Alex Kekauoha

The end of landlines?


The market for smart phones has reached the saturation point in the United States; it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t have a mobile device. Hard, maybe — but not impossible. There are still thousands of people, many of them seniors, who rely on that old-fashioned, low-tech landline for their inexpensive connection to the world — and they’re about to lose out.

The deregulation of the telecommunications industry has reached the point where phone companies in California and elsewhere are getting ready to pull out and disconnect the copper wires that support traditional landlines — which, by law, have to be made available at dirt-cheap rates to low-income people.

And while so-called Lifeline rates for cell phones are coming, they aren’t available yet.

“It’s extremely important,” Nick Pasquariello, a senior and low-income resident of San Francisco who uses a landline with a Lifeline rate, told us. Like many seniors, Pasquariello says his old phone is cheaper, more reliable and simpler than a wireless plan.

“The technology and rates are changing all the time. It’s confusing,” he says, adding that the end of landlines would be detrimental to many people. “I haven’t heard of Lifeline for cell phones.”

So over the next year or two, seniors could find themselves disconnected. “It’s clear to us that companies like AT&T and Verizon are planning to get rid of their copper networks,” said Paul Goodman of the Greenlining Institute in Berkeley, which conducts public policy research and advocacy. Telecom companies have spent years lobbying to retire those lines, arguing that they’re expensive to maintain, which explains why they’ve been remiss when it comes to their upkeep.

“The phone companies are not repairing or maintaining old copper networks. They don’t want the responsibility,” Goodman explained.

Basic utilities like phone service have long been considered necessities and legislators have ensured that every household has access to them.

But replacing copper with newer technology makes better business sense. “It’s more lucrative to operate the VoIP and wireless networks,” Mark Toney, Executive Director of The Utility Reform Network, or TURN, told us. “They’re able to charge more per month and the profits are greater.”

The deregulation of phone service is nothing new; it started back in 1984 with the break up of AT&T. But it’s reaching the point where there’s little oversight at all.

In 2011, lawmakers in Wisconsin passed the Telecommunications Modernization Act and last year, virtually eliminating state regulation of phone companies. In New Hampshire, Governor John Lynch signed a similar bill into law. In California, SB 1161 went into effect a few months ago, lifting the California Public Utilities Commission’s regulatory power over internet-based phone services like VoIP and IP, among other things.

The bill’s passage caused consumer advocates to argue that deregulation would lead to price gouging and unfair business practices like cramming (or unauthorized third party charges found on a customer’s bill).

“We’re concerned with making sure consumers and seniors still have their protections which we think should apply regardless of the technology,” said Michael Richard, associate state director of advocacy for AARP.

Right now, Lifeline service is only offered through landlines. Retiring copper wire networks, and thus traditional landline service, could eliminate Lifeline altogether.

As the telecommunications industry has upgraded its products and services to accommodate newer technology, the CPUC has been forced to rethink its idea of what basic service looks like. Bill Johnston, Telecommunications Advisor to CPUC Commissioner Catherine Sandoval, told us the commission is working to make improvements.

“The earlier definition of basic service was from 1996 so there was a need to update that definition to include wireless service,” said Johnston, adding that the commission approved redefinition of “basic service” in December. That redefinition included offering Lifeline to “wireless and non traditional providers.” The definition reads: “Any basic service provider offering basic service must offer Lifeline rates on a non-discriminatory basis to eligible customers within the region where the provider offers basic service.”

But the service isn’t yet available for wireless or VoIP — and some fear that the current program will eclipse before a new one is in place. Johnston said a meeting is set for January 29 to discuss the scope of rules for Lifeline, and public hearings will be held around the state later this year to address this and other issues related to telecom deregulation.

The argument that landline phones are dying out may have some validity, but their benefits and practicality are evident — take for instance weather emergencies. After Hurricane Sandy struck the Northeast a few months ago, many towers providing service to cell phones went down. Landline users, however, were unaffected and still able to get in touch with family and emergency services.

According to Johnston, the commission is well aware of the benefits. “They want to make sure the wire line remains available because it has traditionally been the more reliable service.”

The notion that landlines phones are becoming obsolete has some consumer advocates rolling their eyes. “Most people in California have both cell phones and landlines,” said Toney.

Choked out


When a struggle occurs in jail, it happens behind closed doors where the only witnesses are usually on opposite sides of the law. And when a struggle between these adversaries results in death of an inmate, a lot of questions emerge, questions that can linger for years if not publicly addressed.

Three years ago, a 31-year old inmate named Issiah Downes died in a San Francisco jail cell following a confrontation with deputies. After a yearlong investigation, San Francisco Chief Medical Examiner Amy Hart determined the death was a homicide. Weeks later, Downes’ mother Esther filed a wrongful death suit against the city, which was ultimately settled for $350,000, a significant sum that could have been even higher if she wasn’t too ill to pursue a trial.

Yet the deputies involved remain on the job, working in the jail, with nobody ever punished for what at least one witness said was a homicide that should have had consequences for more than just city taxpayers.

According to the lawsuit, on September 7, 2009 Downes complained about the televisions in his unit being turned off. Deemed a disturbance, he was transferred to a segregated area of the jail. The transfer turned into a scuffle involving multiple deputies who forced Downes to the ground. He was then moved into a “safety cell” where another struggle broke out and he was held prone on the floor while deputies allegedly applied pressure to his back and neck. After complaining that he could not breathe, Downes lost consciousness and was soon declared dead.

The lawsuit named the deputies involved with restraining Downes as Mel Song, Juan Guitron, Edward Gutierrez, Ken Lomba, Kevin Macksound, and Dan White. No charges were pressed against anyone. What’s more, the Sheriff Department’s Communications Director Susan Fahey confirmed that all the deputies named as defendants in the civil suit are still employed by the department in the jail.

While the story has slowly faded from the headlines, one witness has been knocking on doors across San Francisco in an attempt to tell his version of events and bring some light to this man’s murky death. Dennis Damato was in jail at the time and remembers it being a quiet day as he and other inmates watched college football. “Miami played Florida State,” Damato told the Guardian. “I was on a top bunk at the end of the row.”

From his bunk, Damato saw Downes step into the hallway outside the cell and he says Downes was not resisting deputies or being confrontational. “There was no commotion. This guy wasn’t doing anything,” says Damato, who saw a deputy approach and stand beside Downes. “He (Downes) was just standing there nice and quiet and [a deputy] was standing to his left. I did not see them communicate.”

Damato says he looked away for a moment to check the score of the game and when he turned back, he saw the deputy attacking Downes, who was in handcuffs. “He was bent over, handcuffs in front of him, and the deputy had him in a choke hold,” Damato told us. “Mr. Downes was saying he can’t breathe. His eyes were bulging while being choked and brought down.”

Damato says Downes was already on the floor when more deputies arrived to assist and roughly 15 minutes passed before they dragged Downes to a secluded room. Convinced that Issiah Downes was murdered, Damato has reached out to everyone from the DA’s office to the Sheriff’s Department but he says he was shut down at every turn: “They’d say ‘it’s over with. Go home.'”

The deputies could not be reached for comment because the Sheriff’s Department didn’t make them available or release their contact information as we requested.

After Downes’ death the Medical Examiner’s Office investigated and the subsequent report confirms that Downes suffered blunt trauma to his neck (in addition to his torso and extremities), consistent with Damato’s claim that Downes was strangled.

“Were it not for the physiologic stresses imposed by the struggle and restraint, there is no reasonable medical certainty that Mr. Downes would have died at the moment he did.” Assistant ME Judy Melinek, M.D. Concluded in her report. “The manner of death, homicide, indicates that the volitional actions of others caused or contributed to this death.”

Although Chief Medical Examiner Amy Hart said her findings did not speak to any unlawful behavior on the part of the deputies, Esther Downes’ attorney, Geri Green, says, “I think it was very brave of her to call it a homicide,” noting that the finding strengthened the family’s case against the city.

That “homicide” call came after a yearlong investigation that included analyzing a prone restraint method called “figure four,” which incident reports from deputies say Downes was placed in moments before his death. In a figure four, a person lies in a prone position, hands held behind his/her back with knees bent and feet held in the air. Prone restraint is not uncommon but it is controversial as its various methods have lead to deaths.

Downes weighed more than 300 pounds and the autopsy found evidence of pressure on his neck and back. The report summarizes an interview with a trainer for the Sheriff’s Department who said the hold is often difficult to accomplish on an overweight person. Additionally, other inmates reported hearing Downes yell that he could not breathe and a jail nurse said she could hear loud moaning coming from the safety cell where Downes was restrained.

Fahey said the department looked into the matter. “The department conducts its own internal investigation but its report is not public record,” Fahey told us. The Police Department also investigated but in an email, spokesperson Albie Esparza said the results are confidential under laws protecting peace officers. “The case file was handled by SFPD, however those are not public records under section 6254(f) of the Government Code, which protects case files, even after a case has been terminated.”

Ellen Hirst, a spokesperson for then-Sheriff Mike Hennessey, told reporters at the time that the department believed all procedures were executed properly. The department’s official “Safety Cell Use” policies, which we reviewed, state “A prisoner may remain restrained, with handcuffs, waist chains, and/or leg irons as necessary, while in the safety cell to prevent self-inflicted injury” for no more than one hour. Yet the department’s “Use of Force” policies state, “Choking and the use of carotid restraint are not allowed by the SFSD.”

The ME concluded the cause of death to be probable respiratory arrest during prone restraint with morbid obesity. That conclusion, along with the report’s other findings, lead Esther Downes’ to charge in her lawsuit that the deputies used excessive force and illegal and unconstitutional restraint procedures on her son and “in an effort to conceal the homicide, conspired to cover up the cause and manner of death.”

Attorney Ben Nissenbaum is an associate with the renowned John Burris Law firm in Oakland, which has done extensive work on civil rights and police brutality including the Rodney King case. He says the need to further subdue an inmate in a segregated area of the jail is suspicious.

“Why would you restrain a person in a safety cell?” says Nissenbaum. “They’re already restrained. All you have to do is close the door.”

He also noted that safety cells — unlike the rest of a jail facility — are not equipped with surveillance cameras. “There are no cameras or video inside the safety cells and that is common knowledge among deputies,” Nissenbaum told us.

Although the Sheriff Department’s investigation report is not public record, it doesn’t appear that it found any criminal conduct. San Francisco District Attorney’s Office spokesperson Stephanie Ong Stillman told us, “We would have to be presented with something showing criminal conduct before we prosecute anyone…When someone dies in jail, it’s a Sheriff’s investigation.”

Over at City Hall, the City Attorney’s Office — which deals with civil suits against the City — wasn’t exactly eager to pursue the matter. “We have to consider the cost for the city of taking the case to trial,” says City Attorney spokesperson Matt Dorsey, adding that a trial is often not in the city’s best interest.

The case didn’t go to trial and was officially closed on May 18, 2011, two months after San Francisco settled with Esther Downes for $350,000. She died last June near her home in Hawaii and her surviving relatives declined comment on the lawsuit or Issiah Downes.

Like many of those who find their way into the judicial system, Downes had personal problems. He was morbidly obese, suffered from schizophrenia, received counseling for suicide (at one point he tried to gouge one of his eyes, leaving him partially blind), and had previous convictions for involuntary manslaughter, robbery, assault with a deadly weapon, and battery of a police officer. Yet he was paying his debts to society and getting help. He was a member of what public officials like to call “society’s most vulnerable”, which might turn out to be a great understatement if his mother’s conspiracy charge and Dennis Damato’s story are true.

The scene at Yes on 37


A few dozen people are at CELLspace in the Mission District watching national returns on a massive screen while eagerly awaiting the results of Proposition 37 (It’s currently winning at around 68%).  The controversial statewide measure will require grocers and food manufacturers to label their products that undergo genetic modification before they reach store shelves.  If passed, the measure will make California the first state to ever enforce labeling for foods that undergo genetic modification.

“Over thirty-five million people live in California,” says Grant Lundberg, a member of the steering committee for Yes on 37. “It’s a major market for any retailers and food manufacturer.”

More than sixty countries already have some form of food labeling law, including China, Russia and several countries in the European Union.  Supporters of 37 say the U.S. is behind the movement because of strong opposition from major food companies like Pepsi Co and General Mills.

If passed, the law only require a label indicating a food was genetically modified and won’t force food makers to alter the production of their foods.

“About 80 percent of all grocery foods have genetically modified ingredients,” says Lundberg. “They’re using corn, soy, sugar, summer squash and papaya which are the major ingredients that could contain genetically modified ingredients.”

Giants’ revelers who crossed the line face charges


Yesterday’s parade celebrating the Giants’ World Series sweep almost went down without a hitch, no thanks to a handful of inebriated miscreants. Among the estimated one million revelers that attended, the SFPD reports that 22 were arrested, including 13 for public drunkenness. Others were charged for robbery, battery and unlawful possession of a loaded firearm.

Yesterday’s violations, however, paled in comparison to the chaos that ensued after the final game on Sunday night, when even more arrests were made and major damage was done to the city. District Attorney George Gascón is prosecuting nine individuals detained in connection to the shenanigans that occurred around the city last weekend. 

“What occurred last Sunday was inexcusable,” Gascón at a press conference Tuesday afternoon. “We want to send a clear message that we will prosecute all the cases presented to us, to the fullest extent of the law.”

The nine charged so far include eight men and one woman, all of them locals. “So far I believe everyone we have are San Francisco residents,” says Gascón.

Seven are charged with assaulting or threatening a peace officer. SFPD Officer Carlos Manfredi says two officers – whose names he could not release – suffered injuries after confrontations with rioters. “One suffered a hand injury and one suffered lacerations to the leg from a glass bottle that was thrown.”

Tomas Lunsford was arrested on charges of robbery after he allegedly stole a phone from a woman who was filming the celebration. He then allegedly punched her female friend while attempting to evade capture. Additional charges include resisting arrest with force, battery and arson of property.

The latest arrest associated with the carnage occurred Tuesday after police identified a man who was photographed shattering a Muni bus window. Gregory Tyler Grannis, 22, of San Francisco was detained on felony charges of vandalism and destroying a passenger transit vehicle. Police were led to him after tips from social media sites.  Grannis is scheduled to be arraigned Friday.

The DA’s office has been presented with several other individuals who have yet to be reviewed.  Gascón anticipates more violators will be charged in the coming days: “We expect additional cases, including cases involving damage to city vehicles.”

SFPD is currently investigating the torched Muni bus incident.  On Wednesday, Police Chief Greg Suhr released cell phone video and photographs of two suspects wanted in connection with the arson of the bus. “We are now asking for public assistance in identifying these two arsonists and bringing them to justice,” Suhr said.  Photos and video can be viewed at

It is unknown what the ultimate cost of the damage from Sunday night’s chaos will be. City Attorney Dennis Herrera said that in addition to being charged criminally, public offenders will receive civil fines commensurate with their offenses.  “I’m here to tell folks that you will be hit in your pocket book,” he says. “If you damage the city we will seek retribution and damages.”

Celebrations turned chaotic in North Beach and Downtown, but it was the Mission District that saw the most damage. Along Mission Street, 24th Street and Valencia Street vandals tagged several businesses, damaged public property and set fires.  In a statement Monday, Mission District Supervisor David Campos said, “I have been in communication with the Department of Public Works and we are working closely to clean up the streets and help affected businesses.”

Labor money fighting Prop. 32


Modern California politics can be tug of war between corporate interests and the public interest. On one side is a gang of the biggest, toughest, strongest kids on the playground. On the other side is everyone else.

The labor movement isn’t always on the side of the disenfranchised — the prison guards union, for example, has long used its clout to push for greater incarceration levels, costing the taxpayers hundreds of millions and destroying lives in the process.

But overall, with the huge expense that’s now involved in running a political campaign in this state, labor — using the combined money of millions of dues-paying members — is often the only force that can stand up to the big-business bullies.

“The working class doesn’t have enough institutions through which to makes its voice heard,” says Nelson Lichtenstein, Director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at UC Santa Barbara.

That’s why some of the richest and most powerful corporate interests in the country are trying, once again, to cut labor money out of politics — and why the battle over Proposition 32 is so critical for the state’s future.

And, ironically, the fight over an initiative whose backers say it’s aimed at limiting campaign spending by special interests has become one of the most expensive ballot battles in state history.


Prop. 32, to put it bluntly, is backed by a handful of rich people. Billionaire Republican Charles Munger, hedge fund manager William Oberndorf, and investment manager Jerrold Perenchio have between them put up nearly $24 million to get the measure on the ballot and pass it.

The Yes on 32 campaign talks about limiting both corporate and union spending. Again, in a biting irony, backers capitalized on the public’s concern with Citizen’s United, which gave corporations the same constitutional rights as people and enabled them to spend unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns.

But the measure really only affects one side. Corporations don’t use paycheck deductions to collect political money — and partnership, limited liability companies and many other entities could give as they wish. So, of course, could rich individuals, like the ones behind Prop. 32.

“All we’re doing is exposing the truth,” says Eric Heins, Vice President of the California Teachers Union, which has thrown more than $20 million dollars to block 32. The truth, he says, is that it will exempt corporations while limiting the voice of unions. “All you really need to do is just follow the money and follow who is exempted from it. We’re not doing anything other than telling it like it is.”

Labor’s efforts seem to be working. A September 21 survey by UC Berkeley and the Field Poll showed that just 38 percent of voters favored the measure while 44 percent opposed it. Another late September poll from USC and the Los Angeles Times showed similar results. The latest numbers from the Public Policy Institute of California show labor’s efforts have made more gains with just days before the election.

“The No on 32 campaign has been working overtime,” says Chris Daly, political director for the Service Employees International Union local 1021. “I think in the beginning the feeling was 32 started with a lead and as we educated voters about what it really is, support evaporated.”

Part of the labor effort has been to remind voters that they have seen this kind of proposition before. In 1998 it was called the “Paycheck Protection” initiative that aimed to establish new requirements with regard to payroll deductions for political activity. It was defeated at the polls. A 2005 measure aimed to do the same thing, but after a hard fought campaign and millions of dollars spent, it too was blocked.

Unions have also reached out to young people. “Voters 18 to 35 are a key demographic,” says Daly. “They tend to be much more progressive voters and more concerned about corporate power.”

For years the anti-union movement has argued that payroll deductions for political use without consent from employees is unethical and corrupt. They’re also one of the few ways working people can compete with wealthy corporate donors in politics and are necessary to keep the playing field somewhat balanced.

So while the corporate world is contributing money to silence one side of the debate, the other is using money to keep its voice alive. According to Maplight — a nonpartisan research group that tracks money in politics — spending on 32 has surpassed $100 million, with supporters spending roughly $45 million and the opposition $58 million.


And there’s still a significant amount of money to be spent before November 6. The campaign finance database on Secretary of State Debra Bowen’s official website breaks down the 18 committees formed to support or oppose the measure. Of the five pro-32 committees, three have a combined $7 million dollars left to spend on their agenda while eight of the 13 opposition committees have roughly $9.7 million left.

The labor folks argue that their big money is different than big corporate money. “When we put money into a campaign its money that’s been cobbled together from a lot of people,” says Heins. “There’s a big difference with CTA putting in money as opposed to Munger putting in a check of $20 million that he won’t even miss.”

In addition to direct support from wealthy individuals like Munger, Prop. 32 has received money from a number of political action committees that aren’t required to disclose their donors. So while it’s pretty clear who the teachers union is and what its members want, its hard for voters to know the agenda of The American Future Fund — a PAC that’s donated $4 million raised from anonymous sources.

AFF has close ties to right-wing billionaires Charles and David Koch — but their names aren’t anywhere on any disclosure forms. “The ability to hide behind large PACS is corrosive and I think everybody knows it,” says Barbara O’Connor, Emeritus Professor of Communications at California State University, Sacramento.

The campaign financing behind Prop 32 is symptomatic of what’s happening across the country in the world the US Supreme Court has created with its Citizens United decision. At the national level, the Obama and Romney campaigns combined will have spent more than $1 billion by Election Day. While the President’s campaign has spent more money, Romney’s camp has benefited from enormous amounts of outside cash from super PACS, erasing Obama’s edge.

Could this be a new normal for election spending and campaigning?

O’Connor says change will likely come sooner than later. But as Prop. 32 demonstrates, that change will be tricky. What would happen if 32 passed? Would other states follow? Would one-sided campaign laws be the next frontier in reform?

“Discourse has gotten more bipolar,” says O’Connor, noting the change in the political atmosphere since Citizens United became law.

What everyone wants to know is whether or not this is the new normal for elections. “I think people on both sides are seeing the impact and skewing of citizen voting and once the fury calms down it will change. You’re going to see a big shift in how we campaign after this election.”

Was Realtor-financed attack ad illegally coordinated with Lee?


District 1 supervisorial candidate David Lee might have violated election laws prohibiting candidates from coordinating with groups doing independent expenditures after being featured in a pricey attack ad blasting his opponent, incumbent Sup. Eric Mar.

The San Francisco League of Pissed Off Voters yesterday filed a complaint with the Ethics Commission requesting an investigation into illegal coordination between Lee and the Association of Realtors, which produced an ad entitled “Send Mar Back to Mars,” in which Lee appears to have participated in the filming.

“Our concern is that Lee’s campaign has collaborated with the San Francisco Realtors Association in providing footage,” says Fabiana Ochoa, a member of the steering committee for the League.  “That’s really a violation of the law.  It’s a concern this year because we see how national super PACs have an influence on campaigns.”

Lee’s direct fundraising and the allegedly independent expenditures on his behalf this week topped $557,486 – more than any other San Francisco supervisorial campaign in history — prompting the Ethics Commission to again raise the expenditure cap on the public financing in Mar’s race. Lee and his campaign have refused to answer questions about this or other issues. 

“No one has ever seen that kind of spending here in San Francisco.  It’s turned into a challenging and nasty campaign,” Ochoa said.  “It’s a small district but the game has changed.”

Progressive groups — including the League, San Francisco Tenants Union, and Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club — are fighting back with a rally scheduled for this Monday at 5pm outside the Realtors Association office at 301 Grove Street. They’re urging participants to bring pots and pans, reminiscent of the group of scowling children who were smeared with dirt and banging pots and pans in the video.   

In an email to the Guardian, the Ethics Commission’s Executive Director John St. Croix said, “The Ethics Commission can not confirm, deny or discuss complaints.” If the Ethics Commission does investigate and finds that Lee knowingly participated in this advertisement, it is unclear what exactly the penalty will be and the District Attorney’s office is not jumping to any conclusions yet. “For now it’s still with the Ethics Commission so we can’t comment on it,” says Stephanie Ong Stillman, press secretary for the D.A.’s office.

In a time when corporations are considered people and wealthy interests have unprecedented political influence in elections, all eyes are on the candidates and how honestly they run their campaigns.  Current San Francisco law prohibits candidates from organizing with independent expenditures like this one.

The ad, which cost $50,000 to make, mocks Mar’s efforts to remove toys from McDonald’s Happy Meals by featuring kids protesting his policies.  The glossy 3 ½ minute commercial is high-quality with Hollywood production value, leaving skeptical viewers wondering if Lee’s cameo was staged and his participation deliberate.   If it was, then Lee also violated laws that ban candidates from accepting campaign contributions exceeding $500.

The Association of Realtors clearly has an interest in David Lee, considering Mar supports tenant rights, and the Tenants Union has make its rally and campaign an effort to “save rent control” and called it a “march on the 1 percent” that is trying to buy the Board of Supervisors and remake San Francisco.

Realtors Association President Jeffery Woo would not discuss the issue when reached by phone.  In an emailed press statement to the Guardian, the Association of Realtors wrote, “ We stand by the facts, and humor, of the video we produced on the election in District 1 and do not plan to remove it from YouTube as it has achieved success in raising important issues in San Francisco.”

The Guardian also reached out to the political media expert who produced the film, Fred Davis, but he did not return our calls. 

Davis, who served as chief media strategist for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, is a Hollywood-based veteran of campaign marketing and has produced some of the most notorious political ads in recent history including the Demon Sheep video for Carly Fiorina’s 2010 GOP senate campaign.  He also created the highly lampooned 2010 ad featuring Delware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell, who assured viewers that she was “not a witch.” 

Judge for yourself whether Lee participated in the making of this video:


Berkeley Police implement new limits on spying and mutual aid


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nurses urge Pelosi and others to back the Robin Hood tax


Activists nationwide are pressuring Congress to pass a bill they say would generate hundreds of billions of dollars and stimulate economic growth on Main Street, targeting House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and other key congressional votes with a series of protests today.

The Inclusive Prosperity Act, or H.R. 6411, would establish a 0.5 percent tax on the trading of stocks, 50 cents on every $100 of trades and lesser rates on bonds, derivatives and currencies.  It’s being touted as the “Robin Hood tax” because it would generate an estimated $350 billion dollars annually that would go towards growing local economies, taking for the rich to help the poor.  

Supporters for the national campaign are knocking on the doors of their congressional representatives asking them to back the bill. Campaigners and members of National Nurses United today gathered at Pelosi’s office to ask her for support, but she was nowhere to be found.  Roughly two dozen nurses and activists attempted to enter the building when security promptly stopped them, allowing only four members to enter to speak to a Pelosi representative in the lobby. 

Inside, the four activists – including Deborah Burger, a registered nurse from Santa Rosa – were told that although the bill fits with her values, Pelosi is currently focused on the November election. 

“We were told that after the election she might use her influence to back the legislation,” says Burger.  “We do plan to go to Washington to push this bill and we’re going to do it with or without Nancy Pelosi.”  

Eighteen days after the stock market crashed in 2008 – four years ago today – Congress approved the Troubled Relief Asset Program, or T.A.R.P., that saved the “too-big-to-fail” banks from financial collapse.  Now, the national unemployment rate lingers above 8 percent.  HR 6411, introduced by Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, is being promoted as a way to enforce accountability on the part of major Wall Street banking institutions.

“The destruction they’ve done to this country is enormous,” says Charles Idelson, communications director for the California Nurses Association. “They pay no tax when trading and all we’re asking for is Wall Street to pay us back and help local economies.”

When asked why nurses are interested in the bill, Scott Hornback, a nurse at UCSF, said people in his profession spend their days caring for those hit hardest by the recession: “We care about the health of the American worker and the people who make up this economy.”  

Supporters say the revenue generated from HR 6411 would also help strengthen Medicare and Medicaid, put more resources into the infrastructure and education, and help tackle climate change.   

The obvious question is whether or not such a tax would encourage financial institutions to move their transactions offshore.  Idelson rejected this possibility, saying, “When you have something totally computerized, like financial transactions, it’s easy to monitor and track.”

According to National Nurses United, more than 40 countries currently have some form of financial transaction tax in place.  Last week Germany and France urged the European Commission to draft FTT proposals for nine nations in the EU. 

Ballot-access crew hit with huge legal fees


Six activists are being hit with overwhelming legal fees after their attempt to reverse California’s new election process was blocked by a wealthy Republican.

Richard Winger, the San Francisco-based editor of Ballot Access News, and five others went to court in 2010 to block the open-primary system, which mandates that the top two finishers in any primary battle move on to the November election. The plaintiffs argued that the provisions were bad for third parties.

The lawsuit named Secretary of State Debra Bowen, but Charles Munger Jr., the chairman of the Santa Clara County Republican Central Committee, won the right to intervene in the case on behalf of the top-two system. He hired the powerhouse law firm Nielsen Merksamer, and Winger’s case, Field v. Bowen, went down to defeat.

Now Munger has convinced the court to award his law firm $243,000 in fees — money that the small band of activists can’t possibly pay. 

“The fees are contrary to law and precedent,”  Winger told us.

Winger, whose annual income was $6,000 for the last two years in a row, says he lives mostly off his savings, doesn’t have a pension and only receives $180 in social security each month.

Since $240,000 is an impossible sum that would wipe out the public-spirited activists — and means nothing to Munger — you have to wonder: What is this really about?

“Sometimes lawyers are really competitive. It’s like a sport to them. They just want to win,” says Winger.

From the outside, the fee request seems like a classic case of schoolyard bullying. In fact, it’s a prime example of what the legal community appropriately calls a S.L.A.P.P. lawsuit (strategic lawsuit against public participation).  Such cases are meant to intimidate one party with legal fees until they abandon the case, something the plaintiffs haven’t done quite yet.

Political insiders are wondering why Secretary of State Debra Bowen hasn’t done more on behalf of the plaintiffs. “She’s leaving these people hanging out to dry,” says Steven Hill, the former director of the Political Reform Program of the New American Foundation. “The ironic thing is that you have a secretary of state who calls herself a progressive, but her name is on a lawsuit that’s being used by Nielsen Merksamer to slap down a public interest lawsuit brought by her own supporters.”

Adding to the irony of Bowen’s lack of involvement is that the very political process that Winger and others were trying to stop is what drove her out of her 2011 congressional bid in California’s 36th district.

That special election — forced after incumbent Jane Harman resigned — was also a test run of the new top-two open primary system.

Bowen’s opponent, liberal centrist Janice Hahn, saw a way to squeeze her out of the race by leveraging the potential candidacy of another leftist liberal, Marcy Winograd. Hahn’s tactics succeeded as Bowen and Winograd essentially split the left-liberal vote, allowing Hahn to reap the primary benefits and move into the general election where she won with ease against Republican Craig Huey.

Nonetheless, Bowen is failing to speak up on the matter.  After multiple requests for an interview, Bowen’s press secretary, Shannan Velayas said in an email: “The Secretary of State’s office does not comment on pending litigation.”