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OPINION: Defunding the police is just one step

Can we hold the Police Department accountable without controlling the purse strings?

Black Lives Matter and other abolitionist groups are leading communities across the country to recognize that the criminal justice system is a powerhouse of violence and white supremacy.

Policing was racist at birth, with its origins in scalping Indigenous people and kidnapping Black people escaping slavery. It has a long history of keeping non-white property-owning people disempowered.

From Reconstruction to Jim Crow and up to the present, the police budget has continued to grow, and so too have the oppressive laws that target poor people, Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color. Selective enforcement of the law is a pretext that justifies siphoning money from the public good and instead criminalizing peoples’ very existence.

Abolition is the only solution. With that comes an opportunity to redirect funding away from the bloated police budget and into the hands of community members, who will support and empower rather than terrorize. As we work to defund the police, its racist, classist systems and laws must go as well.

We need to eliminate the police force’s myriad specialized units, which, among other things, are tasked with responding to homelessness and enforcing the hundreds of laws that prohibit basic survival activities. We need to overturn privatized policing programs, which use public money to bolster the power of property owners. We need to abolish policing once and for all, and in its place foster healthy, vibrant, and liberated communities.

In conjunction with defunding police departments more generally, eliminating the laws that police use to target poor and homeless people is a critical step towards a more just society. This country has a long and brutal history of enacting laws that specifically aim to remove the presence of poor people, especially Black people and Indigenous people, from our communities. The Ugly Laws of the 1860s, the Sundown Towns, Anti-Okie Laws, and Jim Crow laws are a few examples of targeted laws that have wielded the power of police departments to enforce blatantly discriminatory, racist, and oppressive social control. Some, such as vagrancy laws criminalizing homelessness, were not overturned until 2018. This brutal history is in many ways a recent history, and a blatant injustice we live with now.

The books remain filled with laws that continue to criminalize basic survival activities, such as standing still (“loitering”),sitting, sleeping, lying down, eating, hanging out on the street corner, and sharing food. These laws are often deployed in the process of “sweeps”—evictions—of people with nowhere else to go. Today, they are used as a tool that addresses homelessness by criminalizing people with no housing and justifies inflated police budgets.

These laws are selectively enforced to appease people in power and to try to make homelessness disappear, just as they have been used to appease and make others disappear in the past.  In 2018, WRAP member groups conducted a survey of 1,657 homeless people regarding their interaction with policing and the main “illegal offenses” that people are being targeted with. Eighty-two percent reported being harassed, cited, or arrested for sleeping, 77 percent for lying down, and 75 percent for loitering. Among those surveyed, 1,275 people reported that they had been targeted by the police based on their economic status, and 597 people said they were targeted because of their race.

If these laws were ever enforced without discrimination, everyone would be guilty of breaking them; instead poor and homeless people — especially those who are Black, Indigenous, and Latinx — are targeted.

Too many laws deny people who are homeless basic civil and human rights and harm our communities. Decriminalizing survival activities, such as sleeping, standing still, and eating—eliminating key laws that facilitate white supremacist policing, in other words—is a simple solution and requires absolutely no funding. Additionally, eliminating such archaic laws would immediately allow for the reallocation of enforcement funding into local community control and efforts that promote health, education, and housing opportunities for all. With the elimination of clearly racist and oppressive legal codes, there would be no justification for the police to harass poor and homeless people, and end the incarceration of people based on their housing status, the color of their skin, or a disability. As we work to defund the police, these laws must go as well.

As communities look towards defunding oppressive and violent police forces and their discriminatory practices, it is also important to scrutinize the growing prevalence of specialized units within local police departments.

Coinciding with the advent of contemporary homelessness in the early 1980s after Ronald Reagan cut HUD’s budget by nearly 80 percent, specialized units such as “Homeless Outreach Teams,” “Homeless Abatement Teams,” and “Homeless Liaison Officers” have spread like wildfire across the country. These units operate on the fallacy that police should be at the forefront of addressing social issues.

We have borne witness to the lethal contradiction between the supposed intent of these units and their oppressive applications. Such specialized policing has perpetuated a myth that police departments need to pay special attention to, control, and eliminate the presence of people who are unhoused in our community.

Disproportionately poor people of color — housed or unhoused — are the targets of police oppression. With specialized units, police departments have created an industry that drains millions and millions of dollars in local, federal, and corporate foundation funding under the guise of “helping” the homeless.

Police department staffing and funding has no bearing on solving homelessness. Millions of people are living without housing in the US, and the policing apparatus has never been capable of addressing this issue. Increasing cops will never decrease homelessness. Clearly, the sole purpose of policing in this context is not to address homelessness but rather to mitigate the visibility of homelessness and its impact on business and property interests.

The millions spent perpetuating such fraud and oppression should immediately be cut from police departments and reallocated to the community, who can then dictate where those funds serve the greatest public benefit.

For too long, police departments have exploited funding cuts for healthcare, housing, and residential treatment programs that should be at the service of community members. Instead, they have amalgamated funding, staffing, union power, and social control over issues of poverty, racism, classism, and ableism. This is a self-perpetuating machine. Specialized units were never intended to help the people they target. Instead, they have become modus operandi for police departments intent on increasing their wealth and power — and those of largely white and often corporate property owners — by degrading and dehumanizing the existence of poor people.

Business Improvement Districts are key entities that legitimize the use of public funds to privately police public space. BIDs are bounded geographic areas in which mandatory fee assessments are levied on property owners, including public agencies. There are more than 1,200 BIDs in US cities, spanning a few to a few hundred blocks each.

The vast majority of funds collected via BID assessments pay for private security and additional police patrols whose primary purpose is to surveil and control poor and homeless people within the BID. BIDs also use their funds to advocate for the enactment, preservation, and strengthening of local and state laws that violate the rights of poor and homeless people.

The hyper-oppressive command and control policing that BIDs promote impacts our whole community, including street vendors, buskers, artists, day laborers, protestors, homeless people, local residents, and people who are shopping whom security guards deem untrustworthy. BIDs have a long and well-documented history of increasing violent conflicts between police, security, and poor and homeless people, the overwhelming majority of whom are BIPOC.

In short, BIDs use legally required and publicly collected money to lobby for anti-poor people laws, ambassadors, police, and armed private security, who regularly arrest, cite, harass, and remove poor and homeless people from public spaces.

WRAP’s core member groups have long demanded that local governments end the criminalization of poor and homeless people and, especially relevant to this moment, stop all public funding of and revenue collection related to BIDs. Dismantling the structures that allow for the private policing and criminalization of poor and homeless people is particularly urgent in this moment of community demands to defund police. 

Given the racist and oppressive history of policing in the US, we need to make sure that as public policing is defunded, private policing does not become the go-to solution.

The recent seismic uprisings in support of dismantling racist, classist structures of policing have made clear that the romanticized refrains of Constitutionally-endowed equality and pursuit of happiness are bullshit. This framework applies only to white property owners and the wealthy elite, both historically and at present. The overwhelming majority of people in the US at the time this framework was drafted and implemented — women, Indigenous people, enslaved people, poor people, non-white people — were not among those included in the declaration, “All Men Are Created Equal” as it was written and remains celebrated today.

The military apparatus, the distribution of wealth, the government and representation therein, and policing are the basis of suffering. For far too long, we have lived under systemic racism, systemic classism, and a systemic lack of meaningful representation within our structure of governance.

As people today are calling to defund or abolish policing as an apparatus of oppression, we need to always stay mindful of police as one brick in the wall that has divided the “entitled” from the “non-entitled.”

The entitled are prioritized within our local, state, and federal governmental structures. Meanwhile, those who are not entitled find their livelihood, healthcare, housing, employment, and education either completely ignored or addressed as matters of charity, and therefore only available to the worthy or the eligible or the compliant.

When these structures of racism, colonization, and neoliberalism are finally torn down and reimagined, we will have created a form of community governance that sees in itself a structure that finally and truly embraces the American ideal of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Paul Boden, Molly Beckhardt and Erin Goodling work with the Western Regional Advocacy Project

Planners to hear proposal for massive new UCSF development in Parnassus Heights

A rendering of the new hospital at UCSF.

The Planning Commission will hear Thursday/4 a presentation on a massive new development plan for the University of California’s Parnassus Heights campus.

In essence, the school wants to add clinical, lab, and office space the equivalent of another Salesforce building to the congested neighborhood– and critics say the school is not doing anywhere near enough to mitigate the housing and transportation impacts of the plan.

A rendering of the new hospital at UCSF.

“The University has studiously avoided any real discussion of the jobs/housing balance issues as well any meaningful response to the major impacts on the public transportation of this plan,” said Dennis Antenore, a former planning commissioner who has been part of the UCSF Community Advisory Committee since 1991.

A key issue will be the city’s role in the process: The University of California has a long history of ignoring local planning processes, arguing that as a state agency it’s exempt from city and county rules.

In this case, however, the city has a Memorandum of Understanding dating back to the 1987 that requires UCSF to work with the Planning Commission on all development plans.

There’s also a long-range plan that UCSF negotiated with the city, starting in 1976, which limits the expansion of the campus footprint. That deal, updated in 2014, includes a cap of 3.55 million square feet of office, clinical, and lab space and a maximum daytime population of 13,400 people, including students, staff, and patients.

This new proposal, which is slated to go to the UC regents in the fall, would override that agreement and vastly expand the UCSF hospital and office and research facilities.

The new plan would add 1.5 million square feet of space, including a new 300-foot-tall hospital, with a projected daytime population of 26,500.

The UCSF documents acknowledge the old deal, but say that the institution essentially plans to ignore it.

Part of what’s driving UCSF, according to university memos and documents, is state legislation requiring that hospitals be upgraded to meet new seismic standards by 2030. That, however, does not require any hospital to expand.

As a December 10, 2019 memo from the office of the UC president notes:

Moffitt Hospital was built in 1955 during a different era of medical practices and philosophies. UCSF physicians and staff are currently working in facilities that are outdated, inflexible, undersized, and functionally and clinically obsolete. Many patient rooms and bathrooms are shared; this does not meet patient expectations for privacy and

dignity, and thus does not provide an optimal experience for patients and their families. State seismic law (SB 1953) requires Moffitt Hospital to be structurally retrofitted or decommissioned as an inpatient facility by 2030.

The state law, however, does not require any hospital to expand.

That’s a different agenda: UCSF documents show that the institution wants to grab more market share in the health-care business.

The messaging at times sounds more like a private company than a public university and hospital.

The UCSF plans are also based on the idea that the population of San Francisco and the Bay Area will continue to grow rapidly.

And it includes only 750 housing units, far less than the need that a project of this size will create.

Antenore told me that state law requires UC to pay for the “mitigation” of any impacts it has on a community. In this case, those impacts would include a massive new demand on Muni and on the city’s affordable housing stock. UC tends to write its environmental impact reports to avoid the word “mitigation,” which is something the city will have to watch carefully.

(Of course, all of this is based on a pre-COVID and pre-work-at-home world. Nobody knows how the city’s population will change in the next five years – although many tech companies are now saying that employees can work at home for the long haul, meaning the population may actually fall. Maybe not; it’s hard to plan right now.)

It’s important, though, that the Planning Commission play a role in this process. Neighborhood activists are pushing for a new MOU on this plan, that would include specific agreements that UCSF would pay for the full cost of its impacts.

In fact, the commission, under the 1987 MOU, has a legal right to play a role here. The document states:

UCSF will advise the City in writing of all matters concerning master planning, construction and real property utilization initiated by UCSF which may have an impact on the City. The City Planning Commission will review such proposals and advise UCSF in writing as to the conformance of such development with the Master Plan of San Francisco and Planning Code Section 304.5 (Institutional Master Plans) with recommendations, if any, for amendment to the proposal.

The Planning Commission hearing is informational only, although the public will be allowed to speak.

People protested peacefully — and things got worse

Protester in San Francisco, May 31, 2020. Photo by David Schnur

Look these damn people tearing up their community…burning shit… what does all this rioting accomplish?

I’m not sure — but when people were kicking up dust in places like Hong Kong they were hailed as heroes. People swooned over them and showed signs of solidarity and encouraged them to keep fighting oppression. In fact, Time Magazine had a photo of protestors fighting a cop and they were deemed “Persons of the Year.” The protestors were called the “Resistance.”

Protesters confronting cops in Hong Kong are portrayed as heroes, winning the public poll for ‘Person of the Year’ in 2019

In Venezuela, people turned up and folks were invited to the State of the Union … Nobody said, “gee guys, you’re tearing up your community and preventing people from working.” There was none of that stupid talk. People were hailed as freedom fighters who were doing whatever it took to end what they deemed as oppressive conditions.

Wanna know where folks were told not to kick up dust, but instead be calm? In South Africa when folks were fighting Apartheid. Yep, that’s right.

Folks who are old enough recall that Nelson Mandela and his crew from the African National Congress were deemed Terrorists. President Reagan said violence was not cool and we should have what he called “Constructive Engagement” to end Apartheid.

Let’s go back to 1976, when the Soweto Uprising took place. Check out the local newspaper coverage from an event where anywhere from 176 to 700 kids/students were killed by the Apartheid government. Words like “plunder,” “death riot” and “mob” were used to describe these kids fighting Apartheid. There was no redeeming value to their action at all.

Black people fighting Apartheid in South Africa were dismissed as a ‘mob”

Compare those headlines and news coverage to the coverage given to other unrests that took place in 1976.Thailand and in Poland are two newsworthy ones that come to mind. These two uprising took place within weeks and months of Soweto. In Thailand the news headlines referred to the students as “folks who were massacred.” They estimate 100 students were killed by the Thailand government, but we were sympathetic. They weren’t called a mob. We didn’t see that with the students in Soweto.

Same thing in Poland, where there was several days of unrest, the news coverage talked about these valiant people as folks fighting to stop unfair price hikes in food.

Seems like every single uprising done by lack folks is widely condemned from South Africa to here. From the Black soldiers fighting racist cops in Houston during Jim Crow in the early 1900s after being terrorized up to last night in Minneapolis. From Harlem to Watts to Ferguson to Oakland… It’s the same song, same outrage and righteousness directed at Black folks for expressing rage.

In 1979 in Miami there was a police killing of motorcyclist Arthur McDuffie. The officers involved were acquitted in 1980, and Miami exploded. The same condemnation we are leveling on folks in Minneapolis today is what was levied on Blacks folks in Miami 40 years ago. They were deemed a mob, thugs, hooligans uncouth and hurting the cause.

Folks in Miami to this day are still being scolded by salty individuals over what took place in the aftermath of Arthur McDuffie. They were never, ever seen as folks who were betrayed by the system. Just thugs who set back Black progress.

So all this outrage about what’s going on Minneapolis after folks witnessed a public lynching by smirking cops is troubling. Folks seem to forget that Minneapolis did everything by the book after Philando Castille was killed on FB live by a cop who was acquitted.

Protester in San Francisco, May 31, 2020. Photo by David Schnur

Folks peacefully protested, marched, sat in at police stations, boycotted businesses like the Great Mall of America, voted, kicked off a project to bring about changes in the police department and what’s happened? Things have gotten worse — and here we have folks getting all haughty and doing the most with Respectability Politics while cheering everyone else on.

I gotta be honest the worst looting I’ve ever seen take place happened a few weeks ago when corporations collected over $500 billion dollars in stimulus money while everyone else was left with a $1,200 dollar check and having to decide if they pay for food or rent.

Keep in mind it was mean spirited leader of the senate Mitch McConnell who had to be dragged to even allow that much to be given. The same folks who gave corporations $500 billion fought to not extend unemployment benefits as folks are still sheltered in. Over 40 million people are out of work.

And again: Imagine if they had simply arrested and charged those four cops for murder. Think of where we would be at this time.

Which side of the ‘house divided’ are you on?

A rally for Alex Nieto, killed by SFPD after someone called 911.

This morning I made the dire mistake of reading twitter comments on a San Francisco Chronicle report of protesters at SF Mayor London Breed’s house. The tenor was “These aren’t protests!” and condemnations of anything that deviated from the commenters idea of protesting, which seems to be politely chanting “Please change,” while passively accepting brutality rained upon them by the police.

Then there is the rush by some that all violence against property had to be committed by “out of towners.” Certainly, there is truth in that, just as there is truth in reports that far right militants and white supremacists are taking advantage of protests to escalate violence for their own ends. However, to deny that any violence comes from locals is not only absurd, it’s an insulting dodge.

A rally for Alex Nieto, killed by SFPD.

Underneath the condemnation of anything other some fairy-tale version of protesting is the American worship of power and the persistent denial of what this country is and has become. We talk about the red state/blue state divide or the one between liberals and conservative or urban and rural or even Black and white and wonder why we can’t “work across the aisle” or “all get along.”

Rarely, have I heard discussion in the mainstream about the much more fundamental divide of how Americans experience and view power or how they system rarely responds to peaceful calls to redress the power imbalance.

Those out in the street protesting peacefully or taking their anger out on a window or a wall experience power as a bludgeon used against them and their friends. If they aren’t a George Floyd or know a George Floyd, they certainly have seen and read accounts of many George Floyds and fear suffering the fate of George Floyd. Here’s an incomplete run through of San Francisco’s George Floyds:

December 7, 2019: Jamaica Hampton is stopped by police. Police say that Hampton attacked them with a bottle. Others say that Hampton was doing nothing when police approached him and his only crime was running. When Hampton take off, the police shoot at him, bring him down. Hampton falls to the ground and as he is laying there an officer shots him again. Hampton survives but one of his legs is amputated as a result of his injuries. Hampton is Black.

Oct 6, 2019: Dacrau Spiers is in a parked car making out with his girlfriend. Police roll up, accuse him of beating his girlfriend. They dragged Spiers out of the car, cuff and beat him, breaking his hand and leg. Spiers is Black.

June 9, 2018: Oliver Barcenas is celebrating a Golden State Warriors championship, drinking with friends. The police roll up. Barcenas takes off running. The police chase him. An officer shoots Barcenas in the back.  SFPD claims that Barcenas had a gun and pointed it at them. The DA says otherwise. Barcenas is Latinx.

May 19, 2016: Jessica Williams drives off in a stolen car. Police fire at the moving car, hitting Williams. One bullet and she is dead. Williams was Black.

April 7, 2016: Luis Gongora Pat is at a homeless encampment. The police pull up and, within 30 seconds, start shooting. Gongora Pat is killed by six bullets. Police say that Gongora Pat had a knife. Witnesses say that he didn’t. Gongora Pat was Latinx.

December 2, 2015: Mario Woods has a mental break. Drugged out, he carries on in the street in front of his home. Police roll up. There is a confrontation that ends with five officers open-firing on Woods. The autopsy shows that Woods took 20 bullets. Colin Kaepernick responds to Woods’ killing by kneeling. Woods was Black.

February 26, 2015: Amilcar Perez-Lopez is reported to be “swinging a knife.” Police arrive and shoot him six times. Officers report that Perez-Lopez was advancing on them. The Medical Examiner reports that six bullets entered him through the back. Perez-Lopez was Latinx.

March 4, 2014: Alex Nieto is walking home through Bernal Heights Park and is accosted by a white man who taunts Nieto. The man walks off. Nieto unholsters the taser he carries for his job as a security guard. Another white man calls the police on Nieto. Police roll up and empty their guns into Nieto. They claim that Nieto pointed his taser at them. Nieto was Latinx.

No police officer involved in these shooting has been fired for his action. Many have been officially cleared of all wrong-doing. No officer faced criminal penalties, even though the city paid out substantial money in civil cases that resulted from these shootings. Many of the officers involved are still working the streets.

During this time period, San Francisco police officers were involved in racist text chain, arrested a deputy public defender who defended the rights of her client, lost a $700,000whistleblower civil suit, and were found guilty of drug dealing and extortion. SFPD illegally searched a journalist’s home while trying to cover up the unauthorized release of the top public defender’s death report. The department refused to sign on to a $2 million grant that would clear up a rape kit backlog. And on May 30, video surfaced of a SFPD officer laying her knee across the neck of Black man.

In 2016, the Police Chief Greg Suhr asked the U.S. Department of Justice to do a review of SFPD. SF Examiner reported that, “Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services Office returned months later with 94 finding and 272 recommendations for the SFPD that dealt with five areas needing improvement including use of force, bias and community policing.”

The Examiner adds, “The federal government was working on its first report documenting the progress of the SFPD reforms in September 2017 when the Trump Administration abruptly ended federal oversight of the Police Department.” Despite no federal accounting, an independent consulting firm is monitoring progress. As of October 2019, only 10 percent of the recommendations had been instituted.

In January, the FBI arrested Mohammed Nuru, the head of San Francisco’s Public Works department. Nuru had been a deep fixture in city politics, with a lot of influence and friends. He built his power by using Public Works to service the city’s mayor and favored public officials. The mayor would call Nuru and tell him to clean a mess on the block they lived on or an area they were visiting and Nuru would hop to, diverting resources from needed and neglected areas to wherever power dictated.

Former Mayor Ed Lee was big on using Public Works to trash homeless encampments, a practice expanded by Mayor London Breed, one of Nuru’s former girlfriends and the recent recipient of a Nuru “gift” of $5,600, a sum never reported to city officials.  Last week, a public records request turned up text messages from London Breed to SF Police Chief Bill Scott. In the texts, Breed ordered Scott to send police units to break up specific homeless encampments that she saw on her drive through the city or in places that she was expected to visit, either for an official event or private diner.

Every time there is a police shooting in San Francisco, liberals lecture those who are pissed off about Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gandhi, refusing to acknowledge that initial public response to police abuse is typically peaceful. Citizens write their elected officials, they attend public forums, they meet with the police, they protest, they go on hunger strikes, they show up to candidate events and push the issue, they work on political campaigns. Last year, people working on police shootings and reform were the back bone of radical public defender Chesa Boudin election to District Attorney.  San Franciscans are walking civics textbooks.

San Francisco activists not only do what they need to do at every level of engagement, they do it in the order which the power-that-be subscribe to them. They write letters, vote and everything else before they hit the streets.

What good has it done? Where is the change? Yes, Boudin is slowly implementing reform on the legal end of criminal justice. Yes, Police Chief Scott says that there has been a decline in police shootings since 2016, and that might be true. However, no one trusts that SFPD won’t backslide. SFPD killings, shootings, abuse and corruption are part of a culture that cemented itself in the system a century ago. Citizens, especially Black and Latinx men, fear becoming the next George Floyd.

So, people hit the street and when the police show up, they are taunted. Buildings are graffitied. On rare occasion, a bottle gets thrown and a window shatters. The media amplifies what is a relatively rare occurrence a hundred more times and a hundred times louder than they do 200 people cram themselves into a community meeting to question SFPD over a police killing.

And, when someone fires off bottle rockets in front of the mayor’s house during a protest against the police killing of 7,666 George Floyds in Minneapolis, San Francisco, New York, Ferguson, and other American towns, a dozen clueless assholes quote Abraham Lincoln’s “A house divided against itself cannot stand” as if Lincoln is calling for “civility.” Hey, I am all for quoting Lincoln “House Divided” speech, but let’s not play pull-quote. This is what Lincoln said,

A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved— I do not expect the house to fall— but I do expect it will cease to be divided.  It will become all one thing or all the other.  

Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as newNorth as well as South.

Have we no tendency to the latter condition?

Lincoln, who was speaking at the 1858 Illinois Republican State Convention, follows those words with the recent history of the fight against slavery, the fight through official channels, and how the abolitionists had been thwarted by institutional rigidity and bad faith. The system, Lincoln concludes, has betrayed those who fight slavery. He ends his speech with words that, today, would be condemned as “violent” and “not helpful” and were deemed “too radical” by his peers:

Our cause, then, must be intrusted to, and conducted by its own undoubted friends — those whose hands are free, whose hearts are in the work — who do care for the result.

Two years ago the Republicans of the nation mustered over thirteen hundred thousand strong. We did this under the single impulse of resistance to a common danger, with every external circumstance against us.

Of strange, discordant, and even, hostile elements, we gathered from the four winds, and formed and fought the battle through, under the constant hot fire of a disciplined, proud, and pampered enemy.

Did we brave all thento falter now? — now — when that same enemy is wavering, dissevered and belligerent? 

The result is not doubtful. We shall not fail — if we stand firm, we shall not fail. 

Wise councils may accelerate or mistakes delay it, but, sooner or later the victory is sure to come.

Lincoln was calling to the people on the street, to those gathered in front of police stations, reading the names of the dead, demanding that there be no more George Floyds, knowing that a house divided between authorities with the will to kill and the rest of us, particular those who are Black and Latinx, will not stand. Lincoln promises today’s protesters that if they stand firm, they shall not fail and that, no matter how fast or slow change comes, victory is sure to come. The question is, on which side of the divide to you stand? With Lincoln who stood against the abuse of state power or with those who murdered George Floyd?

Scott Soriano is a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly, writing on California policy and politics. He can be read at www.sorianoscomment.com; follow him on Twitter @_ScottSoriano or on Facebook

Before the looting, a peaceful march

Raiah Sinn organized the peaceful march.

On Saturday, before the incidents of looting that have made the biggest headlines, several hundred protestors peacefully marched in San Francisco to protest the death of George Floyd. The march was independently organized by activist Raiah Sinn.

The protest began at the UN Plaza at noon, before moving to City Hall, down Market Street to Embarcadero Plaza, and then down Harrison St. through Soma. The marchers then proceeded towards the Mission and went down 16th St, passing the 16th and Mission BART station. Police presence increased as the protestors marched through SOMA, with roughly four dozen officers and their vehicles blocking off 4th Street and the freeway exit at Harrison and 4th.

Raiah Sinn organized the peaceful march.

Although violence later broke out later, after dark, Sinn confirmed that the violence was not related to the protest that she organized.

Sinn told me in a statement through Facebook Messenger that she disbanded her march at around 6pm in the Mission and told those present to go home and check the March Against Police Brutality- Bay Area Facebook page for further actions.

She said that half of the caravan she was leading was “hijacked” by a separate, unaffiliated group of protesters who led them to the Valencia St. police station. She then followed “as quickly as [she] could to de-escalate the situation.” According to Sinn, she spoke to the crowd and disbanded them, although some decided to remain with the group present at the Valencia St police station.

“Anything that happened after 6pm at the Valencia [police] station is not associated with what I was leading. My protest was intended to be entirely peaceful and without incident, as it stated several times on the event page,” said Sinn.

Indeed, I saw no violence break out during Sinn’s protest from its beginning until I left around 5:30pm.

The march was loud, but never violent.

Daniel Hastings, one of the protesters present, told me that the march was held as a show of solidarity, love, and to grieve the loss of Floyd.

“I think this was a time for everyone to experience love, to see the truth that someone has died in cold blood. We’re trying to get America’s soul back,” said Hastings.

Pat Robinson, another marcher, said that although Floyd’s death may seem to have sparked more tension and anger than other killings of Black Americans by police, the escalation has been years in the making.

“This has been going on since Trayvon Martin. This escalation has been going on for a while, and people have known, and it keeps happening.” she said. “But this time, it’s like, were not just going to protest, were not just going to say a name, were going to become a people that says ‘no more unjustified killing of our people.’’’

Making the points outside City Hall.

Robinson, who moved to San Francisco in 2014, was homeless and living on Castro Street when a police officer pointed his gun on her, an experience that made her feel less than human.

“He didn’t look me in the eye before he pulled that gun on me, he just heard the word, Black!” screamed Robinson as tears streamed down her face.

Hastings addressed protesters in front of City Hall and expressed how Floyd’s death at the hands of police made him afraid due to the increased threat of police violence he faces as a black man.

“For the past few weeks, I’ve been afraid. I’m so tired of being afraid!” screamed Hastings.

Among some of the protesters, not only was there amplified fear, but also relived grief for past losses of loved ones at the hands of police.

As the march proceeded down Mission St, Hastings told me that he believes that the anxiety and tension caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic downturn has put people on edge, possibly contributing to the violence seen in recent protests in Oakland and Los Angeles.

“The fact that everyone has more time to be in their communities, [racial tension] touches more communities. In the past three days, racial tension has been exponential. I live in a predominantly white, wealthy neighborhood, when I go out for a run, I’m scared now,” said Hastings.

As we parted ways, Hastings emphasized to me the importance that demands for an end to police violence against minorities must continue beyond the protest that day, and that organization and mobilization is key to enacting reform and bolstering police accountability.

“We have to be better, we have to be smarter, and we have to be organized. This momentum, this protest, doesn’t stop here,” he said.

How Cuba is succeeding in the fight against COVID

Havana Doctor Liz Caballero helps treat -- and prevent -- outbreaks.

One morning along a street with cracked sidewalks and houses with fading paint, Dr. Liz Caballero and two medical students stopped at every door in that part of Havana’s Vedado district. During normal times, these neighborhood doctors practice preventative medicine. Now, they participate in a full-blown campaign against the COVID 19 pandemic.

Dr. Caballero knocked on a door and asked if anyone in the house had a fever or other COVID 19 symptoms. The resident replied everyone was fine.

Havana Doctor Liz Caballero helps treat — and prevent — outbreaks. Photo by Reed Lindsay.

“My son and wife are doctors and they disinfect before entering the house,” she said. “We all have surgical face masks. Even my boy has one.”

Community health workers are assisted by the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, the country’s neighborhood watch organizations, and by the Women’s Federation. The government requires everyone to wear face masks outside. So many Cubans make their own.

Cuba faces shortages of testing equipment and some medications. People wait in long lines for chicken and toilet paper. But what the island lacks in material resources, it makes up for with a sophisticated public health system.

Public health authorities use classic anti-epidemic techniques to identify those infected, quarantine and treat them, and then trace all their contacts. See this short video from the Havana-based Belly of the Beast:

So far, government efforts have severely restricted the pandemic’s spread since it was first discovered among foreign tourists on March 11. As of May 22, out of a population of 11 million, Cuba had 1,916 COVID cases and only 81 deaths. The Cuban infection rate is .71 people per 100,000 inhabitants. The US rate is 29, about 40 times higher.

Victor Wallis, a political science professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston, attributed Cuba’s success to its socialist medical system.

“Cuba’s enormous investment in the health sector rather than the military is a new kind of priority,” he told me. “It focuses on human well being.”

Hugs and kisses

Cuba initiated a massive social distancing campaign, but Dr. Caballero admitted that enforcement can be hard in a Latin culture used to hugs and kisses on each cheek when greeting friends.

“Sometimes it is difficult to stop shaking hands,” she said. “But right now Cubans have internalized that the most important thing is social distancing.”

Here’s Dr. Caballero in a Belly of the Beast video:

Unlike the US, said Dr. Caballero, all medical care is free in Cuba, including dentistry, eye care and mental health services.

In Cuba, “people go to the doctor as soon as possible,” she said. “Sometimes in other countries they don’t go early because they don’t have health insurance; they don’t have money to pay.”

Cuba’s socialist medical system is different from anything politicians propose in the US. Even with the most progressive plans in the US, such as Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All, the government would act as an insurance company to pay private doctors and hospitals.

In Cuba, the state runs the entire medical system from medical schools, to neighborhood doctors, to local clinics and hospitals.

After the 1959 Cuban revolution, Afro Cubans and people from working-class backgrounds were able to attend medical schools for the first time.

Starting with their first med school class, doctors are educated to serve the people, not seek fame and wealth. Education is completely free, and upon graduation, doctors must practice for three years in underserved communities and rural areas.

Cuba has among the world’s highest doctor/patient ratios. And Cubans have a higher life expectancy than in the US.

Today, Cuba has sent 30,000 doctors to treat people mostly in poor countries. Today, 2,000 doctors and nurses are fighting COVID 19 in 23 countries from Mexicoto Italy.

See what these doctors and nurses say about US government criticism of their work in this short Belly of the Beast video:

Starting in the 1970s, Cuba built from scratch a sophisticated biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry. Cuba has developed a number of internationally recognized pharmaceuticals.

Cuban scientists are currently conducting joint research into a lung cancer drug with the Roswell Cancer Center in Buffalo. Doctors in Cuba and China are using a Cuban interferon drug to treat COVID 19.

Serious problems

Cuba’s health care system has plenty of problems, however. Isis Allen, a 60-year-old journalist, stood in line outside a pharmacy in her Havana neighborhood. Her mother needs medicine for circulatory problems. Sometimes the pharmacy has the drugs, sometimes not. 

“You can spend a day waiting in line at a pharmacy,” she said.

Her mother’s medicine must be imported from overseas. Even when Cuba makes the drugs in Havana, the health ministry has a hard time getting the raw materials.

Allen attributed shortages to the US trade embargo, known in Cuba as the blockade. She called the unilateral blockade “an embarrassment for the United States, a powerful country that is making this island, with such a hard-working and dedicated people, suffer so much.”

Food and medicine are supposed to be exempt from trade restrictions under the official terms of the embargo, which the US first imposed on Cuba in 1962. However, many companies–even those outside the US–fear prosecution in US courts and won’t trade with Cuba.

Swiss medical equipment corporations refused to sell Cuba ventilators in late April. A few weeks earlier, China tried to send Cuba surgical masks, gloves, ventilators and other medical supplies. But Avianca, the Colombian-based airline originally contracted to make the delivery, cancelled the flight, fearing US sanctions.

In another case the Swiss NGO MediCuba found that its bank wouldn’t transfer money to pay for shipping medicine to Cuba. The bank eventually agreed to the funds transfer. But in another incident, the bank of a pharmaceutical supplier refused MediCuba’s payments because the medicine would be shipped to Cuba.

Since it inception the US embargo has cost the island almost a trillion dollars in economic damage, according to José Ramón Cabañas, Cuba’s ambassador to the US. But it has failed politically. “Some people think they finally can defeat the Cuban Revolution. It won’t happen.”

The US blockade isn’t the only source of Cuba’s problems, however. Cuba gets most of its hard currency from tourism and remittances from citizens living abroad. The Cuban government closed the country to tourism in March and has not indicated when it might resume. So Cuba lacks hard currency to purchase food, petroleum and many other products.

For over a decade, the government has promoted economic reforms. The state continues to control major industries, while encouraging the growth of small, private businesses. Even before the current crisis, however, Cuba saw a growing currency black market and hoarding of scarce consumer products.

As I wrote after a January trip to Cuba, Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel had planned to raise state worker salaries and encourage provincial self sufficiency in food production. The growing world recession has made economic reforms all the more difficult.

To hug again

Despite these serious problems, the Cuban government has organized an impressive anti-pandemic campaign. The island’s heath care system is built on solidarity not profit, according to Professor Wallis.

“Cuban policies correspond to ancient medical precepts but have been ignored by US capitalism,” he said. “Treat people because they’re human beings in need. It’s their national policy.”

On a neighborhood level Dr. Caballero is optimistic about beating the pandemic. Cubans will return to normal lives, she said.

“When all this passes, we will hug again,” she said. “We will return to what we have always done.”

Reese Erlich has reported from Cuba since 1968 and is author of the book Dateline Havana: The Real Story of U.S. Policy and the Future of Cuba. Research for this article came from the Havana-based media outlet Belly of the Beast. 

The next chancellor: An open letter to the City College trustees

Editor’s note: City College will be hiring and interim chancellor to serve for the next year while a permanent chancellor his hired. It’s a critical job at a critical time; the applicaiton process closes May 25.

As you approach the hiring of a year-long interim chancellor at the College, please take this opportunity to return City College of San Francisco to the successful and beloved community college it once was and can be again.

We are troubled by the past eight years when a series of short-term interim chancellors and two permanent chancellors have tried to reduce City College to a junior college. Though we are proud of the college’s record in awarding certificates, AA degrees, and transfer paths to four year universities, we urge you to appoint a chancellor also committed to other aspects of the college’s mission: cultural enrichment, civic engagement, and lifelong learning.

We urge you to appoint a chancellor with leadership experience in urban comprehensive community colleges. Generally, the chancellors over the last eight years worked at smaller junior colleges in exurban or suburban communities where the local K-12 district provided adult education, unlike at City College where we have a robust adult education program. Hire a leader committed to non-credit instruction including English as a Second Language and older adult education.

Hire someone who will work tirelessly for upcoming local (Workforce Education and Recovery Fund, formerly known as CHEF) and state (Schools and Communities First) initiatives, which will bring money to City College. We appreciate that your president and the president of the faculty union have joined other voices across the country in calling for community colleges to serve as recovery centers. Laid off workers will enroll at City College as they seek skills in the new economy. The interim chancellor must have the kind of creative vision that can enable the college to meet the needs of those students.

The college needs a truth teller, especially when the truth is bad, and a problem solver who actively solicits advice from the campus community but is up to making the final decision and being accountable. The college needs a leader with the humility of a follower and the wisdom to know that seeking input is the best way to arrive at good decisions and actions. The college needs a leader who shows a demonstrated commitment to working with faculty and staff. The college needs a healer who will not pit constituencies against each other but will work toward resolving differences and promoting deep respect for all employees. Our students deserve that kind of mature, engaged collaboration among faculty, staff, and administrators.

The interim chancellor should consider looking to senior faculty in a reinvigorated administration. A rebuilt administrative team must restore the confidence of department chairs in administration’s ability to listen and work collaboratively. The interim chancellor must build a responsive, ethical Facilities team to manage the bond passed by the city’s voters this March, once again putting their confidence in City College of San Francisco.

The ideal interim chancellor should be a strategic thinker, keeping sight of ongoing challenges, such as accreditation, while promoting positive and productive relationships in Sacramento where the new state funding formula, unfriendly to large urban districts, must be reformed.

The ideal interim needs to be responsive to your leadership, your working committees, and your focus on the general health of the college.

Lastly, the person you hire must be committed to preparing the college to attract well-qualified applicants for the permanent chancellor position. The table the interim sets should be the kind of feast City College of San Francisco regularly offered its prospective leaders in the past and will again.                                                                                        

Retired City College of San Francisco faculty Anita Martinez and Leslie Simon served respectively as an administrator and a department chair. Martinez taught English as a Second Language, and Simon taught Women’s and Gender Studies.

Protest caravan demands hotel rooms for homeless

The Do No Harm Coalition sends a message at the top of Alamo Square.

The streets around City Hall were filled with the sounds of cars honking, wooting, and chants of “housing is the cure!” on Friday evening as roughly 50 cars participated in a caravan protest calling for the city to house San Francisco’s homeless population in hotel rooms as well as increase their focus on acquiring long term affordable housing for the homeless.

The Do No Harm Coalition sends a message at the top of Alamo Square.

The cars passed by city hall, the Painted Ladies, and along Pierce St. near Mayor London Breed’s home. The caravan protest was organized by homeless rights advocacy organizations the Coalition on Homelessness, the Do No Harm Coalition, and Faith in Action.

“We’re coming from different directions but we have one common goal which is to house the vulnerable for moral reasons, for health reasons, and it’s for the benefit of us all,” said Reverend Sadie Stone, a pastor at the United Methodist Church on Sanchez St and a member of Faith in Action.

Stone told me that Faith in Action sees housing people in hotels as a moral choice that the city must make because it has thousands of empty hotel rooms, and the group believes that the city should purchase hotels for them to be converted into affordable housing units.

“As faith leaders we come at it from a moral perspective, everyone has a right to human dignity, everyone has a right to housing and basic human needs…there are thousands of empty hotel rooms, and it seems like one of the most crucial and moral opportunities to house people not only right now but also towards a long term solution for housing folks,” said Stone.

The caravan ran from City Hall to the Painted Ladies

The Coalition on Homelessness demanded that the city use vacant hotel rooms to allow the unhoused to shelter in place as well as purchase hotels to be converted into affordable housing for unhoused folks. These hotels could be used both for transitional housing oriented towards homeless youth and permanent housing for elderly homeless people, according to Cristin Evans, a homeless rights advocate who collaborates with the Coalition on Homelessness. Evans said that with the economic downturn caused by COVID-19, hotels and new housing developments may not survive due to the decline of the tourism economy and more reluctance to purchase realty property from buyers made more frugal by economic hardship brought on the pandemic.

“The housing situation has always been a crisis, but with the economic shock there’s also an opportunity… to create longer term solutions for people currently being put into hotels and safe encampments. For these housing projects which are going to be finished, will there be the same appetite for people to buy them or rent them with the economic shock? New developments and hotels may not survive the decline in tourism rates,” said Evans.

Why are thousands of hotel rooms empty when people are living in danger on the streets?

Members of the Do No Harm Coalition also called for homeless people to be placed into hotel rooms, saying that it is impossible for them to safely shelter in place without access to private rooms with separate bathrooms and hygiene facilities.

“Everyone should be offered hotel rooms where they have the resources they need to protect themselves from COVID-19. Beyond that, permanent solutions need to be put into place to maintain housing access. This pandemic reveals the inequities that existed well before COVID-19,” said Annie Le, a family medical resident at UCSF and a member of the Do No Harm Coalition.

Le told me that physicians are often pained by having to discharge homeless people knowing that many have no option to shelter in place safely, putting them at great risk. Le told me about one of her patients last month, a woman in her 70s who was severely malnourished due to being unhoused and had “several co-morbidities,” making her particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

“It is really worrisome after someone being hospitalized and us taking care of them for them to have to go back to the street. There’s only a fraction of what we can do to help someone maintain their health when they’re put into this situation,” said Le.

Homeless women take over vacant house in the Castro

Two women temporarily took over a building in the Castro

Two unhoused women took over a vacant building in the Castro today, sparking a massive police response, at least one arrest – and renewed attention to the large number of vacant properties in a city that has thousands of people living on the streets in a public-health crisis.

Couper Orona, a disabled firefighter who is known all over the city as a street medic who helps homeless people, and Jess Gonzalez, who was evicted because she wouldn’t give up her service dog, moved into 4555 19thStreet around 11am.

Two women temporarily took over a building in the Castro

The women, part of ReclaimSF, took their inspiration from Moms4housing in Oakland, a group of women who moved into an empty building that was part of a speculative investment and drew national attention.

In this case, the building has been vacant and abandoned for at least several years, according to documents on file with the Department of Building Inspection.

Records show the place has been cited by the Department of Public Health and that the Water Department has a lien on it, most likely meaning there are unpaid water bills.

A January, 2020 complaint to DBI notes:

This house has been vacant for a couple years now. All the windows are open. Lots of opportunities for critters to grow and get into the back yard.

The current owner appears to be something called 4555 19thStreet Trust, which took over the property from Citadel Real Estate and Investments in a Trustee sale.

Because trust documents aren’t public record in California, it’s not clear who actually owns the place.

But there are no current permits on file with the Planning Department or DBI, so there is no indication that the owner has any immediate intent to fix the place up.

The two women stayed in the property until late in the afternoon, when the cops told them they would be forcibly removed. The incident ended peacefully when the two left, and at this point they are facing no criminal charges.

But the move raised a critical question: San Francisco has, by most estimates, more than 10,000 vacant housing units, maybe more. While the supervisors are pushing the mayor to move more homeless people into hotel rooms, should vacant housing units also be part of the strategy?

That’s what ReclaimSF is talking about:

“The only difference between us and someone who is housed is they have a roof over their head we don’t, but we are all San Francisco residents! We should be treated as such,” said Orona. “I love my city and I am there for my community, but the way our leaders have ignored our pleas for support is heartbreaking. We need permanent housing, and we need it now. We can’t wait another day.”

Police cleared the streets of protesters (and the media) before the two women left the house. There was one arrest of a supporter who, according to a video, was thrown to the ground by the cops.

Sup. Rafael Mandelman, who was on the scene, said that he agrees “that city has done an excellent job of meeting the housing needs of very wealthy people, and that is a public-policy failure.”

He said that if this particular site follows the pattern, “if will become a single-family home for someone with incredible wealth.” He said the protesters have “my complete and total sympathy.”

But he stopped short of supporting ReclaimSF’s call for an emergency move by the mayor to seize vacant housing units, saying that “in concept” it makes sense, but that the logistical challenges would be daunting.

“I’m not sure we can do that” with the city’s current staffing and the competing priorities in this crisis, he said.

The cops who were on the scene were wearing “blue lives matter” masks, which I am told were provided by the Police Officers Association, an organization that has fought against even reasonable reforms in the department.

The symbolism in the masks is seriously problematic. The idea that cops all over the city are wearing them is, I have to say, more than a little disturbing.

Supes have plan to staff hotel rooms — but mayor ignores it

Sup. Matt Haney wants to force developers to pay for the housing demand they create.

Sup. Matt Haney, with the support of four of his colleagues, put forward a plan this week to address the staffing needs that the mayor says are preventing the city from moving homeless people into hotels.

The plan, and the mayor’s response, has showcased an increasingly bitter political divide at City Hall.

Sup. Matt Haney presented a plan to solve the staffing issues that the mayor says are keeping her from moving homeless people into hotels.

Haney presented the plan at a virtual press conference where Sups. Hillary Ronen, Shamann Walton, and Dean Preston jointly denounced the failure of Mayor London Breed to abide by city law that requires the city to provide 8,250 hotel rooms for homeless people by this past Sunday.

As of yesterday, the city has only 880 homeless people in hotel rooms, and 621 have come from shelters where they were likely exposed to the virus. There are more than 1,000 rooms that the city is paying for but are now vacant.

The overwhelming messages from health-care and faith leaders was that the mayor is creating a moral and medical crisis.

Dr. Juliana Morris, a family-practice doctor who works with UCSF and treats homeless people, said that “the mayor’s inaction is making people sick.” Olivia Park, who is graduating from UCSF with her MD this spring, said that doctors take an oath to “do no harm” – “and we can’t stand by while city leaders are doing harm.”

She noted that one-third of the homeless people in San Francisco are families and children, who are unable to shelter in place.

Rev. Sadie Stone, pastor of Bethany United Methodist Church, said that it’s entirely possible to house homeless people in hotels – in fact, the local Methodist churches have done it. “Nine churches donated $100,000 to Hospitality House, which moved its entirely population into hotels.”

The mayor, she said, “has created a Catch-22 – you can’t get tested, you can’t get a hotel room, you can’t wash your hands, you have to stay in tents in crowded conditions.”

Marc Roth, who has lived in a local homeless shelter, said that “the mayor says people can’t care for themselves, but the vast majority of homeless people can care for themselves.”

The politics have become ever-more sharp, with the mayors’ refusal to follow the law creating deep tensions at the board.

Walton said that “there is a staffing plan that has been developed, and instead executive leadership has refused to implement it, calling all 11 members of the Board of Supervisors ‘unrealistic.’ This is insulting and disrespectful to the board.”

Ronen noted that the city is missing a huge opportunity here, a “once in a lifetime chance to do something new.” She said that the city could move homeless people into hotels now – and that in the next few months, the city will have the chance to buy some of those hotels for permanent housing.

Instead, she said, “we are hearing nothing but old stereotypes and poverty-blaming excuses.”

The staffing plan calls for moving entire shelters, including their staff, into hotels – which worked well for Hospitality House. It also calls for fully involving nonprofits that work with homeless populations:

The non-profit providers have been vocal for weeks that they can do more to help staff the hotels. They are yet to be brought on fully as partners in this initiative. The Homeless Emergency Service Providers Association (HESPA) presented a proposal more than 2 weeks ago, including a “Decentralized Access Hotel Rooms Plan” with a list of specific homeless service providers willing to make their staff available. The proposal calls on the city to “leverage nonprofit expertise,” as “providers know their communities, their staff, and their sites.”

The proposal also calls on the city to rely on nonprofit coalitions and systems to assess staff capacity and project staffing needs.

The plan also notes that

Weeks ago, the Department of Public Health started recruiting licensed medical professionals to volunteer with DPH’s COVID-19 response efforts in a variety of healthcare roles. As of April 22nd, hundreds had signed up, and only 4 had been deployed. These volunteers are skilled and experienced and many have already been through a background check. They should be leveraged for the hotel program.

Haney acknowledged that “this will be difficult.” But the alternatives are far, far worse.

Over at Mission Local, Joe Eskenazi argues that the mayor has the right not to spend money– and he suggests that:

Finally, left unsaid by either the mayor or homeless advocates is that moving thousands of people inside will, in the days and weeks after the pandemic, likely necessitate moving thousands of people outside — perhaps by force. And nobody wants to see that.

There’s no reason for that to have to happen.

Many of these smaller hotels will be vacant for months, maybe years, as the tourist economy slowly comes back. The owners, many of them small businesses, would likely be thrilled to have the city offer long-term (say, three-year) leases to keep the units filled.

Many will be for sale, and the city can buy them at fair-market rates.

This is, as Ronen notes, a once in a lifetime opportunity. It’s going to be discussed, and quite possibly implemented, in communities across the state.

And the Breed Administration is letting it pass by. I still can’t figure out why.