News + Politics

Watch the D8 candidate debate live on Monday with 48 Hills

48 Hills will be streaming Mon/13 evening’s D8 supervisor candidate debate live on our 48 Hills Facebook page. Join us at our page on Facebook 6:30-8pm for what surely will be a lively event pitting challenger Rafael Mandelman against Ed Lee-appointed incumbent Jeff Sheehy. The debate itself is hosted by the Harvey Milk Club and the Alice B. Toklas Club at the Rainbow Room of the SF LGBT Center. You can see more details here.

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Final defense witness in Garcia Zarate case questions SFPD translation

Attorney Francisco Ugarte questions interpreter Fannie Suarez. Illustration by Vicki Behringer

The defense in the trial of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate called its last witness today, ending a week of testimony that challenged the central elements in the prosecution’s murder case.

Fanny Suarez, a certified court interpreter and an expert on Spanish-English legal interpretation, told jurors that the language a San Francisco police officer used to ask Garcia Zarate questions during his interrogation contained critical translation errors.

Attorney Francisco Ugarte questions interpreter Fannie Suarez. Illustration by Vicki Behringer

Officer Martin Covarrubias was part of the team that questioned the homeless immigrant for more than four hours. Covarrubias translated the questions of other officers and some of Zarate’s replies.

But under questioning from defense lawyer Francisco Ugarte, Suarez said that being “fluent” in a language doesn’t mean a person is a good legal interpreter. “You need special training, and high proficiency in both languages,” she said.

At numerous points during the interrogation, officers asked Garcia Zarate whether he pulled the trigger on the gun that killed Steinle. That’s a key part of the prosecution’s case: Deputy District Attorney Diane Garcia said during her opening statement, and her key police witness testified on the stand, that Garcia Zarate intentionally pointed the gun in Steinle’s direction and pulled the trigger.

The defense argues that the gun went off by mistake.

“Is there a Spanish word for ‘trigger?’ Ugarte asked.

“Yes,” Suarez said. “Gatillo is trigger.”

Q: “When Covarrubias said ‘you pulled the trigger,’ was that properly translated?”

A: “No.”

Instead, throughout the interrogation, every time Covarrubias asked about pulling the trigger, what he was actually asking is whether Garcia Zarate had fired the gun.

The defense doesn’t argue that Garcia Zarate was present when the gun discharged. So the distinction is more than academic, it’s central to the outcome of the jury deliberations.

“The issue of whether he admitted he pulled the trigger is a big issue,” Ugarte told reporters outside the courtroom.

Added Matt Gonzalez, who is leading the Garcia Zarate defense team: “The Spanish translator apparently didn’t know the word for ‘trigger.’”

Gonzalez said the team is “very satisfied with how the evidence was presented to the jury.”

The prosecution can now call rebuttal witnesses, who would appear Monday. Closing arguments are tentatively set for Monday, Nov. 20, after which the case will go to the jury.

Unlikely coalition demands better cannabis law

David Campos, Tom Ammiano, Scott Wiener, Hillary Ronen -- uncommon allies are in agreement on cannabis

A press event on the steps of City Hall brought together an unlikely coalition of San Francisco politicians to speak out against recent developments in the city’s cannabis regulations.

“The dominant narrative that we’ve been hearing at City Hall over the last few months has been very negative towards cannabis, and as elected officials [who] believe that cannabis can bring many, many positive things to San Francisco, a city that’s always been a leader on this issue, we wanted to come together today,” said District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen to kick things off.

David Campos, Tom Ammiano, Scott Wiener, Hillary Ronen, Jeff Sheehy, Malia Coehn — uncommon allies are in agreement on cannabis

You can add “bridging San Francisco’s moderate/progressive political divide” to the list of incredible things cannabis can do. Ronen was followed at the podium by Scott Wiener and David Campos, local politicos who usually seem to come out on opposite sides of most issues.

Today they were in lock step.

“The Campos/Wiener team is back together,” Campos joked.

Malia Cohen, Jeff Sheehy, Tom Ammiano and members of the City College and school boards filled out the cast on the steps, assembled to make a show of solidarity against a surprising and problematic recent turn in the city’s efforts to make legal weed a reality.

Hearings on cannabis regulations in recent weeks have encountered a surge of anti-cannabis rhetoric. At a Planning Commission hearing in October, an estimated 600 people showed up to give public comment, a vast majority of them wearing matching hats and making matching statements. The gist of these statements: cannabis is bad, and it hurts children.

“The ‘protect the children’ argument is obscene,” said Campos. Wiener compared the tone of this opposition to “reefer madness.”

The regulatory package, introduced by the mayor and since heavily amended, will be the subject of a full board vote next week. The most contentious debate surrounds the size of a buffer zone between recreational cannabis retail and schools. The mayor’s original proposal suggested the buffer be set at 600 feet; it has since been raised to 1,000 feet.

Several of this morning’s speakers said that a 1,000 foot buffer would so restrict the available pool of potential retail spaces that it would undermine the regulations’ stated pursuit of an equitable distribution of the economic benefits in the legal cannabis industry to come.

“We are not asking for a higher buffer distance,” SF School Board commissioner Matt Haney told 48 Hills.

At the moment, the 600 foot buffer zone doesn’t look to have the votes to pass.

“While we hope that they do the right thing and that they get it right, I want to be very clear that if they don’t do that, we have to be prepared to go to the ballot so that the voters of San Francisco can do what this building so far has failed to,” said Campos.

The speakers connected the current debates in City Hall to the long march of cannabis activism reaching back to the city’s HIV epidemic and the racist impacts of the War on Drugs here and elsewhere. Legalization passed in California last year with the help of 74% of San Francisco voters, but if the issue is to be decided at the ballot next November, that march will be longer yet.

Firearms expert says Steinle killing fits pattern of an accident

Firearms expert Alan Voth says the shot that killed Steinle fits the pattern of an accidental discharge. Illustration by Vicki Behringer

The bullet that killed Kate Steinle fit the pattern of an accidental discharge, a firearms expert testified today in the murder trial of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, an undocumented homeless man who is accused of intentionally pulling the trigger. 

Garcia Zarate is facing a second-degree murder charge and is accused of shooting Steinle with a stolen handgun at Pier 14 on July 1, 2015.

Firearms expert Alan Voth says the shot that killed Steinle fits the pattern of an accidental discharge. Illustration by Vicki Behringer

Steinle was on the pier with her arm around her father when the single bullet ricocheted off the ground and travelled 78 feet before hitting her in the back. 

Alan Voth, a former officer of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, testified for the defense, bolstering the claim that Garcia Zarate unintentionally set off the gun he’d found wrapped in cloth on the pier.

Voth testified that several factors point to an unintentional discharge including lack of motive, lack of firearm training, the single shot, and the ricochet. The prosecution contends that Garcia Zarate acted with intent, pointed the gun at Steinle, and pulled the trigger. 

“These are all indicators for an unintentional discharge,” Voth said. “I see the probability that this is an unintentional discharge. There’s no apparent reason to fire a shot into a concrete pier.”

Voth also testified that as as a forensic firearms investigator, he would also examine the actions of the shooter directly after the discharge. An important factor to determine whether the discharge was intentional. 

“Are you aware the defendant threw the weapon into the water seconds after firing it?” asked Assistant District Attorney Diana Garcia. 

“Yes,” Voth responded.

Outside the courtroom, defense lawyer Francisco Ugarte said that the indicators of unintentional discharge that Voth explained in court are meant to be considered together, including “illogical bullet strike” and inexperienced shooter. 

“Not one factor is going to be determinative, if you look at all of the factors put together, he concluded that this has the appearance of an unintentional discharge,” Ugarte said.

The prosecution has previously argued that Garcia Zarate’s disposing of the gun seconds after the shooting indicates his guilt. The defense refutes the claim and instead argues that Zarate threw the gun immediately after “it went off” to stop it from “firing on its own.”

The defense case is coming to a close, and the jury is expected to begin deliberation next week. 

OPINION: Cannabis is not a threat to our neighborhoods

It's not that scary. Really

It feels as if in the last few months, the dominant narrative at City Hall has been that cannabis small business are somehow innately harmful to our communities.

When we say that there can be no small cannabis business around schools and when we talk about excluding whole neighborhoods from the new cannabis industry we are sending a message that just doesn’t align with fact, science and the personal experience of every politician in City Hall: We are saying that somehow that the very existence of these business near schools is harmful, while somehow bars are not.

It’s not that scary. Really

San Francisco is proud of its nightlife industry. It’s been my honor to stand with many of my colleagues as an ally to nightlife and work to pass legislation that preserves and supports are historic bars, nightclubs, and music venues.

Let me say this: if City Hall had been this short sighted in the 1930s when alcohol prohibition ended, and had passed the same sort of restrictions on bars and venues that we are considering for cannabis today — San Francisco would have been changed for the worse.

We would have missed out on the swings clubs of the forties, the Fillmore Jazz clubs of the 50’s, the Summer of Love wouldn’t have happened, and neither would the gay rights movement that was born in the bars of the Castro.

Cannabis has the potential to be a powerful force for good in our city. We are looking at a brand new blue-collar industry that people who actually live in San Francisco can be part of. Unlike the tech industry — which at times this board has rushed to do everything it can to support – this industry has a low barrier to entry.  Anyone with a dream, savings, and a smart business plan can open up a cannabis business and make a living – a good living.

Watching the success of the new cannabis industry in Washington and Colorado has been really exciting: Small business, tourism, and the most important part “taxes” has resulted in huge benefits for local communities.

But unfortunately, San Francisco’s City Hall seem to be focused on saying no rather than finding ways to say yes.

I want to say thank you to my colleagues Supervisor Malia Cohen and Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer for their work on cannabis equity. I truly appreciate their focus on how cannabis can benefit our marginalized communities.

I think that as we move forward to decide what the future of cannabis is going to be in our city that we also need to look back on the long history of cannabis here in San Francisco.

Here’s the reality. San Francisco has always had cannabis. It came here with the sailors and gold-miners who founded our town, and has never left. In the 1860’s when Mark Twain moved to San Francisco it was legally being sold and advertised in our local newspapers.

It wasn’t until 1915 that America began its crack down on cannabis, and like all parts of the Drug War it was deeply rooted in racism.

Racist policy forces near the border began referring to cannabis by its Spanish name “marijuana” and claiming that Mexican’s were crossing the board high on cannabis imbued with Superhuman strength. Here’s a real quote from a Texas Police Captain.

“Under marijuana Mexicans become very violent, especially when they become angry and will attack an officer even if a gun is drawn on him. They seem to have no fear. I have also noted that under the influence of this weed they have enormous strength and it will take several men to handle one man while, under ordinary circumstances, one man could handle him with ease.”

They’re talking about stoned people here.

It’s funny until you realize the devastation this racism has had on the Latino Community which I have the honor of representing. Here’s a quote from the first director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics Harry Anslinger:

“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others. Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”

That chills me to the bone. This right here is the beginning of the war on drugs. And here’s what the racist, hateful, policies that came from this type of disgusting think resulted in.

  • America has less than 5% of the world’s population but nearly 25% of its incarcerated population. We imprison more people than any other nation in the world – largely due to the war on drugs.
  • People of color arrested for drug law violations experience discrimination at every stage of the judicial system and are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, convicted, harshly sentenced and saddled with a lifelong criminal record. Among people who received a mandatory minimum sentence in recent years 38% were Latino and 31% were black.
  • This type of racism is causing mass deportations. The drug war has increasingly become a war against migrant communities fueling racial profiling, border militarization, violence against immigrants, and intrusive government surveillance. More than 40,000 people are deported from the U.S. every year for drug law violations.

And that’s just the Latino community. Black, Chinese, Filipino and LGBT communities have all suffered under our non-fact based, non-science-based, racist drug war history.

What I want to focus on in the next few weeks as the Board of Supervisors decides the future of Cannabis is how we can make reparations for the terrible treatment of minority communities during the drug wars.

This is our opportunity to make sure that the benefit of the cannabis industry will be intentionally directed to the communities that suffered from the cannabis drug war. I want to make sure that we’re practicing cannabis affirmative action and giving these community’s a leg up in this industry.  I look forward to continuing this debate.

Sup. Hillary Ronen represents District 9.

Video casts doubt on prosecution theory in Kate Steinle killing

Matt Gonzalez questions Paul Endo about the video evidence. Illustration by Vicki Behringer

The jury in the trial of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate saw a video of the moment when a gun fired and killed Kate Steinle today.

The video, from a security camera on a fire station more than1,000 feet away, was grainy and low-resolution. But it appeared to show Zarate seated in a chair and bending down just before the gun discharged.

A screenshot from a security video clearly shows six people congregating around the chair that Jose Ines Garcia Zarate sat in — 29 minutes before he arrived

It also showed, fairly clearly, six people congregating for some time around that same chair on Pier 14 – some of them reaching toward the ground – just a few minutes before Zarate arrived.

There is nothing visible in the video showing Zarate pointing a gun at anyone.

That, Francisco Ugarte, one of Zarate’s attorneys said, was consistent with the defense theory that the homeless immigrant had reached down to pick up something that turned out to be a loaded Sig-Sauer gun, and the gun accidentally discharged.

The six individuals, who never walked to the end of the scenic pier, were engaged in activity that “is not consistent with tourism,” Ugarte said. He called it “remarkably coincidental” that they were right in the spot where Zarate says he found the gun about 29 minutes before he arrived.

“We believe it’s entirely likely this group discarded the weapon,” Ugarte said. “That’s consistent with his statement that he found the gun [on the pier].”

Matt Gonzalez questions Paul Endo about the video evidence. Illustration by Vicki Behringer

Ugarte said that those two key pieces of evidence “corroborate [Zarate’s] statements to the police.”

Paul Hiromi Endo, president of the San Bruno video and graphics consulting firm Think Twice Inc., was certified as an expert witness in the case.

He described how he worked with the relatively low-quality security video, which used only ten frames a second and was compressed to save storage space, to try to extract usable evidence.

That evidence, Endo said, shows that between the time the group of six people were active around the chair Zarate would sit in, only two other people passed through that area. One sat in the chair for a second or two, and the other just stopped briefly in the same region.

The video shows Steinle falling to the ground just an instant after Zarate appears to be bending down.

Since there were no eyewitnesses to the shooting, the video that the jury saw today is the closest thing to solid evidence of what happened. It appears to contradict the prosecution’s theory of the case, as promoted by retired police officer John Evans, who testified that “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.”

Endo made clear that even with computer enhancements, the video is so low resolution that smaller items like an arm or a gun would not be visible. But it does show that Zarate was sitting down during the entire incident, an unlikely position from which to fire a gun if your goal was to shoot somebody.

Tomorrow prosecutor Diana Garcia will cross-examine Endo.

Steinle killing was an accident, defense witness suggests

James Norris, a firearms expert, testifies on the Steinle shooting. Illustration by Vicki Behringer

The bullet that killed Kate Steinle was probably fired from someone in a sitting position leaning forward, a defense firearms expert testified today in the Zarate Trial.

Although the judge would not allow James Norris, former director of forensic services for the San Francisco Police Department, to say that he thought the firearm discharge was an accident, the evidence he presented was consistent with that scenario.

James Norris, a firearms expert, testifies on the Steinle shooting. Illustration by Vicki Behringer

Norris said that his analysis of the path of the bullet suggested that it was fired from between 1.5 and two feet from the ground. That’s completely inconsistent with the prosecution version of events: Prosecutor Diana Garcia and her key witness, who was not certified as an expert by the court, argued that Jose Ines Garcia Zarate intentionally aimed the gun in the direction of Steinle and pulled the trigger.

If Zarate had wanted to shoot someone, pointing the gun at the ground would make no sense, Norris said. And given that the gun, a Sig-Sauer semi-automatic, had a round in the chamber and seven more in the magazine, it’s unusual that he stopped firing after one round.

“At that distance, someone who wanted to shoot someone would keep shooting,” he said.

Norris described the gun as a weapon typically used by police and military personnel; it had no safety, and was advertised as ready to fire at any time.

The trigger pull was on the light side of handguns, at around 4 pounds in single-action mode, his testing showed. That’s about the amount of pressure on the trigger of “a squirt gun that little kids use,” he testified.

The trigger has to be moved about an eighth of an inch to fire, he said.

“Do you believe the Sig-Sauer 239 can accidentally discharge/” Gonzalez asked.

“Yes,” said Norris.

Q: “If somebody is handling the weapon and doesn’t mean to fire it, it can discharge?”

A: “Yes.”

Norris said he had worked on a case where an officer using this same firearm had drawn it and the trigger had bumped into a knob on his radio and gone off.

In fact, he said, the gun can fire if something hits the side of the trigger.

The prosecution’s main firearms witness, John Evans, insisted that “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.”

Evans said that the bullet skipped, but continued in the same straight-line direction after hitting the concrete pier.

But Evans was never certified as an expert witness, and Norris, who met that standard, directly challenged most of what Evans said.

When the projectile hit the concrete, he said, it would have changed direction – and it’s impossible to predict what path it might have taken. It could have curved, veered away from its original vector, moved to the left or the right … “this has been written about [in scientific literature] for years. When you shoot into concrete there is no way to predict where the bullet will go.”

Norris testified that he had read the report Evans wrote, and it didn’t change his opinion that it’s unlikely Zarate aimed the gun at Steinle. “The weapons seems to have been pointed down,” he said. “From that position, it would be very difficult to aim.”

He said that “no expert could say that it was a purposeful shot.”

The expert spent a fair amount of time talking about the trigonometry of the bullet: The angle that it hit the concrete, and the angle that it bounced off. The jury heard a lot about tangents and arc-tangents.

But the bottom line, he said, was that the gun was close to the ground at the time it discharged.

Gonzalez asked Norris about the gunshot residue on Zarate’s hand, and he explained that in his experience, the discovery of just one tiny particle of residue would not be enough to say that the person had fired a weapon. There are traces of GSR in police cars, on handcuffs, on the bodies of police officers … and since a gun discharges hundreds of these particles when it fires, the presence of more than one is generally needed to prove that a person fired the weapon, he said.

Norris said that if the gun was wrapped in a cloth or shirt at the time it discharged, that might explain why Zarate had only one particle of GSR on his hand.

On cross examination, Garcia tried to challenge Norris by saying that his statements today were inconsistent with his earlier testimony at the preliminary hearing – but that mostly fell flat. She pushed him on whether the gun could discharge without someone pulling the trigger, and he made clear that something – which could be someone’s finger or could be something else – might cause the gun to fire.

“We debunked the prosecution’s theory,” Francisco Ugarte, co-counsel with Gonzalez, told reporters.

Tomorrow the jury will see enhanced video evidence.

Mandelman gets widespread support in D8 rally

A large, lively crowd rallied on 24th St.

Rafael Mandelman announced the opening of his 24th Street headquarters and the first major push for his campaign for D8 supervisor today with an event at the Noe Valley Town Square.

Mandelman, who is challenging incumbent mayoral appointee Jeff Sheehy, talked about the “politics of yes,” his campaign slogan. “We know we can build the affordable housing we need,” he said. “We know we can feel safe and secure in our neighborhoods. We know we can have a world-class transportation system.”

A large, lively crowd rallied on 24th St.

Mandelman has raised more money than Sheehy, and has the backing of both Mark Leno and Tom Ammiano – two LGBT community leaders who are often not on the same side.

Rafael Mandelman warned that he could be facing “a wall of money.”

Both said they had disagreed with Mandelman in the past. But both spoke strongly in support of him at the rally.

The diversity of his political support gives Mandelman a huge boost – but at the same time, as he pointed out, the campaign is expecting “a wall of money to pay for a slew of lies.”

Tom Ammiano talked about Mandelman’s integrity
Mark Leno talked about Mandelman’s leadership ability

That’s because the mayor’s allies can and will raise unlimited amounts of money for “independent expenditure” committees to attack Mandelman.

The two will face off for the first time Monday/13 at the LBGT Center at 6:30 for a debate sponsored by the Harvey Milk Club and the Alice B. Toklas Club.

Reefer Madness at City Hall

San Francisco is descending into Reefer Madness. The supervisors are trying to pass regulations that would implement Prop. 64, which legalizes adult use of cannabis, by Jan. 1 – but a lot of the supes seem to be bending to the will of the anti-weed folks and loading up the bill with rules that will make it almost impossible for a successful retail industry to operate in the city.

One of the big issues is this crazy, crazy thing about keeping cannabis outlets at least 1,000 feet (and some want 1,500 feet) from a school.

I have two kids. They walked or took the bus (one still does) to public schools. They passed by liquor stores and stores that sell cigarettes (including flavored tobacco products aimed at teens) and soda (including a “teen gulp,” 128 ounces of sugar-laden diabetes-syrup). The liquor stores and the soda stores advertise – big signs that say “come in her and buy booze or Coke. Hey, get a Teen Gulp for only $1!”

There are no rules that say a liquor store or a store that sells tobacco or the Teen Gulp needs to be 1,000 feet from a school. And frankly, those products are worse problems. Any kid can walk in the door.

The existing medical marijuana dispensaries have security guards who carefully check every person who tries to enter. They have no flashing neon lights urging you to buy buds. Most of the time, you can pass them by and not even notice they exist. I suspect the new adult-sales outlets will do the same (and the city could easily ban big signs and on-site ads).

The only thing the “1,000-foot-rule” does is concentrate the stores in a few neighborhoods, because much of San Francisco is within 1,000 feet of a school.

I can tell you from personal experience: Teenagers are no more or less likely to start smoking pot because there is a place where adults can buy it nearby. (They are, on the other hand, easily able to get alcohol by offering an adult who needs some extra money $5 to buy them a bottle, from any of the ubiquitous liquor stores near schools, and parks, and Muni stops, and everywhere else that teens hang out.) And with companies like Ease around, anyone with a card can get cannabis delivered, anywhere, including to a café near a school. 

Again, I’m a parent: I’m not in favor of kids smoking pot, or drinking, or smoking tobacco, or drinking a Teen Gulp. We can educate them about personal health, and that works (to some degree). Prohibition never has and never will.

But there is no logic to the anti-cannabis approach. It’s is all a campaign orchestrated by a small but vocal group of people who still think marijuana is evil.

Meanwhile, the supes really could create an equity-based permit system, much as Oakland has done, that would set aside a significant number of the new permits for people who have been impacted by the War on Drugs.

But this whole idea that we can save the children from the Devil Weed by forcing the entire industry into a few parts of town (which isn’t fair anyway) is just silly. Cannabis is, by any rational standard, no worse than alcohol or tobacco, which can be sold in any neighborhood. We are still, apparently, reeling from almost a century of anti-pot propaganda, which started off as a racist message and evolved into the racist War on Drugs.

There are hundreds of liquor stores in San Francisco, hundreds of places that sell tobacco and Diabetes Juice … and fewer than 50 places that sell medical cannabis. The city might, maybe, approve another 50 for adult use. And the supes are scrambling to limit them, keep them out of their districts, treat them like a social problem …

Sorry, this is madness.

The current version of the legislation comes before the Land Use and Transportation Committee Mon/6 at 1:30pm. I can pretty much guarantee that the anti-cannabis folks will be out in force. But the vast majority of this city voted for Prop. 64. The supes need to stand up to this nonsense.

The robot sidewalk delivery issue is back. A measure that would require a permit for sending big, bulky machines rolling along the sidewalk is at the Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee Wed/8.

This is mild regulation. I could easily argue that the city should ban robot delivery vehicles until we can get a handle on how we should regulate them, and this falls short. But at least it would require permits and make some effort to determine whether putting robots on the sidewalks are a good idea.

The meeting starts at 10 am.

Foreign Correspondent: US sells out the Kurds — again

A Kurdish horseman. Photo by Reese Erlich

I stood at a border crossing as thousands of Yazidis and other refugees fled ISIS attacks on Mosul and nearby cities. Tens of thousands of refugees flooded into the Kurdish Region of Iraq as Kurdish relief workers greeted them with water and food.

It was August 2014, and I was there on assignment as a freelance correspondent. The Obama administration had started bombing northern Iraq just a few days earlier. The explanation given at the time, now long forgotten, was the US would bomb for a limited time to protect the Kurdish capital of Erbil and stop the attacks on Yazidis.

A Kurdish horseman. Photo by Reese Erlich

Those goals were accomplished within a matter of weeks as the ISIS offensive stopped. But the bombing continues to this day. The US eventually sent 5,000 troops to Iraq and then 1,500 troops to Syria.

Neither the Obama nor Trump administrations have made a convincing argument on the constitutionally of these new wars. They cite a Congressional resolution passed after 9/11 calling on the US to pursue Al Qaeda and the Taliban. ISIS and other groups the US is fighting are not Al Qaeda or the Taliban, and in fact, didn’t exist in 2011.

But the events of 2014 did cement closer ties between the US and Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) led by President Masoud Barzani. The Iraqi Army had collapsed in the face of the ISIS offensive. The Kurdish armed forces, known as peshmerga, were the only reliable Iraqi fighters allied with the US in 2014. The peshmerga moved into the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and other disputed areas, expanding the Kurdish Region by 40% with the tacit approval of the US.

“We now genuinely know the United States supports us,” said Fuad Hussein at the time. He was Barzani’s chief of staff.

Fast forward to today. ISIS is near military defeat. The Kurds had long sought independence from Iraq, and Barzani thinks it’s payback time. In September he held an independence referendum and 92% voted to secede.

Then all hell broke loose.

Washington, Ankara, Tehran and Baghdad all opposed the referendum. The Iraqi Army, with US support, retook Kirkuk and other disputed areas. Overnight the KRG lost 25% of its oil revenues. The regional government was already three months behind in paying its employees, and the economic crisis got worse.

“I was really stunned,” Yerevan Adham told me. We met when he was a journalist in Kurdistan and he’s now a research fellow at the Middle East Research Institute in Washington. “How can you do this (hold a referendum) without a Plan B?”

The chaos continued. On Nov. 1 President Barzani resigned. But thugs from his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) burned numerous opposition party offices, and beat up parliamentarians and opposition media, sending one reporter to hospital.

Adham says Kurds blame both the US and Iran. Trump made a serious mistake by provoking Iran, he said. Trump decertified the Iran nuclear deal and added new sanctions against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Adham said a top IRGC commander Qassem Soulimani “became very bold” and used Iranian backed Iraqi militias to threaten Kurdistan.

“The militias showed a middle finger to Trump,” said Adham.

Kurds have bitter memories of a previous US betrayal summed up in just two words: Henry Kissinger. In the early 1970s Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran and Saddam Hussein of Iraq disputed control of the waterway running between their countries. The US and the Shah backed a Kurdish insurgency against Iraq as a means to pressure Saddam.

But then in 1975 Kissinger helped negotiate a settlement of the issue and gave Saddam a green light to attack the Kurds. Barzani and other Kurdish leaders had just hours to flee for their lives. Some 200,000 Kurds escaped into Iran and 40,000 were forcibly repatriated.

Kissinger famously said, “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.” Somehow those “interests” always favor big corporations, not oppressed people. The US seeks domination of the Middle East for its oil, strategic military bases and as part of geopolitical competition with enemies du jour. (Today it’s Russia, Iran and China.)

What Kissinger’s phrase really means is that the US will ally with people one day and stab them in the back the next.

I frequently mention this when speaking to Kurdish groups in the US and in conversations in the Kurdish Region. Everyone used to assure me that those times are long gone. The US would never double cross the Kurds again, they argued.

Until last month.

“Henry Kissinger betrayed the Kurds, and I can smell the same scenario in 2017,” Professor Nabaz Nawzad told me. He’s a lecturer at the Lebanese French University in Erbil. “We believed the US would protect us from any aggression by Iraq, Turkey and Iran. But we were wrong.”

Some 30 million Kurds live in the Middle East, the world’s largest nationality without a nation. They live in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. The colonial powers denied the Kurds nationhood after World War I. And the desire for nationhood remains strong to this day.

Such national sentiments are one thing, but the practicality of independence is quite another. There is no significant independence movement among Kurds in Iran. The leading Kurdish party in Turkey and Syria, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), calls for autonomy, not independence.

The Iraqi Kurds have progressed the furthest towards independence by controlling their own oil production, maintaining their own army and controlling their borders. But the KRG has hardly been a sparkling beacon for self governance.

President Barzani was supposed to leave office in 2013 but extended his rule without holding new elections. Until last week, the Parliament hadn’t held a substantive meeting for two years because Barzani’s KDP wouldn’t allow opposition leaders to enter Erbil where the parliament building is located. Even with President Barzani’s resignation, his nephew remains Prime Minister and his son is head of the Kurdish intelligence agency.

Kurds had hoped the KRG would be different from other governments in the region. But corruption and violations of democratic norms prevail. “Democracy is in retreat in Kurdistan,” said research fellow Adham.

The decision to hold an independence referendum backfired horribly. Unfortunately, the Kurdish people will pay a steep price economically and politically. Neither the US, Russia nor any other power will bail them out.

It’s time for Kurds to rely on their own resources and break from reliance on US. Remember the words of Mustafa Barzani, father of the current president. “We do not want to be anybody’s pawns. We are an ancient people. We want sarbasti — freedom.”

Reese Erlich’s syndicated column on international affairs appears every two weeks in 48 Hills. The revised and updated edition of his book The Iran Agenda: the Real Story of US and Policy and the Mideast Crisis, will be published in 2018.

His home page is www.reeseerlich.com; follow him on Twitter @ReeseErlich or on Facebook, Reese Erlich foreign correspondent.