-spoken man with few but well-chosen words, Shabazz is not unafraid to speak his mind about the state of the country and his grandfather’s legacy.

“If you want to know anything, then go back to the source,” he told us, which is what we did, reviewing his long, twisted journey to Mecca.

As the oldest male heir to Malcolm X, Shabazz was born into a fascinating family. Media accounts have documented him as a troubled young man, shuttled back and forth among family members. Like his grandfather, he spent time on the streets and in jail. Like his grandfather, it was behind bars that he finally regained his faith and found himself fully immersed in Islam. Shabazz explains that while he was born into Islam, he finally began to fee its presence in his life during his most recent incarceration period. While quarantined in Attica Correctional Facility in New York, Shabazz explained that he “didn’t have any hygiene supplies, I didn’t have any reading materials.”

But it was during his time in Attica that he met another prisoner — half Mexican, half Iranian — who identified himself as a Shia Muslim. “He asked me ‘Are you in a lie? Or are you a real Muslim?’ ” Shabazz recalled. He answered that he was a real Muslim. “He gave me reading materials to read in my cell.”

According to Shabazz, this was the man who discussed and poured over religious texts with him during their time together, and the one who inspired him to convert from the Sunni sect to Shia.

“I was raised a Sunni, everyone in my family was Sunni,” he said. There is much antagonism between the two sects, so his conversion caused a backlash akin to when his grandfather left the Nation of Islam in 1964 and declared himself a Sunni, which let to his assassination the following year.

When word spread of Shabazz’s conversion, various Sunni leaders and community members expressed their discomfort with what he had done. He explained that many people wrote to him asking him, “How could you become a Shia?”

After his release, Shabazz decided to move to Syria to study at an Islamic institute and then spent the following eight months teaching English to children. “I came home from prison [and] I wanted to get away for a little while,” he explained.

After arriving back from Syria in April, Shabazz went to Miami and worked on his memoirs, which he said are due to come out this May. The book discusses Shabazz’s life and tribulations, noting that “there are misconceptions that I would like to clear up.”

Once he returned to the United States, Shabazz decided to follow his grandfather’s footsteps and make the pilgrimage to Mecca, where, he said “the air felt different.” But he also explained how the people he saw on the pilgrimage seemed less willing to impose their rules on Americans.

“It seems like they have more fear [of] Americans than they do for Allah,” he said. “If they know you’re American, I don’t know what it is, but they leave you alone.”

Shabazz said he had the experience of a lifetime and proved his intense vigor for the Islamic faith. He circled the Kaa’ba, and despite swollen feet and a bad case of the flu, carried on his pilgrimage like a true believer. “I never saw this many people at one place at one time. It was much more of a struggle than I had anticipated,” he said. “But everything was earned.”

Decades before, his grandfather Malcolm X made his mark on American culture, taking a radical approach to demanding equal rights. When asked if his grandfather would admire President Barack Obama if he were alive today, Shabazz replied, “Definitely not. To me, Obama is no different than [George W.] Bush.”

He said that democracy in this country is a sham, an illusion effectively perpetuated by the ruling elite. “The U.S. is a land of smoke and mirrors, and they’re the best at doing what they do,” he said. “My grandfather? Hah. He wouldn’t have supported any of those dudes.”

Although Shabazz doesn’t particularly admire Obama so far, he does hope that the election of the first African-American president will “boost the esteem of the young black youth.” And he said that the messages of Malcolm X are more important today than ever.

“My grandfather once stated that there are only two types of power that are respected within the United States of America — economic power and political power — and he went on to explain how social power derives from these two. Unfortunately, the majority of the people [today] are economically illiterate and politically naive. They believe most of what they see on television and read in the papers. I say believe half of what you see, and none of what you hear.”

For his own personal politics, Shabazz said change begins with education and unity. “[Education] could be done through music, spoken word poetry, art, preaching from the pulpit, or putting in physical work right in the trenches,” Shabazz said.

In terms of unity, he cited the European Union, explaining that it is an organization “where nations that don’t necessarily like each other [but] have at least enough common sense to come together for a cause, to achieve a common goal, or to stand up against a common enemy. When it’s time to put niggers in check, they know how to come together.”

Almost 10 years after the 9/11 attacks, Shabazz sees growing potential for Islam to exert an influence in the U.S. “After 9/11, a lot of people did not know too much [about Islam]. But they started to investigate and learn more.”

Although many people’s first reaction was to turn away from the religion of jihad, Shabazz feels that many people also felt the need to educate themselves on the matter — and found that there is much more to Islam than the mainstream media portrays. And for a young man who has already led a turbulent life, Shabazz is seeking something basic from his newfound faith: “I want a peace of mind.”

Republicans are hypocrites, Democrats are spineless


Adding $800 billion to the federal deficit and exacerbating the inequitable, unprecedented, and unsustainable concentration of wealth in the richest 1 percent of Americans, Congress overwhelmingly approved a package of reckless tax cuts that President Barack Obama asked for and is expected to sign today.

The only saving grace in this dismal debacle is the fact that almost the entire Bay Area congressional delegation voted against the deal (while Speaker Nancy Pelosi didn’t vote at all), once again showing that if there’s even a glimmer of hope for saving the country from further descending into myopic and cowardly self-indulgence, it’s going to have to come from us.

Sure, I’ll happily spend the crumbs that they’ve dropped on me in the form of a payroll tax cut, and extending unemployment payments for the lingering victims of this stubborn recession isn’t a bad thing. But the vast majority of the benefits of this bill went to the wealthy, people who don’t need to be stealing from future generations.

Let’s be clear, as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) was during his nine-hour, one-man filibuster of the bill last week: this is about the greedy rich, who have purchased our political system, taking what they want and showing an indefensible disregard for the interests of this country and the vast majority of its citizens. And they have found a partner in President Obama, who was elected to office largely by criticizing Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy that he’s now extending and the wasteful wars that he’s escalating.

Happy holidays, and please pass the egg nog, with extra brandy, please.

Progressives oppose Obama’s deal with Republicans


With San Francisco’s own Rep. Nancy Pelosi leading the way, House Democrats have voted to oppose the tax cut deal that President Barack Obama cut with the Republicans – a deal most Americans oppose because of its expensive extension of tax cuts for the wealthy – demonstrating that progressives and even mainstream liberals are increasingly willing to push back against a president that has take their support for granted.

During his press conference this week, Obama adopted a belittling attitude toward his progressive critics who have pointed that Obama ran for office overtly opposing President George W. Bush’s policy of slashing taxes on the super-rich, which ballooned the federal deficit. And now, in interests of “getting things done,” Obama is standing with Republicans to promote that very policy.

Obama even boasted “the polls are on our side on this,” a statement polls taken since then have shown is simply untrue, as he ridiculed his progressive critics as willing to let unemployment payments expire and middle class tax cuts expire, as Republicans have threatened if Democratic are unwilling to extend tax cuts for the wealthy.

Speaking on PBS’s NewsHour the other night, Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman said he was appalled that Obama would echo this right-wing way of looking at the world, saying, “The president going after his progressive critics is enormously self-indulgent.”

Indeed it was, and those progressive critics now seem to have the upper hand, leaving Obama in the position of either working with Republicans to “ram this down the throats of the American people” (to borrow the GOP description of his health care reform measure) or to finally start working cooperatively with progressives to oppose the Republicans’ transparently hypocritical and unsustainable fiscal policy.

This is a big test for the Democratic Party and it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out in the coming days.

Class conflict in DC and SF


There’s an unmistakable whiff of class warfare in the air this holiday season, most obviously on the national level where President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans are helping the ultra-rich steal hundreds of billions of dollars from future generations and the country’s current needs. But we’re also seeing it right here in San Francisco, subtly playing out around who will be our next mayor.

During yesterday’s scheduled discussion at the Board of Supervisors on choosing a new mayor, members of the public – from African-American mothers of slain youth to representatives of immigrant communities to those representing labor and progressive groups – urged the board to choose a mayor who would finally represent all of San Francisco, not just the wealthy and the business community.

Then the progressive supervisors who represent the city’s working class districts talked about getting the process underway and voiced some of the things they’d like to see in a new mayor, such as compassion and a willingness to work with the board and community groups. It seemed like a good faith effort at having an open public discussion about the city’s needs.

But on the other side of the aisle, the supervisors who represent the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods voted to delay the discussion without offering a reason why. Sup. Chris Daly made good points about how incoming mayors usually have time to prepare for assuming this powerful office at a time of pressing city needs and tricky political dynamics, arguing for making this decision sooner than later.

And from the Establishment representatives: nothing. Not a word. Instead, we have Mayor Gavin Newsom threatening to delay his swearing in as lieutenant governor to thwart the current board from picking a successor, and being overtly urged to do so in a San Francisco Chronicle editorial and in disingenous, sanctimonious ruses from SF Chamber of Commerce officials.

Why? Well, here’s the closest thing the editorial offered to a reason: “It makes all the sense in the world to have the supervisors who will be working with the interim mayor make the selection. They are the ones who will have to find common ground and develop a working relationship with Newsom’s successor.”

But does it really make any sense to have an inexperienced group of new supervisors (as our current cover stories shows, none of the four new supervisors have held municipal office and two are new to politics) pick a mayor on their first day on the job, and then have that person immediately take on the complicated job of running the city with no staff in place? And to do that by flouting the the California Constitution and the City Charter?

That sounds like a recipe for disaster – and an opportunity for downtown power brokers to make mischief and ensure their interests aren’t threatened as part of whatever backroom deal gets cut to choose a new mayor, district attorney, and board president. Why else would they so vehemently oppose a deliberative public process that would lead to a decision by those who know the workings of City Hall better than anyone?

As we saw in the last election, wealthy San Franciscans are scared to death of progressive malcontents like Chris Daly, and they’re doing whatever they can to prevent him from being involved in this decision. They see, probably correctly, that the current political dynamics of the city could lead to perhaps the most progressive mayor since George Moscone, or maybe ever, and they’ll do whatever they can to prevent that from happening.

The rich of this city and this country have overplayed their hands, crippled the public sector, and, as Sen. Bernie Sanders so eloquently said recently on the floor of the US Senate, shown a selfish disregard for the needs and interests of the vast majority of citizens. The only question now is this: are we ready to finally stand up, fight back, and really give them something to fear? Or are we going to take our cues from Obama and treat anti-government conservatives as good faith actors when they have shown only contempt for our most cherished democratic processes and values?

I suppose next week, when this board reconvenes to try to choose a successor mayor, we’ll find out.

“Greed is an issue we’ve got to deal with”


As President Barack Obama and other top Democrats cravenly negotiate a surrender to Republican extortion and class warfare on behalf of the greedy rich, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) took to the floor of the U.S. Senate to give a full-throated denunciation of the effort and the “war being waged by some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in this country against the working families of the United States of America.”

It’s an extraordinary speech that everyone should watch:

Sanders correctly notes the hypocrisy of right-wingers who complain about the budget deficit when the topic is social programs or extending unemployment insurance, but then turn around and advocate for extending $700 billion in tax cuts to the richest 2 percent of Americans and abolishing the estate tax, which would give $1 trillion to the richest one-third of 1 percent.

“Their greed has no end, and apparently there is very little concern for the country or the people of this country if it gets in the way of the accumulation of more and more wealth and more and more power,” Sanders said as he compared the U.S. to a banana republic and cited statistics showing the grossly unbalanced distribution of income and wealth is at one of the worst points in our history, and far worse than any other industrialized country in the world. “And still they want more!”

Obama and the Democrats: Please listen to Sanders! History, and the working people of this country, are watching. As Sanders said, “Greed is a issue we’ve got to deal with.”

Critical care


A complex and controversial project that would involve five San Francisco hospitals — including building a huge showcase facility for the wealthy atop Cathedral Hill — has prompted a debate about what average city residents need from the health care system.

California Pacific Medical Center, an affiliate of Sutter Health, proposes to downsize St. Luke’s Hospital, which primarily serves a low-income population in the Mission District, as part of a $2.5 billion proposal to renovate and retrofit three existing medical campuses, close another one, and build housing and a megahospital on Cathedral Hill that would draw patients from around the country.

CPMC’s grandiose plan was being considered strictly as a land use decision, despite its far-reaching impact on the city’s health care system. So Sup. David Campos created legislation calling for the city to create a citywide health services master plan and to use that as another tool for gauging future medical projects.

Debate over that legislation left some activists on both sides unhappy, with progressives disappointed that it won’t be able to stop a CPMC project they see as neglectful of the poor, and moderates wary of creating a new way to challenge development projects in the face of widespread unemployment in the construction industry.

But it struck a fine enough balance to win 8-3 approval by the board Nov. 16, enough to override a threatened mayoral veto. “I’m really happy and excited about the passage of this legislation,” Campos told the Guardian after the vote.

The legislation has a two-part mandate, with the first part kicking in as soon as it has final approval. It requires the Planning Department, with input from the Department of Public Health, to prepare a health care services master plan to identify current and projected needs for health care services and where they should be provided.

The second part, which begins in 2013, requires Planning to determine whether medical projects are consistent with the findings of this plan. That delay is credited to a last-minute amendment Campos granted during a Nov. 15 committee hearing after the hospital industry complained that the process could jeopardize its ability to meet state-mandated seismic retrofitting deadlines for projects already in the planning pipeline.

The passage of Campos’ legislation comes eight months after President Barack Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Hailed by its supporters as the most significant change to the U.S. health care delivery systems in 40 years, the reform package has also been greeted with criticism on both ends of the political spectrum. Progressives complain that it relies too heavily on private insurance companies and medical providers, while Tea Party supporters says that it’s government run amok and they have vowed to “kill the bill.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) recently compared so-called Obamacare to “tyranny” in a speech to conservative legal scholars.

But here in San Francisco, the debate over Campos’ legislation — as heated and divisive as it was at times — yielded a surprising amount of consensus around the long-neglected idea that government should play a role in health care planning.



The passage of Campos’ legislation marks the first time in 30 years that a government entity has mandated health care services planning in California. That approach West Bay Health Systems Agency, whose creation he opposed as governor of California.

Lucy Johns, a San Francisco-based health care planning consultant who wrote the only health care services master plan California has ever had, recalls what happened in the mid-1970s after President Gerald Ford signed legislation that established health system agencies nationwide.

“California established 14 health systems agencies, including the West Bay Health System Agency, which governed the nine Bay Area counties,” Johns told the Guardian. “The legislation mandated that they be established by every state, with the federal government providing the funding. So every state had to decide how many, how big, and how structured the health system agencies would be.”

Johns notes that state legislators were constrained when it came to the decisions these health service agencies made. “The governing bodies of the health systems agencies had to have a membership that was 51 percent consumer and 49 percent healthcare provider, which included doctors, nurses, and hospital administrators,” she said.

That history served as a backdrop for discussion of the Campos legislation, with the Planning Department staff report noting, “With the elimination of the West Bay Health Systems Agency in 1981, there is no longer a routine or comprehensive analysis of health service resources, needs, trends, and local impacts conducted for changes to or within medical uses.”

“It’s truly a historic moment for San Francisco,” Campos said after his legislation passed its Nov. 16 first reading (the second and final reading is set for Nov. 23, after Guardian press time). “We are the first city in the country to make sure land use decisions are aligned to our health care needs. That’s an unprecedented step that will shape the future of healthcare planning for years to come.”

Campos acknowledged that the passage of Obama’s heath reform package — which includes a mandate to purchase private health insurance beginning in 2014 — was also a catalyst for his legislation, along with the CPMC project.

“But it had more to do with seeing that the city didn’t have the tools it needed to evaluate projects in terms of whether they met the city’s healthcare needs and how they might impact people’s access to healthcare,” Campos said. “The main catalyst came from the community, which felt it was being asked to make decisions that will have long-lasting health care implications, but didn’t have any way to understand those needs. Those concerns were compounded by changes at the national level — and the recognition that these changes offer us an opportunity to engage in planning.”

Campos’ legislative victory came two months after members of the Cathedral Hill Neighbors Association joined nurses, medical workers, patients, and community groups in voicing concerns at a Sept. 23 public hearing about the draft environmental impact report for CPMC’s Cathedral Hill hospital and the other facilities that are part of its proposal.

These groups collectively expressed fear that downsizing St. Luke’s, closing the CPMC California campus, and transforming CPMC Pacific campus to an outpatient-only hospital will force low-income people to travel farther to access health care services while offering better service to the wealthy at Cathedral Hill. And neighbors worried that the proposed complex would increase traffic and require the demolition of rent-controlled apartments.

Formed in 1991 through the merger of Pacific-Presbyterian Medical Center and Children’s Hospital of San Francisco, CPMC has been affiliated with Sutter Health since 1996 and currently has four medical campuses in San Francisco: Pacific in Pacific Heights, California in Presidio Heights, Davies in the Duboce Triangle, and St. Luke’s in the Mission.

But CPMC’s longtime goal was to build a facility intended to be like the Mayo Clinic of the West Coast, a 15-story, 555-bed full-service hospital and specialty care facility at the corner of Van Ness Avenue and Geary Boulevard. Company officials have made approval for that project conditional on keeping St. Luke’s open in the face of the state’s deadline on seismic safety standards that the hospital doesn’t now meet.

“St. Luke’s Hospital was the big issue that got our attention,” Le Tim Ly, lead organizer for the Chinese Progressive Association, told the Guardian. His group has worked with residents in the city’s southeast sector around environmental justice, air quality, and pollution issues when they became aware of the threat to St. Luke’s. “All this, coupled with efforts to downsize Luke’s, left us alarmed by the disproportionate impact on an already impacted area.”

But alarm over CPMC’s plans has now revived the idea of healthcare planning.



As recently as the beginning of November, representatives for the Hospital Council of Northern and Central California — whose members include CPMC, Chinese Hospital, Jewish Home, Kaiser Permanente, Laguna Honda, St Luke’s, St. Mary’s, San Francisco General Hospital, and Veterans Affairs Medical Center — seemed opposed to any change in the way healthcare planning is done in San Francisco.

At a Nov. 1 hearing on the Campos legislation at the board’s Land Use and Economic Development Committee, Ron Smith, the Hospital Council’s senior vice president for advocacy, said his organization favored maintaining the city’s current procedures. “We would like to propose that the Health Commission does the planning, the Planning Commission does the land use, and that there is a required determination process which is in the current legislation,” Smith said. “We’re proposing that that continue.”

But two weeks later, after Campos amended his legislation so projects now in the planning pipeline are exempt from having to comply with the city’s health care services master plan, some members of the Hospital Council seemed to have a change of heart.

CPMC’s Chief Executive Officer Warren Browner surprised just about everybody when he publicly stated in mid-November that CPMC supports health care planning. “We strongly support the efforts of the city — we are in favor of health planning,” Browner said at a Nov. 15 hearing on the legislation.

“That statement was extraordinary,” said Lucy Johns, recalling CPMC’s history of resisting government control. “The conversation about this legislation has already changed the discourse, at least in public.”

Linda Schumacher, chief executive officer of Chinese Hospital, a community-owned, not-for-profit facility, explained at the same hearing that her organization had been concerned that Campos’ legislation would affect her hospital’s ability to move ahead with a $150 million project that has been in the pipeline since 2003.

“We thank you for that amendment that allows the effective date to be changed,” she said.

“It shows how much progress had been made, even before this legislation goes into effect,” Campos said of the hospital industry’s apparent shift in attitude. “It’s a monumental step, something that was not expected as recently as a few months ago.”

But Ly of the Chinese Progressive Association said he believes the Hospital Council still doesn’t want to see the city getting involved. “As recently as a month ago, their folks were speaking out against any kind of legislation. But I think they started seeing the writing on the wall.”

Ly fretted about the potential negative impact of Campos’ last-minute amendments. Sup. Campos’ plan represents a victory. But we could use that information as soon as possible. The 2013 deadline means the city will be handicapped: it will have information it can’t use yet.”

Ly ventures that the hospital industry’s approach will be to try to lessen the impact of the legislation. “As written, it still provides the Planning Commission and the board with the discretion to approve projects,” Ly said. “Ultimately, the struggle is about values. Just because there are plans and guidance doesn’t mean the healthcare needs of the community will become a top priority — it just provides us with tools to make an assessment.”

Campos counters that his bill will allow the city to create incentives for, and apply pressure on, the hospital industry. “If they truly want their projects to be expedited and approved before state-mandated seismic retrofitting deadlines kick in, they’ll propose plans that work for the community,” Campos explained.

But even as it publicly vows to be supportive, the Hospital Council continues to express concerns about the Campos legislation. “It’s the council’s job is to be supportive now that the board has approved Campos’ plan,” Smith said. “And Sup. Campos was very generous. He started talking to us in June. But we really didn’t get a handle on his proposal until much later. We think the idea of healthcare planning is very good. We still have concerns about the process, but now the board has voted on the legislation, our goal is to do our best to work with the law.”

Concerns that the legislation would be used to mire projects in repeated appeals and give too much weight to critics’ concerns was raised at the Nov. 16 hearing by Sup. Sean Elsbernd.

“Right now, if anyone has concerns, there’s a conditional use process and a CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act] process,” Elsbernd told the Guardian. “But this turns up a brand new appeal. It means the appeals are heard at the same time, but you’ve now created a third route.”

Campos responded to these concerns by amending the legislation to clarify that the board must act on consistency determination appeals at the same time it acts on other related appeals, so projects won’t be delayed.

Evidently this wasn’t enough to appease the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. “We cannot be supportive of that piece of legislation,” Rob Black, the Chamber’s vice president of public policy, told the Guardian after the legislation was approved. “We believe appeals should be done at the Department of Public Health in conjunction with service providers, since San Francisco provides 20 percent of service, and private organizations provide the remaining 80 percent.”

Black says the Chamber was pleased Campos amended his legislation so as not to slow down projects that are currently in the planning pipeline. But he claimed Campos’ legislation could actually limit access to healthcare services. “The Chamber is concerned that Campos’ legislation will make it harder for doctors to pool together in pods, and if we don’t do that, it won’t make healthcare more available because services will be more expensive,” Black said. “But we absolutely think” the city should analyze gaps in providing health care to San Franciscans.

Campos’ aide Hillary Ronen confirmed that Black is correct in saying that anyone can appeal a hospital project’s consistency determination. “But the final analysis will revolve around asking if the proposed project meets the health care needs of San Francisco,” she said. “If it doesn’t, and the board doesn’t believe there’s a compelling public policy reason to approve the project, [the board] can override the approval.”



Mary Michelucci, a registered nurse for 40 years and a member of the California Nurses Association, is hopeful that Campos’ legislation will rein in the hospital industry.

“I hope that any plan that would favor patient care over profit would be the way to go,” Michelucci said. “Running a hospital is expensive. But with the profits that Sutter and CPMC are making, they can afford this.”

Michelucci says the dispute over St. Luke’s came to a head three years ago, when nurses began to suspect that CPMC was planning to let the facility fail, suspicions that intensified when CPMC closed St. Luke’s neonatal intensive care unit 18 months ago.

“Now the babies who need neonatal special care are transported to CPMC’s California campus, which is in the Richmond,” Michelucci said. “But the moms may be discharged and most of them live in the Mission or Bayview-Hunters Point.”

Michelucchi still fears that CPMC will wage “a horrific campaign” against the California’s Nurses Association as it continues to push the plan for its megahospital. “CPMC wants to be in complete control of the registered nurses,” she said. “We, unfortunately, are their conscience, while they are a business model in the business of healthcare. The decisions they make about healthcare are not in the interests of patients or nurses, and we are the thorn in their side.”

All this is happening against the backdrop of the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, and for construction workers facing high unemployment rates in San Francisco, CPMC’s megaproject clearly represents light at the end of a very dark tunnel.

“CPMC is my future,” William Hestor, a 28-year-old father of two and member of SEIU-United Healthcare Workers, said at the Nov. 15 hearing. “We worked hard on a contract and we just want to make sure our hospital is built on time.”

CPMC media spokesperson Kevin McCormack told the Guardian that the real issue between CPMC and the CNA is union membership at CPMC’s Cathedral Hill facility. “CPMC is reducing beds at St. Luke’s because the beds aren’t in use, but the facility will be able to take care of 90 percent of patients’ needs and if you need specialist care, a shuttle will take you to Cathedral Hill,” McCormack said. “This centralized arrangement is the best way to attract the best staff and equipment.”

McCormack noted that there are union members and 1,200 nonunion nurses working at CPMC facilities in San Francisco. “We are bringing together nonunion and union nurses together at this facility, and we don’t feel we have the right to force our nonunion nurses to join,” he said, adding that since the Teamsters, the Carpenters, and SEIU-United Healthcare Workers (UHW) are already unionized at the Pacific and California campuses, they’ll be allowed to unionize at Cathedral Hill.

CNA member Eileen Prendiville, who has worked in San Francisco as a registered nurse for decades, recalls the negative changes she has already seen at CPMC’s facilities, including eliminating registered nurses and specialty services.

“If you pull services, as they have, of course you’ll have fewer patients. And the physicians start leaving, so it’s a vicious cycle,” she said. “St. Luke’s was a small community hospital but now it’s all about corporate medicine.”

Sup. Eric Mar sided with those seeking to exempt current projects from the city’s health care services master plan. But Sup. Sophie Maxwell noted that the Planning Commission will take a facility’s historical role into account in determining whether projects are consistent with the city’s health care services plan.

“We believe that addressed community concerns,” Maxwell said. “St. Luke’s would never have been targeted for closure had this legislation been on the books in the past.”

Campos insists his legislation is not simply about CPMC. “Ultimately this legislation stems from a number of pleas we have heard in the last couple of years from people throughout the city,” he said. “It takes the institutional master planning process to the next level. We have tried to consolidate the appeal process under existing law. Important as the legislation is, it’s key to make sure we have the right master plan because that’s where the heavy lifting will take place.”

Meanwhile, the final EIR is being completed for the CPMC project, which should go before the Board of Supervisors for approval early next year.

Only a miracle can save Steve Li now


Supporters of Shing Ma “Steve” Li, a 20-year-old nursing student, gathered outside the offices of Sen. Barbara Boxer today to urge her to sponsor a private bill in a last ditch effort to halt Li’s deportation to Peru, which is scheduled to take place Monday, November 15—two months after ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents arrested Li in San Francisco.

“While we do not introduce private bills, our staff is happy to meet with Mr. Li’s family and his attorneys to discuss his case,” Boxer spokesperson Zachary Coile emailed the Guardian, as protesters delivered stack of letters to Boxer’s office, asking that she intervene in Li’s case.

Unlike Sen. Dianne Feinstein who has sponsored private bills in the past, Boxer has no record of intervening in this way. But advocates were hopeful that now that she has survived the November 2010 election, Boxer will pull off a miracle before Monday.

This afternoon, Li’s attorney Sin Yen Ling texted the Guardian that her request for deferred action had been denied, meaning that Li will be on a plane to Peru on Monday, baring some last minute miracle.

“Our office has been in touch with ICE and is exploring the options,” Gil Duran, media spokesperson for Sen. Dianne Feinstein told the Guardian, half an hour after Li’s request for deferred action was denied.

And Boxer spokesperson Zachary Coile said the senator’s staff met with Li’s mother, his attorney, his City College professor and others, this afternoon.

“While we do not introduce private bills, our staff was happy to meet with Steve Li’s family and his attorney to discuss his case,” Coile stated. “We reiterated Senator Boxer’s strong support for the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for tens of thousands of undocumented students who go to college or serve in the military. Senator Boxer will keep working in the Senate until it becomes law.”

And tonight, Drew Hammill, press secretary to Speaker Nancy Pelosi emailed the following statement to the Guardian:

“Speaker Pelosi believes that Steve Li’s case is a textbook example of the pressing need for comprehensive immigration reform and passage of the DREAM Act. Speaker Pelosi is working with other Members to recommend that ICE grant deferred action in this case.”

Boxer, Feinstein and Pelosi, who have both been strong supporters of the DREAM Act, have vowed to keep working until it is passed.

Earlier this fall, on Sept. 14—the day before ICE arrested Li– Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced plans to add the DREAM Act as an amendment to the Department of Defense authorization bill.

But that effort was blocked by Senate Republicans. And after the bloodbath that congressional Democrats endured this November, it’s unclear if the DREAM Act has a prayer, though Nancy Pelosi vowed to move it forward during Congress’ upcoming lame-duck session, and it has continued to attract bi-partisan support since it was first introduced in 2001 by Senators Richard Durbin (D-Il) and Richard Lugar (R-IN).

At today’s protest, Li’s legal counsel, Sin Yen Ling, decried the federal government’s decision to deport her client.

“A 20-year-old City College student is not a threat to our national security,” Ling said. “We need to bring Steve Li home as soon as possible.”

According to Ling, Li has not seen his mother Maria, who divorced Li’s dad for years and lives with Li in San Francisco, since his Sept. 15 arrest, when  ICE picked up Li and his mother in Ingleside on Sept. 15 and placed them in separate cars. The car carrying Li then picked up Li’s  father in the Richmond, and all three family members were processed at ICE’s Sansome Street office in downtown San Francisco, before being transferred to Sacramento County Jail. But Li was then involuntarily transferred to an ICE detention facility in Arizona. Meanwhile, Li’s parents were released from detention when ICE determined that China does not want them back because they left China seeking political asylum. But they are now required to wear cumbersome electronic monitoring anklets, because they are deemed a flight risk, and are not allowed to leave San Francisco.

As a result, Li’s parents have been unable to visit their son in Arizona. And should he be deported to Peru, it’s not clear if they will be permitted to follow. And should if they decide to travel to Peru, they will not be allowed to reenter the U.S. for at least ten years, further complicating a complex situation.

At today’s rally, Li’s mother Maria spoke in public for the first time,  breaking down into tears, as she begged Sen. Boxer and the U.S. government to help.

“He has no money, no clean clothes, how will he get by?” she asked, referring to ICE’s plan to put her son on a plane to Lima, Peru, where he reportedly knows no one.  “Sen. Boxer, will you just watch and pretend you didn’t see anything? Today, when you see all of us standing here begging you, will you respond to us? I hope you can understand it from a mother’s perspective and meet with me to discuss how we can help Steve.”

Ling said Li’s mother decided to speak because of the direness of her son’s situation, even though she was wearing a federally-mandated monitoring anklet.
“She felt it was now or never,” Ling said.

Li’s teacher Sang Chi also spoke, praising Li as a model student and a prime example of the kind of person that should be eligible for the DREAM Act. And then the Rev. Norman Fang led Li’s supporters in a prayer.

‘We ask that a miracle take place and that Steve’s mom and San Francisco can be happy again, that the heart and soul of what is morally right can overcome regulations,” Fang said, noting that 100 years, his family members were detained at Angel Island “for no other reason than they were Chinese. ‘There is only one border in our world—the one that separates Heaven and Earth.”

Li’s attorney Sin Yen Ling clarified that she doesn’t believe that ICE singled Li out.
“He’s just been swept up as part of a larger program,” Ling said, noting that actions that split families apart and target folks who came to this country as undocumented children have inspired a movement of DREAMers—folks who support the DREAM Act.

Every year, about 65,000 U.S. raised students, who would qualify for the DREAM Act’s proposed benefits, graduate from high school, according to the National Immigration Law Center (NILC).

“These include honor roll students, star athletes, talented artists, homecoming queens, and aspiring teachers, doctors and U.S. soldiers,” states a NILC press release. “They are young people who have lived in the U.S. for most of their lives and desire only to call this country their home. Even though they were brought to the U.S. years ago as children, they face unique barriers to higher education, are unable to work legally in the U.S. and often live in constant fear of detection by immigration authorities.”

Asked how ICE caught up with Li, who does not have a criminal record, Ling pointed to modern technology
“In this day and age, you can track anyone down,” Ling said.” And it’s a priority for ICE to identify people with final deportation orders,” she continued. Ling was referring to the fact that Li’s parents were denied their request for political asylum from China and issued a removal order, unbeknownst to their son Steve, who was born in Peru, came to the U.S. when he was 12 and was 14, when his parents’ asylum request was denied.

But Ling did not blame President Barack Obama, who promised to bring millions of undocumented residents out of the shadows, when he was running for president in 2008.
“It’s tough to criticize the president when he had five different priorities coming into office, including healthcare. His administration probably miscalculated how long it would take to pass healthcare. And part of the problem is partisan politics around immigration.”

Ling estimates that there are two million young people currently in the U.S. who would benefit from the passage of the DREAM Act, but blamed partisan politics for why the legislation failed to pass by only 3 votes in the Senate in September.

Sup. David Campos showed up at the rally and told Li’s supporters that the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a resolution Nov. 9 calling for ICE to defer Li’s deportation.

“The Board is not always on the same page, but on this issue we were unanimous,” Campos said. “We get it, we understand the tragedy that this deportation would result in. And we remain hopeful that something will happen. There are millions of young people in the same predicament, and the solution is not deportation. The solution is passing comprehensive immigration reform. Until then, we need an intervention.”

Meanwhile, somewhere in Arizona, Steve Li sits in a jail cell, hoping, praying and dreaming…

Advocates say Steve Li is DREAM Act eligible


The Board of Supervisors plans to introduce a resolution at their Nov. 9 meeting denouncing the deportation of Shing Ma “Steve” Li, a  20-year-old DREAM Act student at City College of San Francisco, calling for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to grant him deferred action status, and urging Congress to pass the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act.

The move comes the same day San Francisco Unified School District Board President Jane Kim (leading in the as yet unresolved race to replace termed-out D6 Sup.Chris Daly) plans to introduce a similar resolution at the SFUSD Board meeting, and a week after City College Board Trustee Lawrence Wong introduced a resolution supporting Li, who has lived in California since 2002 and is studying to be a nurse , but is now in an immigration detention center in Arizona.

“It’s unreal how fast things change”, Li said in a statement made from Arizona, just seven weeks after ICE raided his home and arrested him.

Li, who is ethnically Chinese, was born in Peru as his parents fled political persecution in China. And  ICE is allegedly preparing to deport him to Peru, which he left when he was 12. (Calls to ICE had not been returned as of blog post time, but I’ll update this blog, when I get a reply.)

“He knows no one in Peru,” said Li’s lawyer, Sin Yen Ling, senior staff attorney at the Asian Law Caucus, as she described how Li’s grandma returned to China, when his grandfather died.

Five years ago, the U.S. denied Li’s parents political asylum from China and issued a removal order. But Li says he was unaware of his immigration situation until his home was raided, and advocates and community members believe his case illustrates how the U.S.’s immigration system tears up families and targets contributing members of society.

Li’s Sept. 15 arrest occurred one week before Congress failed to vote on the DREAM Act, which would provide a pathway to legalization to undocumented students who’ve grown up in the US and atten two years of college or served two years of the military.

“It’s critical to pass the DREAM Act before the new Congressional session, but Steve literally cannot wait and is set for deportation any day now, that’s why we need our Senators’ leadership today,”  Li’s attorney Sin Yen Ling told me, noting that so far their has been no response from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and that advocates are planning to target Sen. Barbara Boxer, now that the election is over.

In their resolution, Board President David Chiu and Sups. Eric Mar, John Avalos, David Campos and Ross Mirkarimi note that the DREAM Act is “bipartisan legislation that addresses the situation faced by young people who were brought to the United States years ago as undocumented immigrant children, and who have since grown up here, stayed in school, and kept out of trouble.”

These five supervisors note that each year, 65,000 U.S.-raised students who qualify from the DREAM Act’s benefits graduate. They also note that Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin and Republican Sen. Richard Lugar asked Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on April 21, 2010 to halt the deportation of immigrant students who could earn legal status under the DREAM Act, which has the support of the House and Senate leadership, all of the relevant committee chairs, the nation’s military leaders, and President Barack Obama.

“I will do whatever it takes to support efforts to pass this bill so I can sign it into law on behalf of students seeking a college education and those who wish to serve in our country’s uniform. It’s the right thing to do,” Obama told the Congressional Hispanic Caucus on September 15, 2010—the same day that Li was arrested in San Francisco.

Update: Since writing this blog, I got a call back from ICE’s Lori Haley, who said she was limited in how much information she could share, but sent me this statement concerning Li:

“Shing Ma Li was taken into custody by ICE Fugitive Operations team officers on September 15, 2010, based upon a final order of removal issued by an immigration judge in 2004.  In 2005, the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) reviewed his case and upheld the immigration judge’s decision.  Shing Ma Li currently remains in ICE custody while the agency seeks to make arrangements for his removal.”


Get angry and make ’em do it!


After crashing the country’s economy and turning the world against us, Republicans are clawing their way back into power by stoking voter anger at political and economic systems that are stacked against the common citizen, a tactic that progressives need to adopt if we ever hope to move our agenda forward.

“Anger, not hope, is the fuel of political and economic change,” Jamie Court, head of Consumer Watchdog, writes in his new book, The Progressive’s Guide to Raising Hell: How to win grassroots campaigns, pass ballot box laws, and get the change we voted for (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2010).

Court writes that progressives are rightfully disappointed and disillusioned that after helping to elect President Barack Obama, he and Congressional Democrats turned around and gave Wall Street, the military-industrial complex, and the health insurance companies everything they wanted, with Obama even caving in on requiring all Americans to purchase health insurance, something he opposed as a candidate.

Yet Court said politicians never do the right thing and push progressive political change unless they’re forced to do so. He opened the book with a scene in which President Franklin Delano Roosevelt met with progressive political leaders, listened to their proposals, and then told them, “I agree. I am all for your plan. Now make me do it.”

It’s a concept that the conservative Tea Party movement understands well, and even though they may be crazy and wrongheaded in their utterly unsustainable and destabilizing policy agenda, they have effectively used anger as a political tool, and as a result, the NY Times reports they are poised to wield a disproportionate amount of political power after this election.

It’s the same story on the local level, where the only real anger in this election cycle is coming from those mad at public employee unions and their pension deals, and vagrants who sit uncivilly on sidewalks. These people will keep pushing for what they expect, but many progressives act as if it’s enough to prevent truly heinous Republicans like Meg Whitman from taking power, rather than trying to push Jerry Brown or Board of Supervisors’ progressives from day one to start empowering people over corporations.

“After the vote, power vacuums fill with familiar values, if not faces. Promises give way to fiscal realities, hope succumbs to pragmatism, and ambition concedes to inertia. The old tricks of interest group – confuse, diffuse, scare – prevail over the better angels of American nature,” Court writes, relaying a familiar electoral pattern.

Yet in this election, when the best outcome seems to be simply dodging a bullet, is there any hope for progressive political change? Isn’t the system just too broken? I asked Court these questions when he stopped by the Guardian office for a chat recently, and he retains a belief that with the right kind of tactics and agenda, progressives can still seize the political initiative and power.

“I wrote it to reengage progressives because they are so despondent,” Court told me. “It’s about how to use anger and focus anger…Politicians don’t answer polite mobs, they only answer angry mobs and the Tea Party is the only angry mob in the room.”

Progressive have understandable doubts about the responsiveness of the current political system, but Court said, “I know if we don’t try to make it work, we’re never going to get there.”

And his book lays out the path to get there, step by step, based on some of the legislative and political successes that Consumer Watchdog and other progressives have had in recent years, such as rejecting the well-funded corporate con jobs in Propositions 16 and 17 earlier this year. Yet it involves an approach based on principle and not parties, and with being relentless in pursuing the kind of world we need.

“If you want to fight corporate power, you have to fight Democrats and Republicans,” Court said.

Specifically, Court is calling for progressives to push a California ballot measure that would establish a public health care option here, the very thing that Obama and the Democrats failed to include in their health reform package, and which will dash any hopes of it working if the people are forced to rely on unregulated insurance company products.

“The biggest thing is mandatory health insurance, which is a ticking time bomb,” Court said, one set to go off in 2014 when that aspect of Obama’s health care reform kicks in.

Corporate and political power working together seem to be a force too strong to overcome, but as Court writes, “Public opinion is the most powerful force in the world. While it can be muted, distracted, and co-opted, it cannot be controlled, except by the public.”

DADT ruling gives Obama an opportunity to lead


Now that a federal judge has ruled the U.S. military’s “don’t ask don’t tell” policy unconstitutional, President Barack Obama and the Democrats have an opportunity to demonstrate their stated commitment to equal rights for gays and lesbians – and, more generally, their willingness to boldly lead the country. And all they have to do is…nothing.

Actually, if Obama really wants to show some courage on the issue, he would announce that he’s doing nothing – that is, choosing not to appeal the ruling and to simply let it stand – now, before the mid-term elections next month. Sure, that might involve some political risk in conservative districts, but it would also demonstrate to voters on the left that this administration is actually willing to take a stand on an issue that is important to progressives and other believers in social justice.

Part of the problem that Democrats are facing in this election is that the Republican base, all those crazy teabaggers and ill-informed believers that Obama is a dangerous socialist, are fired up, but those in the Democratic Party base – workers, liberals, anti-war activists, and representatives of marginalized communities – don’t have much to cling to these days.

They’ve watched Obama escalate the so-called “war on terror,” do little to challenge Wall Street’s casino capitalism, prop up health insurance companies and call it “reform,” and let conservatives set the agenda while the Democrats dither on issues ranging from raising taxes on the rich to rebuilding the country’s infrastructure and social safety net.

Obama opposes same-sex marriage, and when the Democrat’s made a showy legislative move last month to end DADT, they quickly caved in the face of a Republican filibuster, making the whole gesture seem like a meaningless election year gimmick rather than an honest effort to end a policy that has always been unconstitutional, as this judge has now ruled.

So now, it’s gut check time. Obama needs to show what kind of president he wants to be. Will he do the right thing and finally provide the bold progressive leadership this country needs right now, or will he follow Bill Clinton’s lead and cave in to his conservative critics, maintaining his popularity and winning a second term by triangulating between the left and right, but leaving the country dangerously adrift in treacherous waters.

Arlington & Santa Clara join SF in requesting S-Comm opt-out


The County Board in Arlington, Virginia and the Santa Clara Board of Supervisors both voted unanimously September 28 to opt out of S-Comm, a controversial Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) data-sharing program also known as Secure Communities.

This means San Francisco is no longer the only municipality requesting to opt out of ICE’s S-Comm program. (Washington, D.C’s metropolitan Police Department is the only jurisdiction to date to successfully terminate its S-Comm Memorandum of Agreement with ICE.) The program automatically shares fingerprints with ICE that are taken by local law enforcement immediately after individuals are arrested, even if criminal charges are eventually dismissed or were the result of an unlawful arrest.

The opt-out resolutions in Santa Clara and Arlington came a day before 578 national and local organizations delivered a letter to President Barack Obama condemning the merger of criminal justice and immigration systems and demanding an end to practices that harm diverse communities throughout the country.

S-Comm has already met with opposition from civil rights organizations, law enforcement, and city officials from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco, over concerns it is being forced on hundreds of counties without oversight or accountability.

As a result of this opposition, ICE issued a statement in August that confirmed that local jurisdictions have a right to opt out by sending a written request.

And recently, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder also confirmed in writing that local jurisdictions can opt of S-Comm by requesting to do so in writing.

San Francisco Sheriff Mike Hennessey has already submitted this request in writing on at least two occasions, most recently on August 31st. And on May 18, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors passed a resolution to opt out of S-Comm.

And Angela Chan, staff attorney at the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco, repeated her request that ICE comply with its own opt-out procedure for all requesting counties.

“SF has done everything required of us to opt out,” Chan said in a press release. “Sheriff Hennessey and our Board of Supervisors have voiced our request to opt out of S-Comm loud and clear. It’s now ICE’s turn to follow through on their word and allow counties to do what has been within our right all along. Only then will we be able to focus our local resources back on local law enforcement. S-Comm has no place in our counties because it makes immigrant victims and witnesses afraid to come forward and cooperate with local law enforcement.”

In response to Santa Clara’s opt-out request, ICE’s Assistant Director David Venturella sent a letter to Santa Clara’s legal counsel Miguel Marquez in which he sought to clarify how S-Comm works:

“Secure Communities is ICE’s comprehensive strategy to improve and modernize the identification and removal of criminal aliens from the United States,” Venturella wrote. “As part of this strategy, ICE uses a federal biometric information sharing capability to more quickly and accurately identify aliens when they are booked into local law enforcement custody.”

“ICE uses a risk-based approach that prioritizes immigration enforcement actions against criminal aliens based on the severity of their crimes, focusing first on criminal aliens convicted of serious crimes like murder, rape, drug trafficking, national security crimes, and other “aggravated felonies,” Venturella continued.

But critics of S-Comm have noted that the majority of folks identified by this program are not criminal aliens at all. These critics argue that the program is undermining community policing efforts, since a person who has not committed a serious crime can now be referred to ICE simply because they were arrested (perhaps falsely) of a crime—and ICE can initiative deportation proceedings before that person can prove that they aren’t a felon.

And as Venturella acknowledges in his letter to Santa Clara, “Under this strategy, ICE maintains the authority to enforce immigration law.”

But Venturella confirmed that local municipalities have the right to request that their jurisdictions S-Comm program not be activated. And he clarified that ICE won’t be requiring local jurisdictions to sign statements of intent, or any other document to participate in S-Comm.

He also explained that ICE defers to the California State Attorney General on how state, county and local law enforcement agencies within California will share biometric data.

Venturella clarified that the purpose of local law enforcement receiving a fingerprint “match message” is to provide any additional identity information about the subject, including aliases, from the Department of Homeland Security’s biometric database. This database stores over 100 million records that, according to Venturella’s letter, “may not have been available based only on a criminal history check.”

But he noted that “receiving a ‘match message’ does not authorize or require any action by local law enforcement.”

“ICE views an immigration detainer as a request that a local law enforcement agency maintain custody of an alien, who may otherwise be released, for up to 48 hours (excluding Saturdays, Sundays and holidays),” Venturella explained. “This provides ICE time to assume custody of the alien.”

Venturella noted that ICE is not responsible for the incarceration costs of such individuals and does not reimburse localities for detaining any individual until ICE assumes custody.

But he points out that there is no statutory requirement that localities notify ICE if a subject is to be released 30 days in advance of any release or transfer.
‘The notification of ICE of inmate transfer or release within 30 days is pursuant to ICE’s request for such information,” Venturella stated.

Venturella clarifies that there is a legal basis for requiring ICE officers to conduct inmate interviews “to determine alienage and any possibilities for relief or protection from removal.”

But he also points out that local officials are not required to assist the feds in acquiring information about detainees.
“Assisting ICE in acquiring detainee information is not a legal requirement,” Venturella states.