Shawn Gaynor

Compromise measures


San Franciscans are poised to vote this November on two important, complicated, and interdependent ballot measures — one a sweeping overhaul of the city’s business tax, the other creating an Affordable Housing Trust Fund that relies on the first measure’s steep increase in business license fees — that were the products of intense backroom negotiations over the last six months.

Mayor Ed Lee and his business community allies sought a revenue-neutral business tax reform measure that might have had to compete against an alternative proposal developed by Sup. John Avalos and his labor and progressive allies, who sought around $40 million in new revenue, although both sides wanted to avoid that fight and find a compromise measure.

Meanwhile, Mayor Lee was having trouble securing business community support for the housing trust fund that he pledged to create during his inaugural address in City Hall in January. So he modified his business tax proposal to bring in $13 million that would be dedicated to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, but that didn’t satisfy the Avalos camp, who insisted the city needed more general revenue to offset cuts to city services and help with the city’s structural budget deficit.

Less than a day before the competing business reform measures came before the Board of Supervisors on July 24, a compromise was finally struck that would bring $28.5 million a year, with $13 million of that set aside for the affordable housing fund, tying the fate of the two measures together and creating a kumbaya moment at City Hall that was reminiscent of last year’s successful pension reform deal between labor and the business community.

But there was one voice raised at that July 24 meeting, that of Sup. David Campos, who asked questions and expressed concerns over whether this deal will adequately address the “crisis” faced by the working class in a city that will continue to gentrify even if both of these measures pass. Affordable housing construction still won’t meet the long-term needs outlined in the city’s Housing Element that indicates 60 percent of housing construction would need public subsidies to be affordable to current city residents.

It’s also worth asking why a business tax reform measure that doubles the tax base — just 8.4 percent of businesses in San Francisco now pay the payroll tax, whereas 16.4 percent would pay the gross receipts tax that replaces it — doesn’t increase its current funding level of $410 million (the $28.5 million comes from increased business license fees). Some industries — most notably the technology and restaurant industries that have strongly supported Mayor Lee’s political ambitions — could receive substantial tax cuts.

Politics is about compromise, and Avalos tells us that in the current political climate, these measures are the best that we can hope for and worthy of progressive support. And that may be true, but it also indicates that San Francisco will continue to be more welcoming to businesses than the working class residents struggling to remain here.



As Mayor Lee acknowledged during his inaugural speech, the boom times in the technology industry has also been driving up commercial and residential rents, he sought to create “housing for the 100 percent.”

The median rent in San Francisco has been steadily rising, jumping again in June an astounding 12.9 percent over June of last year, according to real estate monitor RealFacts, leaving renters shelling out on average an extra $350 a month to landlords.

Driven by a booming tech industry and a lag in new housing, the average San Francisco apartment now rents for $2,734. That’s an annual increase of $4,000 per unit over last year, in a city that saw the highest jumps in rent nationally in the first quarter of 2012. Even prices for the average studio apartment have edged up to $1,800 a month.

The affordability gap between housing and wages in the city is stark. Somebody spending a quarter of their income on rent would need to be making $85,000 a year just to keep up with the average studio. With a mean wage of $64,820 in the San Francisco metro area, even middle class San Franciscans have a difficult time affording a modest apartment. For the city’s lowest paid workers, even earning the country’s highest minimum wage of $10.25 an hour, even devoting every earned dollar to rent still wouldn’t pay for the average small studio apartment.

For those looking to buy a home in the city, it can be a huge hurdle to put aside a down payment while keeping up with the city’s high rents. Almost 90 percent of San Franciscans cannot afford a market rate home in the city. The average San Francisco home price was up 1.9 percent in June over May, climbing to $713,500, or a leap of $50,000 per unit over last year’s prices.

In the 2010 census, before the recent boom in the local real estate market, San Francisco already ranked third in the nation for worst ratio between income and home ownership prices, behind Honolulu and Santa Cruz.

But as the city leadership grapples to mitigate the tech boom’s effects, the lingering recession and conservative opposition to new taxes have gutted state and federal funds for affordable housing. Capped off last December by the California Legislature’s decision to dissolve the State Redevelopment Agency, a major source of money for creating affordable housing, San Francisco has seen a drop of $56 million in annual affordable housing funds since 2007.

Trying to address dwindling funding for affordable housing, the Board of Supervisors voted 8-2 on July 24 to place the Affordable Housing Trust Fund measure on the fall ballot. Only the most conservative supervisors, Sups. Sean Elsbernd and Carmen Chu, opposed the proposal. Sup. Mark Farrell, who has signaled his support for the measure, was absent.

“Creating a permanent source of revenue to fund the production of housing in San Francisco will ensure that San Francisco is a viable place to live and work for everyone, at every level of the economic spectrum. I applaud the Board of Supervisors,” Mayor Lee said in response.

At the heart of the program, the city hopes to create 9,000 new units of affordable housing over 30 years. The measure would set aside money to help stabilize the ongoing foreclosure crisis and replenish the funds of a down payment assistance program for those earning 80 to 120 percent of the median income.

To do so, the city anticipates spending $1.2 billion over the 30-year lifespan of the program, with a $20 million annual contribution the first year increasing $2.5 million annually in subsequent years. It would fold some existing funding in with new revenue sources, including $13 million yearly from the business tax reform measure. Language in the housing fund measure would allow Mayor Lee to veto it is the business tax reform measure fails.

The board was forced to delay consideration of the business tax measure until July 31 because of changes in the freshly merged measures. That meeting was after Guardian press time, although with nine co-sponsors on the board, its passage seemed assured even before the Budget and Legislative Analysts Office had not yet assessed its impacts, as Campos requested on July 24.

“I do believe that we have to ask certain questions when a proposal of this magnitude comes forward,” Campos said at the hearing, later adding, “When you have a proposal of this magnitude, you’re not going to be able to adjust it for some time, so you want it to be right.”

The report that Campos requested, which came out in the late afternoon before the next day’s hearing, agreed that it would stabilize business tax revenue, but it raised concerns that some small businesses exempt from the payroll tax would pay more under the proposal and that it would create big winners and losers compared to the current system.

For example, it calculated that between the gross receipts tax and business license fee, a sample full service restaurant would pay 69 percent less taxes and a supermarket 33 percent less taxes, while a commercial real estate leasing firm would pay 46.7 percent more tax and a large engineering firm would see its business tax bills more than double.

Board President David Chiu, who has co-sponsored the business tax reform measure with Mayor Lee since its inception, agreed that it is a “once in a decade reform,” calling it a “compromise that reflects the best sense of that word.” And that view, that this is the best compromise city residents can expect, seems to be shared by leaders of various stripes.



The business community and fiscally conservative politicians have long called for the replacement of the city payroll tax — which they deride as a “job killer” because it uses labor costs to gauge the size of company’s size and ability to pay taxes — with a gross receipts tax that uses a different gauge. But the devil has been in the details.

Chiu praised the “dozens and dozens and dozens of companies that have worked with us to fine-tune this measure,” and press reports indicate that representatives of major corporations and economic sectors have all spent hours in the closed door meetings shaping the complicated formulas for how they will be taxed, which vary by industry.

When the Guardian made a Sunshine Ordinance request to the Mayor’s Office for a list of all the business representatives that have been involved in the meetings, its spokespersons said no such list exists. They have also asked for a time extension in our request to review all documents associated with the deliberations, delaying the review until next week at the earliest, after the board approves the measure.

But the business community seems to be on board, even though some economic sectors — including real estate firms and big construction companies — are expected to face tax hikes.

“The general reaction has been neutral to favorable, and I expect we’ll be supportive,” Jim Lazarus, the vice president of public policy for the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, who participated in crafting the proposal but who said the Chamber won’t have an official position until it votes later this week.

Lazarus noted the precipitous rise in annual business license fees — the top rate for the largest companies would go from just $500 now to $35,000 under the proposal, going up even more in the future as the Consumer Price Index rises — “but some of it will be offset by a drop in the payroll tax,” Lazarus said.

He also admitted that the new tax system will be “hugely complicated” compared to the payroll tax, with complex formulas that differ by sector and where economic transactions take place. But he said the Chamber has long supported the switch and he was happy to see a compromise.

“I’m assuming it will pass. I don’t believe there will be any major organized opposition to the measure,” Lazarus said.

Labor and progressive leaders also say the measure — which exempts small businesses with less than $1 million in revenue and has a steeply progressive business license fee scale — is a good proposal worth supporting, even if they didn’t get everything they wanted.

“We fared pretty well, the royal ‘we,’ with the mayor starting off from the position that he wanted a revenue-neutral proposition,” Chris Daly, who unsuccessfully championed affordable housing ballot measures as a supervisor before leaving office and becoming the political director for SEIU Local 1021, the largest union of city employees.

Both sides say they gave considerable ground to reach the compromise.

“Did we envision $28.5 million in new revenue? No,” said Lazarus, who had insisted from the beginning that the tax measure be revenue-neutral. “But we also didn’t envision the Affordable Housing Trust Fund.”

Daly and Avalos also said the measures need to be considered in the context of current political and economic realities.

“We were never going to be able to pass — or even to craft — a measure to meet all of the unmet needs in San Francisco,” Daly said. “Given the current political climate, we did very well.”

“If we had a different mayor who was more interested in serving directly the working class of the city, rather than supporting a business class that he hopes will serve all the people, the result might have been different,” Avalos said. “But what’s significant is we have a tax measure that really is progressive.”

Given that “we have an economic system that is based on profits and not human needs,” Avalos said, “This is a good step, better that we’ve had in decades.”



The tax and housing measures certainly do address progressive priorities — bringing in more revenue and helping create affordable housing — even if some progressives express concerns that conditions in San Francisco could get worse for their vulnerable, working class constituents.

“I don’t know if the proposal before us is aggressive enough in terms of dealing with a crisis,” Campos told his colleagues on July 24 as they discussed the housing measure, later adding, “As good as this is, we are truly facing a crisis and a crisis requires a level of response that I unfortunately don’t think we are providing at this point.”

Not wanting to let “the perfect be the enemy of the good,” Campos said he still wanted to be able to support both measures, urging the board to have a more detailed discussion of their impacts.

“I wish this went further and created even more funding for critically needed affordable housing,” Sup. Eric Mar said before joining Campos in voting for the proposal anyway. “I think they need to build 60 percent of those units as below market rate otherwise we face more working families leaving the city, and the city becoming less diverse.”

Yet affordable housing advocates are desperate for something to replace the $56 million annual loss in affordable housing the city has faced in recent years, creating an immediate need for action and potentially allowing Lee to drive a wedge between the affordable housing advocates and labor if the latter held out for a better deal.

Many have heralded the mayor’s process in bringing together developers, housing advocates, and civic leaders to build a broad political consensus for the measure, particularly given the three affordable housing measures crafted by progressives over the last 10 years were all defeated by voters.

“One of the goals of any measure like this is for it to gain broad enough support to actually pass,” Sup. Scott Wiener said at a Rules Committee hearing on the measure.

In the measure’s grand bargain, developers receive a reduction in the percentage of on-site affordable housing units they are required to build, from 15 percent of units to 12 percent. The city will also buy some new housing units in large projects, paying market rate and then holding them as affordable housing — the buying power of which could be a boon to developers while creating affordable housing units.

At its root, the measure shifts some of the burden of funding affordable housing from developers to a broader tax base and locks in that agreement for 30 years, which could also spur market rate housing development in the process.

A late addition to the proposal by Farrell would create funding to help emergency workers with household earnings up to 150 percent of average median income buy homes in the city, citing a need to have these workers close at hand in the event of an earthquake or other emergency.

While some progressives have grumbled about the givebacks to developers and the high percentage of money going to homebuyer assistance in a city where almost two-thirds of residents rent, affordable housing advocates are pleased with the proposal.

“Did we gain out of this local package? Yes, we got 30 years of local funding. We came out net ahead in an environment where cities are crashing. We essentially caught ourselves way early from the end of redevelopment funds,” said Peter Cohen, executive director of the San Francisco Council of Community Housing Organizations.

Without it, Cohen says many affordable housing projects in the existing pipeline would be lost. “This last year was a bumpy year, and we will not be back to the same operation level for a number of years,” Cohen said. “There was a dip and we are coming out of that dip. It will take us a while to get back up to speed.”

The progressive side was also able to eliminate some of the more controversial items in the original proposal, including provisions that would expand the number of annual condo conversions allowed by the city and encourage rental properties to be converted into tenancies-in-common.

With ballot measures notoriously hard to amend, the Affordable Housing Trust Fund measure is a broad outline with many of the details of how the fund would be administered yet to be filled in. If passed, it will be up to Olson Lee, head of the Mayors Office on Housing and former local head of the demised redevelopment agency, to fill in the details, folding what was essential two partnered affordable housing agencies into a single local unit.

But even the most progressive members of the affordable housing community said there was no other alternative to addressing affordable housing in the wings — which is indeed a crisis now that redevelopment funds are gone — making this measure essential.

As Sara Shortt of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco told the Rules Committee, “We lost a very important funding mechanism. We have to replace it. We have no choice.”

Suspended state


In May, a rip appeared in the social safety net that catches many of the people whose careers have been derailed by the continuing economic crisis when Californians lost eligibility for federal relief money under the Fed-Ed portion of the federal unemployment insurance extension program.

The news of the funding loss came to program recipients in a letter from the California Employment Development Department (EDD). According to data obtained from the EDD by the Bay Guardian, 1,994 San Franciscans were among the more than 92,000 people statewide who were cut from the unemployment roles earlier then expected, as the maximum length of benefits was reduced suddenly from 99 weeks to 79 weeks.

A nuance in the legislation that regulates state-by-state eligibly for Fed-Ed caused California’s early exit from the program, while individuals in other states with lower unemployment rates and stronger employment prospects remain eligible for longer coverage. New York state, with an unemployment rate of 8.5 percent, 2.4 points lower then California’s rate, continues to receive Fed-Ed funding.

Ironically, that’s because the recession has lingered longer here than elsewhere, and unemployed Californians are now being punished for being stuck for so long in such a slow economy.

“In order for a state to qualify for the Fed-Ed extension program you have to have a high unemployment rate and certainty California does have a high unemployment rate,” EDD Deputy Director Loree Levy told us. “It is just not 10 percent higher than what it has been over the last three years, and that is a requirement of the program. So the good news is that California’s economy is improving. It is unfortunate news for a lot of the long-term unemployed individuals who will now be doing without these extension benefits.”

In San Francisco, the economy is definitely improving. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the San Francisco metropolitan area, which includes San Francisco and San Mateo counties, saw the second highest 12-month rise in employment nationally, creating more than 25,000 jobs, a 2.7 percent leap in employment. This big jump, the second highest nationally, reduced the city’s unemployment rate to 7 percent in April, leaving San Francisco a rare rose in a sea of briars.

But that’s little consolation to people in industries that have yet to recover, from construction to education to other government jobs.

While the city’s economy has been buoyed by tourism, technology, and a segment of pre-existing affluence that has weathered the economic crisis, the statewide the picture is much different. The state’s “improving economy” left more than two million Californians unemployed in May, 10.9 percent the state’s workforce.

When statewide unemployment ticked up slightly in April, the state’s three-month average registered as 8 percent higher than the three-year average, missing by a statistical sliver the federal program’s threshold 10 percent increase. This triggered the BLC, which tracks unemployment across the nation, to notify the California EDD that funding of the Fed-Ed program would cease.

The trouble with this metric as a benchmark for benefits dispersion is when discouraged workers self identify as having stopped looking for a job, they are no longer included in the unemployment figures used by the BLS to determine Fed-Ed eligibility. If a fraction of these workers had identified themselves as seeking work, the Fed-Ed relief would have continued to flow into California.

If the state edges back across that threshold in the coming months, Fed-Ed money will flow into the state again, but those recently cut from the unemployment roles who did not exhaust their Fed-Ed eligibility time will not qualify to be re-added to the program.

The program’s loss could have a significant impact on the state’s economy going forward.

“In the three years since Fed-Ed was passed, more than 912,00 people in California have relied on the benefits,” Levy says. “That has brought $5 billion of federal funds into the ailing state economy. It has had a tremendous impact on the economy and when you add in a multiplying effect from money spent out there from these benefits on local businesses, it can be almost a $10 billion effect on the economy.”

As the economic crisis drags on, federal stimulus and relief programs that were planned with a short downturn in mind dry up, a political climate of austerity in government spending has taken its place. Individuals caught in the fallout of the economic crisis increasingly find themselves with nowhere to turn.

Only one out of three unemployed workers statewide currently receive any unemployment benefits, and before the end of Fed-Ed, a staggering 700,000 people who had been receiving benefits during the economic crisis exhausted the previous maximum 99 weeks without finding work.

“What happens when we require people to go out and get jobs when there are no jobs? That’s a nightmare. People are being cut off with no place to turn,” Princeton professor of economics Paul Krugman said at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco last month. “Benefits that are emergency benefits should not depend on some arbitrary timeline for the individual but for the duration of the emergency. If we have a flood, you don’t say ‘We are only going to help flood victims for three days.’ We help them until the flood recedes.”

Of those Californians who still do receive an unemployment check, over half have been out of work for more than six months, the period at which normal state funding ends and federally emergency extension programs take over. The remaining federal unemployment extension program enacted during the economic crisis — the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program — is set to phase out on Dec. 23 of this year. That is bad news for Californians locked out of the labor market who have exhausted the normal six months of state funded benefits.

Responding to the release of May’s week jobs report, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-SF) said the report, “Makes clear that we have more work to do to restore security and opportunity for the middle class. The time is now for Republicans to join us in moving forward on behalf of the middle class.”

Without the renewal by Congress of federal unemployment extension deep in the presidential election cycle, another larger surge in people booted from the unemployment roles will be locked in competition for the state’s paltry offering of new job creation — a punishing musical chairs game with real life stakes.

Sonic attack on the poor


It was 11pm on Thursday, May 3, and the ballet was just letting out. Affluently dressed dance enthusiasts streamed arm in arm down Grove street towards the Civic Center BART station chatting about the evening performance. That night’s show of Don Quixote at War Memorial and Performing Arts Center was likely excellent judging by the theatergoers’ exuberance.

As they passed by the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, a half-dozen homeless people seated along the route begged the procession for change. Across the street and a block down Grove, a few homeless individuals had bedded down for the night in front of the Main Library.

It is these encounters, normal to urban life, that are at the center of a controversial strategy by Another Planet Entertainment, which leases the auditorium from the city, to drive the homeless away. They hope that by blasting a late night sampling of industrial noise through the venue’s sound system between the hours of 11pm and 7am, making sleep nearly impossible, that the homeless will be discouraged from congregating there.

A women selling the Street Sheet newspaper on the corner sums up the social tension that invoked the strategy. “They’re doing it to keep the homeless from sleeping there. All these people don’t want to see the homeless when they come through here,” she said, gesturing to the now thin stream from the ballet.

She had heard the noise over the past few nights and described it as deafening. “The first time I heard it I thought the building was under construction, then I thought a motorcycle gang was coming through. It is so bad it makes the windows of the building shake.”

Another Planet had no comment on the racket and would not say if the strategy would continue. But in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, company founder Gregg Perloff said the venue has had “an enormous amount of complaints” from their patrons about the homeless.

Late at night, police are powerless to respond to such complaints. The city’s carefully crafted sit-lie ordinance, which bars people from assuming either of those postures on city sidewalks during the day, is lifted between the hours of 11pm and 7am to satisfy constitutional concerns that have overturned similar ordinances in other cities.

“This it the first time I’ve heard of a strategy like this used against the homeless,” Bob Offer-Westort, civil rights organizer with the Coalition on Homelessness, said of the noise. “It is really problematic for a business to say that people on public property not breaking the law are a public nuance. It is a intrusion of a private company on public space.”

Standing in front of the building late on a foggy night, it’s easy to see why the homeless would gravitate to here. The building’s huge awning, covering much of the broad sidewalk, must be the easiest place to stay dry outdoors for many blocks. And since the demolition of the city’s old central bus terminal last year, it is perhaps the largest dry public space in the city’s core.

But is this sonic attack even legal? That’s a question that the Mayor’s Office and the San Francisco Police Department, neither of which answered our repeated inquiries, don’t seem to want to address.

San Francisco’s noise ordinance is a weighty document. Most cities suffice with a paragraph or two to regulate noise, while San Francisco’s ordinance runs nine pages. Noise, or rather the relative lack of it, seems of great importance to the city. There is even a city committee on noise.

The reason for the seriousness the city gives the issue of controlling excess noise is expressed in the very first paragraph of the noise ordinance: “Persistent exposure to elevated levels of community noise is responsible for public health problems including, but not limited to: compromised speech, persistent annoyance, sleep disturbance, physiological and psychological stress, heart disease, high blood pressure, colitis, ulcers, depression, and feelings of helplessness.”

Many of the cities homeless already suffer acutely from conditions on this list. Asked how an already vulnerable population could be affected by random industrial noise known to (and in this case intended to) cause agitation, Offer-Westort said, “It’s crazy to try to create these conditions, they are quite literally trying to create a civil disturbance, and not on their own property, but in a public space.”

With the adverse effects of noise pollution well-outlined, the ordinance goes on to state, “In order to protect public health, it is hereby declared to be the policy of San Francisco to prohibit unwanted, excessive, and avoidable noise.”

The ordinance pays particularly attention to licensed entertainment venues like the Bill Graham auditorium: “No noise or music associated with a licensed Place of Entertainment shall exceed the low frequency ambient noise level defined in Section 2901(f) by more than 8 dBC.”

As a matter of comparison the difference between a whisper and a quiet conversation is roughly an eight decibel increase, a relatively narrow margin. It seems reasonable that if you’re standing outside a venue, and the music coming from inside sounds louder than the person talking next to you, the city’s noise ordinance has been exceeded.

So motorcycles, saws, and other industrial sounds that were described at the auditorium late at night would range around 100 decibels without being amplified. Amplify it enough to shake the window in the building, one can assume it’s louder than a power tool, louder by far than the noise ordinance permits.

Everyone who has ever held a loud late night event in the city know the consequences of breaking the noise ordinance. A knock on the door by the SFPD that comes with a ticket and the end of your gathering. Do it again in a year and the fines doubles.

The strategy at the auditorium seems to be having some effect, but where the homeless will be shuffled off to is anybody’s guess. The reality of the homelessness crisis is there is no place for the homeless to simply move off too. With their numbers in the thousands, only bold political action on behalf of the city’s leadership can solve the problem.

“The root of the problem is that people can’t afford rent. Everyone who rents in San Francisco knows that it is way too expensive to live in this city,” says Offer-Westort. “We stopped creating public housing. Housing has become a commodity, an investment rather then a home, and that has driven up prices.”

Passing back through the area later at night, the building was quiet for the moment. A tow truck was loading a car out front with a beeping alarm, a motorcycle roars by, a boombox is playing across Civic Center Plaza, a man is yelling around the corner only to be drown out by a broken wheeled shopping cart clanking by. If this is the normal late night quiet of the streets, it’s a wonder the homeless get a moments sleep at all. But the building itself remains quiet right now.

A lone homeless man has bedded down in front but has not yet fallen asleep. Young and dreadlocked, he tells me that he has been in town only two days and is unaware of the controversial blasts of noise.

“God I hope they don’t do that,” he said from his sleeping bag. “It’s supposed to rain tonight. Why would they do that? As long as you are up before sunrise and move on, who are you bothering?”

And here in front of the auditorium in the middle of the night, with the concert patrons at home getting a comfortable night’s sleep, the question seemed valid. “It’s mean spirited. I think that we as society agree noise should be maintained at a reasonable level to not bother your neighbors,” said Offer-Westort. “The fact that their neighbors are homeless doesn’t mean they are not part of society.”

Oakland protest: Tear gas, one arrest


Tuesday morning brought an eruption of protests though out downtown Oakland as Occupy activists marched and rallied in support of a national general strike day to mark May Day.

Though the action lacked the numbers of last fall’s Port of Oakland strike, three early morning marches of several hundred protesters made there way through Oakland drawing attention to issues of gentrification, patriarchy and what protesters characterized as the injustices of capitalism.

In a city still waiting for an economic recovery, the protests were a reminder that simmering tensions over economic disparities continue to cause major disruptions of business as usual in Oakland.

Activists focused attention on Child Protective Services and the family court system. The agency was criticizing the for dividing families and sharpening the financial strain on poor families.

“This is where lawyers get rich, where judges get rich, and everyone else suffers,” stated an Occupy Oakland activist on the steps of the courthouse on 13th and Oak.

By noon various marches and protests converged on Oscar Grant Plaza, as roughly 1,000 protesters blocking traffic at 14th and Broadway. Protester danced to a portable sound system carted around in wheel chair, and danced around a maypole erected in the intersection.

OPD’s new crowd-control tactics were in display as riot police entered the crowd to make an arrest as bystanders were moved away with tear gas, concussion grenades and batons.

One woman was arrested and a 19-year-old Oakland woman, was struck in the head with a police baton. Bleeding heavily from the blow, she was rushed to the hospital after Occupy medics determined her wound was beyond their capacity to treat.

It was unclear what provoked the arrest.

Further protests are planned for this afternoon.

UPDATE: Sergeant Jeff Thomason, OPD public affairs, told us there have been four arrests, related to an incident in which paint was allegedly thrown at a police officer. Oakland has summoned mutual aid from the California Highway Patrol, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office and the Pleasanton and Hayward PDs.

Local control of cops


Sup. Jane Kim has introduced legislation to the Board of Supervisors calling for a re-examination of the San Francisco Police Department’s participation in some aspects of the Joint Terrorism Task Force, which was created by the Federal Bureau of Investigations to do domestic surveillance.

The proposed ordinance would prohibit the SFPD from working with the JTTF to collect intelligence on individuals in the absence of criminal wrongdoing, which has been a concern of civil libertarians since last year when a secret memo revealed that local officers were under FBI command and not bound by local and state restrictions on such surveillance (see “Spies in blue,” 4/26/11).

Kim said the ordinance was necessary to ensure the “requirement of reasonable suspicion before we do any type of investigation of criminal activity. And we don’t base it on ethnic identification or religious practice as some of the members of the community have been experiencing the last couple of years.

“Our office is sponsoring this because many members of the Arab, Asian and the Muslim community worship in the district and own many small businesses,” she said.

Critics of the relationship between local and federal law enforcement agencies, facilitated through participation in the JTTF, have long raised concerns about racial profiling and unnecessary spying ordered at the federal level, and carried out by SFPD inspectors assigned full time to the task force.

Federal regulations governing FBI intelligence gathering are weaker than standards set by San Francisco and California’s Constitution. In 1990, the San Francisco Police Commission established rules requiring that intelligence-gathering involving any First Amendment activity be based on reasonable suspicion of significant criminal activity. Those rules reflect the California Constitutional requirement of an “articulable criminal predicate” before law enforcement agencies engage in intelligence-gathering activity.

However, because the SFPD inspectors assigned to the JTTF work under the direction of the FBI, the local regulation and control of law enforcement is effectively limited in JTTF investigations.

“It’s important that a clear prohibition against policing based on race, ethnicity, national origin, or religion applies to all of our officers, all of the time,” said John Crew, police practices expert for the Northern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU is one of more than 30 civil rights and community organizations participating in the Coalition for Safe SF, which helped develop the proposed ordinance.

According to the coalition, current rules prevent the SFPD from barring its inspectors assigned to the JTTF from joining FBI agents in collecting intelligence on San Franciscans without any “particular factual predication.”

“The purpose of this legislation is to restore local control, civilian oversight, and transparency over the SFPD’s participation in FBI intelligence-gathering,” stated attorney Nasrina Bargzie of the Asian Law Caucus, which is part of the coalition.

The coalition was a major participant in the San Francisco Human Rights Commission hearing in 2010 on the issue of baseless spying and racial profiling in JTTF investigations. The result was a comprehensive report, endorsed by the Board of Supervisors last spring.

But in 2011, the ACLU and Asian Law Caucus learned that key protections for civil liberties — including civilian oversight of intelligence activity and safeguards to limit intrusive tactics — were thrown out the window and replaced by a secret Memorandum of Understanding with federal law enforcement in 2007.

Under the MOU, SFPD paid officers work out of the local FBI office. The secure nature of their work means they must seek federal permission to even talk to their superiors in the SFPD about their work, effectively removing them from the local chain of command. Despite mandated requirements on local law enforcement, the MOU does not allow for any civilian oversight of the work of officers assigned to the JTTF.

San Francisco Chief of Police Greg Suhr said he believes that the concerns have already been addressed. In his first days in office, Chief Suhr issued a binding Bureau Order #2011-07 setting forth the requirement that officers comply with local standards.

An excerpt of the order reads, “SFPD officers shall work with the JTTF only on investigations of suspected terrorism that have a criminal nexus. In situations where the statutory law of California is more restrictive of law enforcement than comparable federal law, the investigative methods employed by SFPD officers working on JTTF investigations shall conform to the requirements of such California statutes.”

“With this Bureau Order, the language of the 2007 Memorandum of Understanding no longer applies and SFPD personnel are bound by the provisions of the 2011 Order,” SFPD Public Information Officer Albie Esparza told the Guardian.

But Crew said that as long as the MOU between the SFPD and federal law enforcement remains in place, Suhr’s order at best creates contradictory policy. “The Memorandum of Understanding is a binding legal contact with the federal government. Which do you think will take legal precedence when it comes up against a local police chief’s departmental order?” said Crew, who urged the department to clarify the matter by withdrawing from the MOU, a step the SFPD has thus far been unwilling to take.

A letter from Sept. 28 of last year to Coalition for Safe SF from FBI Special Agent Stephanie Douglas regarding the contradiction clarifies the matter. “I do retain the right to assign FBI JTTF cases,” states Douglas, who goes on to assert it is she who makes the confidential judgment of which cases fall afoul of the state and city rules and which do not.

After years of intelligence-gathering authorized under a secret memorandum, public mistrust in the SFPD’s relationship to federal law enforcement persists. Kim says she believes the proposed ordinance will still help make San Francisco safer. “It increases the trust of the community members that are working with public safety in reporting, and in cooperating around many of the actual criminal activities that might be going on in the city,” she said.

The proposed legislative approach of regulating the scope of local participation in federal JTTF work is not unprecedented. The city has the option of terminating the MOU with 30 days notice, a step that the city of Portland, Oregon has taken to prevent its police force from spying on citizens in violation of local and state law.

In December, the city of Berkeley suspended its agreement with the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (an arm of the Joint Terrorism Task Force) as part of a broad review of that city’s relationship to other local and federal law enforcement agencies (see “Policing the police,” 12/13/11).

“What this is about is maintaining local control of law enforcement and ensuring the civil liberties of the people of San Francisco,” Crew said. “Don’t San Franciscans deserve the same protection of their civil liberties as the people of Portland?”

Kim was joined by Sups. David Compos and John Avalos in sponsoring the ordinance. Supervisors are expected to vote on the whether to adopt the ordinance this spring after the measure is heard by the city’s Public Safety Committee following the normal 30-day hold. The measure seems to have the support it needs to pass the Board of Supervisors, but it remains unclear whether Mayor Ed Lee, who did not answer our inquiries, will sign it.

What are people?


Protesters from the Occupy movement and beyond gathered in front of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco on Jan. 20, calling for the adoption of a 28th amendment to the U.S. Constitution aimed at refuting the idea that corporations should have the same rights as people, a legal doctrine know as corporate personhood.

The event was part of a day of action at courthouses around the country, seeking to raise public awareness about the unfettered influence of corporate money in U.S. elections and draw attention to the second anniversary of the landmark corporate personhood decision by U.S. Supreme Court, Citizens United vs the Federal Elections Commission.

“We are here not to protest, not to petition, and not to plead, but to proclaim a truth that should be self evident, even to the Supreme Court: Corporations are not people; money is not speech,” said Abraham Entin, of North Bay Move To Amend, addressing a crowd gathered at the courthouse. “Corporations work very hard to convince us that we cannot do without them and the products they produce. They tell us they are too big to fail, and that our survival is dependent on their survival … Occupy has changed all that.”

In a contentious 5-4 ruling handed down on Jan. 21, 2010, the Citizens United case solidified the legal framework that bequeaths corporations the same rights under the Constitution as real, living, breathing, U.S. citizens, and by merit of their First Amendment rights as citizens bars any restrictions placed on a corporation’s ability to spend money to influence elections.

When Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney famously said on the campaign trail that “corporations are people, my friend, because corporations have people inside them,” he is reflecting the logic of the majority opinion in the Citizens United case. The court’s majority asserted that corporations are essentially an association of people and thus enjoy the same rights as individuals.

The court also claimed that it is impossible to distinguish between the corporate media outlets and other corporate speech, so all corporations should enjoy the free speech rights saved for the press. Furthermore, because journalists often have to spend money to achieve speech, money spent on messaging by all corporations represents protected speech.

Corporations, a relatively modern invention, aren’t actually discussed in the Constitution. But the notion of corporation personhood began around 1886 in the case of Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad. What Citizens United did was equate corporate money spent to influence elections with protected political speech, upending attempts at election reforms and gutting the McCain-Feingold Act of 2002 that regulated federal election campaigns.

That corporations act to corrupt our democratic systems for their own profit is not conspiracy, it’s simply a byproduct of what they are. Corporations are legally obligated to act to maximize their profits for the benefit of their shareholders, otherwise their board and corporate officers are considered negligent of their obligations to their shareholders’ financial interests. Unlike journalists, whose professional credo calls for fairness and acting in the public interest, corporations are designed to act in their own interests.

As Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the dissenting judges in Citizens United, “Corporations have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires. Corporations help structure and facilitate the activities of human beings, to be sure, and their ‘personhood’ often serves as a useful legal fiction. But they are not themselves members of ‘We the People’ by whom and for whom our Constitution was established.”

The resulting flood of corporate money into election campaigns since the court’s ruling is delivered through an aqueduct known as the Super PAC (political action committee). In the wake of Citizens United, election spending by Super PACs in the 2010 midterm elections exceeded $300 million dollars, more spending than the overall spending in the previous five midterm elections combined.

Unlike donations to campaigns, which so far remain regulated, Super PAC money is spent directly by the Super PAC, and can be spent attacking as well as supporting candidates, leading to fears that corporations can exert influence on incumbents before a re-election campaigns by threatening to spend money attacking them in the upcoming election cycle.

“Corporations are human creations, state creations, legal entities … There is no reason we cannot limit their spending,” said Carlos Villarreal, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild’s Bay Area chapter. “Nonprofit organizations are limited in their political spending. Churches and charitable organizations are also limited in their spending. So why not for-profit corporations?”

Perhaps no group knows more about government limits to free speech than participants of the Occupy movement. Elastic restrictions on individual free speech and freedom of association rights spelled out in the First Amendment, resting on alleged risks to health and public safety, have led to Occupy encampments across the nation being restricted and evicted, at times enforced by brutal police crackdowns.

The right of the government to restrict individual and group speech that officials believe represents a clear and present danger was established by the Supreme Court in the 1919 Schenck v United States case — the famous “don’t yell fire in a crowded theater” case. What is not widely known is that this case was a re-examination of the famous 1917 Espionage Act. The “crowded theater” was our nation’s entry into World War I, and those being jailed for “yelling fire” were labor organizers and pacifists expressing their opposition to our entry into the war.

Relying on Schenck, courts have consistently defended restrictions on individual free speech when there is a compelling interest to public safety, the so-called “clear and present danger” standard. Villarreal and the crowd gathered before the Ninth Circuit asserted that corporate influence in our democratic processes represents a clear and present danger to society. “There is no more compelling interest than protecting democracy,” said Villarreal.

Despite the apparent double standard, legal experts say the courts action in the Citizens United case leaves a constitutional amendment as the only avenue left for regulating corporate money in elections and ending corporate personhood, but the movement to take on that Herculean task has already begun.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) have introduced legislation proposing a 28th Amendment to the Constitution. While the language differs from another amendment presented by the group Move to Amend, it also takes aim at ending corporate personhood.

“Two years ago, the United States Supreme Court betrayed our Constitution and those who fought to ensure that its protections are enjoyed equally by all persons regardless of religion, race or gender, by engaging in an unabashed power-grab on behalf of corporate America,” Sanders wrote in a Jan. 20 Guardian(UK) column.

In Sanders’ home state of Vermont, the state Senate is also considering a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment against corporate personhood. A similar resolution, authored by Alix Rosenthal, was adopted by the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee during a special meeting on Jan. 21. There was just one dissenting vote, and DCCC members say they plan to push for the state party organization to also adopt the stance.

The hurdles set forth to amend the U.S. Constitution, outlined in Article V, are substantial. In order for an amendment to even be considered, a super majority of both houses of Congress must initiate the process, or two-thirds of states must call for the amendment. Proposed amendments passing this threshold are then adopted only after three-quarters of state legislatures ratify the proposed amendment. But that difficult road is one the protesters said they are ready to travel. “We are here on a rainy day with warm hearts and wet feet. We are the 100 percent, the humans. No corporation has every experienced the thrill of wet feet,” said Gangs of America author Ted Nace. “We are the fools who go out on a wet day to fix a broken world. Eighty percent of the public want to fix this. That means we are halfway to our goal. What remains is organization, mobilization.”

Occupy movement targets foreclosed homes


Throughout the Bay Area on Tuesday (Dec. 6), Occupy activists and housing advocates launched what they said will be an ongoing effort to place families back into their foreclosed homes, seizing bank-owned homes to put pressure on the banking industry to cooperate with homeowners in loan trouble.

In San Francisco, San Jose, and Oakland, activists highlighted the nation’s foreclosure crisis by occupying foreclosed homes as part of the Occupy movement’s national day of action against foreclosures. Occupy Oakland activists said the tents are gone in downtown Oakland, but the move toward house occupations represents a new phase for the movement.

“I am here fighting for my home,” said Margarita Ramirez, addressing a crowd of 150 supporters at the West Oakland BART station. Ramirez said her family fell behind on their mortgage payments after her husband was laid off at the onset of the recession. The Ramirez family applied for a loan modification under the federally subsidized Home Affordable Modification Program(HAMP) hoping for some relief, but their lender, Bank of America, denied their request. Though HAMP is a federal program, it is administered though individual mortgage lenders.

According to Ramirez, with time left before her foreclosure, Bank of America urged them to explore other options to save their home. Then, inexplicably, Bank of America sold her home to Fannie Mae, leaving her family out of options despite what Ramirez says is Bank of America’s later admission to the error and willingness to work with the family. Fannie Mae however has held firm that the sale was valid, leaving the Ramirez family in an uncomfortable comprise of renting their own home.

In order to pressure Fannie Mae on behalf of the Ramirez family, activists with Occupy Oakland and Just Cause seized a vacant Fannie Mae owned foreclosure at 1417 Tenth street in West Oakland.

“This house is owned by the federal government, who we pay taxes to,” said Occupy Oakland activist Thaddeus Guidry, who said that he had struggled hard to get by during the recession. As he stood over a grill cooking hotdogs for the crowd gathered in the yard of the newly occupied house, he said he had found new inspiration and hope after becoming part of Occupy Oakland.

“Tonight will be the first night here in the house,” said Guidry. “This is my home now. We hope to house eight people here.”

Fannie Mae, which was effectively foreclosed on by the U.S. Treasury in 2008 under a process know as conservatorship, has received $169 billion in federal bailout money and remains under federal control.

The house on Tenth street is modest but spacious, with electricity and water. Downstairs, Just Cause is getting ready to start an eviction defense clinic. Just Cause organizer Maria Zamudio told the Bay Guardian that the group holds regular eviction defense clinics in San Francisco and Oakland, but the freshly occupied house in West Oakland would serve as a community space that people can drop into to learn their rights.

“We have been doing eviction defense for a long time. Since the recession, we have seen a change to tenants being pressured to leave by banks after landlords lose a house to foreclosure,” said Zamudio. “It is important for tenants to know that they do not need to leave a foreclosed property. The tenant has more rights in these situations then the homeowner.”

Only blocks away, Gayla Newsome stood in front of her house at 1536 Adeline St with another crowd of supporters from Occupy Oakland, and housing advocates from the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment(ACCE). She has been out of the house for six months after the foreclosure, leaving her and her children to stay with family in an overcrowded situation as the house sat vacant.

“This is the moment I take my house back. I’m a little scared, a little nervous, but I have to do this for my kids and grandkids. I have to do this for the other people who are going through this,” said Newsome.

Newsome said Chase Bank repeatedly denied receiving her HAMP loan modification paperwork. When she finally sent a copy by certified mail, they acknowledged the application and denied her eligibility in the program.

The eviction came swiftly. Unaware of the looming eviction, and believing she still had time to save her house even though Chase was outside the HAMP program, Newsome was called by her children while at work the morning of July 19.

“The kids were given 10 minutes to grab what they could before they were put on the sidewalk in their pajamas by the bank representative and the sheriff. They called me frantic,” recalled Newsome.

The recession has been hard on West Oakland. One out of 236 houses in West Oakland are in foreclosure, with many more families hard-pressed to hang on. Housing advocates say that foreclosures destabilize entire neighborhoods, as surrounding property values plummet and blight spreads.

“I’m not just here personally to reclaim my house, I’m here to say it is time to reclaim this neighborhood,” said Newsome, who laid the blame for the neighborhood’s sharp decline at the feet of the banks.

Residents of the neighborhood gathered for the rally shared stories of realtors cruising the neighborhood stopping to photograph even properties that are not in foreclosure or for sale.

“This was not an accident, this is redlining,” said Nell Myhand of Just Cause about West Oakland’s housing troubles.

“It’s time to take this to the politicians,” said ACCE organizer Shirley Burnell. “If they are not willing to help us, then they got to go. We will take them to the streets.”

Outside, activists signed up for shifts to help defend Newsome’s home from eviction, and started an emergency phone tree in case of trouble.

“The tents are gone but we are still here!” yelled an Occupy activist from the crowd as home defense clipboards circulated.

“I appreciate everyone doing this with me,” said Newsome. “That’s what Occupy is all about. We will take our homes back one at a time – no, five at a time.”

Homes for the 99 percent


Pressed by foreclosures, evictions, and an economic crisis with the gnawing tenacity of an early winter flu, San Franciscans protested in neighborhoods throughout the city on Saturday, Dec. 3. Marches from four of the city’s most impacted neighborhoods merged in the Financial District to pressure landlords, banks, and what the Occupy movement has dubbed the 1 percent to ease the spreading hardship surrounding housing in San Francisco.

“The 99 percent tenants and homeowners can no longer let the 1 percent banks and real estate speculators destroy our city and our lives so we’re marching in the neighborhoods and on the streets today,” asserted the statement read by the Occupy SF Housing coalition to the crowd gathered in the Financial District. The message echoed through the glass and granite corridors in front of Wells Fargo, passed along in a thousand voices by the now ubiquitous “mic check” style of Occupy crowd communication.

Housing advocates warned that a steady stream of foreclosures, climbing rents, and lagging job opportunities are driving even native San Franciscans out of the city for the relatively affordable housing in the East Bay or forcing them out of the region altogether, transforming the face of San Francisco into an older, whiter, wealthier demographic.

Throughout the economic crisis, San Francisco as a whole has posted lower foreclosure rates than surrounding counties. At first glance, San Francisco, with one in 880 homes facing foreclosure, looks like a safe harbor in the state’s troubled residential real estate market compared with the statewide foreclosure rate of one home in 243, according RealtyTrac. That represents 55,312 residential units across the state. Nationally, one in 563 homes was in some stage of foreclosure as of October 2011, the most recently released numbers.

However, a near absence of foreclosures in affluent, stable, San Francisco neighborhoods like Pacific Heights and Noe Valley hide troubling foreclose rates in the city’s blue collar ZIP codes that far exceed national and statewide levels. In the 94124 zip code that includes the Bayview and Hunters Point, one in 180 homes received foreclosure filings, higher then Oakland’s overall average rate of one in 245 homes — levels that reflect the experience of some of the nation’s most hard hit areas.

Of the 1,513 homes currently listed on the San Francisco housing market, 1,255 were in the pre-foreclosure, auction, or bank-owned stages of the foreclosure process, representing roughly 82 percent of the available housing stock.

At the downtown headquarters of Wells Fargo, Occupy protesters were placing some of the blame for the deepening hardship at the feet of the big banks. According to the Occupy SF Housing coalition, Wells Fargo is the mortgage lender for 226 homes in San Francisco that are in some stage of foreclosure. That represents about 18 percent of the total homes in San Francisco under foreclosure.

In neighborhoods like Hunters Point, these evictions have turned into an economic cascade of household wealth in decline, even for those who have managed to hold onto their homes.

With foreclosures flooding the market, the median sales price for homes in Hunters Point from Aug. 11 to Oct. 11 was $167,500. This represents a decline of 13.2 percent, or $25,500 per home on average, compared to the prior quarter. Sales prices have depreciated 62.6 percent over the last five years in Hunters Point, wiping out equity families have built over years, and leaving those who hang on stuck in underwater mortgages, where their debt far exceeds the value of their home.

“Predatory equity loans make a quick profit (for the lender) at the expense of home owners in the Bayview,” said Grace Martinez of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE). “There are 11 homeowners on a two-block stretch of Quesada in default or have already lost their homes.”

While the Obama administration has tried to ease the foreclosure crisis through the federally subsidized Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), only a small percentage of people who apply through their mortgage holder for relief under the program receive a loan adjustment. At Wells Fargo, only one in five borrowers applying for HAMP relief have received a loan modification.

Protesters sitting in the streets in front of Wells Fargo demanded that the company establish a moratorium on all foreclosures until it reforms its loan modification practices, halts the eviction of homeowners who have faced foreclosure, and instead offers them a rental option to keep them in their homes — a solution they say will ease the suffering of those caught in the middle of the banking crisis.

The banking and real estate driven economic crash has lead to the largest drop in home ownership nationally since the Great Depression. At the same time that home ownership has become increasingly out of reach for many San Franciscans, increases in rental rates and high competition for rental units are driving out many blue collar San Franciscans from the transit-friendly Mission District, in favor of a generally younger, wealthier, more educated, tech-savvy population.

As rallies took place across the city Saturday in the lead up to the afternoon’s Wells Fargo protest, a group of concerned residents and community groups gathered at 24th and Mission to highlight San Francisco’s other housing crisis — the rental market. The other marches started in the Castro, the Bayview, and the Tenderloin.

Much of the turnover of long-occupied rent controlled housing units in San Francisco comes as a result of the Ellis Act, a state law that allows evictions when an owner’s family wants to move in or when the unit is taken off the rental market. Brenda Nedina’s family is facing an Ellis Act eviction at 874 Shotwell Street.

“I’ve lived in that unit my whole life. My family has lived in the unit for 28 years,” said the tearful, 25-year-old San Franciscan native. “We would love to stay here, but with rents so high, it is not likely that we would find a place in San Francisco.”

Nedina, who works a service industry job at Pier 39, says the economic crisis has made it more difficult for her survive in San Francisco. She has had to cut down her college course load to get by in the tough economy. The troubles will get more complicated if her family is priced out of the city, as critical health services that they rely on are available through their San Francisco residency.

“A lot of people suffer through this as a private problem, but we are making it a public problem, and if the problem belongs to all of us then so does the solution,” said Maria Poblet of Just Cause, hugging a tearful Nedina as she addressed a crowd gathered at 24th and Mission streets.

Latino families like Brenda’s continue to be forced out of the Mission District by rising rent, and less economic opportunity for them in the recession. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the past decade has seen a 22 percent decrease in the Mission’s Latino population.

“Landlords often abuse the Ellis Act as a way to remove tenants from rent controlled units,” Just Cause organizer Maria Zamudio told the Guardian. “I’m occupying Kaleidoscope free speech zone art space on 24th and Folsom. My slumlord landlord is not down with that mission,” said artist and gallery proprietor Sara Powell, also facing a Ellis Act eviction after pressuring her landlord to address substandard building maintenance issues. Powell’s landlord withdrew a standard eviction process that housing advocates said was unlikely to succeed before launching the Ellis Act eviction.

“With the help off the 99 percent and with right on our side we are going to fight this and we are going to win,” said Powell, whose gallery next door to Philz Coffee is a cornerstone of the neighborhood’s multi-ethnic arts scene. The San Francisco Rent Board has received more than 4,000 petitions to remove rental units from the real estate market since 1999 through the Ellis Act. While Ellis Act evictions have seen some decline during the economic crisis, more Ellis Act evictions are now concentrated in the Mission District, where 40 percent of all Ellis Act petitions are now filed. At the same time, evictions based on breach of lease throughout the city are on track to double pre-recession numbers this year as more and more San Franciscans are have trouble earning enough to keep up with the city’s exorbitant rental rates. According to Just Cause, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the Mission District is now $2,497. “The only way to keep our Chinese, Latino, Arabic, English speaking neighborhood is to fight like hell for our homes,” said Poblet. “Even before Wall Street was occupied, we have been defending this neighborhood. This is the neighborhood of the 99 percent.”

BART adopts policy on cutting cell phone service


 The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Board of Directors has adopted the nation’s first policy outlining the circumstances under which cell phone service can be suspended. The policy comes in the wake of BART’s disruption of cell service in a bid to preempt an August 11 anti-police brutality protest that was called to highlight the July 4 police slaying of Charles Hill by BART police at San Francisco’s Civic Center station.

That cell service cut thrust BART into the middle of a national debate over if and when it is appropriate for government agencies to cut cell service to the public. The fallout included multiple rush hour protests against BART this summer led by activists with No Justice, No BART and supporters of the hacker group Anonymous. In the wake of the controversy, BART directors set out to create a policy outlining the circumstances under which BART would cut cell service in the future.

“The intent of this cell phone interruption policy is to balance free speech rights with legitimate public safety concerns,” BART Board President Bob Franklin said. “This policy, with input from the Federal Communications Commission and the American Civil Liberties Union, will serve as a pioneering model for our nation, as a reference to other public agencies that will inevitably face similar dilemmas in the future.”

The policy was quickly adopted yesterday at the BART board’s regular meeting by a vote of 7-0, with directors Lynette Sweet and Joel Keller absent for the vote. The policy states cell service will be “interrupted only in the most extraordinary circumstances that threaten the safety of District passengers, employees and other members of public, the destruction of District property, or the substantial disruption of public transit service.”

What remains unclear is if BART’s controversial decision to cut cellphone service in order to prevent protest would have been justified under the new policy. In the lead up to the policy, BART directors said their aim was to craft a policy to be used in the most extreme emergencies, and not against the free speech rights.

“If we were faced with the exact same situation, we would not shut off cell phone service,” Franklin said, “we would arrest people.”

However, in the wake of the action, BART asserted in an official statement that, “Organizers planning to disrupt BART service on August 11, 2011 stated they would use mobile devices to coordinate their disruptive activities and communicate about the location and number of BART Police. A civil disturbance during commute times at busy downtown San Francisco stations could lead to platform overcrowding and unsafe conditions.”

BART would seemingly be justified in a disruption cell service in these circumstances under the new policy, as the planned protest represented in the eyes of BART officials both a perceived risk to safety and a potential for service disruption – the stated strategy in the announcement of the August 11 anti-police brutality protest.

The judgment call on where to draw the line in emergency circumstances will rest with predesignated top BART officials. Those officials will be obligated to immediately inform BART’s directors of any disruption of cell service.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski said BART’s policy was an important step towards responding to the incident, but he cautioned, “the legal and policy issues raised by the type of wireless service interruption at issue here are significant and complex.”

He said that the FCC will be undertaking a review of the issue and will “consider the constraints that the Communications Act, First Amendment, and other laws and policies place upon potential service interruptions.”

The FCC regulates cellphone service as part of its broader regulation of the nation’s airwaves. BART’s new policy outlining when to cut cellphone service will take effect immediately.

A link to download the new policy can be found here.


UC’s pick of Bratton to investigate pepper spray incident isn’t reassuring


The video images are already iconic, a line of young students sit cross legged, arms linked, at the front edge of an Occupy UC Davis protest, nonviolently protesting the impacts of the economic crisis on the University of California and beyond. As police step forward students begin to chant “the whole world is watching,” and officers disperse fire extinguisher size canisters of pepper spray into the faces of the seated students.

As is turns out the students were right, the whole world was watching, leaving UC Davis with a public relations nightmare that has left the campus police chief and two officers on administrative leave. In the wake of the incident, UC President Mark G. Yudof established an independent review to be conducted within the next 30 days, naming former Los Angeles Police Chief, Bill Bratton, now chairman of Kroll Security, to lead the investigation.

“My intent,” Yudof said, “is to provide the chancellor and the entire University of California community with an independent, unvarnished report about what happened at Davis.”

While UC Davis touts Bratton as “a renowned expert in progressive community policing,” deep questions surround the choice of Bratton. The Council of University of California Faculty Associations (CUCFA) was quick to question the independence of the investigation of police violence at UC Davis, pointing out that Bratton, through Kroll, already holds contracts with the UC system.

“We already know that Kroll has provided security services to at least three UC campuses for the past several years. This in itself would disqualify Mr. Bratton from participating in the investigation,”said CUCFA president Robert Meister. “You would be illustrating the kinds of connection between public higher education and Wall Street that the Occupy UC movement is protesting.”

Bratton also served as president of the Police Executive Research Forum, the police non-profit that facilitated controversial phone discussions between major metropolitan police chiefs in the lead up to the crackdown on the Occupy movement across the nation, raising questions about his ability to lead the UC Davis investigation.

Bratton’s offical bio from the LAPD shows the depth of his involvement in PERF when it states, “He is also the only chief executive to serve two terms as the elected President of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF).” Bratton was instrumental in the creation of PERF’s hardline 2006 report Police Management of Mass Demonstrations for which he receives special recognition in the acknowledgments section of.

“PERF gathered more than 100 invited practitioners and stakeholders at an international forum in San Diego in December 2004 to highlight issues related to mass demonstrations and use-of-force. At this event, Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton set the scene for a lively interaction as he discussed the changing nature of protests and mass demonstration events. He recalled that in the 1960s the issues leading to demonstration events tended to be more community-centered and that the police focus was largely tactical. He noted that today, demonstrations are sometimes orchestrated by far-reaching national and international organizations, coalitions and informal groups subscribing to anarchistic methods,” reads the report.

The manual pays special attention to managing media messaging, devoting a section to media in the wake of a major demonstration: “An integrated media strategy seeks to manage and harness the media attention in order to help achieve the overall policing objectives. By partnering with the media, the potential increases for all parties to win, public confidence to be maintained and the reputation of the law enforcement agencies to be enhanced.”

Though Bratton has moved on as PERF’s president, he keeps close ties with the organization. In April , Bratton was the keynote speaker at a PERF conference on technology and policing held in Washington, DC, a subject Bratton is an expert on due to his role in developing the controversial CompStat system used to “predicatively model” crime in some metropolitan areas.

Bratton is widely recognized as the leading proponent of the “broken windows theory” of policing, which advocates a zero tolerance approach to petty crime. Speaking to the Telegraph(UK) this summer about the historically large youth riots in the UK, he said youth were “emboldened” by over-cautious policing.

“To be effective, a police force should have ‘a lot of arrows in the quiver,’ said Mr Bratton, advocating a doctrine of ‘escalating force’ where weapons including rubber bullets, Tasers, pepper spray and water cannon were all available to commanders,” the paper wrote on August, 12 2011.


Occupy Oakland’s short-lived new camp (VIDEO)


Police raided Occupy Oakland’s new encampment at Fox Square Park at 19th and Telegraph streets early Nov. 20. Some 30 tents had been set up at the park, which protesters entered Saturday evening after tearing down a chain-link fence surrounding the perimeter.

The camp was created following a Saturday afternoon march meant to highlight cuts to education which passed through the downtown Oakland banking district and stopped Lakeside Elementary School, one of five Oakland public schools that are slated for closure at the end of the school year due to budget cuts.

Occupy Oakland has called for general assembly at Frank Ogawa Plaza (renamed Oscar Grant Plaza by protesters) on Nov. 20 at 6 p.m. to talk about next steps.

Although Occupy Oakland’s home was short-lived, the Guardian was on hand to capture the moment when the fence came down and occupiers rushed in.

Earlier in the afternoon, an Oakland school teacher sounded off against the budget cuts.

Videos by Shawn Gaynor

BART seeks power to ban targeted individuals


Legislation currently before California Governor Jerry Brown would allow Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) to ban passengers who have been convicted of a crime committed while on BART property. Written into a renewal of legislation for existing transit rules in the Sacramento area, the bill being considered by Governor Brown, AB 716, would make it an infraction to return to BART stations or use the regional transit system for up to one year.

“BART seeks whatever legal solutions we can to keep our passengers safe. There are dangerous people who are attracted to these public places. For example, we had a stabbing at the gates of Balboa station on the 8th of September,” BART spokesperson Luna Salaver told the Guardian. “This is something that BART can use as a tool.”

BART denied any connection between the wave of recent protests and the addition of BART to the bill renewal of AB 716. The BART Board of Directors began pursuing their inclusion into the legislation this spring, and addressed the issue at its June 9 board meeting — before frequent protests began over the July 3 shooting death of Charles Hill by BART police at Civic Center Station.

However, if passed, the resulting ordinance could be applied to protesters, some of whom have been arrested during civil disobedience that has caused rush hour service disruptions of BART’s operations, and others who have been arrested in official free speech areas while not directly contributing to a disruption in service.

With some 350,000 people passing through turnstiles each weekday, BART does not believe it can easily prevent everyone who is cited from re-entering BART, but says it will serve as an additional tool if a person is re-encountered by BART police. While a fine of $75 on the first offense may not be enough on its own to act as a deterrent, infractions to the law could be examined as probation or parole violations and subsequent infractions carry heavier fines.

“It would be preferable if these types of conditions were set by a judge as a condition of probation,” said Michael Rifher, staff attorney ACLU of Northern California. “These types of ordinances imposing ‘stay away’ orders without judicial oversight are an area that is very open to abuse.”

Specifics on how the new law would be enforced are not in place yet, and will be developed by BART if the bill receives Gov. Brown’s signature.

“If the bill passes the Governor’s desk, BART will still have to go through its own process to implement it as an ordinance,” said Salaver. “This is something BART can uses as a tool but it will not likely be invoked automatically.”

Rifher says the underlying legislation does go further to protect free speech and the rights of the disabled than many examples of “stay away” legislation. For example, according to the text of the legislation, someone banned from riding BART or entering the station would still be allowed to “engage in activities that are protected under the laws of the United States or of California, including, but not limited to, picketing, demonstrating, or distributing handbills.”

In discussing the process of implementing an ordinance, BART said it would invite people from the disabled community, who may have special concerns about the formation of BART’s policy, to participate.

Sources familiar with the bill say it is unclear whether Governor Brown plans to sign the legislation.

BART protests continue (VIDEO)


Protesters returned to downtown San Francisco train stations on August 29, vowing to keep up their schedule of Monday evening rush hour protests until the  BART police are disarmed and retrained, or disbanded. This time, howevef, stations remained open and trains ran on schedule in a protest where both BART police and demonstrators took pains to reach out to commuters angered by recent train service disruptions.

A crowd of 200 people gathered outside of Civic Center station, the location of the July 3 fatal shooting of a 45 year old Charles Hill by BART police.

Hill’s physician, Dr. Rupa Marya, joined the protest a day after releasing an open letter on the shooing calling for BART police to re-examine its use of force policies and training.

“Charles was a member of the invisible class of people in SF–mentally ill, homeless and not reliably connected to the help he needed,” read Marya’s letter. “We often have to deal with agitated–sometimes even violent–patients in the hospital. Through teamwork, tools and training, we have not had to fatally wound our patients in order to subdue them.”

The protest made its way down Market Street entering each station briefly but remaining outside the fare gates. BART police have made it clear recently that their policies only allow freedom of expression outside the paid areas of the station. Previous protests on the train platforms have lead to station closures and train delays – delays that protesters and police have accused each other of causing.

Video taken by Josh Wolf, which includes protesters and counterprotesters, including a debate between Dr. Marya and a supporter of the cops.

As the protesters moved down the Market Street corridor they were shadowed by a small army of BART and San Francisco Police Department officers intent on preventing further station closures.

At Montgomery station Deputy BART Police Chief Daniel Hartwig told the Guardian, “Protesters appear to be following BART’s free speech rules and regulations and at this point we are happy they are. We support their right to protest.”

Behind him the station lobby filled protesters chanting, “How can they protect and serve us? BART police just make us nervous.”

At Embarcadero station an organizer with No Justice No BART challenged BART’s free speech rules.

“Right here you can say what you want. The moment you enter that fare gate you can’t say what you want,” he announced over a megaphone before crossing through the fair gates under heavy police presence.

After speaking out briefly in the paid area of the station, he exited of his own accord and was promptly arrested by BART police along with another protester in a Guy Fawkes mask who also had been using a megaphone.

Muni, which shares several downtown train stations with BART, has shifted in recent years away from police patrols to a “community ambassador” program, largely removing armed SFPD officers from those train and bus lines in favor of unarmed fare enforcement personal. The program has been praised from all sides as an appropriate balance of community safety, and fare enforcement on public transportation.

Robin, a young San Francisco native who said it was her first time participating in the police misconduct protests, characterized the gathering as a success. When asked if she found the presence of so many police intimidating she said “It was meant to be intimidating. That they would bring everyone out to police a small protest shows they fell they have something to be ashamed of.”

While the protesters focused on BART’s use of lethal force, civil liberties groups filed a petition Monday with the Federal Communications Commission, as the national fallout continues over BART’s decision to cut cellphone service to thwart a protest that never developed on August 11.

The coalition including Center for Democracy and Technology, Center for Media Justice, and Electronic Frontier Foundation argues that regardless of First Amendment augments for or against the disruption of cell service in the paid areas of BART’s stations, BART exceeded its authority under federal law. The complaint notes that the Communications Act, which governs cell phone service providers, clearly states the no carrier shall discontinue service without authorization from the FCC.

“It has been settled law for decades that law enforcement agencies have no authority to order discontinuation of phone service on mere suspicion of illegal activity without due process,” the complaint states.

The coalition urged the FCC to address the issue immediately in light of BART’s statements attempting to justify the cell service disruption, and the risk that other government agency may consider similar policies if the FCC does not assert its authority in the matter.

BART’s board of directors held an emergency meeting (Wed/25) to begin crafting a policy outlining to what future instances could lead further shutoffs.

BART has staff defended its disruption of service that took place August 11, saying their intent was to protect public safety.

Corporate vampires drink your blood


The same week that Warren Buffett gave an anemic Bank of America a $5 billion transfusion of capital, a score of protesters in downtown San Francisco said they know why the economy still sucks: corporate greed.

Demonstrators from US Uncut held a “corporate vampires for the empire” blood drive in front of several of Market Street’s most prominent storefronts August 27, pointing out corporations that haven’t paid their fair share of taxes.

“We have taken your money. We have taken your houses – now we want your blood!” cried out Vlad the Impaler in front of a Bank of America branch on Market street.

“No more, please no more,” his victim begged, a mock blood transfusion bag attached to her neck.

“More blood, more, you can give more!” laughed a jovial Vlad.

The victim fell to the sidewalk after giving her last ounce of blood to Bank of America.

According to US Uncut, Bank of America, despite having $2.2 trillion in assets, pays less in taxes than an average American household.

“Corporate tax evaders have no shame, they are sucking the economic vitality out of our country,” said protester and vampire hunter Bill Schwalb, who was quick to say he was in no way related to Charlies Schwab.

A crowd on lower Market drew its own picture of the American economy as a pair of women with shopping bags passed by in one direction and a homeless man with a bed roll passed the other way, both stopping a moment to observe the mock blood drive.

Pre-positioned victims at the Apple Store, Wells Fargo, FedEx, and Verizon were bitten and bled dry while waiting in line, to the shock and amusement of customers, while outside the blood donors were administered to by vampire nurses.

“Tax evasion, though vilified by the truthmongers of the left, is as American as apple pie. It’s an orgy of greed and blood lust,” Vlad told a crowd of bystanders who had stopped to gawk at the spectacle.
While the pantomime was funny, the issue is not. The group said the companies they targeted represented the worst of the worst of corporate tax dodgers. Together they represent billions of dollars in lost tax revenue – losses that are translating into service cuts to societies most vulnerable.

“No wonder we’re broke, all these corporations not paying their taxes,” exclaimed an irate passer-by in front of the Apple Store after listening to the group.

BART board mulls nation’s first cell service disruption policy


A special meeting of BART’s Board of Directors yesterday (Wed/25) was the first step in crafting a policy outlining the circumstances under which BART staff would be authorized to cut off cell phone service in its train stations. The resulting policy will be the first in the nation, and is likely to act as a model for other government agencies to address the issue.

While BART’s top management defended the suspension of cell phone service to disrupt a protest planned for August 11, BART’s board was divided over whether the suspension of cell service to prevent a protest was justified and what would constitute a justification for cutting cell service in the future.

“This group was encouraging, promoting and inciting illegal behavior on our platform,” BART police Chief Kenton Rainey reminded the board.

“Well, there is illegal activity every day at BART. The response does not feel proportional enough for justification,” responded BART director Tom Radulovich,

BART director Robert Raburn echoed Radulovich’s concerns. “Neither speculation about a protest, nor mere disruption of train service, nor other illegal activity by itself constitutes a risk to passenger safety that would warrant interrupting cell service. We must guard First Amendment freedom of speech, and this will become a landmark case,” said Raburn.

Staff and union representatives stressed that public safety was always BART’s top concern.

Officials from BART’s three unions generally agreed that the shutting of cell phone service was inappropriate, but admonished protesters for conducting protests on the platforms where they say there is a safety risk due to crowding.
“I applaud the individuals, the union supports the individuals who organize, for I understand organizing. I understand protesting,” said Austin Thomas, who represents BART employees from SEIU Local 1021. “But, I would like to see that this forum be the forum to bring your protest, to have your grievances redressed here.”

“The bottom line for BART is that downtown San Francisco at 5 pm is the maximum stress point at the maximum stress time. It’s all about public safety and keeping the trains moving,” stressed BART Assistant General Manager of Operations Paul Oversier.

“We keep going around with these safety issues, but do not be confused: We do not have to have one or the other,” urged director Lynette Sweet, who referenced the 1955 case Pike vs Southern Bell Telegraph.

“In this case, a gentleman by the name of Bull Connors ordered Southern Bell to remove the telephone of one Lewis Pike, described by Mr. Connors as a negro of questionable character who is known to be using his phone for unspecified illegal purpose. That is not where we as BART want to go. We don’t want to tell people, or signify, or specify, that you can’t talk, that you don’t have the ability to talk.”

But BART board Vice President John McPartland took a harder stance. saying the action was justified, and BART need to post signs informing the public of possible disruptions in cell service due to safety issues.

“This is the beginning of a review from a national perspective on this issue. I, for one, think we should maintain our ability to control cell service until we have it looked at from a legislative perspective.” said McPartland.

“Not all free speech is protected. There are some very narrow exceptions, and I believed this to be one of them,” Oversier insisted.

“If we are ever going to shut off cell phone service, ever, it should be for the most valid reasons that I equate with 9-11 [terrorist attack] level. Not the protests that we thought were going to happen on August 11th. We can’t do that,” cautioned Sweet, who wondered out loud if BART couldn’t just apologize for making a mistake and move on.

Members of the public present for the meeting remained dubious about BART creating policy concerning cell phone disruption at all.

Speaking on behalf of protest group No Justice No BART, an activist identifying himself only as Christof told the board, “We are not asking you to fix anything. We just simply don’t trust you to run a police force at all. We are not asking you to improve your free speech policy, we already have a free speech policy – it’s called the constitution.”

He expressed doubts as to whether BART should be trusted with the power to cut cell phone service. “What is the first thing that your police officers did on the Fruitvale platform after they shot Oscar Grant in the back? They tried to confiscate video footage taken by passengers,” Christof accused.

That footage from the New Years Eve shooting of Grant by officer Johannes Mehserle was the beginning of BART’s problems with anti-police brutality protesters.

Other speakers from the public had similar concerns about BART overreaching its authority.

“The proper place to present the arguments we have just heard is not to this board, but in a court room before a judge considering a motion or injunction. Instead of using those existing legal mechanisms, you have taken matters into your own hands as vigilantes,” said Edward Hasbrook representing the Identity Project.

BART officials expect the new policy will be crafted and voted on within a month. They say the new policy will be vetted through BART attorneys, the ACLU, and and BART’s civilian advisory committee. But they cautioned that BART could not envision every emergency that would warrant shutting off of cellular service as they craft their forthcoming policy, so the policy would include some flexibility at the discretion of BART management.

Both the California Public Utilities Commission and the Federal Communications Commission, who regulate cell phone providers, are already examining the legality of BART’s actions. As an afterthought, at the close of the meeting, Sweet urged the board to consult with those agencies over the policy before it is implemented.

BART has only provided cell service in its stations for a short time. While BART is under no legal obligation to provide phone service, once they began providing service they fall under the jurisdiction of the FCC, which regulates cell service nationally.

Speaking in Denver to CNET, FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell said the matter was still under investigation.

“What the heck happened, what precedent does it set, were there any laws that were broken?” McDowell questioned. “Let’s continue with the investigation. We’ll draw conclusions after we have all the facts.”

BART arrests protesters for speaking out

Faced with yet another protest over BART’s disruption of cell phone service on August 11 to preemptively disrupt a protest, and with lingering anger over the BART police shooting of Charles Hill on the Civic Center station platform on July 3, BART police stifled vocalizations of dissent with immediate arrests during an Aug. 22 protest on the Civic Center Station platform.

“Free speech is the best kind of speech,” said one protester on the Civic Center BART platform as the second protest called by the international hacker group Anonymous in as many weeks challenged the BART system at rush hour.

As a few protesters began to gather, surrounded by dozens of riot police and media, a uniformed BART police officer told a young African American man he would be arrested if he raised his voice. Chanting began in response among the small pack of protesters, and the man was promptly arrested by BART police.

As he was being led off the platform by police, a woman who stood in the center of the platform began verbally engaging a BART officer, saying, “BART police need to be reformed. Make BART Safe. Make BART safe.” She was apparently arrested for nothing more then her words. Deputy BART Police Chief Daniel Hartwig said he could not provide any information about what the arrestees would be charged with.

Video by Shawn Gaynor

Shortly after, BART police declared the small gathering an illegal assembly. Riot police surrounded some 40 protesters for arrest as media was ejected from the station.

Civic Center station and Powell Station were both shuttered, blocking many transit passengers from their evening commute.

What started as a cell phone disruption has apparently escalated into BART arresting anyone expressing an unfavorable opinion of BART.

When asked if the arrested represented a new BART police policy for protests, Hartwig told the Guardian BART’s policy remains the same. “This environment has to remain safe, and if that safety is jeopardized in any way, we will make arrests,” he said. “We have a responsibility to maintain a safe station.”

Protesters said it was appropriate to protest on the Civic Center platform because it is the location of the July 11 shooting of Hill by BART police.

Earlier in the day, the National Lawyer’s Guild issued a statement calling on BART to respect passengers’ and community members’ civil liberties during the Aug. 22 demonstration.

“First and foremost, the BART Police should provide transparency regarding the killing of Charles Hill and should stop shooting people, especially unarmed and incapacitated individuals,” the NLG statement read. “Second, BART should apologize for its disruption of cell service on August 11th and not repeat this unconstitutional action. Finally, BART should recognize passengers’ right to freedom of speech on platforms and in trains.”

Calls to the BART for the names of the arrestees and number of arrests had not yet been returned by press time.

Imprisoned hikers’ families react to sentencing


The families of Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal issued a statement yesterday (Sun/21) after receiving confirmation that the two men, both 29, had been sentenced to eight years in prison after an Iranian court found them guilty of illegal entry into Iran and espionage on behalf of the United States.

“Of the 751 days of Shane and Josh’s imprisonment, yesterday and today have been the most difficult for our families,” the statement notes. “Shane and Josh are innocent and have never posed any threat to the Islamic Republic of Iran, its government or its people.

“We are encouraged that the Iranian Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, has said he hopes the case will proceed in a manner that will result in Shane and Josh’s freedom. We appeal to the authorities in Iran to show compassion and allow them to return home to our families without delay.

“We also ask everyone around the world who trusts in the benevolence of the Iranian people and their leaders to join us in praying that Shane and Josh will now be released.”

Bauer and Fattal were arrested with Bauer’s fiancée, Sarah Shourd, on July 31, 2009 on the unmarked border between Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan where the three had been hiking during a vacation. Shourd, 32, was released on humanitarian grounds last September after spending 410 days in solitary confinement. Bauer and Fattal were sentenced after more than two years of detainment awaiting trial.

“We have repeatedly called for the release of Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal,” U.S. State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland told the Guardian. “Shane and Josh have been imprisoned too long, and it is time to reunite them with their families.”

The United States maintains the two men have no connection to the United States government. Speaking earlier on the issue, President Barack Obama said, “I want to be perfectly clear: Sarah, Shane and Josh have never worked for the United States government. They are simply open-minded and adventurous young people who represent the best of America, and of the human spirit.”

Iraqi Kurdistan, the region where the three had been hiking, is a semi-autonomous region of northern Iraq that has been notably more stable then other areas of Iraq since the 2003 U.S. lead invasion. The U.S. State department had affirmed the relative safety of travel in the Kurdistan region of Iraq just weeks before their ill-fated trip.

Bauer, a freelance writer and photojournalist who has written for the Guardian and other Bay Area news outlets, and Fattal, an environmental advocate, are both graduates of UC Berkeley had both traveled extensively abroad pursuing their vocations and interests.

Shourd has indicated that she does not plan to return to Iran to stand trial, but has been a constant advocate for the release of her traveling companions. Supporters have organized several events in the Bay Area, including an art auction and film screening, to assist in the efforts calling for the hikers’ release from Iran.

Bauer and Fattal appeared in court only once on February 6 this year when they testified to their innocence verbally and in writing. Their Iranian lawyer, Masoud Shafiee, has said he will appeal the verdict. It remains unclear if the time they have served thus far will apply to the court sentence.

Speaking about the case, Secretary Of State Hillary Clinton said, “We continue to express our hope that the Iranian authorities will exercise the humanitarian option of releasing these two young men.”

The Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations has not yet returned the Guardian’s request for comment.

Rebecca Bowe contributed to this report.

After ordering phones censored, BART spokesperson took vacation during protest


On August 16, one day after a transit system disruption caused by protests over BART’s unprecedented decision to temporary cut cellular phone during a previous protest, BART Chief Communications Officer Linton Johnson acknowledged to the press that the idea to cut service had been his from the start.

Johnson defended his decision telling the San Francisco Chronicle, “A 1969 U.S. Supreme Court decision, in the Brandenburg v. Ohio case, allows public agencies to put public safety before free speech when there is an imminent danger to the public.”

But was there an imminent danger?

What Johnson failed to acknowledge was that after his idea to order a unprecedented disruption of cellular service to thwart the protest anticipated on August 11 was vetted by BART police, Johnson went on vacation and wasn’t around to help determine what kind of danger the protest – which didn’t end of happening – may have posed. NOTE THE UPDATE BELOW. JOHNSON CLAIMS HE WAS MONITORING THE STATIONS.

In fact, Johnson left on vacation on August 11, the same day the fizzled protest that started a national controversy occurred. So with BART’s plan in motion, and Johnson apparently not on hand, nothing of note happened. No indication was reported by BART or by the media of any trouble at all breaking out on the platforms or paid areas of BART stations on August 11. BART may have been left holding the bag.

An automatically generated e-mail response to the Guardian’s request to interview Johnson read “I will be out of the office starting 08/11/2011 and will not return until 08/16/2011. Please contact Deputy Chief Communications Officer Jim Allison while I am gone.”

On August 15, Johnson’s voicemail message indicated he had returned from vacation early, and would do his best to field phone interview requests within 20 minutes of receiving them.

August 15 happened to be the day that fallout from his plan lead to evening rush hour transit disruptions by protesters with swarms of national and international news representatives on hand. Though interviewed by the nation’s press corp, Johnson chose not to acknowledge the primacy of his decision making role in the censorship until the following day.

Comparing the “imminent danger,” declared by BART, and the #opBART protest called by international hacker group Anonymous on August 15 that caused all Downtown San Francisco BART stations to close for the evening rush, questions arise over what, if any, criteria Johnson used in deciding to pull or not pull the plug on BART cell service.

The Federal Communications Commissions has launched an investigation into BART’s actions, responding to a call by California State Senator Leland Yee.

“We are continuing to collect information about BART’s actions,” stated FCC spokesperson Neil Grace in a statement issued by the agency. “(We) will be taking steps to hear from stakeholders about the important issues those actions raised, including protecting public safety and ensuring the availability of communications networks.”

UPDATE: Johnson finally got back to us by email and wrote, “I offered up the idea on Thursday morning.  BART PD took it to the Interim GM.  The GM approved it then let the Board of Directors know what was to happen that night.  I was  on scene in case the protest broke out.   I left downtown SF around 8pm – I was on a plane that night, which left at 11:50pm.”


Scenes from #opBART: video of the Civic Center protests

Protesters shut down afternoon rush hour BART operations on Aug. 15 as part of a campaign by international hacker group Anonymous in response to the transit agency’s unprecedented move to shut off cell service to prevent a protest. Here’s footage from underground at Civic Center Station, and on the street as stranded commuters sought a way home:

Video by Shawn Gaynor