Friday, February 27, 2009

Club Honors Black Queers, Hears Attack on Water Privatization


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

PHOTO: Cory Lopez, Food and Water Watch

The predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club heard a Black History Month presentation February 26 by former club president Jeri Dilno about notable people of African descent (mostly, but not entirely, African-Americans) who are well known or strongly believed to have been Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual or Transgender. But the agenda of the club’s regular meeting also encompassed a long goodbye from its immediate past president, Andrea Villa; an effusive round of thank-yous from the new president taking her place, Larry Baza; and a presentation from Cory Lopez of the Food and Water Watch project of Public Citizen opposing San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders’ plan to privatize all or part of the city’s water service.

“It’s been a challenging two years,” Villa said of her term as club president. “We’ve seen a lot of changes in which we’ve been personally challenged, politically challenged and challenged to be our better selves. No one leads alone; I want to thank you for your faith in me and your candor. It has been a great honor for me to serve this club. It’s a great example of what a number of otherwise marginalized individuals can do.” Villa alluded to the divisive Presidential campaign (when the club first voted on the Presidential race in November 2007 Hillary Clinton and John Edwards were the front-runners, and Barack Obama barely beat out Dennis Kucinich for third place in the club’s poll) and the frustrations around the marriage equality issue: the exultation of the victory when the California Supreme Court ruled that the state’s ban on same-sex marriages was unconstitutional; the devastation when California voters narrowly passed Proposition 8 in November, writing the ban into the state constitution; the explosion of street activism from the Queer community in the wake of the defeat; and the statewide plans for a coordinated response on March 4, the day before the court will hear arguments over whether Proposition 8 is valid.

In a symbolic bit of bridge-building, the club officers for 2009 were sworn in by newly elected City Councilmember Todd Gloria — and Gloria was introduced by the man he defeated in that election, former club president Stephen Whitburn. “I’m disappointed that I didn’t finish first, but Todd was my second choice,” said Whitburn, who thanked Gloria in particular for his high visibility on the marriage equality issue since the November election. “He has been at all the events, representing our community, just as Toni Atkins did when she was Councilmember in District 3,” Whitburn said. “I think we can all be honored as a club that the first openly Gay male Democrat on the San Diego City Council is here to swear in our board.”

After thanking Whitburn in turn for staying involved in the club and local politics in general, Gloria said, “I bring you greetings from your 6-2 Democratic City Council majority. We were having a budget hearing in Del Cerro and they understood why I was leaving early to come here. I want you to know our Democratic-controlled City Council is delivering for you.” Gloria thanked Sherri Lightner, a former engineer, for taking a lead on developing high-tech and biotech jobs in San Diego; Tony Young for taking control of the budget process and sending Mayor Sanders “a signal that we are not going to balance the city’s budget on the backs of schoolchildren and workers,” and Donna Frye for taking the lead on requiring developers to make their projects environmentally friendly.

After Gloria swore in the club’s new board — not only the elected officials but also the people president Baza has appointed to fulfill other necessary responsibilities, including volunteer coordination, special events and the newsletter, it was Cory Lopez’ turn to present the case against water privatization. “We’ve worked against water privatization in Milwaukee, Atlanta, New Orleans and Stockton,” she said of herself and her Food and Water Watch organization. “Over the past 10-15 years we’ve seen an increase in private water companies approaching cities and meeting with city councilmembers and mayors to take over their water utilities.”

Private water companies hit cities especially aggressively when they’re in financial binds and would have trouble raising taxes or water fees to modernize their water systems. They typically promise, Lopez said, “to save costs and improve service” — but all too many cities who’ve actually privatized have found out that the opposite happens. “Water quality has been compromised and rates have increased up to 40 percent in a year,” Lopez said. “In Indianapolis they privatized the water, and surge spills increased so much the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stepped in and fined the city for polluting. … In Atlanta, the water was running brown for months and rates went up. These corporations cut jobs and keep costs down by not maintaining facilities as they should.”

What’s more, Lopez said, once a city has entered into an ill-advised privatization, the companies demand huge sums in order to allow the city to cancel their contracts. In Stockton, the city government spent $3 million in legal fees on behalf of the private water contractor before grass-roots activists won a court ruling invalidating the contract. In another California city, Felton, the cost of buying out the private water company was $10.5 million to buy out the company plus assuming $2.9 million in debt the company had taken out to build a new treatment plant. Felton’s voters had to agree to pay $800 per parcel per year in additional property taxes to raise the money. Lopez also pointed out that in Indianapolis, even though the private water company had been responsible for the pollution against which the EPA took action, it was the city — the legally liable party — that had to pay the feds the fine.

After Lopez’s presentation, Dilno took the podium to deliver her presentation on Queers of African descent. Some of the names were familiar figures from the arts world: writers James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes, Audré Lorde and Alice Walker; singers Josephine Baker, Johnny Mathis and Gertrude “Ma” Rainey; dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey; composer and arranger Billy Strayhorn; and filmmaker Marlon Riggs. Others, including former Congressmember Barbara Jordan — the first African-American woman to speak at a major-party political convention in the U.S. — former UCSD professor Angela Davis, and South African anti-apartheid activist Simon Nkoli, who helped make post-apartheid South African the first country in the world to grant Queer people equal rights in its constitution — were major political figures.

The list also included Glenn Burke, the first major-league baseball player to come out as Gay; Perry Watkins, who successfully challenged the U.S. military’s ban on open Queers in service; and a surprise, Benjamin Banneker, son of an emancipated slave and his white female former owner, who is acknowledged in U.S. history books as having been a pioneer in U.S. astronomy and clockmaking and having assisted in laying out the street plans for Washington, D.C. Banneker’s name and reputation have made it into the history books but his sexuality hasn’t, though he never married and all his known expressions of emotional affection were towards men. (Dilno’s list, from a Web site at Marshall University, did not include George Washington Carver, another pioneering African-American scientist who is also believed to have been Gay.)

A number of the other names were of activists who aren’t well known but have had important behind-the-scenes roles in advancing both African-American and Queer civil rights. Among these were Keith Boykin, who served the Clinton administration as outreach director to the so-called “specialty press”; Mandy Carter, field director for the National Black Lesbian and Gay leadership Forum (an organization Boykin once headed); Owen Vincent Dodson, who headed the Howard University Players and in 1949 took them on the first State Department-sponsored European tour by a Black theatre company; and Nadine Smith, executive director of the Human Rights Task Force of Florida.

The list also served as a grim reminder of the toll the AIDS epidemic took on the Queer community. Ailey, Burke, Nkoli, Riggs and Watkins all died of complications from AIDS, as did quite a few people on the longer Marshall University list whom Dilno didn’t cite, while Hansberry, Lorde and Strayhorn died of cancer and Jordan of multiple sclerosis. An even grimmer fate overtook Tyra Hunter, a Transgender resident of Washington, D.C. who was involved in an automobile accident in 1995. Upon discovering that Hunter, who presented as female, still had male genitalia, the emergency medical technician stopped treating her, laughed at her and allowed her to die.

Web links:
Marshall University list of Queers of African descent:
Food and Water Watch:

Monday, February 23, 2009

Let’s Start a Bank!


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

The Obama administration didn’t get off to a good start when its treasury secretary, Tim Geithner, made a big, much ballyhooed speech announcing his plans to restore the failed banking system — and, to the extent that he offered any specifics, he sounded a lot like his immediate predecessor, Henry Paulson. Dragged kicking and screaming to the idea that government ought to do something to bail out the financial sector, Paulson infamously put forth a three-page bill before Congress and said, “Give me $700 billion and don’t ask me what I’m going to do with it. Just trust me.” That’s about what Geithner did, only his non-plan’s price tag could end up over $2 trillion.

What’s more, nobody really knows just what, if anything, the American taxpayers (and the Chinese and Japanese national banks that are the principal creditors lending the U.S. government money for all the big deficits we’re running) got for the first $350 billion of the Paulson bailout. We were supposed to get the spigots of credit reopened to water an increasingly parched economy in which businesses are forced to lay people off because they can’t borrow money, and even people who could otherwise afford to buy houses or cars at current market prices can’t do so because they can’t get loans.

Instead, the banks that got offered the money took it and — pardon the pun — banked it. Either they paid it as “bonuses” to the brilliant executives who drove America’s financial system off the cliff in the first place, or they paid it as shareholders’ dividends, or they used it to buy each other up, or they just kept it, waiting for the recession to pass on its own before they deign to start making loans again. They offered the usual hollow justifications — we can’t lend money in such an “uncertain” environment, we’ve already promised our employees the bonuses, we can’t risk not paying them and losing them to our competitors, and anyway we’re private companies and how dare you tell us what we can do with “our” money?

Except it’s not their money; it’s our money. With no reason to believe that throwing any more taxpayer money (much of which, being borrowed money, will have to be paid back by generations of taxpayers yet to be born) at the existing financial system will have any more positive result, it’s time for an out-of-the-box solution. And I don’t mean purchasing the so-called “toxic assets” of existing financial institutions or a sham “nationalization” that will just leave taxpayers holding the bag for the losses the big banks, investment firms, hedge funds and whatnot took as a result of the collapse of the housing bubble. Those would be just more of what Ralph Nader has called “lemon socialism,” in which government takes over all the failing industries and the private sector keeps the ones that actually make money.

No, the solution is simple: let’s start a bank! Let the U.S. government take the $350 billion left in the original bailout and the money Geithner was going to ask for from Congress for another, even more expensive one and use it to capitalize a United States government-owned bank. This public bank would function like any private bank — or at least like private banks were supposed to function before they got infected with the go-go spirit of the last three deregulated decades. It will accept deposits and sell people savings accounts, money-market funds, CD’s and other financial instruments.

Most important of all, it will lend people money. Like a properly run private bank, it will do so after first assessing their financial standing and the likelihood that they will repay loans. It will follow the provisions of the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act (the one Republican propagandists are falsely blaming for the housing crisis) and lend without discrimination based on race or gender “consistent with safe and sound operation,” as the statute itself says. It won’t be obligated under the CRA to make loans to people of color who can’t pay them back — just as the private banks aren’t now, despite what you may have heard from the shrieking voices on talk radio.

By providing an alternative source of capital than the increasingly risk-averse private sector, the new government bank will create a mechanism to re-stimulate the private economy without depending on private financial institutions that have dropped the ball in the current crisis. Properly run, the bank can fulfill the promise former California State Senator Tom Hayden made when he started the short-lived Campaign for Economic Democracy (CED) in the late 1970’s to “get government out of the revenue-consuming business and into the revenue-producing business.” What’s more, a government bank that starts turning a profit on its loans will encourage the private banks to get back into the lending business that much sooner.

Where will we find the people to run the new bank? The same place Franklin Roosevelt did when he launched the New Deal programs in the 1930’s: from young people who’ve been to school and had enough real-world financial training to know how to read a loan application and say yea or nay based on the principles of “safe and sound operation” (something private bankers and financiers haven’t been too good at lately), but haven’t been part of finance or government long enough to be corrupted by the conventional wisdom.

Can a public bank actually succeed? Decades of Right-wing propaganda has convinced all too many Americans that only the private sector can run any sort of economic enterprise, but there are plenty of examples from our own history that say that isn’t so. One of the most interesting — and directly relevant — is the Federal National Mortgage Association (FNMC), colloquially known as Fannie Mae, which did fine from 1938, when it was chartered under President Roosevelt to do one of the things I’m suggesting the public bank do — make loans available to low-income home buyers — until 1968, when President Johnson, in one of his many programs aimed at concealing the true cost of the Viet Nam war, spun it off to the private sector.

There’s been a lot of talk about how the economic collapse of last September and the precarious cycle of booms and busts since the New Deal-era regulations were junked, one by one, over the last 30 years, has opened the door to alternatives to a market-driven economy. So far, though, all the proposed solutions we’ve seen — from Bush or Obama, from Congressional Republicans and Democrats, from the corporate media and establishment pundits — all are stuck in the old way of thinking. They all seem to involve throwing money at the private sector and saying, “Please — pretty please — do something socially responsible.” It isn’t working now and it isn’t going to work. There’s a better way to invest the billions or trillions of dollars it would cost to bail out the existing financial sector — and it’s to get that money directly to the people who need it through a new, publicly owned bank.



Copyright © 2009 by Leo E. Laurence • All rights reserved

The FAGS are back, after having finally won official campus recognition on the last week of the fall semester.

The acronym of the Fellowship of Gays and Straights (FAGS) incited a wild debate on campus last semester.

Younger students tend to like the acronym, just as the word “queer” — long considered an in-sult to Gays and Lesbians — was co-opted by groups nationwide (e.g., Queers for Obama). Indeed, it has become a magic marketing tool for the new organization.

But many Gay seniors and closeted Gays hate the acronym.

Indeed, when the controversy over the acronym erupted on campus last semester, some within the college administration fought against its use.

“I think the acronym (FAGS) is not appropriate for an educational institution because it is hate language,” said student services assistant Michel Montanez last fall.

Actually, Montanez was wrong on the law.

In constitutional law, if a word like “fag” or “queer” is used in a hostile manner, it is not pro-tected under the First Amendment. But, when it is used as a word of positive self-description, the constitutional protections apply.

“I do not think ‘queer” is a positive word,” Montanez added.

New Direction

Having won official campus recognition last semester; the FAGS may take a different direction this semester. One new goal may be to get more involved in other campus groups, especially the straight ones.

“We need to appeal to younger, straight people (on campus),” said James Samoilis, 22, of North Park in a recent interview.

“It’s important that Gays don’t segregate (ghettoize) themselves,” Samoilis explained.

Leading the pack of campus organizations, the FAGS members already held their first meeting on January 31 in a North Park coffee shop.

More information is easily available at

Contact reporter Leo Laurence at (619) 757-4909,

Photo Caption: FAGS members James Samoilis (left), 22, and John Pongphila, 26; both of North Park, are shown Jan. 31st in Hillcrest. Photo by Leo E. Laurence.

Forty Years Later, Gay Lib Pioneer Still Struggles

Zenger’s Associate Editor Challenges Homophobia at City College

historical background by LEO E. LAURENCE

Copyright © 2009 by Leo E. Laurence • All rights reserved

At high noon on the first Wednesday of March in 1969, I and a handful of other dedicated activists launched the now international Gay Liberation movement in front of the States Steamship Lines headquarters in San Francisco’s financial district.

That was when the Committee for Homosexual Freedom (CHF) staged a highly organized civil-rights action for employment anti-discrimination laws for Gays.

The original sign-in sheet for the first CHF organizing meeting shows 13 signatures.

In San Francisco in 1969, States Lines had fired cute, blond, blue-eyed, slender, smooth 19-year-old Gale Whittington after a large photo appeared in the popular “underground” paper, The Berkeley Barb, showing me hugging Gale affectionately. We were both wearing cut-off shorts, but the photo was cropped closely to suggest we were naked. Ah, the power of suggestion.

No, we were not lovers. Mine was cute, blond, blue-eyed, slender, smooth and 19-year-old Don Burton, known then as the “Gay Folksinger” in the Bay Area.

The CHF sustained those civil-rights picket lines every Wednesday at high noon for months. It had never been done before, and the closeted queens who ran the Homosexual Community (as it was known then, before the word “Gay” became popular) were in such a tizzy.

Pat Brown of La Jolla is one of the original CHF organizers. He is currently doing ground research in San Francisco on those early events for a history book being produced this spring.

Brown will make available archival copies of the Berkeley Barb which will reveal the close con-nection between early Gay militants and the Black Panther Party. The Panthers trained and schooled the CHF Gay militants, and in their own paper, The Black Panther, they publicly endorsed the Gay Liberation movement.

“Mother Boats,” a CHF expatriate living in Australia who has rare documents and files of the CHF civil rights campaign, is also collaborating on this new Gay history book.

College Investigation

Forty years later, at my instigation, San Diego City College is launching an investigation into alleged homophobia at the campus newspaper, the City Times.

On the second day of journalism class, which I’d enrolled in to upgrade my skills in modern communications technology, a young, sweet girl got tacky about the paper’s planned continuing coverage of the recently officially recognized organization FAGS (Fellowship of Gays and Straights) on campus. I asked to speak to my classmates.

“I am Gay, and I will not tolerate any off-color remarks,” I told the class. My classmates were mostly supportive.

I submitted a story to the City Times about FAGS receiving official recognition as a campus organization, but the paper’s news editor, Evonne Ermey, refused to publish it. Ermey also told me that she was taking me off the FAGS beat and would cover the organization herself, but no article about them has appeared in City Times since then.

The Gay issue is on the table, but Assistant Professor Roman Koenig refuses to address it, or meet with me.

After an angry outburst on Feb. 23 by the City Times sports editor attacking me, I was ordered to meet with the chair of the Communications Department.

Protection Sought

After I requested “protection” from college President Terrence Burgess, he e-mailed me to say, “City College will be investigating the concerns you have raised. Vice President Peter White and Dean Denise Whisenhunt are in consultation on this matter.”

Dean Whisenhunt, however, may be removed from the investigation for actual and perceived bias. She had opposed official campus recognition of the new FAGS organization (which was won on the last week of last semester).

Indeed, City president Burgess will also be asked to recuse himself from the case for actual and perceived bias. He, too, was opposed to the name FAGS for an official campus organization, according to Jay Murley of North Park.

The Risk Management office of the San Diego Community College District is currently complying with a state Public Records Request for copies of all e-mails to and from college president Burgess and related to the FAGS organization. If they reveal opposition to the FAGS name, that may establish legal bias, which are grounds for removing Burgess from the case for cause.

The director of Risk Management of the college district, Tom Eggleston, says the requested records of president Burgess’s e-mails will be provided on February 26.

The college is considering a request to have Mesa College president Dr. Rita M. Cepeda replace president Burgess in the investigation of this case.

Communications department chairman Hilderbrand is also considering a request that no efforts be taken to remove me from the class pending the results of the college’s investigation.

Contact Leo E. Laurence at (619) 757-4909 or at

Photo Caption: A rare look inside a staff meeting of the City Times newspaper at City College, currently under investigation for alleged homophobia. Photo by Leo E. Laurence.

Robert Jensen Doesn’t Just Challenge Patriotism

Professor Says We Must Prepare for a Localized, Post-Industrial Economy


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

The title of the presentation University of Texas journalism professor Robert Jensen gave at the Joyce Beers Community Center in Hillcrest February 21 — “Saying Goodbye to Patriotism; Ideas for Action: An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire, Culture and Resistance” — was quite a mouthful. But, amazingly, his actual talk had an even broader scope than its title indicated. Drawing on everything from global-warming studies and analyses of the American empire to Old Testament prophets like Jeremiah, Amos and Micah, Jensen defined America as being in three life-or-death crises — “empire, economy and ecology” — and said the only solution was abandoning not only patriotism but the industrial lifestyle and rebuilding the entire world into smaller, more local, more sustainable human communities.

Jensen’s oddly cheerful demeanor stood at sharp contrast to his message, which was one of depression and despair. He acknowledged the contradiction, opening his talk by saying, “I’m happy to be here because I’m so depressed and this is a group with which I can share my depression. An older activist told me, ‘I wake up every morning in a state of profound grief,’ and I’m here to share that grief — but in a joyous way.” Jensen then announced that his next book, scheduled for publication this year, will be called All My Bones Shake, after a quote from the prophet Jeremiah — “My heart has broken within me, all my bones shake” — that summed up how he sees his own mission in today’s world and the task facing progressives in general.

“Let’s talk about the source of our current crises — not just one crisis, but crises going on all around us: empire, economics and ecology,” Jensen said. “In this audience, let’s start with empire because that probably requires the least discussion. The U.S. has imposed itself on the world in an imperial manner probably since the first white people set foot here, and certainly since the end of World War II. After 9/11, it became easier because the U.S. ruling class started using the word ‘empire’ itself. The U.S. abroad engages in classic imperialist policies, and the result is literally millions of bodies either through our own wars of aggression or through proxy wars. That is the nature of empire. The U.S. ruling class claims ours is the first ‘benevolent empire,’ but many previous empires have claimed that. Empires are never benevolent.”

Jensen called American foreign policy “a bipartisan effort to prop up an empire in decline” and noted that Barack Obama is as faithful a servant of the American empire as was George W. Bush. “He’s only talking about a ‘drawdown,’ not a complete withdrawal, in Iraq, and he’s ramping up the imperial project in Afghanistan,” Jensen said.

According to Jensen, the current economic crisis facing the U.S. “is not just a recession that threatens to turn into a depression, but [the result of] a capitalist system that is fundamentally undemocratic, inhuman and unsustainable. Capitalism is based on a moral argument that if human beings become nothing but ‘greed machines,’ somehow the public interest will be served. The result is a world at odds with our stated principles of equality and justice, in which half of the world’s people live on less than $2 a day. Capitalism is defined by wealth inequality, and if you concentrate wealth, you concentrate power. Capitalism is fundamentally anti-democratic. Capitalism is also unsustainable.”

What makes capitalism unsustainable, Jensen argued, is the strain it’s putting on the environment — the third of his three great crises. “Does anyone want to argue that our current system of resource use can be sustained?” Jensen said. “The evidence of unsustainability mounts every day. All of the markers of the health of the earth are in decline.”

Jensen also mentioned a fourth crisis — a cultural crisis — in a way that most progressives and Leftists carefully avoid. In addition to books on race, empire and radical history, Jensen has also had his name on two books strongly denouncing pornography: Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (which he wrote solo) and Pornography: The Production and Consumption of Inequality (co-authored with Gail Dines and Ann Russo). Noting the grim irony that a lot of people seeing those titles on his online C.V. log on to them expecting them to be porn sites, Jensen said he sees the growing popularity of porn and its easy availability on the Internet as a sign that “a lot of our culture has been corroded.”

That’s a phrase far more often used by people on the Right than on the Left — and that’s precisely the problem, Jensen said. “We haven’t won many battles on empire, economics and ecology, but at least those are issues we know how to talk about,” he explained. “We haven’t learned to talk about the corrosive nature of contemporary culture, so the radical Right has taken that over and talked about it in terms of sin, depravity and judgment.”

Jensen also made one point that leads him to worry that the current economic crisis may end up worse than the Great Depression of the 1930’s. “There’s one major difference between 1929 and now,” he explained. “A lot of the skills and networks that allowed people to survive the Great Depression no longer exist, including the basic ability to grow your own food. Those are tangible skills our grandparents generally had, and we are now lacking. The institutions that bound people together back then are largely eroded.”

Where Jensen’s logic leads him is to a vision of the world’s future that largely reverts to a pre-industrial economy. He’s put a new spin on the old environmentalist slogan, “Think globally — act locally.” Jensen argues that once the world runs out of fossil fuels, the entire industrial economy we’ve grown up under — with millions of people being able to live in cities without any direct connection to their food supply and trusting a transportation system to move both themselves and the resources they need for survival along great distances — will be impossible, and we need to be preparing for that now by creating self-sufficient local communities.

At the same time, Jensen said, the necessities of survival in a post-industrial world will force us to abandon atavistic loyalties to nation-states and see the question of survival in global terms. “We recognize that we face a task probably more difficult than any other time in history,” he said. “If we abandon the sense of ourselves primarily as citizens of a nation-state, we have to move in two directions. One is local: we have to realize that we are part of an ecosystem and have to live in harmony with it. At the same time, the ecology really demands we get local, our economic reality demands we stay global. We live as well as we do precisely because our ancestors did that imperial project, and it would be wrong to pretend it didn’t happen and not recognize our obligations at the global level.”

Jensen got a wide range of audience questions after his speech, from people questioning his refusal to use the word “socialism” to describe his post-capitalist, post-industrialist future to one person wondering why he could reject patriotism while citing the Bible as a source. He said he avoided the term “socialism” partly because the American people have been so thoroughly conditioned to hate the idea and partly because to him, socialism isn’t a radical enough term. Usually, he explained, socialism means taking the industrial production system and running it in a way that benefits its workers instead of capitalists — whereas what Jensen insists we need is to go beyond the industrial system itself. Unlike peace activist S. Brian Willson, who gave a similar presentation in San Diego two years ago, Jensen did not confront the issue that his post-industrial future will likely support only a small percentage of the total number of people that live on the earth now.

As for his use of the Bible and its imagery, Jensen said, “Like it or not, 75 percent of the American public identifies as Christian. That’s a stock of stories that underlies this culture, and understanding the roots of these stories and re-narrating them is important. Also, a lot of the early Christian tradition did not believe in the supernatural. Until Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, a lot of it was a critique of the empire of their time. The more I look at human traditions and stories across cultures, the more I see similarities. I want to see whether these [Biblical] texts can become a locus of political struggle.”


Medical Marijuana Provider Convicted of Drug Dealing


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

Before May 28, 2008 — when San Diego police broke in his house, broke down his door, seized the marijuana plants he was growing for three friends and arrested him as a drug dealer — John Ottombrino was just another yoga teacher. Born and raised in San Diego, he went to a private Roman Catholic high school and then to the University of San Diego, where he graduated in 1971. “From there I went to San Diego State to work on my Master’s degree in biomechanics,” he recalled, “and I was there about four years. I did all the work for my Master’s degree except a thesis, and at the end I decided not to bother following through with it because I didn’t want to take a job at the university.”

Instead, in 1980 Ottombrino and his wife opened a business together as alternative health practitioners in Mission Valley. “It was called California Woman,” he said. “It was basically a health club. We taught yoga. We offered a lot of alternative health techniques, such as colonics, massage, deep tissue bodywork, raw foods, wheatgrass and all that kind of stuff, before people really got into it. We were a little bit before our time back in the 1980’s.” He later focused exclusively on teaching yoga and massage, and from 1986 to 1991 he and his wife ran a downtown yoga studio. Then, when their daughter was born, they relocated both their living space and their yoga studio to Kearny Mesa, where they’ve lived and taught for the last 16 years.

Ottombrino got involved in the legally fraught world of medical marijuana through a friend and alternative health client, Sam Bradsher. “He had run into some physical problems,” Ottombrino recalled. “He worked for Solar Turbines, doing software work with engineers and machinists. Over a period of time, he had absorbed a lot of metals and different toxic chemicals from his workplace. He started to get sick, and in the process he started to lose a lot of his ability to do physical work.”

Bradsher first became a medical marijuana user in the way contemplated by the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, also known as Proposition 215. He obtained a letter of recommendation from a doctor and started growing plants himself. Then his back pains got too severe to handle gardening, and he turned to Ottombrino for help. “We discussed it for a few weeks,” Ottombrino said, “and then we decided to create a collective so that medical marijuana could be grown at my house, in the backyard. I have an enclosed area with a locked gate, and we basically decided to grow just enough for three patients” — Bradsher, Dan Boyle and Sara Padilla.

“Sam and I planned the garden out so we could provide about a pound to a pound and a half every two months, which was well under the standards set for medical marijuana in the state of California,” Ottombrino explained. “At the time I was arrested, we were in the process of harvesting our first crop as a collective. We had six mature plants, and a lot of smaller ones we were going to be growing in the future.”

Then, on May 28, it all came crashing down on him — literally — when San Diego police officer Conrad DeCastro and eight of his colleagues broke down his door.

The Bust

“It happened at 9 o’clock in the morning,” Ottombrino said. “My wife was getting ready to go to work. I was in the back doing some watering, and we heard a loud noise at the front of the house. I came forward into the house. The next thing I knew, the door got busted down. My wife was in the bathroom. She thought that someone had broken our front window. As I was letting the cats out — because they were freaking out, they started running for the doors — one of the officers came to the side door, pointed his gun at me and told me I was under arrest.”

The police put handcuffs on Ottombrino and left them on for 4 1/2 to five hours — enough, he said, to cause long-term injuries that threatened his livelihood as a masseur — while they searched his house and backyard. He tried to explain to DeCastro, the officer who’d signed the application for a search warrant, that he was growing marijuana for medical purposes, as a primary caregiver for three licensed patients with doctors’ recommendations. He offered to show DeCastro the paperwork, and he’s sure at least one of the officers looked at the papers because when he returned home after being bailed out that night, the papers were in a different place than where he left them.

According to Ottombrino, when DeCastro testified at the preliminary hearing in his case, the officer admitted that he’d been told the marijuana in Ottombrino’s backyard was for legal patients, “but said the reason he didn’t investigate was because he was at the end of the investigation and I had decided not to talk to him.” Ottombrino wasn’t talking because “I knew from my past that you should never talk to an investigating officer unless your attorney is present,” and DeCastro used that as an excuse not to call the doctors named on the recommendation letters to see if they were valid.

Ottombrino also got contradictory information from the police as to how they found out about him and his garden. “In the search warrant, it said there was an ‘unnamed witness,’” he recalled — “which told me that they must have had a snitch or someone in the neighborhood that had called the police.” When the case went to trial, the police testified that they had spotted his plants from the air — from a police helicopter flying 500 feet up at 80 miles per hour — “which I find to be almost impossible,” Ottombrino said, “because this was a very small grow. It was 10’ x 16’ and it had four walls around it, so the only way you could see it from the air was directly from above.”

Another complicating factor was that marijuana wasn’t the only controlled substance in Ottombrino’s garden. “There was also a small poppy garden in my backyard,” he admitted. “The resins for the opium had been collected. There were about seven grams of opium that was being dried” — a substance Ottombrino said he used to make homemade liniments for the athletes he’d been working with as a trainer. “I also had a small peyote button in a pot that had been there for seven years,” he said. “Peyote is such that you can’t harvest the plant without killing it, so it had never been used for any illegal purposes. It was a gift that my wife had had for about eight years. They made a big deal about it, especially when they found such a little amount of marijuana.”

The Trial

Ottombrino could probably have plea-bargained his case and come away with three year’s probation, the way his wife did. (She was charged even though he insisted she’d had nothing to do with the grow.) Instead, he said, “in my naïveté I decided that I had a good case because I had medical marijuana,” and so he chose to take it to trial. What he didn’t reckon with was Ted Weathers, the judge in his case, whom Ottombrino believed was blatantly biased against him and determined to make sure he couldn’t present an effective defense. “The judge immediately took the side of the prosecutor in just about every step of the operation, right from the jury selection on,” Ottombrino recalled. On his own authority, Ottombrino said, Weathers disqualified five prospective jurors, including an African-American woman (on the ground, Ottombrino said, that Black women “are especially prone not to believe the police”), residents of Ocean Beach and younger people.

“The next issue that came up after we selected the jury was that we had a very contentious hearing on whether or not the jury was going to be able to hear anything about medical marijuana,” Ottombrino recalled. “Right from the very beginning, the judge had decided he did not think that our medical marijuana claim was valid.” The reason, Ottombrino explained, rested in one of the most contentious parts of the entire medical marijuana law: the definition of the term “primary caregiver” as used in the Compassionate Use Act.

The text of the law defines “primary caregiver” as “an individual designated by [the medical marijuana user] who has consistently assumed responsibility for the housing, health or safety of that person.” According to the law, the only people who can legally grow medical marijuana are the patient him/herself and his/her “primary caregiver.” When Proposition 215 was first passed, California attorney general Dan Lungren, a conservative Republican, issued an opinion defining the term narrowly and limiting it to family members or home-care aides who cooked, cleaned, ran errands, drove patients to doctors’ appointments and did personal care.

In 1998, Lungren was replaced by Democrat Bill Lockyer, who issued a more expansive opinion that created a loophole for the burgeoning industry of medical marijuana dispensaries: stores that actually sold marijuana to medical users on presentation of a doctor’s letter authorizing them to use it. While more conservative cities and counties like San Diego continued raiding and closing dispensaries — often enlisting agents of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to do so — in more liberal places like the Bay Area, dispensaries were able to operate by having their customers designate them as “primary caregivers” for the acquisition of medical marijuana.

But in November 2008 the California Supreme Court issued a decision in a case called People v. Mentch aimed at slamming that loophole shut. Roger William Mentch was a medical marijuana user in Santa Cruz who decided to grow large amounts of marijuana and sell it to other medical users through a store he called the Hemporium. He got reported to the police by a bank teller, who complained that some of the cash he was depositing into his account “smelled so strongly of marijuana that the smell filled the bank, and the bank had to remove the money from circulation,” according to the California Supreme Court’s opinion.

Mentch was arrested in June 2003, convicted of cultivation of marijuana and possession for sale, and sentenced to three years’ probation. The California Court of Appeal reversed the conviction on the ground that the trial judge had erred in not allowing the jury to consider whether Mentch was a “primary caregiver” for his clients, some of whom had testified in his defense. “When, as here, [Mentch] presented evidence that he not only grew medical marijuana for several qualified patients, but also counseled them on the best varieties to grow and use or their ailments and accompanied them to medical appointments, albeit on a sporadic basis, there was enough evidence to present [a ‘primary caregiver’ defense] to the jury,” the appeals court wrote.

The Supreme Court reversed the appeals court and said that “a defendant asserting primary caregiver status must prove at a minimum that he or she (1) consistently provided caregiving, (2) independent of any assistance in taking medical marijuana, (3) at or before the time he or she assumed responsibility for assisting with medical marijuana.” While Ottombrino resented being held to a legal standard based on a decision that wasn’t handed down until six months after his arrest, he also felt he could have met the Supreme Court’s definition of a “primary caregiver” if the judge had let him present the evidence in court.

But Judge Weathers didn’t let him.

The Judge

“Based on the argument of the prosecution that my witness at the preliminary hearing had stated that I had not done shopping for him, or done housework for him, or driven him to doctor’s appointments, the judge decided that I was not a ‘primary caregiver,’” Ottombrino recalled. “That started the whole battle of whether we were even going to put on a defense or not.”

When the trial opened, Judge Weathers allowed the prosecution to parade 11 police officers onto the witness stand, one after the other. Nine of them had actually been involved in the raid on Ottombrino’s home; the other two were so-called “experts” whom Judge Weathers let on the stand despite their dubious credentials. “They had an ‘opium expert’ come all the way from Glendale,” Ottombrino recalled. “You know what his expertise was? ‘Have you grown it?’ ‘No.’ ‘Have you seen it grown?’ ‘No.’ ‘Have you seen it harvested?’ ‘No.’ ‘What do you know about it?’ ‘Oh, I’ve talked to people who have grown it.’ That’s the ‘expert’! Unbelievable! And the judge let that go. We specifically said, ‘Judge, this guy is not an expert. How can you put him up there as an expert? We want this to be dealt with in the proper way.’ The judge just flicked it off.”

According to Ottombrino, his attorney wasn’t given the usual right of “discovery” — of finding out what the witnesses against his client are going to testify to, so he can prepare for them. “One to two weeks before the trial or a week before the trial, you’re supposed to get the names of all the witnesses and what they’ll be talking about, so that they can be investigated for what they might know or what their real expertise is,” Ottombrino explained. “In this case, we were never told about witnesses until right before they came to the court. So my attorney was given hardly any chance to depose these people, and only right before they were put on the stand. We actually would send the jury out of the room, wasting everybody’s valuable time.”

After the prosecution had taken 4 1/2 days to present its case — twice as long, Ottombrino’s attorney told him, as it would have in a normal trial on similar charges — Ottombrino was given only half a day to present his defense. Judge Weathers insisted that before letting any of Ottombrino’s three medical marijuana clients on the stand, he would put them through so-called “402 hearings,” meaning they would have to go through their whole testimony with the jury out of the room and then he would decide whether or not he would allow them to testify before the jury.

“This process eliminated my main witness,” said Ottombrino. Sam Bradsher, who had got him involved in growing medical marijuana in the first place, wasn’t allowed to testify for him at all. Ottombrino’s other clients were allowed to testify but not to talk about whether he met the test of being their “primary caregiver” under the Compassionate Use Act and the California Supreme Court’s test in the Mentch case. “We were only allowed to discuss the fact that they had reliable, true documentation for their medical marijuana prescriptions,” Ottombrino said. “They were not allowed to say that I was their primary caregiver. They were only allowed generally to discuss what we had spoken about with regard to an agreement for their procurement of marijuana.”

According to Ottombrino, when Judge Weathers refused to allow Bradsher on the stand, he “even admitted that this might completely ruin our affirmative defense.” What’s more, when Ottombrino’s attorney asked the judge for an explanation as to why he wasn’t letting Bradsher testify, Judge Weathers “stood up and just yelled at my attorney not to question his ruling. He said, ‘Sit down. I don’t want to hear you arguing with me anymore.’ The judge’s outburst was in front of the jury.”

Ottombrino is convinced that, had Bradsher been allowed on the stand and had his other two witnesses been allowed to testify about his caregiver relationship with them, he could have met the test for “primary caregiver” as specified in Mentch. “Sam, who’s been a friend of mine and a student for some time, has been receiving treatments from me and my wife for quite a few years,” Ottombrino explained. “We’re both massage therapists. Sam has also received quite a bit of counseling on nutrition, specifically dealing with some of the problems he’s had in his past. I’m also an herbologist, so a lot of the work I do with people is helping them with their diet, helping them with alternatives to the drugs that are causing more problems, because with Sam’s situation the pharmaceuticals were ruining his stomach, so I was helping him with herbs.

“The other person, Dan Boyle, had been receiving deep tissue bodywork. He was having severe back pains and inability to sleep at night, and he was basically coming to yoga about once a week. I was giving him bodywork on an ongoing basis, once every three months after the initial 10 sessions that he received. Dan was also seeing me on a regular basis for consultations on herbs. He had some parasite issues that I helped him with. In other words, these people were truly being given caregiving prior to this grow, which was one of the reasons why this court case should have allowed this information to come in — which it didn’t.”

The Future

Ottombrino was convicted on three felony counts of cultivating controlled substances and possessing them with intent to sell. He has yet to be sentenced, and though ordinarily a person with no prior criminal record convicted of these charges would get three years’ probation, given what he considers Judge Weathers’ blatant bias against him in the trial, he doesn’t want Weathers to be the judge who sentences him. He’s writing a letter to the California Commission on Judicial Performance, the state agency which regulates judges, asking them to put a different judge on the sentencing because Weathers’ conduct of the trial was so one-sided. Needless to say, he and his attorney are also planning to make “judicial misconduct” the principal issue of their appeal.

If he does get probation, Ottombrino said, he’s going to ask the judge for permission to relocate to northern California and serve out his probation there. “I’d like to get out of San Diego now,” he said. “I just don’t feel comfortable anymore. I think as the economy starts to worsen, it’s going to be a lot better to be away from the city anyway. And I’d like to be in an area that’s a little more conscious and accepting of the use of medical marijuana and alternative medicine in general.”

Cygnet Scores Again With Bennett’s History Boys


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

San Diego’s Cygnet Theatre, which has moved from its storefront origins in the Rolando district near La Mesa and now produces at the Theatre in Old Town as well as in its original space, officially opens its run of Alan Bennett’s grim satire The History Boys at the Old Town location, 4040 Twiggs Avenue, Saturday, February 28. Judging from the second preview performance on February 20, anyone who goes to see Cygnet’s version of The History Boys is in for a long and somewhat wearing but still entertaining time, in which Bennett’s unusual “take” on the schoolboys-about-to-graduate premise registers effectively thanks to strong direction by Cygnet co-founder Sean Murray and the energetic cast he’s assembled.

The History Boys premiered at London’s National Theatre in 2004 and was filmed two years later, with Bennett writing the screenplay and the original director (Nicholas Hytner) and much of the cast repeating their roles. Inspired by Bennett’s own boyhood — he went to a private high school in his native Leeds, England in the 1940’s, won a history scholarship to Oxford and became a medieval history teacher until he forsook the world of academe for entertainment in the early 1960’s — The History Boys deals with a group of eight students who do surprisingly well on the “A-levels,” the high-stakes tests that determine the college and career fates of most British high-school students, even though their school is a nondescript private high school in the British Midlands.

Eager for the prestige his school can win if they send a cadre of prize students to Oxford or Cambridge, the school’s headmaster (Eric Poppick) decides they need more intensive preparation for the college admissions exams than his own staff teachers, Hector (Tom Stephenson) and Mrs. Lintott (Jillian Frost), can give them. So he enlists an outsider, Irwin (Brian Mackey), a teacher who’s only a few years older than the “history boys” themselves, to tutor them on how to pass the tests and get into Oxford or Cambridge. Irwin’s educational strategy is to teach them to stand out from the better prepared applicants from ritzier schools and higher class backgrounds (in one early speech he points out that in writing essays about Roman history, they’ll be up against students who’ve actually been there) by making them contrarians: if everybody else says bad things about Stalin, for example, try to find something good about him.

This isn’t exactly the freshest premise for a drama, but Bennett’s mordant wit takes off in various directions that make The History Boys a compelling and original work in a well-worn genre. As America adopts an increasingly rigid class structure just as Britain is in the final stages of shaking theirs off — of the five major-party Presidential nominees since 2000, three (George W. Bush, Al Gore and John Kerry) are members of America’s hereditary aristocracy and a fourth (John McCain) married into it — and as a nation that once ridiculed the British educational system’s reliance on high-stakes testing now declares not only individual students but entire schools “successes” or “failures” on the basis of test scores — the seemingly parochial British concerns of The History Boys take on surprising relevance to this country as well as Bennett’s own. In particular, the conflict between Irwin and Hector over their teaching styles — with Hector attempting to give the students knowledge that will make them better, more insightful people while Irwin relentlessly “teaches to the test” — mirrors the argument that’s riven the American educational system since the “No Child Left Behind” law was passed.

The History Boys
also deals with sex in a frank, matter-of-fact way that’s far beyond the angst-ridden treatment it would get from a U.S. playwright writing a similar story. Hector, though married and sixty-something, gets his kicks from taking the boys for rides on his motorcycle and groping them in the process. Bennett writes as if that’s no big deal — “I don’t subscribe to the notion that if somebody puts their hand on your knee it’s going to scar you for life,” he told the New York Times, “partly because when I was a boy, that was expected almost. You just thought, ‘Oh, here we go again’” — just as he has the boys exploring (or at least talking about exploring) sex with both same-sex and opposite-sex partners as if there’s really no difference between them. That, too, isn’t surprising for a writer who in 1987 responded to being asked whether he was Gay or straight by saying it was like asking a man dying of thirst in the desert whether he’d rather have Perrier or Malvern water.

The History Boys has its flaws, and the big one is that it’s too long. Bennett himself cut it during rehearsals for the premiere production, and cut it still further for the film version — the film is 109 minutes long and Cygnet’s live performance is 2 1/2 hours. The second act is beset with so many false climaxes one begins to wonder if the thing will ever end, and in particular will we learn whether the boys get into Oxford or Cambridge (we will) and whether they’ll be the obligatory American Graffiti scene of what happened to them after that (yes). Also, though there are eight “history boys” in all, only about three or four of them really emerge as characters in their own right — Dakin (Bryan Bertrone), the class show-off and flirt; Posner (Tom Zohar), the slightly-built show-tune singer and (to no one’s particular surprise) the one boy who turns out not just Bisexual or “questioning” but outright Gay; Scripps (Kevin Koppman-Gue), who becomes intently religious; and Rudge (Bobby Schiefer), the athlete of the bunch who doesn’t think a college will want him except as a rugby player.

Nonetheless, Bennett has written a strong script that deserves its acclaim — and Murray’s production for Cygnet is tough and energetic, handling Bennett’s many scene changes by having the actors themselves move furniture between scenes in a rambunctious way, often in time to the music used in Matt Lescault-Wood’s effective sound design. Bennett’s script specifies that the play takes place in 1983 (which led Michael Billington, reviewing the original production for the U.K. Guardian, to see it as a metaphor for the country under the rule of hard-Right prime minister Margaret Thatcher) but the class attitudes seem more like those of the 1960’s, each act opens with a framing sequence set in the present (the giveaway is the cell phone used by the first character we see), and the only aspect of the Cygnet production that says “1980’s” is the well-deployed music, mostly the synthesizer-driven “New Wave” dance music of bands like the Cure and the Vapors that resulted from a bastard marriage of disco and punk and was more popular there than here.

As usual, Cygnet has cast strongly. Bertrone stands out as Dakin, as attractive as he needs to be to make his tales of sexual conquests believable and so self-absorbed he seems to be treading on the thin edge of psychopathology. Zohar as Posner is also quite moving, especially in the scene in which he reacts to Irwin’s dismissive account of the Holocaust by pointing out that he lost family members to it. Brian Mackey catches Irwin’s flip cynicism well — though he’s less credible detailing the character’s sexual ambiguity — and Tom Stephenson as Hector grabs his tour de force scene at the end of act one and plays it for all it and he are worth. Eric Poppick gives the headmaster the right sort of bureaucratic insensitivity, and Jillian Frost acquits herself well as the one on-stage woman (others are talked about but never shown) in this otherwise all-male environment.

Cygnet’s productions have generally divided themselves into two groups: beautifully staged productions of great plays and beautifully staged productions of not-so-great plays. For all its quirks, The History Boys is a solid vehicle and Cygnet has done full justice to it.

The History Boys officially opens Saturday, February 28 at the Theatre in Old Town, 4040 Twiggs Street. Tickets can be purchased by visiting Cygnet's website at or calling the box office at (619) 337-1525. Tickets can also be purchased in person by visiting Cygnet's main box office located at the Old Town Theatre.



Copyright © 2009 by Leo E. Laurence • All rights reserved

Celebrating the best in Latino cinema from around the world, the 16th annual Latino Film Festival runs from March 12-22 at the UltraStar theatre in the Hazard Center in Mission Valley.

“It started as a student film and video festival, primarily focusing on Chicano and Latino student work from the U.S., Latin America and Spain,” said Ethan van Thillo, the founder and executive director, in an interview for Zenger’s.

“We started at UCSD, San Diego State University and at the border at the University of Baja California. We also expanded to Mesa College, so we had multiple venues.

“In 1998, we moved everything under one roof at the Horton Plaza. That’s when we changed from being just a student festival to inviting actors and directors, and started screening more feature films. We had about 30 films on one screen,” van Thillo reported.

“Now we have four screens and 161 films and are growing every day. The film festival not only has student work, but there are documentaries, features, animation and shorts; films from all over Latin America, Peru, Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Central America, Spain and America.

“(The festival) has turned into an 11-day extravaganza of Latino cinema culture.


“The first festival probably cost about $4,000 when it was at UCSD. We pieced together funding from various departments. We went to the history department to get $100, the women’s department to get $50,” van Thillo reported.

“Now the budget is about $250,000. Honestly, half of that budget comes from ticket sales. The key is attendees. Tickets cost $9.50 general admission and $7.50 for students, seniors and military.

“This year we have a new Family Pack. A family of four pays only $35 and can see four films, or about $2 a ticket.

“We also have a Reel-Talk festival pass for any filmmaker, or anyone interested in the art of film making. For $20, they can see three documentaries and go to two workshops. One of the workshops, for example, is by Raul Garcia, a leading animator from Spain who also worked for Disney.

“The festival is actually a fund-raiser for our year-round Teen Producers’ Project and our work in the community.

“Within the movies, we have a whole collection of Sci-Fi, horror and fantasy films, which we call el mundo estrano.

“Every year, we focus on different countries. Last year was Argentina, the year before Chile and this year is Spain.

“We also have the fourth annual Cine Gay, the third annual ‘Borders on Film,’ and the Top 10 to Watch.

“On top of all that, we have the opening and closing night galas where we bring in music, dance and food in a party atmosphere.

“In the lobby every night, we have a dance troupe or musician performing.

“Then we have the annual Arte Latino component.

“Films from our Teen Producers Project will also be screened. We have one teen film on the im-portance of protecting our oceans, and another on TB in the Baja California region.

“From March 17-20, elementary and high school students get to see a film free from 10-12 noon.

“This year is also the 25th anniversary of the film El Norte, which was nominated for an Oscar. The director, Gregory Nava, will be coming down. He’s a San Diego native,” said van Thillo.

These international films focus primarily on high drama, rather than guns, explosions and violence common with Hollywood productions.

Photo caption: Latino Film Festival founder and executive director Ethan van Thillo works with Belinda Rojas, 26, a festival staff operations specialist and a senior at Cal. State San Marcos. Photo by Leo E. Laurence
Professional Quality Stage Production of Ain’t Misbehavin’ to Debut in March at South Bay School for the Creative and Performing Arts


Copyright © 2009 by Leo E. Laurence • All rights reserved

A shining jewel of high-style stage productions is buried in the South Bay, ignored by many. The School for the Creative & Performing Arts (SCPA) will produce Ain’t Misbehavin’ in March with professional-quality, matched perhaps only by the Civic Theatre downtown.

With elaborate sets rented from commercial theatres, the SCPA high-school students recently performed The King & I, impressing the most critical theatre patrons.

The SCPA is an unusual, amazing school.

Students have to audition to get into it, demonstrating skills in one of the arts, from acting, multi-media, dance and singing.

Ain’t Misbehavin’ is a lively musical revue with many songs and piano solos composed or re-corded by the famous jazz giant of the 1930’s, Thomas “Fats” Waller.

Not quite a biography, this comedic show with a rollicking musical score depicts the life of the 1930’s Harlem streets in New York City. This upbeat musical contains many well-known jazz standards, as well as some finger-snapping songs which may not be as familiar to a contemporary audience.

The original New York production was written for a cast of five people. But the SCPA’s cast will expand to 20. This is to highlight more the exceptionally talented students in the Advanced Musical Theatre class.

The SCPA had a huge reputation in the world of theatre in San Diego County. The huge California Center for the Arts in Escondido will even host a performance of Ain’t Misbehavin’ by the SCPA students on May 19.

The wild show will also be performed at the school’s own location, 2425 Dusk Drive in South Bay, at 7 pm on March 13-14, 19-20; and at 2 pm on March 21. Tickets are $7 for adults and $6 for students, seniors and military. Tickets are available on-line at or by calling the box office at (619) 475-8556.

Next up on the ambitious SCPA production schedule is a double-bill of two, hilarious comedies, Play On and The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940. They will be performed March 26-April 4.

Contact Leo E. Laurence at (619) 757-4909 or at

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Activist San Diego Shows “Occupation 101”

Speakers Accompany Film on Israel’s Oppression of Palestinians


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

“Most of the rest of the world is concerned about Palestine, and especially the atrocities in Gaza in the recent weeks,” said Martin Eder, founder of Activist San Diego (ASD), at the start of its February 16 program at the Joyce Beers Community Center in Hillcrest. “Most of us could not imagine having to eke out a living denied services, education and medicine. Those of us in the U.S. who have an awareness of Palestine must do something because there is no country closer to the center of power than the U.S.”

ASD’s February 16 program consisted of the film Occupation 101, a powerful documentary by Abdallah and Sufyan Omeish telling the story of the formation of Israel and its occupation of historic Palestine from a pro-Palestinian point of view; and two resource people fielding audience questions. Edgar Hopida (pictured), public relations director of the San Diego chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), offered further background on the Israel-Palestine conflict, while Ed Sweed of the San Diego-based Alternate Focus public-access cable TV show described his efforts to use alternative media to present a different point of view on the conflict from the relentlessly pro-Israel one presented by American corporate media.

One point Hopida made is that not all American Jews monolithically line up in support of Israel against the Palestinians — it’s just that the ones who do support Israel 100 percent have far more power and clout in getting their views out. “You have members of the American Jewish elite, including Alan Dershowitz, Elie Wiesel and Natalie Portman, who are very pro-Israel,” he said. “Then you have people like Michael Lerner, Norman Finkelstein and Noam Chomsky who are trying to move to a real solution. But the Jews on the far Right have all the political power on that issue.”

Hopida emphasized the point by telling how he’d lobbied generally progressive U.S. Congressmember Bob Filner on an Israel-related issue. “Congressmember Filner told me, ‘I hate AIPAC [the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee, the major pro-Israel lobby in the U.S.], but when I voted against two of their resolutions, I lost $200,000 in contributions.’” Hopida added that all the freshman Congressmembers elected in 2008 have so far “voted in lock-step with Israel.” One of the people interviewed in the film Occupation 101 was former U.S. Congressmember Paul Findley, who after losing his seat to an AIPAC-backed candidate wrote a book called They Dared to Speak Out about the fate of fellow elected officials who ran afoul of the so-called “Israel lobby.”

Among the ironies of the situation is that, according to Hopida as well as other people interviewed in Occupation 101, the Israel lobby has such tight control over the U.S. corporate media that the Israeli media actually are more free to criticize the conduct of Israel’s government and its occupation of Palestine than mainstream media outlets in the U.S. Writers in Israel’s respected daily newspaper Ha’aretz, including Gideon Levy and Amira Hass (Hass is interviewed in Occupation 101), have often written sympathetic stories about the plight of the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation — while virtually all U.S. media coverage presents the Israelis as a besieged people heroically defending their land and the Palestinians as terrorist scum seeking to exterminate them.

“The U.S. media are a waste of time,” Hopida said. “Ha’aretz is more honest about the issue than anyone else.” Hopida noted the plethora of pro-Israel books on the U.S. market by writers like Dershowitz, Abraham Foxman, Beny Morris (an Israeli historian who moved from a liberal to a far-Right position on the Israel-Palestine conflict) and Dennis Ross (a former U.S. negotiator whose first-person account of the Camp David negotiations during the Clinton administration has been contradicted by other people who were there). There are more objective books out there, Hopida said, including the works of Norman Finkelstein — a Jewish-American professor who has been denied tenure at two universities thanks largely to Dershowitz’ lobbying against him — plus Defending the Holy Land by Zeev Moaz (an Israeli author who concluded that “out of all the wars Israel has fought, only two were defensive”) and Land Grab, a 2002 report by the Israeli Human Rights Commission that concluded that the Israeli settlements on the West Bank and (until 2005) in Gaza were built as part of a deliberate strategy to annex the occupied lands and drive the Palestinians out.

Occupation 101 is certainly unabashedly pro-Palestinian in its view of the conflict. It starts with a montage, presented in music-video style to a driving hard-rock soundtrack, of various oppressive occupations in 20th century history, including the British in India and the apartheid regime of South Africa, before finally ending up in historic Palestine detailing the rise of Zionism and the dramatic increase in Jewish emigration to the Holy Land in the first half of the 20th century. The rise of Adolf Hitler to power in Germany and the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews turned the trickle of Jewish refugees in Palestine to a flood, boosting them from 3 percent of the region’s population in 1900 to 31 percent in 1945.

The film also claims that Israelis were mounting sporadic massacres of Palestinians at least since 1949, one year after Israel was officially founded, and goes on to review the history of the occupation: how Israel drove Palestinians out of 78 percent of historic Palestine in 1948 and conquered the rest in 1967 from the surrounding Arab states — Egypt, Syria and Jordan — that had annexed it. Through animated maps the film showed the extent of Israeli control over the West Bank, which today consists of a few isolated Palestinian villages separated from each other by wide “access roads” on which Palestinians are forbidden, and further isolated by moving checkpoints.

According to the film, most Palestinians today live either in refugee camps — many of which were founded in 1948 and still exist even though they were supposed to be “temporary” — or in these isolated villages, surrounded by Israeli military forces that stop their movements and sometimes shoot them or raid their homes without explanation. One of Israel’s favorite weapons in the war, the film claims, is the bulldozer; Israel invented the armored bulldozer in the 1960’s and first used it as a military weapon in the 1967 war. Now its main function is to tear down the homes and farms of Palestinians in order to clear a neighborhood for Israeli settlers.

One rarely examined part of the issue the film treats in detail is the suffering of Palestinian Christians. The film claims that Israeli authorities make no distinction between Christian and Muslim Palestinians, treating both of them as part of a mass “enemy.” Though the filmmakers don’t make the connection explicitly, this depiction of Palestinian Christians ironically contrasts to the 100 percent pro-Israel stand of the evangelical Christian movement in the U.S., mainly driven by so-called “End Times” ministers who preach that the fulfillment of the prophecies of the Book of Revelation is at hand and one of the preconditions for the Second Coming of Christ is that historic Palestine become completely Jewish. The fact that these prophecies also provide that at the actual “End of Days” Jews shall be offered the instant choice to convert to Christianity or go to hell for all eternity doesn’t dissuade Israel’s Right from enthusiastically accepting the support of evangelical Christians for their plans to settle in the occupied territories and either drive the Palestinians out altogether or force them to accept permanent second-class status.

Responding to an audience member who faulted the film for starting out as an attack on Zionism but ending as merely a critique of the occupation, Hopida said, “We deal with the concrete issues. We deal with the occupation.” He pointed to 23-year-old American activist Rachel Corrie, who was run down and killed by an Israeli military bulldozer in 2003 while protesting a house demolition — she’s profiled in the film as well as being the focus of a previous documentary, Rachel: An American Conscience — and noted that she had never used the term “Zionist.” Hopida admitted that his own preference would be for a “one-state solution” — the replacement of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority with a secular, democratic state encompassing all of historic Palestine — but added, “It won’t happen in my lifetime or in my children’s lifetime. It would require the total dismantlement of the Israeli government.”

“We haven’t addressed the whole problem of media propaganda,” said Activist San Diego member Tanja Winter. “AIPAC’s propaganda is no different from the neoconservative propaganda that is keeping us in the dark about all issues. When you’ve been oppressed, as the Jews have been, you can either become oppressors yourselves or you can become more sympathetic.”

Asked about the feasibility of boycotting Israel-made products — along the lines of the anti-South Africa boycott and divestment campaigns that helped end apartheid — Hopida said, “We’re working on trying to do a divestment movement and mobilize locally. We’re targeting Arab and Muslim stores that sell Israeli products. As far as mobilization is concerned, we’re sanitized by the media. I’ve sent five or six op-eds to the San Diego Union-Tribune and one was accepted — and I had an argument with the editor over it.”

Saturday, February 14, 2009

ACLU Discusses Repressive Ballot Initiatives

Center Director, Planned Parenthood Spokesperson Address Prop.’s 4, 8


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

PHOTOS, top to bottom: Delores Jacobs, Vince Hall

The San Diego chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) turned over most of its annual membership meeting February 13 at the San Diego County Bar Association downtown to Delores Jacobs, executive director of the San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center; and Vince Hall, vice-president of communications for the San Diego/Imperial Counties chapter of Planned Parenthood and former chief of staff to Congressmember Bob Filner and ex-Governor Gray Davis, for a program on repressive ballot measures and how they threaten community and civil rights. Along with Kevin Keenan, executive director of the San Diego ACLU, they talked about the radical religious Right’s success in putting “wedge issues” like the anti-choice Proposition 4 and the anti-Queer Proposition 8 on last November’s ballot — and noted that even when these measures fail, as Proposition 4 did, they suck up money and other resources progressive communities and service organizations could put to better use.

Indeed, according to Hall, that was exactly the purpose of Proposition 4’s principal sponsor, San Diego Reader publisher Jim Holman, in paying $2 million to get it on the ballot in the first place. Hall said that Proposition 4 and its predecessors, Proposition 73 on the 2004 ballot and Proposition 85 in 2006, “are specifically designed to drain the budget of Planned Parenthood. First, Jim Holman said so; second, why else would someone spend $2 million to put something on the ballot and then nothing to campaign for it? The first time we thought he didn’t know better. The second time we thought he still didn’t get it. The third time he was honest that it’s about abortion, not just parental notification.”

Holman’s three initiatives focused on what he and other anti-choice activists thought would be the weakest link in the pro-choice argument: what social policy should be towards girls who get pregnant when they’re below the legal age of sexual consent and want to end the pregnancies without their parents finding out. Advocates of parental notification laws say they’re essential to protect the rights of parents to look out for their children’s best interests. Opponents counter that if a girl hasn’t felt comfortable involving her parents in her decision to start sexual activity, she’ll probably be even more fearful of doing so once she’s become pregnant.

“I had the privilege of debating supporters of Proposition 4 and asking them, ‘So you think it’s O.K for a minor to have an abortion as long as their parents were notified?’” Hall said. “Of course, they said, ‘No, abortion is murder.’” Hall remembered an appearance on Bill O’Reilly’s TV program. for which he made the mistake of telling O’Reilly’s producer that he has a 13-year-old daughter — which gave O’Reilly the opening to ask, “Mr. Hall! Mr. Hall! You have a daughter. Wouldn’t you want to know?”

“I paused for a moment,” Hall recalled, “and I said, ‘Bill, her mom and I work every day to build a strong bond of parent-teen communication. We want to be a part of that decision. We want to be in her life at that level. But if, for any reason, she couldn’t come to us, our responsibility as parents is to know that she could be safe; and if we don’t achieve that, we don’t build that communication, no law is going to fix it.’” Hall also savored the irony that conservatives, who generally question the government’s ability to do anything competently, nonetheless accept the idea that a heavy-handed government intervention like Proposition 4 is the way to build strong families and ensure that parents are part of the major decisions their children make.

Jacobs’ presentation focused on the sheer gall behind Proposition 8 and the ability of its sponsors to subject the civil rights and legal equality of an oppressed minority — and take away those rights with a simple majority vote of the people. “I appreciate the partnership and support of the ACLU and Planned Parenthood and the choice community,” she began. “Proposition 8 was simple in its wording and devastating in its consequences. I don’t have to tell this group what the fundamental concerns are about any attempt to deny basic rights to anyone. It’s an incredible way to deal with freedom and justice through a simple majority vote based on deceptive and lying TV ads.”

One point Jacobs took pains to stress was that the principal factor determining how people voted on Proposition 8 was religious, not racial. Early exit polls said that as many as 70 percent of African-American voters in California had supported Proposition 8 (though more recent estimates have lowered that to 57 percent), and Latinos also supported Proposition 8 by a higher margin than white voters. But Jacobs said those results merely reflected how many African-Americans and Latinos are regular churchgoers who take their religious beliefs seriously and use them to determine their votes on contentious social issues, and added that “less religious” Blacks and Latinos were just as likely to vote no on 8 as less religious whites.

“The yes voters were also less educated, had less income and were more likely to be Republican,” Jacobs said. (In San Diego County, Republican phone-bank callers had two priorities: to get people to vote for John McCain for president and to get them to vote yes on 8. Also, CNN’s exit polls did not reveal a correlation between income levels and the vote on Proposition 8.) “When they were asked why they voted yes, the most frequent reason was they did not want their children taught that their faith was a lie. That is not what allowing people equal rights does, but it’s a well-known litany of people against civil rights.” Jacobs said that many of the same arguments used for Proposition 8 — religious beliefs, family values, concern for traditions — were also cited by the bitter-enders in the South and elsewhere who fiercely resisted school integration for decades after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954.

“There are hidden issues with Proposition 8 and all civil rights movements in general,” Jacobs explained. “The question is why political movements create wedge issues, especially in California and other initiative states. These campaigns begin as money-makers for the groups that put them forward, and they drain the coffers of progressive individuals and organizations simply by making us fight the fight year after year. The total cost of the Proposition 8 campaign was over $80 million. [Actually, that represented the total spending on both sides of the issue; the Yes on 8 campaign spent $39.9 million and the No on 8 side actually slightly outspent the supporters, with $43.3 million.] It was necessary to raise that money and fight that fight, but I can’t help but think of how much service we could provide with that money, and if the California Supreme Court doesn’t see the wisdom of our position, we will have to raise that much money again.”

Jacobs also noted the effectiveness of the radical Right’s long-standing campaign against so-called “activist judges” and how they exploited that in the propaganda for Proposition 8. “One of the things accomplished by divisive issues is eroding faith in the judicial system and conditioning people to believe that judges are part of the political system and not a check and balance on it,” she said. “The answer is collaboration and not giving the impression that all I’m interested in is LGBT [Queer] issues. Whether the issue is immigrant rights, reproductive choice, environmental justice or LGBT issues, if we stand together, then issues like Proposition 8 either won’t make it to the ballot at all or will cost little to defeat.”

In answer to a two-part question from this reporter — whether it’s realistic to pursue an initiative to re-legalize same-sex marriage if the California Supreme Court doesn’t throw out Proposition 8, and how we should deal with the inevitable radical-Right campaign to recall the court’s justices if they do invalidate the measure — Jacobs said, “Is it realistic to believe that some day we can win? I hope so. Are their political consequences that have to be factored in? Yes. But the question of whether it is ‘realistic’ is important but not essential. Are we going to continue to educate the American public about the fundamental importance of our rights? Yes. We have to do better — especially in San Diego — but the best work on the ground is done in the absence of a campaign. No 30-second spot will erase generations of homophobia.”

“How can we not stand up for justices who stuck their necks out for equal rights?” asked local ACLU director Keenan in response to the question of what should be done if the California Supreme Court throws out Proposition 8 and the radical Right responds with a campaign to recall the justices who voted to do that. Another person in the audience noted that the last time the radical Right mounted a successful campaign against the California Supreme Court — the one that got voters to eject Rose Bird, Cruz Reynoso and Joseph Grodin from the court in 1986 — the ostensible issue, the death penalty, was really a cover for the efforts of the California Chamber of Commerce and the insurance industry to get rid of judges who were supportive of plaintiffs’ rights in tort cases. He said we would need to make similar connections and expose the real agenda of recall supporters if such a campaign happened.

Another audience member raised questions about reforming the initiative process, but Hall warned that such ideas could be a double-edged sword. A so-called “sore loser” provision that barred an initiative from reappearing on the ballot a certain number of years after a similar one was defeated would stop Jim Holman from repeatedly getting his parental notification attack on abortion rights onto every ballot and draining the coffers of Planned Parenthood — but it would also prevent the Queer community and its allies from qualifying an initiative to repeal Proposition 8, and Hall said he wasn’t about to support anything that would make it more difficult to get rid of the same-sex marriage ban.

Other proposals for initiative reform Jacobs and Hall mentioned included raising the number of signatures needed to get an initiative on the ballot, requiring a certain number of signatures from each of California’s 58 counties (so initiative campaigns couldn’t just concentrate on a few large cities and get all the signatures they needed there), having the courts vet initiatives for constitutionality before they’re voted on, and raising both the signature requirement and the vote needed to pass an initiative that interfered with so-called “fundamental rights.” But, Hall warned, “there’s an absence of political leadership” on initiative reform “because Californians still love the initiative process.”

Another audience member asked if there were any insights into why a certain percentage of Californians voted no on 4 but yes on 8. “Reproductive freedom and choice has had a ground campaign for decades to educate people on privacy rights,” Jacobs answered, “and it targets voters amenable to persuasion about [the injustice of] taking away fundamental rights.” Hall added that many otherwise conservative women in rural parts of the state could envision themselves facing the issue of an abortion in the family, but couldn’t relate to someone wanting to marry another person of their own gender.

Hall also noted the irony that while younger voters tend to be more supportive of Queer rights than older ones, they’re also more inclined to support at least some limits on women’s reproductive freedoms. “We’re at the pivotal transition point where tolerance of homophobia is on the decline,” he said. “No one below 30 is advocating against this issue except for certain (church-based) groups. Choice has the opposite problem; younger voters are more likely to support restrictions on abortion rights to seem more ‘moderate’ and ‘even-handed.’ We’re losing the demographic that remembers what life was like before Roe v. Wade.”

Thursday, February 12, 2009

S.D. Cracks Down on Medical Pot While Feds, State Loosen Up

California Director of Americans for Safe Access Speaks to Local Group


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

PHOTOS, top to bottom: Don Duncan, Dion Markgraaf, Rudy Reyes, Donna

The situation for medical marijuana users is loosening up just about everywhere in the country — or at least in the 13 states that have laws allowing it — except in San Diego County and elsewhere in southern California. That was the message Don Duncan, California director of the nationwide organization Americans for Safe Access (ASA), brought to the local ASA chapter in San Diego February 10. For years medical marijuana users have been bedeviled by federal raids ever since the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings in 2001 and 2005 that state medical pot laws didn’t protect patients, caregivers and growers from federal anti-drug law enforcement — but, said Duncan, the Obama administration has sent signals that these raids may soon end.

“When the DEA [federal Drug Enforcement Administration] raided a Lake Tahoe dispensary on January 22 and several others in Los Angeles last week, we started to get concerned,” Duncan said. “There was a tremendous grass-roots outcry that you didn’t see in the media. So many people called the White House switchboard that they [officials in the Obama administration] came to us and asked us what we wanted. The White House wanted to do something, so Wednesday night, February 5, the administration spoke out about medical cannabis [marijuana].”

The statement came from Obama spokesperson Nick Shapiro and was given to the conservative Washington Times newspaper. “The President believes that federal resources should not be used to circumvent state laws,” Shapiro said, adding that “as [Obama] continues to appoint senior leadership to fill out the ranks of the federal government” — including a new head of the DEA — “he expects them to review their policies with that in mind.” Duncan also said he hopes Obama’s repeated statements that “he’ll let science decide the issues,” though usually thought to refer to global warming and stem-cell research, means he’ll take a more progressive view and support the federal Institute of Medicine’s recommendation that sick people be allowed access to medical marijuana immediately.

Meanwhile, San Diego County’s local efforts to circumvent California’s medical marijuana law continues apace, San Diego ASA chair Dion Markgraaf and others at the meeting reported. Among the overflow crowd were individuals who themselves had been raided in the first week of February for reasons which remained a mystery — no press releases had been issued and no media had covered the incidents — until the San Diego Union-Tribune Web site published a dispatch about the incidents and Steve Walker, deputy communications director for San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, issued a release about them on February 10.

According to these sources, the raids on medical marijuana users were part of “Operation Endless Summer,” a sting operation begun last fall “as a response to concerns over increased drug trafficking in military housing.” Walker’s press release said that “the operation focused on drug dealers and violent criminals operating in a Fleet Concentration Area” — i.e., Navy housing — “and negatively affecting the quality of life of families living in military housing.”

Walker’s release explained that the operation was a collaboration between the U.S. Navy Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the San Diego County District Attorney’s office and the San Diego Police Department. The release stated that, “As part of the operation, law enforcement seized $19,000 in cash; two pounds of crystal methamphetamine; a half-pound of powder cocaine; one gram of heroin; more than 75 Oxycontin pills; 100 Ecstasy pills; more than 400 marijuana plants; six pounds of marijuana; and seven guns.”

“There were lots of raids last week, and they started on Tuesday [February 3] with people in this room,” said Markgraaf. “I thought, ‘More raids, more terror. Should I tell people to hide their children?’ I started calling people on my list, and the people on that list got busted. Most of the people were linked to a girl named Jessica. She helped contribute to people going to a house on Pico Street, a Navy house, where people made [medical marijuana] buys with doctors’ letters.” Markgraaf compared the operation to a similar sting a year or two ago that targeted students at San Diego State University (SDSU) and cost some about-to-graduate students their degrees, and predicted that, as with the SDSU raid, this will achieve little or nothing in prosecuting people for truly dangerous drugs.

“What happened here was that the Mayor of San Diego’s liaison said delivery services would be left alone, so they’re raiding us,” said Donna, a caregiver who was one of the 33 people arrested in the San Diego raids. (The media coverage said that “Operation Endless Summer” targeted 52 people, which left a lot of the ASA meeting attendees worried that they’re on the list of 19 people who still haven’t been apprehended.) In a letter she wrote to San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Jeff MacDonald, Donna described the hell she went through on the morning of February 5.

“I looked out my window and saw about 10 men dressed in black riot gear and helmets running towards my home, carrying a large metal pipe for smashing doors and all armed with semi-automatic assault rifles,” Donna wrote. “I stepped out onto my porch to avoid the possibility of having my licensed assistance dog, Buster, shot by the San Diego Police Department. As these men and women pointed their semi-automatic rifles at me and ordered my hands into the air, my bathrobe fell open and there I was, naked for all the world to see. My days of trauma had just begun. I was handcuffed, my house destroyed, and I was taken to jail.”

Donna’s letter characterized the raids as “home invasion robberies” carried out under cover of law. “Medical marijuana patients and the general population as a whole should be outraged at the hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars that were just wasted for a bunch of police to infiltrate a group of sick, injured and dying people — to befriend them — to feign sickness and to manipulate and trick us into helping them obtain medicine,” she wrote. “Was this ordered by the same Mayor who appears nightly on television talking about how broke this city is?”

“The problem in San Diego is not the feds, it’s the state,” said attorney Gerald Singleton, whose client, John Ottombrino, has also been targeted by local law enforcement. Singleton said that when he tried Ottombrino’s case, the local judge, Ted Weathers, “would not let us present the medical necessity defense. The position of the local D.A. and law enforcement is they don’t like the law and won’t enforce it.”

Duncan made the grimly ironic point that the recent flurry of law enforcement attacks on medical marijuana users, caregivers and distributors in southern California is a paradoxical reflection of the movement’s overall success. Not only has Obama’s spokesperson come out against the raids and promised that Obama’s appointees on drug policy won’t pursue federal attacks on state medical-marijuana laws — “the most important statement [of support] we have ever had from a U.S. President,” Duncan said — but 16 Congressmembers have signed a statement urging the DEA to expand opportunities for scientists to research the medical benefits for marijuana.

“If we weren’t winning nationwide, you wouldn’t be having these raids,” Duncan said. “They know a new day is dawning. The clock is ticking. It’s almost over. The California Supreme Court is ready to make a decision on San Diego County v. San Diego NORML [National Association for the Reform of Marijuana Laws]” — a suit the San Diego County Board of Supervisors (later joined by San Bernardino and Merced Counties) filed to have Proposition 215 declared illegal on the ground that the federal government pre-empts all drug laws — “but we already know what the ruling is going to be because we already won a similar case at the state appeals court involving Garden Grove, and both the California and U.S. Supreme Courts refused to hear that case. The reason they’re stalling, fighting, busting people and wasting resources is because they know the tide is turning.”

Rudy Reyes, a local medical marijuana patient — he started using it to relieve his pain after being badly burned in the 2003 Cedar wildfire — and activist, described a meeting he had with DEA agents in Oakland in early February. Noting that just the fact that he was invited to speak to DEA agents about medical marijuana is a victory, Reyes said, “They were upset at Obama’s policy because they’re worried about the loss of money.”

The reason is yet another of the dirty little secrets of U.S. drug law: asset forfeiture, which allows federal, state and local law enforcement to seize the property of alleged drug dealers, put it in the treasuries of their own agencies, and refuse to give it back even if the person they seized it from is ultimately found not guilty. According to Reyes, law enforcement agencies have seen the asset forfeiture laws as a giant piggy bank for them, and they’re worried about losing it. “We’re easy money for them,” he said. “They’re going to go after head shops and demand they pull oil burners.”

Reyes also spoke to the County Board of Supervisors during the public-comment portion of their February 10 meeting. Reyes said that the Obama administration’s statement that they won’t use federal anti-drug resources to target state medical-marijuana laws “destroys [the basis for] their lawsuit” seeking to invalidate Proposition 215. When Reyes addressed the Board of Supervisors, he recalled, “I asked them to review their policies and set up a task force” to implement the state law.”

Then he made another stop — to San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders’ office — to ask him for a meeting about the ID card issue. “Sanders said he won’t have a meeting with us because he’s more concerned about the city’s financial issues,” Reyes said. “We just got told by the Mayor that we’re not that important.” Fortunately, newly elected City Councilmember Marti Emerald, a former TV journalist for Channel 10, has approached him for information on the issue and he’s hoping she’ll take the leadership role former Councilmember Toni Atkins took on medical marijuana earlier in the decade. Reyes also said he has a meeting scheduled with County Sheriff Bill Kolender February 17.

The meeting ended with a discussion of what to do in case of further raids against medical marijuana patients. “The most important thing we should learn is to have a better communications system,” Markgraaf said. “Even the little I did helped. Number two, we should be prepared. You should know about bail, and not think about it for the first time when you get raided. Number three, people don’t know each other’s phone numbers any more because of cell phones [whose numbers often change when people lose a phone or switch to a different plan]. You have to have not only yourselves but your family members ready to call. We need to support these cases, both communally and civilly, and we need to use these cases to make change.”

Americans for Safe Access: