Alex Montero

Still secret

A high-profile local civil rights ordinance passed last year to shine light on the San Francisco Police Department’s joint activities with the FBI has been undermined by the SFPD’s refusal to disclose its surveillance activities. This comes at a time when the public is learning more than ever about the federal government’s intrusion into the privacy of law-abiding US citizens.

In May 2012, the Board of Supervisors unanimously passed the Safe San Francisco Civil Rights Ordinance, which Mayor Ed Lee signed in a photo-op ceremony with Police Chief Greg Suhr and the activists who supported it. They claimed the board’s passage of the ordinance ushered in a new era of transparency over the SFPD’s previously secretive work with the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force.

“The ordinance basically requires three things,” Nasrina Bargzie, a civil rights attorney at the Asian Law Caucus who worked on the measure, told the Bay Guardian. “The first part requires that the Police Department work with the JTTF has to follow the California constitutional rights of privacy, so they’re not following the lax standards of the [US] Department of Justice. The second part is that they can no longer enter into any secret agreements with the FBI; it has to go before the Police Commission in a public setting. The final part of the ordinance exists to make sure the rules are being followed, so there is a requirement for a yearly report.”

At the time of its passage, activists told the Guardian that the ordinance was only as strong as the SFPD’s willingness to disclose its activities (see “Mayor Lee signs watered-down limits on SFPD spying,” 5/9/12). But the SFPD’s refusal to disclose even minimal, basic information calls into question the ordinance’s value.

After the release of multiple reports earlier this year that activists called inadequate, Suhr is now maintaining silence regarding the JTTF, while claiming the department is in full compliance with the ordinance. According to Bargzie, Suhr told her the FBI is barring him from disclosing the requested information.

Following multiple efforts by the Guardian to get a comment out of SFPD about the ordinance and whether the department was indeed taking a subservient role to the FBI, SFPD Sgt. Dennis Toomer told us, “We’re not talking about that at all.”


Activists have sparred with Chief Suhr over implementation of the ordinance and its required annual report since at least the beginning of 2013.

Deputy Chief John Loftus presented the first report to the Police Commission on Jan. 23, which claimed the SFPD was in “full compliance” with the ordinance without providing any details. Activists and the public quickly demanded a real response.

“The commission presented this short oral report, which was a little short of two minutes long,” Bargzie told us. “There was no data that we were not already aware of. It was just basic statements claiming that they were complying with the ordinance.”

Suhr apologized for the omissions while stating his department was still in compliance with the ordinance’s guidelines, pledging to be more forthcoming. At this time, SFPD Sgt. Michael Andraychak told the Guardian: “The Chief’s Office is in the process of scheduling meetings with Nasrina Bargzie [of the Asian Law Caucus] to develop a report with more detail so those concerned and the public can be as informed as possible. Chief Suhr is committed to remain in compliance with the ordinance.”

The Coalition for Safe San Francisco, an activist group consisting of Muslim Legal Fund of America, Asian Law Caucus, and dozens of other groups, met with Suhr to discuss setting up a template for the reports.

Suhr then released a second report, which contained more relevant information, stating that SFPD officers did not act as informants in 2012 and three full-time SFPD officers were assigned to the JTTF.

But the report still omitted key oversight information, such as whether any prosecutions resulted from JTTF and SFPD investigations, which would allow the Muslim Legal Fund of America and other groups to determine who the SFPD is arresting and why.

Last year, Suhr told a San Francisco Examiner reporter that his officers followed up on 2,000 tips regarding counterterrorism activities. However, this information curiously did not make it into the official report.

“We contacted the chief to let him know we were not okay with this. We had another meeting with him and he said he’d think about it and get back to us and now he is claiming he cannot honor a basic component of the ordinance,” Bargzie told us. “He asserts in writing this is because the FBI will not let him share the basic information.”


The weak efforts behind the implementation of the SSFCRO date back to Mayor Lee’s veto of a stronger ordinance in April 2012, which would have codified privacy protections and given the Police Commission more power to stop FBI-SFPD activities that did not comply with Department General Order (DGO) 8.10, the 1990 policy aimed at protecting First Amendment activities. After Lee’s veto, the Board of Supervisors passed a weaker version. Both were sponsored by Sup. Jane Kim.

John Crew, a former police practices expert with the Northern California American Civil Liberties Union, raised concerns to the Guardian about the weakened legislation. “It is a step in the right direction, there’s no doubt it’s progress,” Crew told us at the time. “But whether it’s real progress depends on the implementation. Ultimately, it will come down to political will at the Police Commission to enforce privacy protections.”

Much of the ordinance’s failure stems from the apparent lack of real intent to disclose what the activists sought. Critics painted the SSFCRO signing ceremony as a hollow symbolic act, a way for Mayor Lee and Chief Suhr to publicly promote civil rights and progressive ideals with an ordinance they purposefully weakened.

“My sense is that [the SFPD] is not taking this seriously,” Bargzie told us. “I think they probably believe that they are providing as much information as the FBI will let them and Chief Suhr thinks it’s fine that the FBI can tell him to share what they tell him to.”

The lack of transparency regarding the JTTF’s work with the SFPD requires the public to trust the federal government to safeguard civil liberties. But in the wake of whistleblower Edward Snowden’s leak exposing the expansive surveillance system by the National Security Agency and the SFPD’s notorious history of illegal surveillance and racial profiling, the public has little reason to trust the authorities.

The passage of the SSFCRO is the latest effort to counter a long history of racial profiling, spying on radical political groups, and other constitutional violations, episodes that have been followed by progressive reforms in San Francisco.
Prior to the passage of DGO 8.10 in 1990, the SFPD notoriously participated in the surveillance of non-criminal, pacifist political organizations. During the 1984 Democratic National Convention, the SFPD carried out surveillance on law-abiding organizations and, throughout the 1980s, it created files on civil, labor, and special interest groups in the Bay Area, revelations that led to the adoption of DGO 8.10.
But even after that, disclosures surfaced showing that the SFPD was blatantly violating its own rules. They included then-Police Chief Tony Ribera admitting that files on non-criminal political activity were not destroyed (as required by the ’90s reforms), the selling of confidential intelligence material to foreign governments and private entities, and the actions of SFPD Intelligence Officer Tom Gerad, who informed on local political groups for the FBI.
In the subsequent years following the Gerad scandal, San Francisco sought to strengthen DGO 8.10, requiring more transparency and oversight. But this progress was undercut in 2007 when the SFPD secretly signed a secret JTTF Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) undermining DGO 8.10.
San Francisco’s Human Rights Commission held hearings in which the community voiced concerns over illegal police and federal surveillance. In response, the SFPD said they were unable to discuss arrangements with the JTTF without the permission of the FBI.
In 2011, the previously secret MOU was unearthed by the ACLU (see “Spies in blue,” 4/26/11), prompting Suhr to issue Bureau Order #2011-07, which reinforced that SFPD personnel were under the jurisdiction of local and state privacy protections and did not spy on law-abiding groups. SFPD Public Information Officer Albie Esparza said the order reversed the language of the 2007 memo.
Part of Suhr’s amendment to SFPD policy at the time included the necessity of a predicate offense in all SFPD investigations. Thus, the SFPD could not investigate or spy on those who were not suspected of violating the California Penal Code or federal law.
Activists wanted those protections enshrined in city law, which resulted in last’s vetoed ordinance and passage of the watered down Safe San Francisco Civil Rights Ordinance in 2012, which activists now say they feel duped by.
“We have been extremely disappointed at the lack of information that has been included in the reports,” Summer K. Hararah, Regional Director for the Greater San Francisco Area Muslim Legal Fund of America told us. “If the SFPD is going to violate rights of Arab-Americans, the police chief has a responsibility to stand up to the FBI.”

Lax federal guidelines for counterterrorism have been building since the Bush Administration began implementing emergency measures after 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. In San Francisco’s case, the FBI has subjected local law enforcement to these rules.
Since 9/11, both the ACLU of Northern California and the Human Rights Commission have publicized cases of racial profiling and surveillance of pacifist, non-criminal Muslim and Middle-Eastern groups in San Francisco. A 2007 FBI memorandum illustrated a prominent instance of this profiling in which FBI agents attended Ramadan Iftar dinners in San Francisco purportedly as part of the FBI’s mosque outreach program. Under this guise, the agents collected data on certain attendants, including names, the content of conversations, and other information covered by the First Amendment. According to the FBI Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide, the JTTF is permitted to conduct surveillance of this nature, by identifying “locations of concentrated ethnic communities in the Field Office’s domain, if these locations will reasonably aid in the analysis of the potential threats and vulnerabilities, and, overall assist domain awareness for the purpose of performing intelligence analysis.” These policies directly contradict SSFCO, DGO 8.10, and the California Constitution’s privacy protections. In Portland, Ore., the local government successfully fought this issue by bifurcating local law enforcement from the JTTF after the public and the ACLU raised concerns over similar constitutional violations and racial profiling. This Portland model is now a precedent for activist groups nationwide, seeking to end the lack of oversight permeating their local police departments. “Portland has been a great model,” Hararah told us. “When the FBI began to interview Muslim men in mass after 9/11, Portland was one of the few that said ‘absolutely not.'” But in San Francisco, Lee (whose office also didn’t respond to our request for comment) and Suhr’s symbolic promotion of civil rights has diminished into a case of them basically bullshitting the public. “Civil rights is not a symbolic issue,” Hararah told us. “The mayor backed this legislation and we want to see that the commitment is put forth with global insurance. The first step is having info about what the JTTF is doing to be sure it abides by human rights protections and is appropriate.”

Privatizing the Botanical Gardens


The Board of Supervisors last week voted to continue the collection of “non-resident fees” at the Botanical Gardens in Golden Gate Park for a minimum 10-year period. Then it approved a companion measure to allow construction of a new, privately run nursery that will be the home of corporate parties and members-only activities, giving a private group unusual control over a public space.

The proposed plan will replace the existing nursery with a new Center For Sustainable Growth, funded as a “gift-in place” from the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society, a nonprofit that has supported the gardens since 1955, when it was known as Strybing Arboretum.

“This vote means we are basically privatizing 55 acres of Golden Gate Park and handing it over to a nonprofit with no public accountability,” Harry Pariser, a longtime resident of the Inner Sunset, activist, and author told the Bay Guardian. “Essentially we’re allowing the government to make us show an ID to come onto public land. It’s also going to be a space where there’s going to be a lot more commercial activity. I think inevitably there is going to be fees for everyone.”

The new agreement consists of demolishing an existing 4,600 square foot greenhouse, which will be replaced by a new 9,800 square foot nursery. A real estate evaluation report on the nursery project performed by Clifford Advisory, a limited liability corporation, compares the project to allegedly positive public-private development efforts such as the Hunter’s Point Shipyard project.

The lease agreement between the Botanical Garden Society and the City of San Francisco allows the society to use the premises for “special events,” designate members-only hours for the facility, and waive the non-resident fee for those events. According to the lease, the city shall avoid interfering with the Society’s “quiet use and enjoyment of the premises,” namely by allowing them to throw private parties.

“The Botanical Gardens is an incredible asset to the city, it’s a great place for families and kids, and now they’re no longer treating it as a public asset,” Sup. John Avalos, who recently voted against the non-resident fees and the lease agreement, told the Guardian. “They’re making it more exclusive.”



The SFBGS has a history of campaigning for private exclusivity on public land as well as generating new revenue sources. In 2010, Avalos pushed a plan to replace the revenue brought in by non-resident fees with $250,000 pulled from the city’s real estate transfer tax.

SFBGS, backed by London Breed before she was elected the supervisor of District 5, which includes the Botanical Gardens, opposed Avalos’ effort and helped shoot down the proposed plans, continuing the fee collections.

A large part of the board’s approval is derived from the lobbying efforts of Sam Lauter, a lobbyist hired by SFBGS who has continually pushed for permanent fees and the new conservatory. Lauter also helped support and fund Breed’s supervisorial campaign last year.

While the lease and management agreement purports that the SFBGS’s management shall be subject to the city’s definition of the gardens as a public space, it offers an exception in cases of SFBGS-sponsored special events, circumventing its status as a public space. The lease also allows the Society to use other buildings on the premises, such as the County Fair Building, for special events, free of charge.

Although the SFBGS is essentially taking over operation of the gardens, the city will continue to pay for utilities and offer a “rent credit” that requires the Society to pay just $100 in rent annually. Additionally, SFBGS will be reimbursed for non-resident fee collection expenses.

“We understand the logic of providing benefits for people who donate to the facility,” Breed legislative aide Conor Johnston told us. “It’s very important to remember all San Francisco residents have free access and [organized groups of] youth from outside the city have free access. This structure allows the arboretum to stay open.”

While San Francisco residents still have free access, the agreements with the SFBGS strongly limit this access by instituting members-only hours, forcing residents to show identification at security gates, and renting out buildings for exclusive corporate parties.

Another part of the Botanical Garden’s master plan consists of providing food services in a new visitors center. Consequently, the “public” gardens will enforce a rule barring visitors from bringing in outside food. The plan also details the SFBGS’s plan to bring in new revenue streams through corporate events.

“This is about weeding people out, controlling people and deciding who has access to this place,” said Pariser. “They put up a wall that must cost thousands of dollars and they destroyed this meadow that even London Breed was appalled by. They control this place like it’s a domain and you’re not allowed to say anything.”



The lack of public outreach and input on the SFBGS’s buyout has left residents like Pariser feeling robbed of public land that their taxes pay to support. Nancy McNally, founder of the San Francisco AIDS Grove, voiced similar concerns regarding the misplaced priorities of both SFBGS and the Recreation and Parks Department, which in recent years has been under growing criticism for monetizing public spaces (see “Parks Inc.,” 7/12/11).

“For me, I can’t even be in the same room as Recreation and Park Director Phil Ginsburg. I think he has done so much harm to the parks,” McNally told us. “He’s created a ton of positions in the marketing and PR department. What do they need four people for to run public marketing for a public space?”

Frederick Law Olmsted, the co-designer of Central Park, is said to have influenced the style of Golden Gate Park. Olmsted’s theory was to bring wilderness into the city. For McNally, this non-manicured, rustic aspect of Golden Gate Park is what makes it so appealing.

“They’re taking away the basic foundation of the park, which is wildness,” said McNally. “The new building is so big, obtrusive, and unnecessary. It’s only about income for the Botanical Society’s select group.”

McNally views the RPD and SFBGS as predatory entities who target residents attempting to use the land by charging egregious fees for weddings, memorials, and other events.

McNally recalled a friend who wanted to have a memorial for another gardening enthusiast in the Arboretum. For 10 people, the RPD wanted $1,000 and to hire a security guard for a group of elderly gardening enthusiasts.

SFRPD did not return the Guardian’s phone calls regarding the management under the SFBGS, which also did not return our call.

Jane Glasby, an ex-librarian for the SFBGS, whose job was terminated in 2010 due to widespread cuts to the garden’s education program, expressed her inside views on the changing tides of park’s atmosphere in a letter written to “friends and garden lovers” as her tenure came to an end.

“Over the last few years, the library budget has been slashed, the children’s program cut back, and the adult education program all but eliminated,” Glasby wrote at the time. ‘With money available to pay a firm to lobby for an entrance fee $10,000 every month for at least the last seven months, it looks very odd to close the library [that was at the Arboretum] with the excuse of saving just $10,000 a year. Charging admissions would put the garden in danger of becoming an exclusive but shallow and flashy entertainment (I am thinking of the Tea Garden and the Academy [of Science]), rather than the living museum that we all love and respect.”

While Glasby’s comments refer to cutbacks dating back to 2010, her experience denotes what is seemingly becoming the protocol of SFBGS. Three years later, the Society has succeeded in charging non-residents indefinitely and turning what was once a public place of solitude for residents and non-residents alike into an increasingly privatized hub for members willing to pay extra for exclusivity of an allegedly public space.

McNally, who is now retired, has taken it upon herself to document the decreasing local attendance of the arboretum, which was once a frequent lunch spot for residents and nearby UCSF students. “On a sunny day at noon it used to be to be carpeted with people having lunch. It’s not anymore,” said McNally. “I have four years of documentation of that empty lawn at high noon, showing it completely empty, with just geese shitting everywhere.”


Corrections: The permit fee for the gardening club was corrected. We also added the parenthetical to Johnston’s quote to clarify visitor fees.




Beginning on broke


Despite signs of economic recovery, many young people still face hard times due to high unemployment, low wages, and a lack of job opportunities. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee recently sought to tackle this issue locally with the rollout of Summer Jobs + 2013, a public-private partnership with an ambitious goal of providing 6,000 jobs and paid internships for San Francisco’s young adults. It was the most ambitious goal ever pursued in a city jobs initiative, with particular emphasis on low-income youth.

“I’m calling on all San Francisco companies to take on this challenge to support the youth of San Francisco,” Mayor Lee said at a press conference in April, when he joined House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi in unveiling the program, the local manifestation of an Obama Administration jobs initiative. “Creating meaningful employment opportunities for our young people today will set them up for success now and in the future.”

But Summer Jobs + is falling far short of its goal, resulting in the creation of only 3,200 summer jobs. The Mayor’s Office is still holding out for a possible influx of hires next month that could bring it closer to the goal before summer’s end, Gloria Chan with the San Francisco Office of Economic and Workforce Development told us.

Last summer, the Mayor’s Office launched a similar initiative aimed at providing 5,000 youth jobs and internships, and ultimately exceeded the goal by 200 positions. Roughly 32 percent of those jobs were in the private sector, predominantly tech. At the end of the day, only about 14 percent of the program’s participants locked down private-sector jobs, with employers ranging from Starbucks to Bank of America to Twilio.

Despite some success in helping young San Franciscans find work, the efforts so far amount to a kind of Band-Aid solution to a problem that goes much deeper and cannot be solved by simply teaching young people to draft polished resumes. Youth unemployment, particularly among low-income and marginalized groups, has worsened over time and is linked to a broader trend of economic inequality.

The Urban Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, recently turned an eye toward economic pressures facing young people with the release of a study titled, “Lost Generations? Wealth Building among Young Americans.” (see “Wealth vs. work,” May 1).

The institute found that among young people, “Average wealth in 2010 was 7 percent below that of those in their 20s and 30s in 1983. Even before the Great Recession, young Americans were on a strikingly different trajectory. Now, stagnant wages, diminishing job opportunities, and lost home values may be merging to paint a vastly different future for Gen X and Gen Y. Despite their relative youth, they may not be able to make up the lost ground.”

In the aftermath of the Great Recession triggered by the economic crash of 2009, millennials ages 16 to 24 have faced dramatically lower employment and income rates in comparison with their elders, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

In California, where unemployment stands at 10.5 percent, the millennial unemployment rate is 20.2 percent. Additionally, the median income of employed young adults in California fell from about $35,000 to $32,000 from 2005 to 2011, while other age groups recovered on average. In San Francisco, the unemployment rate for young people aged 16 to 24 was just shy of 14 percent in 2011, double that of individuals spanning ages 18 to 34.

“We know that there’s been a lot of reporting out there that the recession was particularly hard for young adults, but it’s also important to note that they are in a much bigger hole than everyone else,” Rory O’Sullivan, a policy director for Young Invincibles, told the Guardian.

Young Invincibles is a national organization that works to expand opportunities for young adults in education and employment, and to bring attention to the oft-ignored economic plight of young adults seeking a foothold in the job market.

Young Invincibles found the Great Recession hit young adults harder than any previous recession in recent history. A quarter of job loss experienced by millennials occurred after the recession ended, while the unemployment rate for 18 to 34 year olds has consistently been double that of those 35 and up.

“Young people usually take a big hit in a recession,” said O’Sullivan. “Since they’re often the first fired, last hired in a seniority system. You’re going to let go of recent hires and not the more experienced folks.”

It’s a problem that can potentially have broader effects in the long run. “There are huge consequences for the economy down the road if we have a whole generation out of work,” explained O’Sullivan. “Lack of internships and first jobs can really hurt a young person’s wages. If a young person graduates in a recession, their wages will take a hit for decades afterwards — and that could have huge consequences. We’re still a long way behind.”

There’s no easy fix for the myriad economic pressures surrounding young adults, but O’Sullivan points to public-private partnerships as a way to get young people back in the market, even though that doesn’t seem to be working in San Francisco. O’Sullivan said Young Invincibles would like to see more public service jobs created for young people. “There’s a huge demand,” O’Sullivan said. “Rebuilding after national disasters, building houses, tutoring. We have to do a better job of connecting young people to this workforce.”

Small Business Commissioners support Pet Food Express over local stores


San Francisco’s Small Business Commission has recently come under fire for its promotion of corporate interests and, most recently, advocating for an allegedly predatory pet store chain known as Pet Food Express.

In 2009, the Small Business Commission voted in favor of denying Pet Food Express’ application for a location on Lombard Street in the Marina District. Subsequently, the Planning Commission also denied the request, seemingly blocking Pet Food Express’ efforts to set up shop in the Marina. 

San Francisco’s formula retail legislation requires chain stores like Pet Food Express to apply for a conditional use permit in order to receive approval for opening new locations.

But now, Pet Food Express is back after recently filing another identical application with the SBC for the exact same spot on Lombard Street, and this time some members of the SBC are oddly supporting the chain.

As Pam Habel, owner of local Marina pet store Catnip & Bones, pointed out at the commission meeting on June 10, Pet Food Express already has a location on California Street just one mile away. At the same meeting, Susan Landry, owner of another Marina pet store, Animal Connection, added that nothing has changed in the past four years that would point toward the Marina community needing or wanting this Pet Food Express, since four pet-related stores exist within a mile of the proposed Lombard Street location.

“We were really surprised and disappointed that the commission no longer seemed to be an advocate of small business and even made comments indicating sympathy for the big chain pet store,” Habel and Landry, told the Bay Guardian jointly via email. “Commissioner Adams even said it seemed unfair to him to penalize a business that had started out small and now are being victimized for their success since they are one of the largest pet store chains in the U.S.”

So what has changed since 2009 that is now making the SBC consider supporting the proposed Pet Food Express? For one, Mayor Ed Lee’s corporate-friendly appointees to the SBC, including developer Luke O’Brien and President Stephen Adams, a manager for Sterling Bank & Trust.

Additionally, San Francisco Animal Care and Control Director Rebecca Katz lobbied for approval of the Pet Food Express while holding a blind Chihuahua adorned with a sweater at the June 10 meeting. Katz cited Pet Food Express’ many financial contributions to her agency as reasoning behind supporting the chain’s new location and expansion. According to Animal Care and Control spokeswoman Deb Campbell, Pet Food Express donates an estimated $50,000 to $70,000 in supplies annually to the city department.

“The more business Pet Food Express does, the more they grow and the more they give back to the community,” Katz told the Bay Guardian. “We take in about 10,000 animals a year on a budget of about $40 million.”

Kathleen Dooley, one of the SBC’s few existing members still in favor of promoting local business over big business, met Katz’s lobbying with criticism.

“She went up and lobbied for Pet Food Express and implied if it wasn’t for them no pets would be adopted and the animal world would be in chaos,” Dooley told the Bay Guardian. “They already have a number of stores in San Francisco, but they act as if this one on Lombard would change the tide.”

But Katz says that her public promotion of Pet Food Express is not lobbying. “I spoke to the Ethics Commission and they told me it is okay for me to talk about what Pet Food Express does for us,” said Katz.

Few of the arguments in favor of the Pet Food Express’s intrusion into the Marina actually acknowledge the store’s potential detrimental impact on the existing local businesses. Katz even publically said she thought it was ironic to protest another corporation coming into the Marina, where so many chain businesses already exist.

“The size of the Lombard location would allow for an adoption center which would have a huge impact,” said Katz. “Whereas residents have to drive to the California Street location, now they could walk.”

Unfortunately for local Marina businesses, the SBC, whose professed goal is to “work to support and enhance an environment where small businesses can succeed and flourish,” may be doing just the opposite by supporting a chain business that will undoubtedly endanger the many locally owned pet stores.

“As small businesses in San Francisco, we rely on the SBC as our voice at City Hall, not as a sympathetic voice for chain stores,” said Habel and Landry. “Because of their response last month, we no longer feel that we can look to the SBC to support small business in San Francisco.”

In her presentation before the commission, Landry drew an analogy to the previous opening of a Blockbuster on Lombard Street. Following the corporation’s entrance into the community, all four independent video stores in Cow Hollow closed within a year.

At the same meeting, Commissioner Mark Dwight acknowledged the predatory nature of Pet Food Express, who has sat on the same property for four years in order to continuously rally support in favor of the proposed location.

The pet supply stores in the Marina could face the same fate as the local video rental shops if Pet Food Express succeeds in opening on Lombard Street.

“When chain stores go in, commercial rents go up and the small mom and pop businesses are priced out of the neighborhood and replaced by even more chain stores as they are the only ones who, with their corporate structures, can easily afford high rents,” said Landry and Habel. “This is about more than one Pet Food Express application on Lombard, this is part of our battle to retain the heart and soul of our neighborhood commercial corridors.”

Panel sees Orwellian overtones in NSA spying scandal


It is now public knowledge that the NSA has been spying on us (unless you’ve been living under a rock and, lucky for you, exempt from digital surveillance) thanks to the information leaked by Edward Snowden last week.

In the wake of this scandal, people crowded into St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Berkeley on Tuesday, June 11, to participate in a panel discussion titled “Our Vanishing Civil Liberties,” centered around the intricacies of government intrusion and spying in the age of the War on Terror.

Among the panel members were Daniel Ellsberg, famed leaker of the Pentagon papers; Birgitta Jónsdóttir, member of the Icelandic Parliament; Normon Solomon, activist and author; and Nadia Kayyali, a legal fellow with the Bill of Rights Defense Committee.

As Kayyali noted, we now know about the NSA’s capability of obtaining the metadata for all domestic phone calls in the United States, which can include the call length, who you’re calling and in some cases the location of the phone calls.

So is Snowden a patriot or a traitor? For the panel members, the answer was obviously in support of the former. However, for California’s own US Sen. Dianne Feinstein, whose name the crowd constantly met with a crescendo of hissing, Snowden is a criminal, guilty of treason.

Solomon rallied against officials like Feinstein, who he believes should not be entrusted with the protection of our privacy. “What we discover is that the leaders in Congress, the leaders in the White House, the leaders in the courts unfortunately as well cannot be trusted with our lives and that includes our civil liberties,” he said.  

Ellsberg spoke of the comparisons between Snowden and Bradley Manning, an ex-U.S. soldier arrested in 2010 for leaking classified information to WikiLeaks, noting that Manning’s leaks dealt solely with issues “over there,” specifically in Iraq and Afghanistan, while Snowden’s case is inherently more domestic.

“The American people, like other humans, are unfortunately not that concerned about what is done to people over there,” said Ellsberg. “Especially when their leaders tell them that it is necessary to their safety. What strikes me about Snowden is that it affects us, you, everybody.”

However, the repercussions of Snowden’s leak are not solely rooted in America. Jónsdóttir informed the crowd that many European Union countries are concerned with the extended power of the NSA. 

“Our leaders in the many different countries in Europe are so worried about this probing into the privacy of citizens of the EU that they are thinking of building a fortress around Europe to protect us against the surveillance and the invasion of our privacy from the United States,” said Jónsdóttir.

Our challenge now, as Ellsberg stated, is escaping the abyss of unchecked government surveillance. But can we do it? For this question, Ellsberg didn’t have an answer.

The panel raised intertwining issues of government overreach and public apathy, painting the picture of a United States embodying the Orwellian dystopia of 1984 combined with Aldous Huxley’s portrait of apathetic hedonism in Brave New World.

However, Kayyali appeared optimistic for the future, calling upon education and public discussion as the only potential to escape from the intrusive acts of the NSA.

“Never stop educating yourself,” Kayyali told the crowd. “Take everything that you’ve learned here tonight and share it with those around you. The only way we are going to see any change is if we have an educated populace, something that we are severely lacking right now.”

Without action, Ellsberg warned of the potential for a country in which privacy is nonexistent, or what he colloquially refers to as, “The United Stasi of America.”

In her closing statement, Jónsdóttir offered this coda in the form of a poem: Now is the time to yield to the call of growth, to the call of action. You are the change makers. Sleepers of all ages, wake up now.”

Scorning smokers

San Francisco officials are attempting to ban the public use of e-cigarettes under the same laws that restrict smoking cigarettes, which are banned in most public places purportedly because secondhand smoke endangers others. However, the alleged lack of toxic emissions from e-cigarette vapor raises questions about the basis for the crackdown.

Has the crusade against smoking in public really been about protecting the innocent, or is the moralistic motivation to try to save people from their own bad choices also driving the trend? And if so, does that undermine the legal basis for restricting an otherwise lawful product?

Since 2011, the San Francisco Department of Public Health has backed legislation to hold e-cigarettes under the same public smoking laws as traditional tobacco products. Currently, San Francisco’s continually expanding smoke-free ordinance bans cigarette consumption in nearly any public place. This consists of Muni stops, festivals, parks, farmers’ markets, non-smoking apartments and, unfortunately for all you nicotine-addicted bingo lovers, the obscure addition of “charity bingo games.”

San Francisco has yet to pass any regulatory laws regarding e-cigarette consumption, or “vaping.” But Nick Pagoulatos, a legislative aide to Sup. Eric Mar, a staunch sponsor of San Francisco’s many anti-smoking policies, says a plan is in the works.

“Currently there is nothing on the books,” Pagoulatos told the Bay Guardian. “But there has been discussion with the health department [which is] working something up and the Mayor’s Office has been talking with them as well. The timing is unclear, but at some point it will happen.”

California Senate Bill 648, approved in May and currently on its way to the California Assembly, would elevate similar e-cigarette regulations to a state level. So why are California and San Francisco pushing so hard to regulate these products?

“The suspicion is that allowing people to vape these things reinforces the culture of smoking,” Pagoulatos said. “It continues in the tradition of making smoking look cool, even if it’s not actual smoke.”

Traditionally, San Francisco’s smoking ordinances have derived from the hazards of secondhand smoke on innocent bystanders, but the regulation of e-cigarettes evokes an entirely new basis for public smoking laws.

California has an active history of anti-smoking legislation beginning in the 1990s when San Luis Obispo became the first city in the world to ban smoking in all public buildings. In 1998, the public smoking ban elevated to the state level, specifically because of the health risks posed to bar and restaurant employees by secondhand smoke. This year, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to extend the already strict non-smoking laws to cover festivals and street fairs and require landlords to designate their building units as smoking or non-smoking. Now, vapers in California face a similar threat.



E-cigarettes contain a battery operated heating device that vaporizes a combination of nicotine and a binding liquid such as propylene glycol, a substance “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA. Since nicotine is not what kills smokers, e-cigarettes have the potential to exist as a safe alternative for smokers who can feed both the physical and mental habit of smoking without the detrimental effects of tar and the plethora of other chemicals found in traditional cigarettes.

However, conflicting studies exist regarding the safety of e-cigarettes for both users and the public. While the FDA has yet to regulate e-cigarettes, a 2009 evaluation reported the finding of numerous chemicals in e-cigarette liquid, such as those found in antifreeze.

Gregory Conley, legislative director for The Consumer Advocates for Smoke-Free Alternatives Association, told us these reports are misleading.

“Essentially, there is absolutely no evidence that e-cigarette vapor poses any significant threat to public health,” said Conley. “The antifreeze chemical was found in one of the 18 cartridges and tested in an amount that was less than 1 percent. Additionally, the amount of the chemical diethylene glycol found by the FDA would take thousands of cartridges to reach a toxic level.”

Conley cites the publication Tobacco Control, a premier tobacco science journal in the US with no tobacco industry ties, as the leading evidence in the case for e-cigarettes. The study, funded by the National Institute of Health, tested 17 different brands of e-cigarettes for chemicals known to cause harm in secondhand smoke.

“These amounts were nearly identical to the amounts in the control product, or the FDA approved nicotine inhaler,” said Conley. “They are trace levels, and anyone who has been in a room with an e-cigarette knows that there is a vast difference in comparison to a normal cigarette.”

A study by the Fraunhofer Wilhelm-Klauditz-Institut in Braunschweig, Germany found similar results, reporting that the release of toxins from e-cigarettes were marginal to non-existent. In fact, researchers attributed many of the low level chemicals detected in the tests, such as formaldehyde and acetone, to the test subjects, since our lungs naturally exhale these chemicals in small amounts.

Conley says e-cigarettes not only provide a safe alternative, but also offer a public promotion of smoking cessation by illustrating the addicting effects of nicotine.

“It’s a walking advertisement to show how addictive cigarettes are,” Conley said. “The fact that you have to buy one of these things to quit smoking, with a battery and everything, it’s ridiculous.



Equating e-cigarettes and traditional cigarettes does tend to disregard the potential benefits safer nicotine alternatives can have on addicts. The language of the FDA and the DPH appears to dismiss the advantages of e-cigarettes over smoking. While issues certainly arise with the lack of regulation and quality control of e-cigarettes, much of the discussion from these groups pertains to reversing social views on smoking.

“The major concern for us is about social norms,” Derek Smith, a health program coordinator at the Tobacco Free Project, told us. “People get confused about the use of these products in public where they might think tobacco use is allowed. That’s one of the major concerns because there are limits to where people can safely smoke indoors. It’s the idea of a copycat item.”

According to Smith, AT&T Park, San Francisco General Hospital, and the San Francisco Airport Commission have all already banned the use of e-cigarettes on their premises. Some Bay Area cities, such as Petaluma, have already classified vaping under their smoking ordinances. In Canada, the sale of e-cigarettes is entirely prohibited due to a lack of regulation and quality control, while cigarettes remain legal.

FDA regulation could certainly alleviate much of the pressure e-cigarette companies face from the public. However, if a safe e-cigarette is proven to exist via an official FDA evaluation, organizations like the DPH may still not allow public vaping for the sake of remaining strictly against the use of tobacco related products in public places.

Many of the arguments against the use of e-cigarettes are seemingly arbitrary to the discussion of public use since San Francisco’s public policy holds so much blunt hostility toward anything tobacco related (but, of course, anything marijuana related is okay with the city). Oddly, e-cigarettes continue to get flack from the FDA, while other nicotine delivery systems such as patches and gum are FDA approved.

Under what legal grounds could San Francisco’s government have the right to ban e-cigarette usage in public places if they are proved harmless? If the legislation passes, residents of non-smoking apartments would be unable to legally vape a scentless, allegedly toxin free e-cigarette in the privacy of their own home.



In March the FDA appointed Mitch Zeller as the new director of the Center for Tobacco Products. According to his FDA profile, Zeller, a lifelong proponent of FDA tobacco regulation, has deep-rooted ties to the anti-smoking movement and is currently an executive of a pharmaceutical consulting firm working closely with sellers of FDA approved, nicotine-replacement pharmaceuticals.

But Zeller has openly advocated the idea of harm reduction through nicotine-replacement systems, much more than his predecessor, Dr. Lawrence Deyton. So hope may yet exist for the plight of vapers who don’t want to be lumped in with smokers. So much of the anti-smoking conversation is drenched in black-and-white thinking, promoting a system of total abolition over harm reduction. Unfortunately for smokers, this could impede their transition to a safe nicotine delivery system that they can use virtually anywhere, and one that may consequently help save lives. As of now, public discourse and education may act as the most important catalyst toward a widespread understanding of e-cigarettes.

For anyone who has seen an e-cigarette, the soft glow of the LED light at the end has little resemblance to a traditional cigarette, which is on fire and emitting a cloud of noxious smoke. If an FDA approved, emission-free e-cigarette eventually hits the market, users in San Francisco could still face a loss of freedom solely backed by the ideological social standards of the anti-smoking movement, which would bar them from vaping in public. But for now, San Francisco’s vapers should enjoy their freedom while it lasts.

CORRECTION: This article was corrected to change the chemical name in Conley’s quote from propylene glycol and to clarify that the FDA studied the liquid in e-cigarettes, not their emissions.