Monday, December 01, 2014

Thoughts on the Ferguson Demo

by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

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

Crowd at Opening

Injustice Becomes Law

Fuck the Police

Not One More Life

Demonized

Justice 4 the Black Community

Niggod

R.I.P. Michael Brown

No Justice, No Peace

On the March 1

Stop Police Brutality

On the March 2

On the Courthouse Steps

Crowd Photographing the Speakers

Human Speaker Pedestal

Our Lives Matter

Peace through Revolution

Film the Police

White Solidarity with Black Power

No Justice …

Resistance Becomes a Duty

Emmett & Amadou …

I’m not going to write a sober, “objective” news story about the situation in Ferguson, Missouri or the demonstration I witnessed in downtown San Diego November 25 protesting the decision of the grand jury in Ferguson not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the fatal shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Black man Michael Brown last August. Frankly, I was saddened but not surprised that Wilson wasn’t indicted. What would have been the point? Not long ago, a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin after a reluctant district attorney was pressured into prosecuting — and Zimmerman wasn’t even a sworn police officer but a neighborhood watch wanna-be.
Six days before the protest I’d been at a meeting co-sponsored by Activist San Diego (ASD) and its community radio station, KNSJ 89.1 FM, on whether the police are just doing their jobs or going too far. The panel consisted of three retired law-enforcement officers — all white males — and three police critics. But it was ASD executive director and board member Martin Eder who summed up the perception that underlay the events in Ferguson, both Darren Wilson’s actions and the Black community’s response to them. African-Americans and other U.S. people of color, Eder said, see the police as an occupying force with “the ethic of controlling the streets and shooting first and asking questions later. Racialized justice has been the norm, not the exception.”
This perception on the part of law enforcement seems to rule the day whenever police officers and people of color confront each other. From New York City’s thankfully abandoned official “stop-and-frisk” policy that basically regarded every young man of color on the city’s streets as a criminal with the affirmative duty to prove he wasn’t (a reversal of the “presumption of innocence” on which our criminal justice system is supposedly based) to the myriad anecdotes about people being stopped for “driving while Black” or “driving while brown,” to the bizarre arrest of Harvard professor, PBS show host and Presidential friend Henry Louis Gates, Jr. for breaking into his own house, it’s clear there’s an institutional bias in U.S. law enforcement that regards that “protect and serve” stuff as reserved to white people. For people of color, the police don’t protect and serve: they contain and control.
And this institutional bias remains no matter how many people of color get appointed or elected to office. The U.S. can elect an African-American President, and the police perception of themselves as occupiers in the communities of color continues. San Diego appointed a Latino police chief, David Bejarano, and the number of officer-involved shootings in the communities of color actually went up. (He’s since been replaced by a white man, who in turn was replaced by a white woman.) The U.S. police seem stuck in this social role — with the approval of the older, whiter portion of the American population that actually votes — regardless of how many paper advances are made in civil rights and human rights for marginalized populations.
So I wasn’t surprised that Darren Wilson got to “walk” after killing a young Black man. Indeed, Wilson’s self-justification that Brown “looked like a demon” when he shot him is one of the most chilling aspects of the case. So is the defense offered by Wilson’s attorney that he was just following standard police procedures when he brought down and summarily executed Michael Brown for the “crime” of walking on the street instead of the sidewalk. Wilson probably was following standard police procedures — and that’s precisely the problem.
I also wasn’t surprised that what passes for a Left in San Diego County wasn’t able to mount a powerful, unified demonstration against the grand jury’s cop-loving cop-out. While protesters in other cities trooped out to the streets the night of Monday, November 24 — the day the grand jury’s decision was announced — leading to some unintentionally funny coverage in the mainstream media where hundreds of people were visible on the footage but the commentators solemnly informed us there were only “dozens” of participants — the San Diego organizers decided to wait until the following day. What’s more, they announced two separate demonstrations, one in City Heights and one downtown, while UCSD students staged a third, unannounced one and actually briefly blocked Interstate 5.
I chose to go to the downtown protest, partly because it was easier to get to and partly because it seemed likely to be more interesting. I didn’t see the protest flyer and I got there about 20 minutes late, so I’m not sure who all the organizers were, but the main impetus seemed to come from the African People’s Socialist Party and a white subsidiary organization called the Uhuru Solidarity Movement (“uhuru” means “freedom” in Swahili), along with the Raza Educators’ Association. The speakers from these groups were heavy on rhetoric attacking President Obama, calling for revolution and denouncing the calls from everyone from Obama to Michael Brown’s parents asking that the demonstrations stay “nonviolent.”
But it wasn’t the sort of event you go to for the speakers. What impressed me most about it was the irrepressible energy of the crowd, the way they were willing to march on the sidewalks in a helter-skelter route around several downtown blocks. At times it seemed even the march leaders didn’t know where the march was going to go next, which was a good thing. What’s more, I was pleased to be at a march where there was virtually no one there I actually knew — and goodness knows, it’s easy enough to be depressed by the small size of the San Diego Left and wonder if we’re all just the same 12 people at each demonstration. I was impressed by the commitment, the energy and the power of this crowd.
On November 25 there was not much more that needed to be said about the events in Ferguson — but there was a need to say it anyway, especially in an action dominated by people of color saying they’re fed up with being contained and controlled by the police (and the corporate-dominated economic and political system of which the police and the U.S. military are the enforcement arms). What was said by the people with the bullhorns and the P.A. was less important than the statement the crowd made simply by being there and saying, “Enough Is Enough.” It was a powerful, energetic evening, and I was proud to be there and be a part of it.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Police Call Their Uniforms “Babe Magnets”

Retired Officer Shocks Crowd at Public Debate Nov. 19

by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

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

Michael Maryland, Marjorie Cohn, Catherine Mendonça

Jack Bernanker, Bob Kundland, Thomas Streed

“Law enforcement officers are aware of the implications of a single man coming into contact with women in a patrol car,” Thomas Streed, 23-year veteran of the San Diego Sheriff’s Department, said at a public forum on police practices sponsored by the San Diego Debate Club and Activist San Diego’s public radio station KNSJ (89.1 FM) at the San Diego Repertory Theatre November 19. “One thing I was taught in the police academy is that the uniform is a ‘babe magnet.’ Officers are taught to be alert to this particular thing. Some officers have psychopathologies that drive them to victimize people.”
Though the forum was announced as being a debate over whether police in general are doing their jobs or going too far, the words “babe magnet” galvanized the audience and hung over the rest of the event like a cloud. Most of the attendees were skeptical of the police to begin with, and the words “babe magnet” seemed to summarize the whole attitude of law enforcement, especially towards women. It didn’t help that all three of the panelists defending the police were white men of retirement age — the other side included a white man, a white woman and a Latina — or that Streed’s comment was a response to the lead panelist on the other side, Catherine Mendonça of United Against Police Terror — San Diego, telling about how she was a victim of police abuse herself.
“I was sexually assaulted by a Los Angeles police officer a few years ago, and it opened my mind to what police can do with impunity,” Mendonça said. “Rates of sexual assault and domestic violence among police officers are higher than in the general population. I work in a domestic-violence shelter and many women there say they have called police when they’ve been endangered, and the police have done nothing.”
The other two panelists on the “police are going too far” side pointed to Streed’s “babe magnet” remark as evidence of the attitude women victims of sex crimes and domestic violence get from officers, and why such crimes are often not reported at all. “‘Babe magnet’ is quintessential ‘blame the victim’,” said Thomas Jefferson School of Law professor and former National Lawyers’ Guild president Marjorie Cohn. “Women don’t report rapes because they’re afraid the first thing they’ll be asked by the police is, ‘What did you do to deserve it?’”
“Words fail me to describe the nonsensicalness of that statement,” Streed replied. “To suggest that law enforcement officers are challenging women and blaming victims of sexual assault sickens me. In my 23 years in law enforcement I don’t recall anyone suggesting a woman brought sexual assault upon herself.” Streed also tried to explain his “babe magnet” remark, saying that back in his days at the police academy “one thing a training officer said is that in some cases that uniform can constitute a ‘babe magnet.’ Women may be attracted to the uniform.”
The third police skeptic on the panel, civil rights attorney Michael Maryland — who specializes in lawsuits against police departments and individual officers alleging abuse — mentioned the recent conviction of San Diego police officer Anthony Arevalos on six charges from an indictment alleging 21 cases in which Arevalos made improper advances or solicited bribes from women he stopped. The city has also agreed to nearly $9 million in settlements of civil suits brought by women Arevalos victimized. What’s more, allegations have surfaced that Arevalos was merely the tip of the iceberg, and that other officers assigned to the San Diego Police Department’s Sex Crimes Unit, which investigates rapes, routinely made disparaging remarks about women and hung posters in their precinct officers reflecting what women activists call “rape culture.”
Streed’s “babe magnet” comment “raises for me the stories we’ve had of sexual assaults by uniformed SDPD officers,” Maryland said. “The officers who did that felt they could get away with it, and supervisors and middle managers let them get away with it.”
“It’s important we not say ‘all women’ or ‘all police officers,’” said Bob Kundland, a panel member who worked for the SDPD, the Sheriff’s Department and the Marshal’s Department before retiring. He admitted that he didn’t have personal knowledge of “the issues regarding the chain of command” — Maryland’s allegation that SDPD officials let officers they were supposedly supervising get away with sexually harassing women — but said during his time at the SDPD three officers had observed a colleague behaving inappropriately, “and one of them reported it to me.”
“The problem is one of power,” said Maryland. “The police officer has enormous power, and certain people, given that power, will abuse it. The question is how we’re dealing with the small percentage of officers who abuse that power.”
Asked by the debate moderator, former San Diego city attorney Mike Aguirre, if the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department had had similar problems to the SDPD, Streed said, “Every police department has a problem with some police conduct. I provide expert testimony in court as a witness on that kind of behavior. I happen to be concerned with that.”
“There’s tons of evidence that the SDPD sex crimes unit has a number of victim-blaming posters on their walls,” said Mendonça. “Anthony Arevalos was able to get away with it for years.”
“One of the problems is the code of silence,” Maryland added. “Officers are afraid to blow the whistle on other officers. I have represented police officers who have been driven out of their departments for doing the right thing. The police culture makes it difficult for good officers to blow the whistle on their colleagues.”
“If there is a code of silence, it’s disgusting,” Streed replied. “It’s based on a fear of alienating someone who’s around and may not provide backup when it’s needed. But we recognize it and we have put mechanisms into place to address it.”
Aguirre also asked a question about the allegations over the last 30 years that the San Diego Police Department received reports of the murders of 20-plus prostitutes and did little or nothing about it.
“I was the lead investigator on that series, and I haven’t felt safe talking about it since 1983,” Streed said. “We found a lot of people who didn’t do it. There are a lot of questions. At one time we had 48 dead prostitutes. The head guy [on the investigation] said, ‘Get out front with the media,’ and one guy said [at a press conference], ‘Let me assure you. We don’t have a serial killer.’ I turned and looked at him, and one of the other reporters asked me, ‘Dr. Streed[1], do you agree with that?’ I said, ‘Yes, we have 28 dead bodies and 28 different people could be killing them exactly the same way and dumping them in the same place.’”
Marjorie Cohn reminded the audience that, despite Streed’s arguments with his colleagues, “these crimes were not properly investigated and solved.” She also said you can’t address the issue of police misconduct without talking about race, and in particular the tendency of police officers to treat people of color more harshly than whites in similar situations. “Even President Obama has been pulled over because of his color,” Cohn said. “When you’re Black or brown you’re much more likely to be arrested, convicted and sentenced to death.”
“I represented a police officer who was a victim of racial profiling by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA),” said Maryland. “It can happen to anyone, and we have to make sure law enforcement addresses it.”
“Those engaged in sex work are referred to by police as ‘NHI’ — ‘No Humans Involved,’” said Mendonça. This term, which was first publicized in San Diego in the early 1980’s about the prostitute murder cases, also includes homeless people and Transgender people. “Police have this view based on who they are, not what they do,” Mendonça alleged. Her argument was that by writing off certain classes of people as “not human,” police ensure that they’re more likely to be convicted of crimes and less likely to be protected against crimes in which they’re the victims.
An audience member named Erika asked why 97 out of 100 rapists never get punished at all. The source for her statistic was a recent report by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), available online at https://rainn.org/news-room/97-of-every-100-rapists-receive-no-punishment.
Retired San Diego County deputy sheriff Jack Bernanker, one of the pro-police panelists, replied, “First of all, if they’re unreported, we don’t even know that [these rapes] occurred.” The RAINN statistics say that 46 percent of rapes are reported to police, but only 12 percent of rapists are arrested, 9 percent are prosecuted, 5 percent are convicted of a felony but only 3 percent ever serve time.
Bernanker also said that when he was in law enforcement, “if there was a rape allegation, it was investigated and a special unit would write the case up and submit it to the D.A.’s office.”
“There is a systemic amount of violence in the U.S., especially against people of color and communities which are underserved,” said Activist San Diego executive director Martin Eder. “Two-thirds of Latinos feel they are likely to be discriminated against by police. The number of unarmed shootings of youth of color, especially Black people, speaks to a police force that has the ethic of controlling the streets and shooting first and asking questions later. Racialized justice has been the norm, not the exception.”
Eder’s comment was the first time anyone alluded to the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri last August. The debate took place five days before the refusal of a Missouri grand jury to indict Wilson for killing Brown touched off demonstrations throughout the U.S., many of which ended in riots. One of the allegations against authorities in Ferguson is that their heavy-handed restrictions on street protests just escalated the situation and made violence more likely.
“Ferguson is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Cohn. “Young Black people are hassled and shot by police every day. [In Ferguson] they’re trying to keep people from protesting, planting officers to spy on protest leaders, making false arrests and staging raids on churches and homes, using acoustic devices and chemical and other weapons, and arresting reporters. When you read the press coverage, think about that.”
“You’re dealing with a lot of people in the community who are going to protest and let their voices be heard,” said Kundland. “What do you do when someone fires a gun, throws something or creates an issue? When does a peaceful protest become a mob and a riot?”


[1] — As Streed explained it while introducing himself at the event, while working as a San Diego County Sheriff’s Department homicide detective, he also went back to college and majored in psychology to learn more about why criminals behave the way they do. He earned a Masters’ and eventually a Ph.D.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

San Diego’s Crapid Transit

Mourning the Wanton Murder of the #15 Bus Line

by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

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

On October 11, I said goodbye to my father. He had died two months earlier in the San Francisco Bay Area, and his widow (they had been married 53 years; he and my mom had broken up when I was 1 ½) had arranged what she called a “gravesite visit” and invited family members and friends for an informal memorial. That night, as I took the bus from the airport and then made a connection downtown to return me to my home in North Park, I said another goodbye — not to a person, but to a bus line. The #15, which started downtown and ran up the 163 freeway to Hillcrest, then turned onto El Cajon Boulevard and followed it to San Diego State University, was running for the last time before, in one of the many stupid and infuriating decisions made by the people running San Diego’s Metropolitan Transit System (MTS), it was shut down and replaced by a so-called “Rapid” #215.
I had been riding the #15 since I got to San Diego in 1980. At first my then-girlfriend Cat and I lived in Golden Hill and would walk down to Broadway and ride it either to the College area or all the way out to El Cajon — it ran longer in those days — mainly to buy LP records at stores like Off the Record and Blue Meannie Records. (Blue Meannie closed in 2008 — a victim of what in these pages I’ve called “the Interblob,” the way the Internet has largely taken over business after business and abolished the experience of in-person browsing — but Off the Record still exists, though it moved first to Hillcrest and then to North Park, where it holds out in a much smaller space and I still occasionally buy CD’s and used LP’s.) More recently, for the last year and a half I have been doing home care for clients who lived downtown, and I had used the #15 as my quickest and most reliable way to get to work.
But, beginning a little over a year ago, I was warned that the ill-informed idiots who ran MTS would not be letting me do that much longer. The key clue was when construction crews started building these elaborate metal objects on the sidewalk along El Cajon Boulevard and on other parts of the bus lines, including an island smack in the middle of Park Boulevard just north of University. The constructions got in the way of the existing bus stops, and frequently I would leave the house unsure of just where my beloved #15 was going to stop and how much farther than normal I’d have to walk to get there. Then the signs went up, announcing that a new “Rapid” bus line was going to be running along that route and these new, highly decorated bus stops were being built to accommodate it. It took a while to complete these projects — indeed, the morning service started on the “Rapid” #215 a crew was still hosing down the newly built stop where you were supposed to pick it up — but eventually the dark day came when the #15 would be no more and what I’ve come to call the “Crapid” would replace it.
I decided to be fair and give it a try. That lasted two days. On Monday, October 13 — the morning they were still hosing down the bus stop at El Cajon and Texas Street that “Crapid” riders were supposed to use to get on it — I wasn’t sure whether it was going to stop at the elaborate new stop they were hosing down or the old stop across the street. It stopped at the new stop and the sidewalk was still wet from the last-minute cleaning job as I boarded the “Crapid.” It took the “Crapid” just as long to make it down Park Boulevard as it did the old #7 bus, which (blessedly) still exists and which for years has run from Broadway up Park Boulevard, turned east on University Avenue and (depending on which one you get on) goes to 54th and University, College and University, or all the way to La Mesa. What’s more, while the #7 and the old #15 stopped at several locations on Broadway — including one just a block and a half away from my client lives — the “Crapid” only makes three downtown stops: the City College trolley station, Horton Plaza and the America Plaza trolley station. That means a longer walk once I get off the bus — and an irritated client who quite rightly wonders why it’s now so much harder for me to get to work on time.
The wanton destruction of the #15 and its replacement with the “Crapid” is just the latest in a series of bizarre moves by the people running the Metropolitan Transit System (the “Metropolitan Transit Sewer,” as I used to call it until a fellow bus rider sitting with me at a stop on Sunday evening said, “You’re being unfair to sewers — at least they run on Sundays”). For decades both the #7 and #15 ran all the way down to the end of Broadway — until the idiots running MTS decided to short-circuit the runs and end them at First, then shortened them again to end at Third, all of which makes it difficult to get to the Office Depot store at the end of Broadway where I shop often. What’s more, they’ve adopted a stupid plan that’s supposed to make the overall system faster and more efficient, but which anyone who actually rode San Diego’s buses regularly could have told them would be stupid and counterproductive.
It’s called “Limited Stops,” and it’s based on the dumb idea that the reason more San Diegans don’t use public transit is that the buses stop too often. I remember when the two trunk lines serving University Avenue, the #7 and the #10, both stopped at every stop along University. Now only the #7 does; the #10 (which starts at the Old Town Transit Center, snakes up Washington Street to Mission Hills and Hillcrest, and continues down University Avenue — except on weekends, when it abruptly stops at the 40th Street station on a bridge over the freeway) stops at just a few places along the route. The #15 was also subjected to a “limited stops” routine so that it made only one stop (at 33rd Street) on the long stretch of El Cajon Boulevard between 30th and 40th. When the “limited stops” nonsense was introduced at first even the bus drivers were confused — they no longer knew where they were still supposed to stop and where they weren’t, and sometimes they stopped where they weren’t supposed to (and thus made the system much easier on riders) until they learned which stops were still kosher and which were verboten.
A true express bus — one that bypasses surface streets and spends a lot of its route on the freeways, like a car — is considerably faster than one that stays on the surface streets and makes frequent stops. But a “Limited Stops” bus that runs on city streets isn’t any faster than a bus that makes all the stops. Why not? In two words: traffic lights. Any time the driver may be saving by not having to stop at all the indicated stops is going to be lost anyway by all the red lights he or she (and many of the best MTS drivers, both in terms of efficiency and friendliness to riders, are women) will have to stop at. This was a problem when the #10 was shifted to “Limited Stops” status — and it’s also why the #215 “Crapid” isn’t any faster than the #7. It still has to run down Park Boulevard, and even though part of the way it runs on a newly (and expensively) constructed dedicated lane, it still has to stop whenever there is a red light.
I mentioned this to a fellow rider at the #15 stop at Texas and El Cajon a few days before the #15 was killed and replaced with the “Crapid,” and he said that that wouldn’t be a problem because the new buses on the #215 would be equipped with radio signals that would broadcast to the traffic lights and cue them to turn green so the bus could pass. This seemed a bit dubious to me, but he swore that he’d seen this work in Cleveland. From years of bitter experience as a San Diegan, I replied, “There are plenty of things that work in other cities that get screwed up when they’re tried in San Diego.” After I decided to give up on the “Crapid” after two days and start taking the #7 to work, I mentioned this to a middle-aged woman bus driver who said those radio devices that are supposed to make the lights on Park Boulevard go green for the #215 to pass do indeed exist — but they’re not automatic. The bus drivers have to activate them as they approach each light, she said, and most of them aren’t bothering.
The “Limited Stops” nonsense and the wanton destruction of the #15 line to replace it with yet another slow, crappy bus that runs on city streets and gets delayed by red lights are just two examples of the thinly veiled contempt the people who run MTS have for the people who use it. A decade ago I interviewed San Diego environmental activist Carolyn Chase, and something she said in our interview has stayed with me ever since: “San Diego will never have a great public transit system as long as the people running it still think of it as a welfare program.” Genuinely cosmopolitan cities like London, Paris, New York or San Francisco see public transit as part of the urban experience; places like San Diego regard their transit systems as bones they throw to the people too old, too poor or too ignorant to drive.
Limiting the number of stops doesn’t make the buses any faster; it just means that transit users have to walk farther at both ends of their trips. Anyone who actually rode buses regularly would have been able to tell that to the majordomos at MTS, but no one did. Someone who’s seen the MTS offices at 12th and Imperial has told me about all the big, fancy cars in their parking lot, many of them chauffeur-driven, with which MTS’s decision-makers get their sorry carcasses to work so they can make decisions that make MTS slower, less efficient and harder to use. Replacing the #15 with the “Crapid” #215 is a doubling-down on the “Limited Stops” strategy that has actually made San Diego’s bus service worse, not better.
It’s long been a pet theory of mine — at least until I was told that a lot of MTS’s top staff people don’t actually drive themselves to work, but make enough money they can hire other people to do it — that everyone who works for MTS should be required to surrender their driver’s license for the duration of their employment there so they would have to use public transit and therefore experience the results of their decisions in the real world. The middle-aged woman driver I met on the #7 (who told me she’s retiring soon, which will be good for her but a loss for the system) had a similar but less drastic idea: everyone at MTS should spend two years driving a bus on the system before they get to be decision-makers. Either would ensure that the people making decisions for San Diego’s bus riders would be conversant with the people who use public transit, and would help keep them from coming up with cool-sounding ideas like “Limited Stops” and the “Crapid” that any bus rider could have told them wouldn’t work on the ground.
There are other problems with the “Crapid” #215, including the decision to set up a special stop for its eastbound run on Sixth and Broadway instead of having it use the same regular stops all other buses that run down Broadway use. This is yet another dumb MTS idea; by staggering the stops you make it impossible for passengers to play one bus line against another and get on the one that arrives soonest and will still get them where they’re going. No, if you want to get from downtown to North Park you have to decide in advance whether you’re going to take the #7 or the “Crapid” — and it’ll take you a long walk out of your way if you change your mind. It also doesn’t help that some of the stops are on dedicated lanes in the middle of the street — including the one outside the Grace Towers senior citizens’ building at Park and University — meaning that seniors and people with disabilities are going to have to make a potentially dangerous street crossing just to get to the bus stop instead of conveniently picking the bus up on the sidewalk in front of their building.
The “Crapid” was introduced with a major public-relations campaign that included a press conference at the Park and University stop and a cool logo with their advertising slogan, “One Sweet Ride.” It’s actually one more bitter pill shoved down the throats of San Diego’s public transit users by an insensitive and ignorant bureaucracy which knows little — and cares less — about the problems faced by people who actually depend on public transit to work and shop.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Proposal to Name School for Kehoe Runs Into Opposition

School Volunteers, Community Members Say They Were Blindsided

by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

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

Christine Kehoe (file photo)

Moises Aguirre

Nicole Murray Ramirez

Chris Ward

Kevin Beiser (file photo)

Richard Barrera

Jackie Bacon McGlish

Karen Holtzman

Nicole Blazie

Bruce Abrams

A proposal to rename Florence Elementary School, on First Avenue between University and Washington in Hillcrest, after Christine Kehoe, the first openly Queer person to win elective office in San Diego, ran into unexpected community opposition at a meeting at the school Wednesday, October 8. Ironically, the meeting began with a  presentation by Moises Aguirre, executive director of district relations for the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD), that described a broadly inclusive process for renaming a public school — but that’s exactly what community members, including parents with children at Florence Elementary as well as adults who volunteer there, said wasn’t happening.
“We have a process when we receive a request for changing the name of a school, and we want to involve all the stakeholders,” Aguirre said at the beginning of the meeting. “The first step is receiving a proposal, not necessarily in writing. After that step, there are a number of stakeholder involvement steps, including gauging the interest of the school staff and the community. There will be other community meetings. We will need letters of support from the school principal and staff.”
The proposal originally came from a group calling itself the San Diego LGBT History Task Force, though it’s being strongly pushed by SDUSD board member Kevin Beiser. The presentation on behalf of the Task Force was made by city commissioner Nicole Murray Ramirez, a long-time San Diego Queer activist who ironically supported Kehoe’s straight opponent, Evonne Schulze, in Kehoe’s pioneering run for the San Diego City Council in 1993. Ramirez identified himself, Beiser, Chris Ward, Susan Jester and Lambda Archives of San Diego staff member Maureen Steiner as the members of the Task Force, and gave the opening presentation on its behalf.
Despite having opposed Kehoe in her initial election bid, Ramirez said “I have worked with her for years” and strongly supported the name change as a way of giving role models to young Queer San Diegans just coming to grips with their sexual identity. “When I was a child in the 1950’s and 1960’s no one on signs or stamps was anything like me,” he said. “You can imagine my joy when things were named for Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, César Chávez, Dolores Huerta and Harvey Milk. Once being a woman or a person of color meant being invisible, but now we are recognizing diverse communities.” He called Kehoe “an historic San Diego citizen who has helped make this America’s finest city.”
Ward added that, though Kehoe’s reputation stems mainly from breaking the glass ceiling and becoming the first openly Queer person elected to office in San Diego, she was involved in other issues as well. “Many of you may not know Chris Kehoe’s achievements in education,” he said. “She spearheaded the schools for trees program and reached out to promote essay contests for local schools. She sponsored the 6 to 6 program as both a City Councilmember and a State Assemblymember. She was honored for her work in reducing class sizes and getting schools to teach the basics.”
Though Beiser and fellow SDUSD board member Richard Barrera were the only elected officials there in person, a long string of political staff members came to the microphone to read letters by their bosses supporting the name change. Jester read a letter from San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer backing it. Evan Ballinger represented San Diego County Supervisor Dave Roberts. Jessica Mayer spoke on behalf of Congressmember Susan Davis.
Kehoe’s two successors on the San Diego City Council, current Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins and current City Council President Todd Gloria, both chimed in through their staff members, Tori Dawn and Adriana Martinez, respectively. Gloria’s letter, read by Martinez, called Kehoe “San Diego’s Harvey Milk.” Atkins was so eager to express her support of renaming Florence after Kehoe, Atkins’ political mentor, that she hadn’t completed the letter but had Dawn read her draft from a smartphone.
Jen Morse, president of the Greater San Diego Business Association (GSDBA) — a group representing businesses either owned by Queers or marketing primarily to Queer customers — also supported the name change. Rebecca Holt, public policy director of the San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center, read a letter from Center director Dr. Delores Jacobs backing it. Representatives of DOD FED GLOBE, an organization aimed at safeguarding the rights of Queer employees of the Department of Defense, and the Hillcrest Business Association also supported the name change.
The impressive list of supporters from both the public and private sectors left Florence Elementary’s own community — school staff members, volunteers and parents of children who attend it — feeling overwhelmed. Aguirre’s decision to call speakers representing elected officials and business groups before he heard from any parents or school volunteers just added insult to injury. They claimed that instead of the inclusive process Aguirre’s opening remarks had promised, supporters of the name change were blindsiding them and presenting it as a virtual fait accompli without giving them the hearing school district policy demands.
“I have been part of the Florence community,” said Jackie Bacon McGlish. “I had students here until 2013. My husband served on the school advisory committee. I’m a lifelong Democrat, but I have concerns about the name change because it’s been forced through without a plan to involve the volunteer community.” She compared the way the “Christine Kehoe Elementary School” name was being pushed with the recent long-term process to rename the school’s library after veteran educator and school staff member Robert Vaughan. McGlish also argued that if the district is going to name a school after Kehoe, it should be a middle or high school instead of an elementary school because discussions of the two key issues in which Kehoe was involved — Queer rights and the environment — would be more appropriate in schools that serve older students.
“I live in the neighborhood, I teach at UCSD, and my son goes to Florence,” said Karen Holtzman. “I’m sure Chris Kehoe is a lovely woman and deserves honors, but this process has not included community members at all. I hope the lip service being paid to involving the community comes to fruition.”
“I have volunteered at Florence Elementary for four years and lived on Dove Street [in Mission Hills, six blocks from the school] for 10 years,” said Nicole Blazie. “I apologize for not having a prepared speech because I didn’t know about this meeting until 2 p.m. today, when a friend of mine e-mailed me a link. I would feel a lot better if there had been an effort to involve the community.”
Blazie particularly bristled at SDUSD board member Barrera’s suggestion that as part of the name change, Florence adopt a new logo and replace its school mascot, the Falcons, with “The Trailblazers.” “Florence is a low-income school,” she said. “The kids wear uniforms and the kids cannot afford new T-shirts. You’re going about this all wrong. If you want the support of the community, you have to involve the community, get us on board, acknowledge that this school is low-income and the parents need help.”
The ferocity of the opposition from Florence’s parents and volunteers took supporters of the name change aback. “I’m an uncle, I’ve had three kids and I’ve had to support all these schools,” said community philanthropist and fundraiser Bruce Abrams. “We as a community would love to help you support the school and support the low income kids. I’ve known Chris Kehoe for 30 years, but it’s important that you know we want to help.”
“I want to apologize to the parents,” said Ramirez after he asked for — and got — special permission to speak at the close of the meeting. “I’m very disturbed because we were told you were involved and this was the beginning of the process. I think it is being pushed on you, and I’m so glad the parents have come forward. Our community and Task Force have been involved in Easter egg hunts for 700 students. We provide school supplies and scholarships. Chris Kehoe has met with your principal, and she had the same concerns. This process has to stop because you’ve been disrespected, and we’ve heard that loud and clear.”
“There’s still a lot of conversation that needs to happen,” said Aguirre as he brought the hour-long meeting to a close. “By no means is this the be-all and end-all of this process. We need to reach out to parents and also school staff, including classified [non-teaching] staff. We hear the community as a whole, and it is diverse. Hopefully as a community we can come forward and support the process. It’s about how do we handle the communities and build a real community.” He asked everyone in the audience who hadn’t put their names and e-mail addresses on the sign-in sheets at the start of the meeting to do so before they left “so we can keep in touch with all the stakeholders. That’s what we do in San Diego: we work as a community.”

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Queer Democrats Stay Neutral on Prop. 46

by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

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

by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

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

by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

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.”