Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Queer Democrats Stay Neutral on Prop. 46


Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • Used by permission

For Prop. 46: Kathy Olsen

Against Prop. 46: Jay Hansen

Remember those episodes of the original 1960’s Star Trek in which the Enterprise crew members destroyed seemingly all-powerful computers by feeding them tons of inconsistent and illogical information? That’s pretty much what the predominantly Queer San Diego Democrats for Equality went through at their September 25 meeting when they tried — and failed — to come to a position on Proposition 46 on California’s November 4 election ballot.
Proposition 46’s official title, “Drug and Alcohol Testing of Doctors; Medical Negligence Lawsuits,” indicates that it’s a smorgasbord of provisions relating to health care in general and protecting people from medical malpractice in particular. The description of the proposition in the California voters’ guide has five bullet points, three of which relate to the measure’s requirement that all doctors with hospital admitting privileges must submit to drug and alcohol tests and, if they test positive, their medical licenses will be suspended pending an investigation. It also requires doctors suspecting other doctors of drug or alcohol abuse to report them to the state medical board.
The measure also requires that before they can prescribe certain controlled substances — mostly potentially addictive painkillers like morphine, Valium or Oxycontin — doctors will have to check a database called Controlled Substance Utilization Review and Evaluation System, or CURES for short. The idea is to prevent patients from abusing these drugs through so-called “doctor-shopping,” which means seeing several different doctors to obtain quantities of these drugs far larger than what they would need for legitimate medical uses. Under current law doctors can register to use CURES, but they don’t have to. If Prop. 46 passes, however, they will have to as of January 1, 2016 — though, according to the legislative analyst’s official ballot description, “providers will not be required to check the database prior to prescribing or dispensing drugs.”
But the nub of Proposition 46 is its proposed changes to the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act (MICRA), passed by the California legislature in 1975. MICRA was passed in response to complaints from doctors and hospitals that they could no longer afford medical malpractice insurance because of lawsuits resulting in high jury awards to victims. So the bill set a $250,000 cap on so-called “non-economic damages” from medical malpractice, including losing limbs, sight, hearing, or the ability to walk. The bill did not index the cap to inflation, so it remains at $250,000 even though the buying power of that sum has dropped dramatically since 1975. Prop. 46 would raise the cap to $1.1 million and index it to inflation.
Supporters of Prop. 46 claim the cap is so low many medical malpractice victims — particularly children and retired people, who can’t prove economic damages because they weren’t part of the workforce when they were hurt — can’t sue at all because they can’t find attorneys willing to take their cases for just one-third of $250,000. Opponents say lifting the cap will lead to vastly increased health care costs, as exploitative trial lawyers look for big paydays for themselves and their clients and malpractice insurance premiums go through the roof again.
The people who spoke for Prop. 46 at the Democrats for Equality September 25, legislative staff member Chris Ward and patient advocate Kathy Olsen, started with a dramatic story aimed straight at the heartstrings. “I’m the mother of Stephen Olsen, who was two years old when he was injured,” Kathy Olsen said. “He suffered from catastrophic injuries, is totally blind and has had many surgeries. We were lucky enough to get an attorney to take his case to court. The defense did not want my son in court because they thought he was a minor and that might sway people. The jury said we were entitled to $7 million, but the defense invoked MICRA and it was reduced to $250,000, $4,000 for each year of my son’s life expectancy.”
Ms. Olsen said that, thanks to MICRA, medical malpractice is the only area of liability law where there’s an absolute cap on judgments. “It’s not doctors versus lawyers,” she said. “It’s patients against insurance companies. Insurance companies have spent so much money against this because they don’t want to have to pay. Medical errors are the third most common cause of death in the U.S., behind cancer and heart disease. Four hundred thousand people per year are affected by this.”
The case against Prop. 46 was presented by Jay Hansen, chief strategic officer for the California Medical Association. “If this measure were just about the MICRA cap, we’d be having a different conversation,” he said. “But the measure has a lot of things, including drug and alcohol testing for doctors and using the CURES database, which is not supposed to work in real time. The Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU), American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the AFL-CIO, the NAACP and Planned Parenthood are all opposed. The Los Angeles County Democratic Party also voted to oppose it, as did the LGBT [Queer] Caucus of the California Democratic Party, because we’re concerned about the [lack of] privacy of the CURES database.”
Like the ubiquitous TV commercials against Prop. 46, Hansen portrayed the measure as an attempt by sinister trial lawyers to milk the system for scads of money by filing medical malpractice suits without the MICRA cap to restrain them. “The California School Boards Association estimated the cost to them would be $2 million per year,” he said. He also accused the proponents of eliminating a requirement in the first draft of their initiative that nurses would have to report doctors apparently under the influence of alcohol or drugs so the California Nurses’ Association would endorse the initiative. As it stands, he said, “the only people who are drug- or alcohol-tested are doctors who have hospital privileges, not all doctors.”
Hansen also said that changes to laws like MICRA should be made by state legislators and the governor, not at the ballot box through an initiative — which provoked angry comments from supporters to the effect that legislators are so dependent on campaign contributions from insurance companies they won’t even consider raising MICRA. This provoked Hansen to tell a story about how, when former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was speaker of the California Assembly, “the CMA agreed to raise [the MICRA cap] to $500,000, but the trial lawyers demanded $1 million.” He also said that current Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins was against Prop. 46.
That provoked former Democrats for Equality president Craig Roberts to text Atkins to see if she had really taken a position on the measure. She texted that she hadn’t, but later sent an e-mail to another club member stating that, though she had no official position on the rest of the proposition, her experience as former director of the now-defunct Womancare women’s health clinic and former board member of Planned Parenthood — both of which, she said, “couldn’t get malpractice insurance until MICRA” — had made her dead-set against raising the MICRA cap at all.
“You have a great deal of antipathy towards lawyers,” club member Kelli King said to Hansen. “Who’s on the other side? Insurance companies. There are scumbag lawyers, but there are also scumbag insurance companies. Lawyers at least potentially represent the little guys against the insurance companies.”
“This wouldn’t be in front of us if the trial lawyers hadn’t raised $8 million to put it on the ballot,” Hansen responded. “It’s important with any ballot measure to see who’s paying for it. All the money came from attorneys. I know the trial lawyers’ lobbyists and I work with them. I also know what their motives are.” Hansen added that while there were three insurance companies contributing to No on 46, “they aren’t health insurance companies,” and in answer to another audience question he said drug companies weren’t giving to No on 46 either.
“It is the insurance companies fronting the money” to defeat 46, said Karen Olson. “They have millions of dollars to fight this. The reason they’ve put so much money into [No on 46] is they get to keep 45 percent of all malpractice premium payments, the highest percentage of any type of insurance. The doctors should be on our side.”

The Other Provisions

While the MICRA cap received the lion’s share of attention from panelists and club members alike, the other provisions of Prop. 46 — the requirement that doctors be tested for alcohol and drugs and the mandate for doctors to register for the CURES database also came up in the discussion. The California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) opposes Prop. 46 because, according to its Web site (https://www.aclunc.org/article/no-proposition-46-medical-malpractice-lawsuits-cap-and-drug-testing-doctors-initiative), “The initiative would require physicians to submit to random, suspicionless drug testing, which is an unwarranted intrusion into their right to privacy protected by the Fourth Amendment and the California Constitution. Random, suspicionless drug testing fails to deter drug use and is unnecessarily intrusive, particularly given the less-intrusive alternative approach of testing individuals only when there is individualized suspicion of impairment or another particularized reason to do so.”
 The panelists also disagreed over whether the CURES database, on which the initiative relies to identify prescription drug abusers who are “doctor-shopping” for painkillers and other commonly abused drugs, is ready for prime time. Hansen’s argument that CURES is “not supposed to work in real time” referenced the fact that CURES was originally set up as an aid to long-term investigations and prosecutions of doctors who were enabling prescription drug abusers. It wasn’t, he said, supposed to work the way Prop. 46 wants to use it: to identify patients seeing more than one doctor for controlled substances and shut off their access to those drugs. He also questioned whether CURES would be safe from hackers and others out to steal confidential patient information.
“The legislature has been working really hard since 2009 to make sure CURES is working and will be secure,” said Chris Ward, who’s on the staff of State Senator Marty Block — though he was speaking for himself and not as Block’s representative. “We anticipate the database will be available on January 1, 2015. I believe the privacy concerns are unfounded. The encryption and security are the tightest available.”
“It’s a law enforcement database, not a medical database,” Hansen snapped back. “Initiatives become effective the day they are passed. The CMA supports making CURES operational, and it’s being paid for by a surcharge on doctors’ medical license fees, but it won’t be operational until July 2016.”
There was also a debate over whether Proposition 46 violated the single-subject rule — the provision of the California Constitution that says, “An initiative measure embracing more than one subject may not be submitted to the electors or have any effect.” The California ACLU claimed that Prop. 46 does too many things to meet the single-subject requirement. “Here, voters may well support some parts of this initiative but oppose other parts of it,” the ACLU’s Web site stated. “Californians should be able to vote their conscience separately on each of these individual provisions.”
Proponents of Prop. 46 argue that their initiative does deal with just one subject: protecting California patients from medical abuses, whether caused by alcohol- or drug-using doctors, prescription drug abuse or medical malpractice. But several club members expressed precisely the sort of frustration the ACLU was complaining about; people who might be inclined to support the drug- and alcohol-testing requirements on physicians might oppose changing the MICRA cap, or vice versa.
Club member and attorney Bryan Wildenthal said Prop. 46 “packages together four separate things, including the invasion of privacy, MICRA and CURES.” He acknowledged the concern of Prop. 46’s supporters “that professionals don’t police themselves,” but questioned whether it was appropriate for an initiative to mandate that people use a particular database and said the smorgasbord of issues crammed into Prop. 46 was “liable to have us debating at cross-purposes.”
“I was actually inclined to vote for this until tonight’s forum,” said former club president Roberts in explaining why he was making a motion for the club to take no position on it. “I respect Toni’s opinion. I’ve known her 20 years and her heart is still in the right place.”
David Warmoth, current president of the Democrats for Equality, said he would vote against Roberts’ motion because “we have a legislature that on these particular issues is bombarded with lots of money and lots of competing lobbying that will prevent them from acting on any of these issues.” Eventually, however, the club passed Roberts’ “no position” motion by a voice vote; though no one asked for a roll call, the club seemed to be about 2-1 in favor of it.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Christine Kehoe Deserves a School

Meeting Oct. 8 Will Discuss Naming Florence Elementary After Queer Leader


Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Christine Kehoe at her farewell to public life: the San Diego Democrats for Equality’s Freedom Awards in Hillcrest, November 17, 2012

Christine Kehoe has been a name to conjure with in San Diego activism, journalism and politics for over three decades now. And soon Christine Kehoe may be the name of a school. On Wednesday, October 8, 7 p.m. at Florence Elementary School, 3914 First Avenue between University and Robinson on the cusp of Hillcrest and Mission Hills, the San Diego Unified School District will hold a community meeting to discuss renaming the school after San Diego’s first openly Queer elected official.

I first heard of Christine Kehoe in 1982 when the San Diego Public Library started distributing a little newspaper she was editing called The Longest Revolution, about the feminist movement. Her articles in that scraggly little paper were always fascinating and inspiring reading. But I didn’t get to know and work with her regularly until 1984, by which time she’d come out as a Lesbian and taken a job as editor of the Gayzette. The Gayzette was a marvelously named publication that had been launched two years earlier by renegade staff members from San Diego’s pioneering Queer paper, Update, but I didn’t know that then.

What I did know was that the Gayzette started surfacing at the Ken Cinema in Kensington and it was a beacon light to quite a few San Diegans struggling with their sexual orientation … including me. Certainly it was the first outlet for the Queer press in San Diego I can remember reading, and in 1984, a year after my own coming-out, I started writing for it after Christine Kehoe graciously interviewed me, decided she liked my writing and brought me on as a contributor. There wasn’t much money in it — there never is in community journalism — but there was enough exposure, challenge and sheer fun to make it worth doing for the next two years.

Christine left the Gayzette two issues before it ceased publication, and during the rest of the 1980’s went to work for the San Diego County AIDS Assistance Fund and the campaign to defeat political crazy Lyndon LaRouche’s first looney-tunes anti-AIDS initiative, which would have treated AIDS as a casually communicable disease and could have required quarantine of people testing HIV positive. Kehoe also worked as executive director of the Hillcrest Business Association — a welcome and ironic hire because during our time together at the Gayzette she’d had me do an article over whether the Hillcrest Business Association and its closely allied community planning group were pursuing strategies designed to slow or reverse Hillcrest’s evolution into the home base of San Diego’s Queer community. (I found they really hadn’t cared about it one way or the other.)

By 1993 I was writing for San Diego’s Gay & Lesbian Times and Christine Kehoe was putting together a campaign to run for the San Diego City Council. Two other openly Queer candidates, Al Best in 1979 and Neil Good in 1987, had tried Council races before — and neither had worked their way out of the district primaries. Kehoe’s path to the Council had been paved by two important developments: first, San Diego voters finally approved district elections — which meant that Council candidates only had to get the support of voters in their communities and didn’t have to run in citywide general-election campaigns.

Second, thanks to a lot of volunteer work on the part of members of the San Diego Democratic Club (now the San Diego Democrats for Equality) and others, the neighborhoods containing the greatest proportions of San Diego’s Queer population, Hillcrest and North Park, had been combined into a single City Council district. At the time, that district was represented by Queer-friendly straight Councilmember John Hartley, but his decision not to seek re-election in 1993 left the field open for a Queer challenger — and Kehoe, who’d had on-the-job training as a staffer in Hartley’s office, decided to make the run.

She wasn’t without opposition, even within the Queer community. Evonne Schulze, a long-time community activist and a straight woman with a Queer-friendly reputation, had sought a City Council seat unsuccessfully three times from the College-area District 7. She decided to carpetbag into the new District 3 and capitalize on her long-standing relationships with Queer leaders like Nicole Murray-Ramirez to take on Kehoe. But there were enough Queer voters in District 3 who had had enough of being represented by straight Councilmembers, no matter how sympathetic, and wanted instead to have one of our own in office.

The Gay & Lesbian Times and its publisher, the late Michael Portantino, practically made Kehoe’s election a staff project. So did the San Diego Democratic Club and most of the organized activists in the Queer community. By the time the election was over, Christine Kehoe had become the new District 3 City Councilmember, the glass ceiling had been broken and the way had been paved for otherwise qualified Queer candidates to run for, and win, elective office in San Diego. Since Kehoe’s election the District 3 seat has always been held by an openly Queer Councilmember: she was succeeded by her friend and former aide Toni Atkins, and then by current City Council President Todd Gloria.

Indeed, a measure of Kehoe’s triumph has been that being Queer is no longer a political issue in San Diego. In the 2012 Mayoral election there were two openly Queer candidates out of the four major contenders, and both of them were Republicans — City Councilmember Carl DeMaio (now running for Congress against Queer-friendly straight incumbent Scott Peters) and San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis. After they were forced off the Council by term limits, both Kehoe and Atkins ran for the state legislature, and while Kehoe retired from public life after being termed out of her State Senate seat in 2012, Atkins was recently chosen Speaker of the California State Assembly — the second open Queer, and the first open Lesbian, to hold that job.

No matter how far or high she’s risen, Christine Kehoe has remained a plain-spoken, down-to-earth person. She’s always said hello to me when we’ve run into each other grocery-shopping or running errands. She also hasn’t just been a one-issue politician for Queer rights. According to her Wikipedia page, “Kehoe has been an ardent supporter of increased environmental protection for the state’s resources in her appointed position on the California Coastal Commission. Kehoe is a member of the Sierra Club, the National Organization for Women (NOW), National Women’s Political Caucus, Uptown Democratic Club, and California Women in Government, the San Diego Democratic Club, and the Women’s Transportation Seminar. She is also a member of the Board of Directors of the California Elected Women’s Association for Education and Research (CEWAER).”

I can’t think of a living San Diegan who would be a more appropriate person to name a school after than Christine Kehoe. So I’m going to be there on Wednesday, October 8, 7 p.m. at Florence Elementary School, 3914 First Avenue, to urge the San Diego Unified School District to rename Florence Elementary after Christine Kehoe. And I want you to be there, too. The effort is being pushed by openly Queer San Diego Unified School District board member Kevin Beiser, and more information is available on https://www.facebook.com/events/344157679077681/?ref=6&ref_notif_type=plan_user_invited

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Robin Williams: A Tragicomedy


Copyright © 2002, 2009, 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Robin Williams in One Hour Photo

I went to junior college with Robin Williams. No, I didn’t actually know him, but I certainly knew of him. At the time I was an aspiring journalist and political activist who’d just got out of high school in the spring of 1970 and edged my way back into academia at the College of Marin in spring 1971. Robin Williams was the reigning star of the college’s drama department — which, after it acquired a national and even international reputation, got rather grandly renamed the Department of Theatre Arts — and in the fall of 1971 he and the other stars of the school’s most famous production, Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew relocated to the American West, had just got back from the Edinburgh Shakespeare Festival. Not only had they been invited to perform there, but Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth II’s sister, and her husband had been at their last show in Scotland.
Thanks largely to Robin Williams’ popularity and the royal cachet from Princess Margaret’s attendance, The Taming of the Shrew was revived at the start of the 1971-72 fall semester and I got to see him on stage for the first time. As the play’s male lead, Petruchio, he delivered a swaggering performance that more fully lived up to Shakespeare’s demands for the role than many other actors with greater Shakespearean reputations. Later I saw him in another Shakespeare role, as Orsino, the romantic lead of Twelfth Night — which the Theatre Arts people, looking for another triumph on the level of Shrew, had intriguingly relocated to California during the Mission era. When I told this story to people after Robin Williams had become a star — but one identified with zany comedy rather than finely honed acting — those who knew the play immediately assumed he’d done one of the openly comic supporting roles. No, he was the leading man, and a fine one, too, full of romantic yearnings and thinly veiled passions.
Thanks to the success of these productions, the College of Marin Theatre Arts Department became one of the most important parts of the school, able to lease an off-campus theatre for productions for which neither the barn-like 600-seat campus auditorium nor the 100-seat workshop theatre were suitable. I saw Robin Williams at least once more, in the 100-seat space, in a production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest that veered annoyingly between 1890’s period and modern dress. Williams’ costume was blue jeans and a T-shirt with an airplane propeller motif, but despite the handicap of that silly costume he was as able to make Algernon Moncrieff come to life as he had been in Shakespearean parts on the big stage.
I mention all this not to do an I-knew-him-when brag (as I said, I saw him on stage but didn’t actually know him), but because just about everything written about Robin Williams from the time he signed to do his late-1970’s sitcom Mork and Mindy until the obituaries ignored this part of his career. To read the standard histories of Williams’ career, you’d think he sprang full-blown from the stage of the Comedy Store in L.A. in 1975, got seen there by executives from Paramount and ABC and signed to do that dorky but screamingly funny show that made him a household name. I would tell people that I’d seen Robin Williams perform in Shakespeare in junior college productions, and they wouldn’t believe me. It’s not that different from the legend that America’s Queer rights movement sprang full-blown from the Stonewall Inn riot in New York City in 1969 — ignoring that there’d been sporadic Queer activism in the U.S. at least since 1926 and a continuous movement since 1950.
So when my then-girlfriend urged me to watch this great new show called Mork and Mindy with this hilarious guy named Robin Williams, I didn’t make the connection to the young man who’d started out in my junior college until I actually watched the program, and it dawned on me who Robin Williams was. I can’t say I really was a huge fan of Williams — I didn’t follow his every move or watch his every movie (some of which were pretty forgettable) — but what I saw of him, I generally liked. I remember watching Good Morning, Vietnam — his breakthrough film in which he played D.J. Adrian Cronauer, a real person (who, naturally, protested against the inaccuracies in the movie) who had done a pop-music show for the “grunts” in ’Nam. Though I found the film a bit too arbitrarily divided between a relentlessly comic first half and a tear-jerking second half, nonetheless Williams deserved the kudos he got from critics who were finally discovering what we early-1970’s College of Marin alumni had known all along: that Robin Williams was a great actor and not just a crazy improv comedian.
Not that Robin Williams was the first person to balance those talents. One of the most annoying aspects of biography writing is what I call “first-itis,” the tendency of people who write about someone to assume that they were the first person ever to do this or that. When I heard one of Williams’ TV eulogists say he was uniquely innovative in his ability to combine comedy and drama, my immediate reaction was, “Does the name ‘Charlie Chaplin’ mean anything to you?” Over the next few days I found myself ransacking my brain for the names of other actors equally adept in comedy and drama, and equally skilled at coming up with nervy combinations of them: Cary Grant, David Niven, Peter Sellers, Jack Lemmon. It doesn’t take away from Robin Williams’ enormous talent to note that there were other actors before him who could make you laugh and break your heart — sometimes, like Chaplin, at the same time.
The last time I saw Robin Williams live was in April 1981, when he was one of the stars of a big peace rally at the Starlight Bowl in Balboa Park put on by something called the April Coalition, an uncertain and internally divided group of people agreeing on little except their opposition to President Reagan’s military buildup. I actually have stronger memories of a much less well-known performer on the bill, Earl Robinson, who in the 1930’s and 1940’s had written such Popular Front classics as “Ballad for Americans” and “The House I Live In” and whose song “Black and White,” written to celebrate the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, had been a major hit for Three Dog Night. On the stage of the Starlight Bowl, Robinson proved charmingly funny and warm, even when he was lamenting that Three Dog Night’s version of his song had left out its most politically pointed verse.
What I remember about Robin Williams on that day was a routine he did spoofing the various weapons President Reagan wanted to add to the U.S. military arsenal — including the cruise missile. Assuming a stereotyped Gay-queen voice, he had the cruise missile say, “Ooh, a city! Let’s destroy it!” Almost nobody who wasn’t at that rally, whom I quoted that line to later, thought it was funny. That’s why Robin Williams became a huge star and I didn’t. So much of great comedy is timing — the way a joke is delivered so that something that looks only slightly amusing on paper can evoke huge belly-laughs when spoken by a master. The late Lenny Bruce was frequently put on trial in the early 1960’s for obscenity, and he’d have to sit in court while police stenographers solemnly and humorlessly read from transcripts of his act. (In self-defense he started recording his performances, which meant that after he died of a heroin overdose in 1966 plenty of “new” Lenny Bruce albums were released from those tapes.) Bruce would claim, usually in vain, that an act that sounded obscene when delivered in a monotone by a bored cop wasn’t when a trained stand-up comedian did it. Likewise, Robin Williams’ cruise-missile routine sounded outrageously homophobic when I repeated it — and brilliantly funny and not at all anti-Queer when he did it.
I also found myself lamenting when Robin Williams started pursuing the self-destructive path that tempts a lot of people who become famous. “Going Hollywood,” they called it in the 1930’s — indeed, a movie of that title starring Bing Crosby was made in 1933 — and it took much the same form then than it did in the 1970’s when Williams made it, and it does today. Drinking. Drugs. Partying. Women (or men). Late arrivals on set and diva-ish behavior when you actually do show up for work. And a lot of forgettable pieces of presumably commercially appealing trash to make quick money to pay for it all. Williams lasted a lot longer than many burnout stars — he didn’t drink himself to death, he didn’t O.D., he didn’t disgrace himself completely, and he did enough genuinely good movies in between the mediocre or downright wretched ones that periodically he reminded people of the sheer range and breadth of his talents.
One I particularly remember because I reviewed it when it came out was called One Hour Photo. “Basically One Hour Photo is Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom meets Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver,” I wrote. “Sy Parrish (Williams) is a pathetic character who bears all the indicia of motion-picture alienation: a grungy downtown apartment in which he lives alone, an obsessive-compulsive commitment to do his job absolutely perfectly; a bare minimum of emotional connections — he’s on a first-name basis with the waitress who serves him at a coffee shop but she seems to be the only woman he knows at all outside his work — and a fixation on a particular family that leads him to print extra copies of their photos and literally paper his wall with them. Needless to say, it also leads him to stalk them, and worse … ”
One Hour Photo wasn’t much of a movie — “Williams Shines Brighter than Film,” I headlined my review — but it offered its star one of those haunting performances he remained capable of throughout his entire career. Even after he got too old to get huge roles in blockbuster properties, Williams could still get jobs from oddball “independent” producers and directors — and it’s a tribute to his open-mindedness that he took a lot of parts most stars of his reputation and history wouldn’t have considered. Former Monty Python member Terry Jones recalled approaching Williams in 2010 asking him to provide the voice of a talking dog named Dennis for an upcoming film called Absolutely Anything — and having to approach him again four years later after Jones finally got the money to take the script into production. “I e-mailed him with a sinking heart, fearing that so much time had elapsed and he may not want to voice Dennis,” Jones recently recalled. “But I need not have feared. He wrote back that he was up for voicing the dog.”
Robin Williams died August 11, 2014 in Tiburon, California — not far from the College of Marin where I’d first heard of him and seen him. The matter-of-fact press conference given by the Marin County sheriff’s department, which I watched on CNN, told a story straight out of one of Williams’ edgier movies, made even more frightening by the Jack Webb just-the-facts-ma’am understatement with which the cop told it. They’d found him hanging by a doorway in his home, holding a knife whose blade was stained with a red substance. The cop giving the press conference resolutely avoided making even the most obvious inferences, but it seemed clear that in his last minutes on earth Robin Williams had been so determined to end his life he’d hacked at his wrists, trying to slash them, and then hanged himself when that didn’t work. (If it hadn’t happened for real, one could readily imagine this as a screamingly funny Robin Williams comedy sequence: the hapless man who can’t even kill himself properly.)
In the six days between Williams’ death and my writing this, there’s been endless speculation attempting to answer the unanswerable question: why? Why did a man who seemingly had it all become so desperate to take his own life? And a more poignant question, at least to me: how did a brilliantly talented performer who brought so much joy and laughter to millions of other people have so little left over when he needed it himself? The bitch-goddess aspects of celebrity — the Faustian bargain any sort of stardom brings with it, the fishbowl existence that’s the dark side of renown — have been expressed so often they’ve basically become clichés. When you’re a star, you can no longer have a normal life. You can’t eat out, go for a walk, date or do any of the things normal people take for granted without being followed by paparazzi and so-called “fans” who think the money they’ve paid to see you on screen entitles them to horn in on your life any time they get the chance.
And in Robin Williams’ case there was another factor that haunts every celebrity who doesn’t do a Byronic flame-out and exit in their 20’s and 30’s. It’s called age. A performer like Williams who makes it big on the basis of youthful exuberance and energy is going to have a good deal of trouble later on when the energy gets drained and the exuberance is harder to sustain. When I finally caught up with his’ 1997 film Flubber — a remake of Walt Disney’s 1961 The Absent-Minded Professor with Williams playing a part originated by Fred MacMurray — in 2009, I wrote on my movie blog that “it probably would have been better if Williams had made it about 10 to 15 years earlier (when he wouldn’t have had to rely so heavily on digital effects and stunt people to do his pratfalls for him).”
Williams may have been a giant talent, but when he died he was already on the downgrade, no longer considered for leads in big blockbusters and instead playing big roles in independent movies and small ones in commercial films (like the Night at the Museum series, in which he played a wax statue of Theodore Roosevelt which comes to life), and his TV sitcom The Crazy Ones — heavily hyped by CBS as Robin Williams’ long-awaited return to series television — had been canceled after just one season. The downside of fame is not only the loss of privacy and connection to normal humanity, it’s also a cruel awareness of how quickly the brass ring can pass you by on the next ride on the merry-go-round. An old Hollywood proverb says it best: “You’re only as good as your last picture.”
Other comedians managed the transition without taking their own lives. Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd saved their fortunes and were able to spend their last years in quiet, dignified retirement. Buster Keaton and Groucho Marx made late-in-life comebacks as elder statesmen of comedy. Jerry Lewis and Danny Thomas did charity telethons that kept them busy and before the public long after they could no longer get cast in the sorts of roles that had made them famous. Age is usually more of a curse on celebrity women than celebrity men — in what other line of work is a woman considered washed up in her mid-30’s? — but among men it’s particularly difficult for comedians because making people laugh, especially in the strenuous high-energy way Robin Williams made us laugh, is pretty much a young person’s job.
Goodbye, Robin Williams. May your restless soul that made us laugh so hard find peace at last. I feel like I’ve grown up with you; maybe because you’re an old school mate of mine that your death hit me a lot harder than most celebrity deaths. I’m sorry that your career and your talents cost you so much in the end. And for the enjoyment you gave me, I can only say a quiet, dignified, “Thank you.”

Thursday, July 03, 2014

How San Diego’s Corporate Elites Win Even When They Lose

Queer Democrats Discuss “Nullification Politics” by which Business Interests Thwart Progressive Elected Officials


Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

L to R: Todd Gloria, Richard Barrera, Georgette Gomez

San Diego City Council President and former acting mayor Todd Gloria was scheduled to be one of three featured speakers at the June 26 meeting of the predominantly Queer San Diego Democrats for Equality, but he arrived late. “I was attending a commemoration of Latino veterans at the U.S.S. Midway, and that’s not the sort of event you leave early,” he said. But he joined two other panelists, San Diego Unified School District board member and San Diego-Imperial Counties Central Labor Council secretary-treasurer Richard Barrera and Yes on B and C campaign chair Georgette Gomez, for a lively discussion of what the club called “nullification politics” — in which business interests systematically thwart progressive elected officials by either getting voters to repeal their actions at the ballot box or threatening to do so.
The overwhelming defeat of Propositions B and C by the San Diego electorate in June 2014 was the business community’s latest success at “nullification politics.” These measures were put on the ballot by a referendum campaign. Since 1911 California voters have been able not only to pass initiatives, which are entirely new laws written by private citizens and put on the ballot by petitions, they’ve also been able to repeal laws passed by the state legislature or a local county or city government through a similar procedure. A referendum is the same as an initiative — a private individual, organization or coalition circulates a petition to put an issue on the ballot — only it’s designed to get rid of a law previously passed by elected officials, not create a new one.
The law San Diego’s business community successfully used the referendum to get rid of in June 2014 was the Barrio Logan community plan. Barrio Logan, a neighborhood created in 1969 when the Coronado bridge was built and its approach road neatly bisected Barrio Logan, hadn’t had a new plan since 1978. According to a presentation Georgette Gomez gave at the Centro Cultural de la Raza April 12, before the election, the intent behind the 1978 plan was to get rid of all the residents of Barrio Logan and turn it into a purely industrial zone. In the 2000’s the city, Barrio Logan neighborhood associations and businesspeople — particularly the owners of the shipyards that are Barrio Logan’s largest industries — began to negotiate a community plan, which the City Council ultimately approved in 2013.
“Barrio Logan gave up 95 percent of the plan to the commercial interests,” Gomez told the San Diego Democrats for Equality June 26. But that wasn’t enough for the commercial interests; they were determined to wipe out the plan entirely, no matter how much money they had to spend and how many lies they had to tell about what the plan would do. A local judge actually ruled that the opponents’ referendum petition was being circulated based on blatant lies, including statements that the Barrio Logan plan would cost the city 45,000 jobs and force the U.S. Navy out of town, but refused to rule the issue off the ballot. Once their referendum qualified, they spent over $1 million on a multi-media campaign based on the same lies — and swamped the opposition, winning by a 20-percent margin in a citywide vote. “We only raised $100,000, and most of that came in the last two weeks,” Gomez recalled.
The defeat of the Barrio Logan community plan was the latest in a series of triumphs for the business community over San Diego’s elected officials. When the City Council tried to block approval of Walmart’s planned super-stores by requiring “economic impact reports” before the stores could be built, Walmart sponsored a referendum campaign, got enough signatures to put the issue on the ballot, and instead of allowing the election to happen the Council bailed on the issue and repealed the law. The Council did this again when developers challenged an increase in the fees they have to pay the city to fund affordable housing: they repealed the fee increase rather than allow the city to vote on it.
It happened again when owners of medical marijuana dispensaries used the referendum to challenge a city ordinance restricting the industry to a handful of dispensaries in out-of-the-way locations — though in that case, Gloria boasted, the elected officials won after all. While serving as acting mayor following Bob Filner’s resignation, Gloria said that since the city’s zoning laws did not specifically allow for any medical marijuana dispensaries, none could legally operate in the city until the Council passed some form of regulation. In a country whose economic system is at least nominally based on private property, this might seem counter-intuitive — Gloria was essentially saying that you can’t do anything with your property unless there’s a city law that specifically allows it — but his argument worked. Gloria boasted that he was able to force the medical marijuana industry to accept “a more restrictive ordinance” than the one they’d tried to challenge by referendum.
Richard Barrera’s opening presentation, delivered before Gloria arrived, reviewed the history of San Diego’s business elite’s recent campaigns to use both initiatives and referenda to limit the power of progressive elected officials. “The first major anti-labor use of the initiative process by the business community was Proposition C in 2006,” he said. This was a so-called “managed competition” law that gave private companies the right to bid against city workers to take over city services. Its effect has been mainly to force city departments to lower their costs to win the contracts against private competitors — which, opponents say, has reduced the quality of service and led to longer wait times as the city tries to do more with fewer workers.
Next, said Barrera, was the business elite’s attack on so-called Project Labor Agreements (PLA’s) in 2010-2012. Opponents of PLA’s say they cost cities, counties and school board money by forcing private bidders on construction contracts to use union workers and pay union-scale wages. According to Barrera, the idea behind PLA’s is to “get residents of lower-income communities into union apprenticeships” and thereby train local residents for jobs that will help them move up economically. The business community’s campaign against PLA’s started with a 2010 initiative banning them in Chula Vista. Then they persuaded voters in both the city and county of San Diego to bar them in 2012.
After that came Proposition B in June 2012 “to eliminate defined-benefit pensions for city employees,” Barrera recalled. It passed overwhelmingly after years of propaganda blaming retired city workers and their allegedly outsized pensions for the city’s financial troubles in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Though the municipal workers’ unions had already negotiated contracts with the city to cut back pension expenses, that wasn’t enough either for the business community or the voters. They passed Proposition B despite warnings from local economists that at least in the short term it would increase, not decrease, the city’s pension burden. The bill also imposed a five-year wage freeze on all city workers, on top of the freeze the Council had already imposed five years earlier, thus forcing city employees to go for a decade without a raise.

The Minimum Wage: The Big Enchilada

All these clashes between the San Diego City Council and the city’s business community are likely mere warm-ups for the biggest challenge to come: the fight over whether, and by how much, to raise the minimum wage. During the one State of the City address he was able to give as acting mayor, Gloria said this would be a major priority of his during his remaining time on the Council. But he rejected the call of the labor-backed Center on Policy Initiatives (CPI) for a $15 per hour minimum wage, which they estimated was what would be needed to make sure no San Diegans who are working full-time would live in poverty. Instead he initially called for a $13.09 minimum, and since he’s lowered his proposal still further to $11.15.
Gloria told the Democrats for Equality that he did this because “I heard from small-business owners that [$13.09] would be too much.” Lowering his proposal to $11.15 “turned a lot of opponents into supporters,” Gloria said, including the franchise owners of Ace Hardware downtown and the UPS Store in North Park. But it didn’t faze San Diego’s largest employers, who — in a tactic typical of big business’s attempts to nullify progressive decisions by elected officials — announced they were going to organize a “Small Business Coalition” to fight any minimum-wage increase in San Diego. “That is not going to be funded by small businesses,” Gloria acidly noted.
Answering the objection that a minimum-wage hike in San Diego would lead to fewer jobs and a weaker local economy, Gloria claimed that in other West Coast cities that have raised it — San Francisco, San José and Seattle — the opposite has been true. “San José raised the minimum wage and unemployment went down 2 percent,” he said. “When people’s wages go up, they buy things and this stimulates the economy. Employers complain they can’t afford to pay their workers more because their rents, utilities and health care costs are going up. I tell them these things are all going up for their workers, too. The only things that aren’t going up for workers are their wages.” Gloria said that 200,000 San Diego workers will benefit immediately from a raise in the minimum wage, and in order to avoid a series of fights over what the wage should be, his plan is to tie it to the Consumer Price Index so it automatically goes up with the rate of inflation.
Another strategic decision the Council will have to make is whether to pass a minimum-wage ordinance on its own authority or put it on the ballot for the city’s voters to decide. Gloria’s original proposal in his State of the City address was to put it on the ballot, but he’s since had second thoughts. “I was willing to compromise on the wage rate because we need to do it faster,” he told the Democrats for Equality. The club took a straw poll of its members at the meeting — and the overwhelming majority in the room said the Council should raise the minimum wage itself instead of delaying it for a popular vote. It’s likely to end up on the ballot as a referendum anyway, and that will delay it until the election is held, but the club members seemed to think it would be better if the Council passed it first and thereby set the terms of the debate instead of letting the opposition do it for them.
One of the big problems facing progressive San Diegans is the overwhelming Right-wing control of the local media. Because the U-T San Diego newspaper and the city’s electronic media are all owned by highly conservative elements of the business community, they’re part and parcel of what Barrera called “rebranding” progressive reforms in order to undo them. “We fully expect the business community will go all out to try to undo the minimum-wage increase and the policy of paid sick days for city workers,” Barrera said. “As we elect more progressive majorities on city councils and school boards; as we do the work to put more progressives in elected positions, and they start to make San Diego more fair for families and deal with environmental sustainability and affordable housing, we can expect the business communities, the U-T and the Right-wing media to do everything they can to throw out these decisions.”
These referendum and initiative campaigns are particularly frustrating for San Diegans, Barrera said, because opinion polls show that San Diegans overwhelmingly support progressive legislation — when they’re not in the middle of an election campaign in which they’re being lied to about them. “The Barrio Logan community plan was 20 points ahead in polls taken when voters had both sides explained to them,” Barrera said. “The support for a minimum-wage increase is leading 2-1. But the business communities plan to rakes $1.5 to $2 million, which they can do without much work. Their messaging distorts and lies to people, and that’s a serious threat. We can’t match their resources, even though we would win if it were a fair fight and we could get our message out. This puts all the most important things we’re fighting for at risk.”
“I think we’re seeing the worst of the fight,” added Gomez. “The Republicans are continuing to hold on. We have the numbers to create a progressive San Diego, but it’s about bringing the people out. A lot of people feel like they’re getting screwed over and over, and we have to be there. We have to contribute to these campaigns. The Republicans persist in controlling the image and the decisions. We have to invest in our city’s future.”

What Is To Be Done?

Much of the club’s debate during the question-and-answer part of the presentation, and over two resolutions the club’s board proposed at the end of the meeting, mirrored the frustration expressed by Barrera and Gomez: San Diego has a progressive majority, they believe, but too many potential progressive voters stay home and allow conservatives to win elections. “Republicans vote no matter what,” said Democrats for Equality president David Warmoth. “Poor people think government is something done to them rather than for them.”
The frustration of many club members over the Right’s ability to get things on the ballot and passed in low-turnout local elections led to some suggestions that sounded odd coming from a nominally progressive group. One was to support shopping-mall owners who challenge the right of signature gatherers to circulate petitions on private property. One speaker pointed out that the Uptown District mall, where the meeting was taking place, has signs put up by the mall’s management urging shoppers to drive away petition circulators and canvassers by not signing their petitions or donating to them. Generally progressives have fought for political activists to have access to customers in malls — it’s been a linchpin of the strategy of groups like the Queer-rights organization Canvass for a Cause (CFAC) — but both Gomez and Barrera seemed sympathetic to the idea of trying to keep an anti-minimum wage referendum off the ballot by supporting mall owners in denying access to petition circulators.
Other ideas being floated included doing a so-called “decline to sign” campaign, in which supporters of the minimum wage would stand near people circulating the petition and give potential signers reasons not to put their names on it. It’s one of those ideas that progressives have talked about before, but Barrera conceded the progressive community has never mounted “a serious decline-to-sign campaign” against any of the previous pro-corporate initiatives. He liked the idea because, even if the decline-to-sign campaign doesn’t keep the referendum against the minimum wage from getting on the ballot, it would at least start the process of “educating” voters and developing a message to pass the minimum-wage increase.
One reform the city has already done, said Gloria, was rewrite the referendum statute so a referendum can go on the ballot in the next regularly scheduled local election. When Walmart qualified their referendum against the city’s attempt to limit them building big-box stores, the law required that a successful referendum petition go before the voters as soon as a special election could be scheduled — which, Gloria recalled, would have cost the cash-strapped city $3 million. By contrast, the Barrio Logan referendum went on a regular city ballot and added only $200,000 to what the city was already spending to hold the normal election.
The proposed resolution the club ultimately adopted was a further step in that direction. It was that San Diego follow the example of the state of California and move all referenda and initiatives to the November election in even-numbered years. “The conservatives always want to take the biggest community decisions to the smallest electorates,” Barrera said. “Moving referendum and initiative decisions to November is important because these initiatives and referenda affect mostly people of color, low-income people and young people” — who are likelier to vote in November than in June primaries or special elections.
“We have seen too often the turnout [in June primary elections] be 25 to 30 percent, and by the time they get to these issues on the ballot the actual percentage of people who vote drops to 10 to 15 percent,” said Jess Durfee, former president of the Democrats for Equality and former chair of the San Diego County Democratic Party. He was speaking not only in favor of the resolution to ask the city to put all referenda and initiatives on the November ballot but for another one to require that the top two finishers in City Council primaries go before the voters again in November, even if one got a majority of votes in the primary. “We need this so we can properly weigh the issues,” Durfee said. “With low turnouts we are disenfranchising voters who think we already have a top-two system. We’ve never been able to educate them on that.”
The resolution to call on the city to have all referenda and initiatives voted on in November general elections passed unanimously. The one to set up a “top-two” system for City Council elections similar to the one California uses for statewide offices and the state legislature passed with two votes opposed.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Hawai’ian Activists Come to San Diego to Protest BIO Convention

President of “Babes Against Biotech” Confronts Big Pesticide Makers on Kaua’i


Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Nomi Carmona of “Babes Against Biotech”

The banner protesting the Kaua’i lawsuit (Nomi at left)

Protesters confront biotechies (Hendrik Jan Houthoff at right)

Chris Galloway

GMO’s = death (the banner Chris Galloway objected to is at right)

“Kill Monsanto Before It Kills Us”

“Monsanto Owns the FDA”

Mom and three kids came down from Temecula to protest

The demonstration against the Biotechnology Industry Organization’s (BIO) 2014 convention in San Diego June 23-26 was small. A hastily thrown-together action outside the San Diego Convention Center on BIO’s last day in town, June 26, attracted no more than about 20 people at any one time. But among those people were a delegation of activists from Hawai’i, which has become an unlikely ground zero in the battles over pesticides, genetically engineered crops and the future of farming in the U.S. and worldwide.
Led by Nomi Carmona, a Hawai’ian activist and president of Babes Against Biotech (BAB), the Hawai’ians particularly targeted three pesticide companies — Syngenta, Dow Chemical and DuPont Pioneer — for a lawsuit they’ve filed against the county government of Kaua’i, one of the Hawai’ian Islands. The suit, filed last January in federal court in Honolulu, seeks to throw out a law opponents of pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) got through the Kaua’i county government in 2013 limiting the use of pesticides and GMO’s in experimental farms on Kaua’i.
According to Carmona, all six of the world’s major agricultural and chemical biotech firms — the three that are suing plus Monsanto, Bayer, and BASF — operate experimental farms on four of the five Hawai’ian Islands. “We passed a law to require buffer zones between the farms and schools, homes and hospitals, because we’re getting so many problems with pesticide poisoning,” Carmona explained. “The kids are having to leave school in ambulances, unconscious. Pesticides are being found drifting off the test fields and ending up next to schools. Pediatricians are freaking out because we’re showing 10 times the national average of birth defects in the neighboring fields.”
In addition to setting up buffer zones between experimental farms and residents, Carmona explained, “That bill also required disclosure of what they’re spraying on us and what genetic traits they’re experimenting with [in creating GMO’s], and to do environmental and health impact studies.” Getting the bill approved by the Kaua’i legislature was itself a tough struggle — Kaua’i Mayor Bernard Carvalho, Jr. vetoed it and the Kaua’i County Counsel passed it over his veto in November 2013 — and with the companies suing to have it invalidated, it’s become even tougher.
Why are the companies suing? Syngenta spokesperson Paul Minehart said in an interview that the ordinance is illegal because “it arbitrarily targets our industry with burdensome and baseless restrictions on farming operations by attempting to regulate activities over which counties in Hawai’i have no jurisdiction. These activities are already regulated by governmental agencies under state and federal laws.”
One thing the companies and the activists agree on is why Hawai’i in general, and Kaua’i in particular, have become ground zero for research in pesticides and the GMO crops designed to withstand them. Because Hawai’i is America’s only tropical state, it has an excellent growing climate and can generate three to four crop cycles per year — compared to only one or two on the U.S. mainland. And because it’s made up of five islands, the test fields for pesticides and GMO’s can be kept relatively isolated and free from cross-contamination with other forms of agriculture.
As a result, Syngenta and DuPont Pioneer each leased about 5,000 acres of land on Kaua’i, and Dow subsidiary Agrigenetics leased 3,500 acres. The companies use this land to grow a mix of GMO crops, including corn, soybeans, canola (rapeseed) and rice. The lawsuit states that Kaua’i’s climate gives the companies “the invaluable opportunity to triple or quadruple the pace of development of GMO crops,” which is “crucial” to their success.
That’s exactly what Hawai’i’s environmental and anti-GMO activists are trying to stop. In addition to Kaua’i, the government of Mau’i is considering a similar bill and the local government of Hawai’i, the largest of the islands and colloquially called “the Big Island” by locals so it isn’t confused with the entire state, just passed a bill banning the growing of any new GMO crops on their land. Supporters of these ordinances say the companies are using pesticides other nations have banned, and that they’re spraying restricted-use pesticides 10 to 16 times per day, 250 to 300 days per year.
According to Carmona, one reason she was protesting the BIO convention is that BIO itself has filed a lawsuit against the Big Island’s law restricting GMO crops. “Hawai’i is the last [island] without the chemical companies,” she said. “We’re protecting it by passing that law, and this organization is now suing to overturn it.”
Carmona said the companies agreed to voluntary disclosure under something called the Kaua’i Good Neighbor Project, but the “absolutely astonishing numbers” revealed in those releases led the companies to pull back and fight tooth and nail against any requirements for additional disclosure. She said the only way grass-roots activists know what chemicals are being sprayed is from the sales records for them, which are supposed to be posted online — but the online information is not complete, and “they’re legally fighting that, too.”
The tale of woe being told by Nomi Carmona has a familiar ring to progressive San Diegans still reeling from the defeat of the Barrio Logan Community Plan at the polls earlier in June. There, too, local activists had sought to set up buffer zones between toxic industries and people’s homes and schools. They won at the San Diego City Council, but industry fought back by putting the community plan up for a public vote by the entire city — and the plan was defeated by a 20-point margin. The campaign against it claimed that passage of the Community Plan would push the Navy out of San Diego, close the shipyards and cost the city 45,000 jobs.
Those are the same arguments Carmona hears when she debates the pesticide/GMO issue back home on Kaua’i. “I could give you their entire testimony,” she said. “Every time it’s always the same thing: ‘We provide jobs. We provide a valuable service. Over three trillion GMO meals have been served.’” She also said company spokespeople tell elected officials and ordinary citizens to “ignore all the other peer-reviewed science in the entire world, and just listen to the ‘science’ that they fund,” which says GMO’s are safe.
The biotech industry’s take-no-prisoners attitude towards its critics has allowed the food, chemical and pesticide industries to sneak GMO’s into Americans’ food with virtually no public debate. Elsewhere in the world, that hasn’t been the case. France, Germany and almost all other European countries have passed laws requiring that food containing GMO ingredients be labeled as such. “All we want are the kinds of laws your countries already have,” some of the anti-BIO protesters told convention delegates from Europe.
But U.S. industry leaders have raised millions of dollars to defeat ballot measures in California and Washington requiring foods containing GMO’s to be labeled. And they’re threatening a lawsuit against the state of Vermont for passing a labeling bill in their state legislature.

A Difference of 13 Years

The relative absence of organized protest to the 2014 BIO convention in San Diego — an event extensively ballyhooed in the local media because Hillary Rodham Clinton came to town to deliver the keynote speech — stood in stark contrast to what happened the first time BIO came to town. In the summer of 2001, opponents of biotechnology in general and GMO’s in particular organized an elaborate response, including hosting their own “Biojustice” convention two days before BIO’s opened and bringing in worldwide speakers, including Vandana Shiva from India and Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser, whom Monsanto sued for patent infringement — and won — after their genetically modified canola seeds contaminated his crop. Opponents also tried to set up an elaborate series of street actions during the BIO convention itself.
Unfortunately, the San Diego police and business establishment were ready for them. Partly to ward off a riot similar to the one in Seattle in November-December 1999 at the World Trade Organization’s ministerial meetings, and partly to show the biotech industry that the city was on their side, the police mounted a massive presence, closing off much of downtown San Diego. Police also aggressively enforced traffic laws — including arresting people for stepping outside crosswalk lines when crossing streets — to lock up as many protesters as possible and discourage those left free.
The Centre City Development Corporation (CCDC), the now-defunct redevelopment agency for downtown San Diego, organized meetings of local property owners to make sure nobody rented temporary space to host anti-BIO demonstrations. As a result, the Biojustice organizers had to set up their “convergence center” miles away from the convention, in the parking lot of an alternative church in Golden Hill. The quasi-military tactics of the police put off not only Biojustice protesters but BIO delegates as well. Chris Holloway of the ERA Consulting Group in London attended both the 2001 and 2014 BIO conventions and was astounded that in 2001 he couldn’t get anywhere near the Convention Center without showing his delegate badge.
At least one activist who participated in Biojustice suggested that the heavy-handed police response to the 2001 anti-BIO protests discouraged local activists from mounting major challenges to later BIO conventions in San Diego. This may be why activists have paid so little attention to BIO in a city where the three Marches Against Monsanto in May and October 2013 and May 2014 have drawn large crowds. The last March Against Monsanto on May 24 drew over 3,000 people and featured a pre-march rally of local speakers urging anti-GMO activists to support community gardens, farmers’ markets and other alternative ways of obtaining freshly grown, organic and non-GMO food.
The relatively tiny size of the anti-BIO demonstration June 26 had one unforeseen result: protesters got to talk to BIO delegates one-on-one and found a number of them surprisingly sympathetic to their cause. Chris Holloway took exception to a sign that said “GMO’s = ” with a drawing of a skull and crossbones. But he told protesters he agreed with their opposition to GMO’s in agriculture. His concern was that medical researchers like himself be allowed to use genetic engineering to develop treatments for hereditary diseases. Holloway told protesters about the elaborate precautions medical GMO researchers take to ensure their GMO’s don’t contaminate the environment, including destroying all waste products excreted by their human research subjects — a far cry from the notoriously sloppy practices of agricultural GMO researchers.
In general, BIO delegates from other countries — including most of western Europe, where GMO’s are either banned outright or there are labeling requirements for foods containing them — were more sympathetic to the protesters’ cause than Americans. Hendrik Jan Houthoff, a delegate from LINXIS in Amsterdam, drew the same distinction as Holloway between medical and agricultural biotech research. “The way Monsanto does it doesn’t help mankind,” Houthoff said. He added that his daughter, who does biological agricultural work in France, is even more anti-Monsanto than he is.
Asked why his daughter doesn’t like Monsanto, Houthoff said, “Because they are using methods of agriculture that kill diversity in nature, that kill insects, and that don’t help farmers because they have to buy [seeds] from Monsanto every year.” Some of the demonstrators were astonished to hear a BIO convention delegate essentially repeating their talking points and attributing them to his own daughter.
Nomi Carmona did get into an argument with an African-American graduate student in biotech who conceded that “it is a legitimate concern when you’re talking about how people get food when it’s not grown in their area.” But the grad student basically took the industry’s point of view that GMO’s should be assumed to be safe and the burden of proof should be on those who want them banned to prove that they aren’t. “If you’re going to make an argument, there have to be a lot of facts with it,” she said.
“We can’t have the facts without the testing being done,” Carmona replied. “We’re not allowed to.”
The grad student, who had been in the auditorium when Hillary Clinton gave the keynote speech, asked Carmona, “If you remove GMO’s, what is the alternative to feeding the American population?”
It’s an argument that particularly incenses Carmona. “It’s a fantasy right now that GMO’s will help ‘feed the world,’” she told Zenger’s. “Spending $46 million[1] fighting labeling and disclosure of genetically engineered ingredients in your food in California is not ‘feeding the world.’ Denying and crucifying scientists like Tyrone Hayes for exposing the major health risks associated with Syngenta’s [pesticide] atrazine is not ‘feeding the world.’ Everything they’re doing, they’ve made a lot of promises and nothing’s come out. Where are the increased crop yields? They don’t exist.”

[1] — A Huffington Post article, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/26/prop-37-opponents_n_2023719.html, published October 26, 2012, revealed that food and chemical companies had contributed nearly $30 million to defeat Proposition 37, which would have required labeling of foods containing GMO’s in California. This doesn’t count what was spent in the last week before the election, which could have brought the total closer to the $46 million Carmona claimed.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

March Against Monsanto Draws 3,000

San Diego One of Hundreds of Cities Protesting “Frankenfood” Giant


Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

March steps off

Something offensive …


Crammed on the bridge

Reclaiming Kate Sessions, Balboa Park’s founder, for natural agriculture

Occupying Our Food

For My Descendants

No GMO Cookies

The Bee Dog

March arrives downtown

The honeybee life cycle

Axis of Evil

Kill Me Naturally

Nancy Casady

Nick Bernabe

Earl Robinson

Quin Shakra

Susan McKenzie

Rick Trujillo

Ray Lutz

Thirteen years ago, San Diego’s lonely protesters against the biotechnology industry in general and genetically engineered foods in particular would have had a hard time believing that over 3,000 people would one day turn out in the streets of this city for a march demanding — depending on which signs you read and which slogans you heard — either the labeling or an outright ban on genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) in food. But that’s what happened on May 24, when as part of a worldwide day of action against Monsanto, the leading corporation in the GMO business, huge crowds turned out for a rally at the Balboa Park fountain, a march through the park and downtown, and a follow-up program of workshops on do-it-yourself farming and beekeeping at the World Beat Center, also in Balboa Park.
Marches against Monsanto have taken place in San Diego before, in May and October 2013, but this was by far the biggest. The organizers had planned to take the march across the park via the bridge over the canyon in which the 163 freeway sits, but construction blocked off parts of the bridge and forced the marchers to walk two or three abreast through a maze of chain-link fences designed to wall off walkers from the parts of the bridge being rebuilt. The mixup forced the march leaders to rest on the west side of the park before they turned downtown and allow the people in the back to catch up to those in front. Nonetheless, the marchers reunited and made it on the long loop the organizers had planned.
The rally before the march featured a wide variety of speakers with different backgrounds but similar messages. Their overall argument was that neither giant corporations like Monsanto nor government agencies can be trusted to protect us against potentially destructive or environmentally toxic foods. Rather, we have to learn to do that ourselves: by growing our own food, starting urban gardens, joining Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) groups, buying only organic produce and making ourselves more aware of how food gets from a seed in the ground to a serving on our table. Many of the workshops after the march offered similar information, including juicing, aquaculture (a form of underwater farming that generates both produce and edible fish), homesteading, beekeeping, composting and testing your bodies for toxins produced by GMO’s, including the pesticides farmers who grow GMO crops use more of because the whole point of genetically engineering food crops is to sell more pesticide.
That’s the dark connection that has made Monsanto the principal villain in the demonology of those opposed to GMO food. Though other companies are involved in GMO’s — one sign at the rally identified BASF, Bayer, DuPont, Syngenta and Dow as other corporate members of the “Axis of Evil” — Monsanto became the poster child for GMO opponents because it developed so-called “Roundup Ready” soybean seeds to withstand massive applications of their patented herbicide, Roundup. In the late 1990’s, with the patent on Roundup about to expire, Monsanto hatched a scheme to keep farmers using it: they developed Roundup Ready soybeans and sold them to farmers under a contract that said they could use only brand-name Roundup, not any generic version that might come to market once their patent expired. What’s more, they patented the Roundup Ready seeds themselves — and successfully sued farmers whose crops were cross-contaminated with Monsanto’s GMO seeds, whether they’d intended to plant them or not.
Indeed, one of the big fears driving the movement against GMO’s is that, by spreading their genetically engineered versions of common crops so they cross-pollinate with non-GMO varieties, Monsanto may someday claim that all the world’s corn, soy or whatever contains their genes and is therefore their property. Once that happens, it will literally be impossible to grow those foods legally without paying Monsanto a royalty. Other fears driving the anti-GMO movement include the environmental impacts of the huge amounts of pesticides used by farmers who grow GMO’s and the shrinking of the number of varieties of common crops. The fewer varieties of a crop there are, opponents argue, the greater the chance that a pest which develops resistance to Roundup and the rest of the chemical industry’s products will wipe the crops out en masse and there won’t be other, more resistant varieties available with which to replace them.
But the most infuriating aspect of the GMO industry to its opponents is that they not only want to put their altered genes in our food, they want to do that without telling us. Monsanto and other companies in the GMO business have spent hundreds of millions of dollars lobbying against laws that would require food makers to label any products containing GMO’s. Huge donations from these corporations persuaded voters to defeat ballot measures in California and Washington that would have required GMO foods to be labeled. They were also able to stop legislatures in other states from passing GMO labeling laws — until recently, when a labeling bill got through the Vermont state legislature and was signed into law by its governor.
Not that a mere state law is going to stop industry from fighting hard for the right to conceal whether or not our food contains GMO’s. The May 10 Los Angeles Times contained a letter to the editor from Henry I. Miller, M.D., former head of the Office of Biotechnology at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and currently a fellow at the Right-wing Stanford Institution, which said, “The FDA does not require labeling of foods with genetically engineered ingredients because such information is not ‘material’ — in other words, related to safety or appropriate usage — and would be misleading.” Miller claimed that a previous labeling attempt by the Vermont legislature had been struck down by a federal court “because Vermont could not demonstrate that its labeling requirement was motivated by anything more than satisfying consumer curiosity,” and therefore “the court said it could not compel food producers to include that information on product labels.”
It’s that arrogance on the part of the food industry and its advocates both inside and outside of government — that they not only have the right to put genetically engineered ingredients in our food but they don’t even have to tell us, and we don’t have the right to make them — that the first speaker at the May 24 rally, Ocean Beach People’s Food Do-Op manager Nancy Casady, targeted. “I’m not happy if I don’t know what I’m eating,” she said. “Knowing what we’re feeding our children is a basic human right.” She shared both good news and bad news about GMO’s. The good news was that two counties in Oregon have gone beyond labeling requirements and forbidden their farmers from planting genetically engineered seeds.
The bad news, Casady said, was that “169 million acres — about half of all the acreage in the United States — is now planted in GE crops, mostly crops that are designed for the purpose of withstanding more and more herbicides.” She stated that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, “has been found in breast milk in the U.S. in concentrations that are 700 times higher than those allowed in the drinking water in Europe.” Casady also said that 80 million pounds of atrazine, an herbicide that was banned in the European Union in 2004, “is being sprayed on corn [in the U.S.] each year and is causing the feminization of male frogs, a harbinger of the effect in humans.” She called Monsanto “a corporation that is willing to poison and threaten all life on earth for profits.”
Nick Bernabe, a co-founder of the March Against Monsanto as well as an alternative media Web site called http://theantimedia.org/, said, “Millions of people around the world are marching today, but you don’t see any news cameras here. That’s because the media are part of big corporations, just like the GMO companies, and they don’t serve the people by coming to cover events like this.” But he also confidently predicted that “the whole corporate paradigm is shifting towards the grass roots.” Barnaby announced an Overpass Light Brigade (OLB) action later that evening at Clairemont Drive and a “Bee Against Monsanto” protest August 16.
The connection between use of pesticides in agriculture and the massive deaths of bee colonies worldwide since 2006 was a major issue for many participants in the march and rally. “Harvard University just released a study linking bee poisoning 100 percent to neo-nicotinoid insecticides,” said Bernabe — although the two insecticides mentioned in the report (a press release is available online at http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/press-releases/study-strengthens-link-between-neonicotinoids-and-collapse-of-honey-bee-colonies/), imidacloprid and clothianidin, were developed by the German company Bayer AG (best known for aspirin), not Monsanto.
Still, many participants in the rally either wore T-shirts or carried balloons targeting Monsanto products for causing the deaths of bees, some people dressed as bees, and one woman walked a black dog she’d dressed in a black-and-yellow striped vest to make it resemble a bee. The organizers invited Eric Robinson, co-founder of the San Diego Beekeeping Society, to speak, and he began his talk with a whimsical tale of how he got involved in beekeeping. It seems eight years ago a neighbor’s garage had become infested with bees, and Robinson offered to take the bees off his neighbor’s hands. He got several of them out, including the queen, and the rest of the bees followed her to Robinson’s property. So he ordered a commercial beehive for them and became an amateur apiarist.
Robinson displayed an elaborate chart showing the life cycle of honeybees, and rattled off a long list of crops — including strawberries, blueberries, celery, cherries, avocados, beans, apples, sunflowers, hazel nuts, cucumbers, turnips, flax, apricots, oranges, grapefruit and coconuts — all of which are dependent on bees to pollinate them. He pointed to hieroglyphics from ancient Egypt that indicate that even that early, people were raising bees. Robinson also told an anecdote about a village in China during Mao Zedong’s rule in which “they had a big problem with sparrows because they ate crops. So they poisoned the sparrows, and next year they had a huge infestation of insects because they’d killed the sparrows that ate the insects. So they poisoned the insects, and the next year they had no crops at all because there was nothing to pollinate them. Now they have to buy pollen from other parts of China and pollinate their crops by hand. When you try to tweak Mother Nature, you run into trouble.”
Quin Shakra from Ojai, an organic farmer who said he’d never been in San Diego before and had never spoken to so large a crowd, talked about how he branched out from running a one and one-half acre farm (“smaller than a big farm, but bigger than a garden,” he explained) to starting All Good Seeds, a seed company that encourages farmers to save their seeds and use seeds from the previous year’s crop in next year’s planting. People have been doing that since agriculture was first invented, but it’s a big no-no in the corporate world of Monsanto and its competitors. Monsanto’s contracts with farmers specify that they must purchase Monsanto’s seeds every year, and at one point Monsanto tried to develop a seed with a so-called “Terminator” gene so any seeds the plants produced would be sterile and therefore couldn’t grow if replanted.
Quoting writer Carol Depp’s argument that “crop varieties express the values of their creators,” Shakra said, “Roundup Ready soybeans are altered for fertilizers, herbicides and fertility for one season. But that has no value for an organic farmer. We don’t dump herbicides on crops. Our values are not production at all costs and patenting all life in the name of capitalism. We save seeds, keep heirloom varieties, and improve them through traditional crop breeding. We want varieties that taste good and resist pests, are resistant to erratic weather and drought, and thrive.” Shakra also cited a recent paper by the Rodale Institute — which has been promoting organic farming for over 75 years — which argued that organic farming could essentially end human-caused climate change.
“We could sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions with a switch to widely available and inexpensive organic management practices, which we term ‘regenerative organic agriculture’,” the Rodale paper argues. “If management of all current cropland shifted to reflect the regenerative model as practiced at the research sites included in the white paper, more than 40 percent of annual emissions could potentially be captured.  If, at the same time, all global pasture was managed to a regenerative model, an additional 71 percent could be sequestered.  Essentially, passing the 100 percent mark means a drawing down of excess greenhouse gases, resulting in the reversal of the greenhouse effect.” (For a press release about the Rodale paper, visit http://rodaleinstitute.org/reversing-climate-change-achievable-by-farming-organically/. For the full paper, visit http://rodaleinstitute.org/assets/RegenOrgAgricultureAndClimateChange_20140418.pdf.)
“Organic food sales in 2012 increased by 25 percent,” boasted holistic healer Susan McKenzie. “Before 2012 it was 11 percent or less. I don’t know what happened in 2012, but now the numbers [the percentage of food sold in the U.S. that is certified organic] are up from 11 percent to 35 percent. It shows that every choice we make in our lives is making a difference.”
Rick Trujillo, retired train operator from the Santa Clara Valley before it was first colloquially and then officially renamed “Silicon Valley,” talked about his work with United Farm Workers founders César Chávez and Dolores Huerta — though, surprisingly, he didn’t mention Chávez’s pioneering opposition to pesticides in the 1980’s, when it was considered improper for a trade-union leader to question whether consumers should buy a product his members produced on the ground that it might be unsafe. “Science is in the wrong hands, and for us Chicanos/mestizos and existing sovereign nations/tribes, science has been in the wrong hands since 1492,” Trujillo said. He did have nice things to say about one Anglo-American scientist — the late Rachel Carson, author of the pioneering anti-pesticide book Silent Spring (1962).
After Alicia Sachs gave a brief presentation promoting community-supported agriculture (CSA), the next speaker, Ray Lutz, brought the critique back to Monsanto and in particular to its CEO, Hugh Grant (“not the actor,” he joked). “Hugh Grant is a monster,” Lutz said. “Monsanto began in the 1920’s by making PCB’s (polychlorinated biphenyls), which weren’t banned until the 1970’s. They made DDT. They make All laundry detergent, Astroturf, Celebrex, Nutra-Sweet and saccharin — so don’t buy those products, and if you want something sweet, use sugar. Monsanto got into GMO’s in 1983 and made the Flavr-Savr tomato in 1996 (a failed product that incorporated flounder genes into tomatoes to make them more oblong and therefore easier to pack into boxes). They made Terminator seeds, and that’s evil. This company is the epitome of corporate insanity.”
Lutz was advertised as the last speaker, but the organizers squeezed one more in: a white-haired woman whose name appeared to be Bilabi Gas, who’s leading a campaign to get genetically modified food out of San Diego’s public schools. “If your child goes to private school, and you can afford $22,000 a year, you can have his or her food catered by an organic restaurant,” she said. “For the rest of us, our kids are being poisoned.”