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How the war in Yemen could end — in a matter of days

A Saudi bomb made by a US contractor hit a school bus full of kids last fall.

The murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has intensified Washington’s debate over the war in Yemen. On February 13, by a 248-177 vote, the House of Representatives passed a War Powers Act resolution to end U.S. participation in the war.

But officials in Washington, D.C. don’t generally know that under terms of a little noticed U.S. law, President Donald Trump could end the Yemen War in a matter of days.

A Saudi bomb made by a US contractor hit a school bus full of kids last fall.

US arms manufacturers such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin supply 57 percent of the military aircraft used by the Royal Saudi Air Force. The U.S. corporations hire hundreds of US civilian mechanics and technicians to repair, maintain and fuel fighter jets and helicopters. The Arms Export Control Act requires Saudi Arabia to use the military equipment for legitimate self defense.

Saudi Arabia’s consistent pattern of disproportionate attacks on civilians belies any claim of self defense, according to Brittany Benowitz, an attorney and former Congressional staffer who analyzes arms control issues.

“The Trump Administration is currently not complying with the requirements of the Arms Export Control Act,“ she told me. The act requires the President to stop supplies of spare parts and maintenance of Saudi fighter planes if they violate the act.

Those measures would undermine Saudi military capability fairly quickly, much faster than banning new arms sales, according to William Hartung, a defense analyst at the Center for International Policy. “It would affect their ability to fight immediately,” he said in an interview.

Representative Ro Khanna, Democrat of California, a co-sponsor of the War Powers resolution against the Yemen War, told me, “We would never tolerate the U.S. military having this kind of civilian casualties. The war makes us complicit.”

Operations and Maintenance

Two U.S. laws, the Arms Export Control Act and the Foreign Assistance Act are supposed to strictly control use of American-made weapons. Third country nationals are prohibited from operations and maintenance of US aircraft in Saudi Arabia. That means either Americans or Saudis must hold those jobs.

Lawrence Korb, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and former assistant secretary of defense, explained that the laws aim to protect US military secrets.

“We have the most sophisticated weapons in the world,” he told me. The law “makes sure you don’t have someone from another country who would jeopardize our security.”

US policy is also supposed to encourage training of Saudis as mechanics and in other skilled jobs so the country can diversify its workforce. But it hasn’t worked out that way.

Saudis don’t have the desire or the educational background for those jobs, said Joel Johnson, an analyst with the Teal Group, a company that analyzes the aerospace industry.

“US contractors are heavily involved in making those things fly,” he told me.

Richard Aboulafia, a vice president at Teal Group, told me that operations and maintenance have become a very profitable niche market for US corporations. Defense contractors can make as much as 150 percent more profit from operations and maintenance than from the original arms sale, he said. In 2017 Boeing cut a $480 million deal to maintain and repair Saudi F-15 fighters.

Arms manufacturers, Aboulafia said, “use the razor blade model.” They make money from the initial plane sales, but “parts and maintenance provide the real money.”

Yemen War

In early 2015, Houthi rebels were on the verge of seizing power in Yemen. Saudi Arabia, claiming the Houthis were Iranian proxies, began a widespread bombing campaign. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates sent ground troops to occupy the southern part of the country.

Both the Saudis and Emiratis predicted quick victory. That was nearly four years ago.

The Trump Administration argues that the Saudis are backing the legitimate Yemeni government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and protecting Yemen from Iranian aggression. But Hadi’s term expired in 2015, and he has so little popular support that he lives in Saudi Arabia and only sporadically visits Yemen.

The Houthis, a conservative Shia political movement, control the northern part of the country. They stand accused of many human rights abuses, including recruiting child soldiers and firing missiles indiscriminately at civilian areas.

“It’s not good guys here and bad guys there,” said Korb. “The Saudis are trying to restore the government. But it’s not exactly democratic.”

US and European companies provide virtually all of the munitions used to attack both military and civilian targets. Lockheed-Martin sold the guided missile that caused the deaths of 40 children and 11 adults in the infamous school bus attack in August last year.

The Pentagon argues that its advisors play a very limited role in Yemen, and that it encourages the Saudis to avoid hitting civilian targets. The U.S. military provides about 100 technicians to maintain Saudi planes in addition to the hundreds of American civilian contractors.

Critics point out that the United States plays a bigger role in the war than the Pentagon admits. The US Army runs a classified program inside Yemen called “Operation Yukon Journey“ that helps locate Houthi missiles. The UAE has hired former U.S. special ops soldiers to assassinate members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who oppose the UAE but are not connected with the Houthis.

“The US role is quite comprehensive in Yemen,” said analyst Hartung, “from supplying the weapons, to targeting, fueling, and equipment maintenance. It’s quite extensive.”

Efforts to Stop the War

In the aftermath of the murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Trump Administration has come under increased pressure to stop participating in the Yemen War.

Congress is considering a number of bills to reduce the US role. Senators Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, and Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, introduced legislation to end future sales of offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia, but would also sanction Iran for its support of the Houthis.

Late last year, the administration stopped US mid-air refueling of Saudi planes. It could also stop selling precision munitions, as ordered by President Obama in 2016 but reversed by President Trump. The United States could also stop providing spare parts for US-made F-15s, stop the maintenance work on Saudi aircraft and even refuse to transfer classified technology, such as computer programs used to strike enemy targets.

“The Arms Export Control Act requires the suspension in sales of articles and services to all members of the coalition involved in the misuse of U.S. origin equipment,” said analyst Benowitz.

Senator Bernie Sanders, Independent of Vermont, and Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, reintroduced a War Powers resolution to prohibit all US support for Saudi Arabia’s war against the Houthis. The resolution previously passed the Senate 56-41 and may well again in this session. However, the House and Senate bills would have to overcome a likely presidential veto.

But just taking a vote on the resolutions will help pressure the Trump Administration. Representative Khanna said there’s no excuse for the thousands of civilian deaths caused by Saudi bombing.

“We need to be clear: There should be no US support for the civil war.”

Reese Erlich’s syndicated column, “Foreign Correspondent,” appears regularly in The Progressive.

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What we saw at Sundance (and Slamdance), part 4: Narrative features

'The Last Black Man in San Francisco'

SUNDANCE 2019 Our festival critic Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports from the Sundance Film Festival. Read part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here

Honey Boy (Alma Har’el, US)
Winning a Special Jury Award for Vision and Craft in the US Dramatic category, this devastating deep dive into a troubled household that manifests into lifelong, self-destructive tendencies should easily be one of 2019’s most memorable movies. An uncompromising coming-of-age flick, it weaves between multiple periods of a young boy’s turbulent and topsy turvy life, giving 22-year-old Lucas Hedges and 13-year-old Noah Jupe room to shine. Granted, most movies tackling child abuse are usually effective in concept but not necessarily affecting emotionally. Debut director Alma Har’el beautifully bandages the surprisingly severe screenplay with an endless amount of sincerity, especially during the film’s most suffocating sequences.

The fact that Hollywood bad boy Shia LaBeouf comes into his own both as an actor (embodying his own abusive father) and as the writer of this autobiographical journey, should be of major interest to even the most stringent critic of this notorious and infamous child star. Art as therapy is definitely being put into practice here with bold choices like casting UK singer FKA Twigs (LaBeouf’s present girlfriend) as a integral, yet extremely controversial character. But as the post-screening Q&A proved (LaBeouf surprised the cast and crew by showing up), the wounds of childhood don’t mend easily. And anyone who braves this poignant powerhouse should be warned; Honey Boy has the strength to help confront some dark and troubling matters.

The Farewell (Lulu Wang, US)
Feeling like a contemporary classic already, Lulu Wang’s second feature The Farewell is the kind of “the little indie film that could” that sometimes sparks a mainstream movement (i.e. Welcome to the Dollhouse, Real Women Have Curves, Little Miss Sunshine). Exploring the awkward silences and frustrating foibles of a disfunctional middle-class Chinese family, Wang gives viral hip-hop star Awkwafina the kind of role that many have to wait decades for (see Lady Gaga in A Star is Born.) A crowd pleaser in the truest sense, don’t dismiss the skills it takes to make a John Hughes-esque classic nowadays. Many of us forget how important it is to find our footing by watching some solidly made narrative cinema.

This Teacher (Mark Jackson, US)
The Slamdance Film Festival sported a slew of spectacular films this year, including closing night selection This Teacher. Showcasing a stunning neo-realist performance by Hafsia Herzi (who plays a French Muslim woman named… Hafsia) as she meets up with her childhood best friend Zahra (played beautifully by… Sarah), who now resides in an upper class New York. Director Mark Jackson’s third feature is a seriously discerning look at Islamophobia through countless, subtle yet distressing situations. Plus, any movie that presents a musical performance by Rebekah Del Rio (Mulholland Drive) has me absolutely transfixed.

Cat Sticks (Ronny Sen, India)
Definitely the most unique movie at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival (which was celebrating its 25th Anniversary) was Ronny Sen’s debut feature Cat Sticks. Digging deep into the dark alleys of Calcutta’s  “brown sugar” addicts (a cheaper form of heroin, averaging only 20 percent pure content), the film’s inhabitants fumble their ways through hauntingly drawn out sequences, punctuated by static B&W cinematography. Sen’s ominous tone and languorous pacing give you the feeling that you are in the film itself. Fans of slow cinema (Lav Diaz, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Bela Tarr) take note. This 94-minute Bengali film is an absolute must see (and probably more than once.)

Hands and Wings (Byun Sung-bin, South Korea)
My absolute favorite film at Slamdance this year was an 18-minute magical-neorealist South Korean film Hands and Wings directed by 28-year-old Byun Sung-bin. Shot in extreme B&W close-up and with the purposefully minimal catalog description of “one day, a disabled son rejects his mother’s help,” not much can prepare you for the stirring depths of empathy on display here. Byun is a filmmaker to keep your eyes on. In fact, take a look at his spoiler-free trailer above; It’s as unique as the film itself.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Joe Talbot, US)
While you’ve perhaps read more reviews and think-pieces about this Bay Area sensation (even deciding how you feel about the film before having even watched it), Joe Talbot & Jimmie Fails loving tribute to San Francisco is well worth all the hullabaloo. Awarded both the Best Directing in the US Dramatic category and a Special Jury Award for Creative Collaboration, this spirited and highly stylized quest, exploring the rapid transformation of our unique communities, was in fact, surprisingly, quite heartbreaking. Many of the most powerful scenes in the 120-minute film come from newcomer Jonathan Majors (who is an absolute revelation on every acting level) and Jimmie Fails (who literally plays himself) as they talk sensitively and sincerely to one another.

With the Bay Area being the living metaphor for “gentrification in America”, each new film that gets released (Carlos López Estrada’s Blindspotting, Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, and now Joe Talbot’s The Last Man in San Francisco) seem to be attempting a near impossible task of speaking up (and to) all people gentrification is harming. No matter how passionate your feelings are towards this modern day, American “land grab”, make sure to actually watch The Last Black Man in San Francisco and then after, we can have a vigorous discussion as to how to push things even further.

1. The Mountain (Rick Alverson, US)
2. Hands and Wings (Byun Sung-bin, South Korea)
3. Honeyland (Tamara Kotevska, Ljubomir Stefanov, Republic of Macedonia)
4. The Nightingale (Jennifer Kent, Australia/Canada/US)
5. This Teacher (Mark Jackson, US)
6. Cat Sticks (Ronny Sen, India)
7. Midnight Traveler (Hassan Fazili, US)
8. Honey Boy (Alma Har’el, US)
9. The Farewell (Lulu Wang, US)
10. Acid Rain (Tomek Popakui, Poland)
11. Hail Satan? (Penny Lane, US)

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks is the Film History Coordinator at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and curates/hosts the MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS series. He is part of the SF Film Critics Circle and is the film festival critic for 48hills.

When our bodies break down

EXAMINED LIFE No one plans for sickness. We plan for busy schedules and vacation time and meeting deadlines. We plan for school and for retirement, for weekends and for seasons. But we don’t build time into our lives for the possibility of a broken leg, a bout of bronchitis, a surprise tumor, or a bursting appendix. I certainly didn’t.

But at the start of January, as I was heading into a particularly busy month of work, I found myself up one night for many hours with intense abdominal pain. The next day, I went to the doctor, specifically stating that I thought I might have appendicitis. I was diagnosed instead with a virus, and sent home with an antacid. I spent the following two weeks in varying states of agony until, finally, another doctor agreed to send me for a CT scan. Turns out, I did have appendicitis and had been walking around for two weeks with a partially ruptured appendix and a resulting massive intestinal infection. 

During the weeks of my pain and confusion, I was riding on a surreal merry-go-round of sensations, emotions, and mind states. There were moments in the day that I could place my attention elsewhere, and focus on my work instead of my health situation. But in other moments, I would simply be in so much pain, I could do nothing but seclude myself and cry. Other times, I would feel the strange voice of gratitude reminding me that, despite how bad I felt, at least I had a safe place to feel it. Sometimes, I would give over to self-pity. Then, a voice would emerge in my consciousness telling me to stop feeling sorry for myself, only to be followed by another voice reminding me that it wasn’t necessarily self-pity to note the fortitude it took to be with and bear my pain. 

I both raged at and deeply cared for the different voices as they each had their say. In my most lucid moments, I would start to see my pain as an undeniable presence in my life that I had no control over, but that I had to share space with. My pain was not an optional guest in the house of my body; it lived there and it was speaking to me—often in the wee hours of night, when I had no choice but to listen. 

During one particularly rough evening, a strange feeling came over me. I was in so much pain, that the pain itself became a wonder that I had to bow to. I could feel its waves and pulsations, but could do nothing more than witness them. Something in me shifted from trying to subdue my discomfort to simply meeting it, like I was meeting the stranger of myself. Perhaps it was my future self or the estranged child that I once was, or the lucid and awake part in each of us that shows up in times like these to meet us and to carry us. In that moment, I knew not what was happening to me. The questions floated through me like tiny bubbles in wild ocean foam. Might I die from this thing? Might I have something uncurable? Might this never end? But as each one bubbled, they’d quickly dissolve again, and all that was left was some deep and primal form of surrender. It doesn’t really matter because this is how it is. 

In times of intense experiences of physical suffering, we are catapulted into the rawest revelation of the truth of our existence, the recognition of the contract we’ve each signed, unknowingly or not, with life, itself. This contract, which we agree to upon our passage into this world, states that, in our lives, there are two things that will undoubtedly happen. The first is that, one day, we will each die. The second is that we will each experience bodily suffering at the hands of an illness. Many other wondrous things will also likely occur, but it is these two wonders of which we can be certain. 

The thing with contracts is that we often don’t think about them unless we need to. You may sign a contract for employment with a company, but until your first expense reimbursement request gets denied, you may not read the clause about a monthly cap on spending. Or you get a new credit card, but not bother to look at the late fee policy until, oops, you accidentally miss a payment and get charged the cost of a small island. In the same way, when we are ill or facing the possibility of death, and decrying its unfairness, we have to pause and remember this sacred contract we have with life, and the terms we agreed to. 

This doesn’t, in any way, relieve responsibility from the people and institutions that fail us in a health crisis. I have very strong emotions around being dismissed (and charged for it) in our troubled health system, and I’m not alone in my experience. It is wholly appropriate for us to speak out against unjust conditions. But it is also undeniable that, for each of us, there will be moments in our lives when our suffering is too large for righteousness, when there is no fight left within us. In those moments, what we really need is refuge. 

It doesn’t feel good to watch our own bodies break apart and break down; at times, we may view it as a punishment or a curse. But when we do so, we miss the very essence of our humanity. Just as manifestation is our birthright, so is dissolution. In essence: We were made for this. 

When we remember this truth, a courage rises up to help us hold it. When we face our own physical suffering and humanity, we enter a room through which every person ever born has passed, a room in which all of our daily troubles (from relationship anxieties to the never-ending questions about our life purpose), as well as future concerns (like career goals or insufficient retirement savings) evaporate, and all that is left is that fiercely awake, undeniable presence. We remember, in these moments, that every moment might be our last; we are reminded of the awe inherent in our brief and precious lives. 

Moments like these remind me that while a peak experience is often thought of as a positive or ecstatic experience, it isn’t always. Rather, it’s an experience in which our consciousness is dropped like a pebble into the lake of shared humanity, and we realize the truth of our own existence. While waking up to the sacredness inherent in our bodily suffering doesn’t make it pleasant, it can offer the sweetness of surrender, which changes the way we move through the world. It reminds us that, even on the darkest road of pain or illness, when we feel hopeless and terribly alone, we are walking the path that every human walks—and we can show up to meet ourselves out there, and carry ourselves through. 

Screen Grabs: Never mind the Oscars, we’ve got screwballs and Pod People

Barbra Streisand in 'What's Up, Doc?'—playing at the Castro

SCREEN GRABS As if nothing mattered but the Oscars on Sunday (harrumph!), there are no major Hollywood releases this weekend, and few notable arthouse ones. However, there are a number of interesting stray openings and one-shot screenings around.

Among them are a new documentary at the Roxie, Chesley Bonestell: A Brush With the Future, about the SF-born illustrator whose science-fiction art often anticipated actual developments in space exploration. Douglass M. Stewart Jr.’s feature is a pedestrian, TV-style tribute that nonetheless sustains interest thanks to its fascinating subject. (More info here.) The 4-Star is offering the area premiere of Cheng Wei-hao’s glossy, stylish if convoluted Taiwanese mystery-thriller Who Killed Cock Robin, in which a rather skeevy journalist (Kaiser Chuang) discovers the used car he just bought was involved in a cold-case hit-and-run years ago. His investigation uncovers no end of skullduggery that eventually involves kidnapping, murder, and much high-end corruption. (More info here.)

If you really don’t want to watch the Oscars, but can’t trust yourself if you stay at home, head to the Castro for a curious double bill on Sunday. All About Eve, the all-time great 1950 movie about awards hunger (albeit in the theater world), plays with Orson Welles’ posthumously completed final feature The Other Side of the Wind. The latter went straight to Netflix a few months ago, but you know Welles meant it to be seen on the big screen, and here’s your big chance. (More info here.)


After he’d made the transition from a matchless German silent career to talkies with the extraordinary M, Fritz Lang was offered the newly installed government’s top film post by Goebbels. He declined (Leni Riefenstahl would take the position), for good measure fleeing the Nazi-fied country at his first opportunity. Before he landed in Hollywood, where he had a different but also successful career (mostly directing noir-ish melodramas), he spent a year in Paris.

The fruit of that interlude was this relatively seldom-revived but superior version of Hungarian author Ferenc Monar’s 1909 play, which had already been adapted to the screen at least twice. (The most recent was just four years earlier: An interesting Hollywood misfire directed by the underrated Frank Borzage, undermined by the miscasting of Charles Farrell in the title role.) The material now is primarily known as the basis for Rogers & Hammerstein’s classic musical Carousel. But this version doesn’t need songs—it’s got Charles Boyer, young and boisterous, strutting like a rooster in contrast to his elegant later image.

He plays the titular carny barker, a petty womanizer and grifter who falls in love with the adoring Julie (Madeleine Ozeray). But even she can’t reform him, leading to an unusual third act in which he’s judged in the afterlife, and must return to Earth as a spirit to right his wrongs or spend eternity in Hell. The director of Metropolis and the Mabuse films was easily equipped to handle this mix of the streetwise and fantastical.

While later versions of the story would struggle against sentimentality (and/or the ugliness of having a wife-beater as protagonist), Lang lends it cinematic zest, and Boyer a swagger that makes Liliom both appealing and ridiculous—his outsized machismo a poor cover for gaping insecurities. Along with Saturday’s screening of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, this rare screening ends the PFA’s “Fritz Lang & German Expressionism” series. Fri/22, Pacific Film Archive. More info here

Rotterdam-based Filmwerkplaats is an artists’ collective with their own film lab—all the better to create work that is itself largely a hymn to the distinctive textures of old-school celluloid. 2015’s Hometown is their feature-length, B&W 16mm experiment in which “longing, memories and identity punctuate the stories of the ghost characters” searching for that titular place of belonging. Thurs/28, YBCA. More info here.  

Screwballs and Pod People in Seventies SF
There are plenty of great San Francisco movies, but arguably the best two examples from the 1970s (sorry, Dirty Harry) are getting paired on an excellent Castro double bill this Friday. After the critical acclaim of The Last Picture Show, writer Peter Bogdanovich had a popular smash with What’s Up, Doc?, a wholly successful update of 1930s screwball comedy conventions. Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal inherited Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant’s roles, more or less, in a very funny farce indebted to Bringing Up Baby (among numerous other inspirations). Our hills have rarely been used to such good slapstick effect as in the chase climax, while the same could be said for an ace supporting cast including Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars, Austin Pendleton and many more.

A more explicit remake was Philip Kaufman’s 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which had the genius idea of re-setting the 1956 Cold War sci-fi classic from a heartland smalltown to defiantly countercultural Me Decade SF—a place where rigid conformity brought on by a stealth alien invasion would have the most dramatic impact. Funny, exciting and bizarre, it’s a terrific movie that provided Jeff Goldblum with one of his first great shambling-weirdo characters, as well as good roles for Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Veronica Cartwright, Leonard Nimoy, and others. Fri/22, Castro Theater. More info here

Fighting With My Family
There’s enough celebrity fuss already at Sundance, but it was pretty weird to be there this year and attend a premiere that had Hollywood-level fandom and security (a woman sitting in my row twice got pulled out on suspicion of videotaping, to her bewilderment). Well, you don’t normally see stars there as mainstream as The Rock aka Dwayne Johnson, who produced and appears (as himself) in this movie based on the rise to fame of World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. wrestling “diva” Paige.

Florence Pugh of Lady Macbeth plays her, a Goth-styled teen from working-class Norwich who improbably gets drafted for the glitzy arena “sport.” This delights nearly everyone in her wrestling-crazed family (including the delightful Nick Frost as dad), save the athletic older brother (an excellent Jack Lowden) who assumed he’d also make the cut. Vince Vaughn dishes out the snark as a drill sergeant for WWE wannabes. A very middle-of-the-road item by Sundance standards, this sometimes broad but amiable and occasionally witty comedy from writer-director Stephen Merchant (a frequent Ricky Gervais collaborator) is a formulaic underdog-triumphs story that’s quite enjoyable nonetheless. It’s probably the best movie ever made by the WWE (they’ve made over fifty!)—which isn’t saying much, but oh well. Opens Friday at area theaters.

NY Dog Film Festival
Cats are so-last-week. This weekend the Roxie brings you two separate programs of shorts dedicated to Man’s Best Friend. In fact, you can bring your own furry bestie (canine-only, please) to these shows, with proceeds from “each dog ticket sold” (service animals enter free) going to local senior rescue facility Muttville. After the screening, why not take a short walk down 16th Street to Alabama, where you can enjoy the antics of adoptable real-life hounds at not only Muttville, but also SF Animal Care and Control and the SPCA, all conveniently located within one half-block on “Rescue Row”? Sat/23, Roxie. More info here

FP2: Beats of Rage
First there was 2007’s short The FP. Then there was 2011’s feature expansion The FP. Now, with the arrival of this sequel, we have an entire film franchise devoted to the vision of a dystopian future dominated by deadly competitive music-video arcade dance games. If you think that sounds like a Funny or Die-style mashup of Mad Max meets Step Up—well, you’d be exactly right.

Jason Trost returns (minus cinematographer brother Brandon, his co-writer/director on the first film) as JTRO, one-eyed Beat-Beat Revelation (a la Dance Dance Revelotion) champion, the fate of a miserable future world once again resting on his agile feet. If you howled at the first one, you probably find this entry hilarious as well. On the other hand, if you found the original funny for about ten minutes, then a joke stretched waaaaaaay too thin, you’ll probably have pretty much the same reaction this time. Jesse Hawthorne Ficks hosts, compete with a post-screening interview with the director on Friday and Saturday.   Opens Friday, Alamo Drafthouse. 

Humanoids from the Deep
Fabled B-movie producer Roger Corman was notable in his field for encouraging women directors, including this film’s Barbara Peeters—even if she wasn’t happy with the result after he’d re-edited and partly re-shot it to include more sexploitative material. Nonetheless, this rapey Jaws copy/monster mash-up remains a major guilty pleasure from the last days of drive-in cinema.

Shot in Mendocino and Fort Bragg, it has the reliably wooden Doug McClure (inspiration for Troy) among residents of a coastal fishing town unhappy to discover mutant salmon-men (!) are on the loose. Looking like a cross between the Creature from the Black Lagoon and Ninja Turtles, they’re on the hunt for humans to kill or mate with. Its hysterical county-fair climax topped by the then-almost-inevitable Alien ripoff of a chest-bursting fadeout, this is energetically tasteless trash like they don’t make ‘em anymore.

Save the Redstone Building!

My first job in San Francisco was in the Redstone Building, at 2940 16thStreet, near the 16thand Mission BART plaza. I worked as a canvasser for the Abalone Alliance, the antinuclear group fighting PG&E’s Diablo Canyon plant. And every low-budget, grassroots nonprofit in town seemed to have offices in the building.Theater Rhinoceros, an early LGBT theater company, did shows in the basement. I think we paid something like $100 a month for our office.

The Redstone was an amazing place – and back then, I didn’t even know its history.  Which is also amazing.

The 1934 General Strike, which changed the labor movement in the United States forever, was planned and executed at 2940 16thStreet. The building was known as the Labor Temple, constructed by the Labor Council, and occupied for much of the 20thCentury by lavor unions.

Now it’s a community center, with unions (the United Taxicab Workers), community groups (the Western Regional Advocacy Project) and media (POOR magazine) occupying some of the last affordable space in the Mission.

There are, Paul Boden, a tenant and organizer, estimates, 12 nonprofits, 60 artists/community organizers, and six small businesses. Boden, who runs the Western Regional Advocacy Program, said some 50,000 constituents are served by the tenants of the Redstone annually.

And the history and the community is facing an existential threat.

The owner of the building wants to sell, and is asking for $25 million.

To put that in perspective: Documents in the city Assessor’s Office show that David and Sandi Lucchesi bought the place in 1992; it’s assessed at a little more than $2 million, and they paid even less for it.

The Mission Economic Development Agency wants a chance to buy it. The negotiations continue, and MEDA has made a final offer of $18 million.

At the price the owner wants, all of the leases would rise dramatically and it’s likely all of the existing tenants would be displaced. “None of us have long-term leases,” Boden said. “We are all on month-to-month.”

And now, the Redstone supporters are facing even more problems. From a Facebook post this week:

Due to some tax loopholes, our landlord is discovering that he could sell the building for more money than what we are offering. We need your help to convince the city that preserving San Francisco’s 100+ year old center for arts and human rights advocacy is critical to preserving the socio-cultural fabric of this city itself. SPECULATORS OUT! SAVE THE REDSTONE LABOR TEMPLE.

On Wednesday/27, organizers are holding a rally and community event to honor 104 years of economic and social justice at the Redstone and to work for a community solution. 6pm to 9pm, free.

This matters, a lot. It’s a key statement about whether there’s still a future for a Mission District that has room for the community-based organizations that have served and defined the neighborhood for decades – and whether history and public service matters more than cold cash.

It’s also a sign of what is to come if the Monster in the Mission moves forward. Already, investors are eying property in the area: “It took the Valencia Street gentrifiers a while to get the claws in this part of the Mission, but it’s starting to happen,” Boden said.

One of the big problems with projects like the Monster is that they drive up property values in the surrounding areas. Even the prospect of the area gentrifying is making it possible for the owner to ask for such a stunning amount of money for a building with only 33,000 square feet of rentable space. Just to cover the mortgage on a $20 million note, the rent would have to go up to almost $40 a square foot – at least ten times what current tenants are paying. Nothing in the North Mission now rents for that much; any buyer would clearly be expecting massive demographic changes in the area.

So there’s a lot at stake. See you on the 27th.

What we saw at Sundance, Part 3: MiDNiTE MOViES and Beyond!

Our critic basking in the interactive wonders of 'Dirtscraper' at Sundance

SUNDANCE 2019 Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports from Sundance. See part 1 here and part 2 here

The Death of Dick Long (Daniel Scheinert, US) 
Absurdism dates back to the work of Søren Kierkegaard, the 19th-century Danish philosopher, often exploring life’s most impossible contradictions through a kind of preposterous or irrational philosophy. Topping all entries for me in the Park City at Midnight category, Daniel Scheinert delivered a unique blend of sincere slapstick with profound nonsense, probing two lovable knuckleheads as they flounder through their lives in small town, Alabama.

Scheinert, who co-wrote and co-directed the similarly controversial Swiss Army Man (2016) with Dan Kwan, has perfectly captured the pointlessness of life and the difficulties with loneliness beyond all rationality. All three actors, Michael Abbott Jr. (Pilgrim Song), Virginia Newcomb, and especially Andre Hyland (whose seven-minute film Funnel from 2014 is still one of the funniest flicks of the decade!) are unstoppably hilarious, down to the existential finale. Do your best to stay away from all reviews of The Death of Dick Long. This is an outrageously brave movie that could very easily be dismissed by the casual viewer. A24 will be releasing the film later this year.

The Lodge 
(Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala, UK/US)
Hands down the scariest film at Sundance this year was Austrian filmmakers Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s second feature The Lodge. Following up on their exquisitely terrorizing debut Goodnight Mommy (2014), this English language excursion needs to be experienced with as little plot information as possible. Riley Keough (of Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike and the TV version of The Girlfriend Experience) gives a stunning performance, Thimios Bakatakis’ cinematography (who has shot Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer) keeps the frame relentlessly eerie and the menacing music by Saunder Jurriaans’ (who did the score for one of the my favorite films of the decade, Anna Rose Holmer’s 2015 debut The Fits) makes The Lodge a must-see for off-beat horror fans. Or take my still-healing “chewed-up cheeks” as the highest recommendation for this sophisticated scarefest.

Wounds (Babak Anvari, UK)
Following a screening of Babak Anvari’s heart-stopping 2016 debut Under the Shadow, Armie Hammer decided he would star in Wounds, Babak’s second feature to be showcased in Park City at Midnight. Placed alongside the stunning likes of Zazie Beetz (Deadpool 2), Dakota Johnson (Suspiria), and Karl Glusman (Love), Hammer delivers a fabulously frenetic performance, wrapped up in a wickedly, wild web of meandering midlife alcoholism. While Anvari tends more towards ambiguous terror here as opposed to the hardcore horror of Under the Shadow, I have a feeling that Wounds could be a huge crossover date flick when Annapurna Pictures releases it on March 29. I know I’ll be there for seconds. 

The Wolf Hour (Alistair Banks Griffin, US)
Naomi Watts had two films at Sundance this year and while Julius Onah’s universally celebrated family drama Luce was picked up for distribution by NEON and Topic Studios, it’s her enthralling performance in Alistair Banks Griffin’s The Wolf Hour that still has me reeling. Inhabiting a writer who’s emotionally paralyzed by a flurry of phobias, Griffin’s deliciously disturbing descent into one woman’s isolated world reminded me of Chantal Akerman’s Je, Tu, Ile, Elle (1974) combined with Rip Torn’s underrated 1988 cult classic The Telephone (1988) which flaunts a similarly stunning performance by Whoopi Goldberg. Add to that another memorable musical score by Saunder Jurriaans (The Lodge, The Fits) and some seriously sweaty cinematography by Khalid Mohtaseb, The Wolf Hour is a surprising solid throwback to a tumultuous 1970s.

The best “shorts program” of Sundance this year was the “Animation Spotlight,” showcasing eight electrifying films. Renee Zhan won the Animated Short Film Jury Award for her beguiling piece Reneepoptosis following three different Renees who all go on a quest to uncover who God is. Weaving through the ups and downs, peaks and valleys, rocky and calm, I was left in a profoundly peaceful place… all in 10 minutes.

Jeron Braxton had won the Short Film Jury Award for Animation last year for his self taught, 13-minute Glucose (2018) that hypnotically explores everything from his own private bedroom to the terrifying streets of America. Braxton’s much anticipated follow-up OCTANE clocks in at six minutes, astounding me yet again with homemade animation as well as furthering the horrors of growing up Black in America.

Polish filmmaker Tomek Popakui’s ecstasy extravaganza Acid Rain had me bleary-eyed with every emotion possible at the end of his 28-minute masterpiece. Taking audiences through an evening’s entire life cycle by way of 1990s rave culture, each stage brings another level of uncertainty. Popakui’s level of skill and inspiration being displayed here is on par with any feature film this year. I wanted to watch the film again as soon as it ended.

Dirtscraper (Peter Burr, US)
Peter Burr made one of my favorite films of 2017, Pattern Language, a mesmerizing 11-minute experience, engrossing its audience in some of the most fascinating B&W digitized layering of patterned life that I have ever witnessed. At this year’s New Frontier Exhibitions, Burr utilized the massive, three-sided interactive projection stage (complete with portable headphones) with a stunning large-scale abstract installation. Simulating “an underground structure whose smart architecture is overseen by artificial intelligences—spatial and social designers that observe, learn, and make changes to the system”, this long form piece (running over an hour) hypnotized me like no other movie at this year’s Sundance and has magnified Burr’s “endlessly mutating labyrinth” to the umpteenth degree. Keep your eyes, ears and inner parts peeled for this truly unique occurrence. (It has been presented by various institutions around the world, including Documenta 14, MoMA PS1, and the Barbican Centre.)

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks is the Film History Coordinator at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and curates/hosts the Midnites for Maniacs series. He is part of the SF Film Critics Circle and is the film festival critic for 48hills.

The raver soul of Yoshi Flower

ALL EARS Two tracks into Yoshi Flower’s debut mixtape American Raver we hear a voicemail from his dad. It’s a shortcut to pathos we’ve heard on a million albums, from Frank Ocean’s Blonde and Kendrick’s good kid, m.A.A.d city to recent albums by Aaron Carter and Mike Posner. It’s easy for the uninformed to roll their eyes—except Yoshi’s “dad” is 26-year-old comedian Brandon Wardell, who regales Yoshi with criticisms in a voice that sounds almost like someone’s happy-go-lucky pops.

“We recorded like 20 minutes of it,” Yoshi told me over the phone—though only a few short snatches made it onto the mixtape. Both performers were quite stoned, and judging by the singer’s tortoise-slow drawl and lyrical fixation on chemical consumption, it’s not an uncommon state to find him in. 

“[Wardell] was like, ‘I don’t want your mother to hear this, but luckily you’re not famous at all, and nobody hears your music unless it’s a Spotify curated playlist,'” he says. “He was going in on me. He’s like a happy cynic.” 

Those words could just as easily describe Yoshi Flower, who’ll be playing at the Rickshaw Stop Fri/22 as part of San Francisco’s long-running weekly Popscene indie dance party.

The Detroit artist presents himself in his music as sort of as half-hedonist, half-guru. “Sometimes I wanna listen to Lil Pump, sometimes I wanna listen to Deepak Chopra,” he tells me, and he comes off a little like both—the former most prominently in how his music is explicitly youth-oriented. “It’s not for people who have guns and mortgages,” he quips.

Born Josh Smith, Yoshi came of age in Detroit’s underground rave scene and saw legendary local DJs like Moodymann and Carl Craig as a teenager while gobbling all manner of drugs: nitrous, molly, acid. 

“None of us had money to go to a festival,” he says. “So by the time we were able to even go to one they were all mad expensive, so we’d just go to warehouses and it was very freeing. Nobody had to be a certain type of way. All you had to do was feel the bass.”

His raver bona fides form a strong part of his artistic identity (the track titles of American Raver spell out a pledge of allegiance to “the rave”). But his music is worlds away from Detroit dance music. He makes pop in an omnivorous, post-Internet sense; he sings, he raps, he strums an acoustic while filling the margins with hip-hop beats and post-Diplo chipmunk vocals. It’s hard to pin down but easy to imagine on pop radio.

He first came to prominence as one-half of goth-R&B duo Gosh Pith before his manager, on a whim, cold-emailed his SoundCloud link to a promoter at Bonnaroo in 2017. They had a spot they needed to fill, and rumors about the identity of the mysterious Yoshi Flower began to spread like wildfire—not least once he and his friends put up signs around the festival grounds reading “TAKE ACID AND GO SEE YOSHI FLOWER.” 

This was the first-ever Flower gig, and he now plays the kinds of festivals he couldn’t afford growing up. But with fame comes public scrutiny, and the Wardell clips on his album could be seen as a reflection of the barrier any celebrity or proto-celebrity crosses where the whole world holds a mirror up to you. 

“A lot more people are asking me to explain myself, and I’ve realized I’m just so fucking extreme in my ways,” he says. “Either Bohemian dwelling or complete utter materialism… I meditated today with diamonds on.”  

Fri/22, 9pm, $13-$15
Rickshaw Stop, SF
More info here 

Exploring the ‘Convergence’ of Yiddish and African American spiritual music

Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell

ALL EARS There are a couple of reactions that stand out to Black Yiddishist opera singer Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell when he performs a blend of African American spirituals and Yiddish music with the klezmer trio Veretski Pass. 

“One is what I call the East Coast intellectual response. It’s ‘Oh, very nice, very beautiful, very Obama. It’s a nice project, but it’s not really a thing,'” Russell said. “For lack of a better word, that’s bullshit. Jews and African Americans making music together is the bedrock of American music, and there are numerous examples of this convergence.” 

 Russell calls the other reaction, “the Bay Area liberal response.” 

“They’re like, ‘Of course! Israel is so close to Africa, and Blacks and Jews have suffered, and I had a Black girlfriend when I went to Cal,'” he said. “That sort of discounts all the work I’ve done with Veretski Pass. Like why would we have worked so had to make this if it existed already?”

Russell, who grew up in Vallejo, will be at the Jewish Community Center in Berkeley Thu/21 for the Veretski Pass Convergence Revisited album release show, in honor of Black History Month. The band premiered previous album Convergence there in 2014. And then on Sat/23 at Starline Social Club, Russell will perform with pianist-accordionist Dmitri Gaskin as Tsvey Brider (“Two Brothers”). 

As a teenager, Russell won a youth choral contest in Vallejo with a prize of $500. That seemed like a fortune at the time, and he felt he was on his way, concentrating on opera. But after years of performing, Russell started to feel constrained. 

“I decided opera wasn’t for me because it wasn’t giving me the kind of interpretive possibilities I wanted,” he said. “The obligation of an opera singer is to express the composer’s ideas, not the singer’s ideas. When I encountered Yiddish music, it allowed me to do more interpreting.” 

He encountered it, maybe surprisingly, at the movies. Russell and his husband, a rabbi, went to see the Coen Brothers’ movie, A Serious Man. At some point in the movie, a character puts on a record, and Russell heard a bass voice, like his own, singing Yiddish. He assumed it was Paul Robeson, who sang in many different languages including Yiddish. 

It wasn’t Robeson: It was Sidor Belarsky, a Jewish singer born in the Ukraine. “There he was on this record in this movie, and his voice had this quality that was very dark and very rich and very beautiful,” Russell said. “I did some research, and luckily for me, he published around 70 songs in these bass keys.”

Russell went to synagogue with his husband and started singing the music there. 

“There were people who were surprised at my ability to sing the melodies Jews pray too,” he said. “I suddenly remembered that as an opera singer there were two things I was able to do well—sing a language idiomatically and learn melodies really quickly.”

After studying on his own for a while, Russell went to Tel Aviv University for its Yiddish language program. Israel isn’t the usual destination for people studying the language. “If you ever want to hear a Tel Aviv cab driver laugh like you’ve never heard, tell him you came to Tel Aviv to study Yiddish,” he said. 

Russell performs with Dmitri Gaskin as Tsvey Brider.

Russell decided to convert to Judaism. It was a decision he came to on his own, without pressure from his husband, he says. “I had a strong connection to Torah,” he said. “I grew up in a very religious family that was very strong in biblical literacy, so I was very well versed in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible.”

Spirituals and Jewish music have a lot in common, Russell says, with lullabies, anthems, and songs with a social justice slant. He decided to take elements of each types of music and combine them. At first he was only performing these as encores. Then he met the trio Veretski Pass at a music festival in Toronto, and singing with instruments like a fiddle and an accordion made all the difference, he said.

“They were the ones who fully realized this idea,” he said. “They made it a musical reality.” 

Thu/21, 7pm
Jewish Community Center, Berkeley
More info here 

February 23 8 PM
Starline Social Club, Oakland
More info here

Ethics Commission rejects plan to eliminate spending caps

Sf Ethics Commission members debate campaign finance rules

The San Francisco Ethics Commission decided Friday not to propose rules that would have in effect abolished spending caps for local campaigns.

The proposal from Ethics staff generated considerable opposition, including a petition from the California Clean Money Campaign. Reporters were told to expect “fireworks” at the meeting.

But it became clear early in the discussion that the commissioners were not interested in the staff plan, and after a relatively short debate they rejected it.

Sf Ethics Commission members debate campaign finance rules

The details are a bit complicated. Under current rules, candidates who raise a modest amount of money from local donation get a public “match” – at the ratio of 2-1. That means if a candidate raises $25,000, the city gives them $50,000. The idea is to encourage candidates to seek small local donations.

In exchange, candidates who seek matching funds have to agree to a spending limit — $975,000 for candidates for mayor, and $155,000 for candidates for supervisor.

But the rise of massive dark-money independent-expenditure campaigns have made those limits difficult for grassroots candidates. If a candidate for supervisor agrees to the limits and accepts public funding, and their opponent also agrees – but benefits from $1 million in IE money – the grassroots candidate is at a huge disadvantage.

So the current rules allow an increase in the spending cap when one candidate gets IE support. The way it works: Every time an IE reports spending to support a candidate, or oppose another candidate, the remaining candidates in the race are allowed to increase their allowable spending.

Right now, the increases in the spending cap go up in $10,000 increments. That means candidates often get notifications from the Ethics Commission every day with news that the cap has again been raised.

The Ethics staff, responding to complaints from some campaign managers who say the constant changes are confusing, suggested that once one candidate breaks the cap, the cap should be completely abolished for all candidates.

That, opponents said, would

eviscerate the expenditure limits that public financing matching funds candidates currently must follow by completely removing the limits the moment a candidate’s ceiling is exceeded “by any amount.”

From the Clean Money petition:


This proposal goes against everything public financing of campaigns stands for.  One of the key reasons for the matching funds system is because it places limits on the amount of private money that participating candidates can raise.  Completely eliminating the ceiling at the first moment independent expenditures even modestly breach them would kill the ceiling in most competitive races, making them nothing more than a speed bump for special interests.

The compromise suggestion: Increase the increments to $50,000 for supe races and $250,000 for mayoral races. But keep the spending caps in place.

That’s what the commission voted to do, unamimously.

The issue that is still lingering was brought up by Jon Golinger, who was run a number of campaigns in the city and is a political-reform advocate.

Golinger pointed out that the law contains a “catch-22:” If a candidate backed by big money gets, say, $1 million in IE money, then other candidates manage to raise the money to meet an increased spending limit, the corporate candidate gets to spend more money, too.

That means it’s in the interest of a corporate-backed candidate to have big IE money backing them; it not only releases their opponents from the limits. It also releases them.

The commission took no action on that.

The issue now moves to the Board of Supes, which can change the increments again – and could take up Golinger’s Catch-22.

The Sierra Club and the luxury-housing developer

Are you a Sierra Club member who lives in Berkeley, Albany, Emeryville, Alameda, Piedmont or San Leandro? If so, you fall under the aegis of the club’s Northern Alameda County Group, which is nested within the larger Bay Chapter.

Be aware, then, that the NAC Executive Committee is currently dominated by a pro-growth coterie that’s exploiting the Sierra Club’s cachet to push a pro-development agenda that violates the club’s commitments to affordable housing, neighborhood integrity, and democratic governance.

If you’re a Sierra Club member who lives elsewhere in the Bay Area, you should also be concerned. The growth boosters on the NAC Ex Com include two men who wield considerable influence in the Bay Chapter, Igor Tregub and Andy Katz. Tregub also chairs the chapter Executive Committee. Both he and Katz sit on the Bay Chapter’s Political Committee, which makes the Sierra Club’s endorsements of political candidates and ballot measures. In the Bay Area, where the club claims nearly 60,000 members, and environmental values are widely embraced, Sierra Club endorsements carry a lot of weight.

(UPDATE: Tregub tells me he has stepped down from the Political Committee, which only makes advisory recommendations on endorsements.)

A crowd packs the San Leandro City Council chambers to oppose the project. Photo by Stephen Cassidy.

This is an alarming trend for the club; already in San Francisco, Yimbys have tried to take over the local chapter (and so far failed). But the pro-development forces know that placing people on the boards of all-volunteer organizations is not that difficult. There’s little doubt that “smart growth” advocates are trying to shift the influential Sierra Club in their direction, locally and nationally.

1388 Bancroft Avenue, San Leandro

The motives of the local leaders were on display on the evening of January 28, when, after a perfunctory discussion, the NAC Ex Com voted 5-3 to send a letter to the San Leandro City Council expressing partial support for the controversial housing development at 1388 Bancroft Avenue. The developer wants to replace the existing office building with a new rental apartment building comprised of 43 luxury units and two officially affordable units.

Since the project was on the council’s Feb. 4 agenda, the letter had to be drafted, reviewed, revised, approved, and sent in a bare week—in other words, before the Ex Com would meet again in late February.

I went to the January 28 meeting to comment on the NAC’s peremptory treatment of another item on the agenda, development at the North Berkeley BART station. But it was the group’s similarly cavalier disposal of the San Leandro project that captured my attention. Until then, I’d never heard of 1388 Bancroft. I got the impression that, except for Tregub and outgoing NAC Chair Andy Kelley, neither had members of the Ex Com.

The collective ignorance was understandable. For one thing, Kelley had only posted the evening’s agenda online on the afternoon of January 28. He was acting under duress: he’d stepped into the chair’s position after his immediate predecessor in the office had abruptly departed. On January 28, Kelley happily voted with the rest of the Ex Com to have Berkeley Councilmember Sophie Hahn succeed him as chair. Hahn then presided over an agenda that she had not set.

More important, the NAC Ex Com relied on a single informant who championed the project. At the meeting, the case for endorsing 1388 Bancroft was made by Tim Frank, a Berkeley resident and self-described “sustainability consultant.” A representative of the sheet metal workers union spoke briefly in favor of the project, but it was Frank who carried the ball.

Frank often speaks at public comment before city councils, regional agencies, and other public entities, urging the approval of developments. He’s been cheering on the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s frightening CASA project since its inception.

On January 31, I emailed Frank asking if he’d been paid to advocate 1388 Bancroft. He replied:

I have no economic tie whatsoever to the developer of 1388 Bancroft in San Leandro. The same is true of 2190 Shattuck, which I supported at the Berkeley City Council hearing this last Thursday. These are very green transit-oriented development projects that will be built by union labor. Spending a few hours supporting these projects is a small contribution towards the larger goal of creating a greater and more equitable economy.

What you should know about me is that I am Director of the Center for Sustainable Neighborhoods, and am the board chair of Good Jobs First, both of which are organizations that support economic development strategies that emphasize good jobs and make our region more sustainable. This has been my vocation and passion for more than two and a half decades.

I emailed back: “Thanks for the ambiguous reply. I asked whether you were paid to advocate a Sierra Cub NAC Group endorsement of 1388 Bancroft. Tom Silva [the landlord-applicant via his business, Eden Realty] aside, were you paid to speak in favor of the project?”

To date, Frank has not responded.

The Center for Sustainable Neighborhoods is not incorporated as a tax-exempt nonprofit in California, so there are no public filings showing anything about its finances. On its website, the group seeks donations, but says they are not tax-deductible. I asked Frank where his group gets its money; he has not responded.

The NAC Ex Com buys Frank’s pitch

At the Ex Com meeting, Frank first stated that he directs the Center for Sustainable Neighborhoods, chairs both the board of Good Jobs First and the Sierra Club’s National Challenge to Sprawl campaign, and is helping the national club update its infill development policy.

He then pitched 1388 Bancroft. He highlighted the project’s access to transit—the site is on two bus lines, he said—its unbundled auto parking and bike lockers (tenants will have to pay extra to park on-site) and its GreenTRIP certification from TransForm; and noted the developer’s promise to use union labor.

After NAC Ex Com member Chris Jackson observed that only two percent of the units at 1388 Bancroft would be affordable, Frank said that the city had a shortage of luxury residences, but that market-rate housing “hasn’t penciled,” meaning it hasn’t did not yield the returns that developers demand. He also said that San Leandro’s inclusionary ordinance requires that 15 percent of the units in new housing developments be affordable, and that the city has not been “supportive of multi-family housing.”

Nobody pointed out that the last two of these claims do not compute. In today’s Bay Area, no city has an ample stock of low-income housing without having required that new developments include a substantial amount of such housing. In fact, San Leandro has supported multi-unit housing.

As Frank spoke, I Googled “1388 Bancroft.” Up came an article describing neighbors’ concerns about parking. In the ensuing discussion—initially everyone in the room was invited to make a comment—I mentioned those concerns. They elicited no interest from Ex Com members, who went on to pass a motion to send a letter to the San Leandro City Council that supported aspects of the project that were consistent with Sierra Club policies.

Voting Yes were Tregub, Katz, Kelley, Jonathan Bair, and Aaron Priven. Xavier Johnson was not present but later weighed in with a Yes. Voting No were Hahn, Jackson, and Toni Mester.

The unrecognized opposition

A bit more Googling also turned up the email address of the group that was fighting the project. The next morning, I sent the group a brief report of the Ex Com’s action. About an hour later, I got a reply from one of the neighbors, Stephen Cassidy. Cassidy said he’d been a member of the Sierra Club “on and off over the past 15 years,” and that he’s currently a member who “strongly support[s] the club’s mission” and “donate[s] to the club on a monthly basis.” He also said that from January 2011 to December 2014, he was mayor of San Leandro.

Cassidy wrote:

When we hear neighbors are opposed to a particular project, some immediately conclude the neighbors must be unreasonable, from the filter that any local opposition to a project is irrational and intended simply to protect the narrow-minded interest of the immediate neighbors who do not want change (or worse).

The 1388 Bancroft does not fit this mold. Context is critical.

He went on to provide that context: In 2016,

the San Leandro city council revised the San Leandro Zoning Code to allow new housing in areas of San Leandro formerly and exclusively reserved for offices and commercial uses, including at 1388 Bancroft Avenue (the property at the corner of Estudillo and Bancroft immediately across from Bancroft Middle School). We, neighbors of 1388 Bancroft Avenue, supported this change.  Our support helped expand sites for housing in San Leandro.

While new housing was encouraged, the City set limits to ensure that no project would be too dense or too large for the neighborhood. Specifically, projects were limited to:

  • 24 units per acre (which means 31 units at 1388 Bancroft)
  • A parking ratio of 2.25 parking spots per 2-bedroom unit
  • 10 foot setbacks
  • 30 feet in height

In response, the developer sought to build a project far in excess of these limits, close to 75 two-bedroom units, nearly 50 feet tall and with grossly inadequate parking. It was so deficient that city staff opposed the project. See https://sanleandrofocus.blogspot.com/2017/11/city-staff-analysis-of-1388-bancroft.html

Critically, the developer said he could not afford to build any project that was smaller.  However, the developer reversed course and withdrew his proposal.

Fast forward to the present, the developer is back with a smaller project. City staff is recommending that they be set aside for a “Planned Development” to be built at 1388 Bancroft Avenue.

The 1388 Bancroft Avenue Planned Development is better than what was first proposed but remains in violation of the 2016 expanded and pro-housing provisions of the city zone code.  The new plan calls for an apartment complex containing:

  • 45 units at the site … 50% denser than allowed
  • 55 parking spaces … less than half of the required number
  • 4 foot setbacks on Estudillo … 60% less than required
  • 37 feet tall … 23% taller than allowed

The affordable housing component of the planned development is a fraud.  The developer has another apartment on the opposite side of San Leandro that is decades old and serves the low end of the market. He plans on adding two units of affordable at this site, eg not at 1388 Bancroft.  And he will write a one-time check to the city to satisfy its in lieu fee for affordable housing units. That’s how he gets to claim 4% affordable housing at 1388 Bancroft. The reality is there will be no affordable units on the property. Many of us object to the project for this reason. We welcome affordable units at the site.

1388 Bancroft is not within the City’s Transit Oriented Development zone. It will bring significantly more cars to the neighborhood, as almost all units will be 2-bedrooms with 2 baths priced at the highest end of the market. In many cases, 4 adults owning 4 cars will be occupying units.

Furthermore, we have the right to rely on the assurances and promises of our city officials.  Integrity matters.  Approval of the 1388 Bancroft Planned Development without modification would create the precedent that any project, no matter the location, how dense or tall, or the lack of sufficient parking, could be built in San Leandro as long as it is labeled a “Planned Development.”

We continue to support housing at 1388 Bancroft and would be willing to compromise but the project must be brought closer to the zoning code restrictions.

I forwarded Cassidy’s email to the Ex Com members whose email I had at hand: Hahn, Kelley, Tregub, Katz, and Mester, stating that, except for Kelley, “it was clear” that before January 28, none of the Ex Com members had heard of 1388 Bancroft. I added:

I understand why it was placed on the agenda. I do not understand why the majority voted to send a letter to the council, given that you heard only one person advocating its approval. To support a project such as this, with a long and controversial history, without hearing from opponents, and after a short discussion which could not possibly suffice for anyone involved to understand the situation, was wrong.

I suggested that they reconsider sending a letter to the San Leandro Council endorsing any aspect of the project. I also left Tregub a voicemail.

No reporters allowed

Nobody took up my suggestion to reconsider the letter. Tregub, however, emailed a reply that addressed two other matters. First, he said that “three separate people reached out to me about placing this on the agenda, including former San Leandro Councilmember (previously endorsed by the Sierra Club) and longtime member Michael Gregory.”

Then Tregub tried to nail me for violating Sierra Club rules. “[D]id you attend the meeting as a member as a reporter?” he asked. “As you know, our policy welcomes members but does not allow reporters to attend our meetings, so I guess it sort of depends which hat you wear (since you’re both). Thanks for clarifying!”

I was indeed aware of that policy, which however I find nowhere in the Sierra Club’s posted rules and bylaws. If, like me, you’re both a journalist and a Sierra Club member, before attending a club meeting, you have to decide which hat you’re going to wear. What’s unclear is whether club rules forbid non-journalist members from reporting what they witness at club meeting. Tregub and his pals on the Ex Com were well aware of my dual identity, yet they said nothing at the meeting, and Tregub only raised the issue after I revealed that I’d contacted opponents of 1388 Bancroft.

For the record, I attended the January 28 meeting and am writing here as a Sierra Club member; and this is an unsolicited, unpaid op-ed, the likes of which are routinely composed by non-journalists who happen to belong to the Sierra Club and are published by varied media outlets.

I emailed back that who asked to have 1388 Bancroft placed on the agenda was irrelevant, and that the issue was why he and others who voted for the letter did so,

given that only one side of the story was presented—and that, as Stephen Cassidy’s email made clear, even that side was partially presented. On Monday evening, the NAC Ex Com was not qualified to take a position. Why, then did it do so?

I also noted that the national Sierra Club has adopted the Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing, and I cited the first three:

  • Be inclusive
  • Emphasis on Bottom-up organizing
  • Let people speak for themselves

“It’s striking,” I wrote,

that you offer no response to Cassidy’s argument. Instead, your concern seems to be that I will write critically about what transpired on Monday evening. Why aren’t you worried that what transpired contradicted club policy—not only the Jemez Principles of democratic decision-making but also the club’s stated commitment to affordable housing and neighborhood integrity?

This, by the way, is the same Igor Tregub who ran for the District One seat on the Berkeley City Council last year. Voters in that district may recall his reiterated enthusiasm for community input regarding development at the North Berkeley BART station. When it came to 1388 Bancroft Avenue, such enthusiasm was nowhere to be seen.

The Ex Com’s letter to the San Leandro council

On February 4, the NAC sent a letter to the San Leandro City Council regarding “the Planned Development at 1388 Bancroft Way” [sic] signed by “Andy Katz, Member, Northern Alameda County Group Executive Committee.” It differed, however, from the one that the NAC majority had approved. Rather than endorsing aspects of the project that complied with Sierra Club policy, the letter stated: “We have not taken a position on the project.”

Indeed, except for the opening reference, the letter didn’t mention 1388 Bancroft at all. Instead, it “comment[ed] on relevant land use and housing policies” embraced by the Sierra Club:

[T]o address regional sprawl, promote environmental justice, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, land use patterns should be designed to prioritize walking and biking, reduce vehicle miles traveled (MVT) increase public transit use, enhance the economic viability of public transit and decrease private motor use (auto mobility).

“In particular,” the NAC wrote, “zoning should:”

  • Promote desirable, affordable, dense, and equitable mixed-use infill development;

  • Integrate pedestrian-oriented amenities into residential neighborhoods;

  • Promote affordable housing;

  • Eliminate minimum parking requirements to encourage shifts to biking, walking, scooting, carpooling and transit;

The Northern Alameda County Group of the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club supports infill, mixed-use, relatively dense development within urbanized areas that encourages transit, walking, and bicycling and that minimizes private automobile parking. We also support greater density where appropriate, and at least 20% of the housing must be affordable.

We request that the San Leandro City Council integrate these principles into planning and zoning matters.

Most of these principles are ones that, according to Tim Frank, were incorporated into the proposed development at 1388 Bancroft.

The blatant outlier is the stipulation for a minimum 20 percent affordable housing. A glance at the project’s history makes clear that no way would developer Tom Silva agree to follow that injunction. When the NAC Ex Com voted to send the letter, it was ignorant of that history. But it knew that the developer had proposed only 4 percent affordable housing. You’d think that would be a deal breaker—but no. 

Dense TOD trumps all

I surmise that in today’s Sierra Club, the purported benefits of dense, transit-oriented development—above all, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions—trump everything else, including the concerns about neighborhood quality of life set forth in the national Club’s adopted policies about the “Urban Environment”:

Protection and Enhancement of the Quality of Life

  1. Protection and enhancement of the quality of urban life by preservation of our architectural and cultural heritage.

  2. Preservation and revitalization of urban neighborhoods, with residents protected from unreasonable economic and physical disruption; rehabilitation of housing and community facilities; jobs creation; a safe and healthy workplace environment; and elimination of “redlining” practices.

  3. Attractive, compact and efficient urban areas; with densities and mixtures of uses that encourage walking and transit use, and encourage more efficient use of private autos in balance with other transportation modes.

Not incidentally, the urban quality of life concerns, including the reference to “unreasonable economic and physical disruption,” specified above do not appear in the national Club’s draft “Urban Infill Policy” that’s currently under review.

Dense, transit-oriented development sounds great in the abstract. Done right, it’s great in reality. But doing it right means respecting reality, not trampling on it. Even the NAC letter urged “greater density where appropriate.” If members of the NAC Ex Com had attended the San Leandro Council’s hearing on 1388 Bancroft, they would have heard dozens of speakers explain in vivid detail why 45 units at this site, which is across the street from a middle school, was not appropriate; and why, as Cassidy indicated in his email, the proposed development would likely flood the already congested immediate, Estudillo neighborhood with cars owned by the project’s residents. With the developer estimating rents for the two- and three-bedroom units at $4,000 a month, the proposed 45-unit project would be likely to house far more than 45 residents. There’s no way to prevent any of them from owning a car. What’s more, the latest research indicates that densification inflates land values and the cost of housing in surrounding areas.

After listening to that testimony, the majority of the San Leandro Council made it clear they would not approve a 45-unit development. Mayor Cutter made a motion to approve a 39-unit project. The motion was seconded but withdrawn before a vote was taken. Some councilmembers said they wanted the affordable units to be onsite. Everyone lauded the “greenness” of the project and hoped that it could be built. The developer asked for a 90-day continuance to address the council’s concerns, and the council unanimously granted his request.

To my knowledge, nobody on the NAC Ex Com bothered to attend the meeting. Tim Frank did attend and speak at public comment. Defying the time limit, he had to be cut off by the mayor as he was holding forth on “climate catastrophe.”

To be sure, we are confronting climate catastrophe, at least a catastrophe for the fragile ecological niche in which our species evolved. But that daunting fact does not justify poorly informed, stealth decision making that ignores the threats of “unreasonable” growth, especially by an organization that is professedly committed to democracy and urban quality of life.

What Club members can do

Sierra Club members who live in the nine-county area under the jurisdiction of the Bay Chapter need to pay attention to the actions of the Club officials whom they’ve chosen to represent them. There’s nothing members can directly do about Frank, who’s a consultant.

But Tregub, Katz, Kelley, Bair, Priven, and Johnson were all voted into office. If they want to retain their positions in the Club, they will have to run again, either in 2019 or 2020.

Club members should ask that the national Club’s draft “Urban Infill Policy” be placed on the agendas of local group and the Bay Chapter Executive Committees in a timely fashion—the policy is supposed to be finalized this spring—so that, in accordance with the Jemez Principles, members can “speak for themselves.”

Zelda Bronstein is a longtime Sierra Club member who helped found the Northern Alameda County Group in the early Nineties.