Rula Al-Nasrawi

Joining the journey


Malcolm X once said “Tomorrow is for those who prepare for it today.” And today, Malcolm Shabazz, the eldest grandson of Malcolm X, says he is trying to carry on the storied legacy of the radical advocate for African American civil rights and leading voice for the Nation of Islam.

Shabazz, 26, was recently in San Francisco discussing that legacy, as well as his own spiritual and personal journeys, which included making the pilgrimage to Mecca for the hajj in November, a requirement for Muslims that his grandfather also undertook in 1964, the year before he was assassinated.

It was the latest chapter in a long and complicated story. At the age of 12, Shabazz started a fire in his Yonkers home that left his grandmother (Malcolm X’s wife, Betty) with burns over 80 percent of her body, which led to her death a few days later. Shabazz has spent more of his adolescence and adulthood in prisons and other institutions than in the real world.

After serving four years in juvenile correctional facilities for arson and manslaughter charges for the fire, Shabazz pleaded guilty to attempted robbery in 2002. He served three and a half years in prison for that crime and then went back to prison months after his release for punching a hole in a store window.

Although he is often portrayed in media accounts as disturbed, Shabazz seemed calm and reflective during a two-hour interview with the Guardian. A soft-spoken man with few but well-chosen words, Shabazz is not unafraid to speak his mind about the state of the country and his grandfather’s legacy.

“If you want to know anything, then go back to the source,” he told us, which is what we did, reviewing his long, twisted journey to Mecca.

As the oldest male heir to Malcolm X, Shabazz was born into a fascinating family. Media accounts have documented him as a troubled young man, shuttled back and forth among family members. Like his grandfather, he spent time on the streets and in jail. Like his grandfather, it was behind bars that he finally regained his faith and found himself fully immersed in Islam. Shabazz explains that while he was born into Islam, he finally began to fee its presence in his life during his most recent incarceration period. While quarantined in Attica Correctional Facility in New York, Shabazz explained that he “didn’t have any hygiene supplies, I didn’t have any reading materials.”

But it was during his time in Attica that he met another prisoner — half Mexican, half Iranian — who identified himself as a Shia Muslim. “He asked me ‘Are you in a lie? Or are you a real Muslim?’ ” Shabazz recalled. He answered that he was a real Muslim. “He gave me reading materials to read in my cell.”

According to Shabazz, this was the man who discussed and poured over religious texts with him during their time together, and the one who inspired him to convert from the Sunni sect to Shia.

“I was raised a Sunni, everyone in my family was Sunni,” he said. There is much antagonism between the two sects, so his conversion caused a backlash akin to when his grandfather left the Nation of Islam in 1964 and declared himself a Sunni, which let to his assassination the following year.

When word spread of Shabazz’s conversion, various Sunni leaders and community members expressed their discomfort with what he had done. He explained that many people wrote to him asking him, “How could you become a Shia?”

After his release, Shabazz decided to move to Syria to study at an Islamic institute and then spent the following eight months teaching English to children. “I came home from prison [and] I wanted to get away for a little while,” he explained.

After arriving back from Syria in April, Shabazz went to Miami and worked on his memoirs, which he said are due to come out this May. The book discusses Shabazz’s life and tribulations, noting that “there are misconceptions that I would like to clear up.”

Once he returned to the United States, Shabazz decided to follow his grandfather’s footsteps and make the pilgrimage to Mecca, where, he said “the air felt different.” But he also explained how the people he saw on the pilgrimage seemed less willing to impose their rules on Americans.

“It seems like they have more fear [of] Americans than they do for Allah,” he said. “If they know you’re American, I don’t know what it is, but they leave you alone.”

Shabazz said he had the experience of a lifetime and proved his intense vigor for the Islamic faith. He circled the Kaa’ba, and despite swollen feet and a bad case of the flu, carried on his pilgrimage like a true believer. “I never saw this many people at one place at one time. It was much more of a struggle than I had anticipated,” he said. “But everything was earned.”

Decades before, his grandfather Malcolm X made his mark on American culture, taking a radical approach to demanding equal rights. When asked if his grandfather would admire President Barack Obama if he were alive today, Shabazz replied, “Definitely not. To me, Obama is no different than [George W.] Bush.”

He said that democracy in this country is a sham, an illusion effectively perpetuated by the ruling elite. “The U.S. is a land of smoke and mirrors, and they’re the best at doing what they do,” he said. “My grandfather? Hah. He wouldn’t have supported any of those dudes.”

Although Shabazz doesn’t particularly admire Obama so far, he does hope that the election of the first African-American president will “boost the esteem of the young black youth.” And he said that the messages of Malcolm X are more important today than ever.

“My grandfather once stated that there are only two types of power that are respected within the United States of America — economic power and political power — and he went on to explain how social power derives from these two. Unfortunately, the majority of the people [today] are economically illiterate and politically naive. They believe most of what they see on television and read in the papers. I say believe half of what you see, and none of what you hear.”

For his own personal politics, Shabazz said change begins with education and unity. “[Education] could be done through music, spoken word poetry, art, preaching from the pulpit, or putting in physical work right in the trenches,” Shabazz said.

In terms of unity, he cited the European Union, explaining that it is an organization “where nations that don’t necessarily like each other [but] have at least enough common sense to come together for a cause, to achieve a common goal, or to stand up against a common enemy. When it’s time to put niggers in check, they know how to come together.”

Almost 10 years after the 9/11 attacks, Shabazz sees growing potential for Islam to exert an influence in the U.S. “After 9/11, a lot of people did not know too much [about Islam]. But they started to investigate and learn more.”

Although many people’s first reaction was to turn away from the religion of jihad, Shabazz feels that many people also felt the need to educate themselves on the matter — and found that there is much more to Islam than the mainstream media portrays. And for a young man who has already led a turbulent life, Shabazz is seeking something basic from his newfound faith: “I want a peace of mind.”

ACLU demanding more death-drug documents


The ACLU is going back to court to demand that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation quit stalling and hand over the remaining documents showing how the state has scrambled to procure a drug for executions.

The group has been trying since October to get records that would show a full picture of how prison officials wound up obtaining a drug that is not currently made in the United States.

On November 30, a Superior Court judge ordered CDCR to hand over any documents that were used in the procurement of the death drug sodium thiopental.

But of the 989 pages that CDCR sent to the ACLU, about 670 of those pages were redacted. Some pages were redacted  to an even indecipherable extent. The ACLU attorneys were back in court this week  trying to pry the remaining information from the CDCR’s stubborn and iron grip.

The legal documents posted on the ACLU site include declarations from ACLU Death Penalty Project Director Natasha Minsker and Bay Guardian Exective Editor Tim Remond, both arguing that the public ought to know the full story behind the execution drug.

According to the ACLU’s legal filings, much of the redacted information doesn’t even fall under the types of information they are allowed to withhold in the first place.

According to the the legal briefs, “the CDCR acknowledges that it has withheld five categories of information.” However, the statement claims that the CDCR withheld information that was outside the boundaries of these categories, from the identity of the physician who ordered the drug purchased from the CDCR to the drug’s packaging information.

CDCR has a record of delaying the release of information. We send our public records request (similar to the ACLU’s) on Oct. 20th, and have received nothing at all in response. Now if we want the information from November and December, we would have to submit yet another request. At this rate, we will be well into 2012 before we truly get all of the information we want.

According to Minsker, “the judge is now giving the CDCR more time to brief the issues and has asked us and CDCR to confer, to see if we can agree on any of the records.”

She also stated in an e-mail  that the next briefs are due January 6th and the next hearing is on January 10.


Mysteries of the death-drug scramble


The California prison system finally released some documents on its efforts to procure the chemicals it needs to execute prisoners, and the 1,000 pages show the desperate lengths state officials have gone to procure the death drugs.

At one point, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation looked at importing drugs from Pakistan. In October, prison officials sent agents on a secret midnight mission to Arizona to acquire sodium thiopental, one of the drugs used in executions, from that state’s supply.

In the end, CDCR wound up buying an extraordinary quantity of the stuff from a supplier in London — potentially putting California in the disturbing position of serving as the death-drug dealer to the rest of the country.

The protocol for lethal injections in California, and 33 other states, calls for three drugs — sodium thiopental to put the condemned inmate in a coma; pancurium bromide to paralyze the muscles; and potassium chloride to stop the heart.

But sodium thiopental, also known as Sodium Pentothal, has been in short supply in this country, in part because the one company that currently makes it, Hospira, has production backlogs. There’s not a whole lot of need for the drug in modern medicine — it’s largely been replaced with other anesthetics — and Hospira has made it clear in repeated press statements that it doesn’t want its product used in executions.

So when the last batch of the stuff in the state’s hands expired in October, California had to put executions on hold while prison officials scrambled to find some more.



The whole process was cloaked in secrecy. Nobody at CDCR would tell us where they were looking for the sodium thiopental, who would be procuring it, or how the supply chain might work. That, of course, is crucial, in a grisly way: If the anesthetic didn’t perform properly (that is, if the state got a bad batch from an unregulated supplier), a prisoner could go through unspeakable agony as the second batch of drugs made it impossible to breathe.

The Guardian filed a request in October under the California Public Records Act seeking details on the purchase attempts, but CDCR stonewalled. The American Civil Liberties Union, also seeking the documents, filed a lawsuit, and a judge ordered the release of a large volume of material.

Those documents, now available at, is heavily redacted, and much of the material we expected to see is missing. But the documents contain some remarkable revelations.

For starters, there’s an internal timeline going back to 2007 showing that CDCR officials knew back then, while the drug protocol was being developed, that there would be problems. The Drug Enforcement Administration will only allow a doctor to order the class III controlled substances. And the federal receiver overseeing the prison system wouldn’t allow any of the three doctors on staff at San Quentin State Prison to sign the order forms, although the documents didn’t say why.

In January 2007, CDCR tried to recruit outside doctors to order the drugs — but physicians in California have traditionally declined to assist in executions. Indeed, the American Medical Association policy bars doctors from participating in capital punishment in any way, including “prescribing or administering tranquilizers.”

It wasn’t until May 2010 that CDCR was able to find doctors willing to order the deadly drugs; the names of those physicians are not in the documents.

The timeline shows that in June 2010, CDCR became aware that there was a shortage of sodium thiopental, but there was no public discussion of the situation. Plans to execute Albert Greenwood Brown, a convicted murderer set to die in September 2010, went forward.

But the courts weren’t rushing the execution — and the last batch of sodium thiopental in CDCR’s possession expired Oct. 1.

As the clock ticked down toward that expiration date, the documents show, CDCR officials — all the way up to Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate — were involved in an all-out scramble to get more of the drug.

At one point, a Sept. 16 e-mail — from an official whose name is blacked out — notes that CDCR had contacted between 80 and 100 hospitals to try to buy some sodium thiopental, but “none of them have a drop.”

The documents note that CDCR officials even suggested that there were supplies of sodium thiopental in Pakistan. An Aug. 17 e-mail from John McAuliffe, a contract worker helping CDCR with executions, says the agency is trying to get federal government approval to import the drug.

One e-mail even suggests that an unnamed CDCR employee was in the area and could make a side trip to Pakistan to pick up the stuff.



There are, of course, serious issues with importing controlled substances into the United States, and the documents show efforts by CDCR to get the DEA to approve imports. The Pakistan deal apparently went nowhere — but later e-mails show CDCR officials contacting a supplier in London. The name of the supplier is blacked out on all the documents, but CDCR’s deputy press secretary, Terry Thornton, later confirmed that the manufacturer was Archimedes Pharma.

Immediately after the California order for 521 grams of sodium thiopental went through, Britain’s secretary of state for business, Vince Cable, issued an order barring any further exports of the drug for use in executions.

Like most of the civilized world, the United Kingdom does not allow the death penalty.

In the meantime, Scott Kernan, CDCR’s undersecretary for operations, was trying to get enough of the death drug domestically to carry out at least one execution. A series of e-mails show contacts between California and Arizona, which recently had imported its own supply — and there are indications that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was willing to call his counterpart in Arizona to help consummate the deal.

“I’m sure either the secretary or even the governor could make a call,” a Sept. 9 e-mail from Kernan to McAuliffe notes.

Then on Sept. 29, Kernan sent an e-mail to Assistant Secretary Anthony Chaus discussing a “secret and important mission.” Kernan wanted Chaus to send a team to a state prison complex in Florence, Ariz., a desert town about 40 miles southeast of Phoenix, to pick up 12 grams of the death drug.

At midnight Sept. 30, the warden in Florence gave the CDCD agents 24 vials, each containing half a gram of sodium thiopental. The agents drove it to Bakersfield, where another team picked up the vials and drove the rest of the way to San Quentin.

In a stomach-turning e-mail, Kernan sent a note Sept. 29 to an unnamed Arizona official saying “you guys in Arizona are life savers” and offering to “by [sic] you a beer next time I get that way.”

By then, a federal judge had delayed Brown’s execution until 2011.

Among the most startling revelation was the sheer quantity of sodium thiopental California eventually ordered from the firm in London. Even with training supplies and backup, it only takes between six and 12 grams of sodium thiopental to render a prisoner unconscious — meaning that the 521 grams that CDCR purchased for $36,413 are enough to kill between 43 and 86 people. The expiration date on the chemical is 2014.

It’s highly unlikely, given the legal hurdles and time involved in even one execution, that California would schedule more than three over the next three years. What possible use could the state have for so much death drug?

Thornton, CDCR’s press person, wouldn’t respond to our queries. But Natasha Minsker, the director of the ACLU’s Death Penalty Project, said she’s concerned that California will try to become a supplier for other prison systems. “It certainly raises questions,” she told us.

There’s a lot missing from the documents. In many instances, the names of the officials who sent and received e-mails are redacted. And there are obvious pieces of the puzzle missing from the files CDCR has released.

“There’s no e-mail from the DEA or the FDA,” Minsker said, “although CDCR was clearly contacting them. There’s nothing from the governor’s office, although it’s likely they were also involved.”

Overall, Minsker said, the documents “show how sneaky CDCR was trying to be about all of this.”

The ACLU filed another suit Dec. 13 seeking the release of some of the redacted material as well as records of CDCR’s efforts between October and December.

If those documents are ever released, they may address some of the looming questions about the material the state uses to kill people.

Secrets of the state’s death-drug deal


After weeks of grilling the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) on the source of their newly acquired sodium thiopental, we are finally getting some answers.

Deputy Press Secretary of the CDCR Terry Thornton verified to the Associated Press yesterday that the state has acquired 521 grams of the lethal injection component from a British manufacturer, Archimedes Phrama.

Thornton said that the state paid $36,415 for the drug, “its chemicals, all legal and processing fees, and shipping and handling.”

So CDCR has finally given the public some information to work with — although many of the details are still sketchy. We filed a formal public records request in October asking for information on the procurement, and the agency still hasn’t turned over the documents.

But at least we know that California has obtained its death drug from overseas. And apparently, British officials aren’t thrilled about it. No European nation has the death penalty, and officials across the pond are dubious about helping other nations kill their own citizens.

Earlier this week, Britain’s secretary of state for business, Vince Cable, issued an order adding sodium thiopental to the list of items that must be licensed for export — effectively banning its sale to institutions that will use it for executions. Although Cable issued the order after Arizona inmate Jeffrey Landrigan’s execution on October 26, the British media commended him for putting an end to the export of the death drug.

According to the UK Guardian, Cable realized that the sodium thiopental “was not being sent there to help save lives, only to take them.”

The London paper also noted that since California uses just 3 grams of the drug to execute each individual— and keeps an additional 3 grams as backup — the state has acquired enough of the stuff to kill 86 people.

California’s executions have been on hold until the state could acquire more of the drug — and the legality of using thiopental in the first place is still a matter of debate. And given the fact that this new batch will expire in 2014, why does the state need so much of the drug for just three years? Does CDCR really expect to kill almost 30 people a year, one every 10 days or so — between now and 2014?

Actually, that’s not even remotely possible — executions involve long legal proceedings, and there are no more than a handful of cases that could possible reach that state in the next 36 months. So will California be reselling this stuff to other states? Will we become the default death-drug dealer for America? Who in Sacramento approved that policy? We couldn’t get an answer from Thornton on that.

Thornton told AP that the state’s fresh shipment is currently on the East Coast waiting to be approved by the FDA, and is already authorized by the DEA to be sent to the prisons.Facing lawsuits from the ACLU, the CDCR must soon release its documents, which include most of the details of the drug’s acquisition.

 “We’ve been as transparent as we can be,” Thornton said.

Well, not exactly.


Boring through


Despite an official groundbreaking ceremony last February, the Central Subway — an underground Muni connection to Chinatown — still doesn’t have its full $1.5 billion in funding lined up yet, and now the project is facing renewed criticism that the high cost isn’t worth the benefits.

The project was a promise by former Mayor Willie Brown to Chinatown leaders who were upset that the Embarcadero Freeway was torn down after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and never rebuilt, leaving that densely populated part of town difficult to access. But not everyone in Chinatown wants the project.

Wilma Pang, founder and co-chair of A Better Chinatown Tomorrow (ABCT) stands firmly against it, while the Rev. Norman Fong, deputy director of programs for the Chinatown Community Development Center, takes a solid stand for building the project, as does Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, who represents the district.

Fong explains that the majority of Chinatown has united to make sure the subway comes through, and that he himself has never seen the community in Chinatown more set on something. “This is an environmental justice movement,” Fong said. “For me, this was the first time Chinatown had ever fought [for such a major infrastructure project].”

City staff is also focused on moving the project forward. “This project has been supported by our state, local, and federal officials,” Brajah Norris, external affairs manager for the Central Subway Project, told the Guardian.

But the group SaveMuni — formed last year by progressives, transit engineers, transit advocates, and other activists “working to reverse Muni’s death spiral” — recently called for the Central Subway to be shelved and its resources put to more efficient projects. “Now that the analysis has been done, it’s time to rethink the situation,” SaveMuni says in a white paper on the Central Subway.

The group argues that using the subway will take longer than other transit options, threatens many businesses on Stockton Street, and doesn’t even connect effectively with the Muni system. Even worse, they point out that Muni would have to spend an additional $4 million a year in local operating expenditures beyond the existing bus service, an expenditure that seems unnecessary to the organization members.

Although creating a subway for the crowded community seemed like a good idea initially, people like Tom Radulovich soon began to realize that a 1.7 mile subway stretch buried 20 feet underground is not the same as the plan he hoped for when considering an economically efficient transportation system for the people in Chinatown.

“People deserve a whole range of alternatives,” said Radulovich, executive director of Livable City and an elected member of the BART Board of Directors. “You have to be mindful of when the [current] project is not the same project you voted for.”

For those at SaveMuni, the project long ago strayed from its original goal. Although they agree that Chinatown community members deserve their own form of reliable transportation, they believe this is not the right way to be spending federal, state, and local money.

“It’s an important corridor, so funding should go there,” Radulovich said. But he thinks the same money could be better used other ways, such as for a dedicated Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lane.

Jerry Cauthen, a retired SFMTA transportation engineer who cofounded San Francisco Tomorrow and SaveMuni, explained that he initially liked the concept of a subway but then became “bitterly disappointed” as the project progressed.

The subway line has three stops mapped out: one at Moscone Center, one at Union Square/Market Street, and one in Chinatown. From the Chinatown station, the tunnel will continue under Washington Square and remain there for future extensions to the subway, which is projected to begin service in 2018.

“There’s no reason to wait 10 years for a subway,” Cauthen said. “Because it is not going to do what it says it will do.”

Cauthen explained that the route for the Central Subway misses the most important lines anyway, which would be “serving Chinatown poorly.” Cauthen was not alone in his concern that the three-stop subway system will prove to be more of a hassle than a convenience.

But in a committee meeting held Nov. 16 at City Hall, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (which oversees capital expenditures, while the SFMTA runs Muni) addressed the issue that the city in fact does not have all the money it needs to complete this project. While federal officials have already handed over $72 million out of $948 million, getting the rest of that federal money requires the city and its affected agencies to come up with local matching funds of between $137 million to $225 million.

Malcolm Yeung, public policy manager for the Chinatown Community Development Center, explained that based on the recent hearing, the SFMTA needs to find a viable source for the remaining $137 million. It has until February to inform the Federal Transportation Administration how it will obtain the rest of this money. The SFCTA meeting was an attempt to request an allocation of about $22 million in Proposition K (sales tax) funds.

Now that the city is having trouble meeting its fiscal goal by February 2011, the new question is, if city officials don’t come up with the money, will San Francisco lose the project and its funding?

“I don’t think it means that we lose the whole project,” Yeung said, but there could be delays. And every time there is a delay, there is also an associated cost to be paid.

According to SFMTA, the project received $948.2 million in federal money, $375 million from the state, and $255.1 million in local contributions. Norris explained that since the federal money was given for this specific New Starts program, then it can only be used for this project. And if the project comes to a halt, the money will go somewhere else. “People don’t realize that $948 million is part of the New Starts program,” Norris said. “If we don’t get it, we actually lose it.”

Fong, Chiu, and other supporters of the project rallied in its support outside City Hall on Nov. 15. As Fong told us, “[People against the project] don’t appreciate the hard work, that it takes a decade to get the federal funds … It cannot be simply shifted or “redirected” as some have said.”

For Fong, ending this project would be “disregarding two decades of hard work.” Although the ideas to improve Muni seem fair to Fong, moving forward with the subway is the only option for him right now.


*This article has been corrected from an original version.

Election 2010: The Lacy party


Outside of Bloom’s Saloon, there’s a silver taco truck with a black and orange Dewitt Lacy sign stuck on the back. “Eat It” by Weird Al is blasting from inside the Saloon and as I timidly follow the noise Lacy himself turns around and gives me a wave.

I instantly feel right at home sipping my ice water while Lacy tells me about his campaign team and their accomplishments. “A lot of us put a lot of hard work into the campaign,” Lacy says.

We talked about the day he met President Obama and how his abilty to keep his cool completely vanished upon shaking the president’s hand. But personal anecdotes aside, Lacy is definitely serious about representing his district.

 “Some people have pegged this race as the Heart and Soul of San Francisco,” Lacy explained. “For far too long this district has been left out or overlooked and it’s time for that to stop.”

And while this particular race may not produce all results immediately — it will be decided by ranked-choice votes later in the week —  Lacy seems relaxed and relieved to be enjoying tacos, tequila, and cherry delight with friends, family and supporters.

When asked if most election parties are this chill, Lacy simply replies, “We are the people man.”

California’s secret death drug


California was forced to postpone the execution of convicted murderer Albert Greenwood Brown in September because the state had run out of sodium thiopental, part of the death drug cocktail used in lethal injections.

The last batch of the drug expired Oct. 1 and the manufacturer won’t have more until 2011. So as of early October, all executions had been postponed until next year.

But on Oct. 6 the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced in a court filing that it had obtained 12 grams of sodium thiopental, also known as sodium pentothal, with an expiration date of 2014. That could mean some swifter executions.

But it also raises a critical legal question: where did the drug come from, and did the state violate federal or international laws obtaining it?

CDCR isn’t talking. Terry Thornton, deputy press secretary, refused to identify the source of the newly acquired drug. But it clearly didn’t come from the manufacturer Hospira. The company, the only U.S. manufacturer of sodium pentothol, says it has none available and is in no rush to sell it to the CDCR. In a statement released by Hospira, company spokesperson Daniel Rosenberg announced that “the drug is not indicated for capital punishment and Hospira does not support its use in this procedure.”

Natasha Minsker, death penalty policy director for the ACLU of Northern California, said it would be tricky for the state to buy the drug from anyone else. “Hospira is the only approved manufacturer in the U.S.,” she said.

But there’s a hint of where California’s supply might have come from. Arizona also recently obtained some of the death drug — Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard told the Arizona Republic that it was delivered from an unidentified source in Britain.

But the British press has raised questions about the deal. No European country has the death penalty and both British and European Union laws bar exporting for profit materials used for executions.

Both the Arizona and California batches have the same expiration date.

Ty Alper, associate director of the Death Penalty Clinic at Boalt Hall School of Law, explained that to his knowledge, “California got [the sodium thiopental] from a foreign source,” He raised questions about the possible risks of obtaining the drug from an unknown outfit.

“If the drug is not FDA approved, could it have contaminants in it? Could it perform differently?” Alper asked. “If that drug doesn’t work right then, everybody knows the execution will be horribly painful and torturous.”

So far, the U.S. Supreme Court hasn’t bought that argument. Oct. 25 the court voted 5-4 to clear the way for Arizona to execute Jeffrey Landrigan, a convicted murderer. “There is no evidence in the record to suggest that the drug obtained from a foreign source is unsafe … There was no showing that the drug was unlawfully obtained, nor was there an offer of proof to that effect,” the unsigned opinion stated.

Landrigan was executed Oct 27.

However, we can’t find any evidence that California obtained the drug legally. There are no FDA-approved importers, and federal law strictly limits the ability of anyone to bring powerful drugs directly into the country. Title 21 United States Code of the Controlled Substances Act, Section(b) states: “It shall be unlawful to import into the customs territory of the United States from any place outside thereof (but within the United States), or to import into the United States from any place outside thereof, any nonnarcotic controlled substance in Schedule III, IV, or V, unless such nonnarcotic controlled substance … (1) imported for medical, scientific, or other legitimate uses”

Sodium pentothal is a Schedule III drug.

Executing a human being clearly doesn’t count as a “medical or scientific” use — no doctor is involved in administering the lethal drugs. Of course, there might be an opinion from the state attorney general concluding that killing a condemned prisoner is an “other legitimate use” but the office won’t produce one. When we asked if obtaining the drug from a foreign supplier was legal, Christine Gasparac, a spokesperson for Attorney General Jerry Brown, stated in an e-mail that “You’ll have to contact the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for a response to your questions” and that “this office was not involved in the procurement of the drug.”

CDCR hasn’t presented any import license, purchase order, chain of custody documents, or anything else to show where the deadly stuff originated. We’ve filed a written request under the California Public Records Act for the data, but have not received a reply.

That bothers state Sen. Mark Leno (D-SF), who chairs the Public Safety Committee. “I am concerned that a state agency, using taxpayer money, is buying something and refusing to disclose where the money went,” he told us.

Procuring sodium thiopental may become even harder in the future — it has only limited use in medicine.

Dr. Philip Lumb, chair of department of anesthesiology at the University of Southern California medical school, said that over the past few years the drug Propofol has replaced sodium thiopental in the majority of surgical cases. (Propofol is the same drug Michael Jackson overdosed on.)

“It is still available — we still have it,” Lumb said. “It is used sometimes for brain procedures.”

But if Hospira isn’t making much and doesn’t want to sell it to prisons for executions, and European companies can get in trouble for exporting it, California may find that a drug it relies on to kill people isn’t available from any legitimate source. Which means the custodians of our prison system could, in effect, be buying lethal drugs on the black market.

They put other people in prison for that.

Walk SF goes pro as pedestrians get priority


Walk San Francisco, a longtime pedestrian advocacy organization in San Francisco, wants us all on our feet and in the streets. This week, the organization welcomed Elizabeth Stampe to their nonprofit team as executive director — its first executive director in four years – just as the city of San Francisco has made it official policy to promote walking over other transportation options.

With the help of Stampe, who spent eight years as communications director for the Greenbelt Alliance, Walk SF plans to improve overall street safety and increase pedestrian activity throughout the City. However, with Stampe’s plans to make San Francisco “the most walkable city in America,” there also comes a fair share of speed bumps to take into consideration. For one thing, the desire to keep all pedestrians in a large metropolis safe is about as simple as keeping Tiger Woods celibate — the issue may never be completely resolved.

Walk SF, although welcomes Stampe with whole heartedness, will need to step up their game funding-wise now that they have officially gone pro. “We’re looking for all of the funding we can find right now,” Stampe said. “Especially right now funding is not a sure thing”

Getting San Franciscans walking instead of driving may be an arduous task, but it is a task Stampe is ready to take on. She said organizing and promoting street events is “a way of showing that we can use streets in a different way,” other than solely attempting to exterminate the notion of an unsafe road. “That’s something we really want to build here.”

Walk SF’s number one goal is to safeguard pedestrians and make walking fun again. However even though walking provides fabulous oxygen circulation as well as exercise, being a pedestrian can sometimes become a high risk activity. In a report released in 2009 by Transportation for America, studies showed that 27 percent of all traffic deaths in the San Francisco region —which includes Oakland and Fremont — were pedestrians.

The study also reported that there were 72 pedestrian fatalities in the SF region in 2008, which rose from 64 in 2007. Transportation for America also refers to potentially hazardous roads as “dangerous by design roadways,” which Stampe describes as any type of road that encourages fast driving.

“Pedestrians also have the right to speak up for safety,” Stampe said. “There are [dangerous by design roadways] in San Francisco, where there’s very little to influence cars to slow down.”

While San Francisco’s hilly streets make for a thrilling car ride, the amount of pedestrian-vehicle collisions that take place in this city alone are enough to shoot down any race car driver dreams of careening down Nob Hill.

Stampe mentioned well-known streets such as 19th Avenue, Masonic Avenue, and Monterey Boulevard as some of the most prominent dangerous by design roadways, listing several priorities in promoting pedestrianism.

“The first thing is for there to be more equity in how funding is distributed,” Stampe said. “Right now much more money goes towards funding for cars than sidewalks.” 

A way in which this may soon change can be found in Proposition AA, which is on the ballot for this November’s elections. Walk SF Board President Manish Champsee explained how Prop AA will help strengthen sidewalk safety and promote more walking.

“It is a vehicle registration fee, projected to bring about $5 million a year,” Champsee said. “It costs $10 every time you register your car.”

If passed, 50 percent of Prop AA funding will go to road resurfacing, 25 percent will go towards transit reliability improvements, and another 25 percent for pedestrian safety. Champsee tells us about what his organization calls “walkability,” which makes places inviting to walk through and deflects local street crime.

“There should be active ground floor uses,” Champsee said. “At street level,you should have retail, eyes on the street.”

After traveling the world, Stampe feels inspired by street culture abroad and hopes to bring that same environment to San Francisco. She explained that in places like India and other Asian countries, “what you realize is that people are paying much more attention there,” regardless of the J-walking cows and street vendors blocking the road.

Champsee’s street-life inspiration lies in bicycle communities like Amsterdam and sidewalk café culture in Paris. Community events such as Sunday Streets, in which San Francisco city streets are temporarily closed and completely open to pedestrians, are what members of Walk SF hope to see more of.

Walk SF’s own event, Peak to Peak, will take place Oct. 16, and hundreds of walkers will make the trek from one side of the city to the other. “There are 10 different peaks,” Chamsee said. “You see parts of the city that not many have seen before.”

From advocating the reduction of car use to asserting local speed limits, Walk SF clearly has a lot in store for our city. And when asked if we can expect anything like Bay to Breakers from Peak to Peak, Stampe replied, “Probably, but with fewer naked people.”


PG&E’s secret pipeline map



It’s been nearly two weeks since the pipeline in San Bruno exploded and killed four people, injuring many more and destroying 37 homes. And it’s left a lot of people in San Francisco wondering: could it happen here?

Of course it could. PG&E has more than 200 miles of major gas pipelines under the city streets that are scheduled to be replaced — and that means they’re reaching the end of their useful life. Just like the pipe that blew up in San Bruno.

Are any running under your home or business? PG&E isn’t going to tell you.

That’s bad. “The public has a right to this information,” City Attorney Dennis Herrera told us. And Sup. Ross Mirkarimi has introduced a resolution calling on PG&E to make the locations of its pipelines, electric lines, and other potentially parts of the company’s infrastructure public.

But here’s what worse: even the city’s public safety departments — the ones that would have to respond to a catastrophic event involving a gas main break — don’t know where those lines are.

“I’m still looking for that map myself,” said Lt. Mindy Talmadge, a spokesperson for the Fire Department.

The city’s Public Utilities Commission, which, among other things, digs its own trenches to install and repair water pipes, doesn’t have the PG&E map. Neither does the the California PUC, which regulates PG&E.

It might also make sense for the City Planning Department to have the map; after all, zoning an area for the future development of dense housing that sits on top of an explosive gas main might be an issue. “People need to start holding PG&E accountable,” Planning Commission member Christina Olague told us. “Why shouldn’t PG&E release [the map] given the recent tragedy?”

PG&E insists that the exact location of the gas mains should remain secret because someone might want to use the information for a terrorist attack. But if the San Francisco Fire Department and Department of Emergency Services can’t get the map of the pipelines, something is very wrong. Even Sup. Sean Elsbernd, who has been allied with PG&E against public power issues, agreed that “the public safety agencies should certainly have that information.”

The Mirkarimi resolution urges PG&E “to cooperate with the city’s request for infrastructure information.” Mayor Gavin Newsom has already appointed the fire chief and city administrator to conduct a utility infrastructure safety review that would evaluate the location, age, and maintenance history of every pipeline underneath city streets.

Not every state allows utilities to keep this information secret. In both Washington and Texas, maps of underground pipelines are easily accessible, said Carl Weimer, executive director of the Bellingham, Washington-based nonprofit Pipeline Safety Trust. Texas even has an online system, he said.

But in California, PG&E keeps even essential safety agencies in the dark. If a fire came near where a PG&E pipeline was buried — or if an earthquake fractured some of the lines and gas started to leak — Talmadge said the San Francisco Fire Department wouldn’t be able to do anything about the explosive gas except call PG&E. Only the private utility can shut off the gas, which is under high pressure in the main lines.

“We radio to our dispatch center and request PG&E to respond … They would contact PG&E and have them respond,” she explained.

The department doesn’t prepare specifically for that sort of event. “We do not have a specific gas leak training … it would be more of a hazardous material training,” Talmadge said.

The remarkable thing is that much of the data the city doesn’t have — and PG&E won’t give up — can be pulled together from publicly accessible data. The major news media, particularly The Bay Citizen, have been pursuing the story and have run pieces of the map. Several newspapers and websites have published rough maps outlining where the major underground pipes are.

But as far as we know, nobody’s done a full-scale look at what the existing public records show.

Using information that the U.S. Department of Transportation has put on the Web, we’ve managed to put together a pretty good approximation of the secret map PG&E doesn’t want you to see.

We took a map from the DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and layered it over a map of San Francisco. The maps of the southeast part of the city are more accurate; the information on gas mains going through the north and west side of town are sketchier. But the lines appear to run parallel to major streets, and we’ve put together a guide that at the very least can tell you if there’s a potentially explosive gas line in your neighborhood — and maybe even under your street.

Obviously, every house or business that has natural gas service — and that’s most of San Francisco — is hooked up to a gas pipe, and those feeder pipes run under almost every street. But the gas in those lines is under much lower pressure than the gas in the 30-inch main lines shown on this map, where pressure can reach 200 pounds per square inch. It was a main pipe that blew up under San Bruno.

It’s not surprising that the southeast — traditionally the dumping ground for dangerous and toxic materials — would have the most gas mains, and the most running through residential areas. One line, for example, snakes up Ray Street and jogs over to Delta Street on the edge of McLaren Park and near a playground. It continues under Hamilton and Felton streets, under the Highway 280 and onto Thornton Street before heading into the more industrial areas near Evans Avenue.

Another main line goes under the south side of Bernal Heights, running below Banks Street, around the park, then down Alabama Street to Precita Street, where it connects with 25th Street. That line then heads to Potrero Hill, where it follows Rhode Island Street to 20th Street.

Research assistance by Nichole Dial.