Alex Emslie

Prison for killer cop


On Nov. 5, former BART Police officer Johannes Mehserle was sentenced to two years in state prison for fatally shooting Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old African American rider, on the Fruitvale train platform on New Year’s Day 2009.

Mehserle, who is white, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in July in an incident that has become charged with racial undertones. He received credit for 292 days served in jail so far, which will considerably reduce his time in prison. It was the lightest prison sentence he could have received for the crime.

Grant supporters gathered in Frank Ogawa Plaza in downtown Oakland to express anger and sorrow upon hearing news of the sentence. “I’m not shocked,” said Cat Brooks, who helped organize an afternoon rally for the Coalition for Justice for Oscar Grant. “But I’m disgusted and distraught. It seems like the justice system didn’t work.”

After the rally came to a close and night fell, protesters spilled into the streets and marched toward the Fruitvale BART Station, the scene of the crime. But after a dozen car windows were smashed along the way, police officers in riot gear corralled the group into a residential neighborhood. Police then placed 152 protesters under mass arrest, mostly on charges of unlawful assembly. Roughly two-thirds of those arrested were Oakland residents, according to the Oakland Police Department, while others were from Berkeley, San Francisco, Hayward, and other local cities.



A stage outside Oakland City Hall was transformed into a venue for personal expression in the wake of the sentencing. Community members lined up to air their frustrations and resolve to keep fighting. They piled flowers onto a shrine that had been created with a picture of Grant’s face. Some painted pictures, while others gave spoken word or hip-hop performances. Several told stories of loved ones who’d died in police shootings.

Cephus Johnson, Grant’s uncle, was at the Los Angeles courtroom where Mehserle was sentenced, but shared some thoughts with the Guardian beforehand. Asked what he’d thought when the verdict had been announced, Johnson said, “My first thought was that we’re witnessing the criminal justice system failing to work as it should have worked.” If the sentence fell short of the 14-year maximum, he said, “it will be another slap in the face, signifying that black and brown men are worthless.”

East Bay labor organizer Charles Dubois was among those attending the Nov. 5 rally. “Every black parent, every brown parent, lives with this nightmare of their children being killed by some cops because they thought they had a gun,” Dubois said in an interview with the Guardian. “It’s been happening since I was a kid. It’s been happening then and it’s happening now, and it’s going to keep happening until we do something.”

California Assemblymember Tom Ammiano (D-SF) also weighed in during a phone call with the Guardian. “This verdict is outrageous,” he said. “It’s Dan White all over again.”



Judge Robert Perry sided with arguments presented by Mehserle’s defense attorney, Michael Rains, when he levied a reduced punishment. Mehserle could have served up to 14 years prison for involuntary manslaughter committed while wielding a gun, but Perry tossed out the firearm enhancement.

“No reasonable trier of fact could have concluded that Mehserle intentionally fired his gun,” the judge was quoted in media reports as saying. But that appears to be what the jury found, as the prosecution argued in a presentencing memorandum.

“The evidence was presented regarding the use of the gun, and in discussing the use of the gun in the jury room, somehow or another the jury decided he had used the gun illegally,” criminal defense attorney and National Lawyers Guild observer Walter Riley told the Guardian. “One has to believe the jury expected him to have exposure to a greater amount of jail time because of that.”

Perry said he believed Mehserle suffered a “muscle memory accident” that led him to draw and fire his service weapon instead of his Taser, a cornerstone of the defense’s case.

Rains wrote to the court prior to sentencing that jurors should never have been allowed to apply the firearm enhancement to an involuntary manslaughter conviction “because in this case, there is no logical way to square a verdict of involuntary manslaughter and a finding that Mehserle intended to use his gun.”

Prosecutor David Stein of the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office countered that the jury’s conviction showed they believed Mehserle intended to shoot, but not to kill, Grant. Yet Perry agreed with the defense, conceding he had mistakenly permitted the jury to enhance Mehserle’s sentence.

Riley said he sympathized with frustrations over the gun enhancement getting dismissed. “The use of guns is too prevalent in circumstances where law enforcement comes in contact with young black people,” he said. “Our society — our civil society, our judicial authority, and our communities — have to hold government and law enforcement officers to a higher level of accountability in their interactions with citizens. When people with guns shoot an inordinate number of people of one group, it’s worth tremendous scrutiny.”



Twice before, activists took to the streets in furious protest over this case. In January 2009, things escalated to the point where cars were set ablaze. In July 2010, a street rally gave way to rioting and looting. So on Nov. 5, many downtown Oakland storeowners boarded up and closed business early in anticipation of a third wave of vandalism.

Yet the turnout was smaller than the previous events. And while there were reports of smashed car windshields and other instances of vandalism along the circuitous path of the march, there was far less property destruction.

The community affair outside Oakland City Hall ended around 6 p.m., when the permit expired. Soon after, activists spilled into the intersection of 14th and Broadway streets, then began advancing down 14th Street chanting “No Justice! No Peace!” and “The whole system is guilty!” The march turned right onto Madison Street, then left onto 10th Street.

A police helicopter with a spotlight kept pace overhead while it progressed, and when protesters reached Laney College, police officers in riot gear blocked them in. So protesters cut through a park and wandered in a pack until they reached the intersection of East 18th Street and Sixth Avenue in a residential neighborhood. Once again, police surrounded the protesters. This time, the crowd was trapped.

Rachel Jackson, an activist who was barricaded in, began sounding off. “We were going to Fruitvale,” she explained. “We wanted to go to the scene of the crime. All night the police have been trying to suppress our free speech.” When a nearby TV news reporter asked her about windows that had been busted along the march, she was incensed. “We will not equate glass with Oscar Grant’s life!” she responded. “If we have to come out ourselves and board up windows, we’ll do that. But what we are concerned with right now is murder.”

Reporters were allowed to exit the confined area, but if anyone else had been inclined to leave peacefully, they were unable to. Police issued a call on a megaphone telling activists, “You are all under arrest. Do not resist arrest.” By the time the mass arrest was underway, public information officer Jeff Thomason told a group of reporters that there were more police officers on the scene than protesters.

“When the rocks were being thrown, it was declared an unlawful assembly,” Thomason explained. He said a dispersal order had been issued simultaneously. Yet it would have been impossible for the trapped crowd to comply with such an order.

Meanwhile, a resident of the Oakland neighborhood who had come outside when the commotion began told the Guardian that she sympathized with the protesters. “The only thing I don’t condone is the vandalism,” said Dyshia Harvey, who surveyed the scene from behind a fence with her six-year-old son.

Harvey had been anticipating word of Mehserle’s sentencing. “I was upset. I was frustrated, angry, and hurt” by the outcome, she said. But she wasn’t surprised. “I already knew we weren’t going to get no justice,” she said. “For taking a life, 14 years isn’t enough. It makes you feel like there’s no justice in the justice system.”



Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley has not stated whether her office will appeal Perry’s ruling. Rains told reporters in L.A. that he would appeal Mehserle’s involuntary manslaughter conviction.

Meanwhile, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice released a statement indicating that a federal investigation is in the works. “The Justice Department and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California have been closely monitoring the local prosecution of this case,” a USDOJ prepared statement notes. “Now that the state prosecution has concluded and consistent with department policy, we will thoroughly review the prosecution and its underlying investigation to determine whether further action is appropriate.”

BART settled a civil lawsuit filed on behalf of Grant’s daughter in January that is likely to total $5.1 million, according to civil rights attorney John Burris’ website. Two other lawsuits, one on behalf of Grant’s mother and one on behalf of five other men on the Fruitvale station platform that night, have been consolidated into a single trial that will begin in May 2011, Burris told the Guardian.

Meanwhile, Grant’s death marked just one of three police shootings that occurred Jan. 1, 2009 — the other two cases also sparked allegations of civil-rights violations, since both victims were African American men. Adolph Grimes, 22, was fatally shot 14 times, including 12 times in the back, by a group of New Orleans police officers, who erroneously believed he was a suspect who’d fled the scene of a shooting.

The same night, Robert Tolan, 23 — the son of a Major League Baseball player — was shot and seriously injured outside his home in an upscale Houston suburb by a police officer who mistakenly believed Tolan had stolen the vehicle he was driving. Sgt. Jeffrey Cotton, the white officer who shot him, was ultimately acquitted.



Not everyone in Oakland reacted to Mehserle’s sentence by charging through the streets. The Oscar Grant Foundation, which facilitated live art performances at Frank Ogawa Plaza Nov. 5, is calling for youth groups, Bay Area schools, and adults to participate in an art and poetry showcase inspired by Grant. Information can be found online at The foundation is advertising a $1,000 grand prize. Three artists from the Trust Your Struggle Collective didn’t wait to join a contest, however, and spent the afternoon of Nov. 5 adorning plywood covering the Youth Radio building windows at 17th Street and Telegraph Avenue, a few blocks from Frank Ogawa Plaza.

The mural displayed a prominent image of Grant holding his daughter, Tatiana, who was four years old when Grant was killed. The pair are flanked by the names and figures of more than 20 people killed by police.

“We asked the youth inside what they wanted to see,” Miguel Perez, an artist with the Trust Your Struggle Collective, told the Guardian as he looked over the mural. “They said they wanted to see the names of people killed by police nationwide, not just in the Bay Area. The list is so huge, it’s hard to pick out specific names.”

Perez said Trust Your Struggle is a group of artists and educators with social-justice backgrounds who create art as activism. “Being a person of color, I’ve had racist stuff said to me by the police,” Perez said. “It seems like it’s slowly been changing for the past hundreds of years, but it’s still not enough — enough being fairness.” *

Community Congress convened


About 60 San Francisco citizens voted just before 1 p.m. on Aug. 15 to adopt a progressive platform of approximately 100 policy recommendations they hope will define the agenda of candidates and elected officials in coming years and offer a contrasting vision for the city to that of downtown corporate interests.

Sunday’s culmination of the 2010 Community Congress represented almost a year’s work by some 400 San Franciscans and dozens of community-based organizations, according to the Congress’ draft recommendations. The congress convened all day Aug. 14, at the University of San Francisco’s Fromm Hall, where participants engaged in breakout groups aimed at addressing four distinct local policy categories: health and human services; Muni and public transportation; affordable housing and tenant rights; and community-based economic development.

Recommendations in the four areas were drafted prior to the congress and published by the Guardian (see “Reinvention of San Francisco,” Aug. 4 and “Ideas that work: a plan for a new San Francisco,” Aug. 11), but planning group coordinator Calvin Welch said between a one-quarter and one-third were rewritten and amended during the breakout sessions on Saturday and by the congress as a whole on Sunday. Representatives from the breakout groups are working to finalize all the last-minute amendments and hope to post a final document by on the congress’ website ( by Aug. 20.

“This is a group of left-progressive people trying to articulate a left-progressive view for the city that is distinct from the cynicism of the [San Francisco] Chronicle and [Mayor] Gavin Newsom’s message,” Welch told the Guardian after the vote.

Gail Gilman facilitated the final adoption session on Aug. 15, passing a microphone to those who wished to speak or propose amendments while pushing the group to stick to the schedule. “I think we produced a solid progressive platform that will gain traction in the upcoming supervisors race,” Gilman told the Guardian outside the congress. “We’re hoping to have actionable items implemented over the next five years.”

Some of the congress’ ambitious agenda had to be put on hold, either because consensus couldn’t be reached or groups simply ran out of time. The Muni group’s recommendation to delay the Central Subway Project and use those funds to address “Muni’s backlog of operating, maintenance, and capital improvement needs” was tabled, as was decentralizing control of expenditures in health and human services out of the mayor’s hands. However, several agencies that the congress hopes to create, including a “canopy” entity to manage San Francisco’s public health system, would have direct budgetary control over city departments.

Health and human services group coleader and Bayview-Hunters Point Foundation Executive Director Jacob Moody told the crowd about a question posed early in the congress that informed his group’s recommendations: How do we create a city where people can live, work, and prosper together?

Welch admitted that some of policy recommendations would be difficult to realize and would draw the ire of powerful political groups in San Francisco, but he insisted that creating a municipal bank, an economic redevelopment agency, and a health and human services planning agency, and implementing several of the Muni group’s recommendations, were actionable in the short term.

“Some others would need to wait until the election of a new mayor,” Welch said. “I hope we can get some mayoral candidates to endorse some of these proposals.”

Sunnydale/southeast neighborhood community organizer Sharen Hewitt said that although there were often disagreements at the congress, the most important aspect of the event to her was that everyone learned from the perspectives of others.

“Tension is not always bad,” Hewitt told the Guardian at the event. “Everybody came here with biases and interests. Everybody needs to leave here with more. I’m damn near 60 years old and I grew half an inch today.”

Sunday’s congress and policy platform were modeled after San Francisco’s first Community Congress, which took place in 1975. But Welch told us this congress was entirely new. “To the extent that there is a historical aspect, 35 years ago we tried to figure out a way to bring people together. And 35 years later, young people want to do the same thing.”

“Diamond” Dave Whittaker, a modern Emperor Norton-esque San Francisco personality, closed the congress with a poem. “The basis of real social change is happening here,” he said. “And we need to continue casting a wider net, finding the thread, and letting it flourish.”

PG&E CEO paints a rosy picture for CPUC


Pacific Gas & Electric CEO Peter Darbee’s address to the California Public Utilities Commission yesterday focused on his company’s national reputation as a corporate advocate for addressing climate change, largely ignoring PG&E’s $46 million waste of ratepayer money supporting June’s failed Proposition 16, which was designed to expand the utility’s monopoly in California and thwart local renewable power projects.

CPUC President Michael Peevey warmly introduced Darbee to the crowd, calling the CEO an upfront thought leader on climate change — a very different message from the same man who harshly criticized PG&E’s spearheading of Proposition 16 before its defeat in June.

“There is something fundamentally wrong with the idea that one company, spending $35 million can, by majority vote of the electorate, seek and obtain a two-thirds vote protection in our State Constitution,” Peevey wrote in an opinion published in the San Jose Mercury News in May. “The purpose of the Constitution is to protect our sacred rights as citizens. It is not to protect the narrow private interests of a particular utility company.”

Darbee’s only comment on Proposition 16 came near the end of his speech, when he attempted to justify PG&E’s spending on failed campaign that some have said should have cost Darbee his job. Referring to the company’s regular opposition to public power campaigns, he said, “$45 million versus $15 million a year – financially it made sense.” But it wasn’t news to anyone that PG&E had an economic interest in essentially killing public power start-ups.

Instead, the CEO chose to focus PG&E efforts in Washington D.C. to nationally address climate change and his company’s support of AB 32, a 2006 law that requires California to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, and PG&E’s opposition to Proposition 23, a November ballot initiative that would freeze AB 32 until California’s unemployment levels drop below 5.5 percent and stay there for at least one year – a rare occurrence in modern economies.

Local environmental activists call PG&E’s purported concern over climate change greenwashing and hypocrisy. “That’s complete crap,” San Francisco Green Party Sustainability Chair Eric Brooks told the Guardian. “For them to claim that they’re a green company is a joke. They do the same thing that tobacco companies used to do; they spread a little money around supporting renewables that aren’t even part of their energy portfolio.”

Brooks said that AB 32’s mandates were flexible enough not to really harm PG&E’s profit margins, so the company can oppose Proposition 23 without impacting its bottom line. Steven Maviglio, spokesman for No on 23 — Stop the Dirty Energy Proposition told the Guardian PG&E had reported no contributions opposing Proposition 23, a far cry from the more than $46 million the company spent championing Proposition 16 in June.

“Thing about Prop. 23 is [that] AB 32 doesn’t really box them in,” Brooks told us. “If we switch to localized, renewable energy, that puts PG&E out of business. Prop 16 would have been much more effective at eliminating green energy in California than anything else like Prop 23.”

Yet the main controversy aired at the CPUC meeting wasn’t about greenwashing or Prop. 16, but smart meters. About a dozen protesters gathered at the steps of the California Public Utilities Commission before Darbee started speaking. The group is concerned about PG&E’s construction of a “smart grid” of wirelessly transmitting electronic meters critics say can cause cancer due to electromagnetic radiation as well as immediate discomfort for those who are electrically sensitive.

Joshua Hart of Scotts Valley Neighbors Against Smart Meters interrupted Darbee near the beginning of his speech. “Mr. Darbee, your smart meter program is a false solution to climate change,” Hart shouted as he presented Darbee with a “dumb meter,” a cardboard box with photos of smart meters pasted to it in which the word “smart” was replaced with the word “dumb,” Hart told the Guardian.

Hart was escorted out by a CHP officer, but he was not arrested or cited. Darbee finished his opening remarks before addressing first concerns about false billing information that had been transmitted by a small percentage of the more than 6 million smart meters already installed in California, then radiation generated by the devices.

Darbee said residents of Bakersfield were confused about rate tiers in July 2009, which had more days with temperatures exceeding 100 degrees than the year before, but he insisted the meters were not to blame for high energy bills.

However, PG&E has acknowledged that some of its new smart meters malfunctioned and were broadcasting energy usage reports that resulted in higher bills for consumers. But the company insists that less than 1 percent of installed smart meters have malfunctioned.

San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera petitioned the CPUC in June to immediately halt installation of smart meters until state regulators conclude an investigation into whether the meters are accurate. The CPUC has not stopped PG&E from installing the devices.

“This is Peevey’s legacy,” Hart told the Guardian referring to CPUC President Michael Peevey, “a ‘smart grid’ in California.”

Darbee next addressed the electromagnetic radiation generated by the smart meters’ wireless transmissions by describing a comparison PG&E did between the new meters and cell phones.

“Let’s be conservative,” he told the crowd. “Let’s assume the smart meter is 10 feet away, and there are no walls between you and the smart meter, which of course there are. And let’s assume the person is only on the cell phone 10 minutes per day … If you live in a home with a smart meter, you have to live in that home for 13,000 years before it compares to your use of a cell phone for one year.”

But Hart rejected PG&E’s study and said he didn’t believe the Federal Communication Commission’s limits on electromagnetic radiation were actually safe. “The FCC regulations on EMF [electromagnetic field] safety were written by the telecommunications industry,” Hart told the Guardian. “If the smart meters were being installed in Russia, they would be illegal.”

Sebastopol resident Janhavi Hubert attended the protest and speech as a representative of people who are “electronically sensitive.” “When they put a smart meter on my neighbor’s house 25 feet away, I didn’t expect to feel anything,” Hubert told the Guardian. “I had heart palpitations, which I’ve never had before, heart arrhythmia, and headaches, and when I go away from the house, it goes away.”

Rebecca Bowe contributed to this report.

To try a cop


Proponents of civilian oversight for the San Francisco Police Department are hopeful that fresh blood on the Police Commission, along with a new set of rules designed to expedite disciplinary hearings, will improve the often-criticized, delay-plagued system of citizens policing cops.

The commission’s backlog of pending cases — which at its worst ballooned to more than 70, with at least one more than nine years old — prompted massive media coverage in 2009; a San Francisco Chronicle editorial calling for the system to be reformed early this year; and former Police Commissioner and District 10 Candidate Theresa Sparks’ recent statements to the Guardian that SFPD’s civilian oversight system is “broken” and that the power to fire police officers should go to the chief.

As it stands now, SFPD Chief George Gascón can handle any case in which punishment will not exceed more than a 10-day suspension, whether initiated from within the department and investigated by the Management Control Division — SFPD’s version of internal affairs — or resulting from complaints made by civilians through the Office of Citizen Complaints. The Police Commission must hold hearings for any case in which more severe discipline is recommended by either office.

“There are litigation delays that occur outside the control of the commission,” OCC Director Joyce Hicks told the Guardian. Appeals to superior courts can indefinitely stall cases before the commission, she said.

The OCC has its own backlog of investigations, which Hicks primarily attributes to budget constraints. San Francisco’s charter dictates that the OCC have one full-time investigator for every 150 SFPD officers. There are 2,317 sworn officers in the SFPD, according to the department’s most recent citywide CompStat report, which means that the OCC should have at least 15.5 investigators. Hicks says she has 14, and that supervising investigators are taking on cases to pick up the slack. OCC’s 2010 second-quarter report states that, due to budget constraints, the office will not be able to meet its full compliment of 17 front-line investigators.

“We do not have an adequate number of investigators for the size of our caseload,” Hicks said. “We are working very hard with the Police Commission to reduce the backlog. But they have to be scheduled by the commission for us to prosecute them.”

Hicks would like to see the number of investigators dictated by the number of complaints the OCC receives instead of the size of the SFPD, as a critical 2007 report by the Controller’s Office suggested.

Police Commissioner Jim Hammer, who was appointed by the Board of Supervisors early this year and has been instrumental in crafting new rules to speed hearings before the commission, said he believes the current system is beginning to work better and will continue to improve with future tweaks.

“I would not be opposed to the chief having more authority to impose discipline as long as a civilian body has the authority to make the final check on it,” he told the Guardian. “This isn’t just about Chief Gascón — this is about the system. Someday there will be another chief.”

A swelled backlog at the commission has real consequences for the city’s available police force and overall budget. Despite numerous attempts, no one in SFPD’s media relations unit, chief’s office, personnel division, or MCD could provide the Guardian with the number of officers taken off active police duty to work a desk while their complaint cases stall before the Police Commission.

Gascón refused to comment directly for this story, stating through SFPD spokesman Sgt. Troy Dangerfield that his thoughts on police discipline were “already out there.” But the chief did tell the Board of Supervisors Budget Committee that the lag in the discipline process was hurting the usable number of officers at his disposal. San Francisco’s charter mandates that the number of full-duty sworn police officers cannot fall below 1,971.

“Two weeks ago, we had an individual who had a case that was pending for nine years,” Gascón told the Budget Committee in June. “I am unable to use him in the field. He will be one of the many who will not be able to do police work as we would expect of someone with a police officer rank.”

And when Budget Committee Chair John Avalos asked if the officer was still on the payroll, Gascón responded: “Absolutely.”

The commission’s Procedural Rules Governing Trial of Disciplinary Cases, which were adopted in April, limit hearings to less than four hours and state several times that requests for delays, called continuances, are generally disfavored. “In the past they’ve turned into trials,” Hammer said. “But these are administrative hearings.”

Angela Chan, a stalwart San Francisco immigrant rights advocate and staff attorney for the Asian Law Caucus and new police commissioner appointed in May, said the commission is prioritizing tackling the backlog. “I know how to manage a docket,” she told the Guardian. “The very first thing I do when I have an initial conference call is set a hearing date.”

But if officers say their attorneys can’t make that date and request a continuance? “My response is to get another attorney,” Chan said. “There is no haggling. As a commission, we have to stay on top of the docket.”

In addition to the rules pushing police commissioners to hold prompt, fair hearings, Hammer and former Police Commissioner David Onek instituted an accountability report for the commission. The commissioners envisioned a monthly report published on the commission’s website — similar to the OCC’s quarterly reports — that outline the total number of disciplinary cases before the commission, the number of cases assigned to each commissioner for evidence intake, and measurements to gauge how well the commission was sticking to the rules adopted in April.

The actual document is a far cry from what the commission envisioned, listing only active cases before the commission, cases filed to date for 2010, and individual commissioner’s number of assigned hearings. It is not available online.

As of July 31, the commission has 44 pending cases, including appeals. Police Commission President Joe Marshall, whose recent reappointment stalled in the Board of Supervisors because of ambiguity about his position on the Secure Communities program, completed no hearings in 2010. He has been assigned eight. Hammer completed six hearings, has an additional three in progress, and has two more scheduled.

Commission Vice President Thomas Mazzucco has held and decided two hearings this year and has three more scheduled. Petra DeJesus completed one hearing, settled two cases, and has two more hearings scheduled. Angela Chan has scheduled four of the five cases she has been assigned. New mayoral Police Commission appointee Carol Kingsley was not included in the latest report because she began her term Aug. 4.

Hammer also wants to refine what is known as the hearing officer process, in which accused officers can elect to have the evidence portion of their case heard by a hearing officer. That officer then reports to the full commission, which makes the final ruling on disciplining the officer. The problem is that getting all parties to agree on a hearing officer takes a lot of time. In addition, final reports to the commission sometimes can take months to generate.

“They’re agreeing to it [using hearing officers] now because it builds in a huge delay,” Hammer said.

Chan wants to convince officers that quickly airing a hearing is just as likely to exonerate them as to create a headache, long suspension, or termination. Hicks, Chan, and Hammer all agreed that the value of civilian oversight of the SFPD outweighed slow, sometimes messy system. “The overwhelming majority of police officers are conscientious, hard-working public servants,” Hammer said. “The overwhelming majority of cops and citizens have a strong interest in making sure the few bad apples are weeded out.”

Arrests made as hotel workers and their supporters target Hyatt


Images by Ramsey El-Qare, who contributed to this report.

An ongoing labor conflict between the hospitality workers union Unite-Here Local 2 and the Hyatt Corporation boiled over into the streets yesterday (7/22) with a union-organized protest and civil disobedience outside the Grand Hyatt San Francisco hotel. Union leaders see the action as another step in the fight for their members’ workplace rights. Hotel management called the action a staged spectacle and a waste of energy that would be better spent at the bargaining table.
San Francisco hospitality workers have been without a contract for nearly a year as Local 2 and hotel management of several corporations have reached an impasse over securing health care benefits, pension improvement, wage increases, and the right to organize without intimidation from employers. San Francisco Police Department Sgt. Tadao Yamaguchi confirmed that 150 demonstrators were arrested after blocking Stockton Street outside the Grand Hyatt San Francisco hotel. All were cited and released.

“The Hyatt Corporation has repeatedly said they want workers to pay hundreds of dollars per month for family medical,” Local 2 spokeswoman Riddhi Mehta told the Guardian. “Workers have sacrificed wages for decades to keep health care, to the point that their average income is $30,000 to $35,000 per year.”

Hyatt spokesman Peter Hillman told the Guardian that management wants to renegotiate the health care portion of the contract, but that negotiations hadn’t reached the point to make specific demands for worker contributions to the plan.

“They are sitting on top of $35 million that could be used to help address the overall health care plan that hasn’t been addressed in 30 years,” Hillman told us. “If there is finger pointing on profits and all that, I would ask them why they haven’t opened up that?”

Mehta told the Guardian that $35 million is in an health and welfare trust fund specifically for emergencies, like earthquakes or lockouts in which union members aren’t working enough hours to get health benefits. Local 2 President Mike Casey told the Guardian that the union does not control the trust fund. It’s managed by trustees from both employers and the union. “Bringing this up is it’s a delay tactic on their part,” Mehta said.

Casey, who was arrested during the demonstration, said it was a success. “We’re going to win,” he said. “It’s going to take some time. It’s a question of who’s going to last one day longer than the other side.”

“The game Unite Here is playing is to generate more union membership, to some extent at the expense of the current membership,” Hillman said. “These are staged spectacles. The energy would be better spent at the bargaining table and we encourage Local 2 to come back to that.”

To watch video of the action taken by the Guardian, click here, here, here, here, and here.

RecPark boots child care program to make money


San Francisco’s Recreation and Park Commission voted July 15 to let an expensive private preschool displace a free, 38-year-old City College parenting class that included guided activities for children. College officials and neighborhood groups understand the desire to make money from rent at the Laurel Hills Playground clubhouse, but they’re upset about how little notice and community input was involved in the decision.

“On the face of it, they wanted to lease this property and they didn’t really care what the public thought,” City College Trustee John Rizzo told the Guardian. “They cared so little about the public that it was too late once they were notified.”

The commission approved a two-year lease for Language in Action, a preschool offering nine-month terms immersing two to five year olds in Spanish and Mandarin. Tuition ranges from $1,000 — for two hours per day, two days per week — to $14,000 for full day, five day per week instruction, according to the company’s website.

“People want to call it privatization. I think that’s an offensive word. I would rather call it revenue generating for site appropriate uses and recreation,” Recreation and Park Commission President Mark Buell said at the July 15 meeting. “It’s a reality.”

City College Child Development and Family Studies Department Chair Kathleen White told the Guardian that she feels torn by the position of having to compete with other child care services. “I never want to stand in the way of child care, this is my department,” she said. “We all want the same thing. We want parenting classes and we want child care. There should be plenty of places in the Park and Rec [Department] to do both.”

Freelance San Francisco writer Ellen Lee, who used to attend City College’s child observation class with her toddler, told the Guardian there were attributes of the program that she would miss, although she hopes to enroll her child in the Language in Action preschool.

“It’s the little things,” she said. “I learned new songs that I could sing to her at home. They gave out handouts every week on different child development issues — how to deal with temper tantrums and that kind of thing. The teacher was always available to talk with us.” Lee wrote an article on the termination of the class at Laurel Hill here.

The Recreation and Park commission elected to evict the City College class in favor of a tenant that could pay $1,500 per month for use of the clubhouse. Laurel Heights neighborhood groups expressed some interest in fundraising to save the class and help City College pay the rent, but the process happened too quickly to mobilize during a term when the school has cancelled summer classes and almost no faculty are on campus, White said. The community college is prohibited by state law from charging tuition for non-credit courses like the parenting class and is facing a $12 million deficit.

“We’re in as dire straights as Park and Rec is,” White told the Guardian.


City College Trustee Chris Jackson, who is running for the District 10 seat on the Board of Supervisors, told us the college combated its dire budget deficit by cutting salaries at the top, a tactic he recommended for both the Recreation and Park Department and San Francisco as a whole. He suggested bringing middle and upper management positions to the level they were 10 years ago, saving jobs for entry-level workers and free public programs like the City College class.


“When you start charging and raising fees for some of these public programs, especially in working class neighborhoods like District 10, people start dropping out of them, and you create a recipe for disaster,” he said.

Rizzo spoke to what he called a disturbing trend of privatization and fees the Recreation and Parks Department has adopted while attempting to close its own budget deficit.  The Board of Supervisors voted in May to allow the department to charge a $7 admission to non-resident visitors at the Golden Gate Park Botanical Gardens. Threesixty theater’s production of Peter Pan in Ferry Park has turned the once free park into a fenced-in, fee-charging venue.

“The public is kicked out and private interest comes in,” Rizzo said.

Board reverses mayor’s mental health cuts


San Francisco’s $6.5 billion budget, which the Board of Supervisors approved late Tuesday nigth, included a complete restoration of outpatient mental health services funded through the city’s Department of Public Health. The board is expected to finalize the same budget after a second reading scheduled for July 27.

The board reversed a more than $4.1 million cut to community behavioral health services proposed by Mayor Gavin Newsom in early June, which would have affected a dozen agencies and approximately 1,000 patients. As the Guardian reported on June 8, Newsom’s massive cut to the DPH would have resulted in a much greater loss to community nonprofits that leverage federal dollars from city funding to treat San Francisco’s most severely mentally ill homeless and poor.

Sup. Bevan Dufty told the Guardian he was very impressed by Citywide Case Management and Community Focus after walking rounds with one of the nonprofit’s caseworkers. Citywide is one of the San Francisco’s best performing mental health nonprofits, according to DPH reviews, and it would also have been the hardest hit under Newsom’s plan.

“It’s clear to me that this is a program that we ought to be doubling rather than cutting,” Dufty told us. “The more that people saw what they were doing, the more people would get behind what they were doing. Other cities are building models based on what Citywide Case management is doing now.”

Citywide Director Dr. David Fariello wrote the Guardian this letter about restoration of funding to his program to the Guardian: “We have good news for the supporters of Citywide Case Management and Community Focus mental health services. As you remember we were facing the prospect of 38 percent budget lose and cutting services to 240 of the severely mentally ill clients that we treat. On July 20, the Board of Supervisors voted for a full restoration of outpatient mental health services. This means that we will not need to cut services to the clients we serve.
“Your article, as well as phone calls, emails, and letters from supporters made clear to the Mayor’s Office and to the Board of Supervisors how critical our services are. Citywide/Community Focus supporters generated more input than any other budget cut issue. The Mayor restored 40 percent of our cuts, even after submitting his budget to the Board of Supervisors. Ours was the only cut to be so restored. The Board restored the remainder along with other outpatient mental health programs.
“Thank you for your support. In return, we are rededicating ourselves to providing comprehensive, cutting-edge, quality treatment to those San Franciscans at highest risk because of their mental illness.”

SF hospitality workers to protest Hyatt today


San Francisco hospitality workers will join hotel employees in 14 other cities across the United States and Canada today, July 22, in a protest and civil disobedience demonstration against the Hyatt Corporation. The action in San Francisco begins at Local 2 Plaza, between 3rd and 4th streets on Market, at 4 p.m. The demonstration will eventually move toward Union Square and the Grand Hyatt San Francisco hotel, organizers said.

More than 1,000 protesters are expected in San Francisco, with approximately 150 prepared to be arrested, hospitality union Unite Here Local 2 spokeswoman Riddhi Mehta told the Guardian. Tens of thousands of hotel workers are anticipated to participate in protests across North America, and more than 1,000 plan to be arrested.

The union is demanding a contract with the Hyatt Corporation that does not unduly burden middle-class workers with health care costs, Mehta said.

“The Hyatt Corporation has repeatedly said they want workers to pay hundreds of dollars per month for family medical,” Mehta told the Guardian. “Workers have sacrificed wages for decades to keep health care, to the point that their average income is $30,000 to $35,000 per year.”

Union hospitality workers have been without a contract in the city for nearly a year, resulting in an organized boycott of eight San Francisco hotels, including the three owned by the Hyatt Corporation. Union leaders criticize Hyatt’s attempts to “lock workers into recession” while the corporation has made windfall profits since the company first offered public sale of stock last November, according to the Hotel Workers Rising website.

National Lawyers Guild pushes back against OPD

Shortly after filming a protester being arrested by police in riot gear near 12th street and Broadway in Oakland, the Guardian caught up with Dan Siegel, a legal observer for the National Lawyers Guild, who had also witnessed the incident. The protester, who is at this time unidentified, was featured on the cover of this week’s San Francisco Bay Guardian, squaring off with an officer in the police line shortly before being arrested.

Siegel described excessively forceful tactics employed by police officers that created more confrontation with protesters than was necessary in the hours of largely peaceful protests that gave way to shattering glass and trashcan fires when the sun went down. The unidentified protester was arrested at least an hour before police declared the assembly to be unlawful and ordered the crowd to disperse.

The San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the National Lawyers Guild has publicly condemned police conduct at the scene of the July 8 protests that turned to riots, and the organization is considering legal action against the Oakland Police Department, according to a news release posted on the guild’s website yesterday.

Carlos Villarreal, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild SF Bay Area Chapter, told the Guardian that possible legal action against the OPD was in very early stages, but NLG attorneys have met with many of the people who were arrested or otherwise detained or hurt by law enforcement. Villarreal confirmed that NLG attorneys have met with the unidentified protester in the video.

“If someone is in the streets, and they’ve been ordered to disperse, the method to get them to disperse is not to hit them in the head or the back with batons,” Villarreal said. “Law enforcement potentially has a role to play if there are unlawful assemblies that become violent, but it shouldn’t be the kind of involvement that deters people from completely lawful protest and assembly, which I believe by and large was what was going on.”

Beyond the rage


Downtown Oakland became supercharged with emotion in the hours following the July 8 announcement of the verdict in the trial of former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle. And in the days that followed, the city remained electrified as residents struggled to make sense of the verdict, the rioting that occurred in its wake, and the historic significance of these developments.

But as the emotions dissipate, the issues behind the verdict and its aftermath remain — along with a series of questions that could determine whether this intensely scrutinized shooting of an unarmed man will lead to any changes in police practices or the justice system, as well as how the community will react if the judge imposes a light sentence.

After being moved out of the Bay Area because the publicity surrounding the case, a Los Angeles jury found Mehserle, a white officer, guilty of involuntary manslaughter for fatally shooting Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old unarmed black man who was detained on a BART train platform in Oakland on Jan. 1, 2009 following reports of a fight.

The verdict stood out as an almost unprecedented conviction of an officer in a case involving deadly use of force, and a departure from an all-too-familiar narrative in which tragedies resulting from police shootings bring no consequences for those responsible for pulling the trigger. However, in the wake of the verdict, Grant’s family members made it clear that they did not believe that justice had been served.

“This involuntary manslaughter verdict is not what we wanted, nor do we accept it,” Oscar Grant’s uncle, Cephus “Bobby” Johnson, said at a July 10 press conference at True Vine Ministries, a West Oakland church. “It’s been a long, hard road, but there are chapters in this war. The battle’s just getting started.”

To Grant’s relatives and a coalition of supporters who came together in response to the shooting, the trial is intrinsically linked to a long history of police brutality that occurs with impunity in cases involving youth of color. Meetings organized by clergy and community members have been held weekly in West Oakland over the past 19 months with the ultimate goal of bringing about greater oversight of the BART police and effective police reform on a broader scale.

On July 9, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that its Civil Rights Division, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and the FBI have opened an investigation into the shooting and would determine whether prosecution at the federal level is warranted. Defense Attorney Michael Rains also made a motion to move Mehserle’s sentencing to a date later than Aug. 6, the date it was originally expected.

As the events of July 8 solidify into the Bay Area’s collective memory, attention is now shifting toward the next steps, and to lingering questions. Mehserle’s sentencing is key: will his sentence be light, reflecting the jury’s conclusion that he simply made a mistake — or will it include substantial prison time, reflecting the fact that he shot and killed an unarmed man without justification? Will he receive a lighter sentence than someone else without a criminal record found guilty of involuntary manslaughter simply because of his identity as a former officer with law enforcement organizations still in his corner? If Mehserle receives a long sentence, will it signify a shift in a justice system that many perceive as biased — or a stand-alone result of intense public scrutiny?

And as a result of all this, will the BART police finally get the type of training and serious civilian oversight they so badly need?



On the day the verdict was announced, thousands turned out for a peaceful rally near Oakland’s 12th Street BART Station and City Hall to hear speakers sound off about how their lives had been affected by police brutality.

As night fell, looting and rioting began to break out as the media covered scenes of rage set against small trash fires, causing anger and frustration for many Oakland residents who were dismayed and frightened by the chaos and disorder. More than 80 arrests were made, and dozens of stores including Sears, Whole Foods, Subway, Foot Locker, and numerous banks were damaged or looted. Police efforts to respond to the situation gave downtown city blocks the feeling of a war zone for several hours.

Reactions to the verdict, and the chaotic aftermath that followed, varied in the following days.

“The truth is that in American history, this is both a high point and a low point,” Olis Simmons, executive director of Youth UpRising — an Oakland nonprofit that works with youth of color — told the Guardian the following day. Speaking to the fact that an officer had been convicted in a case involving a wrongful death, she said: “I think it really is a signal that America is changing. This is the farthest we’ve ever gone.”

She said she hoped that people who were infuriated enough to react violently on the evening of July 8 would channel that energy toward constructive goals of pushing for a more satisfactory outcome. Before rallies and later rioting began that night, Youth UpRising sent people into the crowd to hand out glossy flyers proclaiming “violence isn’t justice.”

Davey D Cook, an independent radio journalist who extensively covered activity surrounding Grant’s death on a news site called Davey D’s Hip Hop Corner, said he thought the mainstream media was ready to have “a field day” with the riots, pointing out that they ran special coverage in the days leading up to verdict, building up anticipation of violent outbreaks. He also said that the scope of the rioting should be kept in perspective.

On his July 9 KPFA radio show, Hard Knock Radio, Cook added a salient point: “Broken windows can be replaced, and in two weeks, they will be. Stolen merchandise can be replaced, and it will be. But who’s going to replace this justice system that got looted? What insurance policy takes care of that?”

Just before the July 10 press conference, a town hall meeting was held inside True Vine Ministries. It was crammed full of supporters from Oakland, San Francisco, and beyond who listened as Minister Keith Muhammad — a representative of the Nation of Islam who has worked closely with the Grant family and traveled to Los Angeles to watch the trial — spoke at length. Muhammad was dressed immaculately in a suit and tie, and spoke with an air of fiery conviction.

“In the outcome of this case, there is surely more to be resolved that has yet to be addressed,” Muhammad said. He emphasized that “we’re not satisfied,” but added: “You should know that dissatisfaction is the foundation of all change.”

He raised a number of questions about the proceedings, asking why there was an absence of African Americans on the jury, and why the judge called an early recess when Grant’s teenage friend, Jamil Dewar, sobbed uncontrollably on the witness stand — but not when Mehserle sobbed on the stand. He noted that Grant’s friends were kept in handcuffs for six hours after witnessing Grant’s death.

In the days following July 8, much was also said about mainstream media coverage of the events, in particular the notion that “outside agitators” would come in and start trouble. “I do not like this divisive campaign to divide our community and protestors by calling people outsiders,” Oakland defense attorney Walter Riley wrote in a statement posted on “This is a great metropolitan area … we expect people from all over the map to participate in Oakland. Calling people outsiders in this instance is a political attack on the movement. The subtext is that the outsiders are white and not connected to Oakland. From the days of the civil rights movement to now, the outsider labeling failed to address the underlying problems for which people came together. We must engage in respectful political struggle. I understand the frustration. I do not support destruction and looting as political protest.”



Mehserle’s conviction suggests the jurors believed his defense that he meant to draw and fire his Taser instead of his gun. In legal terms, settling on involuntary manslaughter, rather than second-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter, means the jury was not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that Mehserle had malice toward Grant. But the jury found that he was criminally negligent when he failed to notice that he had his gun instead of his Taser in the moments before he pulled the trigger.

“In California, and really in any state, it is extremely difficult for jurors to convict a police officer. There’s an extreme reluctance to do that,” Whitney Leigh, an attorney who formerly worked in the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, told us.

“There are undoubtedly instances where things like this have happened at some time in the past in California, that weren’t videotaped,” Leigh continued. “But for the videotape, if you walked 10 witnesses in who said that what happened, happened, no one would believe them if the officer took the stand and said that’s not what happened. The only reason there’s a case at all is that there’s a videotape.”

Leigh said he thought that unless the public develops a better awareness that police misconduct regularly occurs, “individuals are going to continue to be victimized by a system that effectively encourages officers to believe that they can act with significant impunity.”

Asked whether he thought it was likely that the federal government would decide to step in after concluding its investigation, he said it was a tough call. “The Justice Department is highly selective in the cases it chooses to prosecute for these crimes,” he cautioned. “That said, the kinds of cases they choose are ones that tend to have a lot of public attention and concern, so this fits within that category. Since it’s such a public case, it can have more of a widespread impact.”

If Mehserle was prosecuted at the federal level, the case would invoke Criminal Code 18 U.S.C. Sec. 242, used when a government agent or an individual acting under the color of authority denies someone their civil rights through force, threats, or intimidation, based on their race, gender, or another protected category.

Then again, the federal government’s decision over whether or not to step in may be linked to the degree of severity of Mehserle’s sentence.

California Penal Code Section 193 specifies the mitigated, midterm, and aggravated sentences for involuntary manslaughter: two, three, or four years in state prison, respectively. Because Mehserle’s case involves his personal use of a firearm, a sentence enhancement of three, four, or 10 years can be added to his prison time under California Penal Code Section 12022.5.

The judge will weigh circumstances to determine Mehserle’s sentence, possibly including his record as a police officer, his criminal record, age, remorse, and other factors, explained Jim Hammer, a former prosecutor and current San Francisco Police Commission member. The judge could toss out the sentence enhancement for personal use of a gun — and there’s a possibility he would deem extreme circumstances, such as his police record, to warrant probation rather than prison time. But Hammer said he thought both of those outcomes are unlikely.

“The judge will want to appear more than fair, not giving special treatment,” Hammer said. “Judges have to stand [for] election too, and in the light of the fact that somebody’s dead, I think the chance of probation is incredibly slim.”

Even if Mehserle receives a light sentence and then faces prosecution at the federal level, there is a chance that information about his past record as an officer — which was not admitted as evidence, thanks to laws that afford protections for police officers in these kinds of cases — would continue to be shielded. The protection applies even though Mehserle resigned.

“The average person just wants courts to be fair,” Leigh said. “And there’s an inherent unfairness in a system that allows a government or a police department that has all the resources and records to … use against you while shielding what might be much more serious and relevant acts by police officers. That’s one change that would be great if that did happen.”

A key legal issue in the case and any possible federal case is reasonable doubt, Hammer said. “Reasonable doubt is everything, and no one talks about it. They just say, ‘Oh, he didn’t have intent.’ That’s not the issue. Can anybody really, honestly say that they don’t have some doubts about his intent?”

At the same time, Hammer tempered his legal analysis with some understanding of Grant’s mother’s pain in light of what happened to her son and as the verdict was reached.

“If the dictionary had three pictures of murder for a picture image, one would be shooting somebody in the back who is unarmed,” he told the Guardian. “What she’s saying is not outrageous. If it were my relative I would probably call it murder too. She’s not crazy.”

As things continue to unfold with Mehserle’s sentencing and the federal civil rights investigation, civil litigation is in the works too. Wrongful death civil lawsuits will likely be filed against BART by Oakland civil rights attorney John Burris on behalf of Grant’s mother, as well as another suit by five friends who were with Grant the night he was killed. BART settled a suit filed on behalf of Tatiana Grant, the slain man’s five-year-old daughter, in January. That total settlement should amount to more than $5.1 million, according to a media release on Burris’ website.

During an interview after the July 10 press conference, Johnson was asked how Grant’s young daughter was doing. He responded: “Tatiana is still struggling with the issue of when her daddy’s coming home. So it’s going to take time for her, when she does understand that he is not coming back home.”

Outside Grant’s family, many observers hope to see systemic change come out of this tragedy. Assembly Member Tom Ammiano introduced legislation to create civilian oversight of BART police after the shooting, but was unhappy to see how it was watered down during the legislative process. Now he wants to see stronger reforms.

“I think Oscar Grant’s death was inevitable based on the lack of caring about how those police were trained,” he told us. “If you’re going to have the kind of independent civilian oversight that’s going to prevent a repeat of what happened to Oscar Grant, you can’t have this namby-pamby law. The mantra has been, well, this is better than nothing. Unless they’re made to do it … it’s not going to happen the way we want.”

Protests turn to riots in wake of Mehserle verdict (VIDEO)

In the hours following the announcement of that Johannes Mehserle had been found guilty of involuntary manslaughter for fatally shooting Oscar Grant in the back on a BART platform on New Year’s Eve 2009, downtown Oakland became a drama-filled scene that changed minute by minute.

In the early hours, rallies were held, with community leaders speaking out against the killing of Oscar Grant and police brutality in general. At least 1,000 protesters gathered peacefully at the intersection of 14th and Broadway streets to hear a series of speakers venting anger. Representatives from the nonprofit Youth UpRising and other groups tried to discourage violence, but anger and frustration erupted into acts of vandalism once the rally came to a close and the night set in. Around the same time, police strapped on gas masks, readied clubs, and issued a dispersal order.

Around 8:30 bottles started flying among shouts of “fuck the police,” and “no justice, no peace.” A window was smashed at a Foot Locker near 14th and Broadway, and another window came down at the Far East National Bank, across the street. Looting followed, as did graffiti tagging, and trash cans lit ablaze.

By 10 p.m., things descended into further disarray as smaller crowds advanced north on Broadway and Telegraph, with just a few hundred continuing to smash windows at Whole Foods, Sears, Starbucks, and several other locations. The Guardian was on the scene and caught much of the early activity and some of the later rioting on film. The videos are presented below in chronological order. The Guardian left a crowd of less than 50 rioters near Whole Foods at Bay Place and Vernon Street, around 10:30.
Shortly after the verdict was announced, Oscar Grant’s sister-in-law, Yolanda Mesa, tearfully addressed a small crowd outside Oakland City Hall. Video by Wendi Jonassen
A rally being held in the middle of the intersection at 14th and Broadway in downtown Oakland dissolved into chaos when police in riot gear approached and announced through a megaphone, “We are here to assist you in your peaceful protest.” Video by Rebecca Bowe
As a marching band played in the background, activists hoisted a sign onto a lamppost over the intersection of 14th and Broadway in downtown Oakland. Video by Rebecca Bowe
A protester challenging police in the midst of demonstrations in downtown Oakland was tackled by officers in riot gear. Video by Alex Emslie
Oakland City Council member Rebecca Kaplan gave an interview at the line between demonstrators and police as she linked arms with others at 12th Street and Broadway. Council member Jean Quan stood nearby. Video by Alex Emslie
Police declared the protest to be an unlawful assembly and issued an order to disperse just before 9 p.m. The police charged, and this reporter got caught in the fray. Video by Alex Emslie
Rioters ignited a trash can and dragged it down 15th Street toward the police line at around 9:30 p.m. Video by Alex Emslie
The riots took a noticeable turn just before 10 p.m. Even as the crowds diminished, more fires were ignited and store front windows were broken between 15th and 17th streets on Broadway as and rioters began to move further North. Video by Alex Emslie


Truce talks


All parties are hopeful for peace in the Guardian-labeled War on Fun after oppressive raids on SoMa clubs have stopped and the feuding sides — mainly the San Francisco Police Department and nightclub owners — are sitting down to truce talks brokered in part by the fledgling California Music and Culture Association (CMAC).

“I’m here to work with you,” Kitt Crenshaw, commander of SFPD’s new Entertainment Task Force, told the crowd at a Nightlife Safety Summit on June 30. “I’m not the enemy. I’m not the ‘War on Fun,’ as they call it. I’m not the Antichrist.” The summit was sponsored by the Mayor’s Office, Entertainment Commission, SFPD, Small Business Commission, and CMAC.

Club owners and the SFPD are attempting to find balance between stifling the entertainment industry with heavy-handed enforcement and doing something about the deadly gun violence plaguing neighborhoods around some San Francisco nightclubs. Owners and party promoters don’t want entertainment permitting power to go back to the SFPD, as Mayor Gavin Newsom has suggested. But recent shootings and the Entertainment Commission’s inability to immediately close problem clubs have city officials demanding change.

Board of Supervisors President David Chiu introduced legislation in early June that would give the Entertainment Commission the authority to revoke the entertainment permits of noncompliant clubs that are consistently scenes of violence. Chiu’s legislation would further extend temporary suspension powers the board granted to the commission in 2009.

“There is strong consensus that the Entertainment Commission needs to do its job. And if this is what it takes to give it more tools, then so be it,” Chiu told the Guardian after the June 25 CMAC Insider Luncheon, where he participated in a forum with entertainment industry representatives. Chiu said he was feeling pressure from his constituents in North Beach to “come down like a hammer on the industry” following several shootings around the neighborhood’s nightclubs this year.

Terrance Alan, a longtime industry advocate and entertainment commissioner, told the Guardian he recently requested that the City Attorney’s Office help define when nightclub owners should be blamed for violence occurring near their business. “If we’re going to hold venues and security teams responsible, we have to tell them and make sure it’s legal,” he said. “The line of reasoning that blames the nearest business will force San Francisco to shut down. The first thing we have to do is stop blaming each other.”

Chiu, speaking to a crowd at the Nightlife Safety Summit, recounted a handful of incidents that pushed him to craft the new legislation. Since the last legislation was passed to strengthen the Entertainment Commission’s power to regulate nightclubs, eight people were shot outside the Regency night club Nov. 15, 2009; 44 rounds were fired outside club Suede, resulting in one death and four injuries Feb. 7; a shooting occurred on Broadway outside a strip club in mid-February; and a police officer was shot outside the Mission District’s El Rincon club on June 19. “And so on, and so on,” Chiu said.

Following the shooting at Club Suede, which had long been a site of violence prior to the gang-related carnage in February, officials were stunned to learn the commission did not have the power to revoke entertainment permits. The most it could do was suspend Suede’s permit to play music for 30 days.

“To hold the commission responsible for something it was never envisioned to do and never given the power to do is where the narrative has gone wrong recently,” Alan said of widespread criticism that the commission just didn’t simply “shut down” Club Suede.

Suede remains voluntarily closed as it bargains with the City Attorney’s Office, which filed a complaint against the club after the shootings. Alex Tse, the lead attorney for the city in the case, told the Guardian there was nothing he could legally do to prevent Suede from reopening before Aug. 10, when the court is scheduled to rule on a preliminary injunction (court mandated closing) the City Attorney’s Office filed. But he doesn’t expect them to reopen because Suede and the city are currently working toward settling the case.

If the incidents Chiu described represent a black eye for San Francisco’s entertainment industry, the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control and SFPD aren’t necessarily squeaky clean either. “I sat down with [ABC director] Steve Hardy and told him that where the state was focusing efforts in San Francisco was completely misguided,” Chiu said at the CMAC luncheon. “And I’ve spoken to [California Senator] Mark Leno to try to move them in the right direction.”

The break in the crackdowns of 2009, mostly attributed to severe tactics employed by SFPD Officer Larry Bertrand and ABC agent Michelle Ott, followed a widespread backlash to the sometimes brutal treatment legitimate business owners were receiving in the name of public safety. Back-to-back over stories in the Guardian (see “The new War on Fun,” March 23, 2010) and the SF Weekly, calls to the ABC from city officials, the formation of CMAC, and a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) suit filed against San Francisco and the rogue officers spurred officials to rein in Ott and Bertrand.

Hardy told the Guardian that Ott is no longer assigned to alcohol enforcement in San Francisco. Bertrand has traded in his plain-clothes for a uniform and hasn’t been seen busting into clubs, beating up the help, or confiscating DJ equipment for several months.

Mark Webb, plaintiff’s attorney in the RICO case, which was moved to the federal court by the City Attorney’s Office, said Bertrand is scheduled to give a deposition for the case July 26. Webb told the Guardian he plans to ask Bertrand questions relating to “a pattern of ongoing and repeated abuses” claimed in the complaint, which includes Newsom and ABC as defendants.

“We’re at a crossroads,” Chiu told the crowd at the Nightlife Safety Summit, adding that if the new power for the Entertainment Commission does not reduce club violence, stronger measures would be taken, whether it’s Newsom’s suggestion to scrap the commission entirely and give permitting power back to the police department or Chiu’s idea to create another “less politicized” body to issue entertainment permits made up of representatives from city department that are affected when nightlife entertainment goes wrong.

“There has been significant dissatisfaction with the Entertainment Commission due to many actual and apparent conflicts of interests,” Chiu said. “Frankly, this is why we may need to move to a different model of who actually makes decisions on permits, because often the people who want to make those decisions are the ones who stand to get the most benefit out of them.”

But club owners and party promoters argue that the police issuing entertainment permits, as they did prior to the Entertainment Commission’s creation in 2002, has a chilling effect on an important part of San Francisco’s economy.

Alan said a civil grand jury found the police department had a conflict of interest in being both the granter and enforcer of nightclub permits, a finding that spurred the creation of the Entertainment Commission.

“I’ve been in the industry long enough to remember when it was in the Police Department’s hands,” said Guy Carson, owner of Café Du Nord and director of CMAC. “Since the advent of the Entertainment Commission, more permits have been issued, which has vitalized the industry.”

Club owners and party promoters don’t want to be blamed for street violence over which they have no control, and they have some political support for that stance. “Clubs don’t create youth gun violence, society creates youth gun violence,” Sup. Bevan Dufty proclaimed to the crowd at the Nightlife Safety Summit, drawing thunderous applause from the room.

“There is a street scene and a club scene, and they do intersect. But a lot of the violence occurs in the street scene,” Carson said. “A lot of shootings that happen relate to people never inside the clubs. That’s a conversation CMAC looks forward to having — to have a little more accurate discussion.”

While he asserts that some nightclubs attract violence to the city from out of town, Crenshaw said he was pleased and surprised at the level of collaboration emerging between entertainment representatives and SFPD. “I got so much positive feedback from it [the Nightlife Safety Summit]. It was a bit overwhelming,” he told us. “I think the industry itself is tired of being labeled as a pariah. They want to change their image.”

Brit Hahn, owner of City Nights and SFClubs, agreed that working with district captains was in the best interest of any club looking to remain profitable. “When something bad happens at a nightclub anywhere in San Francisco, he said at the Nightlife Safety Summit, “it’s bad for all of our businesses.”