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Finally, some sanity on legal cannabis

Sup. Ronen was a voice of sanity on legal cannabis

The award for political sanity went Monday to Sup. Sandra Lee Fewer, who pointed out that too much high-end job growth was a factor in the housing crisis. Tuesday it went to Sup. Hillary Ronen, who put the board’s entire six-hour debate over cannabis policy in perspective.

Sup. Ronen was a voice of sanity on legal cannabis

The issue at hand was whether to ban all cannabis sales within 1,000 feet of a school or day-care center, which would amount to about 90 percent or more of San Francisco and restrict sales of legal weed to a few blocks in a few neighborhoods.

There were maps of where the “green zones” would be, there was discussion about whether retail outlets should be restricted or limited in some neighborhoods … and then Ronen spoke:

“You know, I didn’t want to get into the big philosophical conversation yet, but I think by expanding the limits around schools and day-care centers what we are saying is that there’s something inherently dangerous or bad about these shops, and I just really disagree with that premise. I actually think that the war on drugs has been dangerous for our society…. This is an exciting moment in our country’s history, of finally waking up and saying we have been mistaken about how we handle drugs in our society and it’s time to start with cannabis and legalize this drug. But I’m shocked with my colleagues, quite frankly, on this board and I don’t understand why this is dangerous for children.

“I have a five-year-old daughter and she doesn’t know if she’s passing a café or a cannabis shop or a library. I understand maybe high-school students, we should have this conversation – but day-care centers? Five-year-olds and two-year-olds don’t know a cannabis shop from any other shop, so I think this is a bit nonsensical.”

In the end, the board came to its senses, and the amendments that would set up a 1,000-foot buffer around school and child-care centers were defeated. The rule under what the board passed is 600 feet, which is also in the state law that legalized adult use of cannabis.

So if the mayor signs the bill as soon as he gets it, we will have legal cannabis as early as Jan. 5th.

At first, the permits will go to existing medical dispensaries, 30 of them, and 15 delivery services. After that, the next 30 permits will go to equity applicants – people who have been directly or indirectly harmed by the war on drugs – and the city will have to ensure in the future that 50 percent of all permits fall into that category.

So assuming the mayor doesn’t do anything weird (and he supported an earlier version with a 600-foot buffer zone) San Francisco will wind up where it should be – out front on the issue of legalizing drugs.

The Ghost Ship fire, one year later

Amanda Allen. Photo by Gehno Sanchez Aviance

It’s been a rough year of “firsts” for Andy Kershaw, a DJ and record label owner who lost his wife, Amanda Allen, last December in the Ghost Ship fire.

“Going through the year and realizing this would be the first time she wasn’t here for this or that annual event or something she loved could bring everything rushing back,” Andy, who moved here with Amanda from Boston several years ago to become deeply embedded in the local nightlife scene, told me over the phone.

“These reminders would sneak up on me, because there are so many things she was a part of. Thanksgiving was the last ‘first’ though, and now it’s just the anniversary of the fire left. I’m feeling hopeful that after this year, things will become, not necessarily easier, but evolve from shock into a different, meaningful direction.”

Amanda Allen. Photo by Andy Kershaw

On Saturday, December 2, relatives and friends of the 36 partygoers who died in Oakland’s Ghost Ship warehouse fire a year ago will gather outside the still-cordoned-off husk of the building for a special memorial. “All of Amanda’s and my family are flying in,” Andy said. “We’re aiming to be at the Ghost Ship site at 11 o’clock that night. I’ll be happy to have our families there, because it will be pretty powerful and I’m not sure how I’ll react.”

For those not at the site, a moment of silence between 11pm and midnight on December 2, organized by DJ Danny Delorean, will take place at many local nightclubs and music venues to commemorate the victims. (There will also be a three-day dedicated remembrance, Fri/1-Sun/3 at at Oakland’s Chapel of the Chimes.) “That’s pretty huge,” Andy said of the moment of silence, “because in San Francisco, the music never stops. I hope it will be at 11:24pm, because that’s when it happened…” his voice trailed off, as he referenced the time the the fire swept through the crowded artists’ living space that hosted the party.  

Fundraising t-shirt design for Amanda featuring one of her favorite jokes: available at www.teespring.com/stores/pandasnaps

For many, the anniversary brings up memories still too painful to contemplate. I’ve spoken informally with relatives and friends who continue struggling with losing so many young and talented members of the arts and music community. (And survivors are still recovering). Memorials dotted this year’s Day of the Dead display in the Mission and at Oakland Museum. Memorial records have been released by a grieving dance music community. A breathtaking mural has sprung up near the Ghost Ship site, and an actual memorial ghost ship has been launched on Emeryville harbor.

The details themselves still feel stunning. “They gave me the pair of glasses Amanda was wearing,” Andy told me, referring to her trademark colorful frames. “They look like what you would expect them to look like after something like that. I helped her pick them out. I said at the time that they would be something people would come to recognize her for. I haven’t shown them to anybody yet.”

One way he’s found some measure of solace has been to immerse himself in the details of the investigation of the fire. “I’ve become a kind of expert on the case,” he told me. “And have used what means I have to help spread information about what’s going on, as well as fight any misinformation. I’ve saved every number of every reporter who’s contacted me, and made sure people have heard me when bad things have happened, like the disgusting ‘Chicago Fire’ episode on NBC” that aired three months after the tragedy.

Andy has also helped disseminate details of the Ghost Ship fire civil case, and is part of the master complaint filed in May. He’s been vocal about wanting to keep individual performers and the music label 100% Silk — whose artists were featured at the Ghost Ship party and which was recently dismissed from the suit — from being named in the civil case, instead focusing his anger and action on the City of Oakland and its fire and building departments.

“I absolutely blame the City of Oakland for negligence in this case,” he said. “Most of all I blame [Ghost Ship building landlord] the Ng family, even more than the people who ended up with criminal charges. PG&E was also at fault.

“As for the Ghost Ship operators themselves, I think the criminal charges are correct, but it is complicated — however, if they ended up going to jail I wouldn’t care. I saw the recent jailhouse interview with [Ghost Ship master tenant] Derick Almena on Fox, and he’s clearly a sociopath with mental issues, but I feel more that the Ng family was responsible and could have stopped it. With Max [Harris, the Ghost Ship party planner an rent collector], I feel he is also partially at fault because he was running a tattoo parlor out of there, and you need to be very conscious of health and safety when you do that. So that right there tells me he had blatant disregard.

“Anyone who at any point had the opportunity to stop this ship from sailing shares in the responsibility,” Andy said.

Andy DJing at the Slinky 18 campout in April 2017, behind one of many impromptu Ghost Ship memorial altars set up by event attendees.

And as the civil case has been moving along, there has been some frustration with the speed of the criminal case. “There’s a lot of rumors flying around about what’s taking the criminal case so long, especially since it involves the city of Oakland” Kershaw told me. “A lot of us figure it’s taking a while to gather enough evidence from some of the investigations. Now the big hearing, at which the judge is supposed to say whether there’s enough evidence to proceed, has been delayed again from November 13 to December 4. This could be good thing, because many of the family members will be in town for the memorial, and will be at the hearing now, too.” 

The criminal and civil cases are “very complex and triggering to think about, and hard to talk about,” Andy said. “But for me, there’s Ghost Ship the party and Ghost Ship the artist’s housing, and it’s important to think of them as two very different things.”

He told me he’s very aware of the issues of gentrification that led to spaces like Ghost Ship being necessary, and how the fire set off a wave of crackdowns on artist’s spaces throughout the country. “I’ve visited the site four times this year, and there’s a homeless encampment just across the street. Someone was living in their car right in front of the building. It just shows we have a very, very long way to go.” 

Memorial mural by Vogue near the site of the fire.

But, he said, Ghost Ship was an outlier in how underground party spaces usually operate. “If you call yourself a raver, as I do, then you’ve definitely been in a warehouse space. They are big, empty spaces — and this was not that. I had never heard of Ghost Ship before this, and I know Amanda didn’t either. I read comments like, ‘They knew what they were getting into,’ but really they didn’t. We do have a self-policing responsibility. And most of us do a great job of that. But even in licensed venues, when parties got shut down there was always a fire marshal there, and I was like, ‘Why?’ Now I get it. 

“Part of being in the underground is going out of your way to discover new spaces, transforming them with music and art, he said. “That’s why I think what the Vital Arts project is doing to keep that alive, working to purchase spaces and maintain them as affordable for artists, is so innovative and necessary.”

 Andy’s been going to therapy since the fire — “I’m fortunate to have access to that service,” he says, citing his frustration that others affected aren’t so lucky — and still gets overwhelmed sometimes by the enormity of what happened. 

Steph Curry’s Ghost Ship shoes. Photo via SF Gate

I haven’t been able to watch the Warriors since the fire. Amanda and I were really into them,” he told me. “But then I found myself standing at the Oakland Museum in front of Steph Curry’s shoes with all the Ghost Ship names on them, and it was too surreal. I wanted to tell Amanda so bad that she was on Steph Curry’s shoes.”

Another act that floored him was an official letter from State Senator Nancy Skinner documenting that the Senate — which read all 36 names of the dead into the public record — had adjourned on January 5 in memorium of Amanda’s passing.

In Memorium statement from State Senator Nancy Skinner

“I’ve been so impressed with the community, Andy told me. “I’ve always said ‘the Rave Cross is better than the Red Cross.’ This thing of ours, this nightlife thing, has been so resilient, and so many things have come out of this. This wasn’t like a ‘normal’ tragedy, where you experience it on your own and have friends to turn to. Literally everyone in my life experienced this tragedy and was struggling with it. But we’ve been there for each other. 

“And when I saw all the names and profiles of people who had been lost being broadcast on a national stage, seeing how people were talking about and wanting to emulate their best qualities, how this was resonating with people on a deep level who had never even known anyone there … Well, it was real evidence of the strength of our community. And I know we will continue on.” 

It’s #GivingTuesday — help 48hills grow!

Photo by Darwin Bell

Dear Friend of 48hills,

It’s been a crazy year, with attacks on journalists and the credibility of the news media dominating national politics. The Washington Post responded with a new slogan: “Democracy dies in darkness.” When reporters aren’t around to shine a light on what the powerful are doing, we can’t have a functioning democratic political system.

The same, of course, is true locally. That’s why we started 48hills four years ago.

All over the country, local news media are in trouble. Here in San Francisco, we just lost SFist, a locally focused blog, after a right-wing owner shut down the entire national operation because the employees dared to try to unionize. Daily newspaper owners don’t want to spend the money on investigative reporting and hard-hitting analysis. The alternative weeklies, which once offered a different and valuable perspective to local news, are dying, closing their doors, and operating too often as a shadow of their former selves.

We are trying to build not only a powerful voice for progressive ideas and local investigative reporting, but a model for what can be a new generation of local news media. 48hills survives almost entirely on reader contributions. We are a nonprofit that keeps expenses to the minimum — the money we raise goes right into our reporting team. We can cover the news, break big stories, write about local arts and cultural institutions that the mainstream media ignore — and shine a light on not only City Hall but the powerful private interests who are trying to control San Francisco.

We can operate without fear or favor because we don’t have to answer to out-of-town corporate owners who are always trying to fatten the bottom line. We have you. Your generosity keeps us going.

This year, we’re launching a new effort to establish a sustainable revenue base. We’re asking people who can afford it to pledge $25 a month (less than a dollar a day); if just 200 people do that, we can hire another reporter. If 600 people sign up, we can expand our staff even more.

With more reporters, we can bring you more of what we do well. We can do more investigative reporting, more City Hall coverage, more of the work that we want to do and that this city so badly needs.

You can sign up here, and receive a free t-shirt.

You can also donate any amount you wish here.

Or mail a check to:

SF Progressive Media Center
176 Winfield
San Francisco, CA 94110

But no matter what you can donate, your contribution makes a huge difference. Please help us out, so we can help you and the city we all love.

Thanks again. We could not do this without you

Tim Redmond, Founder and Editor

Marke Bieschke, Publisher

48hills is published by the San Francisco Progressive Media Center, a nonprofit organization under Section 510 c 3 of the Internal Revenue Code. All contributions are tax deductible to the fullest extent of the law.

Writer and activist David Talbot suffers stroke

David Talbot and his wife Camille

My friend David Talbot – author, journalist, and political agitator – suffered a stroke in mid-November and is facing a slow recovery.

David Talbot and his wife Camille

I learned about it today on Facebook.

From the post:

David’s prospects for recovery are excellent — his cognitive abilities are completely intact. (His sense of humor is as well – from his hospital bed, he has already described the stroke as a cross between a spiritual awakening and a brutal barroom beating.) But he has motor deficits that will require months of intense physical rehab before he can work again. Like most writers, his income is dependent on writing, and he won’t be able to write for a while. His wife, Camille, who is also a writer, will need to devote much of her time to his care.

So it’s good that David is going to be okay, and will be writing again and will be back helping lead the fight to save San Francisco.

But while he has been a successful writer, including books like “Season of the Witch” and “The Devil’s Chessboard” (and I recommend them both strongly), he’s not a rich man, and since neither he or his wife will be able to write for some months while he goes through physical therapy, the family has set up a GoFundMe page to help with expenses. If you want to and can afford to help out, you can go here.

Cannabis (again), sidewalk robots (again) and a bad housing balance (again)

We are back this week to cannabis.

The SF supes were unable to decide how to handle the new industry last meeting. There’s pressure from some anti-pot folks to keep sales away from schools and child-care centers (and the 1,000-feet-away rule could make most places in the city ineligible and concentrate cannabis stores in a few small areas). Sup. Jeff Sheehy, anxious to get something approved before legalization takes effect Jan. 1, suggested that the city allow the 46 existing medical cannabis dispensaries to operate as adult-use sales outlets at least temporarily.

Does this look that scary?

But Sup. Hillary Ronen pointed out that the War on Drugs has devastated communities of color, particularly the African and American and Latino communities, and that the city has a responsibility to create an equity plan for what will be a huge source of income and wealth in the next few years.

Besides, why is this something to be afraid of?

So they put the question off until after the holiday, and now all of the issues will be back Tuesday/27, with no obvious solution in sight – and something of a time issue.

SF has already missed the deadline for passing a law that would allow legal adult-use weed Jan. 1. If the supes pass something this week, pass it on second reading next week, and the mayor signs it immediately, the first permits could be issued in time for Jan. 5 sales.

The sidewalk robots are back again, too, at the Land Use and Transportation Committee Monday/20.

Delivery companies (of course) are looking to get rid of human labor, and use robots to bring everything from pizza and Chinese food to Amazon purchases to your door.

There are so many things that could go wrong here: Robts running over seniors and children, robots blocking wheelchair access, robots falling over (or getting pushed over) and blocking sidewalks, people trying to steal deliveries from robots … and Sup. Norman Yee wants to ban the deliveries.

But he couldn’t get six votes for a ban, so he is prepared to allow a pilot program with robots wheeling along through parts of SoMa and other neighborhoods with production, distribution, and repair zoning.

The committee will need to rework this, and perhaps deal with some of the missing questions. If a robot runs over and injures someone, who is liable? If an angry pedestrian pushes the robot over on its side or into the street, who comes and fixes the mess? Will robots only be allowed on sidewalks broad enough to accommodate both the machines and humans in wheelchairs (which would rule out my neighborhood)? What if kids jump on and try to ride the robots and fall off? What if the robots terrify dogs (or dogs start to piss on them)?

Have we really thought this through? Do we really want to once again allow a new technology that could have huge negative impacts go forward before we figure out the right rules?

I am dubious.

Meanwhile, as the supes try to figure out what to do with the traffic mess known as the Hairball, where Cesar Chavez, Bayshore, Highway 101 and I-280 all intersect, a group that has long fought new bike lanes is trying to block some improvements to the area. The city wants to add more bike lanes and make pedestrian safety changes (including removing some parking spaces), but Mary Miles, attorney for the Coalition for Adequate Review, is trying to block the process by arguing that the city didn’t do a valid environmental review.

This is the same group that blocked the city’s bicycle plan for years by suing to say that adding bike lanes (and removing space for cars) created significant environmental impacts.

Rob Anderson, the driving force behind this operation, has said repeatedly that bikes aren’t safe on city streets and interfere with cars, creating more traffic problems.

The appeal of the changes to the hairball is on the Tuesday agenda.

The Land Use Committee hears the latest report on the city’s housing balance (hint: we are way out of balance, with too much market-rate and too little affordable housing) on Monday/27. Three days later, the Planning Commission will consider five projects that include 446 housing units, the majority of them high-end condos that will just make the balance worse.

One of those projects, at Mission between 25th and 26th, would take advantage of the state’s Density Bonus Law to create 75 new units – only 12 percent of which (that’s nine units) would be affordable.

You drop those luxury units into the Mission and you will inevitably see displacement.

We keep going backwards here. And there’s no end in sight.

Screen Grabs: Brewmaster, Franz Fanon, The Divine Order, Pan’s Labyrinth …

The Pale Man is one of the creepy delights of 'Pan's Labyrinth,' playing Wednesday at the Roxie.

SCREEN GRABS Thanksgiving is a big week for movies — much of America rolls downhill toward the multiplex after gorging themselves on the big day, or during the subsequent long weekend. Yet oddly there’s not a lot going on this week in terms of new arrivals. For families, there is some big noise in the form of Pixar’s Coco, an animated dive into Mexican culture (particularly Dia de los Muertes) whose below-the-line talent includes Octavio Solis, the Texas-born playwright who spent a couple recent decades in the Bay Area theater scene. You can also take the kids to a sing-a-long Beauty & the Beast, which plays the Castro on an irregular schedule Nov. 22 through Dec. 3

If you want to leap right past Turkey Day to the next holiday, there’s The Man Who Invented Christmas, a purportedly stale load of Xmas cheer with Dan Stevens as Young Dickens writing that story about Scrooge (Christopher Plummer). Nor have advance reviews stirred great expectations for Roman J. Israel, Esq., which offers Denzel Washington a flashy Oscar-bait role but has been received as a letdown after writer-director Dan Gilroy’s striking 2014 Nightcrawler

Fortunately, there are still good movies lingering around, as well as one new arthouse arrival (see The Divine Order below) and a few one-shot events worth your notice this coming week: 

Julien was a major figure in the New Queer Cinema movement with his features Looking for Langston (1989) and Young Soul Rebels (1991). Since then he’s focused more on gallery and academic work, but remains a significant cultural presence in his native UK. He’ll visit the Pacific Film Archive to screen and discuss (with UC Berkeley professor Butler) his 1995 documentary about Fanon, the Afro-Carribbean intellectual, political activist, psychiatrist and author. Dead at just age 36 in 1961, he is still relevant (and controversial) for his insights on race, colonization and other issues he no doubt hoped we wouldn’t still be dealing with today. Admission to this event is free. Mon/27, BAM/PFA. More info here.

Almost incredibly, Switzerland didn’t grant all women the right to vote until 1971—one small region even kept them out of local elections for another two decades. Petra Volpe’s feature, that nation’s Oscar submission for this year, dramatizes that national struggle in microcosmic terms. A small-town housewife named Nora (Marie Leuenberger) — like Ibsen’s rebellious heroine in A Doll’s House — finds herself in the hot seat as the reluctant local standard-bearer for women’s liberation. 

She’s happy with husband Hans (Maximilian Simonischek) and two sons, but still yearns for some life outside their needs. When she proposes getting a part-time job, however, Hans not only opposes it, he notes that by law she can’t accept the post without his permission. This conflict escalates into a village-wide women’s “strike,” as meanwhile bra-burning feminists take to the streets in Zurich. The Divine Order (its name taken from claims that “equality of the sexes is a sin against nature”) is a somewhat formulaic crowdpleaser whose plot beats seldom surprise. But it is pleasing, with solid performances, direction, and a message that unfortunately needs to be heard just as much today as it did nearly half a century ago. Now playing in SF, Berkeley, and San Rafael. 

A rare director able to straddle both pop mall-flick fantasies and serious adult-themed ones, Guillermo del Toro is said to have hit another career highpoint with The Shape of Water, which won the Golden Lion at Venice. It doesn’t open in SF for a couple weeks, but in the meantime you can refresh your knowledge of the Mexican auteur’s oeuvre with this double bill presented by Midnites for Maniacs. Both Spanish-language features will be shown in 35mm, and both are fantastical approaches to political indictment set in the early days of the oppressive Franco regime. 

In 2001’s Backbone, a rural orphanage becomes a supernaturally-tinged battleground between Republican loyalists and fascists at the end of the Spanish Civil War. The 2006 Labyrinth finds a little girl escaping into a sometimes-perilous mythical world while her mother succumbs to illness, and her new stepfather does Franco’s dirty work as a ruthless military commander. Wed/29, Roxie Theater. More info here.

Other Cinema provides a sure-to-be-lively evening of “communal Trump piñata pounding” with a program highlighting global issues at a particularly dire moment for U.S. international relations. Directly laying siege to the orange-utan himself is Maxim Pozdorovkin’s (Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer) archival-clip “biography” Our New President. Citizenfour director Laura Poitras’ Project Xexposes a secret NSA surveillance base smack in the middle of Manhattan, Elizabeth Lo’s Hotel 22 reveals the impoverished fiipside of Silicon Valley wealth, while works by Bochay Drum, Sky Hopinka and others spotlight inequities wrought by corrupt power throughout the Americas. Caitlin Manning will be present to introduce her Dispatches from Mexico, about the revolutionary leftist Zapatista Army of Liberation in Chiapas. Sat/25, Artists Television Access Gallery. More info here

Wondering what them younguns with their video-cameras and whatnot are getting up to these days? Check out this showcase for work from City College of SF’s Cinema and Broadcast Electronic Media Arts department, whose two separate programs tonight feature a wide range of documentary, narrative and experimental shorts crafted by both students and faculty. Thurs/30, Roxie Theater. More info here.

What’s better than being able to drink beer at the movies? Drinking beer while watching a movie about beer-making, of course. This new documentary from Douglas Tirola (who made Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon) focuses on the world of craft beer brewing, and one New York lawyer tempted to abandon his suit-and-tie day job for that rapidly growing industry. En route, he meets a number of its leading personalities. Some of their local representatives will be on hand for a Q and A and after-party during this one-night, over-21-only event at the duly alcohol-licensed Alamo Drafthouse. Wed/29, New Mission Alamo. More info here.

Forget the chains: Shop local with our Best of Bay Shopping winners!

Black Friday, #smallbusinesssaturday, exhaustion Sunday … and then Cyber Monday? That’s a lot! Keep it local this year with the winners of our 2017 Best of the Bay Shopping Readers Poll! For more Best of the Bay, please click here.




347 Hayes, SF




506 Clement, SF




506 Clement, SF




326 Fell, SF




455 Market, SF




1855 Haight, SF




1745 Folsom, SF




Multiple locations




2231 Market, SF





Multiple locations



1523 Irving, SF

(415) 650-3031



1367 Valencia, SF




1605 Haight, SF




619 Sansome, SF



2323 Market, SF




2900 Navy Way, Alameda




623 Valencia, SF




416 Hayes, SF




2391 Mission, SF




Multiple locations




186 W al, SF

2 Embarcadero Center, SF




1077 Valencia, SF




199 Brannan, SF




436 Cortland, SF




280 Sutter, SF




500 Sutter #903, SF





4218 Mission



4811 Geary, SF

33 29th St., SF




1590 Bryant, SF

610 Old Mason, SF




1396 , SF




4069 24th St., SF




321 Linden, SF




Multiple locations




385 Eighth St., SF



Final arguments in the Garcia Zarate trial — and a night of comedy by an SF original

During opening statements, Matt Gonzalez referred to the gun that was found in the Bay. Drawing by Vicki Behringer

Closing arguments in the Jose Ines Garcia Zarate trial are set for Monday/20, and it’s likely that the case will go to the jury by Tuesday. The six men and six women will have a day and a half to deliberate before the judge dismisses them for the holiday Wednesday at noon.

The trial took almost four weeks, and the jury will have a range of options to consider, including a First-Degree Murder verdict.

During opening statements, Matt Gonzalez referred to the gun that was found in the Bay. Drawing by Vicki Behringer

It’s hard to guess how long deliberations may go, and what it would mean if there’s no verdict until after Thanksgiving.

And I’m not a lawyer and I don’t make closing arguments (although I’ve made some suggestions in my time). But let’s go over the hard evidence that was presented at trial and see what the prosecution and defense will be talking about.

There are a few facts that are not in dispute.

On July 1, 2015, Kate Steinle and her father were walking along Pier 14 in San Francisco. The 32-year-old lived nearby, and her dad was visiting.

Garcia Zarate, who has spent much of his adult life behind bars for the crime of crossing the border into the United States, had been scheduled for release from federal prison a few weeks earlier. But the feds discovered an old warrant for a minor drug sale in San Francisco, so instead of letting him go (or turning him over to ICE for deportation) they brought him to SF County Jail.

To nobody’s surprise, the district attorney declined to prosecute on the old warrant, and – following existing legal procedure – the sheriff released him.

Garcia Zarate walked out of the Hall of Justice in June with nothing but the second-hand clothes the Sheriff’s Office had given him. He knew nobody in the city. He wound up homeless, living on the waterfront, trying to scrounge anything he could to survive.

He was, as his lawyer Matt Gonzalez noted, exactly the kind of person who would pick up something off the ground that looked interesting; might be clothes, might have value.

That afternoon, while the Steinles were walking on the pier, Garcia Zarate arrived and sat down on a swivel chair about 90 feet away from them. He had never met Kate Steinle or her dad; he had no connection whatsoever with them.

Several days earlier, a federal agent with the Bureau of Land Management, driving with his family from Southern California to a temporary assignment in Montana, parked his car on the Embarcadero and went to get dinner. He left a loaded Sig-Sauer .40, with a round in the chamber and the slide in firing position, in a backpack under the seat.

Somebody – and there is no indication that it was Garcia Zarate – broke into the car and stole the gun.

That gun wound up on the pier, in the same place as Garcia Zarate. It discharged. The bullet hit the hard concrete and bounced – flattened on one side, tumbling – and stuck Kate Steinle, severing her aorta and killing her.

The prosecution argues that Garcia Zarate pointed the gun in her direction, pulled the trigger, and fired. If he did that – if he knew he had a lethal weapon in his hand and fired it with reckless disregard for the loss of human life – then he could be found guilty of second-degree murder.

In fact, in some of the testimony, the prosecution has tried to argue that the homeless immigrant found the gun somewhere else, not on the pier, picked it up, put it in his jacket pocket, carried it to the chair, aimed and fired.

Deputy District Attorney Diana Garcia has asked the judge to instruct the jury about first-degree murder – which would require the jurors to believe that Garcia Zarate, who has a second-grade education and clear cognitive issues, planned the killing in advance, and shot with malice toward someone he had never met.

In testimony, the prosecution’s key witness, John Evans, a former SFPD crime scene investigator, insisted that the only way Steinle could have died is if “A human being held the firearm, pointed it in the direction of Ms. Steinle, pulled the trigger and fired the weapon, killing Ms. Steinle. This is the only way it could have happened.”

That’s become a central point of contention – particularly since a defense witness – who, unlike Evans, was actually qualified as a firearms and forensic expert – disputed almost everything Evans said.

The defense presented witnesses, including Jim Norris, a former director of the SF Crime Lab, and a firearms expert from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who said that the prosecution theory made no sense.

The Sig-Sauer has no safety, has a very light trigger pull, and could have gone off if, for example, it got snagged on a piece of cloth.

A grainy video taken from a fireboat hundreds of feet away showed that just before Garcia Zarate arrived and sat down on the pier, a group of what appeared to be six people were gathered at the exact chair he would later occupy. They appear to be picking things up and putting things down.

The video shows that at the moment before Steinle fell to the ground, Garcia Zarate was leaning over, as if to pick something up.

The defense argument – that Garcia Zarate found the gun wrapped in what might have been a shirt, picked it up, and it accidentally discharged – seems to me entirely plausible.

The prosecution theory that Garcia Zarate, who had no prior experience with firearms or history of violence, intended to aim at or near Steinle and pulled the trigger, either seeking to harm her or with no regard for the possible loss of life, seems to require a leap of faith that goes beyond what the evidence shows.

Here’s what I would say to the jury:

I think we can stipulate, as the lawyers would say, that what happened July 1, 2015 was a terrible tragedy. A young woman who had done nothing wrong died in her father’s arms. It’s unspeakably awful. It should never have happened.

If a federal agent (who was later promoted) hadn’t been so sloppy with a dangerous weapon, it would never have happened. If somebody hadn’t broken into the agent’s car and stolen, and later ditched, the gun, it would never have happened. If Garcia Zarate had been given some sort of support when he left jail – if he’d be taken to a homeless shelter, a navigation center, someplace where a Spanish-speaking counselor could get him the medication and help he needed – it would never have happened.

If Garcia Zarate wasn’t in federal prison for the crime of trying to come to a country where he might be able to work enough to feed himself, it would never have happened.

There is a long string of events that led to this tragedy. And the only one on trial is the person at the very end, who clearly never intended to kill Kate Steinle.

How this adds up to a murder charge continues to baffle me.

Nato Green, who is one of my favorite local writers and comedians, is recording an album at a pair of live shows Saturday/25 at Doc’s Lab. “The Whiteness Album,” the press release says, will “skirt the border between slap-your-knee funny and slit-your-wrist funny as Nato dissects our current terrifying historical moment.”

It’s also going to be your last chance to catch Nato Green in SF for a while; after this show, he’s moving with his family to Havana Cuba while his wife does her Ph.D research.

The show’s at 124 Columbus, SF, 7pm and 9pm, $15. Buy tickets here.

Foreign Correspondent: Make Saudi Arabia great again!

I stood in front of a mosque in the city of Qatif, Saudi Arabia, interviewing people for a story. Suddenly, two city police cars pulled up. Several minutes later plain clothes officers from the secret police began questioning me.

I had entered the country with a journalist visa, but committed the grave crime of practicing journalism without official permission. All interviews, even with ordinary people, had to be cleared in advance.

I was told not to leave my hotel and exited the country soon thereafter. I was, however, able to report on the brutal repression of Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia, who had been demonstrating against the government since the beginning of the Arab Spring.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is of the most repressive regimes in the world, and of course, a close US ally. The Kingdom is back in the news because it’s leader, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS for short), has arrested more than 200 of his royal cousins and businessmen on corruption charges.

Lebanon has suffered from the Syrian civil war next door. Here a house in Hermel, Lebanon, was destroyed by rockets fired by Saudi backed rebel groups. Photo by Reese Erlich

In a truly Saudi twist, those multi millionaires are jailed at a Ritz Carlton in Riyadh seized by the government for the occasion. Some faced the indignity of sleeping on mats in the lobby.

Some media and the Trump administration portray MBS as a reformer cracking down on corruption and the reactionary religious establishment. The Cairo Review, for example, wrote, “The crown prince has moved quickly to confirm his liberal progressive credentials…. [H]e sought to float 5 percent of the Saudi Aramco shares (dubbed the biggest IPO in history), allowed women to drive, tolerated the reopening of cinemas, has plans for a tourism industry, and reigned in the powers of the religious police.”

Notice the conflation of political liberties with “liberalization” of the state owned oil company, Aramco. Somehow, the achievement of political freedoms must include foreign bankers making super profits on an IPO (initial public offering).

Madawi Al-Rasheed , a visiting professor at the Middle East Centre, London School of Economics, told me MBS is no reformer. He’s “more like an autocrat who employs public relations and management consultants to package the worst changes as historical reform,” she said. “He is desperate to attract foreign investors who should not rush to save his throne and risk losing all their investment.”

The crown prince’s anti-corruption campaign is a phony. He arrests his political enemies while his corrupt cronies remain untouched.

“Autocrats use populist policies to gain popularity, and MBS is no exception,” Al-Rasheed added. “What we have seen is consolidation of military, political and financial power rather than anti-corruption.”

In foreign policy MBS is equally reactionary. He’s trying to ratchet up hostility towards Iran to cover up multiple regional failures. The KSA is bogged down in a war in Yemen and its efforts to isolate Qatar have failed miserably.

Since 2012 the KSA backed al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Syria, as I exposed well before it was acknowledged in the US.

Those extremists have lost the civil war, and the Saudis lost influence along with them.

And then there’s Lebanon. In early November, MBS summoned Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to Riyadh. Hariri and his political party have long depended on Saudi royals for financial backing. But on this trip, instead of a red carpet befitting the prime minister, Saudi guards confiscated the cell phones of Hariri and his body guards.

They were held incommunicado until Hariri appeared on TV in Riyadh to resign his post. He blamed Iran and Hezbollah for creating a crisis in the region. Many Lebanese thought Hariri had been forced to do Saudi bidding.

“Hariri is not arrested but he was given a political ultimatum,” Elie El-Hindy told me. He is an associate professor of International Relations at Notre Dame University in Lebanon. Hariri had to take a harder line against Iranian-backed Hezbollah “or bid farewell to any Saudi Arabian political, financial or other kind of support.”

Hezbollah is both an armed militia and political party that leads the elected, coalition government in Lebanon. If Hariri’s resignation stands, then it would break up that coalition. Saudi Arabia could claim the Lebanese government is not legitimate, a mere tool of Hezbollah and Iran. That would set the stage for a new military conflict.  

MBS has forged close relations with the Trump administration. The Saudis and Israelis enthusiastically welcomed Trump’s election in 2016. Presidential son in law and top advisor Jared Kushner has visited the Kingdom three times this year.

Politically, MBS and Trump have a lot in common. They both have authoritarian proclivities, they distrust minorities and women, and they blame Iran for all the problems in the Middle East.

For example, both blame Iran for the war in Yemen. They argue that Iran is arming and directing the Houthi rebels. Both the Obama and Trump administrations fully backed the KSA and have sent troops to Yemen in yet another undeclared US war.

In fact Saudi Arabia started the war by invading the southern part of Yemen in 2015, expecting a quick victory. The Saudis intentionally bomb civilians in an effort to weaken Houthi morale. More than 5000 Yeminis have died and 8,000 are injured. Cholera has spread throughout the country. Nearly 19 million face a humanitarian catastrophe because of hunger and lack of health care. The KSA spends billions per month on a war that has no end in sight.

Paul Pillar, a former senior CIA official who is now a fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Securities Studies, told me Iran did not initiate the Yemen War; it does not control the Houthis. That’s just an excuse used by the Saudis and United Arab Emirates, the other country occupying Yemen.

“The Iranian aid to the Houthis is tiny compared to the Saudi and UAE military effort, said Pillar. “The war has had cataclysmic consequences.”

Both the US and Saudi Arabia also claim that Iran is trying to create a “land bridge” stretching from Iran, through Iraq and Syria to the Lebanese coast. That would enable Iran to supply Hezbollah with weapons for its fight against Israel.

Pillar snorted that he’s tired of hearing this phony argument. He noted that Hezbollah has gained strength over the past 30 years without any land bridge.

“Iran will have access to Lebanon, but it doesn’t need a land corridor,” he said. “They can ship by air.”

I worry that MBS’s latest moves are part of a broader plan to encourage Israel to attack Lebanon. Hezbollah has emerged on the winning side in Syria, having backed President Bashar al Assad.

A political analyst with the Israeli daily Haaretz wrote the Saudis are trying to “move the battlefield with Iran from Syria to Lebanon, trying to get Israel to do Saudi Arabia’s dirty work.”

There’s a fierce debate within Israeli ruling circles as to whether and when to attack Lebanon. Israel already lost a war with Hezbollah in 2006. Hezbollah sank an Israeli naval ship and fired missiles into northern Israel. Today Hezbollah has a lot more missiles and troops battle hardened in Syria.

For the moment, Israeli officials are talking down the prospects for a full scale attack on Lebanon. But there’s no question that MBS machinations are causing severe tensions in the region.

As former CIA analyst Pillar told me, “The odds of war are greater now than a few months ago.”

If you want to see corruption and political chicanery American style, keep your eyes on former Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. We already know that Flynn was on the Turkish payroll, and he tried to cut US support for Syrian Kurds, which reflected Turkish policy. Now the special counsel’s office has leaked Flynn’s possible connection to a $15 million plot to kidnap a prominent opponent of the Turkish government living in Pennsylvania and deliver him to Turkey. If pursued by the special counsel, the Flynn story will reveal a lot about Washington’s real inner workings.

Read more Foreign Correspondent installments here. 

Zarate prosecutor seeks First-Degree Murder

Jose Ines Garcia Zarate listens to tesimony, wearing a headset for a court interpreter. Drawing by Vicki Behringer

The prosecution in the nationally-covered Jose Ines Garcia Zarate case is asking for a First-Degree Murder verdict – which would imply that Garcia Zarate planned the shooting of Kate Steinle in advance.

Rumors about the jury instructions, which Judge Samuel Feng will deliver Monday, have been flying around the last two days. Alex Bastian, the spokesperson for DA George Gascon, told me only that “the jury will be instructed on multiple theories of homicide.” But Matt Gonzalez, attorney for Garcia Zarate, confirmed that the prosecution is asking the judge to instruct the jury on First Degree Murder.

Jose Ines Garcia Zarate listens to tesimony, wearing a headset for a court interpreter. Drawing by Vicki Behringer

“They go deeper and deeper into a theory that can’t be proved,” Gonzalez told me.

Deputy District Attorney Diana Garcia has sought to prove that the defendant knew he was firing the gun in the direction of Kate Steinle, who was killed after the bullet ricocheted off the concrete at Pier 14.

But she has introduced no evidence to suggest that Garcia Zarate knew Steinle, had malice toward her, or planned the killing.

In fact, when the jury saw selected parts of the police interrogation of the homeless immigrant, there was no indication that Garcia Zarate had planned to shoot anyone.

At one point, he indicated that the gun discharged and he threw it in the bay so it would stop firing. At another point, the clearly disoriented man who had been up all night facing interrogators, said he was aiming at a seal – which is impossible since the pier is too high above the water for marine mammals to reach it.

The defense argues that Garcia Zarate picked up the gun, which was wrapped in a shirt or some other cloth, and it discharged by accident. Numerous defense witnesses have said it would be impossible to plan a ricochet shot.

Police witnesses have said that it’s possible Garcia Zarate found the gun somewhere else on the waterfront, put it in his pocket, and carried it to the pier. But they never tested his clothes or his jacket pockets for gunshot residue.

First Degree Murder is usually reserved for the most serious homicides, cases in which the defendant is charged with carefully planning a premeditated killing.

Even a Second-Degree Murder charge requires the prosecution to prove that the defendant intended to kill the victim or had no concern for the loss of human life.

So unless there is some new interpretation of the evidence that the prosecutor can deliver in closing arguments, it’s hard to see why she would got for a charge that requires a huge group of assumptions that were never part of the trial.

The jury instructions, which Judge Samuel Feng will deliver Monday, tell the six men and six women who will decide Garcia Zarate’s fate what the law is and how it applies to this case.

Garcia Zarate was initially charged with Second-Degree Murder, but under California law, the jury can be instructed to consider other verdicts – including a more serious verdict.

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