Rachel Sadon

Building the movement


Frustrated by deep cuts to education spending and quality, momentum is building across California in support of the “Strike and Day of Action to Defend Public Education” on March 4.

Students, laborers, and faculty throughout the University of California system are trying to expand on last semester’s organizing efforts by strengthening ties to groups from all tiers of the public education system. But questions linger about the best way to proceed and what exactly the event should look like.

“I think that the regents and [UC President Mark] Yudof are very fearful of what would happen if the students and workers united. They could be unstoppable,” said Bob Samuels, president of the University Council-American Federation of Teachers (UC-AFT).

That collaboration is exactly what many grassroots organizers are hoping to achieve, although their central message is not limited to participants in the UC system alone. They argue that fee increases and cutbacks at the universities are symptomatic of a greater problem, namely the denigration of free and low-cost public education.

“This emerged as a movement of students and workers at the university level. What we’re doing now is going beyond the UCs,” said Blanca Misse, a graduate student and member of the Student Worker Action Team (SWAT).

By reaching out to members of preschool, K-12 public school, community college, and California State University communities, organizers hope to turn March 4 into a rallying moment for the entire public education system in the state. Organizers also want to ensure that the UC system isn’t funded at the expense of other institutions of public learning.

“We need to be fighting for money and political power,” Misse added. “The committees need to mobilize all of the fighting sectors and show them our strength.”

At the Jan. 17 meeting of the Berkeley March 4 organizing committee, one of many ad hoc groups set up across the state, a gathering of about 35 union members, graduate students, community activists, and undergraduates discussed what the day should look like locally. They also reported back on their attempts at organizing the local community, including garnering union support and reaching out to high school students.

Javier Garay noted that at a meeting of the Oakland Education Association, a union of public school workers, “89 percent of the nearly 800 attendees voted in solidarity with the March 4 Day of Action, possibly including a strike.”

Yet the most heated discussions centered on how to unite the interests and power of the university population behind the broader fight for public education funding.

During the meeting, Tanya Smith, president of the local chapter of the University Professional and Technical Employees union (UPTE), stressed the importance of “not being an ivory tower” by extending activism “beyond Berkeley’s campus and reaching out to the political center in Oakland.”

Student activist Nick Palmquist, a fourth-year development studies student at UC Berkeley, admitted that the “tuition issue” is a big motivating factor for college students. At the same time, he noted, “Students have a lot of potential to see the bigger picture. We’re trying to expand the consciousness of the movement.”

That movement stretches back to the beginning of the school year, when students realized that Yudof and the Board of Regents were planning on making up for the $814 million budget cut from 2008-09 and the additional $637 million cut in 2009-10 with layoffs, furloughs, and a possible fee hike.

On Sept. 24, 2009, groups organized strikes and walkouts across the University of California system, including an estimated 5,000-person protest in the legendary Sproul Plaza at UC Berkeley.

Exactly one month later, several hundred people gathered on the Berkeley campus for the Mobilizing Conference to Save Public Education. According to the invitation, the purpose of the conference was “to democratically decide on a statewide action plan capable of winning this struggle, which will define the future of public education in this state, particularly for the working-class and communities of color.”

After an intense day of discussion, the body voted to establish March 4 as a “statewide strike and day of action.” Though it remains unclear how the different interests would come together (the call left demands and tactics open for debate), the message was clear: to save public education, diverse groups need to stand together cohesively.

Tensions escalated dramatically in November when the regents approved a 32 percent fee increase. At UCLA, where the regents held the meeting, an estimated 2,000 students gathered in demonstration and protest.

UC Berkeley student Isaac Miller told the Guardian, “I think we left there feeling like even though the fee increase went through, this is a long-term fight. It was really empowering to connect to students from all over the UC community.”

Meanwhile, a three-day protest at UC Berkeley culminated in a day-long occupation of Wheeler Hall on Nov. 20. As the protesters outside multiplied in support of the occupiers, they expressed solidarity with their causes as well as anger at the fee hike.

Callie Maidhof, a graduate student and spokesperson for the occupiers, said at the time, “One of the reasons behind this particular action is that students realized that not only is the state an unreliable partner, so is the administration. The only thing students can do at this point is reach out to each other.”

Maidhof was referring to a frequently repeated refrain from the regents and Yudof: “The state is an unreliable partner.” They argue that their hands are tied by the budget shortfall and the UC system has to figure out ways to sustain itself apart from increasingly erratic state funding. “The message is if the state fixes the budget, all our problems will be over,” said Mike Rotkin, mayor of Santa Cruz and a former lecturer at UC Santa Cruz.

So when a Jan. 21 San Francisco Chronicle article (“Regents to Back UC Students’ Protest at Capitol”) reported that the regents and Yudof agreed to stand alongside the students in Sacramento on the March 4 Day of Action, many were shocked and angered. “This is a complete turn-around for them,” Palmquist said. “They were never in support of our efforts. But now they feel threatened and they also feel like they can capitalize on them.”

In an open-letter response, several unions wrote back: “This is a cynical publicity stunt, and we do not buy it.”

Victor Sanchez, president of the UC Students Association (UCSA), said the article misrepresented what Yudof and the Regents said. “The regents and Yudof agreed to participate with students on a separate March 1 day of activism, not March 4,” he said. Calls and e-mail to Yudof’s office to confirm were unreturned at press time.

Sanchez explained that the March 1 activities are the culmination of UCSA’s annual Student Lobbying Conference, which takes place in Sacramento from Feb. 28–March 1. Its actions focus primarily on lobbying the Legislature. That approach is more in tune with the administration’s message that the problem lies in Sacramento.

UCSA’s demands include increasing funding for higher education by $1 billion, creating alternative sources of revenue through comprehensive prison reform, preserving the California grant program, and passing Assembly Bill 656.

Sponsored by Assembly Majority Leader Alberto Torrico (D-Fremont), AB 656 would place a severance tax on oil companies and divert revenues toward higher education. “It is strategic for us to focus resources in Sacramento, because that’s where the negotiations are happening,” Sanchez said. “But we also understand that we’re fighting a two-front war and need to hold both the Legislature and the administration responsible.

“At the end of the day, it is our event and our day of action,” he continued. “We made it clear we aren’t going to change our demands. We stand in solidarity with the March 4 organizers. We’re all advocating a common goal, and folks are going to apply complementary pressure. Our end goal is prioritizing education, and we need to move forward with that collective mentality.”

If all this seems confusing, that’s because it is. The groups that have formed in reaction to cuts to public education are numerous, amorphous, and have slightly different agendas. Some subscribe to the position that the fault and solution primarily rests in Sacramento, while others argue that the administration and appointed, rather than elected, regents are to blame. Most agree with Sanchez that both are part of the problem.

As community organizers build toward March 4, it is clear that the day will be significant. The real question is, if students can maintain their momentum and their newfound network with other sectors of public education, what will happen on March 5 and beyond?

Housing cars or people?



GREEN CITY San Francisco Board of Supervisors President David Chiu has introduced legislation that would curtail the ability of residential property owners in Telegraph Hill, North Beach, and Chinatown to evict tenants and replace them with garages.

The ordinance, which is currently being reviewed by staff before it is considered by the Planning Commission, seeks to prohibit the construction of garages in rental properties that have been the site of a no-fault eviction in the past decade. Even if no evictions have occurred, owners would have to apply for a conditional use permit from the Planning Department to build the garage.

"We have seen a pattern of applications for garage installations following no-fault evictions," Chiu aide David Noyola explained.

The Ellis Act, a state law passed in 1986, gives owners the right to evict tenants if they decide to "withdraw from the rental market." The law specifies that all units in the building must be evicted. In 2005, the Board of Supervisors also began requiring landlords to pay $4,500 to each evicted tenant for relocation costs, with an additional $3,000 for seniors and the disabled.

Ted Gullicksen, director of the San Francisco Tenant Union, said the Ellis Act was intended to allow property owners to get out of the business of being a landlord, but "in practice it is utilized far more often by developers who are looking to rent the properties at considerable profit."

Although there are restrictions on re-renting property that has been cleared of tenants under the Ellis Act, a primary concern of tenant activists is the use of evictions to convert the building into a tenancy-in-common. A TIC is a form of joint ownership whereby multiple owners can buy the building and live in separate units.

"Often the real estate developer will try to make improvements following a TIC conversion to make it more sellable, and one of those is garages," Gullicksen said.

Malcolm Yeung, the public policy manager of the Chinatown Community Development Center, told us that "a garage generally increases the market value of a property by $30,000 to $50,000."

Yeung worked with Chiu’s office to develop the legislation after arguing in a discretionary review hearing before the Planning Commission that a particular Ellis Act eviction in the Telegraph Hill neighborhood was in violation of Sec. 101.1(b) of the San Francisco Planning Code, which states "that existing housing and neighborhood character be conserved and protected in order to preserve the cultural and economic diversity of our neighborhoods."

Following the distribution of Ellis Act notices to four low-income families, the property owner also filed for a garage add-on. Yeung successfully made the case that the eviction contradicted the Planning Code’s commitment to the preservation of economic diversity. He told us that the addition of garages "incentivizes owners to take on the financial costs of an Ellis Act eviction" and can "transform communities from long-term low-income residents to TICs, which go on the market at high value."

Gullicksen also said landlords often threaten an Ellis Act eviction and offer a buyout. "One of the benefits of the legislation is that it put tenants more in the driver’s seat when negotiating a buyout," he said. He also noted that homeowners are twice as likely to own cars as renters, which means that the conversions to TICs increase the number of vehicles in neighborhoods already congested with automobiles.

But like with all housing activity, there have been a greatly reduced number of both Ellis Act evictions and buyouts since the crash of the housing and credit markets a year ago, slowing to zero from March through May before slowly picking up in July.

Critics have decried the legislation as creating the burden of obtaining a conditional use permit and exacerbating the lack of street parking in the neighborhoods. But Noyola told us, "This problem has been around for a long time and will continue to be an issue when the market picks up again."

The legislation would also decrease the number of parking spaces that may be built with each new housing unit, part of a citywide trend. Noyola said the legislation is "progressive planning policy that prioritizes housing over parking, especially in the densest part of the city."

Marching on Chevron



GREEN CITY Although the 250-seat Roxie Theater auditorium was filled to capacity for the Nov. 1 screening of the controversial film “The Yes Men Fix the World,” the real action took place on the city’s streets when audience members took the film’s anticorporate message directly to an oil giant’s door.

Activists from Global Exchange co-organized the San Francisco film premiere to protest alleged human rights abuses and environmental devastation by Chevron Corporation, California’s largest corporation and the fifth largest in the world. The theatrical protest followed the film and ran from 16th Street to a Chevron station at Market and Castro streets.

Antonia Juhasz, director of Global Exchange’s Chevron Program, introduced the film, riling up the crowd when she said, “After viewing this film, we will be so inspired we won’t know what to do with ourselves. But we need to take this energy and direct it toward affecting change.”

The film chronicles the exploits of “Yes Men” Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, following the pair as they perform various publicity stunts in an attempt to illustrate the greed and corruption of the free-market system and draw attention to their progressive causes.

Currently being sued by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for recently staging a fake press conference on global warming, the duo have been called world-renowned troublemakers because of antics like announcing live on BBC that the Dow Chemical Company would finally clean up the site of the Bhopal, India, gas leak and compensate the victims.

Although the film does not directly reference Chevron, it aspires to hold corporations accountable for impacts to the communities they operate in. Juhasz said that although Chevron spends billions of dollars on advertising campaigns, it operates with blatant disregard for the environment.

Chevron spends less than 3 percent of its expenditures on alternative energy, operates a coal company, and is among the world’s largest corporate contributors to global warming, she said.

“We want to link communities in the struggle against this corporation, demanding policy changes and building pressure where Chevron operates,” Juhasz said. “By targeting one company, the whole industry is affected and eventually energy policies can be changed.”

The procession was led by protestors dressed as Chevron officials, cleaners, and absurd imaginary products. “Today we are demonstrating what Chevron is actually doing,” said Rae Abileah, grassroots coordinator for CodePink, the antiwar group that participated in the event. “We are just showing what a mockery this all is and that we can rise up as people to transform our world.”

As “I Will Survive” blared from speakers, the procession had a party-like atmosphere that attracted bystanders. Larry Bogad, an associate professor at UC Davis, came up with the concept and told us that “by using surprise, humor, imagination, and protest to engage people, we can stimulate thought and draw a deeper and wider attention to the issue.”

For David Solnit, organizer with the Mobilization for Climate Justice, the unusual nature of the event was exactly what made it so effective. “We are taking a popular film that deals with corporate power and trying to break down the barrier between consuming media and taking action,” he said.

Bichlbaum, one of the film’s stars, attended the protest and spoke about the importance of the grassroots movement. “If I can do it, anyone can … You need your feet and a bunch of friends. That is much more important than a business card.”

Juhasz said the destination for the procession was a symbolic choice. “This is an independently-owned Chevron station. The target is not the station, but a theatrical event to draw attention to the issue in the spirit of theater and fun.”

Although he didn’t attend the event, the station’s owner, David Sahagun, told the Guardian: “Employees told me that the crowd was well behaved and did a good job making their point.” As former president of the San Francisco Small Business Network, he stressed the struggles of locally-owned businesses in the face of large corporations and said he was “trying to be a community partner”

Chevron officials did not return calls seeking comment.

Turf war



The signs around Kimbell Playground in the Western Addition announce the field’s closure for construction until April 2010. Although they detail the extensive renovations, there is no hint that controversy swirls around one particular aspect: replacing living grass with synthetic turf.

In 2004, the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department issued an assessment of the city’s recreation facilities that estimated the city needed 30 softball fields and 35 soccer fields to match demand from the city’s players. Looking to get the most playing time from existing facilities, Rec and Park officials turned to turf.

Yet concerned citizens, community groups, and environmental organizations are trying to stop the conversion until the impacts of turf are better understood. Both sides say they are fighting for the welfare of San Francisco’s children. City officials tout increased availability of fields and reduced maintenance costs, while activists cite a wide variety of health and environmental issues.

"No one is happy about taking natural grass away," Rec and Park project manager Dan Mauer told the Guardian, "but we’re trying to meet multiple demands with limited resources."

In fact, the department’s steadily dwindling budgets led it to privatize the transition. In 2005, Rec and Park began collaborating with the newly formed nonprofit City Fields Foundation, signing a formal memorandum of understanding in 2006. This public-private partnership determined that without the resources to buy real estate for new fields, putting artificial turf on existing fields was the best alternative.

The transition began in 2006 with Garfield Square and Silver Terrace Playground; the partnership deemed both a success, and pushed for more. In February 2008, voters passed Proposition A, a $185 million parks bond that included $8.5 million earmarked for "park playfields repair and reconstruction." The legal text makes no mention of synthetic turf, but the money was intended to match funds from City Fields for the installation of turf, lights, and other improvements to designated fields.

The project is estimated to cost $45 million, with $25 million coming from City Fields and $20 million from the city. Although cash-strapped Park and Rec department officials stress the financial benefits, environmental concerns prompted the department to create a Synthetic Playfields Task Force in March 2008 with 16 volunteer members.

The task force was charged with evaluating peer-reviewed data on a new generation of artificial turf that improved on the older variety, commonly referred to by the brand that popularized it, AstroTurf. The new turf was less likely to cause injury than its predecessor and could withstand higher levels of play than grass, which takes time to absorb rainfall and must rest and regrow after heavy use.

The Synthetic Fields Task Force identified 11 possible issues of public concern and made a number of emphatic recommendations on how to proceed, including avoiding products with lead and investigating alternatives to rubber infill. Despite this, it didn’t call for a moratorium and conversions continued.

The city has converted four sites, soon to be five, and added lights at a sixth as part of the Playfields Initiative. According to City Fields Foundation spokesperson Patrick Hannan, "These fields have gone from being fields of last resort to some of the most requested fields in the city." According to organization’s estimates, the addition of lights and turf has added more than 27,000 hours of playtime to the first five sites.

Perhaps no one is more enthusiastic about synthetic turf than the sons of the late Gap, Inc. founder Donald Fisher, a regular funder of conservative causes. Bill, John, and Bob Fisher founded and partially funded City Fields Foundation "to give back to the city and provide children with access to the same fields and opportunities they had as children," Hannan said.

Opponents argue that synthetic fields are not the same ones the Fishers played on as children. In January 2008, Pinky Kushner of the Sierra Club sent a letter asking the Recreation and Park Department to suspend the program until "it can be demonstrated that these projects will have no negative impacts on the environment or on human health and enjoyment of public open space."

Her letter references the city’s Precautionary Principle, a policy whereby the city seeks to avoid taking action that might harm the environment even when there is a "lack of full scientific certainty about cause and effect." SF’s Environment Deparment says the principle "does not advocate the avoidance of any and all potential environmental risks." Rather, it "advocates for a public process in which the benefits of an action or technology are weighed against potential risks."

Rec-Park and City Fields are confident the Synthetic Playfields Task Force inquiry meets the requirements. But Sup. Ross Mirkarimi has authored a resolution asking for a moratorium on turf conversion until the state completes a study on the issue. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation in September 2008 tasking state agencies to study the turf question and submit a report by September 2010.

Even if it passes, Mirkarimi’s resolution is nonbinding and unlikely to halt the current conversion of Kimbell Field. But it does have support from activists who believe synthetic turf poses a health risk. In several parks, community members lobbied against the proposed conversions and successfully convinced City Fields and Rec and Park not to move forward.

Franco Mancini, president of Friends of McLaren Park, described how a few residents were initially opposed to the proposed fences and lighting but soon became embroiled in the larger issue of synthetic turf and "playing Russian roulette with our children’s safety."

The new synthetic turf consists of a polypropylene fabric backing, an infill of crumb rubber made from shredded tires, and polyethylene fibers that replicate blades of grass. One of the principal concerns is that the crumb rubber infill, made from up to 50,000 tires per field, contains hazardous materials that pose potential health risks. Other health concerns are the presence of lead as a color fixative and the possibility of zinc leaching into the groundwater.

There are also concerns about what to do with the fields when they wear out and whether particles leach into the environment, problems Rec and Park officials have promised to work with turf companies to address. But so far research into the environmental impacts of turf have yielded conflicting results.

Resident Kelley Watts is concerned the "research is only in the very beginning stages" and compares the situation to the 1940s and ’50s when conflicting research about cigarettes was emerging.

Concerns that turf overheats on hot days led to ongoing moratoriums in Los Angeles and New York City. San Francisco’s mild climate doesn’t create the same problem, although it does have the underlying issue that synthetic turf absorbs heat and replaces carbon-absorbing grass, contributing to what is known as the "heat-island effect," a factor in global warming.

The Athena Institute, an Ontario, Canada, nonprofit, estimates that for the average synthetic soccer field to be carbon-neutral, 1,861 trees would have to be planted and allowed to grow for 10 years.

Kimball Field is in the process of converting but the next project, and potential fight, will be at Golden Gate Park’s Beach Chalet soccer fields next year.