Yes on 1A Through 1F May 19
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN, Editor
Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
The word “compromise” has been jokingly defined as “a mutually disagreeable solution to a problem.” It’s in that spirit that Zenger’s endorses a “yes” vote on Propositions 1A through 1F on the May 19 California special election ballot.
Not that this is in any way an enthusiastic endorsement. The very need for this election underscores just how crazy and dysfunctional California’s government in general, and its budget process in particular, have become. The combination of a highly volatile tax system whose revenues fluctuate wildly depending on the health of the overall economy (and we all know how that’s been lately!), inexperienced legislators hamstrung by a strict term-limit law that forces them out of office just at the point when they’ve started learning their jobs, voter initiatives that have put great chunks of the state budget out of legislative control, an increasingly ideological Republican party that has elevated “no new taxes!” even above the Ten Commandments, and — worst of all — an insane requirement for a two-thirds vote in both houses of the legislature to pass a budget, have converged to make California virtually ungovernable.
No one is saying this compromise budget plan is a long-term solution to California’s government woes. Almost six years after Arnold Schwarzenegger ran for governor and promised to “cut up California’s credit cards” once and for all, the state is still borrowing billions of dollars each year to maintain paper compliance with the constitutional mandate to balance its budget. These ballot measures appear before the voters because California’s last cut-and-paste budget, passed 81 days late last summer because it took that long to cherry-pick the Republican caucus for the votes needed to meet the two-thirds requirement, collapsed under the gun of smaller-than-expected tax receipts due to the nationwide recession and the bursting of California’s housing-market bubble. A handful of Republicans finally signed on to badly needed new taxes — albeit regressive ones like sales taxes and vehicle license fees — as part of an overall deal that needs the support of the voters on May 19 to take effect.
The ballot measures are confusing, but in essence the flagship proposition is 1A, which would extend this year’s temporary tax increases from two years to four in exchange for establishing a so-called “rainy-day fund,” a mechanism to force the government to save tax money in good economic times in order to have it available to tide the state over in bad times. Proposition 1B is a companion measure that would start to undo the damage that has been done to California’s school funding as monies supposedly set aside for education have been raided again and again during California’s seemingly perpetual budget crisis since 2003. Proposition 1C authorizes borrowing against future receipts from the California state lottery and makes vague promises of “modernizing” the lottery to increase the state’s income from it.
Propositions 1D and 1E are necessary because California voters have routinely indulged in what’s called “ballot-box budgeting,” setting aside great chunks of state revenue for emotionally appealing programs like children’s health programs and mental health services. These propositions also enacted special taxes to pay for them — a tax on tobacco for the children’s health programs and a surcharge on wealthy taxpayers for mental health — with the result that these programs are flush with cash at a time when the rest of the state budget is starving and other, equally worthy programs are facing massive cutbacks because the voters never froze those priorities into law at the ballot box. The last proposition in the package, 1F, is a modest (too modest, if you ask me) attempt to make legislators suffer personally, in their pocketbooks, every time they’re late passing a state budget.
Opposition to these propositions has come largely from the usual suspects — the radical-Right goon squad on talk radio and the Republican caucus in the state legislature — people who not only don’t fear but actively support the destruction of large parts of the state government, especially public education, health care and anything else that helps working-class and low-income people. A while back the Los Angeles Times ran an op-ed column called “Sweden or Mississippi,” lamenting the fact that California voters seem to want a level of government service equivalent to Sweden’s but are only willing to pay Mississippi-sized taxes for it. Not the Proposition 1A opponents, who regard Mississippi as a positive role model for what they think a state government should be and aren’t ashamed to say so.
What’s amazing is how many progressives have been willing to play into the hands of the radical Right and the talk-radiocracy on this one. The Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU), after dithering about 1A for months, finally came out against it. So did the San Diego Democratic Club, which argued the issue at their March 26 meeting and repudiated the good-sense position of one of their favorite elected officials, openly Lesbian State Senator Christine Kehoe, in a debate whose lack of contact with political reality approached the delusional.
Kehoe urged the club to approve the propositions because, as a veteran state legislator (she’s served in either the State Assembly or State Senate since she was termed out of her seat on the San Diego City Council in 2000), she knows all too well the difficulty of getting any new revenue out of a dysfunctional budget process that gives a maniacal minority party veto control. “This is the first state budget in 18 years to include new revenues,” she said. “Some people will argue that the spending caps [the ‘rainy-day fund’] will hurt the disabled and elderly, but if we are not able to get the additional revenues we will have much harder gaps to close. This is the best budget we can get with Republican votes. If they don’t pass, future budgets will mean more borrowing and more cuts.”
Unfortunately, because of a schedule conflict Kehoe had to leave the meeting before the club debated the propositions. When the debate actually happened the club members were swayed by the emotional but irrational arguments of Queer labor activist Carlos Marquez and others who focused on the fear that the “rainy-day fund” will force future cuts in education, health care and social programs — and ignored the even deeper cuts in precisely those programs that will happen if the propositions fail. Many club members voted against 1A in the delusion that its defeat will somehow send the legislative Republicans back to the negotiating table to agree to more tax increases to salvage state programs important to Democratic constituencies but not to Republican ones.
Nonsense. The only people who will benefit politically from the defeat of the May 19 ballot measures, 1A in particular, will be the anti-tax zealots in the California Republican party and on talk radio. They will be able to crow that they “protected the California taxpayers” against the threat of actually being required to pay for a decent state government that looks out for its less fortunate citizens — and they will largely have achieved their long-term goal of “starving the beast” and forcing California’s level of government services down to, or even below, Mississippi’s.
It’s a profound comment on the political dilemmas facing progressive voters in this state that we have to choose between a flawed budget reform proposal and an even worse future if it doesn’t pass. But the current state of the California constitution, and especially the two-thirds requirement to pass a state budget (only two other states, Arkansas and Rhode Island, have this insane provision in their state constitutions), gives the Republican party the best of both worlds: the power to control the state budget process without having to accept responsibility for its failures. There’s little point in pretending that Propositions 1A through 1F on the May 19 ballot represent anything more than yet another stopgap “solution” to California’s budget crisis — but they’re a stopgap that’s needed desperately, and needed now.
Monday, April 27, 2009
DARREL WOOD, JR. of THE ELEPHANT PROJECT:
17-Year Old Gay Man Leads North Park Festival Headliners
interview by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Darrel Wood, Jr. is only 17 years old and a high-school senior, and he grew up in the notoriously redneck San Diego suburb of Santee, but he’s already been in a band called Cain Street that’s recorded two CD’s and is about to release a CD EP with his current group, the Elephant Project. The Elephant Project’s instrumentation is typical rock-band — two guitars, bass and drums — but the personnel aren’t; they’re two women, guitarist Ashley Castillo and drummer Valerie Lozano; and two men, Wood on lead vocals and guitar and Marc Pattee on bass.
What’s more, Wood is not only openly Gay — or, as he prefers to call himself, “homosexual” — but he’s written songs directly dealing with issues affecting the Queer community. When he performed at the final Say What! open mike at Filter coffeehouse April 1, he played a piece about older Gay men who approach younger ones offering to mentor them — and the younger ones thinking they’re making sexual advances and telling them to get lost.
The Elephant Project is scheduled to headline the North Park Arts Festival Sunday, May 17 at 5 p.m. on University Avenue east of 30th Street. On their MySpace page, myspacecom/elephantproject/music, they describe a wide range of influences including Billy, TOOL, The Mars Volta, Incubus, Muse, Led Zeppelin, Blind Melon, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Arcade Fire, Captain Squeegee, Ella Fitzgerald and “imaginations.” He did his Zenger’s interview at Filter on 30th and Polk April 8, and his mother Valerie came along and added her own comments.
Zenger’s: Why don’t you give me a little background about yourself and how you got into music?
Darrel Wood, Jr.: I guess I started getting into music when I was 10 years old. My parents bought me a small keyboard, and I took keyboard lessons but I hated them. I hated learning “Mary Had a Little Lamb” over and over again. Then my dad, who’s been a drummer in a classic-rock band since before I was born, started teaching me guitar. I was very inspired by him and the music he played. It was a lot of fun. When I started on guitar, immediately I found my life’s purpose. Music was for me. Ever since then I’ve been practicing three hours a day, and I love it.
Valerie Wood [Darrell’s mother]: Or more.
Zenger’s: How did you form your current band, The Elephant Project?
Darrel Wood, Jr.: My current band was formed because my previous band, Cain Street, was having our second CD release party. I had these songs that I had written. I asked the lead singer of Cain Street if we could perform at their CD release party before them. So he said, “Of course.”
I talked to my best friend Valerie [Lozano], who said she played drums. She’d never played with anyone before. I got her over to my house, and all of a sudden it was like beautiful magic, and I couldn’t believe she’d never played with anyone. She’s absolutely incredible. I started teaching her songs, and I also talked to one of my best friends, Marc [Pattee] and started teaching him songs on the bass, because he’d been playing guitar forever and I said, “Well, I need someone.” He was very talented. So I immediately started teaching him, and at our first performance at the CD release party we performed for 400 people, at least. It was an incredible performance, awesome.
Zenger’s: That’s a great way to start. So where was this?
Valerie Wood: It was in Jamul.
Darrel Wood, Jr.: This was in Jamul, on August 4, 2007.
Valerie Wood: It was at a private residence.
Darrel Wood, Jr.: It was a really big property, so we just got everyone we could out there, and it just turned out great.
Zenger’s: How has the band developed since?
Darrel Wood, Jr.: We have acquired one new member, named Ashley [Castillo], who is an incredible guitarist. I started realizing after a while that I couldn’t play and sing all the time; I needed some extra backing on guitar, and some extra fill. And she’s perfect. She’s an incredible guitarist.
Valerie Wood: And you all go to school together.
Darrel Wood, Jr.: Ashley and Valerie have actually known each other since kindergarten. We like to say, “We were all best friends who happened to play instruments very well, so then we started a band.” And we’ve been writing more songs. Last summer, we recorded an EP that we’re calling Bones, and that should be released in mid-June this year.
Zenger’s: You said you’d already had two albums out with the band before this, Cain Street. How close would you say the sounds of the two bands are?
Darrel Wood, Jr.: Not very close at all!
Zenger’s: How have you evolved?
Darrel Wood, Jr.: Well, Cain Street itself has evolved as well. The first album was very acoustic — I wouldn’t say pop, but much more easygoing. The second album was more inspired by Rage Against the Machine and Tool, bands like that. And in the Elephant Project, I’m very jazz-influenced, so it’s a very —
Valerie Wood: A combination of all of those.
Darrel Wood, Jr.: Yes, progressive, jazz, punk, reggae, high energy, really fast. Ashley and Valerie both got started playing music off of punk rock, so we’re putting punk rock in with jazz; and my bassist really likes indie music. Combining indie music and this melting pot of genres really turns out well. It’s something very different.
Zenger’s: Yes, I saw the “Influences” list on your Web site, and I hadn’t thought I’d ever see Ella Fitzgerald and Tool mentioned as influences on the same band!
Darrel Wood, Jr.: Those are both huge influences on me as well as my band. Each of us has very eclectic tastes in music, and we’re all very different. I like that; I think it all comes together perfectly. We like writing songs that have a lot of movements in them, not just verse-chorus-verse-chorus. We really like putting in rextended bridges and making our songs five to six minutes long, making them pieces of art, not just songs you’d hear on the radio.
Zenger’s: To someone like me, who has living memories of the 1960’s, it sounds like a 1960’s band.
Darrel Wood, Jr.: Yes. A lot of my current lyrics — not so much the ones being released on Bones — are very inspired by Beat poetry. We take what we can from different eras, the best part of everything.
Zenger’s: It’s a pretty major achievement — two albums with one band, a forthcoming EP with another — for someone who’s just 17.
Valerie Wood: Well, by the time he was 11 he was playing in coffeehouses throughout the county. That was a lot of fun, going to different coffeehouses. Sometimes it was just him, sometimes it was him and Dad together.
Darrel Wood, Jr.: My dad definitely got me started performing. I wrote a couple of songs and he said, “Let’s put you on a stage! Let’s do it!” He was so avid to see me performing, especially with vocals, because back when I was younger, I really didn’t like my voice. I didn’t like singing at all, and he was the one who said, “You have to sing your songs! Who else is going to sing your songs?”
Zenger’s: You’ve mentioned your dad. How many other musicians are in your family?
Darrel Wood, Jr.: Well, he’s the only musician that directly influenced me — and him bringing musicians around — in my family. I guess there are family friends who’ve been with us so long that they are family now, you know, that play music, like the lead singer of Cain Street, Anthony Sanchez. He’s pretty much taught me everything I know. He’s a very big influence in my life as far as music is concerned..
Valerie Wood: And his dad plays with your dad.
Darrel Wood, Jr.: Yes, his dad is the guitarist with my dad’s band, so it’s a big family fest of music. Dad’s bass player’s son used to play with Anthony, and now he’s off doing the funk thing. It’s interesting how we’ve all branched off from our fathers, and my mom’s dad played mariachi music, very Mexican influence and everything. On my dad’s side of the family, we’re finding that a lot of people from the Midwest play country music. So it’s kind of interesting how it all ends up. It’s very cool.
Zenger’s: When I saw you here at Say What! you did two songs. One was “Sunny Afternoon” by the Kinks — another 1960’s connection —
Darrel Wood, Jr.: Yes, yes. I love the Kinks.
Zenger’s: How did you first encounter that kind of music? Was it your parents’ record collection, or what?
Darrel Wood, Jr.: Going to my dad’s band practices. His band covers Led Zeppelin, the Doors,Z.Z. Top and old Tom Petty. My mother still listens to a lot of old R&B and soul, as well as all the rock and everything.
Valerie Wood: Jazz.
Darrel Wood, Jr.: Jazz and stuff. My dad listens to all of the hard-rock stuff, like Black Sabbath. I remember some of the first songs I learned were Black Sabbath songs and Led Zeppelin songs, and I loved it.
Zenger’s: Were you at all influenced by the Grateful Dead?
Darrel Wood, Jr.: Actually, no. I’ve always heard the Grateful Dead and I liked them, but they were never integrated into my childhood.
Zenger’s: Even though, in some ways, the way you’re describing your band is something like a Dead of today. They drew on a lot of jazz influences and incorporated them into rock. They played very long songs, with complicated structures, and drew on a lot of different kinds of music.
Darrel Wood, Jr.: Yes, the Grateful Dead, them and the Beatles — the Beatles is another band that I didn’t necessarily grow up with, but I appreciate them a lot for their innovation, because for their time they came up with so many new things that no other band was doing. And that’s exactly what we’re doing. We feel that, aside from a few artists that really make a difference, music is kind of stuck in a rut, and everyone’s kind of waiting for something new, or until then just replaying what they’ve always been playing.
A lot of artists are going back to their roots in the — and others are going back to the 1980’s, which is interesting. I’m not a particular 1980’s fan. We’re trying to be as innovative and creative as possible, without creating music that people are turned off by. There’s a band we’re very influenced by called the Mars Volta, and I love the Mars Volta, but sometimes their songs are so complex and so innovative that it’s too much to listen to.
Valerie Wood: It’s probably what people thought of Jimi Hendrix when he came out.
Darrel Wood, Jr.: Yes, exactly. So I guess what we’re trying to do is let people connect to new, innovative, artistic music.
Valerie Wood: You guys were covering Janis Joplin there for a little while, too.
Darrel Wood, Jr.: Yes, we did a cover of a Janis Joplin song, “Move Over.” It’s a very hard song to sing, so we don’t play it much anymore!
Zenger’s: Isn’t it unusual that your band is evenly split by gender: two women and two men?
Darrel Wood, Jr.: Yes, that’s interesting.
Valerie Wood: They’re very proud of that.
Darrel Wood, Jr.: We call ourselves “a group of rock ’n’ roll minorities,” because the two girls in the band are Latina, and then we have — I’m the only right-handed person in my band, and I’m a homosexual. And Mark, who’s the bassist, the straight white male, seems to be the only one who fits into the rock ’n’ roll stereotype. So we very much appreciate our roots and our diversity, and that’s what we try to talk about.
Zenger’s: I wanted to ask you about the inspiration for the other song I heard you do, this piece about older people in the Gay community reaching out to younger people, and the younger people thinking, “Oh, this geezer is just trying to get at me,” when he might be offering something else.
Darrel Wood, Jr.: I watched a documentary on the Logo channel, and it was specifically about that. In San Francisco, it’s really hard on the seniors in the Gay community there when they don’t have their rights, when they’ve been with their partner forever, and then their partner dies and they have to go back to a really hard way of living, when they were so comfortable before. There are so many paths that have been made for the younger Gay generation, but we don’t know that because we’re not educated about that. No one tells us.
My parents are completely supportive about my homosexuality, but I was never taught about Harvey Milk until the movie came out, which is kind of sad for me to say as a homosexual. Those political figureheads —
Valerie Wood: We’re learning the history of the community together.
Darrel Wood, Jr.: I think it would be helpful if more kids learned about those role models, because we really have none. None are taught to us. If the older Gay generation were to be able to speak in peace to the younger Gay generation, they would know those role models and maybe have some hope for the future.
Valerie Wood: Oh, the incredible stories that have come from that, their lives and their struggles. Even the good things that have come their way because of [struggle]. That would be incredible.
Darrel Wood, Jr.: Exactly. I think that a lot of the younger Gay generation feel that it’s so much so a “fight” or a “rebellion” for their rights, for being who they are. I don’t think it’s a fight, necessarily, to go into it with love and acceptance and everything.
Valerie Wood: And just be who you are.
Darrel Wood, Jr.: It’s teaching people, more than fighting against people. If you start a “war,” quote-unquote, you’re just creating more opposition. It’s really about teaching people how to accept everyone.
Valerie Wood: I just think more people need to be aware of the people that paved the way for where we are today and to have some appreciation for all of those “veterans,” we’ll call them.
Darrel Wood, Jr.: “Mavericks,” can we be so bold?
Valerie Wood: And, at times, silent sufferers in those days.
Zenger’s: I was particularly interested in this because one of those unsung pioneers is my associate editor, Leo Laurence, who’s 70 years old, and who started the first Gay liberation organization in San Francisco in March 1969 and led the first Gay-rights demonstration four months before Stonewall. He’s quite naturally upset that virtually nobody, even in the Gay community, seems to know that.
Darrel Wood, Jr.: Yes.
Valerie Wood: That is upsetting. That’s extremely upsetting.
Zenger’s: So when I heard your song, he was one of the people I thought of.
Darrel Wood, Jr.: Very definitely, and I guess he was one of the people I was writing about.
Valerie Wood: And there are so many people out there with this history and this knowledge, and because of the stigma that they lived with for so long, they’re out there in this position where they’re just not comfortable, or haven’t been allowed to come and get together with the youth and form some type of place where everybody can get together and share all this knowledge with. That would be an incredible thing to be part of. I would be extremely excited for my son and for myself to learn, because history is history, regardless of where it comes from and what it’s about.
Darrel Wood, Jr.: Exactly.
Zenger’s: One thing I’ve heard from a lot of young people is that the boundaries between “Gay” and “straight” are really disappearing. Younger people are much more willing to try things, to date and love and have sex with whomever they find where there’s mutual attraction, rather than feeling, “Oh, I have to declare myself either ‘straight’ or ‘Gay.’”
Darrel Wood, Jr.: Right, very much so. In high school, especially in a place as conservative as Santee, it’s been very hard in the sense of finding other homosexuals to relate to completely. But at the same time, the number of straight friends I have that are completely supportive of me and my cause, and come to the No on Prop. 8 rallies with me, wear the pins and everything with me, that’s very encouraging.
Valerie Wood: And just love you. They just love you.
Darrel Wood, Jr.: Yes, people with love in their hearts. I think it’s very important, and definitely the younger generation is advocating for that more. But I feel that it’s important for us to keep that going for the generations under us, because we’re so close to just having it be all right, having it be accepted. It doesn’t matter if you like men or women, or what you do in the privacy of your bedroom. It’s about loving —
Valerie Wood: — who you are, integrity.
Darrel Wood, Jr.: And knowing that being a homosexual doesn’t define who you are. I am a homosexual and I’m proud of that, but at the same time that doesn’t define me as a person, because it’s strictly a sexuality. It’s just who I care to be attracted to.
Zenger’s: It’s interesting that you use the word “homosexual,” because for the Gays of my generation that’s exactly the kind of clinical, pathological image that we were trying to get away from.
Darrel Wood, Jr.: Yes, that’s very interesting, actually.
Valerie Wood: And now these guys are embracing it.
Zenger’s: In my magazine, the collective term I use is “Queer,” which a lot of people my generation or older have a problem with, but I like it because it’s the last all-inclusive word we have left, and I hate “LGBT” with a passion. “The LGBT People” — it sounds like we just beamed in from Andromeda.
Darrel Wood, Jr.: I think I use “homosexual” because, throughout my life, the words “faggot,” “queer,” “gay” have all been very negative in kids speaking that to me, kids speaking that to other children.
Valerie Wood: Condescending.
Darrel Wood, Jr.: It’s very condescending. Even “gay” now is this slang term for “stupid” — “oh, goodness, that’s so gay,” “this is so gay.” Does it really like men? I feel that “homosexual,” even if it is a somewhat clinical term, is more universal in that aspect.
Medical Marijuana Policy Still in Flux
Obama’s Rhetoric Better Than His Actions, Activists Say
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
PHOTOS, top to bottom: Gerald Singleton, Dion Markgraaf
When Barack Obama took over as president, his administration sent strong signals that the federal government’s harassment of medical marijuana patients and providers in states where it’s legal would end — but, as on so many other issues, Obama’s performance has been far worse than his rhetoric. That was the message disappointed activists on the issue shared with members of Activist San Diego April 20 at the Joyce Beers Community Center in Hillcrest. Dion Markgraaf, chair of the San Diego chapter of Americans for Safe Access, and Gerald Singleton, an attorney who has represented many defendants arrested on marijuana charges relating to medical use, talked about the hopes Obama and his attorney general, Eric Holder, raised for medical marijuana users — only to dash them again with their refusal to intervene in a Los Angeles court hearing for former Morro Bay dispensary owner Charles Lynch.
Obama’s first signal that his administration would be easier on medical marijuana than former President Bush’s came in early February, when White House spokesperson Nick Shapiro responded to news that the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) had staged four raids on medical marijuana collectives and dispensaries in Los Angeles after Obama took office on January 20. “The President believes that federal resources should not be used to circumvent state laws, and as he continues to appoint senior leadership to fill out the ranks of the federal government, he expects them to review their policies with that in mind,” Shapiro said.
The next statement from Obama’s administration pledging non-interference with state laws legalizing medical marijuana came during a March 18 press conference by Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr. While he didn’t say flat-out that the DEA would stop raiding medical marijuana users and facilities, Holder did say, “The policy is to go after those people who violate both federal and state law. … Given the limited resources that we have, our focus will be on people, organizations that are growing, cultivating substantial amounts of marijuana and doing so in a way that’s inconsistent with federal and state law.” Holder also warned that the feds wouldn’t tolerate people who tried to “use medical marijuana laws as a shield” for drug dealing or other sorts of crime, but overall the statements of Holder and Shapiro gave heart to medical marijuana activists.
“I was heartened by Obama’s comments on medical marijuana and his attorney general saying that the federal government would respect state law,” Singleton told Activist San Diego. Then up came the Lynch case — the new administration’s first opportunity to put up or shut up about supporting state medical marijuana laws — and the administration blew it. Morro Bay dispensary owner Lynch had been convicted in a typical case. The 47-year-old Lynch had opened his business in 2006, in a public ceremony attended by the Morro Bay mayor and members of the local chamber of commerce, but he hadn’t been able to argue that in his own defense because federal law forbids any mention of medical necessity in a marijuana case.
Lynch was not only convicted of violating federal drug laws, his conviction was enhanced because one of the people he sold to was 17 years old. The jury never got to hear that the reason Lynch sold marijuana to a 17-year-old was that the young man, Owen Beck, was ill with bone cancer and the drug helped him tolerate chemotherapy drugs. Nor did they know that Beck’s parents not only gave their approval but were physically present when he received his medicine, as California’s medical marijuana law requires when the patient is a minor. In the sentencing phase of the trial, Beck’s parents appeared as witnesses for Lynch.
The judge in the case, George H. Wu, decided to delay sentencing Lynch so he could ask the new attorney general, Holder, whether the previous administration’s recommendation of a five-year prison sentence for Lynch (the minimum under the strict federal drug laws) still stood. On April 17, Judge Wu got an unequivocal answer: yes, it did. The government filed a court document signed by four prosecutors stating that they still wanted Lynch to draw a five-year prison sentence, and attached a letter from H. Marshall Jarrett, director of the Executive Office for United States Attorneys in the Justice Department.
Addressed to Thomas O’Brien, U.S. Attorney for the Los Angeles area, Jarrett’s letter read, “In response to your request, the Office of the Deputy Attorney General reviewed the facts of this case to determine whether the prosecution of Mr. Lynch comports with the Department of Justice’s policies with respect to marijuana prosecutions. Based on the facts of this case, the Office of the Deputy Attorney General concurs with your office that the investigation, prosecution, and conviction of Mr. Lynch are entirely consistent with Department policies as well as public statements made by the Attorney General. Accordingly, you should seek to proceed with the sentencing recommendations which your office has filed with the court.”
Though Lynch still hasn’t been officially sentenced — Judge Wu delayed it yet again on April 23, saying he was still researching whether he could find legal authority to give Lynch less than the five-year federal minimum — Singleton made it clear to his Activist San Diego audience that as far as he’s concerned, the federal government’s position in the Lynch case means that they have no intention of dropping the Bush administration’s war on medical marijuana and its users and providers. “As long as federal law enforcement officers are given the power to determine whether state law is being violated,” Singleton said, “we won’t see much change. … The Attorney General’s statement does not have the force of law.”
Part of the problem, Singleton continued, is that nobody knows just what is or isn’t legal under the medical marijuana statutes. “Most state officers don’t know the law,” he explained. “Alexis Bastido and I represented a clinic in El Cajon, and when we met with the prosecutor, the first thing he said was, ‘We don’t know anything about the medical marijuana law’ — after the case had been going on for three months and our client had been indicted for two felonies.” It’s even more of a problem in San Diego than elsewhere in California, Singleton said, because “we live in a county stricter than any in California, and unfortunately they’re very aggressive about this.”
The San Diego County Board of Supervisors has been actively resisting the medical marijuana law ever since California voters approved it as Proposition 215 in November 1996. When the state legislature passed legislation mandating all California counties to provide identification cards to medical marijuana patients, the Board of Supervisors responded by filing a lawsuit in to have Proposition 215 thrown out as an infringement on the federal government’s monopoly on drug law. The county’s case has lost in every state court that’s heard it, and right now the county has filed a last-ditch petition before the U.S. Supreme Court to have them hear the case. Singleton said he and other medical marijuana advocates expect the U.S. Supreme Court to reject it unheard — as they do with most appeals — but until then, the case is legally “pending” and so San Diego County can get away with flouting the state law requiring them to issue the ID cards.
San Diego County has aggressively prosecuted medical marijuana patients and providers on their own authority as well, despite an 1890’s California Supreme Court ruling that state and local law enforcement personnel are not supposed to enforce federal laws. According to Markgraaf, one of the leaders in San Diego law enforcement’s war on medical marijuana is district attorney Bonnie Dumanis. Markgraaf explained that Dumanis has interpreted Proposition 215’s ban on “sales” of medical marijuana as making it illegal to receive any compensation whatsoever for growing medical marijuana or providing it to patients — even if the person is a professional caregiver being paid for services to the patient that have nothing to do with marijuana.
Among the people attending the Activist San Diego meeting were victims of Dumanis’s latest law enforcement action against medical marijuana. Announced to the public on February 10, this was presented in the district attorney’s press release and the San Diego Union-Tribune as “Operation Endless Summer,” supposedly aimed at protecting sailors and other military personnel in San Diego from being targeted by drug dealers preying on military housing. But, according to Markgraaf, it had actually begun as a deliberate attempt to target medical marijuana providers by sending out undercover police officers with phony doctors’ recommendations.
“This operation featured a man who got a doctor’s recommendation to entrap people,” Markgraaf said, adding that the undercover officer went to the Web site of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and just kept calling individuals listed there as medical marijuana providers until some of them agreed to sell to him —and therefore ended up being arrested. The connection with the military was created, Markgraaf said, when the cops “set these people up on Pico Street in Pacific Beach” — on a stretch of public right-of-way that is technically Navy property — so Dumanis could bill the arrests as “to protect the military while they are protecting us.”
Markgraaf said he hopes the current round of cases will ultimately be repudiated by the courts, and will disprove Dumanis’s broad interpretation of the ban on “sales” in the law. “The law is codified, but she is not respecting that,” Markgraaf said. His group is also hopeful that when Dumanis runs for re-election in 2010, they’ll be able to make her opposition to medical marijuana a campaign issue and elect a more sympathetic, reasonable D.A. in her place. His group is also targeting the Board of Supervisors and the San Diego City Council, focusing on the economic impact of the raids and what detailing police officers to entrap medical marijuana providers is doing to the overall effectiveness of local law enforcement. “Every time you cry about money and why cops can’t come to your house when you’ve been victimized,” Markgraaf said, “it’s because they’re setting up raids and taking people’s children away.”
Part of the problem, Singleton added, is that “the law we have now is a combination of different laws” — the original Proposition 215 and the amendments and interpretations the state legislature has added since. “There are some holes,” he said. “One is the question of how people get marijuana. If you’re a ‘caregiver’ you’re allowed to get compensated, but that’s been defined very narrowly.” [In November 2008 the California Supreme Court ruled that to be a “caregiver” under Proposition 215, a person “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” — a ruling that seemed aimed at closing down the state’s dispensaries once and for all.]
Singleton added that you can be compensated “if you’re in a collective” — an association of people who get together to grow marijuana for medical use by themselves or people they’re caregivers for — but was considerably more skeptical than Markgraaf that the issue will be resolved in the courts. “I don’t believe we’ll get a lot of favorable rulings,” he said. He also pointed out that California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill passed by the state legislature that would have cleared up some of the ambiguities in the current law.
“Both the county and the city of San Diego have brushed off the issue and put us on the back burner,” Markgraaf said. “There have been rounds of raids every six months, closing all the storefronts and delivery services. We went to the San Diego City Council, and they asked us, ‘Can we legally do something?’ We had to wait one year just to get a report on what the law said, and the report said, ‘Yes, dispensaries are allowed. You just have to set up a framework.’ They just refused to bring up the report. It’s going to take a political policy step to get dispensaries again in San Diego.”
The presentation Markgraaf and Singleton made to Activist San Diego was actually quite broader than just focusing on the current legal situation and the broken promises of the Obama administration. Markgraaf said that he’d got involved in the issue 20 years ago when he researched it for a graduate thesis at San Diego State University that attempted to analyze U.S. marijuana law in light of the Marxist belief “that economics was the basis of everything. No matter what people think, cannabis [the preferred term for the substance of Markgraaf and many other activists, who regard ‘marijuana’ as a word dredged up for propaganda reasons by the people who successfully campaigned to make it illegal in the 1930’s] is coming back and will take over because of the economic force and power.” Markgraaf said that marijuana is already California’s largest cash crop — not just medical marijuana, though one Oakland dispensary paid $1 million in taxes in its first year of operation.
What’s more, hemp, the non-narcotic form of cannabis, is an easily renewable resource that has the potential to replace scarce resources like wood and petroleum. “As activists, there’s nothing more important you can do than work on hemp,” he said. “The environment: hemp is the solution. Most of Balboa Park is made of hemp. There are three million cars in America partially made of cannabis because it’s stronger and better than other materials for making the inside panels.” Markgraaf actually works for Dr. Bronner’s, a company that makes soap and other products out of hempseed oil — but they have to import their raw materials from Canada, China and Eastern Europe because the U.S., alone of all major industrialized countries, has made industrial hemp illegal even though it isn’t a drug.
Markgraaf said the state of North Dakota has recently become the first in the nation to repeal its laws against the cultivation of industrial hemp, and the California legislature passed two pro-hemp bills but Schwarzenegger vetoed both of them — even one that merely called for a study of the issue — “because he didn’t want to get our hopes up.” An audience member asked about President Obama’s derisive comments against the legalization of hemp at his town-hall press conference on March 26 — for which the questions were submitted online by ordinary citizens and more people logged on to ask about marijuana than any other issue, including the economic crisis.
“I have to say that there was one question that was voted on that ranked fairly high and that was whether legalizing marijuana would improve the economy — (laughter) — and job creation,” Obama said. “And I don’t know what this says about the online audience — (laughter) — but I just want — I don’t want people to think that — this was a fairly popular question; we want to make sure that it was answered. The answer is, no, I don’t think that is a good strategy — (laughter) — to grow our economy.” Like the government’s stand on the Lynch case, this answer from Obama disappointed many marijuana activists — but Singleton was a bit more forgiving towards the President than the person who raised the issue at Activist San Diego.
“In his defense, I don’t think he’s ready to come out for it two months into his term,” Singleton said, “but he has voted in the past to legalize hemp.” Singleton also said he sees the economic impact — both the costs of prohibiting marijuana and the potential tax revenue from legalizing it — as a viable way to argue the issue politically. He quoted California State Assemblymember Tom Ammiano [D-San Francisco], who’s sponsored a legalization bill in the state legislature, as saying an open trade in marijuana could bring $1 billion per year in tax revenue to California. If marijuana were legalized nationwide, Singleton added, it would bring in $20-30 billion, both in direct tax revenue and in savings on the costs of drug-law enforcement and imprisonment.
Local Activists Defend Friendship Park
Fight Losing Battle for Access Against Homeland Security
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
PHOTOS, top to bottom: Christian Ramirez, John Fanestil
In 1971, when then-First Lady Pat Nixon came to San Ysidro to dedicate Border Field State Park — also known as Friendship Park — she cut through a single strand of barbed-wire fence separating the U.S. and Mexico and announced, “I hate to see a fence anywhere.” Twenty-eight years later the Monument Mesa of Friendship Park, a circular patch of ground within the park bisected by a fence through which residents, documented and otherwise, on both sides of the borders have touched fingers and exchanged greetings, gifts and food for years, is about to fall to the relentless militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border and the determination of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to construct three layers of fencing between the two countries, each layer separated by access roads and open spaces up to hundreds of yards wide, thereby — as local activist John Fanestil has grimly noted — cutting U.S. citizens off from great swaths of U.S. territory.
Fanestil, executive director of the San Diego Foundation for Change and a licensed Methodist minister who was detained by the U.S. Border Patrol in February for organizing a cross-border communion ceremony at Friendship Park, was joined by American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) staff member and former San Diego City Council candidate Christian Ramirez at a meeting on Friendship Park April 17 at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church in Hillcrest. “The Border Patrol says their goal is to achieve ‘operational control’ of the border,” Fanestil explained. “It’s only in the last 15-20 years that the U.S. government has come up with this notion that they could know everything that crossed the border.”
As a legal resident on both sides, Ramirez has seen the change personally. “When I first moved to San Ysidro, “ he recalled, “it was just before Operation Gatekeeper, an operation launched by Alan Bersin, hired by Janet Reno [President Clinton’s attorney general] to become ‘border czar.’ I went to Southwest High School just a few feet away from the border,” Ramirez recalled, “and there was a constant history of harassment from the Border Patrol. It was fun for us kids pretending to be undocumented immigrants. But I remember one incident that showed me it was not normal to grow up like that. At 16 I remember my mom yelling obscenities at two Border Patrol agents and spraying them with a hose, saying, ‘You’re not welcome here. Get out of my yard.’ It was the first sign of resistance. The agents said, ‘Stop, stop wetting us,’ and left.”
According to Ramirez, “The idea of the Clinton administration was to try to resolve the border inequalities between the U.S. and Mexico and eliminate the need for undocumented immigration. NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement, which took effect January 1, 1994] was supposed to rescue Mexico from the Third World. Fifteen years later, there are more poor people in Mexico than ever before.” NAFTA, Ramirez explained, “was designed to eliminate the boundaries for capital and products between the U.S. and Mexico.” What it wasn’t designed to do, however, was eliminate the boundaries for labor — so shortly after it went into effect, Clinton, Reno and Bersin (who has just been put back in control of border issues for the Obama administration), launched “Operation Gatekeeper” and similar paramilitary Border Patrol “operations” at all the other major urban centers along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The result, Ramirez explained, wasn’t the end of undocumented immigration of Mexicans (and other central and south Americans) into the U.S. Instead, as both he and Fanestil pointed out, it just sent the immigrants deeper into the desert and made their journeys longer and more dangerous. As NAFTA sucked money out of the Mexican economy, Ramirez said, “workers followed — and at least 5,200 people were killed.” (That’s the official U.S. government figure; Enrique Morones of Border Angels, a pro-immigrant activist, puts the death toll at 10,000 or more.) Ramirez recalled being quoted as saying that Alan Bersin “represented death to our community” — and being criticized by an active Quaker (the AFSC is a Quaker organization) for using such language about him.
As on so many issues, the Clinton administration treated immigration with an iron fist in a velvet glove — and the George W. Bush administration that succeeded it used an iron fist in an iron glove. Ramirez regards the further militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border under Bush, who defined the need for “border security” as part of the broader “war on terrorism,” including the mobilization of National Guard troops on the border and the tacit encouragement of the Minutemen and other paramilitary forces, as merely an extension of Clinton’s and Bersin’s “Operation Gatekeeper,” which, Ramirez said, “drenched our community with blood and impunity.” Despite Bersin’s reappointment under Obama, Ramirez insists that “we have an obligation to see that Obama’s border policies treat the border with respect and dignity.”
Fanestil showed a series of charts, based on official Border Patrol data, indicating just how extensive the campaign to militarize the U.S.-Mexico border has been. According to these figures, the Border Patrol’s annual budget has increased from $300 million in 1994 to $3.75 billion today. The number of actual Border Patrol agents has more than tripled in the same time period, from 5,875 in 1996 to 18,319 today. The 2009 federal budget allocates $11.9 billion for all border “protection” activities — the Border Patrol, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and other border-related programs — up from $5.6 billion just five years ago.
What these massive expenditures haven’t done, Fanestil argued, is stem the tide of immigration. He pointed out that the numbers of people apprehended trying to cross the border from Mexico to the U.S. held steady at 500,000 per year, with only minor fluctuations, from 1994 until the fall of 2008, when the worsening economic recession in the U.S. and its effect on the availability of low-wage, low-skill jobs — not the border enforcement and militarization — started discouraging immigrants from coming. Instead, he said, “the pattern of migration changed. People stopped trying to cross in San Diego because it became so difficult. Migrants were forced into the mountains and deserts of eastern California and then into Arizona. As a result, as Christian said, deaths increased. This was not unexpected or unforeseen; it was a conscious and expected outcome of this strategy.”
The Border Patrol’s so-called “San Diego sector” of the U.S.-Mexico border is 14 miles long, starting at the Pacific Ocean and moving east, Fanestil explained. During the Clinton and Bush presidencies, he said, “eleven of those 14 miles were double-fenced. The first wall is made of metal panels; the second wall is made of cement pylons 20 feet high. The posts are spaced four inches apart to give the illusion that you can squeeze through, which you can’t. Five miles of it are topped with razor-sharp concertina wire. The gap between the first and second fence varies from 150 to 800 feet, and between the two fences is a paved patrol road that runs the entire length of the 14-mile ‘sector,’ so Border Patrol agents can drive their vehicles very quickly over what they call their ‘zone of enforcement’ or ‘theatre of operations.’” Fanestil noted that Border Patrol officials get testy when the fence is referred to as a “wall,” and said the assistant chair of the agency’s San Diego sector said it should instead be called a “tactical infrastructure.”
The idea of fencing off the entire San Diego sector ran into trouble over the last 3 1/2 miles, Fanestil said, because of a myriad of environmental and land-use restrictions covering the territory. The border militarists, led by former U.S. Congressmember Duncan Hunter (recently succeeded by his son), solved that problem in 2005 when Hunter pushed a bill through Congress — a little-noticed amendment to the Real ID Act — giving the Department of Homeland Security unilateral authority to nullify, suspend or just plain ignore any federal, state or local law or regulation restricting the government’s ability to build the fence. Michael Chertoff, Bush’s head of Homeland Security, invoked that authority on April 1, 2008 and gave out contracts to private companies — mostly the Kiewit Mining Company from Nebraska — to construct the rest of the two-layer fence and add a third layer. According to Fanestil, these contracts were only for one year — so the contractors are in a hurry to finish before they expire for fear the Obama administration might not renew them.
Friendship Park lies squarely in the cross-hairs of the Homeland Security contractors as they attempt to wrap up the fence, Fanestil explained. “This is where the fence dives right into the Pacific Ocean,” he said. “The destination is Monument Mesa, where people used to convene on both sides of the border. The heart of Friendship Park is the monument itself, which marks the spot where in 1849 the U.S.-Mexico Commission actually met to fix the U.S.-Mexico border.” [This was after the 1846-1848 U.S.-Mexico war, when the U.S., taking advantage of corruption and incompetence within the Mexican leadership, conquered what is now California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming from Mexico.] “Over the years,” Fanestil recalled, “Monument Mesa became a famous meeting place for families separated by immigration restrictions.”
Fanestil said his group first got wind that Homeland Security intended to march the border fence straight through Monument Mesa in August 2008. “We were told, for the first time, that it was illegal to pass things through the fence,” he said. “So I started doing a bi-national communion ceremony and continued it for seven months. Over 30 community organizations, 40 religious leaders and every elected official who actually represents the area of the U.S. side of Border Field State Park signed on to our letter opposing running the border fence through Friendship Park. Letters have been written to Janet Napolitano [former Arizona governor, now Obama’s Homeland Security chief] and Obama himself. But the Department of Homeland Security trumps all.”
What’s more, his group of nonviolent protesters started being met with what Fanestil called “a human fence” — a solid wall of Border Patrol agents standing across the edge of the mesa, “so if you try to approach the fence they will literally block your path.” Fanestil said that he and Ramirez have both been detained at Friendship Park in the last three months and another activist in their coalition, Dan Watman, was actually arrested on April 8, 2009 for being on the “wrong” spot of his country’s soil. “The ‘human wall’ is a nightmare for the Border Patrol,” Fanestil added, “because they were trained to prevent people from entering the U.S. illegally. Now they’re charged with keeping U.S. citizens out of the ‘zone of enforcement,’ and they’re using the same tactics. Now they’re trying to stop people from entering from either side.”
Fanestil said he thought his group was actually gaining some political traction and had a good chance at stopping the fence, or at least winning a moratorium on construction until the Obama administration could review its predecessor’s border policies, until the recent spate of media coverage claiming that Mexico was virtually a “failed state,” unable to control its drug cartels or police itself effectively. Nonetheless, he said, his coalition “is committed to maintaining a community of friendship at the park. We’re asking for a public review of DHS’s plans and a moratorium on fence construction at Friendship Park. The border is a place of friendship and communion, and we are hoping the will of the people in the border lands will prevail.”
Queer Democrats Hear from “Shared Agenda” Campaign
Labor Activist, Youth Leader Speak on Issues, Organization-Building
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
PHOTOS, top to bottom: Carlos Marquez, Allan Acevedo
The April 23 meeting of the predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club at the Joyce Beers Community Center in Hillcrest was billed as a presentation by the club’s youth group, the Stonewall Young Democrats, and its president, Allan Acevedo. But the proceedings were dominated by another young Latino activist and club member, Carlos Marquez, local chair of Pride at Work, a nationwide organization aimed at building closer ties between the Queer community and organized labor. Wearing three different hats — as local Pride at Work chair, organizer for the Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU) “Change That Works” campaign and spokesperson for a campaign called “SharedAgenda.org” — Marquez talked about the linkage between labor and Queer issues and called on club members to write their Senators and Congressmembers in support of two key pieces of legislation affecting both.
One, Marquez said, is the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act to ban discrimination in employment based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The other is the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would change federal labor law so that as soon as a majority of workers in a workplace signed cards asking to join a union, the union would automatically be authorized to represent them and their employer would be legally obligated to bargain with it. Right now, that’s usually just the first step; employers have the right to demand a secret-ballot election and must recognize the union only if a majority of employees vote for it — which gives employers an opportunity to hold mandatory meetings of workers and threaten them with job loss or other consequences if they vote for the union. That sort of intimidation is actually illegal, but the penalties are so small that many employers would rather pay the fines for violating the law than have to recognize a union and pay their workers more.
The April 23 meeting was the second in a row during which the club had heard a presentation about EFCA. At the previous month’s meeting on March 26, Lorena Gonzalez, secretary-treasurer of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Central Labor Council, had asked for — and received — a unanimous vote of the club’s members present to endorse EFCA. “We’re really trying to ensure that all of our allies support this bill,” Gonzalez said. “It’s been a priority for labor for the last 30 years. It’s been almost impossible for workers to form a union [without it], and where it’s been done it’s because employers have been politically pressured to accept majority sign-up.” Gonzalez explained that forming a union doesn’t automatically solve all the workers’ problems — “you still have to get the company to bargain” — but EFCA would help that, too, by strengthening the legal penalties against corporations who refuse to bargain with unions that have won the right to represent their workers.
Asked about the principal argument being made against EFCA — that union representatives intimidate or browbeat workers into signing union cards and only a secret-ballot election can protect the workers’ right to make the decision for or against a union privately — Gonzalez answered, “I would just give empirical data. Since records have been taken, there have been 42 complaints of harassment and intimidation of workers by unions in the entire history of U.S. labor law — and 29,000 complaints of harassment and intimidation by employers in 2007 alone. This bill allows the workers to form a union either by member sign-up or a secret ballot. It just takes that decision away from the employers and gives it to the employees.”
With a Democratic President and substantial Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, EFCA was originally thought to be a slam-dunk — but it hasn’t worked out that way. Employers and business organizations have mounted a sweeping campaign against it that portrays EFCA as the virtual destruction of Western civilization as we know it, and they’ve made inroads not only among moderate Republicans but moderate Democrats as well. Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania), who endorsed EFCA in 2007, abruptly turned against it this year after he was threatened with a primary challenge in his own party — a move the Los Angeles Times news analysis said would be enough to kill the bill. Worse from the point of view of EFCA’s supporters, California’s senior senator, moderate Democrat Dianne Feinstein, has refused to commit to the bill — and so, quite logically, both Gonzalez and Marquez said their primary purpose in bringing the issue before the San Diego Democratic Club was to generate cards, letters, phone calls and other grass-roots pressure on Feinstein to get on board for EFCA.
In his April 23 presentation, Marquez sometimes confused his audience as to which hat he was wearing when. He announced that the three top legislative priorities of SEIU’s “Change That Works” campaign were President Obama’s economic stimulus bill, EFCA and health-care reform. At the same time he presented the SharedAgenda.org leaflets, which included postcards members could sign and send to the campaign’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. for forwarding to legislators as needed. “We’re happy the entire LGBT [Queer] community is supporting an all-inclusive ENDA,” Marquez said — a far cry from 2007, when the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) went along with a “compromise” version proposed by Representative Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts) to protect based on sexual orientation but not gender identity — “but even if it passes without EFCA, there will still be something missing because it doesn’t promise domestic partner benefits, higher wages or union representation.”
Many club members were disappointed that SEIU didn’t put ENDA in its list of three top demands for the “Change That Works” campaign. “Change That Works has an economic orientation,” Marquez replied. “Health care reform is necessary so as not to increase the costs on taxpayers. EFCA is absolutely an economic interest, and the federal stimulus package was obviously economic. … SEIU is absolutely in favor of an all-inclusive ENDA, but their top priorities are economic and therefore ENDA is not a Change That Works priority.” Getting testier in response to the continued criticism, Marquez said, “SEIU is the most progressive union in the U.S.,” but they have to deal not only with more conservative unions who regard ENDA as “special-rights” legislation but other Queer organizations that don’t regard labor issues as among their priorities. He said HRC had formally endorsed EFCA but “has barely put that on their Web site.” Despite their misgivings about Change That Works and SEIU’s “economic” priorities, club members eagerly took the SharedAgenda.org postcards, which support both EFCA and ENDA, and signed them.
Acevedo began his presentation on Stonewall Young Democrats by introducing several other key members — his co-president, Jennifer Livingood, former president Jonathan Goetz and board members Olivia Cecil and Matt Karolis. He focused mostly on the club’s growth since its founding in 2005, when they were able to get local elected officials like Christine Kehoe and Toni Atkins and candidates like Francine Busby to their meetings. “We had a list of 300 and have built it up since,” Acevedo said. When Brandon Tate took over from Goetz as president in 2007, Acevedo recalled, “we strengthened our relationship with the San Diego Democratic Club, including the monthly ‘Bridge Building’ column in the club newsletter.” Acevedo became president in 2008, after Tate was elected a vice-president of the California Young Democrats.
“We expanded our board to 10 members and doubled our budget from $2,000 to $4,000,” Acevedo said of his presidency. “We had six of our members working on the staffs of Stephen Whitburn for City Council, Marty Block for Assembly or No on 8. We now have 16 members on our board, a majority of whom are minorities. This weekend, five members are going to the California Democratic Party convention as full voting delegates. We have 40 members and our budget has doubled again to $8,000. We’ve established chapters at City College, Mesa College and San Diego High School. We’re working to start new chapters at South Bay and Southwestern High School, and we’re also strengthening ties to California State University-San Marcos.”
Most of Acevedo’s comments were on the nuts-and-bolts of organizing the club, rather than on specific issues. When one club member asked how the club was going to keep the interest of young people who got politically active for the first time because of their enthusiasm for Barack Obama, and also how the club was going to mobilize people to fight for reproductive choice, Acevedo referred that question to Olivia Cecil. She boasted that club members have already met with Congressmember Susan Davis to discuss how to respond if and when San Diego Reader publisher Jim Holman or some other anti-abortion zealot puts yet another parental-notification initiative on the California ballot even though it’s already lost three times.
Acevedo also explained the Stonewall Young Democrats’ quirky relationship with the San Diego Democratic Club. “When Jonathan Goetz founded Stonewall Young Democrats, it was under a partnership with the San Diego Democratic Club,” Acevedo said. “The idea was always that we would grow up and ultimately become our own separate entity. Thanks in part to our organizing treasurer, we were able to file our own paperwork to do our own quarterly reports” — a legal necessity for any organization raising and spending money on political campaigns. “We’re already doing our own finances and endorsements,” Acevedo continued. “But we still depend on, and need a lot of support from, the San Diego Democratic Club.”
“Low-Wage Capitalism” Author Speaks at Malcolm X Library
Goldstein Offers Marxist Analysis of the Current Economic Crisis
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
When Fred Goldstein, economic analyst and contributing editor to the Workers’ World newspaper, began his presentation on the current economic crisis at the Malcolm X Library on April 18, he waxed nostalgic about the library’s namesake. “I had the great pleasure of seeing Malcolm X many times,” he recalled. “I lived on 125th and Lenox in New York City, near where he used to address crowds at the Hotel Theresa.” But Goldstein, who was there to promote his new book Low-Wage Capitalism — or, to give its full and rather awkward title, Colossus with Feet of Clay: Low-Wage Capitalism: What the New Globalized, High-Tech Imperialism Means for the Class Struggle in the U.S. — was all business when he spoke about the current situation as a classic Marxist “crisis of overproduction,” brought on because today’s capitalists have been too successful at driving down wages and working conditions worldwide.
“The book is about the globalization of capital, a wide restructuring of world capital over the last 30 — and especially the last 10 — years,” Goldstein explained. “It’s had a profound effect on workers all over the world, especially in the United States. Since China and India opened themselves up to capitalism, the worldwide working class available for multinational corporations to exploit doubled in 20 years, from 1.5 billion to 3 billion people, mostly in low-wage countries.” This, Goldstein said, was one of the two factors driving the current economic crisis; the other, he added, was “the simultaneous technological revolution with computers, the Internet, satellites, software, supertankers, containerization [the ability to ship freight worldwide without local workers having to load and unload it whenever it’s transferred from one ship to another] and jumbo jets.”
What this did, Goldstein said, was “make it possible to break up capitalist production, place different parts of it all over the world, and play the workers of the world against each other.” Before globalization and high-tech, he argued, capitalist economies had colonized the less-developed world primarily to suck out its natural resources for use as raw materials to produce goods in advanced countries — and they used the native workers primarily on plantations, mines, harbors and other low-tech workplaces. “The technological revolution and the spread of capitalism worldwide have changed that,” Goldstein said. “for the first time, a worker in Detroit competes directly with a worker in Thailand for the same job. These low-wage workers are pitted against the workers in high-wage countries, and this is bringing down the wages of all workers, worldwide.”
Goldstein cited the oft-quoted but little-appreciated statistic that real wages of American workers have been going down steadily since the early 1970’s (except for a brief uptick in 1999 and 2000 driven by the high-tech boom) — and said it was because their expenses were rising while their incomes were falling that so many of them went into debt even before the current collapse. “Before the crisis, American workers were up to their noses in debt from credit cards, mortgage loans, auto loans and student loans,” he explained. “Now, workers are out on the streets in tent cities because there are no reserves left for anybody.”
Most of the media coverage of the current crisis describes it as having its roots in the housing market, which became wildly inflated during the late-2000’s “bubble, and on the ability of financial institutions to package ordinary housing loans into so-called “mortgage-backed securities” and speculate on them until they lost all connection to the underlying value of the loans which backed them. The crisis, Goldstein said, “is being described as greed, speculation, gambling, excessive deregulation. It’s described as fundamentally a financial crisis, a crisis of credit. All these things are true. There is unlimited greed on Wall Street, speculation, deregulation and a credit crisis.”
But, Goldstein argued, those factors are merely symptoms of the real cause: global capital’s new-found success in doing what capital has always done — drive down workers’ wages to the bare minimum needed to survive — and thereby eliminating working people’s ability to buy the products they produce. In the 19th century Karl Marx coined the phrase “crisis of overproduction” to describe the situation in which capitalists have forced down wages so much that they can’t sell anything because no one, except the capitalists themselves, has any money to buy more than the barest necessities of life. That, Goldstein argued, was the cause of the great financial panics of Marx’s time, the worldwide Great Depression of the 1930’s, and the crisis of today.
“Capitalism is based on profit,” Goldstein said. “Nothing gets provided unless some boss makes a profit. That is the lever, the starting point, of all production. Every corporation competes to make as much profit as possible. They try to get as many markets as they can, and they try to get labor costs as low as possible. As workers, we ‘own’ only one thing: our ability to work at something. We have to sell that to an employer. There’s a vast number of employers and millions of workers, and we have to find someone to sell our labor power to. They pay us just enough to survive, while the corporations get richer and richer because they get our unpaid labor. They own what we create, they sell it, and they keep all the money except what they pay us.”
The problem for the capitalists, Goldstein explained, is that though the only reason they set up businesses and hire workers to produce goods or services is to make a profit, they don’t know until they actually market the products whether or not anyone will buy them. “Capitalism has an infinite capability to expand production,” he said, “but the capacity of all of us workers to consume either stays the same or goes down. So this always ends in a crisis. These crises have been going on since 1825. The 1929 Crash was one instance in which the crisis became so severe that capitalism collapsed worldwide. We are in a similar situation.”
The roots of the current crisis, Goldstein argued, actually came in the later part of the 1990’s, during the so-called “high-tech bubble.” “The Internet and fiber-optic cables had been perfected, and new technology companies were being created every two to three weeks,” Goldstein explained. “At the end of the Clinton administration the whole thing collapsed, and [then-Federal Reserve chair] Alan Greenspan tried to stimulate the economy with lower interest rates.” What happened next was a “recovery” for the capitalists but not the workers, Goldstein explained; “In the first 27 months of the capitalist ‘recovery,’ 600,000 jobs were lost.”
According to standard (capitalist) economic theory, that’s not supposed to happen — a “recovery” is supposed to lead to more hiring and higher wages, not massive layoffs — “so Greenspan took some measures,” Goldstein said. “He lowered bank interest rates from 5.5 to 1 percent. He didn’t lower credit card, mortgage loan, auto loan or student loan rates. In February 2004 Greenspan made a public announcement that adjustable-rate mortgages are good for you, but he said this when interest rates were at rock bottom and were bound to go up. He was trying to deal with the crisis that was brewing because capitalism wasn’t coming back fast enough.”
Greenspan’s artificially low interest rates contributed to a boom in housing construction, which is what finally started putting people back to work, Goldstein said; between 800,000 and 1 million construction jobs were created by the boom. By the end of 2007, Goldstein explained, these new workers had built 8.5 million new housing units — “but there were only 6.5 million new households. They were building as fast as they could and trying to take advantage [of the housing boom], so to fix a crisis of overproduction in technology, they created a new one in housing” — and it was in order to move these new housing units at a profit that banks and financial institutions created all those exotic loan instruments and left millions of new home “owners” vulnerable to upward “resets” in their interest rates, income losses, health emergencies or anything else that might make them unable to afford their mortgage payments.
“That’s what made the whole economy come down,” Goldstein said. “All the banks which had made these loans lost because the borrowers couldn’t pay. They tried to bridge the gap by shoving credit cards at people until the average household credit debt was $9,000. The whole thing collapsed, not just housing. The auto industry had been in a race for world markets and they had the capacity to produce 18.5 million cars per year in the U.S., but they could only sell 10 million. That affected productivity throughout the rest of the economy.” Goldstein said a particularly dire sign was a drop in the demand for microchips, the tiny wafers of silicon and other substances that power your computer, cell phone, and just about every other electronic high-tech device. “The microchip industry is important because microchips are in all new electronic devices,” Goldstein commented grimly, “and when that industry shrinks you know capitalism is shrinking.”
Goldstein said that “there’s a lot of discussion as to whether this is the Great Depression or not,” and added that he didn’t think anybody really knew — though the article he had in the April 23 issue of Workers’ World, which was distributed at the meeting, was scornful of liberal economists like New York Times contributor Paul Krugman, who are calling it merely a “recession.” But Goldstein suggested one way in which the current crisis might actually be worse than the Great Depression — because the heavy-duty expansion in military spending for World War II that finally ended the 1930’s Depression is no longer an option, not with the U.S. already spending more on defense than all other countries in the world combined and the U.S. military overextended in protecting capitalism worldwide.
“Right now, the things that have driven U.S. capitalism for 70 years — war, militarism, technology, driving wages down and credit — are all pretty well exhausted,” Goldstein said. “They’ve given money to the banks — and all the banks that have received it have shrunk their lending. Credit isn’t going to do it. The military at the present level of operation, with 1.5 to 2 million Americans under arms, isn’t going to do it. Most of the military production of today is high-tech weaponry that is not a major economic stimulus. And they’ve already driven wages down.”
Goldstein argued that the best we could expect under capitalism is another recovery like the one from the high-tech boom a decade ago — one in which only the capitalists recover while the workers’ income and well-being sink even further down. “They’re talking about a ‘recovery’ as ‘only’ 10 percent unemployment,” he said. “They’re holding job fairs with 300 people competing for five jobs. We’re losing 600,000 jobs a week. It seems like we shouldn’t be waiting for the capitalist economy to come back. We should be preparing for struggle.”
What Goldstein wants to see come out of the current crisis is “a mass movement, like in the 1930’s,” that will unite all the victims of American capitalism and pay particular attention to the struggles of people of color, undocumented immigrants and Queer people. “Racism is growing,” he said. “The police are getting worse. More young Black and Latino people are being put in jail. There are more ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] raids on undocumented workers. The union rank-and-file has to get rid of its leadership. We have to build unity between working-class organizations and the community.” The big movement Goldstein wants to see will fight against racism, sexism and anti-Queer oppression, and for a single-payer system that will give all Americans access to health care — “but, above all,” he said, “it has to fight for jobs.”
As an example of the sort of struggle Goldstein has in mind, he cited the workers at the Republic Doors and Windows factory in Chicago, who last December responded to the news that their factory was being closed in three days and they were being let go with no severance pay or benefits by seizing the plant. They also organized pickets at the Bank of America, because it was that bank’s refusal to lend money to Republic that had led the company’s owners to decide to close the plant. “Obama himself came to support them,” Goldstein said, “and so did the governor, the city council and organized labor. The workers said they would hold on to the plant until they were given what they wanted, and Bank of America finally paid off.”
Goldstein said the Republic workers got their demands met as “a concession to the fear that this could become contagious, that it could spread to Detroit, and it got them off the front pages. This has to spread. The idea that workers are entitled to jobs has to spread. This has to become a movement. In New York we have a ‘Bail Out the People’ movement to encourage people to start to unite — workers and unemployed, documented and undocumented. We have to unite. We have to defend Black workers against racial profiling and Latino workers against raids. We are coming to the end of a long night of political reaction, where workers have been pushed back so much that now they’re going to push forward. … We have to use this next period to prepare, not to wait for Obama or the capitalist economy to come back on its own. All the movements need to come back together, because there’s no other way out of this.”
Sunday, April 12, 2009
Cygnet’s Mauritius: Good Production of Strong but Unoriginal Play
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
PHOTO: John DeCarlo as Dennis, Jessica John as Jackie and Manny Fernandes as Sterling in Cygnet Theatre’s production of Theresa Rebeck’s Mauritius. (Courtesy Cygnet Theatre.)
Cygnet Theatre’s current production — and their next-to-last at their founding home at 6663 El Cajon Boulevard in the Rolando area before they move permanently to their alternate location at the Old Town Theatre — is a strong if not particularly original play called Mauritius by Theresa Rebeck, who in a nearly 20-year career writing for stage, film and TV has won at least four awards for her work on the now-defunct series NYPD Blue as well as cranking out enough plays to fill three volumes published by Smith and Kraus. “As a writer,” she says on the home page of her Web site, “I have always considered it my job to describe the world as I know it; to struggle toward whatever portion of the truth is available to me.” Elsewhere, in a New York Times interview, she described her plays as being about “betrayal and treason and poor behavior. A lot of poor behavior.”
Mauritius is an island about 550 miles off the coast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. Today it’s the largest part of a multi-island country, also called Mauritius, that includes St. Brandon, Rodrigues and the Agalega Islands as well. It’s famous for two things: as the only known home of the dodo bird — which was first sighted there in 1600 and was extinct 80 years later — and as one of the first places in the world that issued postage stamps. (Before that, if you wanted to mail something you took it to a post office, the postal clerk weighed it, told you how much it would cost, you paid the money and he wrote on the upper right corner of the envelope a receipt for how much you’d paid.) In 1847, when Mauritius was a British colony, the colonial administration hired a jeweler on the island to carve a woodcut to make the first Mauritian stamps — only the jeweler put the words “Post Office” on the stamp where it was supposed to read “Post Paid.”
The handful of stamps Mauritius printed with that mistake became, as Rebeck constantly reminds us in her script, “the crown jewels of philately.” Indeed, the program for Cygnet’s production of Mauritius includes an introduction by Steve Ellis, member of the American Philatelic Society and the Royal Philatelic Society, explaining the significance of these ultra-rare stamps: “Having been owned by a Rothschild, Count Ferrary (probably the greatest collector of British stamps in history) and several other prominent businesspeople over the years, the Mauritius stamps have a rich tradition. … The fact that these extremely rare stamps were sold at auction for millions of dollars certainly adds to the intrigue.”
Mauritius had its world premiere in 2007 at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Biltmore Theatre in New York. Cygnet is giving the play its second Southern California production, opening just seven days after the regional premiere in Pasadena. Most of the pre-production publicity has compared her to David Mamet — the characters work out of grungy locales and swear a lot — and made the play seem like Mamet’s American Buffalo with a rare stamp (two rare stamps, actually) instead of a rare coin. But Mauritius also hearkens back to The Maltese Falcon — particularly when the authenticity, or lack thereof, of the stamps in question becomes a major plot point in the second act — and to a long tradition of stories in which people are corrupted by the greed instilled in them by the promise of a sudden unearned windfall.
Though somewhat hamstrung by its lack of originality. Mauritius is nonetheless effective drama. It opens in the rather sorry-looking stamp store of Philip (Jack Missett), where Jackie (Jessica John), a young woman who’s closing the estate of her recently deceased mother and trying to cope with all the debts she’s inherited, has come for an appraisal of her grandfather’s old stamp album. Dennis (John DeCarlo), a regular hanger-on at the store, happens to be there just then and gets excited by the presence of two Mauritius “Post Office” stamps in Jackie’s album — but he’s got enough of a poker face to try to keep her from catching on to the potential value of the find. Jackie also has to contend with her half-sister Mary (Sandy Campbell), who points out that the original owner of the album was her grandfather, not Jackie’s, and therefore the stamps are rightfully hers even though she hasn’t had any contact with the family for 10 years previously. Also interested in the stamps is the thug-like Sterling (Manny Fernandes, who doubles as Cygnet’s P.R. person), whom Dennis has lined up as a potential buyer.
Rebeck plays the irony card early on by having one of the characters mention the PBS-TV series Antiques Roadshow, that real-life Cinderella story in which people routinely learn that some piece of obscenely ugly junk they’ve kept in their garages for decades is actually considered a priceless objet d’art by somebody or other. But instead of the ecstasy the Antiques Roadshow guests invariably fall into, the emotions of Mauritius are darker, nastier and expressed in enough physical violence that Cygnet had to call in George Yé as fight choreographer. Over the course of the evening, a few dreams are dashed, a few nasty reversals take place, and some of the characters emerge sadder and wiser.
Mauritius is generally well acted and especially noteworthy for casting two of the key cast members decidedly against type. Jessica John has been seen at several local theatres, usually in the role of the innocent ingénue — and that’s what she starts at here, though as the play progresses Rebeck turns her character harder and more avaricious, and John nails all the changes and keeps us identifying with her totally even when we don’t like what she’s doing. Manny Fernandes has also specialized in playing decent young guys, and it’s a real revelation to see him as a gangster type, complete with shaved head — looking at the nice head of hair on his head shot and comparing that to what he looks like on stage will impress as an outward sign of his commitment and dedication.
The other performances are well done, though Rebeck hasn’t given the other characters the kinds of wrenching transformations she puts Jackie through and therefore the other players have less with which to work. Through much of his performance Missett seems to be channeling the actors of Odd Couples past, Walter Matthau on film and Jack Klugman on TV, doing crochety avuncularity so well that at least one of the surprises in Rebeck’s ending is truly surprising. John DeCarlo makes Dennis perhaps a bit too lovable for a character who’s supposed to be pathetic in both senses of the word, and Sandy Campbell plays Mary as such a one-dimensional bitch that even when she disclaims any personal interest in the stamps’ value and says she wants to see them displayed in a museum, we still don’t like her.
Director Francis Gercke doesn’t give the piece the frantic energy Cygnet’s artistic director, Sean Murray, brings to his own productions, but he gets the job done, works well with the actors and exploits the length of Cygnet’s stage. Sean Fanning has created another extraordinary set, whose movable panels (manipulated by the actors themselves between scenes) effectively transform from Philip’s shop to the home of Jackie’s and Mary’s mother and back. Jessica John, in addition to starring as Jackie, is also credited as costume designer, and she knows what she’s doing in both capacities; the “power” outfit she found for Sandy Campbell is especially apt. Eric Lotze’s lighting and Matt Lescault-Wood’s sound design also work well, and Yé’s fight choreography allows the actors to have at each other when Rebeck calls on them to without looking like they’re too good at it.
The best thing that can be said for both Rebeck’s play and Gercke’s direction of it is that the show actually seems shorter than the two hours (less intermission) it runs. Though Mauritius doesn’t exactly blaze a new trail in drama, it makes its points about greed and the corruption of the human spirit ably enough — and Cygnet’s production is up to the company’s high standards and makes a good case for the play.
Mauritius runs through Sunday, May 10 at Cygnet Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Boulevard, Suite N in the Rolando area. Performance times are 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. For tickets or more information, call (619) 337-1525 or visit www.cygnettheatre.com
Sunday, April 05, 2009
Knights of Leather Raise $610 for Easter Toy Drive
PHOTOS, top to bottom:
boy ron looks on as Daddy Magnum calls the event to order
2006 Mr. U.S. Daddy Don and Ron auction off a basket
Daddy Magnum (left) and Keith (right) demonstrate wrist restraints on boy sean (center)
boy joshua (showing off a piece of art Michelle donated to the auction) and MC Daddy Magnum
Michelle and George with the “Easter Bunny” in between
The fourth annual “Baskets ’n’ Bulges” contest at the San Diego Eagle in North Park April 4 raised $610 for the LGBT [Queer] Community Easter Egg Hunt. Sponsored by boy ron [Ron Hardin] and Christine Cummings, who’ve previously served as “Knights of Leather” — liaisons between the San Diego Leather community and the Imperial Court — the event featured auction items donated by Ms. San Diego Leather 2005 Michelle Jackson and various local clubs and organizations, including Bears San Diego. The San Diego Leatherboys, of which boy ron is president, volunteered to sell tickets for a 50/50 raffle at the event, and it also featured a “bulges” contest in which the audience judged which of the contestants had the best “basket and bulge.”
All the proceeds will go to buy bicycles, tricycles and wagons to be raffled off to lucky children at the Imperial Court de San Diego’s and Family Matters’ seventh annual LGBT Easter Egg Hunt, to be held Easter Sunday, April 12, 1 to 4 p.m. at Trolley Barn Park, Adams and Florida Streets. People start to arrive as early as noon for this fun event. Kids get baskets and a chance to win other prizes. The actual egg hunt begins at 2, so be sure to be there early enough to get signed in and get your raffle ticket. This event is for kids 1-12 years old. For more information on the Easter Egg Hunt, e-mail organizer Jane Schmoll at email@example.com
Saturday, April 04, 2009
Over 200 Attend Center Town Hall on Prop. 8
Speakers Discuss Likely Aftermath of State Supreme Court Ruling
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
PHOTOS, top to bottom: Kate Kendell, Geoff Kors, Mark Solomon, Fernando Lopez (right, with Caroline Dessert), Zakiya Khabir
“One year ago, which is like a nanosecond in civil rights time, we were all sitting in rooms like this or in our homes, waiting to see what the California Supreme Court would do on the marriage cases,” Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, told an audience of about 200 at San Diego’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center April 2 as the lead-off speaker in a town-hall meeting about the future of same-sex marriage in California in the wake of Proposition 8. Continuing her recollection of the original marriage cases — which culminated in a ruling on May 17, 2008 invalidating the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, which voters sought to overturn by passing Proposition 8 — she literally referred to the court’s ruling as a born-again experience, then showed her bitterness that the California electorate not only did, but could, put the Queer community’s newly won civil rights up for majority vote.
“Usually, you can use these legal victories to celebrate and move forward,” Kendell said. “That’s what happens in a constitutional democracy. What happened in California was, before the champagne in our victory glasses was even warm, we were defending that historic victory at the ballot box. Does anyone have any doubt as to how Brown v. Board of Education [the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 ruling that racial segregation in education was unconstitutional] or Roe v. Wade [the 1973 decision upholding a woman’s right to choose abortion] would have fared if they had been put up for a vote just six months after they were decided?”
Kendell acknowledged that in having to campaign against an initiative amending the state’s constitution to restore the ban on same-sex marriage, “we were fighting against a tide of intolerance which we had lost in 33 states,” but said that before the Proposition 8 vote her organization and other groups supporting marriage equality had believed California could be an exception. “When we lost, we filed a court challenge to Proposition 8,” she explained, based on the idea that “if you are going to put a fundamental right before a popular vote, you cannot do it by simple amendment. You have to do it through a vote of the legislature and then a vote of the people, because what’s at stake is the role of the courts in the process and the rights of all minorities.”
Responding to the statements by the justices of the California Supreme Court during the March 5 oral arguments on Proposition 8, in which they appeared to be leaning towards a ruling that the initiative’s sponsors had every right under the state constitution to use a ballot measure to take marriage rights away from same-sex couples, she said, “I cannot imagine this court so tarnishing its own legacy and writing their own obituary as the body that makes judgments about who they do and don’t protect. I hope and — as agnostic as I am — I pray to the ether, the air, the goddess or whatever that this court will do what it did one year ago and vindicate the role of the courts and the rule of law in California.”
Kendell explained that under the law the court has to rule within 90 days of the oral argument — June 5 — though she’s expecting it to be considerably sooner than that, probably in early May. “If Proposition 8 is upheld, it will be a travesty and a very dark day for us who lived in a state where for a very brief moment we actually had equal rights,” she said, “If the court upholds Proposition 8, we’re going to be upset, and we have a right to be, because it’s no longer O.K. to say we don’t matter as much as others. We won’t be violent, but we will not tolerate being pushed back into that place.”
The meeting’s chair, Center executive director Delores Jacobs, allowed the audience to ask Kendell questions before she called the other speakers. They ranged from what it was like appearing opposite Kenneth Starr, the former U.S. Solicitor General under the first President Bush and the special prosecutor against President Clinton, to how the community would respond if the court throws out Proposition 8 and its supporters mount a recall campaign to throw the anti-8 justices off the court, as they have threatened to do. Kendell said that during the successful 1986 campaign that removed Rose Bird, Cruz Reynoso and Joseph Grodin from the court, “the red-meat issue was the death penalty, but the funding came from the insurance industry,” which wanted to reverse the Bird court’s sympathetic rulings in cases brought by consumers and accident victims against insurance companies. “I don’t think there’d be the money or political support” for a recall campaign against the justices of a court that’s been “pretty conservative” on economic issues, Kendell said.
Other questioners asked about the controversial performance of Christopher Kreuger, representing California Attorney General Jerry Brown, on the marriage-equality side in the case, and the court’s apparent willingness to consider civil unions for both same-sex and opposite-sex couples as an acceptable substitute for marriage equality. Kendell made it clear that she doesn’t consider that an acceptable compromise. “We’ve won marriage,” she said. “That is how this society denominates the highest level of union between two people. If straight couples want to give up marriage, that would be one thing, but why should we give up marriage for the comfort of the people who are uncomfortable with us? I don’t think we should have to come up with the mechanism for our continued subjugation.”
Kendell was also asked about one of the most controversial issues surrounding the case: whether a court ruling upholding Proposition 8 would also invalidate the estimated 18,000 same-sex marriages performed in California between June 15, when the original court ruling took effect, and November 4, when Proposition 8 passed. She didn’t seem worried that the court would throw out the existing marriages. “There’s a huge body of law that says an amendment will not be applied retroactively unless it specifically says so,” she explained. “But you couples who got married —and I’m [part of] one of them myself — will have a huge burden, because we’ll be walking in the world with a lot of privileges that we’re going to have to be responsible for, and have an obligation to do more so our neighbors and friends will eventually have that same opportunity.”
The other speakers at the event covered a wide range of perspectives within the Queer community, from officials with Equality California, the Queer-rights lobby in Sacramento, and the San Diego branch of the national Human Rights Campaign (HRC), to activists concentrating on building actions locally. Equality California’s director, Geoff Kors, came with a list of eight bills his group is pushing before the state legislature, only three of which have to do with recognizing same-sex relationships. Two of them already passed — H. R. 5 and S. R. 7, which put the California State Assembly and Senate, respectively, as opposing Proposition 8 and calling on the state’s supreme court to overturn it. The third, the “Survivors’ Home Protection Act” (AB 103), would protect the rights of Gay or Lesbian partners who own a home together but haven’t married or registered as domestic partners. It would allow one such person to inherit the home on the death of his or her partner without having it reassessed at current market value and thereby risking a ruinous increase in their property taxes.
The other five bills on Equality California’s 2009 agenda include SB 572, to declare May 22 “Harvey Milk Day” and name it a “day of special significance” (not a full-fledged holiday); SB 543, which would allow minors (ages 12-17) to seek mental health services without telling their parents (important since many young people who are struggling with issues of sexual orientation or gender identity fear that their parents will retaliate against them if they find out); the “LGBT Domestic Violence Services Act,” designed to increase funding for programs aimed at addressing domestic violence within same-sex relationships; the “LGBT Prisoner Safety Act,” designed to stem violence against Queer prisoners by allowing prison authorities to consider sexual orientation and gender identity when classifying and housing prisoners; and the “Equal ID Act,” which would extend the current ability of Transgender Californians to request a new birth certificate with their current name and gender to Transgender people born in California but currently living out of state.
Equality California was also represented by Mark Solomon, whom the group recruited from Massachusetts to be their marriage director a few weeks before the vote on Proposition 8. “I felt sadness” when the measure passed, Solomon said, “but also optimism that what happened in Massachusetts will happen here. People only move in one direction on this issue. They don’t support us and then change their minds and oppose us.” Solomon explained that the mechanism for amending the Massachusetts constitution is different from California’s; there, marriage equality opponents didn’t have the power to put it before the people directly through an initiative, but they could do so with the support of 25 percent of the state legislature in two consecutive legislative sessions. “We had to persuade 75 percent of the legislature not to put it on the ballot,” Solomon recalled, “and the most persuasive arguments are the ones with people you know. Now that we’ve had a setback in California, these are the kinds of conversations we have to have.”
Fernando Lopez, a local activist with Marriage Equality U.S.A., is mobilizing volunteers to go out and have exactly those sorts of conversations. “We started a project in January to have face-to-face conversations in areas where we lost, and also in areas where we won, so we know we are engaging people and finding supporters in non-supportive areas,” he explained. “We’re able to create dialogue, humanize the issue, and change people from screaming hate speech at us to giving us donations or signing up to volunteer. We are a total grass-roots organization. There is not a single paid person. We are in several states across the country, telling the real stories of people affected by this discrimination. We are redefining the way we do grass-roots activism. I have never seen so much activism and passion to do more. Maybe Proposition 8 was the kick in the pants we needed.”
What Lopez’s group does is recruit volunteers to meet every Saturday at 10 a.m. at Lips Restaurant, 3036 El Cajon Boulevard (near 30th Street) in North Park, for training and turf assignments. Within an hour they’re on the streets, usually in front of shopping malls and other areas of high pedestrian traffic. What’s more, Lopez announced at the April 2 meeting that they’re expanding into door-to-door canvassing as well, building support so that — assuming the California Supreme Court upholds Proposition 8 — the next time the issue is before California voters, marriage equality advocates will have established a broad base of community support well in advance of the campaign.
One veteran community activist who took up Lopez’s challenge, Wendy Sue Biegeleisen, spoke about her experience. Though she’s had an extensive résumé of involvement in the struggle for Queer rights, including many years as security coordinator for San Diego’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Pride Parade and trainer in nonviolent “peace monitor” techniques for maintaining order at public demonstrations, what Lopez was asking was new and frightening to her — until she did it. “I’m not the kind of person who likes to solicit people,” she said, “but I went last Saturday and it was great. It was really uplifting. Talking one-to-one with someone is the next step in activism.”
Michelle Krug, another veteran grass-roots activist in the Queer community and a San Diego city worker active in her labor union, said, “I live in a community that voted against us, and I really have found that the major way of making these changes is that people are welcoming when you go into their communities and do something for them.” She cited the recent César Chávez Day events in Barrio Logan, in which she volunteered alongside Center political action coordinator Caroline “Carrie” Dessert [pronounced “Desert”] and her partner. Krug said that working with a real-life same-sex couple demystified the issue for many Latinos who had felt compelled to vote for Proposition 8 because of their religious beliefs, “but you have to be there every day to make that commitment.”
On the national scene, Brian Lachlan, chair of the San Diego chapter of HRC, offered a PowerPoint presentation detailing the outlook for marriage equality across the country as it stood in 2008 and as the national HRC expects it to be in 2011 and 2013. The maps divided U.S. states into four categories: states with full marriage equality, states that offer civil unions or domestic partnerships with the same rights and responsibilities that state gives to married opposite-sex couples, states that offer some benefits to same-sex couples and states that don’t recognize same-sex relationships at all. Despite the passage of Proposition 8, HRC’s maps predicted that California will have full marriage equality (again) by 2011, and they also predicted marriage equality in Iowa — a call that dramatically came true just the day after the meeting, when the Iowa Supreme Court ruled unanimously (as opposed to the 4-3 splits in Massachusetts and California) that their state’s constitutional guarantee of equal protection required an end to marriage discrimination against same-sex couples.
Unless the California Supreme Court overturns Proposition 8, marriage equality will return to California only if the Queer community and its straight allies put an initiative on the ballot themselves to reverse Proposition 8 — and one of the knottier issues facing groups like Equality California and HRC is just when they should seek to have an election. They’ve already started the first step — submitting the initiative’s language to the state and requesting permission to circulate petitions — but they still haven’t decided whether to go for the nearest regularly scheduled statewide election, a gubernatorial primary in 2010, or wait for a presumably higher-turnout election in November 2010 or 2012.
The advantages of waiting are more time to build public support through awareness campaigns like Lopez’s, and the theory that a high-turnout election with a higher percentage of young voters is more likely to pass a repeal. The disadvantage is the perception that the longer the Queer community waits before attempting to repeal Proposition 8, the longer the state-sanctioned discrimination continues and the more people are hurt by it — which seemed to be the concern ruling the room, since a straw poll showed the audience overwhelmingly in favor of putting the repeal initiative on the ballot at the earliest opportunity.
In the meantime, the San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality (SAME) has announced no fewer than four upcoming events. On Friday, April 10, they will host a rally at 5 p.m. outside the San Diego County Courthouse, 220 West Broadway downtown, and on Tuesday, April 15, they will participate from 4 to 7 p.m. in the “No Taxation Without Representation” demonstration outside the main U.S. Post Office, 2535 Midway Avenue in Point Loma — the only post office in the city that remains open late to accommodate people mailing their tax returns in at the last minute. There is also a “peace monitor” training for security at future events Saturday, April 11, 1 to 5 p.m., at the Joyce Beers Community Center, Vermont Street north of University Avenue in Hillcrest.
SAME is also planning events for the so-called “Day of Decision” — the day on which the California Supreme Court will be announcing its ruling in the Proposition 8 case — and the day immediately afterward. “Win or lose,” Zakiya Khabir of SAME explained, “we will gather at 5 p.m. at 6th and Laurel in Balboa Park. [The group’s Web site has the start time at 6 p.m.] If we win, we will march to Hillcrest and celebrate. Should we lose, we will all march to the Hall of Justice” — the county courthouse location at 220 West Broadway. The day after the decision is announced, the group is organizing another event, a rally and vigil from noon to 5 p.m. at the San Diego County Administrative Center, 1600 Pacific Highway downtown.
San Diego chapter, Marriage Equality U.S.A.: http://www.marriageequality.org/index.php?page=ca-san-diego-county
“Camp Courage” skills-building workshop, April 18 & 19: http://www.couragecampaign.org/
Sweetwater Ministry: recruiting Christians who support marriage equality to organize and convince their co-religionists: http://www.sweetwaterministry.org/
Nonviolent direct action: http://www.nonviolence4equality.org/
San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality (SAME): http://www.samealliance.com/ (general Web site), http://www.dayofdecision.com/ (specific information on the response to the California Supreme Court’s ruling when it’s issued)