Ricky Angel

Don’t leave your home


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On Oct. 4, 2008, Genevieve Hilpert came home to her apartment in the Outer Mission to find her gas shut off. The 35-year-old, who lives alone, hasn’t had gas service since then. Her landlord moved to the Philippines, the bank foreclosed on the property, and a real-estate broker assumed control.

Hilpert, an international student, was told by the broker to continue paying her rent, but she isn’t even sure who gets the check.

Hilpert is facing a problem all too common these days: she’s a tenant in a building that — through no fault of her own — is in the legal limbo of foreclosure. Hilpert is relatively lucky — she hasn’t been evicted. But necessary repairs, like the broken gas service, aren’t getting made.

The property manager, she told us, "hasn’t done anything. He hasn’t turned on the gas. [I] don’t know who is who."

Hilpert’s case demonstrates a less-publicized part of the nation’s housing crisis. In many instances, rent-paying, law-abiding tenants have come home to find padlocks on their doors and notes telling them to find other places.

The renters may have kept up with their bills — but the owners have not. And when a bank forecloses on a building, the tenants can be forced out. "The renters we’ve seen have been displaced," Sara Shortt, executive director of the Housing Rights Committee, told the Guardian. She mentioned that in many instances their utilities have been shut off, and renters have been left in a bind between brokers and banks. She said, "[Renters] are completely innocent victims of [the] financial crisis."

In San Francisco, it’s illegal for a bank or broker or anyone else to evict a tenant just because the ownership of a building changed hands. But many tenants don’t realize that.

In an effort to promote tenant-rights awareness, the Assessor-Recorder’s Office will be circuutf8g letters to inform tenants when a landlord has received a ‘Notice of Default’ — the precursor to a foreclosure. "According to San Francisco law," the letter says, "it is illegal for the new owner to ask you to leave without just cause or shut off your utilities." Since most of the renters who have been evicted by this latest ruse don’t speak English, the letter is being circulated in English, Spanish, and Chinese.

The letter advises tenants to contact housing organizations that can help, including the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco, Comite De Vivienda San Pedro, and the Asian Law Caucus.

"Do not leave your home," said Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting, addressing tenants at a recent press conference.

The Assessor-Recorder’s Office estimates that 25 percent of all buildings that received a Notice of Default in San Francisco are occupied by tenants. And that’s a lot of tenants: according to the Housing Rights Committee, Notices of Default recorded with the city rose 94 percent between the 3rd quarter of 2006 and the 3rd quarter of 2008.

The Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco reported 75 cases in the past year involving tenants facing displacement after a foreclosure. In the month of September alone, there were 17 cases. The most common problems renters face include utility shut-offs, illegal eviction attempts, not knowing where to send rent, and illegal entry and harassment by brokers and landlords.

The law may seem confusing, and in some cities, a foreclosure may mean the tenants have to go. But that’s not the case in San Francisco. The city’s rent ordinance requires "just cause" for eviction — and a change of ownership, no matter the cause, is not in itself a just cause.

The San Francisco Rent Board’s literature makes that clear: "The Court of Appeal held in Gross v. Superior Court (1985) … that foreclosure, like any other sale, is not a just cause for eviction under the Rent Ordinance and provides no basis to force the tenant to leave."

As Shortt told us, "We’re worried about the folks out there that haven’t come to us…. We hope through this program people will be educated and know their rights, and not be displaced."

The coal question


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GREEN CITY Over the past few years, a growing number of environmentalists have called for greatly curtailing the burning of coal, a practice that threatens the health of people and the planet. On Nov. 14-15, Rainforest Action Network (RAN) held protests in San Francisco and more than 50 other cities against Bank of America and Citibank, two of the largest financial backers of coal projects.

RAN cites data showing that coal is responsible for nearly 40 percent of US global warming emissions, and claims in a press release that Citibank has provided financial support to "45 companies that have proposed new coal power plants."

According to RAN, Bank of America is "involved with eight of the US’s top mountain top removal coal-mining operators, which collectively produce more than 250 million tons of coal each year."

Mountain top removal is a process in which explosives are used to gain access to underlying coal, devastating ecosystems and polluting watersheds to extract an energy source that emits far more climate-altering carbon than even other fossil fuels. RAN’s Joshua Kahn Russell cited Bank of America’s $175 million financing of Massey Energy, a coal producer that was sued in 2006 by the US Environmental Protection Agency for more than 4,500 violations of the Clean Water Act. Early this year, Massey agreed to a $20 million settlement rather than pay potential fines of $2.4 billion.

RAN has named Bank of America CEO Kenneth Lewis the "Fossil Fool of the Year" for his company’s role in coal. But on the bank’s Web site, Lewis disputes the characterization, citing the company’s promotion of hybrid vehicles and its other efforts to combat global warming, which won an award this year from the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"Our environment initiatives reflect our commitment to addressing climate change, conserving natural resources and building a sustainable economy — for today, and generations to come," Lewis says on the Web site. Similarly, Citibank officials tout what they say is a $50 billion initiative over the next 10 years to promote renewable energy sources.

As the US limps toward an energy policy that relies less on fossil fuels, coal is the big target for environmentalists. But getting off of it won’t be easy, considering it supplies about a quarter of the nation’s energy and helps fuel the faltering economy.

President-elect Barack Obama has made mixed statements about coal. In an election-season interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, he favored a cap-and-trade program that would limit the use of coal and charge new plants "a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that’s being emitted."

Yet he has also repeatedly voiced support for a so-called clean coal technology known as carbon capturing and sequestration (CCS) that could theoretically prevent coal emissions from entering the atmosphere but that many environmentalists believe to be a myth.

Russell said CCS, which involves capturing carbon emissions from the air and placing them deep underground, is still theoretical and may not be as cost-efficient as switching to cleaner energies. If CCS is a viable alternative, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has said that coal plants with CCS could reduce carbon emissions by 80-90 percent.

RAN organizer Scott Parkin pointed out that even if clean-coal technology works, the "coal still has to come from somewhere," and the process of extracting it has inherent environmental problems. But coal advocates say we need to be realistic about meeting the nation’s energy needs.

Bank of America spokesperson Britney Sheehan told us, "As a nation, 50 percent of electricity comes from coal." Even in California, 32 percent of electricity is derived from coal, according to the California Independent System Operator. Sheehan said the bank is actively funding renewable energy initiatives to help make the transition to cleaner burning fuels and it is making strides to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet many say such incrementalism belies the seriousness of the climate change threat. Dr. James Hansen, head of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies, was quoted by RAN as saying, "The science is clear: a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants, and phase-out of existing coal plants, is essential if we want to preserve creation, the life on our planet, for young people and future generations." 2

Shades of green


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California’s major environmental groups have long called for the state to do more to promote a switch to renewable energy sources, yet they widely oppose two state ballot measures that claim to do so, urging votes to reject Propositions 7 and 10 as false promises. On the local level, however, the environmental community strongly supports Proposition H, the Clean Energy Act, against well-funded attacks by Pacific Gas & Electric Co.

Prop. 7 would require utilities to acquire half their power through renewable energy resources, and Prop. 10 would provide $5 billion in alternative fuel research and development. Dan Kalb, policy coordinator for the Union of Concerned Scientists, believes the basic goal of Prop. 7 is great, but that its execution would not work. "It’s something that sounds very good," Kalb told us. "Everyone is concerned about renewable energy, but we can’t afford to pass a law that isn’t going to work."

Opponents of Prop. 7 have argued that it is poorly written, would decrease current fine levels for noncompliance, and has many loopholes that only the largest producers can take advantage of. Natural Resources Defense Council media director Craig Noble told us, "It just doesn’t make sense. It’s deeply flawed … it’s so poorly written."

Proponents claim that it’s not poorly written, but that opponents have simply misread it. For example, opponents say Prop. 7 could exclude small businesses that generate less than 30 MW of renewable power. But proponents say they have misread Section 14 of the proposition, causing this confusion. Yet on Aug. 7 a Superior Court judge ruled that Prop. 7 could exclude those small businesses.

In all, the Yes on 7 campaign has 25 endorsements from politicians, organizations, and groups while the No on 7 campaign has more than 400 from politicians, organizations, groups, and cities opposing the measure.

"We’re extremely concerned that [Prop. 7 will] set us back, not move us forward," Kalb said.

If passed, Prop. 10 will authorize $5 billion in general obligation funds for alternative fuel research and development, but require $10 billion to be paid back over 30 years once interest has been figured in. Richard Holober, executive director of Consumer Federation, called the measure, "a $10 billion raid on California’s treasury."

He went on to tell the Guardian that public support for research of this kind is important, but that, "Prop. 10 has no accountability. It is filled with incredibly huge loopholes."

Under Prop. 10, a rebate will be given to consumers who purchase clean energy cars. At the same time, they can keep their old vehicles and potentially sell them. Yes on 10 media contact Amy Thoma confirmed this. Holober stated that California already has programs in place that require owners to scrap or donate their polluting vehicles after they receive a rebate; they also require residency in California.

Opponents of Prop. 10 also point out that the proposition requires no net decrease in pollution, meaning that new vehicles can be as polluting as those they replace, as long as they do not pollute more. Yet Thoma claims the measure will reduce emissions by a total of 4.1 million tons per year.

Noble told the Guardian: "We need to be reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, but Props. 7 and 10 are not the way to do it."

As for Prop. H, the measure would require that by 2017, half the energy sold in San Francisco would be from renewable energy sources, rising to 100 percent by 2040. It also calls for the city to study how best to achieve that goal, including if public power projects could play a role.

Corey Cook, an associate professor of political science at the University of San Francisco, told the Guardian that "Prop H is a small but not insignificant first step toward public power in San Francisco. [It] authorizes, but doesn’t actually do anything aside from creating a study to determine the feasibility and cost of buying out PG&E’s electricity grid and having the city generate power."

Environmentalists have rejected Props. 7 and 10 because they are written poorly and counterproductive, but they embrace Prop. H because it simply increases renewable energy standards, includes numerous procedural safeguards, and, as Cook said, "takes a first step toward public power."

Reviving radicalism


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As the country’s economic, environmental, and political systems teeter on the brink of collapse, several Bay Area groups are reviving calls for radical solutions. And some are drawing parallels to the spirited political activity of 40 years ago.

“In my opinion, 1968 was the beginning of a process, an awakening of the questioning of social movements,” Andrej Grubacic, a globalization lecturer at ZMedia Institute and the University of San Francisco, told the Guardian.

The Great Rehearsal was a week of events from Sept. 17-25 that centered on the many protests, actions, and events of the 1960s and ’70s that are paralleled today. The event alluded to an ongoing struggle for alternatives to the failing institutions that are hurting the average American.

“Neoliberalism is this sort of clinching of the system. It is the last gasp of a dying system,” Katherine Wallerstein, executive director of the nonprofit Global Commons, told us. Wallerstein believes that deregulation is to blame for many of our economic woes, such as the housing crisis, job loss, and a volatile market.

Other recent events such as the Radical Women conference in San Francisco have highlighted the systemic causes of our economic turmoil, saying we should bail out people not banks, cancel student debt, and end home foreclosures. They went on to suggest that the bailout was just a form of jubilee for the rich.

Radical Women member Linda Averill announced at the conference that “if unions don’t take the offense now, we’re going to lose it all.” She went on to advocate mobilizing the labor movement, stating that we must band together against those sustaining the system. Other revolutionaries went even further, calling to abolish the capitalist system. RW member Toni Mendicino said the system of profit is inherently greedy and that reguutf8g it isn’t enough — we must get rid of it.

The Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC) is a radical student-run organization focused on solving global climate change. Many of the initiatives taken by SEAC deal with less mainstream environmental concerns, including combating coal power and promoting clean water. These previously ignored problems are pumping new life into the environmental movement. Brian Kelly, former Students for a Democratic Society organizer who now does organizing work for SEAC, told us, “The problem is the fucked-up system. (We need to) carve out a decent life through an alternative to capitalism.”

John Cronan, an organizer for the radical union Industrial Workers of the World, advocates Participatory Economics (Parecon) as an alternative to capitalism. He highlighted Parecon’s values as a solidarity-based system that abolishes the market and replaces it with participatory planning. Parecon, he says, will take into account the social costs that goods and services create; something commonly ignored in today’s capitalist system, a system many claim perpetuates the environmental crisis.

“Climate change is highlighting the system flaws,” Kelly said. He went on to place the environment and climate change as the highest priority in the upcoming presidential election, proposing green technology as the answer to the economic turmoil and global climate change taking place. The Power Vote program, he told us, supports the investment in green technologies by politicians and citizens.

The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) has pushed local governments in many rural farming communities to create ordinances claiming nature as an entity that should have more political and legal prominence than property. These ordinances aim to curb pollution and provide communities with a safeguard against corporate influence.

Through similar efforts, grassroots organizations have managed to stop 59 coal-fired power plants in 2007 by persuading courts not to grant permits for the plants. This is one of many steps to contest the environmental degradation taking place.

“I believe we have reached the stage where it is time for civil disobedience,” said Al Gore, calling for people to rise up against the construction of new coal plants, speaking at the Clinton Global Initiative in March.

Gore’s call to action has prompted many activists to battle corporations and self-interested government. “The current economic and political systems are out of whack with human and democratic values,” Kelly said. “The system is exposing itself.” According to many, the system is shifting dangerously close to totalitarianism.

There’s even been a resurgence of the old Cointelpro (Counter Intelligence Program), an FBI-run spying and political sabotage program that was responsible for the arrests of 13 Black Panthers in 1973 in connection with the 1971 murder of a San Francisco police officer. The men were subjected to torture techniques similar to those used at Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

The 13 Panthers were acquitted for lack of evidence and the case was closed. However, in 2005, with the help of the USA Patriot Act, the case was reopened and eight of the Panthers were re-arrested. John Bowman, one of the detained, announced to the press, “The same people who tried to kill me in 1973 are the same people who are here today trying to destroy me.” Former Panther Richard Brown warned audiences at the Great Rehearsal that the Patriot Act has given the government the ability to profile any ethnic group or organization, past and present, as terrorists.

“The Patriot Act was passed in the name of protecting us and our democracy. But it limits us,” Cronan said. Groups like New SDS have incorporated working against the Patriot Act through their antiwar work, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has consistently battled against the act.

Even the Communists are back. Earlier this month, the Revolutionary Communist Party held a demonstration in San Francisco, telling the small crowd, “The world today cries out for radical, fundamental change.”

Many radical groups see opportunity in the current moment. Grubacic told us that, “The future belongs to the ones creating it in the present.” *