Guest Opinion

City College will appeal


OPINION City College will appeal last week’s decision by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) to revoke City College’s accreditation.

The reason for the appeal is simple: Most of what ACCJC asked for has been accomplished, and the rest is well on its way towards completion within a year.

First, the San Francisco City College district is financially secure. This is not a district that is close to fiscal collapse. This year’s audit was “clean,” and the budget is balanced, thanks to multiple cost-saving reorganizations, large spending cuts, reforms in practices, and the passage of Propositions A and 30. City College also has a healthy reserve fund well above that of state requirements. City College is even squirreling away money for a special “Ninth year” fund in the event that voters don’t reapprove Prop A when it expires 8 years from now.

The City College budget also increases spending in areas that ACCJC wanted: there is nearly $3 million per year for new technology and building maintenance, both long deferred through the years of radical state funding cuts. City College is also paying money towards the unpaid liability in retiree health benefits. The City of San Francisco also has this kind of liability — to the tune of $4.4 billion — but has so far not come up with a plan to deal with it. City College, on the other hand, has a plan and the funds to enact it.

City College has also cut costs by millions of dollars. There have been layoffs and furloughs, and salary cuts. For instance, faculty members are earning 5 percent less than they did in 2007. Department chairs are earning less, and the Board of Trustees just cut administrators salaries. Streamlined operations have resulted in other savings.

Governance is another area where City College has made major changes. There have been five major management overhauls to streamline bureaucracy, increase efficiency and speed the carrying out of decisions. And many administrators have been replaced. Any one of these overhauls could ordinarily have taken a year each to implement. There were all done in a matter of months.

For instance, the job description of every dean’s position was completely rewritten; some posts disappeared, and new ones were created. Every dean had to reapply for a job, and many did not return. The same is true for other management positions.

City College also replaced a decades-old department chair structure with a system that costs less and has simpler lines of authority. And last fall, the Board of Trustees acted to completely restructure the Participatory Governance system. This is a state-mandated system of getting input from faculty and staff into management decisions. Over 40 committees were dissolved and replaced with a more streamlined system.

The faculty and staff also worked hard in fixing problems identified by ACCJC, particularly in the areas of planning. One of the most important of these is in the collection of Student Learning Outcome data -– a measure of how well students do. Faculty filed thousands of reports in order to fulfill this requirement, a truly enormous amount of work. The collected data will then be used to improve courses next year. This cycle of planning, data collection, and improvement are the basis of ongoing reform effort that takes a year at minimum to prove that it’s working. There is a lot more work to be done in this area. It will take another year to complete — if City College is given the time.

Not everyone at the college agrees with all of the changes that were made. People have the right to express their views, and indeed, we want the internal experts to speak up and give their best advice. And given the speed and monumental scope of the changes, it is very likely that these changes have flaws and that improvements can be made.

But regardless of what people think of the changes that have occurred, these are changes that ACCJC asked for. City College neither ignored nor fought ACCJC’s recommendations, as many people wish we had. City College’s response was to work to enact ACCJC’s will as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately, the decision to revoke accreditation will harm City College’s otherwise good financial position by causing a large drop in student enrollment for fall — and the loss of millions of dollars in state funding. Ironically, this will make it more difficult to finish what ACCJC wants done.

The best course for students is to let City College retain accreditation while it finishes the job that ACCJC wants done.

John Rizzo is President of the City College Board of Trustees


Developers should pay — on time


OPINION San Francisco used to be an eclectic city, filled with working class folks, people of color, lots of artists, and families. But that’s changed dramatically. The black population has dismally plummeted, to 6.3 percent, according to the most recent census. Families of color are streaming out, expensive condos and sky-high rentals are shooting up, and the unique mix that once was the city and made it such a diverse and culturally rich place to live and thrive is changing.

Three years ago, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom decided that private developers in San Francisco needed a local stimulus boost. The housing bubble had burst and taken the economy down with it, but Newsom wanted to ensure that private development in the city continued. So he proposed that private developers be allowed to defer paying the neighborhood impact fees on their projects, thus delaying funding for safety-net programs that help existing residents of working class neighborhoods fight displacement.

His proposal passed in 2010, and since then the Eastern Neighborhoods, SoMa, and the Octavia/Market Area have seen an upswing in private development projects coupled with rising eviction rates and housing costs, while affordable housing throughout the city becomes harder and harder to find. Because neighborhood impact fees were deferred services that would help vulnerable populations were underfunded by a total of almost $53.5 million — in 2011-2012 alone.

That lost money impacted affordable housing construction, affordable child care, development of parks and other types of open spaces, infrastructure and pedestrian-safety measures, neighborhood schools and libraries, and eviction prevention services.

Meanwhile, out-of-town private development companies are set to make millions of dollars building high-end rental units and luxury condominiums that the average San Franciscan can’t afford.

Given that private market-rate residential development in San Francisco is speeding up regardless of displacement dangers, it’s even more necessary today to strengthen and sharpen the tools our neighborhoods have for fighting displacement.

A longstanding question for San Francisco has been how to keep it from becoming a place where only the very wealthy can afford to live while the rest of us have to commute in to the city that we work in and love. Now as we field off another local housing boom fueled by speculation, we are faced again with needing to ensure that we prioritize San Franciscans over profit.

That’s why tenant groups, affordable housing advocates, and San Franciscans fighting for the right to stay in their city will be urging the Planning Commission to end the fee deferrals. The Planning Department staff has studied the issue and recommends that the Newsom program be allowed to expire; that would bring back the funds needed to invest in the vitality and vibrancy of our neighborhoods.

Come join us in helping get San Francisco’s priorities back on track at the Planning Commission meeting Thursday June 13th at 12pm in room 200 of City Hall. Private development is not worth more than the well being of working class communities, immigrants, families, LGBTQ, and tenant communities.

Maria Zamudio is a housing rights organizer for Causa Justa: Just Cause

When the Coastal Commission fails


The sensationalist title of the Bay Guardian article “Fornication loses to soccer fields” (5/15/13) overshadows the far-reaching implications of the Coastal Commission’s rubber-stamp of San Francisco’s Beach Chalet soccer complex. Lost in the article is the story of what really happened: powerful political interests leaned on the commissioners to abrogate their responsibility to protect the California coast.

Project supporters repeated the fallacy that seven acres of artificial turf and 150,000 watts of sports lighting next to Ocean Beach would stem the flight of families from the city. Notably, none of the commissioners acknowledged that the City of San Francisco’s own environmental impact report identified an alternative that meets the project goals — including the need for playtime — without any impact on the coastal zone. In fact, the “need” argument is a red herring to push through a pet project.

When the commissioners approved the Beach Chalet’s 150,000 watts of lights — situated only 500 feet from the beach — they did not even discuss the impacts from sports lights. They disregarded their own staff report — which said much of what opponents of the project have been saying for years — and ignored copious evidence from well-credentialed experts demonstrating the city’s faulty environmental analysis on the negative biological and aesthetic impacts of lights on people and wildlife in the coastal zone.

Only Commissioner Steve Blank seemed willing to uphold his duty to protect the coastline. Blank reminded the panel that its mandate is to uphold the Coastal Act and protect the interests of the 38 million Californians in our shared coastline. The California coastline has remained protected for decades due to the diligence of past commissions. The commission is supposed to transcend local politics. But the remaining commissioners failed to do this.

The approval of the Beach Chalet project is not just the acquiescence of the Coastal Commission to a single project but an all-out attack on coastal protections. Now, any developer who can trump up claims of local need for recreation can expect this commission to rubber-stamp its project.

Anyone concerned about the integrity of California’s coast should be outraged. We encourage you to let your elected representatives know that if the Coastal Commission members can’t abide by the Coastal Act, they should be replaced before they can do even more damage to our remaining coastline.

For those not at the hearing, the Bay Guardian headline refers to the claim that the Beach Chalet is a cruising ground for gay men, a claim used to sensationalize the issue and also to assert that healthy, all-American recreation field would make the area “safe for children.” This homophobic tactic was a recurrent theme during local hearings and has been deeply felt by the LGBT community.

The battle for our parkland is not over. There is currently a CEQA lawsuit in the courts; in addition, a broad coalition of groups is moving forward to continue to fight this project. Join with them — it will take everyone’s participation to win back our parkland, our beach and our coast.

Sue Englander is an Executive Board Member, Harvey Milk LGBT Club. Arthur Feinstein is chair of the Sierra Club, Bay Chapter. Mike Lynes is executive director of the Golden Gate Audubon Society. Katherine Howard is a member of the Steering Committee of SF Ocean Edge.

Tech workers aren’t all evil


Read the full original blog post this op-ed was drawn from here.

OPINION I hear a lot of talk, especially from my own queer community, about how “tech people” are ruining San Francisco. From skyrocketing rent prices and disappearing diversity to economic and cultural ruination, the tech community has become the scapegoat for a lot of the problems we are facing in the city as a whole. As a tech worker, I’m writing this to say: wake up and direct your anger at the real sources of these problems.

First of all, let’s get one thing straight. The vast majority of “tech people” in San Francisco don’t make nearly as much money as you think they do. We are not all making six-figure salaries, we are not personally driving up rent costs, and we are not killing the cultural community here. Simply put, we are trying to further our careers and make the city we call home a nicer place to live.

From day one of living in San Francisco, I’ve put blood sweat and tears into building the cultural community in SF (music, mostly), and I’ll never stop doing that. I first moved here with my husband in 2006 from Indiana. I immediately immersed myself in the music scene here, forming a touring band and quickly becoming a booker and promoter for live shows. It wasn’t until several years into my time here that I snuck my way into the tech industry. Here I am, five years into my tenure at Bay Area music tech startup Thrillcall, hustling every day to help build music communities not only in SF, but across the country.

The tipping point for me, to be honest, was the nonsense of people beating up a Google bus piñata in the Mission, shouting epithets about how they’re the bane of San Francisco. The people that ride those buses are not to blame. They are not heading up that company, they don’t make millions of dollars, and they certainly don’t deserve the hatred being directed at them by many people here in San Francisco.

You know what is ruining San Francisco? Complacency. Apathy. Misguided hate. Inaction. Put some energy into making change, not senseless whining.

If you’re upset about rising rent costs, be angry at the money-hungry landlords that do absolutely nothing to put money back into the city or help build culture. Want SF prices to stop skyrocketing? Let’s organize and drive proposals with our city government. Upset about the recent sanitization of many of the lovely traditions and values of San Francisco? Get mad at Sup. Scott Weiner, who is actually supported by a lot of longtime, non-tech residents. Want more culture, arts, music? Maybe try reaching out to people that can help in the tech world instead of complaining about everything going downhill.

We are not the companies we work for, however large or small. Corporations, for the most part, suck.

We’re not the douche bags you think we are. Let’s put our energy toward doing good, instead of just pointing fingers. We all know that. Demonizing the people that work for them (while contributing to this wonderful city) is baseless, classless, and makes you look like a total dick.

A great deal can be accomplished if people take an active role toward coexisting, rather than shouting “ENEMY!” to anyone who will listen.

Johnny Koch is promotional manager, artist management, and site administrator at Thrillcall.

Behind the attacks on City College


OPINION Last year the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges harshly sanctioned City College of San Francisco and gave us just nine months to shape up or face the consequences. This was pushed on the community even though the quality of education provided at City College was never in question.

Since then, CCSF has changed student assessment metrics and addressed the governance, institutional planning, and enrollment management issues cited. We have done so even as we have also documented disquieting information about the ACCJC’s damaging role at CCSF and at community colleges throughout California.

Our research into ACCJC found that the commission failed to respect the law and public policy of the state and violated federal common-law due process and California common-law fair procedure. Further, at CCSF and in districts around the state, the ACCJC often acts arbitrarily, capriciously, unfairly, and inconsistently in evaluating colleges, thereby harming the schools and their communities.

San Francisco has shown valiant support for City College despite the drumbeat of negative publicity around our accreditation status.

Recently, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted unanimously in support of preserving the quality and diversity of education at City College of San Francisco, of tackling the achievement gap and ensuring equitable opportunities for students, and of utilizing Proposition A funds as intended.

In the age of the 24-7 corporate news cycle, educators and unions are too often portrayed as the opposition in attempts to push austerity, undermine the public sector, and efface the important educational work we do for students. We will not apologize for resisting the downsizing of our students’ educations, for saving jobs, and for protecting educational programs that benefit our students—particularly our most vulnerable students. We will not apologize for attempting to sustain employees’ health, working conditions, and well-being.

When San Franciscans passed Proposition A overwhelmingly last November, it was a ray of light for those of us who have devoted our lives to City College and its students. Providing $15.2 million, the tax was designed to reverse the cuts to classes and employees in our starved public educational system, helping sustain our college for San Franciscans. Now the administration is diverting millions of these dollars and pumping additional money into consultants, lawyers, computers, and maintenance. Under the administration plan, next year less than a third of that money will go toward the educational purposes voters were promised.

Meanwhile, the race to downsize continues. At the negotiating table and in the press, the administration uses the need to retain the college’s accreditation—something all of us agree is crucial—as reason, excuse, and threat. It has shirked its duties at the bargaining table, imposing pay cuts and implementing premature and damaging layoffs of staff and faculty.

We face a host of other dramatic changes that cut into our ability to serve student needs, including a reorganization that pushes faculty expertise and voices further into the background and a shocking lack of substantive dialogue or transparent processes. Our trustees now preside over meetings that squelch public speech, restricting access to a too-small meeting room with the windows literally papered over so that no one can see in or out.

Thankfully, we are not alone in this fight. In Chicago, in Seattle, and in communities around the country afflicted with disingenuous “reforms” and diminished access, we are gathering strength and allies and standing up for the principles that inform our work as educators, responsible for defending and improving quality, accessible public education for the public good.

To join the fight to save our City College, email

Alisa Messer is an English instructor at City College of San Francisco and president of AFT Local 2121, which represents instructors, counselors, and librarians at the college.


The ride-share parasites


OPINION These days, all signs point to the eventual deregulation of the San Francisco cab industry.

On any given weekend night in the city, you can find a wide array of illegal taxis operating with impunity, including limo drivers, out-of-town taxis, Super Shuttle vans, ZIP cars, and even some sketchy folks driving their private vans down Valencia Street at 2am soliciting rides for hire. If you have wheels, you can become your own livery service.

It’s a free-for-all out here. The city appears to be giving all comers carte blanche. And while the courts wrangle over ride-sharing rules and what constitutes a taxicab, the cab industry could cave in under the unfair advantage given to its competitors.

The general manager of ride-share startup Uber, Ilya Abyzov, has been quoted as saying that cab companies have had a “state-sanctioned monopoly. They’re not used to competition.” I have two words for him, and they’re not, Yo taxi! We’re competing with about as much chance as the proverbial one-legged man in a kicking fight.

The advertisement on the website of another startup, Lyft, uses for recruiting drivers reads: “Make $22 an hour, have a blast, drive when you want, meet new people, make friends, learn about new restaurants …” This idyllic version of a cab shift could never happen without real cab drivers holding up the foundation.

I don’t think you’ll find a Lyft cab willing to take a sick grandmother from Kaiser Hospital to her home in the Alice Griffith projects. A pink mustache sighting at Griffith and Fitzgerald will probably coincide with the next great earthquake because only a drastic geological shift will cause that to happen.

Right now, it’s a cakewalk for the ride-share drivers. But without the cab industry picking up the rear and girding the underbelly, these parasites couldn’t exist. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a parasite as an organism that lives in or on another organism (its host) and benefits by deriving nutrients at the host’s expense. Substitute the word “nutrients” for the word “money” and you have what in the cab business we call a bingo.

At the end of the day, driving a cab is a hustle. And once your host is gone and the cab business gets deregulated, kiss your city tours goodbye. You won’t be able to rely on donations anymore, and your legal babble and dishonest terminology won’t save you from a harsh descent into the street, into the dog-eat-dog world of a real cab driver.

And then, you’ll know what it’s like to hustle, in the middle of the night when you’re worried about your gates and gas, and it gets real slow, and you have to take chances with your life.

Desoto Shelby III is the pen name for a San Francisco taxi driver.


Tech Bubble 2.0


OPINION We all remember the first dot-com bubble, right? Web technology start-ups flocked to San Francisco in the late 1990s. Thousands of would-be entrepreneurs and techies filled up the city. Gentrification of Central City neighborhoods accelerated sharply. Apartment rents jumped, followed by the condo boom. Demand for commercial office space, especially South of Market, quickly grew red-hot. Rents zoomed, and office developers rushed dozens of proposed new projects forward.

The leaders of Mayor Willie Brown’s gutless Planning Department rubber-stamped all they could, and decried the annual limit imposed on their approvals by the 1986 community-activist-sponsored Proposition M ballot measure.

The activists and the mayor put two competing measures on the November 2000 ballot in response. Both lost, but the progressive slate for the Board of Supervisors swept that election, defeating most of the mayor’s candidates.

And then Tech Bubble 1.0 popped. The peak year was 2000. The big dot-com bust, 9/11, and finally the Great Recession all followed.

The city’s office market crashed. Some new office buildings were foreclosed by their lenders. Many approved office developments went unbuilt. Overall office market vacancies approached 20 percent by 2010.

Ah, but here we go again — Tech Bubble 2.0! A new wave of recent technology industry start-ups — like Twitter and Yelp — are joining the growing survivors of Bubble Number 1 — like Salesforce. And San Francisco has become a premiere national media venue for the tech industry.

Thousands of would-be entrepreneurs and techies are again filling up the city. Apartment rents are going through the roof. Gentrification of Central City neighborhoods is accelerating even faster. Demand for commercial office space, still in SoMa, is red-hot again.

But by 2011 so much vacant space was on the market, and so many approved buildings were waiting for anchor tenants to start construction, that there has been room for them all so far. Several new buildings got underway. Mayor Ed Lee strategically took advantage of this market boom to target economic expansion to the Central Market District, the last disinvested zone of San Francisco’s Downtown.

Even today though, city office vacancies still exceed 5 percent. And according to the most recent Planning Department report, more than a dozen already-approved new buildings, totaling more than 4.5 million square feet, are waiting to start construction in the Transbay Transit District, South of Market, and Mission Bay. Another 5 million feet of office space is proposed for more than a dozen more pipeline projects for those areas. Plus another 2.5 million feet is planned for projects on Port property — including the San Francisco Giant’s huge project — that are not even on the Planning Department’s list yet!

How does this total of 12 million square feet of pending new San Francisco office buildings compare to historic demand? Going back to 1986, the amount of new office space actually built — true long-term market demand through the boom/bust business cycles — averages out to about only 750,000 square feet a year. The city’s old-school corporate headquarters dramatically downsized or even moved out of San Francisco — like Chevron and Bank of America — and that’s still ongoing. The new tech industry is mostly replacing them. So these 30+ identifiable current projects would provide a 16-year supply of office space at historic rates.

But even in the face of this evident market glut of future office buildings, the usual civic development hypsters are once again muttering about gutting Proposition M, and radically upzoning Soma for even greater office expansion. Is that who City Hall will listen to this time too?

Bubble? What Bubble? [Pop!]

John Elberling is executive director of the Tenants and Owners Development Corporation.

The Pope’s political sins


OPINION I still remember when I was removed from solitary confinement into the general inmate population of Tres Alamos — one of the infamous concentration camps of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet -– and the special welcome given to us 30 or so freshly arrived detainees by the commander of the camp, Conrado Pacheco.

He was dressed in his best military attire. I will never forget the clattering of his black shiny boots, his watery eyes, his mouth salivating like a predator before a feast.

The bloody military rule was in full swing. It was the end of 1975, a time when one of the fiercest repressions was unleashed against the left, the supporters of the ousted Salvador Allende’s government — and the progressive wing of the Catholic church, lead mostly by Jesuit priests.

Next to me was a tall dirty man with a somber yet authoritative look behind his glasses. A bold lawyer who later became president of Amnesty International, Jose Zalaquett’s unclenched look made Conrado Pacheco uneasy. The curas buenos — the good priests Patricio Gajardo and US citizen Daniel Panchot — were also standing in the line.

The roughed up lawyer and priests were from the Comité Pro Paz. Created a few months after the military coup of 1973 the Committee for Peace was the only organization that, under the protection of a sector of the Catholic Church, was defending and giving sanctuary to the thousands of victims of human rights violations.

The welcoming speech of the commander waxed Nazi-like verbose about nationalism, order, communist evil, Che Guevara, and sarcastic references about God. “Mister lawyer here,” I remember him saying while looking at Zalaquett, “since he should be outside and not inside … I’m not sure what he can do to defend you all.” And pointing at the priests, the scoundrel said, “since we have two distinguished representatives of God, you all now know where to go in case you have some pending debts with the Lord, you all fucking sinners!”

All these memories flooded back to me when I learned about the ascent of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis I, and the stories dripping out of Argentina about his collusion with the military during the guerra sucia, dirty war.

Horacio Verbinsky, an Argentinean investigative journalist who has written extensively about the church and the military, wrote in his 1995 book, The Silence, that Bergoglio gave information to the Argentinean secret police about the activities of the Jesuit priests Francisco Jalics and Orlando Yorio, after they refused to stop working with the poor in Buenos Aires’ shanty towns. Bergoglio dropped their protection, a sort of immunity offered to the Jesuit society by the military, which eventually lead to their arrest. Both were brutally tortured and dumped drugged and naked on a wasteland.

Bergoglio also befriended General Emilio Massera, a member of the Argentinean military junta, who was later accused of crimes against humanity and of stealing the babies of disappeared political prisoners to be raised by military families.

Jalics, Yorio, and those two fathers I came to know in prison, Gajardo and Panchot, were among those priests who followed to the letter the teachings of Christ to protect the helpless, to feed and be with the needy and did not capitulate in silence.

The Vatican has recognized that Bergoglio asked “a request for forgiveness of the Church in Argentina for not having done enough at the time of the dictatorship …” But the statement, read by Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi March 15, falls short.

The Sumo Pontífice, the Pope Francis l, the one who will lead more than 1.1 billion people, must come clean and respond to all the testimony that is fogging his character. He must side with truth and justice; the only door that can lead us to reconciliation. After all, forgiveness, after the truth comes out, has always been an option in the Catholic Church.

Fernando Andrés Torres is a San Francisco writer

Time out by the Bay


OPINION Pretend that you and your best friends are entrusted — temporarily — with responsibility to run a big city. The energy of its people, the diversity of its residential neighborhoods, and its natural beauty have made this a successful city. The centerpiece of its natural beauty is its front yard, a body of sparking water called “The Bay.” You are entrusted with keeping the Bay accessible and visible to the people — all of whom own it.

One day developers come along and say that they want to build an entertainment complex on public property, right on this Bay. It will be a big, 14-story structure. It will bring in some 2 million patrons for more than 200 entertainment events each year. And, the developers go on, it will be in the middle of a residential community, mess up traffic and block physical and visual access to the Bay. Furthermore they tell you, we will need you to violate all the controls you have painfully placed on building heights and uses on the waterfront. And, by the way, they will need a subsidy of $120 million in public money.

Lastly they tell you, they will play 41 professional basketball games in the building. This will double or triple the value of their franchise — but unfortunately requires that they significantly increase the ticket price for their fans.

As a good manager you might ask what the landlord, the Port — which holds the land as a public trust — will get in return for its $120 million subsidy and for the use of public property. You are astonished to learn that, for the next many decades, the Port receives not a penny. Knowing the environmental damages, the impact on transportation in your city and being concerned about maintaining livable neighborhoods, you might then say: “Hold on — this is a bad deal. Is there not a better, less costly, less destructive, less divisive location in our city?”

You might say that — but SF’s city management has not. There has been no effort whatsoever to find a more appropriate location, one less destructive to San Francisco’s environmental values, that would require less than a $120 million subsidy.

And time has virtually run out to ask the basic question of whether the proposed site on Pier 30/32 is an appropriate site for this entertainment complex. The city is rushing headlong into making this deal. The Board of Supervisors does have final authority, but when it gets there, so much time and effort will have been spent that the likelihood of it being stopped is virtually zero.

You, the pretend manager, would surely call a time out. You would put together city officials and representatives of the city’s neighborhoods with the developer and require that they, together, come up with a site that all could gladly support. That might be what you’d do -– but it is not what is happening in the real world of City Hall.

It’s time for people like you, and others like you, to demand that the real city officials call a temporary halt to their juggernaut and provide a process that would first answer the basic question of whether Pier 30/32 is an appropriate site for this entertainment complex or whether alternative sites would not better serve the city and its Bay.

Rudy Nothenberg has held senior positions in the administrations of six San Francisco mayors.

Hacking the US debt


OPINION The so-called Fiscal Cliff has been averted. But the country actually has a much bigger issue — the debt ceiling.

For the uninitiated, the debt ceiling is exactly what it sounds like, an artificial limit imposed by Congress the keep the president from borrowing money. The ceiling was originally passed back in 1917 to prevent the government from excess spending during the First World War. Besides its constitutionality being questionable, it’s also useless and dangerous.

The far right goes bananas about the national debt, and points to the ceiling as a way to keep it from growing. But the debt growth in question is simply to pay back bills on products and services that Congress already used. So to impose a ceiling now is not to cut growth, but to default on US creditors.

The Republicans are refusing to raise the debt ceiling unless they get huge cuts in social programs — and if current spending hits the ceiling, the United States would be unable to pay its bills.

But there’s a solution, a way President Obama could get around the GOP and its threats altogether. It’s a unorthodox — but legal. Call it debt hacking.

Obama could simply direct the Treasury to print a series of platinum coins in denominations of at least $1 trillion. It’s not perfect, and it’s not without potential cost — but compared to defaulting on debt or cutting Social Security and Medicare, it’s not a bad option.

The president is legally barred from asking the US Mint to print more money — gold coins or paper bills — without the permission of Congress. But under an obscure 1996 law, there’s an exception for platinum.

So upon realizing that the GOP leaders in Congress will push the republic into default, President Obama could direct the Mint to produce, say, three coins — each with the face value of $1 trillion. The coins would be deposited into the general treasury account at the Federal Reserve. This would then be converted into credit to buy back and retire enough debt to give Obama, and the country, some breathing space.

In fact, Obama could do something even bolder and create more coins, to go beyond breathing space and pay off almost all the national debt except for that held by Social Security. But that sort of action — the government just printing new money — can, many economists warn, create hyperinflation.

Still, the Federal Reserve magically produced about $30 trillion to help bail out banks not long ago, and there was little discernible inflation. The government wouldn’t actually be creating new money — it would simply be replacing debt that the country pays interest on with paper (or digital accounting) that it doesn’t. And right now, inflation is the least of our national worries; a little inflation might even help homeowners and those with heavy credit-card debt pay off what they owe with cheaper money in the future.

Of course, no government can do this on a regular basis. The US Dollar could lose its reserve status if investors start to fear the potential of future platinum coins appearing. But what are the alternatives? US dollars and US debt are, and will remain, trusted investments. China may not purchase as many bonds in the future, but the money we save on interest payments could be well worth it.

It’s a crazy idea, but these are crazy times — and if the GOP continues to threaten to destroy the economy, Obama might want to consider something bold.

Johnny Venom is an economist and commodities trader.

More school security? Maybe not.


OPINION I pretty much live in schools. Almost every morning, I get my three-year-old ready for pre-school, my seven-year-old ready for first grade, and myself ready for high school, where I teach English. Almost everyday, I’m in at least three schools. But never before had I thought so thoroughly about school security until Monday, Dec. 17, when I drove my daughters, and then myself, to school for the first time after the shootings in Newtown.

My first stop is my daughter’s public elementary school in San Francisco. Because I often have an 8am class and am pressed for time, I almost never walk her into school. I pull up along a curb, where fifth graders clad in fluorescent vests open the back door of my car to escort my daughter out. From there, she walks alone into a side door and then out onto an outdoor basketball court, where the whole school gathers every morning. Her teacher then takes my daughter to her classroom, which is, incidentally, closest to the front door to the school, which is always open during the day. A potential shooter would have no problem entering, and with enough ammunition and a deadly enough gun, he could kill at will.

I asked for the first time that day: would it be better to close off the campus?

The next stop is my three-year-old daughter’s pre-school. There, I park my car, get her out, and walk to the front entrance, where an administrative assistant buzzes me in upon recognition. Because it’s busy in the mornings, I often hold the door for other parents trying to get in. Of course, it would be very easy for a killer to force his way in behind one of us, or he could simply shoot the glass if he was determined enough.

Again, the questions arise: should the director have a gun in her office? Should we put up metal doors? Should the school hire a security guard monitoring cameras before letting parents and children into the school?

Finally, I arrive at my high school, which is a rather affluent independent school. I park on the street and walk right in. Often the receptionist doesn’t even notice me. We have a completely open campus, with many doors into which someone could enter with no resistance whatsoever. We have security guards, but they are unarmed and more concerned with directing traffic around the school than with a potential intruder. All of our students have off-campus privileges. Should we keep students on campus? Should we bar all the doors? Place an armed security guard at every entry point into the school?

The answer I’ve come to is no.

The question of school security gets at the very nature of what schools are. Schools both are and are not of the world. On the one hand, schools are a place that prepares our youth for the world. They’re also a place where young people can learn to take risks, where they can make mistakes before they go out into the “real” world. On the other hand, however, schools reflect our neighborhoods, our counties, our cities, our states, our country, and our world.

If we bar our schools off from the outside world, the message that we’re sending to our children is that the world is a place to be feared, a place where calculus won’t do you any good — but where a gun will. To “secure” our schools is to admit our collective failure at making the outside world safe. It is to admit that one of the fundamental values of any society, and in particular our American society—trust—has been broken.

I would hope instead that we work now to change the world enough to communicate to our children that the world is, in fact, a place that is not just safe but that they are invited into, a place where they can thrive and find happiness rather than a place to fear and hide from. Our responsibility is not to gate schools off from the world but to take the need for gates down altogether.

Scott Laughlin teaches English at University High School.

Putting transit first


By Stuart Cohen, Leah Shahum, Rob Boden, and Elizabeth Stampe

OPINION Every day, San Franciscans pay the price of an underfunded transportation system. We have all experienced painfully overcrowded bus rides … or, worse yet, the bus that never shows up. Now, Muni is reducing service during Christmas week, as it is faced with a $7 million deficit this fiscal year.

Today, we are finally facing up to the reality that our declining transportation system hurts us all. It hurts our economy and it hurts people all along the economic spectrum. San Francisco is a world-class city in many ways, but we have a long way to go to have a world-class transportation system.

San Franciscans want better transit options: reliable, fast, comfortable buses, and safe and pleasant streets for walking and biking. San Franciscans support the city’s official transit-first policy, but lacking political will, the city hasn’t delivered on it.

By failing to make the tough decisions to fund our transit system, our leaders have put the burden on those who depend on affordable transportation options most. Transportation is one of the top expenses for people living in the Bay Area, after housing, and an exponentially greater burden for those with lower incomes.

Who will be hurt most by Muni’s skeletal service this holiday week? Working families.

That is why our organizations are proud to have joined together recently to support a proposal to update the Transit-Impact Development Fee (TIDF), which would have ensured that major developments pay their fair share into the city’s transit system. This would have included large nonprofits like Kaiser and the Exploratorium, when they build major new developments that generate thousands of new trips. The fee, probably about 1 percent of costs, would have paralleled the existing development fees for water, sewer, parks, and even art, that nonprofits already pay. It would not have included small nonprofits, and of course most nonprofits never build developments at all.

It would have helped visitors to large institutions have more dependable transit to get there, and helped the whole transportation system work better for everyone.

But it didn’t pass, and last week’s opinion piece (“The Muni vs. housing clash,” 12/18/12) mischaracterized the issue, suggesting a trade-off between basic services and transportation. But good, reliable, safe transportation is a basic service. Just like housing and health care, it’s something everyone should have access to, and something our city has declared a priority with its transit-first policy.

Unsafe streets are inequitable streets; low-income people and people of color are more likely to be hit by cars while walking. Underfunded transit is inequitable; low-income people have fewer options aside from walking or taking the bus, and the stakes are higher when the bus is late or doesn’t arrive.

Funding transit is a core progressive value. Great public transit — and being able to get around the city under your own power, by walking and bicycling — are great equalizers in a city like ours.

We should be investing more and expecting more from our transit system. Our organizations are proud to be doing just that. It’s time to help San Francisco finally live up to its transit-first policy — because that means putting people first.

Stuart Cohen works with TransForm, Leah Shahum with the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, Rob Boden with the San Francisco Transit Riders Union, and Elizabeth Stampe with Walk San Francisco.

The Muni vs. housing clash


OPINION Two votes at the Board of Supervisors and the Municipal Transportation Agency Dec. 4 laid out a stark contrast between two different approaches to transportation advocacy — one based on a sense of justice and the idea that public transit is an issue of equity, and another based on the self interest and transactional politics of a cash-strapped transportation agency and its dedicated allies.

After years of work, organizing transit riders and talking to policy makers from the local to the regional levels, a scrappy group of transit justice advocates, many of them young, most of them people of color, got the Municipal Transportation Agency board to approve a $1.6 million plan to fund free Muni passes for low-income youth. It sent a strong message that a new kind of transportation advocacy has arrived, one that puts race, class, and environment at the center.

Meanwhile, a separate vote was taking place at the Board of Supervisors that seemed to pit community organizations, nonprofit service providers, and affordable housing developers on opposite sides of the fence from what has become a mainstream transportation and bicycle advocacy community.

We should have been on the same side. But a last-minute maneuver by Sup. Scott Wiener to add to the MTA’s strained budget (a worthy goal) by expanding the 30-year Transportation Impact Development Fee (TIDF) to include nonprofits that provide critical services in our neighborhoods backfired and sent his amendments out the door in a 9-2 vote.

Many transportation and bicycle advocates seemed incredulous that the rest of the world did not accept their arguments.

I consider many of these transportation advocates friends and acquaintances whom I have known and worked with for years. But rather than seeing themselves as part of a greater social justice movement rooted in the communities who are most affected, some of these advocates have become increasingly narrow in their scope, single-minded in their pursuit of funding for bike lanes and bulbouts, as well as rapid transit projects serving downtown commuters.

Real-world politics requires that activists, organizers, and policy advocates be flexible and willing to figure out how to work with others very unlike themselves. Recently an organization I work for was able to work in a broad coalition, convened by the mayor, to develop and campaign for a Housing Trust Fund to create a permanent source of funding for affordable housing, as a direct response to the State of California taking away the city’s housing budget when it dissolved the redevelopment agencies. We walked into the room knowing that we would have to make tough decisions, and have to take those back to our allies in the progressive movement.

But we also walked in with non-negotiables. We were not going to entertain any attempt at weakening rent control by tying the Housing Trust Fund to lifting the condo conversion lottery. We would not support a set-aside without increasing city revenue to support not just our housing trust fund but also critical health and social services. We do not screw over our broader movement for pure self-interest.

We stand at a crossroads, and we could very well end up with two different transportation advocacy communities, both talking about the same thing, but with very little to say to each other. As the old mineworker’s song used to say, it’s time to decide: “Which side are you on?”

Fernando Martí works at the San Francisco Information Clearinghouse

A cab driver’s lament


OPINION I’m a San Francisco taxi driver. The reality on the streets is terrible.

Cab drivers are being squeezed from all sides. The Municipal Transportation Agency is part of the problem, because for the past year or so it has been energetically focused on enhancing the city’s revenues by selling taxi medallions (for $200,000) and putting hundreds of new cabs in service, at the expense of drivers.

That happened to coincide with the introduction of Sidecar and Lyft, to which the MTA’s response is painfully slow and ineffective. Neither problem is being resolved to the benefit of drivers.

SideCar and Lyft pretend that they’re just folks doing community service car-pooling, while being backed by millions of venture capital dollars. They are trying to be taxi services while avoiding using the word “taxi” in their names. They don’t want to talk about driver safety or insurance issues.

Cab drivers are heavily regulated for a reason — for your safety. There is accountability in the system.

There is no oversight of the new industry interlopers. The way these companies operate is not safe and not legal. When I went through my city-required week of driver training, photographing, fingerprinting, background check, and fee paying, everyone involved took it very seriously. If a cab driver screws up in any way, the company pulls him or her off the street.

Taxi drivers are held to a high standard of performance. We’re not the pizza delivery guy who’s now using his car to “ride-share” people around. Most of the time that won’t matter — until it really does matter. With SideCar and Lyft, if something goes wrong, you’ll find yourself with no protection and nowhere to turn.

I’m a night shift driver, and let me make it clear: Driving a taxi is a very hard job. You have to know the city, you have to deal with all kinds of people, have the patience of Job, make no mistakes, and be okay with little better than minimum wage — although there are no wages for cab drivers, what you make is whatever business you can manage to find — with no guarantees or benefits. The driver is the sole merchant, and he or she takes all the risks.

The regulatory framework needs to catch up with the technology, which is here to stay. The larger cab companies already use GPS technology. Luxor uses the “Taxi Magic” or “Cabulous” app to connect cabs to people who need rides.

But the taxi industry is already in a situation where, as a Guardian editorial noted, “too many cabs chasing too little money leads to bad behavior — and bad drivers.” The cease and desist order against the interlopers is being ignored. The fines imposed on them are being challenged and appealed.

So the industry is dysfunctional, with lawyers on all sides making things worse — and the drivers are the only ones who are suffering the consequences.

John Horn drives for Luxor Cab


Vote yes on fresh school meals


OPINION My young friend ate school meals in San Francisco for 12 years. With food in short supply at home, he had little choice but to eat cafeteria offerings, but he was disheartened by the rubbery meat patties and limp vegetables that characterize frozen reheated school lunches. That’s why he was thrilled to hear that SFUSD wants to replace frozen meals with freshly prepared entrees. Although his school lunch days are over, his younger siblings still rely on the cafeterias. He hopes they will never again be served a meal still frozen in the middle, or the lifeless, tasteless food he remembers.

For years, parents and students have identified “fresh healthy food” as the most wanted improvement to school meals. SFUSD has tried to respond; middle and high schools offer lunch choices prepared daily on site, in addition to the traditional frozen reheated entree. But now SFUSD is ready to move forward with a new meal contract that would ensure all meals at every school are freshly prepared locally.

School officials are bringing the proposed contract, with Oakland-based Revolution Foods, to the Board of Education on Dec. 11. With board approval, students will be enjoying freshly prepared meals as early as January 7th.

Healthier food, happier students and parents — what’s not to like? The price, of course. In expensive San Francisco, with above-average food and labor costs, the money the federal government provides for school meals for low income students is already insufficient to cover the cost of serving those meals. Replacing cheaper frozen entrees with freshly prepared offerings drives the price higher still, and despite the passage of Prop 30, SFUSD continues to face major financial challenges.

The board should approve the new meal contract despite its higher cost — because academic achievement, equity and proper nutrition are not unrelated issues. Better food means better nourished students; healthy kids take fewer sick days and are better able to learn. Kids who eat only a few bites of unappealing meals return to class without the fuel they need to power them through an academic afternoon. Hungry students struggle to focus, or even to stay awake; they can be quick to anger (a condition school counselors call “hangry” — angry because hungry) and disrupt learning for everyone.

SFUSD’s student nutrition department runs the largest public feeding program in the city; the majority of school cafeteria patrons are low-income children of color, so offering better food is an equity issue.

If the board nixes the new contract, meal costs will still increase in 2013, with food, milk and delivery prices already rising. So SFUSD would find itself paying more for the same frozen meals students reject now.

The SF Board of Education meets at 6pm, in the Irving G. Breyer Board Meeting Room on the ground floor at 555 Franklin Street.

Dana Woldow is the parent of three SFUSD graduates, and has been an advocate for better school food since 2002.

KCSM and the future of community TV


OPINION On October 24th, the San Mateo Community College District Board of Trustees voted unanimously to reject the final two bidders (of an original six) for the broadcast license for KCSM television, bringing to an end an 18-month process by the district to try to sell the television broadcast license housed at the College of San Mateo since 1964. KCSM television reaches 10 Bay Area counties and is broadcast on 60 municipal cable systems in Northern California.

The 48-year old TV station was originally established as a broadcast training facility. From 1964 to 1980, the College of San Mateo ran one of the most comprehensive broadcast journalism programs in the country. In 2004, the station converted to a digital-only signal and in 2009, dropped PBS affiliation and became one of the largest independent public televisions stations in the country.

The district, which operates the College of San Mateo, Skyline College and Canada College, has experienced the severe financial pressures affecting California higher education generally and community colleges in particular. Throughout the US, colleges and universities have been shedding non-commercial broadcast licenses at a rapid rate, causing a crisis in independent media that has long had a home at educational facilities. KCSM-TV is the largest Bay Area media asset to go on the chopping block so far.

KCSM currently broadcasts a block of distance learning opportunities and on-line courses that provide a lifeline to many Bay Area residents who for reasons of disability or family obligations can’t participate in campus-based education. It also features a variety of cultural-exchange, craft/hobby, theatrical and informational programs including Ideas in Action, the Miller Center forums and Moyers and Company. The station is also one of the few sources for children’s programs free of commercials and provides 16 hours of week of kids TV.

Educational broadcasters are a bulwark against the commercially-driven broadcast media, whose need to deliver eyes and ears to advertisers compels them to avoid potentially controversial content and pander to the audiences that are most likely to buy large amounts of consumer goods. The freedom to present content that appeals to smaller niche audiences or presents ideas that may be challenging to some aspects of the status quo largely belongs to the independent media. So when a big chunk of it goes up for sale, it affects everyone who values the free exchange of ideas without a corporate blockade.

My organization, democratic communication advocates Media Alliance, filed a public records request with the District to obtain the details of the bids for the broadcast license and the documents are available for review at

Unsuccessful bidders for the station included Christian broadcaster Daystar Television Networks, low-power San Jose station KAXT, the Minority Television Project, which operates KMPT, Channel 32, and Belmont’s Locus Point Networks, a startup run by two former telecom executives The final two runners-up were Public Media Company, a division of the Colorado LLC Public Radio Capital, the radio brokers who have been active in scooping up college radio stations, and San Mateo Community Television, a newly established nonprofit connected with Independent Public Media of Colorado.

At the October 24th board meeting, district trustees stated repeatedly that despite the collapse of the process, they were unwavering their determination to sell the television license. This follows previous board meetings at which some trustees referred to the $5 million public asset as the equivalent of a junked car.

A new bid cycle is likely to ensue, which will provide an opportunity for an open and transparent process to find a responsible local operator to serve Bay Area residents and their informational and educational needs. It’s more than time for colleges and universities to stop speculating on broadcast infrastructure like Maui condos and strive to fulfill the public interest obligations inherent in the free gift of a non-commercial license to broadcast.

Tracy Rosenberg is the executive director of Media Alliance, an Oakland-based advocate for community media. They can be found at

The case for Prop F


By Mike Marshall

OPINION Progressives have a rare opportunity to improve San Francisco’s water and power policies by passing Proposition F, the Water Conservation and Yosemite Restoration Initiative, this November. Prop F would require the city to do something it’s been reluctant to do: develop a plan for making our outdated, wasteful water system more sustainable and environmentally friendly.

Despite San Francisco’s “green” reputation, we don’t yet recycle water, we treat rainwater as sewage, we wash our streets and flush our toilets with drinking water, and we use Yosemite National Park as a water storage tank (Hetch Hetchy Valley, where we built a dam almost 100 years ago, was one of Yosemite’s grandest valleys and contained an extraordinary ecosystem).

Meanwhile, other California cities and counties have developed much more eco-friendly water systems. Orange County, not known for progressivism, recycles 92 million gallons of water a day.

Opponents of Prop F claim that reform of our water system would be too expensive, but they cite unreliable and inflated cost estimates. One of Prop F’s purposes is to replace such speculation with realistic numbers.

Opponents say it’s “insane” to take away San Francisco’s water source, but that’s misleading; Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is a storage site (one of nine reservoirs in our water system), not a water source. The Tuolumne River is our primary water source, and will remain so regardless of whether we return Hetch Hetchy Valley to the National Park Service for restoration.

Opponents claim we’d lose the hydropower generated by the current system, but our hydropower facilities are downstream from Yosemite, and would continue to power all the same city services they currently do. It’s true that if we relinquish the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, we’ll have less power to sell to other energy markets, but we can make up the difference by increasing our investment in renewable power such as wind and solar, which we should be doing anyway.

In fact, San Francisco owns 42 miles of above-ground right-of-way between Yosemite and the city, where we can place enough solar panels to generate at least 40 megawatts per year—an idea that the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has never even considered. This, too, can be part of the plan that will result from passage of Prop F.

Remember, Prop F changes nothing about our current system. It simply requires the formation of a task force with a lean budget of $8 million to develop a specific plan for reform, which will be completed in 2015 and made available for public review, discussion and debate. San Francisco voters would then approve or reject the plan in 2016. Only if voters approve the plan will actual reform begin. This approach is appropriately cautious, thorough and transparent. If the costs of reform are too high, or if our commitment to a sustainable future is too low, voters will reject the plan and our current water system will continue unchanged.

Prop F opponents aren’t waiting to see what the costs of reform might be, or even whether the reform plan makes sense. They want to prevent the plan from happening. How does that serve the interests of San Francisco residents, when the plan would give them essential information about how and whether their water system can become more sustainable?

So please join me in voting for Proposition F. Let’s at least get a water reform plan on the table.

Mike Marshall lives in Hayes Valley is the Executive Director of Restore Hetch Hetchy.

Another look at Olague


OPINION As Election Day nears, the chaotic contest for supervisor in District 5 represents a critical decision for progressive voters in the district — and for activists across the city.

The campaign for Julian Davis, the original first choice of many left/liberal activists, has imploded and is now in free-fall. The repercussions of the board’s vote on Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi continues to reverberate, nowhere more than in District 5. And respected progressive advocates who had worked together for decades are now estranged, even as our city faces urgent challenges of great complexity.

I don’t know Davis or the other candidates in District 5, but I sat down with Supervisor Christina Olague last month after she received the endorsement of the San Francisco Labor Council. It was our first meeting, and as I rode the Metro to Civic Center I was, frankly, not expecting much. Like many San Franciscans, I could not help but be skeptical of anyone appointed by Mayor Ed Lee. I had heard of decisions made and votes cast by Olague that troubled me. I was not expecting to like her, but friends of mine in the labor movement encouraged me to speak with her directly and I’m glad I did.

I started to like Olague as we walked from her office to find some lunch. Before we got to a restaurant I was already asking her questions about some of the tougher choices she’s made. We didn’t agree on everything, of course, but I was struck by her candor, her common sense, and pragmatic progressive values.

Christina Olague grew up in a migrant labor community in the Central Valley. She survived the often-brutal working conditions and poverty that define the lives of some of the most cruelly exploited workers in the United States. She became active in politics early in life, put herself through school, and moved to San Francisco, where she became a familiar figure in the city’s grassroots community.

As a Latina, and as a member of the LGBT community, Olague’s life experiences shaped her politics and basic values. Her candidacy is important in a city that seems every day more destined to become an enclave reserved exclusively for only the very wealthy and most privileged.

I endorsed Olague several weeks before she cast her vote on the struggle between Lee and Mirkarimi. I would have continued to support her regardless of her vote that day. But the bitterness of that controversy, and the nature of the scandal now surrounding Davis, underscore the need for progressives to heal, to repair our alliances and to demonstrate political leadership grounded in respect for all our communities.

The UNITE HERE International Union represents hotel, restaurant, casino, food service and laundry workers throughout the US and Canada. The majority of our members — the people I work for — are immigrant women. In our union we stand together: LGBT and straight, brown and black and white, immigrant and native-born. In all our actions we seek to build power for working people and to strengthen the broader movement for peace and social justice.

San Francisco has seen many changes in the 40 years since I first hitchhiked here as a youth from Arizona. While the political landscape has certainly altered, I reject the notion that the city’s voters have moved irrevocably to the right. I do believe that progressive activists must do better in communicating our values and our vision for this beautiful and unique city we all love. I think Olague could be an important part of that process.

On behalf of the members of UNITE HERE Local 2, and as a longtime organizer for LGBT and worker rights, I ask my many friends in District 5 to take another look at Christina Olague and to consider casting your vote for her on November 6.

Cleve Jones is a longtime activist and the founder of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt

The return of the ugly laws


OPINION In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, municipalities across the country passed what have become known as “ugly laws,” often modeling their ordinances word for word on San Francisco’s. According to The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public, Susan Schweik’s comprehensive study of these laws, they were intended to target those who “exposed disease, maiming, deformity, or mutilation for the purpose of begging.” In city after city a pattern emerged of “enactment, reenactment, crackdown, malaise.” As Schweik writes, “what most aligned” the cities “were not the law’s successes, but its failures, the impossibility of removing the unsightly in the form of persons.”

Fast-forward 150 years and “sit lie,” replaces “ugly,” as the name for a category of laws whose intention is to remove the unsightly from our public spaces. Different in form, but nearly identical in intent and justification, these laws are now sweeping through the country, disfiguring the municipal codes of one city after another. San Francisco is not patient zero of this epidemic. But it now threatens to pass that contagion on directly to Berkeley.

Berkeley’s Measure S would prohibit sitting on any commercial sidewalk or on any object placed on the sidewalk without express permission of the city between 7 am and 10 pm. (Since 1998 Berkeley has had an ordinance prohibiting lying on the sidewalk.)

As with the “ugly laws,” the fact that sit lie-laws have been ineffective, has proven no impediment to their spread. Months before the Berkeley City Council voted to place Measure S on the ballot, an independent analysis of San Francisco’s sit-lie ordinance conducted one year after its implementation concluded that it had “on the whole, been unsuccessful at meeting its multi-faceted intentions to improve merchant corridors, serve as a useful tool for SFPD, connect services to those who violate the law, and positively contribute to public safety for the residents and tourists of San Francisco.” Undeterred by the failures of sit-lie in San Francisco, proponents of Measure S, most prominently business improvement districts representing commercial landlords, promise it will rid the city of what they describe as unsightly “encampments” of nomadic street youth.

The fact that Measure S is targeted at homeless youth is an open secret. Ugly laws are a thing of the past. It is not constitutionally permissible to pass laws that target people for who they are as opposed to what they do. The Supreme Court has declared laws against loitering and vagrancy unconstitutionally void for vagueness. The workaround these constitutional obstacles is to pass laws against specific behaviors associated with people whom we don’t want in our public space. Like laws prohibiting sitting on the sidewalk.

Over a hundred years ago, Anatole France famously praised “the majestic equality of the law that forbids the rich and the poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” He would no doubt smile at a law that forbids everybody from sitting on the sidewalk. Measure S is supported by people who hide behind its “majestic equality,” but count on a “majestic inequality,” in its enforcement. They believe, without reservation, that it will always be enforced against others.

I don’t like using disease metaphors in politics. Susan Schweik describes the spread of ugly laws as a “contagion,” and it’s hard to resist a similar metaphor for the spread of sit-lie laws. But what is really at stake here is an ugly tendency in national politics, spread not by an anonymous bug, but by people in positions of power and influence, to shift the blame for our sour economy from those who run the system to those who are run over by it: labor unions, public employees, teachers, immigrants, and now, in Berkeley and too many other cities, people who are homeless. If Berkeley passes Measure S, sit-lie laws could be greenlighted across the nation, for who could object that such laws are unfair and mean spirited if oh-so-radical Berkeley passed one. On the other hand, if we defeat measure S Berkeley has a chance to model how a community can come together to find real solutions to real problems in hard economic times.

Osha Neumann is an attorney with the East Bay Community Law Center, and Chair of Berkeley Standing Up for the Right to Sit Down/No on Measure S. For more on the measure, visit

The Aoki files


Editors note: Steve Woo and Alex T. Tom argued in a Guardian oped last week that a new book unfairly paints Richard Aoki as an FBI snitch. The book’s author asked for space to respond.

OPINION I write to correct serious misstatements about my new book — and particularly about my revelation that the late radical leader Richard Aoki was an FBI informant — in the editorial by Steve Woo and Alex T. Tom.

My book, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), examines the FBI’s covert activities concerning the University of California during the Cold War. It focuses on the FBI’s secret involvement with three iconic figures: Clark Kerr, the UC president; Mario Savio, leader of the Free Speech Movement; and Ronald Reagan, California Governor.

Subversives is based on more than 300,000 pages of FBI records released to me as a result of five lawsuits I brought under the Freedom of Information Act. The FBI frequently claimed redacted information had to be withheld by law, but as a result of my challenges, seven federal judges ordered the FBI to release more information. One court order specifically recognized my expertise, stating, “Plaintiff has persuasively demonstrated in his affidavit that his research requires meticulous examination of records that may not on their face indicate much to an untrained observer.”

In Subversives I also profile many other figures, including Aoki, a revered activist in the San Francisco Bay Area who I revealed was a paid FBI informant at the time he gave the Black Panthers some of their first guns and firearms training in late 1966 and early 1967. I also disclosed this in an article and video produced with the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), which were published contemporaneously with my book last month.

Woo and Tom are incorrect when they claim my findings about Aoki are “baseless and false.” Although reporting on intelligence activities is notoriously difficult and often relies on off-the-record sources, I relied only upon on-the-record sources such as:

— A detailed interview with retired FBI agent Burney Threadgill Jr., who was Aoki’s initial handler;

— A 2007 interview with Aoki in which he denied being an informant but when pressed added, “People change. It is complex. Layer upon layer.”

— FBI records concerning Aoki released in response to my Freedom of Information Act request, including a November 16, 1967 report on the Black Panthers that identified him as informant T-2.

— Consultation with former FBI agent M. Wesley Swearingen, who had helped vacate the murder conviction of Black Panther leader Geronimo Pratt on the ground that the FBI and Los Angeles police failed to disclose that a key witness against him was an FBI informant.

My conclusion that Aoki was an informant was thus based on the totality of my research — not merely on a “scrap of evidence.” The detailed notes to my book make this clear. As I also have noted, available evidence does not show whether the FBI was involved in Aoki’s arming the Panthers, or that bureau officials even knew about it.

My initial disclosures about Aoki have been confirmed by the FBI’s release of 221 pages of Aoki’s FBI informant file. I reported this in a September 7 article, posted with his entire informant file as released to me at the CIR website.

Although I strongly disagree that my revelations about Aoki “damage the movement” and reinforce stereotypes of Asian Americans, they surely shed new light on him. For while he may well have been a dedicated activist, substantial evidence shows he also was an FBI informant. Although his full role and motives are not yet known, Richard Aoki was undoubtedly more complex than his fellow activists knew.

Seth Rosenfeld is a San Francisco writer.


Torture, for real


OPINION Last week I walked into my favorite café in SoMa and noticed the barista wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the black and orange word “torture.”

I froze. I knew I was holding up the line but I didn’t care. I had to ask about that shirt.

“Oh, it’s to promote the San Francisco Giants,” he said. He continued speaking, not noticing my umbrage. “So do you want your coffee hot or cold today?”

I wanted to keep talking about that shirt, but I didn’t know what to say. “I will have my coffee cold please,” I told him.

For the past ten years, torture has never been far from me. When I worked at Amnesty International, it was two doors down in the person of my colleague Kumar, who was tortured in Sri Lanka for advocating for Tamil rights. When I was on Capitol Hill as a foreign policy aide in the House of Representatives, I saw lawmakers justify President Obama’s lackadaisical attitude towards US torture.

One of the first things I learned at Amnesty International is the power and the responsibility of words. Human-rights work is about finding and verifying stories and then giving those stories names: war crime, rape, genocide … torture. It’s in the naming that our action begins. When we use the word torture it carries weight—and can heal wounds—because for so many people, their torture is denied, rationalized, or trivialized.

When I see the word torture on a t-shirt I do more than cringe: I mourn how far we are as a nation from a serious discussion of the use of torture by our own government.

Just last week Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department was closing the last two cases examining harsh CIA interrogation tactics during the Bush administration.

According to the ACLU, “(CIA) Interrogators were told they could use, among other tactics, extended sleep deprivation; ‘stress positions’ such as forced-standing, handcuffing in painful crouched positions and shackling people to the ceiling, usually for hours or even days; confining prisoners to small, coffin-like boxes with air and light cut off; extended forced nudity; sensory bombardment; extreme temperatures; hooding; and physical beatings, including slamming prisoners into walls.”

I can understand and I can attest that watching your team blow a lead in the bottom of the ninth is painful, excruciating even. It might cause you to drink or curse or smoke more. But it’s not torture. It doesn’t violate the core of your being. It doesn’t terrorize your nights.

Standing in line at the café that day, I thought of my friend Firoze who was tortured so badly he can no longer have sex. I wonder what he would say if were staring at the Barista with the “torture” t-shirt.

He would probably laugh and say it’s just a game. And then he might say what he told me each time we met: “People have no idea.”

Zahir Janmohamed recently completed a fellowship at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto and is writing a book about Juhapura, the largest ghetto of Muslims in India


CEQA: We Need It


OPINION Big business interests in California are waging a full-scale assault on the California Environmental Quality Act, known as CEQA, which has been loudly blamed for the slowdown in new construction in recent years.

But sluggish construction has been problematic nationwide and is far beyond CEQA’s reach. The exaggerated attacks on CEQA parallel extreme Tea Party politics, where facts don’t seem to matter and well-funded voices drown out reason. Attackers unfairly scapegoat a law that instead deserves great credit for far-reaching good.

The truth is that while environmental review takes time and costs money, the CEQA process usually moves quickly. In terms of litigation, a recent report recounted 11 CEQA lawsuits filed against San Francisco last year, while many hundreds of projects were approved in the city without CEQA challenges. A Natural Resources Defense Council study in Los Angeles similarly found 18 cases filed after 1182 approvals. A more in-depth analysis by the Public Policy Institute of California found that only one CEQA lawsuit is filed per 354 projects, a fraction of a percent.

So — what good does CEQA do? It assures citizens that they can participate in identifying and solving environmental problems alongside self–interested project applicants and City Hall insiders. The concept is simple and results in tangible benefits to California’s environment via better, smarter projects. The Planning and Conservation League, in a publication aptly entitled “Everyday Heroes,” assembled more than 70 examples of CEQA success. If space permitted I could describe scores of happy endings attributable to CEQA review that I have personally seen and celebrated.

CEQA assures environmental quality for present and future generations. Californians count on being informed about projects with environmental impacts — before their approval. In every California community, citizens organize and volunteer their time to offer comments and problem-solving suggestions. Applicants in turn know that their projects’ environmental impacts must be both disclosed and mitigated.

Attempts to weaken CEQA have also been around for decades. They always fail as Californians continue to champion their unique neighborhoods, cities, farmland, beaches, and wilderness areas. Most developers, even if preferring that their own projects not be subjected to CEQA review, do not want the law waived for all other projects.

Still, the national economic slowdown has given new life to the overblown claims of CEQA critics. A few weeks ago in Sacramento, a last-minute “gut and amend” bill would have taken away key protections. The public responded and the effort, again, failed. But the push to gut CEQA continues in cynical barrage.

What should happen? While well-orchestrated attacks on CEQA in the press and in Sacramento are largely opportunistic and misdirected, there is room for improvement. Over the past five years CEQA has been revised to prevent alleged abuses — including a $10,000 penalty for anyone filing a frivolous suit — and to streamline environmental review. Other positive changes are now being discussed among experts — without sacrificing citizen participation or substantial environmental protections.

Any CEQA amendments should occur only after a broad-based public process with full review by the Senate and Assembly Committees on Natural Resources.

Surely we do not want to regress to back-room planning and development without accountability. Benefiting all Californians in the long run, this profound law must itself be protected. As we continue to welcome millions to our beautiful state, we need CEQA’s protections more than ever.

Attorney Susan Brandt-Hawley represents public-interest environmental preservation groups statewide. In the last 15 years her work has been recognized with state and national awards and her cases have contributed to CEQA precedent in all six districts of the California Court of Appeal and in the Supreme Court.

Defending Richard Aoki — and the movement


OPINION In a new book, Bay Area journalist Seth Rosenfeld publicly names longtime Asian American leftist Richard Aoki as an FBI informant during his time as a leader of the Third World Liberation Front movement and as a founding member of the Black Panther Party. As Asian American activists in the movement today, we denounce these claims as baseless and false and are shocked at the way Rosenfeld makes such unsubstantiated claims while promoting his book release. His allegations damage the movement and reinforce trite “yellow peril” stereotypes of Asian Americans.

The allegations against Richard come without any credible evidence. Rosenfeld provides one incomplete document that he claims identifies Richard as an informant called “SF T-2.” It reads: “SF T-2 was designated for [redacted] (Richard M. Aoki) for the limited purposes of describing his connections with the organization and characterizing him.” The FBI cover sheet associates names of informants with their “T” codes. All informants’ names have been redacted.

It is astounding to us that Rosenfeld concluded Richard was an informant from that scrap of evidence. Later in this document, Aoki’s name is used again in order to name an FBI file location. In the few pages available under his FBI file, the informant “SF T-2” goes on to inform about the readings, political thought, and organizational/party membership of Richard Aoki. It appears to us that an informant named “SF T-2” was assigned to inform about Richard.

Rosenfeld also cites a former agent named Burney Threadgill, who claims Richard was an informant; before his death in 2009, Richard denied that in an interview. Threadgill is hardly a credible source and was a major player at the height of COINTELPRO, implementing FBI policy that was designed to deter and divide the movement. Unfortunately, both men are now deceased and cannot defend their claims.

He also uses testimony of a former FBI agent, M. Wesley Swearington, who had no relation to Richard Aoki. Despite this, Swearington claims that Richard was a “perfect informant” because he was a Japanese person in an organization of Black Americans. That makes no sense because Richard stuck out while in the Black Panther Party, and again feeds into the divisive stereotypes of Asian Americans.

Rosenfeld implies that Richard worked as an instigator, pushing people toward violent action. In fact, Richard was cautious about the use of violence and was vigilant about it during mass actions. It’s true that Richard armed the Black Panthers; however, he did so in the name of self-defense and protecting the people against police brutality.

All in all, Seth Rosenfeld’s news story on Richard Aoki was poorly researched and only a small fraction of his new book. His public accusations are unfounded and sensationalist.

Richard’s advanced leftist political thought, mentored and developed new leaders, educated his working-class sisters and brothers, and built black and Asian solidarity — and this was invaluable. Richard and other movement veterans inspired us and a new generation of young leaders to carry forward the work today. We are stronger because of them — and that is how people should be judged and remembered.

Steve Woo is an organizer in the Tenderloin and steering committee member of the Richard Aoki Fund. Alex T. Tom is the executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association.