Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Calif. medical marijuana vote imminent; call your Assemblymember today!

by Marijuana Policy Project • Monday, May. 26, 2008 at 11:08 PM


Medical marijuana action alert

Sometime in the next few days, the full Assembly will be voting on A.B. 2743 — MPP-sponsored legislation that would direct state and local law enforcement agencies not to assist with federal raids on state-legal medical marijuana patients and providers. I am writing to ask for a few minutes of your time to help make sure the bill passes.

Please make a personal phone call to your Assembly member’s office today. You can obtain contact information for your legislator by visiting http://snipurl.com/ab2743 .

It is easy in an election year for a legislator to abstain from votes that he or she perceives as controversial. And some segments of the law enforcement community are heavily lobbying against this bill. That’s why it’s so important that constituents call on their Assembly members to defend the state’s protections for patients: This bill can pass, but it needs your help.

Making the call is easy. Just visit MPP’s action page (http://snipurl.com/ab2743), enter your zip code, and call your Assembly member at the number provided. Feel free to use the script provided to help guide you through your call. If you reach the office voicemail, please leave a message.

If approved, A.B. 2743 – authored by Assembly Member Lori Saldaña (D-San Diego) – will dramatically improve protections for California’s medical marijuana patients and providers. you can read more about the bill here: http://www.mpp.org/states/california/ab2743-briefing.html

Federal raids on California’s medical marijuana facilities often rely on significant help from local law enforcement agencies; in many cases, local agents have even asked federal agents to raid patients and providers. A.B. 2743 will create a policy of respecting the state’s protections for medical marijuana patients and their providers.

Passage of this landmark bill will not be possible without your participation. Making contact with state policy-makers is one of the most effective ways to help change the laws.

Thank you for taking action to support our state’s rights to self determination and safe access to medical marijuana for seriously ill and injured patients.

Please don’t forget to forward this message on to friends, family, and co-workers in California, so that they too can take action.


Aaron Smith
California Organizer
Marijuana Policy Project


“Happy Songs About the War” at Compass

Don’t Be Put Off by the Title — See This Show!


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Even if you reach the predictable — and accurate — conclusion that singer-songwriter-playwright JD Boucharde was being ironic when he titled his current show (playing Sunday through Wednesday nights through June 4 at Compass Theatre, nèe 6th @ Penn, 3706 Sixth Avenue in Hillcrest) Happy Songs About the War, you might not be anxious to sit through it. Go anyway. Boucharde, a tall, lanky blond man with well-tattooed forearms and a strong voice, surprisingly rock-ish given that he makes most of his living as a cocktail-lounge pianist, turns out also to be an excellent actor and an incisive if not always original writer who slips easily from speech to song and from one character to another in this one-person show.

Boucharde has been writing Happy Songs About the War since the U.S.’s current occupation of Iraq started in 2003. Originally it was just a side project while he recorded a CD to follow up a previous album called Contra Mundum (“Against the World”). Figuring he’d better finish Contra Mundum, Vol. 2 first, Boucharde explained, “I put it away in The Drawer, where many of my other great ideas go. It sat there, silent, patient, barely breathing.”

Things changed in December 2006, when, Boucharde said, “after buying a house, moving and galumphing clumsily through the holidays, I found myself wide awake one night, staring at the ceiling. I got up, turned on the computer, and wrote until dawn. The next morning, I did the exact same thing. And the next, and the next. It became this strange ritual: every night, without exception, I’d put on my robe, grab the space heater, and shuffle out to the computer in the living room. Luckily, my wife — as well as being drop-dead gorgeous and capable of putting up daily with the likes of me — can sleep through anything.”

What has emerged from this series of all-nighters is a project that artfully combines songs and sketches to tell the grim story of how the U.S. got involved in Iraq. It doesn’t offer any especially new insights but it does manage to have a certain amount of fun with the story we all know, from the grandfatherly photo and aureole of banal New Age synthesizer tinkling that accompanies every mention of the name “Dick Cheney” to the cell-phone calls from the unseen, unheard “Landon,” supposedly Boucharde’s attorney, which interrupt the show (on purpose) and provide a running gag on how often the legal climate changes in the Bush administration.

The main thread of the show is contained in the song “Gold Chain of Command,” a folkish ballad set to a tune similar to the one Woody Guthrie used in “Deportees,” which recurs throughout the show to tell how the war filtered down from the corporate interests who ordered it through the political system down to the soldiers on the front line who do the actual fighting — and dying. Other songs in the show, notably “War Party,” are more openly satirical, albeit in a wry way. Perhaps the best song in the show is “Bullets Are Our Friends,” as vicious and insightful a musical look at the whole mentality behind accepting endless war as inevitable as any one can imagine. Boucharde wisely bookends the show with his most inspiring anthems, the gospel-flavored “Wake-Up Call” at the beginning and “Shine,” a pacifist sing-a-long reminiscent of John Lennon’s “Imagine” which Boucharde originally wrote for a Christmas-themed show called The Unconquerable Sun, at the end.

But the show isn’t all music. Boucharde turns out to be an excellent actor, especially in his impersonation of President George W. Bush trashing the Constitution. He has the physique for Bush and his reproduction of the President’s halting delivery, penchant for malapropism and repetition of phrases in his text he’s not sure he understands is spot-on. The other high point of the show’s spoken portion is a spoof of the mainstream media, particularly Fox News (the style of the graphics Boucharde, Callow and videographers Kirk and Noelle Geiger prepared for this segment give the game away), for going along with the government’s propaganda and telling us in a golly-gee-whillikers tone that “The War Is Going Really, Really Well!”

The child-like nature of Boucharde’s performances as Bush and several newscasters is key to one of the most interesting role-reversals in his script. When the second act begins, he’s playing a six-year-old sitting at a table behind a sign reading, “My Very Best Ideas 25¢” — which seems to have been inspired by Lucy’s “Psychiatric Help 5¢” booth in Peanuts — and there’s a long scene in which he accosts an unseen grownup that for the longest time doesn’t seem to have anything to do with war or Iraq at all. Eventually the connection becomes clear — and so does Boucharde’s ironic intent: while all the adults in his story (especially the real-life ones) are acting like children, the six-year-old is denouncing the use of religion to justify war and thinking like an adult. Once again, he’s got the acting chops to pull this off — his body posture lightens and he does a good job of reproducing the sheer rambunctious energy of a young boy — before he rather rudely returns us to the grownup world.

Happy Songs About the War is a cheeky show that doesn’t quite live up to its title — not that it really should — but is genuinely moving and well worth seeing. It’s billed as a “workshop” production, meaning it’s still a work in progress and liable to be rewritten based on audience responses, but about all that’s wrong with it in its present form is the sound glitches. Throughout much of the first act on opening night, May 25, Boucharde’s electronic keyboard instrument was so loud it overwhelmed his vocals, and by the time he and Callow got it turned down for act two, they started having trouble with his microphone and he had to worry about drowning himself out again. (His songs have lyrics that are worth listening to, and it’s a shame he and his wife Azúl, who runs the box office, aren’t selling the songs on CD in the lobby; they’re working on a DVD presentation instead.) Boucharde’s biography in the program says this is the first time he’s ever acted on a professional stage; he’s good enough that it certainly won’t be the last.

Happy Songs About the War runs every Sunday through Wednesday night through Wednesday, June 4 at 7:30 p.m. at Compass Theatre, 3706 Sixth Avenue in Hillcrest. If you have a broadband Internet connection, you can order tickets online at www.happysongsaboutthewar.com. Otherwise go through the San Diego Performing Arts Scene Web site, http://tickets.sandiegoperforms.com/eventperformances.asp?evt=594. You can also hear JD Boucharde as a pianist every Sunday evening at the Turf Club, 1126 25th Street in Golden Hill.

Susan Davis, Mike Copass Debate in Hillcrest

Congressmember, Primary Challenger Disagree on War Funding


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Though incumbent 53rd District Congressmember Susan Davis and her Democratic primary challenger, research scientist and legal consultant Mike Copass, agreed on most of the issues raised at their May 25 debate at the Joyce Beers Community Center in Hillcrest, not surprisingly it was the issue that led Copass to take on Davis in the first place — her continued support for funding the U.S. war and occupation of Iraq — that provoked their greatest differences. Davis continued to take pride in her initial vote in October 2002 against the resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq — but Copass said that whatever anti-war credibility she had earned by that vote, she has squandered by voting for every supplemental appropriation the Bush administration has asked for to fund the war.

“I’m a strong supporter of equality for all, pro-choice, pro-education, pro-living wage,” Copass said in his closing statement. “I’ll fight for universal health care, accurate elections [and] to create new green-collar jobs. … But before we take those steps towards the promised land, we have to deal with the big issues at hand: the loss of open government, the degradation of the rule of law, [and] the impasse over an immoral military occupation. You know, it’s not only devastating to be occupied, it’s devastating to the occupiers, to us. … We’ve had a Congress that’s proven itself too willing to stay on the sidelines, to smile politely and run out the clock [on the Bush administration]. I am not satisfied with that response. I reject that status quo, that failure to act, that failure to stand up to an administration that has damaged our rights and has nearly destroyed America’s credibility as a force for leadership and peace. …

“We need to end this illegal, immoral occupation of Iraq,” Copass continued. “It is bankrupting us economically, it is bankrupting us spiritually, and we have to move with determination now. So let me state for the record that slaughter of civilians, murder, theft and torture are wrong and must be opposed. The invasion of Iraq was illegal, immoral and wrong. The continuing and ongoing occupation of Iraq is illegal, immoral and wrong. And when our incumbent Democrats vote with Republicans to extend further war funding, that is also wrong.” Copass’ closing statement got wild applause from about 2/3 of the over 200 people in the room and a demand from moderator Betty Weinberger of the San Diego chapter of the League of Women Voters, which co-sponsored the event with the San Diego chapter of Common Cause, that the crowd give an equal level of applause to Davis.

“One of the toughest votes I had was on the war in Iraq,” Davis said when her turn came. “I voted no, but I also have to tell you with my heart and my head, I have supported the funding, because I believe that it does support our troops” — a statement that earned her boos from the anti-war partisans in the crowd, who were rebuked by Weinberger for expressing themselves out of turn. Davis continued, “When people sometimes ask what vote are you most proud of, the ‘no’ vote on Iraq I was proud of, but I also believe — and I know how you feel, and I appreciate that — that if I had voted the other way on the troops, because they’re still in harm’s way [and] I can’t pull them out; I’d like to do that, I can’t pull them out, I would not have been as proud of that vote. And many of my colleagues have told me the same thing.”

Next to funding the Iraq war, the biggest difference between the candidates came over whether to end mandatory Selective Service registration of all U.S. males at age 18. Though the U.S. hasn’t actually had a draft since U.S. military involvement in Viet Nam ended in 1973, the registration requirement remains in place so a draft could be reinstituted at any time the President and Congress decided it was needed. Suprisingly, it was Copass — generally considered the more anti-war of the two candidates — who was more skeptical about ending Selective Service registration.

“When I was 18 and I registered to vote,” Copass said, “and I signed up with Selective Service, I thought it meant that if there should be a military conflict and I should be called up to defend my country, I’m ready to do that. I think it’s an obligation we take, and having asked that obligation of our citizens, I think it’s fundamental that our government never let that trust be betrayed and never let our military be used for aggressive or imperial purposes. Congress has the right of oversight on that, and they have failed in this. … We need to share in that sacrifice. We all need to understand that this is a cause we can get behind, that the entire country can embrace, as we did in World War II. Without a draft, with what they call an ‘all-volunteer service,’ I think we’ve seen the system is ripe for abuse.”

“I support an all-volunteer army,” said Davis, “and what I have fought against is what we have experienced, which is a back-door draft in the country. Stop-loss” — the military’s unilateral power in wartime to extend enlistments past the terms the recruits signed up for and send servicemembers on tour after tour of duty — “has hurt far, far too many of our men and women who serve, and their families. It’s far too difficult for them to predict. They’ve served. They have done everything we’ve asked of them, and so I believe that one of the ways you address that is to have at least a large enough n-strength [the total number of Americans in the service] so that we don’t have to go through stop-loss. We do have people who want to serve in the military in this country. We shouldn’t be prevailing on those who have already served.”

On a related issue, whether military recruiters should be allowed on high school campuses, Copass said flat-out, “We need to de-militarize our schools. I respect the right of the military to recruit, but not in high schools and not through a hidden clause in the No Child Left Behind bill” — which provides that any school that doesn’t provide the military contact information on all its students, including their home addresses and home and cell phone numbers, won’t receive federal funding for anything.

Davis made it clear she sees no difference between allowing recruiters for private employers on high school campuses and admitting military recruiters. “They should have strict rules for all recruiters,” she said, “but as long as the rules are followed, they should be allowed.. I have worked with recruiters on this issue and I get very few constituent complaints about this.”

Aside from those major disagreements, much of the debate consisted of Davis and Copass agreeing on most of the questions submitted from the audience, though Copass often accused Davis of not being aggressive enough in pursuing issues on which she claimed to agree with him. Both agreed that the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy forbidding Queers from serving openly in the U.S. military should be repealed, but Copass criticized Davis for taking as long as she had to co-sponsor the repeal bill.

Both Davis and Copass said they were pro-choice on women’s reproductive rights, though Copass said he might be a more effective advocate for the pro-choice position precisely because as a man he’d be seen as less directly interested in the issue. Both agreed that the U.S. should be doing more to help veterans of the Iraq war who need medical care, particularly those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other combat-related mental illnesses — but Copass argued that Davis’ votes to continue funding the war are allowing it to last longer and thereby creating more such wounded veterans.

The candidates crossed swords on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the follow-up agreements the Bush administration is pushing, including the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Copass said he was opposed to these agreements and called the effect of NAFTA “disastrous.” He criticized Davis for voting for a bilateral trade agreement with Peru along NAFTA-esque lines, and Davis defended her vote by saying she’d been able to work with labor leaders in both the U.S. and Peru “to have labor protections built into the bill.”

Asked whether they would support single-payer health care — which would replace the private health insurance industry with a government agency that would provide universal coverage — Davis gave the usual dodge of politicians anxious to express concern about expanding health coverage but not willing to take on the rich, powerful health insurance industry. “I’m a strong supporter of universal coverage,” she said. “I’m excited about the prospect of working with the next President on this issue. We have a lot of plans out there.”

“The right to health care is a fundamental right,” Copass said. “It’s past time the U.S. joins the other advanced nations of the world in providing health care to all its citizens. My father, a physician, used to be against national health care. Now he’s for it.” Though Copass used the usual rhetoric of single-payer advocates, and endorsed a bill by Congressmembers John Conyers and Dennis Kucinich that is a single-payer plan, he disappointed some of his supporters in the audience by never letting the words “single-payer” cross his lips.

As on many other issues during the debate, when a question about the border fence came up, Davis boasted of her ability to bring stakeholders together and discuss the issue — including, in this case, the Border Patrol and Army Corps of Engineers along with environmentalist organizations — while Copass bluntly said, “I’m dead set against the wall.” As an alternative, Copass called on the U.S. to enact “a Marshall Plan for Latin America” to build up the economies of Mexico and other Central and South American countries so their citizens won’t have to leave to find good-paying jobs.

On whether the U.S. should invade Iran, Davis insisted that only Congress has the power to authorize U.S. military operations against Iran or any other country — contrary to the position of former Bush administration lawyers like UC Berkeley law professor John Yoo, who has said that once a war begins the President has unlimited authority to wage it as he or she sees fit, including attacking another country that wasn’t part of the original conflict. Copass criticized Davis for voting against an amendment sponsored by Congressmember Peter DeFazio that would have put the U.S. Congress on record as demanding the right to approve a strike against Iran before the administration makes one.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Center Celebrates Same-Sex Marriage Decision


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTOS, top to bottom: "Fairness Wins!!!" banner, State Senator Christine Kehoe, City Councilmember Toni Atkins, Centr board chair Richard Valdez, ACLU activist and staff member Dale Kelly Bankhead, City Attorney Mike Aguirre and a couple potentially altar-bound after the California Supreme Court ruling.

“I’m happy to be a Californian every day, but today is an especially great day to be a Californian!” Thus exulted Delores Jacobs, executive director of the San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center, opening the community’s celebration of the May 15 California Supreme Court decision ruling the state’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples unconstitutional.

The Center’s main auditorium was packed with over 500 people — even more than had attended the similar event to celebrate the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Lawrence v. Texas abolishing sodomy laws five years earlier. “Today I am moved beyond words as I look at the community I love and cherish, and think about what happened today,” Jacobs said. “I know about two-thirds of you, and you made this happen today. This is your decision.”

The event began with the San Diego Gay Men’s Chorus singing a song called “Marry Us” — though it actually began with Jacobs spending about five minutes trying to quiet down the exuberant crowd so the chorus members could hear their accompanist. The ebullient mood continued as Jacobs spoke, excitedly boasting that “today our Supreme Court, in keeping with its history of standing for civil rights, ruled that denying us marriage is unconstitutional. It affirmed that two people in a committed, loving relationship deserve the dignity and support that come with marriage. I think about some members of our community who never thought that they would see this day, and I see our youth and realize that they live in a state that recognizes their rights.”

California State Senator Christine Kehoe, who in 1993 became the first openly Queer elected official in San Diego, said, “I’m overwhelmed. Today we are witnesses to history. The California Supreme Court affirmed our right to marry in one of the most historic decisions in our history.”

Kehoe then regaled the crowd with the anecdote of how she’d heard about the landmark decision. She was in Sacramento on the Senate floor at 10 a.m., when the California Supreme Court posted the decision on their Web site. Kehoe recalled that she and the other two openly Lesbian members of the State Senate, Sheila Kuehl of Los Angeles and Carole Migden of San Francisco, “scrolled down through the decision looking for the outcome, and it was Sheila who first read and announced to us that the California Supreme Court had affirmed our right to marry.”

As word of the decision spread through the Senate floor, Kehoe said, Democrats reacted excitedly while Republicans greeted the news in stony silence — ironic, given that all but one of the current California Supreme Court justices are Republican appointees, three of them joined the majority opinion and one, Chief Justice Ronald George, wrote it. Kehoe said she saw Justice Joyce Kennard in a hearing room on an unrelated matter and thanked her for the decision — and Kennard replied, “I’m glad to see a friendly face.”

“I talked to Chief Justice George on the phone and told him this decision guarantees and validates our civil rights,” Kehoe said, “He said even the dissenters made their points based on the rule of law.” (Aside from one comment in Justice Marvin Baxter’s dissent that called the majority’s ruling “a piece of legal jujitsu,” the dissenting opinions avoided the slashing, insulting and often contemptuous language U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had used in his dissents from that court’s landmark pro-Queer opinions, Romer v. Evans in 1996 and Lawrence v. Texas in 2003.)

Toni Atkins, Kehoe’s successor on the San Diego City Council, cracked a rare smile as she said, “Today’s decision is already reverberating around the world. California is once again leading the way in ensuring that everyone is treated with respect and every couple will have their dreams honored by their government. I am proud that San Diego played a role in making those dreams come true. I will never forget the courage shown by my colleagues Scott Peters, Jim Madaffer, Ben Hueso and Donna Frye [in endorsing San Diego’s support of the amicus curiae brief filed by California’s largest city in support of the marriage lawsuit], and I want to personally thank not only Scott Peters but also our city attorney, Mike Aguirre.”

That was a major concession on Atkins’ part, since she’s not only endorsing Peters over Aguirre in this year’s city attorney campaign, but in earlier public statements had gone out of her way to downplay Aguirre’s role in the issue. Aguirre himself sat on the stage throughout the entire event but was not given a chance to speak. Peters attended the early part of the event and Jacobs called him out from the audience, but he had to leave before the event ended. A third Democrat running for city attorney, Amy Lepine, was there but did not get a chance to speak and was not called out. Neither Jan Goldsmith nor Brian Maienschein, the Republican candidates in the race, attended — and Maienschein had voted on the City Council against joining the amicus brief.

Atkins then paid tribute to Mayor Jerry Sanders, who’d been expected to veto the City Council’s vote to join the amicus brief but instead signed it. “I’m sure we all remember the Mayor on TV with tears in his eyes as he said that his decency would not allow him to say that certain San Diegans, including members of his own family, were less deserving of recognition of their relationships than he is of his relationship with his wife. … I look forward to the time years from now when we’re all reminiscing and I can say I shared this victory with you.”

“This is a great day to be an American, a Californian and a San Diegan,” said San Diego Human Relations Commission chair and long-time Queer activist Nicole Murray-Ramirez. “This marks the 60th anniversary of the ruling giving African-Americans full marriage equality” — a reference to the California Supreme Court’s 1948 Perez decision, which struck down the state’s 99-year-old ban on interracial marriages and was cited by Chief Justice George as a major precedent in his opinion.

“It has been a long journey to achieve full equality,” Murray-Ramirez said. “We are not there yet, but we have taken a great step forward. We are indeed the civil rights movement of the 21st century. This historic day reminds me and other old-timers of the day in the 1970’s when [then-Governor] Jerry Brown signed the bill legalizing consensual sexual activity.” [Ironically, in the 1970’s Brown also signed a bill “clarifying” California’s marriage laws by providing that marriage is between one man and one woman — one of the laws, along with the 2000 initiative Proposition 22, the California Supreme Court struck down in its May 15 ruling.]

Richard Valdez, chair of the Center’s board, said, “Some decisions are losses. Some are partial wins. This was a complete victory. It was a decision that recognizes the value of our relationships and the value of us as human beings. Those things are the result of a lot of work, including the state legislature passing bills that supported marriage equality, and Toni Atkins and her colleagues going forward with the amicus brief. It’s about you being visible.”

Among the topics Valdez discussed was the Court’s acknowledgment that California’s option allowing Gay and Lesbian couples to register as “domestic partners” is functionally equivalent to marriage, but that setting up a separate procedure for legal recognition of same-sex relationships still discriminates against Queer individuals and couples. Answering the often-asked question why Queer people feel they need the word “marriage,” Valdez said, “We need the word because there’s a Constitutional right to marry. The Supreme Court said that what we want is just the same as what opposite-sex couples have: a legally recognized relationship with the individual with whom you want to share your life.”

Valdez also praised the court for recognizing Queer people as a “suspect classification” and discrimination based on sexual orientation as deserving “strict scrutiny,” the highest level of civil-rights protection the legal system offers. Echoing Chief Justice George’s language in the opinion, Valdez said, “Using the term ‘marriage’ for same-sex couples will not deprive opposite-sex couples of any rights. They ruled Proposition 22 is unconstitutional, and the Appellate Court must tell each and every county in California to provide same-sex couples with marriage licenses so they can get married. It takes 30 days for the decision to become final, and hopefully within 45 days or so we can start getting married.”

The final speaker, Dale Kelly Bankhead of the San Diego chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) — who was a key player in building local support for marriage equality and lobbying the City Council to join the amicus brief — was there to warn the people present that their newly won freedom to marry might be taken away again this November. Opponents of marriage equality circulated petitions to put a measure on the November 4 ballot to insert the language of 2000’s Proposition 22 in the California Constitution — which would automatically reverse the May 15 ruling and eliminate any chance of marriage rights for same-sex couples in California.

“The opposition is already at work trying to take away what we won today,” Kelly Bankhead warned. “They spent millions to get the anti-marriage initiative on the ballot, and will spend millions more to nullify the rights we won today. But we won’t let that happen. We must make more phone calls, knock on more doors, and raise more money than ever before. We will need at least $15 million to combat the hate and lies they will put out. You have to ask, ‘How much would I be willing to spend to protect my right to marry?,’ add a little more and make a check out to the campaign.”

After Kelly Bankhead’s presentation, Jacobs declared that the rest of the event would be a party, and dance music blasted over the Center’s giant speakers and filled the hall for the celebration. The first song their D.J. played? Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family.”
State Supreme Court Upholds Queer Marriage Rights

4-3 Decision Invalidates Prop. 22; Popular Vote Likely

news analysis by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

The California Supreme Court announced on May 15 that, by a 4-3 margin, it had decided one of the most controversial and closely watched cases in its history — whether the state’s definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman violates the rights of Queer people in general and same-sex couples in particular under the California constitution. The court majority not only ruled that same-sex couples have a legal right to marry under the state’s constitutional guarantees of equal protection, liberty and privacy, it also declared that Queers deserve the highest level of protection against discrimination, “strict scrutiny,” a legal criterion California has previously granted only the bases of race, gender and religion (and the federal courts almost never on anything but race).

This sweeping court victory is tempered by the likelihood that California’s voters will have a chance to reverse it at the polls this November 4. In order to forestall any attempt to legalize same-sex marriage in California, either at the legislative or the court level, opponents of marriage equality last March began a petition drive to amend the state’s constitution to lock into place the state’s current legal definition of marriage as between one man and one woman. Despite an effort by supporters of marriage equality to keep people from signing this petition, its backers turned 1.1 million signatures into the California secretary of state’s office — a comfortable margin above the 753,000 they need to get on the ballot. The last time California voters had a chance to decide whether to recognize same-sex marriage, in March 2000, they passed Proposition 22 by an overwhelming 22-point majority. This initiative defined marriage in California as the union of one man and one woman and forbade the state from recognizing same-sex marriages performed elsewhere.

If the new anti-marriage initiative, whose aim is to put the language of Proposition 22 into the California constitution and thereby nullify the new ruling, makes it to the November 4 ballot, California voters will have a rare opportunity to vote the same-sex marriage issue up or down while marriage equality is an accomplished fact. The court’s decision requires county clerks throughout California to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples on an equal basis within 30 days — so it’s probable Gay and Lesbian couples will already have taken advantage of the court’s ruling and be legally married before the November 4 vote. This hasn’t happened anywhere else in the U.S. Only one other state, Massachusetts, has granted same-sex couples full marriage equality — also through a ruling by the state’s highest court — and attempts to reverse that ruling by amending the Massachusetts state constitution failed because of the state’s complex mechanism for constitutional amendment, the success of pro-marriage legislators in blocking the issue and the overreaching of marriage opponents, who turned down a compromise that would have set up a civil union registry in Massachusetts and insisted that the state offer no recognition to Gay and Lesbian couples at all.

The California case turned largely on the state’s law allowing same-sex couples to register as domestic partnerships. First passed in 1999, the domestic partner law has been amended so that it offers couples who register under its provision mutual rights and responsibilities almost identical to those available to heterosexual couples through marriage. “Our state now recognizes that an individual’s capacity to establish a loving and long-term committed relationship with another person and responsibly to care for and raise children does not depend on the individual’s sexual orientation,” wrote California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George in the majority opinion, “and, more generally, that an individual’s sexual orientation — like a person’s race or gender — does not constitute a legitimate basis on which to deny or withhold legal rights.”

By passing a separate domestic partnership law for same-sex couples while denying them access to marriage, George wrote, California “has drawn a distinction between the name for the official family relationship of opposite-sex couples (marriage) and that for same-sex couples (domestic partnership).” Does this “distinction” prejudice the rights of same-sex couples and Queer individuals seeking such a relationship? George said yes. “Denying such couples access to the familiar and highly favored designation of marriage is likely to cast doubt on whether the official family relationship of same-sex couples enjoys dignity equal to that of opposite-sex couples,” he wrote. “Because of the wide disparagement that Gay individuals historically have faced, it is all the more probable that excluding same-sex couples from the legal institution of marriage is likely to be viewed as reflecting an official view that their committed relationships are of lesser stature than the comparable relationships of opposite-sex couples.”

George also answered one of the most common objections to legal recognition of same-sex marriage: the argument that allowing same-sex couples to marry will somehow cheapen the institution for opposite-sex couples as well. “Permitting same-sex couples access to the designation of marriage will not deprive opposite-sex couples of any rights and will not alter the legal framework of marriage,” he wrote. “Opposite-sex couples will continue to enjoy precisely the same constitutional rights they traditionally have possessed, unimpaired by our recognition that this basic civil right is applicable, as well, to Gay individuals and same-sex couples.”

According to George, the bottom line is that there is no “compelling state interest” in keeping marriage restricted to opposite-sex couples. Indeed, he argued that under the state’s constitution, the state’s interest runs in exactly the opposite direction. “Retaining the definition of marriage exclusively for opposite-sex couples and providing only a separate and distinct designation for same-sex couples may well have the effect of perpetuating a more general premise — now emphatically rejected by this state — that Gay individuals and couples are in some respects ‘second-class citizens’ who may, under the law, be treated differently from, and less favorably than, heterosexual individuals or opposite-sex couples,” he wrote. “Under these circumstances … we conclude that to the extent the current California statutory provisions limit marriage to opposite-sex couples, these statutes are unconstitutional.”

Citing previous decisions that ended California’s ban on interracial marriage (in 1948, 19 years before the U.S. Supreme Court followed suit nationwide) and struck down a ban on women working as bartenders, George wrote, “[A]n individual’s homosexual orientation is not a constitutionally legitimate basis for withholding or restricting the individual’s legal rights. In light of this recognition, sections 1 and 7 [the guarantees of liberty and privacy, respectively] of the California Constitution cannot properly be interpreted to withhold from Gay individuals the same basic civil right of personal autonomy and liberty (including the right to establish, with the person of one’s choice, an officially recognized and sanctioned family) that the California Constitution affords to heterosexual individuals.”

The range and complexity of the issue the California Supreme Court ruled on is evident in the sheer size of the download the court made available on its Web site: 172 pages. George’s majority opinion takes up 121 pages, followed by a six-page concurring opinion by Justice Joyce Kennard, a 26-page dissent by Justice Marvin Baxter (joined by Justice Ming Chin) and another dissent, this one eight pages long, by Justice Carol Corrigan. The other nine pages merely list all the attorneys, law firms and public agencies involved in the litigation — usually a routine task, but complicated here by the many amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) briefs filed on both sides.

“I cannot join the majority’s holding that the California Constitution gives same-sex couples a right to marry,” Justice Baxter said in his dissent. “In reaching this decision, I believe, the majority violates the separation of powers, and thereby commits profound error. Only one other American state [Massachusetts] recognizes the right the majority announces today. So far, Congress, and virtually every court to consider the issue, has rejected it. Nothing in our Constitution, express or implicit, compels the majority’s startling conclusion that the age-old understanding of marriage — an understanding recently confirmed by an initiative law [Proposition 22] — is no longer valid. California statutes already recognize same-sex unions and grant them all the substantive legal rights the state can bestow. If there is to be a further sea change in the social and legal understanding of marriage itself, that evolution should occur by similar democratic means.”

Baxter called the majority’s ruling an “exercise in legal jujitsu” and said it used the state legislature’s passage of domestic partnerships as an excuse “to create a constitutional right from whole cloth, defeat the People’s will, and invalidate a statute otherwise immune from legislative interference.” He pointed out that throughout the state’s history, all its laws relating to marriage assumed — even when they didn’t say so explicitly — that marriage was between partners of opposite sexes. In a footnote, he said that the Massachusetts Supreme Court, when it struck down its own state’s ban on same-sex marriage, “did not confront, as we do, a law, recently adopted by the voters, that gave explicit voice to a prevailing community standard in favor of retaining the traditional man-woman definition of marriage.”

Attacking the claim made both by marriage equality advocates and the court majority that striking down the ban on same-sex marriage doesn’t create a new civil rights — but simply opens the right of marriage to people previously excluded from it — Baxter wrote, “[P]laintiffs seek, and the majority grants, a new right to same-sex marriage that only recently has been urged upon our social and legal system. Because civil marriage is an institution historically defined as the legal union of a man and a woman, plaintiffs could not succeed except by convincing this court to insert in our Constitution an altered and expanded definition of marriage — one that includes same-sex partnerships for the first time. By accepting that invitation, the majority places this controversial issue beyond the realm of legislative debate and substitutes its own judgment in the matter for the considered wisdom of the People and their elected representatives.”

Previewing the arguments marriage opponents are likely to make in an election campaign, Baxter also wrote, “Who can say that, in ten, fifteen or twenty years, an activist court might not rely on the majority’s analysis to conclude, on the basis of a perceived evolution in community values, that the laws prohibiting polygamous and incestuous marriages were no longer constitutionally justified?”(He did add immediately afterwards, “In no way do I equate same-sex unions with incestuous and polygamous relationships as a matter of social policy or social acceptance.”)

Baxter also argued that the ban on same-sex marriage should not be judged under “strict scrutiny” because there was no evidence that the people who wrote California’s original marriage laws intended to discriminate against Queer people as a class. And he said that Queers in general don’t fall under the legal definition of a “suspect class” because “the need for special constitutional protection arises from the political impotence of an insular and disfavored group … [I]n contemporary times at least, the Gay and Lesbian community does not lack political power.”

Corrigan’s dissent cited the court’s previous ruling upholding the domestic partnership statute against a legal challenge as saying that “the chief goal of the DPA [California Domestic Partner Rights and Responsibilities Act of 2003] is to equalize the status of registered domestic partners and married couples.” “In this case, however, the majority fails to honor that goal,” she wrote. “Instead of recognizing the equality conferred by the Legislature, the majority denigrates domestic partnership as ‘only a novel alternative designation … constituting significantly unequal treatment.’ … The majority’s narrow and inaccurate assertions are just the opposite of what the Legislature intended.”

Ironically, Corrigan went on to say, “To make its case for a constitutional violation, the majority distorts and diminishes the historic achievements of the DPA, and the efforts of those who worked so diligently to pass it into law.” The irony is that Equality California, the principal lobbying group which worked with the legislature to pass the DPA, and just about every other individual and organization from the Queer community involved in the struggle for domestic partner legislation, made it clear from the get-go — at least when they spoke in public to organize Queer people to support the legislation — that they regarded it at best as a second-class status and only a compromise on the way to their true goal, marriage.
A Courageous Court Decision


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

On May 17, 1954 a courageous Republican judge from California named Earl Warren issued a ruling as chief justice of the United States Supreme Court in a case called Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas that simply and unmistakably declared that the segregated educational systems many states (not just in the South!) had maintained for Black and white students were unconstitutional. “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” Warren matter-of-factly wrote. Two days shy of the 58th anniversary of Brown, on May 15, 2008, another courageous Republican judge from California, Ronald George, wrote a ruling as chief justice of the California Supreme Court that declared the separate systems California had set up for registering and granting mutual rights and responsibilities to committed couples — marriage for straight couples and “domestic partnerships” for Gay and Lesbian couples — were also unequal, and therefore violated the state’s constitutional guarantees of liberty, privacy and equal protection of the laws.

It was a ruling I must confess I didn’t see coming. Only one other state supreme court ruling on this highly contentious issue — Massachusetts’, in 2003 — had read its state’s constitution as requiring that Queer couples have access to marriage on exactly the same basis as straight couples. I had assumed that California’s high court would come out where the courts of Vermont and New Jersey had — agreeing that the state had to grant some form of legal recognition to same-sex couples but didn’t have to call it “marriage” — and would rule further that by passing domestic partnership legislation (first, in skeletal form, in 1999, and regularly amended since then to add more rights and responsibilities, until now California’s registered domestic partners have virtually all the same ones as married couples) the state had fulfilled its responsibilities to Queer couples and therefore the cases challenging the marriage laws were essentially moot.

There were several reasons why I didn’t think the California Supreme Court would rule for marriage equality. First, ever since a highly partisan and fear-driven campaign led the state’s voters to remove Jerry Brown’s three appointees to the court — Rose Bird, Cruz Reynoso and Joseph Grodin — in 1986, the court has been dominated by Republicans. Only one of the current justices was appointed by a Democrat. Most of them were picked by Republican governors George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson, both of whom vetoed bills to protect Queer people from employment discrimination. (Wilson eventually signed a weak version of the bill, and Democrat Gray Davis signed the full-strength version in 1999.). During the oral arguments on the case, most of the justices’ questions to the attorneys centered around the domestic partnership law; the lawyers arguing for marriage equality were asked more than once why domestic partnerships weren’t good enough. Finally, in its initial encounter with the case, the court had permanently nullified the same-sex marriages performed without state authorization by the City and County of San Francisco in February and March 2004 — which, to say the least, wasn’t a good sign that they’d ultimately find the state’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional.

Instead, in what one of his opponents on the court, Justice Marvin Baxter, called “a piece of legal jujitsu.” George argued that the very passage of the domestic partnership legislation indicated that there’d been a sea change in California’s attitude towards Queer people and that, therefore, a marriage law that excluded them based on old-fashioned fears and prejudices could no longer stand. “[I]n contrast to earlier times,” George wrote, “our state now recognizes that an individual’s capacity to establish a loving and long-term committed relationship with another person and responsibly to care for children does not depend upon the individual’s sexual orientation, and, more generally, that an individual’s sexual orientation — like a person’s race or gender — does not constitute a legal basis upon which to deny or withhold legal rights.”

In arguing this way, George was taking a page from Earl Warren’s playbook. Just as Warren had argued that the U.S. Supreme Court’s original authorization of racial segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 case overridden in Brown, had been based on an assumption that Black people were genetically inferior to whites — a piece of pseudo-scientific nonsense that by 1954 all but a handful of diehard racists had realized was wrong— so George said that we now know so much more about Queer people than we did in 1849 (when California wrote its first marriage law) or even in 1977 (when the state passed a “clarification” of the marriage laws specifying that marriage was between one man and one woman).

George’s argument is that, if the state has one system for recognizing the relationships of opposite-sex couples and another for same-sex couples, it’s sending a message that Queer people are not as good as straight people — just as Earl Warren argued that having separate schools for a white majority and a Black minority sent a message that Blacks were not as good as whites. “[R}etaining the designation of marriage exclusively for opposite-sex couples and providing only a separate and distinct designation for same-sex couples,” George wrote, “may well have the effect of perpetuating a more general premise — now emphatically rejected by this state -— that Gay individuals and same-sex couples are in some respects ‘second-class citizens’ who may, under the law, be treated differently from, and less favorably than, heterosexual individuals or opposite-sex couples.”

In addition to invalidating the state’s ban on same-sex marriage on at least three grounds in the state constitution, George and the other three justices who joined his opinion also said that government classifications based on sexual orientation should be subject to ‘strict scrutiny.” This is the trifecta, the big enchilada, of civil rights law: the strongest protection the justice system affords. Under the usual test, a law that treats different groups of people differently can only be struck down if the court finds no “rational basis” for the classification.

Under “strict scrutiny,” the court can uphold a classification only if it finds that it serves a “compelling state interest” and that no other, less restrictive policy will fulfill that interest. In ruling that sexual orientation is a ‘suspect classification” deserving of “strict scrutiny,” the California Supreme Court has gone way beyond the U.S. Supreme Court, which threw out sodomy laws on a “rational basis” test and has never given “strict scrutiny” to classifications based on gender (which explains their recent hateful rulings against women on employment discrimination and reproductive choice), much less sexual orientation.

Not surprisingly, the radical Right has gone ballistic about the decision. One of the more peculiar talking points on Right-wing radio against it has been that, since the decision was made by a closely divided 4-3 vote, in essence one justice decided that Californians must accept same-sex marriage (but which one? Are these people so far gone they can’t even count to four?) in defiance of the will they expressed at the polls in March 2000, when the state’s voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 22. This initiative enacted Section 308.5 of the California Family Code, which reiterated California’s previous definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman. As with most other initiatives, this one could be amended only by a vote of the people.

In his dissent, Justice Marvin Baxter claimed the court majority “gives the Legislature indirectly power that body does not directly possess to amend the Constitution and repeal an initiative statute. … [T]he majority suggests that by enacting other statutes which do provide substantial rights to Gays and Lesbians — including domestic partnership rights which, under section 308.5, the Legislature could not call ‘marriage’ — the Legislature has given ‘explicit official recognition’ … to a California right of equal treatment which, because it includes the right to marry, thereby invalidates section 308.5. … [T]he majority’s analysis has … given the Legislature, indirectly, a power it does not otherwise possess to thwart the People’s express legislative will.”

Of course, under California law, the people are the final arbiters of what the state constitution contains. Unless they pass something so viciously arbitrary that it violates the federal Constitution — as they did when they attempted to repeal the state’s laws against discrimination in housing on the basis of race in 1964, or when they voted for Proposition 187, a slashing attack on the rights of Latino immigrants, in 1994 — they can rewrite their constitution any way they like. And, thanks to the resources and grim determination of the radical Right, they’ll have their chance on November 4. Unlike Massachusetts, whose cumbersome process for amending its constitution (a proposed amendment has to receive 25 percent of the vote in each house of the legislature in two consecutive sessions and then the people get to vote on it) gave marriage equality advocates plenty of chances to block any attempt to reverse the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s landmark 2003 decision, California’s constitution can be amended any time people have enough money and enough will to get a proposal on the ballot.

When he spoke at the 2007 “Community Celebration” rally as part of San Diego’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Pride Event, Seth Kilbourn, political director of the Queer-rights lobby Equality California, predicted that when the anti-marriage initiative finally got on the California ballot, it would be the battle royal that would probably decide the fate of marriage equality nationwide for decades to come. I was skeptical then, but I believe it now. The California Supreme Court has basically set the timing of the marriage battle in such a way that, for the first time in U.S. history, voters of a state will have a chance to weigh in on whether same-sex marriages should be allowed while same-sex marriages are already happening. Either California voters will endorse bigotry against Queers — as they did in 2000 when they passed Proposition 22 (and previously had against African-Americans in 1964 and Latinos in 1994) — or they will allow same-sex marriages to take hold and the opposition to evaporate, as most of it has in Massachusetts now that Queers have been getting married there for so long it seems normal.

Another jolting irony of the May 15 decision occurs towards the end, in Justice Carol Corrigan’s dissent. “To make the case for a constitutional violation,” she wrote, “the majority distorts and diminishes the historic achievements of the DPA [Domestic Partnership Act], and the efforts of those who worked so diligently to pass it into law.” The irony is that “those who worked so diligently to pass it into law” never regarded domestic partnerships as their final goal, but only as a way station towards the true equality of marriage. We know that because they said so (and, what’s more, their opponents, particularly the Right-wing Mafiosi of talk radio, knew they said so because they quoted them and played tapes of them saying so). Seth Kilbourn said so in his speech in San Diego on July 15, 2007, when — even though his employers had lobbied heavily both to get the legislature to pass domestic partnerships and gradually to expand the rights and responsibility they conferred — he denounced the institution they’d helped to create in terms almost identical with Ronald George’s.

“The state of California has reduced the inequality by passing domestic-partner legislation, which we worked hard for,” Kilbourn said, “but domestic partnerships and marriage will always be unequal in terms of rights and benefits, status and recognition, and dignity and respect. There are only two reasons to have two different systems, one for Gay people and one for everybody else. Either the systems are unequal in terms of the protections they provide — which they are — or there’s a general acceptance that one group is somehow less worthy than the other. No matter how you feel about the institution of marriage, how can we accept inequality in the law, and accept the notion that Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Americans are somehow ‘less than’? The difference between calling Mom to say, ‘Hey, I’m getting domestic-partnered,’ and, ‘Hey, I’m getting married,’ is what we need to end, not only in law but in terms of our families, our loved ones and the guy in the next cubicle.”

It becomes even more ironic when you realize that not only has the radical Right fought against same-sex marriage but against every legal advance Queer people have made in California and throughout the United States. They fought against the repeal of laws making Gay and Lesbian sex acts illegal. They fought against anti-discrimination and anti-hate crimes legislation. They fought tooth and nail against the domestic partnership bill they now say we should be satisfied with — indeed, they went to the California Supreme Court themselves to have domestic partnerships declared illegal as a violation of Proposition 22, and the justices quite properly told them to get stuffed.

The court said then what they’ve said now: that domestic partnerships are not marriages and therefore the limits on marriage don’t apply. Now they’ve said that when 61.4 percent of California’s voters took away out right to marry our partners, they violated our rights as a protected minority — and, given that (unlike federal judges) they have to be confirmed in office by the people very 12 years, and that 22 years ago three California Supreme Court justices lost their jobs as a result of a vicious, hateful campaign sponsored by the radical Right, the courage of Ronald George and his brethren and sistren is truly remarkable.

So now we have marriage — starting, most likely, in mid-June and lasting either until November 4 or longer, if we can make it so … and in the face of a well-organized and well-funded effort to take it away from us, we will have to work our asses off from now until November to persuade enough of our fellow Californians to let us keep the right to marry. It’s been an unexpectedly wrenching issue for me personally, because for the first time in my life I’m actually contemplating marriage. I didn’t when I lived with a woman for five years (1978 to 1982) before I came out as Gay because we both subscribed to the then-trendy idea that marriage was an outmoded tradition we were better off without. I’ve been in a committed relationship with a man for 13 years, and when I called him the morning of May 15 to let him know the good news, it was a race to see which of us would ask the other first. He won.

There’s no question in my mind that I am going to marry the man I love and wish to share the rest of my life with. But I’m scared. I’ve known all too many straight people who’ve told me that marrying their long-time partners changed their relationships in unpredictable ways. All my life I’ve seen movies and heard jokes about the license and the ring, and never having been legally married before (as a lot of my Queer friends were) I’m entering terra incognita here. But my partner and I will be married as soon as we can, and we will take whatever comes between us and make it work one day at a time the way we have for over 13 years — and for the rest of our time on earth we’ll be able proudly to display the rings on those fingers and say, “We’re married.”

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Congressional Candidates Hosts Town-Hall Meeting

Iraqi Immigrants’ Stories Dominate the Event


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTOS, Top: Dave Patterson, Patricia Law, Mike Copass

Bottom: Mike Copass with Mazin and Layla al-Nashi

Mike Copass, running an uphill insurgent campaign for Congress against four-term incumbent Susan Davis in the June 3 Democratic primary, announced at the start of his May 11 event at the Joyce Beers Community Center in Hillcrest that he wanted it to be more than a campaign rally. Sponsored by the San Diego chapter of Progressive Democrats of America (PDA), which has endorsed Copass’s campaign, the event was billed as a “town-hall meeting” aimed at brainstorming ways to end the U.S. occupation of Iraq — but the event turned into a series of cries of despair about the war’s impact and a realization that the war won’t end unless progressives are able to win elections and replace the Republicans and pro-war Democrats who authorized the war and are keeping it funded.

Copass invited four speakers to share the podium with him. One, Dave Patterson of the San Diego chapter of Veterans for Peace, talked about the toll the war has taken on those who’ve been sent to fight it. Patterson recalled being at a meeting of the San Diego Veterans’ Council two weeks earlier. “One of the World War II/Pearl Harbor survivors said his grandson had just returned from Iraq — alive,” Patterson said. “Two months later his grandson committed suicide. Later that afternoon I received a call from a Gold Star Mother [a woman who’s lost a son or daughter in a foreign war] who was having trouble dealing with her depression. Nobody seems to know about the pain and suffering this war is causing.”

Patterson said the troops currently serving in Iraq are so overstressed that a local paper in Ramona recently ran a story about an Iraq veteran who was just sent back there — on his seventh tour of duty. Patterson recalled his own experience in 1968, when the unit with which he was serving in Viet Nam was called out of the country for an “intel briefing” in Thailand. “They said we were losing the war,” he remembered, “but that we should just continue to do what we were doing so we could get North Viet Nam to the peace table. We were asked to keep killing people because Congress didn’t have the courage to end the war.”

The next speaker was anti-war activist Patricia Law, who was put on the panel largely because of the symbolism of having a mother speak on Mother’s Day. “I have two sons of draftable age, and I don’t want my sons to go to a non-winnable war,” she said. She spoke of the war as part of a broader attack by the current administration and its Congressional supporters and enablers on women’s right to reproductive choice, the continuing “gender gap” between what men are paid and what women are paid for jobs of comparable worth, sexual and industrial slavery in Third World countries, threats to universal access to education, and access to health care.

The health issue really hit close to home. “I’ve been a single parent for 21 years and for 20 of those years I had no health coverage,” she said. “Any time I had a situation with either of my sons, I had to pay $800 up front just for tests, before they even found out what was wrong with them or offered any care. That is an exorbitant fee.”

The other two speakers were Mazin al-Nashi and his wife Layla, Iraqi expatriates and U.S. citizens whose troubles started when Mazin decided to answer President Bush’s call that “you’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists.” Mazin hired on as an interpreter for the U.S. in Iraq under contract with the Titan corporation, but when he was injured in Iraq — by U.S. soldiers, he claimed — and left blind, Titan couldn’t wash their hands of him fast enough. Instead of caring for him in Iraq, Titan’s staff shipped him to Germany and then to the U.S. without bothering to tell his wife what had happened to him. “She only knew I was on my way because she’d called me,” he said.

The al-Nashis’ attempt to sue Titan for the damages ran afoul of the company’s take-no-prisoners legal strategy. According to the an-Nashis, they were forced to represent themselves against 18 attorneys from the highest-priced law firm Titan’s profits could afford. When they appealed for help to their Congressmember, Duncan Hunter, his staff aide told them point-blank, “We cannot help you. We have a good relationship with Titan.” (For more information on the al-Nashis’ story, see the February 2008 issue of Zenger’s Magazine or visit http://zengersmag.blogspot.com/search?q=Mazin+al-Nashi on the Zenger’s blog.)

“Mazin’s story disturbs me greatly,” Copass said after the al-Nashis finished their presentation. “Whatever we can do together so this suffering doesn’t go on should be our obligation.” Copass said he was inspired to run for Congress in the first place when he attended two of incumbent Davis’s open meetings in her district and “there was a sense of frustration, bordering on anger” among the people there who had voted for Davis hoping that she would be part of a Democratic Congressional majority that would refuse further funding for the Iraq war.

“The only way to continue a war is to fund it,” Copass explained. “My aunt told me that they way they finally ended the Viet Nam war was they focused their lobbying on the House Appropriations Committee to end the funding, and eventually they did. That is the only way to bring this war to a responsible end. In May 2007, when an open-ended funding bill came to the House floor, it passed with the support of 87 Democrats” — and, Copass added, Susan Davis was one of them. Copass had been frustrated when, as a member of the Progressive Democrats of America, he had lobbied Davis to co-sponsor a Democratic alternative that would have funded only a troop withdrawal and would have banned the U.S. from building permanent bases in Iraq. She refused.

According to Copass, Davis voted for the open-ended bill in May 2007 after the administration threatened “to take money from veterans’ programs and other things the public supports” to continue the war if it didn’t pass. Copass felt that Davis and the Democratic leaders should instead have called Bush’s bluff. “I say let Bush and Cheney bear the brunt of it,” he said. “Of course, they’ll say you don’t ‘support the troops’ if you don’t support the war. “ Copass said that the House Democrats should have hung together, defeated the war funding on a party-line vote if necessary, and impeached Bush and Cheney if they attempted to continue the war by shifting money out of other programs to pay for it. He said Davis’s total refusal even to consider impeachment was another reason he decided to run against her.

What’s more, Copass said, “There is another funding bill, $179 billion, that was supposed to be voted on last week. It combines $70 billion in carry-over funding through 2009 and another $101 billion for operations after that. This will commit us to the occupation for three more years.” In other words, if this bill passes the U.S. occupation of Iraq will continue at least two years into the administration of the next President — dashing the hopes of many anti-war voters that electing a Democratic President will mean the end of the war. Meanwhile, Copass said, Susan Davis recently sent out a newsletter which bore the headline, “Good News for Veterans” — over a story that boasted she had helped secure $22 million to expand the military cemetery at Miramar.

“I had talked to a member of Davis’s staff,” added Law, “and they said they did not want to end the war because they wanted it as a political issue to use against the Republicans in 2008.”

“Congress needs to listen to the voice of the American people,” Copass replied. “Two-thirds of them oppose the war. The enormous drain of the war on the U.S. treasury is the reason why we can’t afford health care, not even for children. There is a universal health care bill before Congress, HR 676 (Kucinich/Conyers), and we need to make it a priority for the next Congress to get that passed. Any further consideration of funding for Iraq should be contingent on full care for GI’s and a six- to 12-month timetable for withdrawal.”

In response to an audience questioner who asked what we should do if we withdraw from Iraq and the Iranians move forces in to take over, Patterson replied that this sounded an awful lot like the “domino theory” the administration used in the 1960’s to justify continuing the Viet Nam war. “We were told we had to stay there because the North Viet Namese would take over,” he recalled. “Now Bush is over there shaking hands with the president of Viet Nam. If we don’t decide collectively to get out of Iraq, we never will.”

Mayoral candidate and former San Diego City Councilmember Floyd Morrow recalled his own generation’s “domino” war in Korea. “I was in Korea and they said the dominoes would fall,” he said. “War is not the answer. It’s an illegitimate war. We have no right to be there. We need to invoke the Geneva court. Everything about it is illegal. We need to realign our priorities from top to bottom. We could realign $2.5 million every week just by ending the war. We need to realign our priorities at the federal, state, regional and local levels.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” said Copass. “The role of government is to defend the liberties of the people and represent what they desire. There are enormous untapped reserves of talent from the American people, including our troops. The country was born from people who dreamed. John Fitzgerald Kennedy said we were going to put a man on the moon within the decade, and we did. That’s the kind of vision we need now to solve our country’s problems and not waste resources fighting in illegal, immoral and unjust wars.”

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Wackness: Too “Wack” to Be Moving


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

“I see the dopeness in everything, and you just see the wackness.”

— Stephanie Squires (Olivia Thirlby) to Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) in The Wackness, written and directed by Jonathan Levine

The promotional material for Jonathan Levine’s new film The Wackness certainly talks a good movie. “It’s the summer of 1994, and the streets of New York are pulsing with hip-hop and wafting with the sweet aroma of marijuana — but change is in the air,” it reads. “The newly inaugurated mayor, Rudy Giuliani, is beginning to implement his anti-fun initiatives against ‘crimes’ like noisy portable radios, graffiti and public drunkenness. Set against this backdrop, Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) spends his last summer before college selling dope throughout New York City, trading it with his shrink (Ben Kingsley) for
therapy, while crushing on his stepdaughter (Olivia Thirlby).”

But anybody lured to a theatre showing The Wackness by this copy, and expecting a light-hearted anti-establishment comedy about a picaresque teen drug dealer eluding the minions of the New York Police Department while trying to make enough money to last him through four years of college is going to be sorely disappointed. What Levine has actually given us is an all-too-familiar modern coming-of-age tale, filled with plot devices that have been done better in other recent films (like the teenage male sexual naïf from Tadpole and the crazy psychiatrist from Running with Scissors). It’s filmed by cinematographer Petra Korner in so exaggerated a version of the past-is-brown cliché that great swaths of it look like they were shot in black-and-white and then sepia-toned, and the coldness of the movie’s approach to the character’s emotions all too faithfully matches the film’s murky visual look. (When Luke and his crush object meet in a park on their first date, we get a visceral feeling of relief that the foliage is recognizably green.)

The movie’s big gimmick is that Luke is in therapy with Dr. Jeffrey Squires (Kingsley) while at the same time dealing him drugs and paying for his sessions with bags of marijuana. (The fact that Luke deals pot exclusively is supposed to make him a “good” drug dealer, as opposed to those nasty ones selling heroin, crystal, cocaine or crack.) Dr. Squires sees Luke as the vehicle through which he can relive his lost youth — at one point he takes him to what used to be a trendy singles’ bar but now is virtually dead — and together they do drugs, seek partners for casual sex, exchange the sorts of ruminations on the human condition that sound impressive when you’re stoned and are forgotten by the time you sober up and end up in one, count ’em, one altercation with the law — when Luke challenges Dr. Squire to “tag” and he responds by signing his own name to a street window as his sort of graffiti.

At the same time, however, Dr. Squires is also fiercely protective of his stepdaughter Stephanie (Thirlby) and determined to nip any hint of a romantic interest between her and Luke in the bud. At times we’re led to believe that Squires has an incestuous crush, conscious or otherwise, on Stephanie; at other times we think maybe he’s got a Gay itch for Luke. Either of these would have been a more interesting dramatic issue than the one Levine supplies, having Squires’ wife Kristin (Famke Janssen) leave him and he respond by taking Luke to his beach house on Fire Island and treating him to a weekend-long drug binge.

It’s a pity that Levine wastes a quite good cast on such a dull story, made even more boring by the plodding pace of his direction. (If you go in thinking that Levine is going to cut his movie to the rapid-fire, jagged rhythms of the hip-hop songs Luke loves, that’s yet another expectation the actual film will dash.) Josh Peck is just right as Luke, cute without being so attractive that we couldn’t believe he’s made it to his high-school graduation with his virginity still intact. Thirlby is suitably enigmatic as Stephanie, waving off Luke’s protestations of his lack of sexual experience with a breezily insouciant insistence that she’s done it 100 times, and coldly dumping Luke when he makes the mistake of telling her that he loves her. (You’ve heard of romantic movies? This is definitely an anti-romantic movie.) At least she looks enough like Famke Janssen (herself effective within the limits of an underwritten role that has too little screen time to leave much of an impression) that we can accept them as mother and daughter, a rarity in any movie.

Not surprisingly, though, the film’s best moments go to top-billed Ben Kingsley, who seems to have taken this role as part of his life-long crusade to get audiences to accept him as anything other than the goody-two-shoes roles that made him a star, Gandhi and the saintly Jewish bookkeeper in Schindler’s List. Whether he’s having a sexual quickie in a phone booth with a dirty-blonde girl young enough to be his granddaughter or getting himself and Luke caught by “tagging” a city street with his own signature, Kingsley does his level best to make us understand the weirdo he’s playing. Much of his performance evokes his turn in another recent film, You Kill Me, as an alcoholic hit-man whose employers ship him from Boston to San Francisco to go through the 12-step program and return a more effective killer — but that’s a much better movie than this one; not only is it photographed in a color scheme that actually resembles reality, but at least Kingsley’s character in You Kill Me shows some real development and actually sobers up.

As The Wackness plods along through its all too predictable situations, Levine’s snail-like direction gives us all too much time to contemplate the anachronisms and dramatic holes in his script. Why does Luke make a joke about Starbucks when that chain, though it existed in 1994, was hardly as numbingly ubiquitous as it is now? Why does he say, “I still listen to cassettes!,” when a lot of people still listened to cassettes in 1994? (It wasn’t until later in that decade that CD’s took over from all other media of recorded music, only to fall in turn to Internet downloads in our time.) Why does Luke listen almost exclusively to rap when in 1994 rap was still pretty much the province of Black gang-bangers and white wanna-bes, and Luke is clearly neither? Why, when we’re clearly told over and over again that Stephanie is only Dr. Squires’ stepdaughter, does she have the same last name? And why, when Luke has the last name “Shapiro,” do he and his movie parents (David Wohl and Talia Balsam) talk with the accents of Italian-American gangsters in a film by Coppola or Scorsese or a Sopranos episode?

But the worst thing about The Wackness is its utter coldness as a film, its total refusal to give us even one character we can actually like. Levine seems more like an anthropologist than a storyteller, raising us above the characters and having us “observe” them like lab rats instead of feeling for them. The film presents drugs as merely a fact of life, neither a vehicle for liberation nor a force that destroys the lives of their users — and whereas the sobriety Kingsley’s You Kill Me character achieves gives us a reason to like and support him, the utter refusal of his character here to clean up his act or even start acting his age makes us wonder how much more screwed up his therapy clients are going to be once he gets through with them. (At the same time Levine shows us Squires’ patients only in a series of silent close-ups from the most unflattering angles he and cinematographer Korner can come up with, making sure we don’t identify with them either.) It’s a measure of how chilly this movie is towards its people that the biggest emotional wrench in the film doesn’t involve a human being; it’s a shot of the Manhattan skyline with the two World Trade Center towers still in place.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Apology to Our Subscribers

by Mark Gabrish Conlan, Editor/Publisher, Zenger's Newsmagazine

Those of you who sponsor or subscribe to the Zenger's print edition are probably wondering by now why you haven't yet received your copies of the May issue. Unfortunately, after we have been mailing the publication in its current format for 13 years, some anonymous Eichmann-esque bureaucrat at the United States Postal Service has decided to charge us 58 cents per copy postage (instead of the normal first-class rate, which we have been mailing under for 13 years) on the ground that since we don't send out the paper in sealed envelopes, it has to be sorted by hand rather than by machine and therefore we have to pay an additional fee for that.

I first received word of this on May 6, when I went to check our post office box in City Heights and received a card in our box that the mailing had been rejected. A day later I confronted the postmaster at City Heights over the rejection and was told that "someone at the plant" had decided — once again, after we have been mailing this way for 13 years — that feeding our paper through the sorting machine would be too risky and he or she wouldn't mail us without extorting extra postage from us. Apparently this mysterious "someone at the plant" either doesn't have a name or his or her name is a trade secret peons like us are not allowed to know.

This is not the first time, nor will it be the last, that faceless, nameless bureaucrats in unaccountable organizations have tried to suppress this publication. I want to thank all my faithful Zenger's sponsors and subscribers over the years for their support for this publication and pledge that I will use every resource at my disposal to make sure it continues regardless of all official opposition. In the meantime I sincerely apologize for the delay in your receipt of the current issue, and plead for your patience.