Thursday, January 28, 2010


Marriage Equality Activist on the Challenges Ahead


Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Fernando Lopez was one of the many activists who had been working hard for marriage equality for same-sex couples long before Proposition 8, California’s statewide initiative banning it, passed in November 2008. But, like a lot of the people involved in that issue, he became far more visible afterwards. It wasn’t from leading huge street demonstrations against the initiative and, later, against the California Supreme Court for upholding its constitutionality. It was from a much more basic, long-range strategy he pursued on behalf of the local chapter of Marriage Equality USA: just going out and talking to people about the issue.

Crucial to Lopez’s strategy was getting the Queer community and its activists out of their comfort zone and having them directly, albeit politely, confront the opponents of marriage equality where they live and shop: in the outlying areas of North, East and South San Diego County. He recruited volunteers to canvass in shopping centers — and the program proved liberating and empowering for the volunteers as well as enlightening to the people to whom they spoke. Veteran community activist Wendy Sue Biegeleisen boasted at a marriage equality meeting at the Center that she’d been intimidated by the idea, but once she’d done it she’d had a wonderful time and she urged everyone in the room to volunteer for Lopez’s canvass.

Lopez is working on expanding the street canvass into door-to-door campaigning and other ways of directly reaching individuals well before the heat of another election and another initiative on the issue. He spoke with Zenger’s in mid-January to talk about his personal background — including a youthful marriage and a bitter breakup —his analysis of what’s gone wrong with marriage equality efforts in general and the No on 8 campaign in particular, and his ideas on how to fight for marriage equality in the future.

Zenger’s: Why don’t we start with a little about your background, and how you got involved in all of this?

Fernando Lopez: I started doing some LGBT [Queer] volunteer work when I was in high school, and then in college, just with the student groups. I was married fairly young. I got married when I was 19 and he was 21. At the time we really didn’t think a marriage license was important. It was just a piece of paper, and what was more important was the spiritual commitment that we made to each other, and our love.

Then, as we tried to commingle our lives, we realized all the obstacles that were in place for Gay people that weren’t there for heterosexuals, simple things like putting each other on our car insurance and our health insurance, and just changing bank accounts. I was a homemaker at the time, and so a lot of my time was dedicated to fighting the insurance companies and fighting his employer in trying to get equal insurance benefits.

Zenger’s: When you said you were “married,” what did that mean — simply that you were together and had a commitment; you had a ceremony; or you actually had an opportunity to make it legal?

Lopez: Well, it wasn’t legal at the time. This was 2001, so there was nowhere where same-sex marriage was legal. But as far as we were concerned, we dated, we got engaged, there were rings, there was a proposal and a marriage. We took it very seriously, as seriously as any other couple would take a marriage, and we referred to each other as married — and as husbands, husband and husband.

A lot of people questioned us at the time: “Why are you saying you’re married? You’re not married. It’s not legal.” We said, “It doesn’t matter if it’s legal. It’s a spiritual thing, and religiously you can’t ban our religious right to get married.” So as far as we were concerned, we were. I think that viewpoint really helped us in a lot of the arguments we were making to the employers.

Later there was a point where I was working, and my husband had changed jobs, so he didn’t have health insurance and I did. I was trying to get him on my health insurance, and one of the only reasons I started working for Disney — actually the only reason I took the job — was because they offered same-sex domestic partner benefits.

But once I got there, it turned out you had to be living together a certain period of time — I think it was like a year or two —and you had to fill out all this extra paperwork. I pushed Disney and said, “Why? If I were [part of] a heterosexual newlywed couple, I wouldn’t have to prove that I lived with this person for two years of my life, and that we shared a residence and bills and whatnot. It would just be check a box and you’re married.”

They don’t ask you to bring your marriage license, but they ask you to bring your domestic partnership paperwork. And so I was fighting that, while at that time when my husband didn’t have health insurance, he became ill and kept complaining about a pain in his side. It was getting worse and worse and worse. I kept encouraging him to go to the hospital, and he didn’t want to because he was afraid of the medical costs. Finally he just started the fact that he was in pain from me, because he didn’t want me to worry.

Then I get a call that he’d collapsed at work, and so I got over there and I rushed him to the emergency room. He was unconscious, and the hospital — which was UCSD Thornton Medical Center [in La Jolla], and this was 2002 —wouldn’t let me in. They said, “Well, you’re a legal stranger, you have no right to be in that room,” and I said, “I know his medical history. You can’t give him this medication.” I was screaming, and finally I argued my way in

While I was there they gave him medicine that he was allergic to. It stopped his breathing. They gave him unnecessary surgery. He was unconscious for five days, and for five days I stayed by his side. At that time I was still working with Disney, and they almost fired me from my job. They made me come back to work while my husband was in the hospital. Had we been married I could have taken leave for that, but that wasn’t available for me at the time. So I almost lost my job over my husband being sick, and just the whole situation was so insane and emotionally draining — and very eye-opening.

That really intense situation was the catalyst that made me want to do more. So I started getting more involved in helping other people fight their insurance companies, and fight their employers, in order to get same-sex health insurance benefits. I was being active that way on my own, and then in 2004, when [San Francisco mayor] Gavin Newsom started with the marriages on February 12, on Freedom to Marry Day, and they were lsaying, “Oh, it’s legal, and you can actually get married,” my husband and I looked at each other and we knew we just wanted to do it.

So we looked at each other, we grabbed our suits and we jumped in the car. We grabbed our best friend and his parents, and we drove all the way up to San Francisco. We waited in line all night, and we were one of only 42 new couples that were married that day. We drove up on Valentine’s Day, so we got there on the 15th and were married on the 15th. And it was such a wonderful feeling. It was like, “Oh, my God, this is real. We finally have it.” Somehow that piece of paper made sense, once it was in my hand, and I just thought to myself, “God, I just want everybody to be able to feel what this feels like.”

That’s when an organization called Marriage Equality USA approached me and said, “Hey, you’re doing all this really great work. Would you like to come in and volunteer with us, and get involved and do some volunteer work?” At first I thought, “No, I don’t really want to be tied to an organization. I just want to do this work.” They finally convinced me. I went and I did some media stuff for them. My husband and I would do some media relations stuff, and then I just did some data entry, really simple things for them.

The next thing I knew I was their events coordinator, and then I was the chapter leader, and then they merged temporarily with Equality California and I was the regional field director. And then I was a state director for California, and now I’m on the national board of directors and it’s been kind of a whirlwind of activism for the last six years.

Zenger’s: What’s your marital status now?

Lopez: My ex-husband and I separated three years ago, in March, so I’m divorced, single. That was another challenge, once we were divorced, in separating and trying to get the dissolution of our domestic partnership. The divorce was quite acrimonious, and the lawyers that I talked to really didn’t want to touch it. The ones that would cautioned me that the expenses would be so exorbitant that what I would get out of it wouldn’t really be worth it in the long run for the amount of time it would take, and the cost. So I opted to draft the paperwork myself, and we dissolved the domestic partnership through a notary. I essentially left without my life savings.

Zenger’s: It sounds like an object lesson for anybody, straight or Gay, not to marry too soon. My immediate thought is, “Nineteen and 21? You didn’t date for a while, you didn’t sow your wild oats — that sounds like a mistake, whatever your sexual orientation.”

Lopez: Well, as difficult as the divorce was, I did get a lot out of the experience of being married. And I wouldn’t change it. Looking back, I really cherish the experience. I loved him very dearly, and I know that he loved me very dearly. Sometimes things go wrong and people change, but I definitely wouldn’t sacrifice the experience for anything. I loved my husband very much. I never thought I would be a divorcé at 25. It wasn’t in the plan, you know.

Zenger’s: There’s a confusing number of organizations dealing with this issue, most of which seem to have the words “marriage,” “equality” or both in their names. Could you explain for our readers which organization is which, and which ones you are part of?

Lopez: I am part of Marriage Equality USA, and I have been since 2004. They are the national grass-roots, chapter-based organization that has done long-standing work in the field. Their chapters are broken down by state, and then broken down further by county to allow for greater investment and involvement in what that community says and feels like. It’s very much of a bottom-up organization rather than a top-down organization, so the individual chapters dictate the direction of the organization on the local level, and then collectively on a statewide and national level.

Then you have organizations like the HRC (Human Rights Campaign), which everybody knows is the federal rights and lobby organization. You have Equality California, which has a history of amazingly successful lobby and legislation work here in the state of California. Marriage Equality and Equality California were partners for a time in order to pass the marriage bill two times through the legislature, and that was a part of that merger and, later, separation.

I know there was a report that came out post-Proposition 8 that said something like 96 or 98 — I can’t remember the the exact number — different organizations were formed after the passage of Proposition 8 in an upswell of grass-roots response to what had happened. Locally, I think the two most notable ones have been the San Diego Equality Campaign, which was comprised of seven members of the community who took on a leadership role for that organization and partnered with other organizations to have the different marches and things. We partnered with them to have a few of the larger marches as well.

San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality [SAME] is one of the other organizations formed after Proposition 8, and they’re still very active in doing a lot of the visibility work here in the community. I haven’t really heard too much from the San Diego Equality Campaign, but the San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality is still very active in the visibility aspect of engagement for the marriage equality issue in San Diego.

The other organization that people probably didn’t hear about before the 2008 elections is the Courage Campaign. They saw a huge surge in growth. I guess they’re somewhere in the middle: their origins were more in an on-line progressive organizing capacity. While they are kind of Queer-slanted, they are not necessarily a Queer organization. They are a progressive organization that definitely takes on Queer issues, and they have had some field efforts across the state as well with regards to the marriage issue.

All of these organizations partner together for different projects, events and field programs. Vote for Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force or the L.A. Center, Marriage Equality USA, Equality California and the Courage Campaign have all partnered together to accomplish a lot of field work over the last year with regards to ID’ing voters and persuasion work. There’s been a lot of collaboration between those several organizations — and more, I’m sure.

Zenger’s: That’s another way in which it gets confusing. Not only that there are so many organizations, but there are so many people who are involved in more than one. So sometimes it really is difficult to tell the players without a score card.

Lopez: You have people who sitting on the board, or the chair, or the regional contact for these different organizations. I’m Marriage Equality USA. That’s my hat. I sit on the Community Leadership Council, which is a great venue San Diego has for collaboration between the Gay groups here in San Diego. Other than that, I stay involved and connected with other organizations, but I stay pretty focused on the marriage equality issue.

Zenger’s: Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear: to 2008, when you had the State Supreme Court decision and then the Proposition 8 campaign and our defeat at the polls. How did that make you feel personally, riding that roller coaster? With your various involvements, what was your role in that campaign, and how did you feel about it personally?

Lopez: The first part of that really was the Decline to Sign campaign, which started in early 2008 when we were trying to prevent the initiative from even qualifying on the ballot. At that point, I was one of the co-regional organizers. I was still with Marriage Equality USA, but I was hired on by the campaign to help prevent the initiative [from qualifying]. As heartbreaking as it was to see all this money pour in, it was one of the most exciting campaigns I’ve ever been on, because you were so actively engaged in dealing with the opposition on the field, trying to deflect signatures and educate the public.

We were all over the county, in 286 different locations. The people who worked on that campaign really developed a great bond, and some of the best friendships I still have came out of that campaign. It was so devastating that it still qualified, because all of us had worked so hard, but at the same time we knew that the goal wasn’t necessary to defeat it or to stop it, but to build a really empowered team of volunteers and leaders that would take us forward to the next step of the campaign.

From there I was asked by the campaign to go to Los Angeles, and then subsequently to San Francisco. But in the writing of the field plan for the No on 8 campaign, and the discussion of how the field operations were going to be, I grew increasingly upset and I actually quit the campaign two weeks into being involved in it, just because I was so flabbergasted at the way the field program were being run.

I know a lot of people really focused on the commercials and the ads, but for me I’m a field person. And being a field person, I was just disturbed with the way the field program was being run, and a lot of the decisions that were being made. So, as painful as it was for me, I left the campaign. I still wanted people to work on the campaign, so I was really quiet about it. You’re actually the first person I’ve told in any kind of public way that this is how it went down, because I still wanted people to continue to work. But it was very difficult for me to leave a group of really wonderful organizers for what to me was a very personal issue, and I couldn’t be a part of that.

Zenger’s: What exactly was wrong with the field operation, in your opinion? What was the problem?

Lopez: There were so many organizations who were reaching out to the campaign to help in their various capacities, and they were all dismissed or told no: organizations that had scope in so many other counties. You have a state with 42 million people, and you had a campaign with offices in three cities. That in itself was an immediate red flag.

Also, we were only going to be on the phone, and we were only going to do voter ID and very little persuasion work. We thought we were going to win with voter turnout, and we were only targeting a small numbr of people. We did absolutely no door work, no street canvassing, no door canvassing, in the idea that we want everyone to be on the phones. But the fact is not everyone wants to be on the phones. You have to give people options and choices. “If you build it, they will come.” If you had had a more comprehensive campaign, more people would have stepped up to the plate to be part of it.

There were cities and counties and regions who were begging for field operations. Field has a relatively low cost compared to media, and they could have accomplished so much more than they did. And When I heard how we were going to approach voters, and what we were expected to say, I was just so upset.

Also, before the first signs ever went out, I said, “Are you kidding me? It says, ‘Yes on Equality,’ or what was it, ‘Equality for All,’ and it’s a green check mark?” Just from a graphic design standpoint — which is what I went to school for, initially — you can’t have blue and green on a sign when you’re asking people to vote no. Equality for All — yes, of course, Equality for All: vote no on Equality for All. That doesn’t make any sense. It’s horrible messaging. Graphically, it’s wrong. As you’ll note, in the last few weeks the campaign suddenly, finally figured it out and the green check mark became a red X. My initial recommendation had been for the color red to be used in some kind of negative fashion.

So I left that campaign, watching from the outside but still helping our chapters from Marriage Equality USA stay involved in those rural areas that weren’t getting support from the campaign. In the end I hosted a phone bank and did some stuff for the campaign, but I couldn’t be a part of it in the same way. I just watched the numbers drop and drop and drop and drop, and it just hurt so much every day to see.

Before the campaign, San Diego had moved almost 30 percentage points since Prop. 22, and then somehow we lost 14 percentage points in just a matter of months. To have put in so much work over all those years, and then to see it all just melt away, was disturbing. It was just devastating, really. Not disturbing — devastating.

Zenger’s: The $64,000 question: do you think, if your suggestions would have been followed, the outcome would have been different?

Lopez: I think it would have helped. We ended up having no get-out-the-vote program, either. If we had had all of that and a get-out-the-vote program, it would have been significantly different. I’m not an advertising person. I don’t work in the media that way, so I can’t tell you how effective those ads were, or weren’t, in changing hearts and minds. I know it had a lot more to do with the work that was done in the churches, but I think it definitely would have made a difference. I think if we had actually managed to turn out the vote and had some level of GOTV effort, we could have won with that.

Zenger’s: One point Sherry Wolf made in her recent book, Sexuality and Socialism, and her talk here last December was that the campaign in Maine did a lot of the things people like you recommended for the campaign in California — and we still lost by about the same margin. It might be that this simply is a less tractable issue, or that the other side just has too good an outreach program and too many captive audiences every Sunday morning for us to be able to counter them.

Lopez: Maine is a very different animal from California. Maine doesn’t have the stronghold of churches that California does. Maine isn’t as religious. There isn’t such a high level of religiosity as there is in California. But they also don’t have the same kinds of urban centers that California does, and so the Gay community isn’t necessarily as solid there, either. Organizing in that kind of community is so much more difficult. It’s more of a drive-and-knock situation than a walk-and-knock when you’re talking about door.

I think they did a great job in Maine. I don’t know what could have helped to make that different, but Maine did learn from a lot of the mistakes [in California] and they did the best that they could do. Maybe they’re just not there yet. You’re not going to win them all.

Zenger’s: You look at the entire country, and in every location where this has been on the ballot, it has been voted down. There was one state where we were able to beat back an anti-marriage initiative, but it passed in the next election.

Lopez: Right, and in Arizona, the reason it failed the first time was because they also had a ban on domestic partnerships, and domestic partnerships were tied to senior citizens that helped to kill that initiative. It wasn’t the Gay community. They helped to run that campaign, but the difference in that vote was the first one was damaging to senior citizens, who vote more, and senior citizens didn’t want their rights taken away. In the following election cycle, our opposition got smart and took off the provision to abolish domestic partnerships, and so senior citizens were O.K. with voting that up.

Zenger’s: The question is, leaving aside the morality or the equity of allowing people to vote on other people’s civil rights, why is that? Why are we zero for 37, or whatever it is? If this is supposedly an issue whose time has come, blah blah blah, why can’t we persuade a majority of our fellow citizens to support our rights?

Lopez: I think the country just isn’t as progressive as we would like it to be, and there’s still a stigma. Gay people still carry this negative stigma, and we still see harassment in the workplace, discrimination. Homophobia is an expected part of daily life, and until we are able to change that, I don’t think we’re going to win a lot of things by popular vote.

You look at a lot of other substantial progressions that we’ve made in the civil rights movement, with the rights of women or of African-Americans and other minorities, in different parts of our history. At the time that they were won through the court system, we still would have voted them down had they come up for a popular vote. And in some places of the country, they still would fail if they came up for a popular vote.

It’s not like our side is the one putting it up to be voted on. It’s the opposition that is putting it up to be voted on, and we’re just fighting that off. We’re working through the courts, we’re working through the legislature, and I think that’s a good approach. I’ve heard some people argue, “Well, then, why are we even fighting them off at the ballot?” The answer is we can’t just let people stand there and spout lies, and spread lies and misinformation about us.

We have to do our best to answer those, because if we don’t, it just feeds the homophobia. It feeds the discrimination, and that’s what in turn feeds into hate crimes and loss of life in the LGBT community. So we have to be there to answer those challenges.

Zenger’s: Where did you get the idea for the canvassing in supermarkets and public places, the program you announced right after Proposition 8 passed?

Lopez: One of the things that we had done in the previous campaign, the Decline to Sign campaign, was we went out to those places all over the county where our opposition was and directly engaged our opposition. That type of engagement didn’t continue in the No on 8 campaign, but I knew it had to. So I and a few people that had done that kind of work before all got together and said, “It doesn’t stop here. We can’t wait for this to go to the courts. We can’t wait for the court to rule. We need to continue organizing. We’ve been organizing for years before. The campaign’s over, but the job’s not done. We’ve done a great job carrying the city, but let’s continue going into these more rural areas.”

And so we did. We canvassed up in North County, and in Lemon Grove, in Spring Valley and Grossmont and El Cajon and Chula Vista, National City and San Ysidro. We went everywhere, and we’re still going out every weekend and canvassing in those areas, because whether or not this goes to the courts and we win that way; whether or not it goes back to a ballot initiative; no matter how we inevitably win this, that key is the education and connecting people to the realities of what this discrimination is, and putting a human face on this issue.

Asking someone in Otay if they support same-sex marriage is a conversation that wouldn’t have happened had we not been there. They say, “Oh, well, things will change over time, and eventually we’ll win same-sex marriage and marriage equality.” It’s not time that changes things; it’s conversation that changes things, and so we wanted to ensure that those conversations were happening rapidly.

Zenger’s: I’m not sure that this will change over time. It will change if we put in the work to make it change.

Lopez: Exactly. So now we’re running those street canvass projects — that’s what we call them, “street canvass outreach” —here in San Diego and also in the Inland Empire. There are a few other counties across the state that are going to be starting that, if they haven’t already.

We also partnered with the Courage Campaign and a few other organizations — including Equality California — here locally to look at persuasion at the door, which is having conversations specifically with our opposition and really breaking down the barriers in logic that lead to them thinking about discrimination, and where they’re really coming from at the core. We’ve had a very high rate of persuasion, better than we had expected. That work is being done by Courage Campaign and Equality California all over the state, directly engaging our opposition at the door.

Then we also have phone banks where we do some volunteer recruitment, so we ensure that we can keep staffing our canvasses. But we’re not doing persuasion over the phone right now. That’s something that may come on later as we do re-contacts by phone with people we’ve talked to at the door or on the street.

Zenger’s: So far, what’s been the result? What are some of the kinds of conversations you’ve had approaching people on this issue?

Lopez: Well, there was definitely a large amount of voter confusion. People voted yes when they should have been voting no, or whatever. They voted the wrong way over, “Yes, I want same-sex marriage, but — so I vote yes?”

The other level of voter confusion was that they whole-heartedly believed what the commercials were telling them. They didn’t think they were voting on same-sex marriage. They thought they were voting on whether or not Gay marriage would be taught in schools. Or people thought they were voting on whether or not churches should lose their tax-exempt status. They didn’t even think it had anything to do with Gay people.

So we’re just clearing up that and saying, “No, it was not about that. It was about people taking away the freedom to marry for Gay and Lesbian couples.” Then, with a lot of people, there’s that “aha!” moment where they realize they were just bamboozled.

The three main issues people are working through are the issue of children, still, being taught what same-sex marriage is; matters of faith, and why they believe they can’t support it because of their own faith; and just the word, like just kind of a very general thought of, “Why do you have to have the word ‘marriage’?”

Once you start asking those questions, anywhere from one-fifth to one-third of the people that we’re talking to suddenly realize they had it wrong, and they never really put enough thought in it to realize what they were doing, and whose lives they were actually affecting. It takes that real one-on-one conversation, that face-to-face interaction, to make that change happen.

You can’t have an argument with your television — although I’ve seen people try. Every time I flip the channel and Glenn Beck is on it, I scream. I may have a few choice words, but that doesn’t get me very far.

Zenger’s: I’ve seen an estimate that about 25 percent of California’s Gay voters voted for Proposition 8.

Lopez: Really? Where was that statistic? I missed that one. I know they exist. I definitely know that they’re out there. They’re some of the hardest people to talk to — just emotionally, for me. It’s so hard for me to wrap my head around why there are still members of our community that are not for what I believe, and most people in our community believe, is an equal-rights issue. The statistic I saw was closer to 2 percent. It wasn’t 25 percent, but what I saw was 2 percent. I think my heart might split in two if I knew for a fact it was 25 percent!

Zenger’s: One explanation was offered by Steve Yuhas on his talk show, where he said, “Just because I’m Gay doesn’t mean I’ve lost all morality!”

Lopez: To me, that type of thinking is exactly the type of internalized homophobia that is very real in our society, in our community. As I said earlier, homophobia is an expected part of daily life. That is what the translation is to our community.

One of the most moving moments for me during the Prop. 8 campaign was there was this young man who came to volunteer. We always do these team check-ins at the beginning and ask, “What’s your name? How do you identify,” and, in one or two words, “Why are you here today?” And, you know, people say, “Oh, I’m here for love,” or, “I’m here to fight Prop. 8.” They give one or two words.

This kid said, “Hi, my name is so-and-so, and I’m 16” — I didn’t think he was 16, but that’s what he said. “I’m 16, and I’m here because I never thought I could get married. And today, all of a sudden, I can. And that changes everything for me. I didn’t think I could have a husband and kids and a white picket fence, and so I never thought about it. I never thought my life could go in that direction, and so I never worried about it. And now all of a sudden, my whole life is different. And my whole life today can be whatever I want it to be. I didn’t know that, and now I do. And now I have to rethink everything.”

I almost started crying when he was talking, because I don’t know if he realized the significance of what he was saying, but that’s the reality. That’s why we do this, because it’s so true. Our youth grow up in this environment where they’re told that they’re less than; where they’re told that they can’t have these things. So one day to wake up, and all of a sudden you can, is life-changing.

If you grow up your whole life and you’re told that as a Gay man you’re going to be promiscuous and do drugs and drink all the time and get AIDS, and you don’t have any positive role models to show you otherwise, then that’s what you’re going to grow up to do. And then, all of a sudden, you get the message, “Yes, you can get married. You can have kids. You can go to church, to an open, affirming church, and be loved. You can be an atheist. You can be a Republican and still be for Gay rights.” Those things didn’t exist before for our community. We were so hidden, and now all that’s slowly starting to dissolve away, and our youth are growing up in a different environment where they can be whatever they want.

Zenger’s: So do you think the campaign in California should take the marriage equality issue, from our side, back to the ballot? And if so, when?

Lopez: Should we? It would be really great to try. That’s a really great question. I guess I find myself still asking, “Should we?” It’s worth a shot. We’ve never tried it this way. It’s never been us on the offensive, so it would be nice to see what it looks like from our side to throw an offensive campaign.

As for timing, I think we’re a little late in the game for 2010. I just don’t see the signatures happening in time. I don’t think that we’re prepared enough at this point. I think we could have been. I think there might have been a better opportunity earlier on — but we really almost needed last year to grieve. I think a lot of people needed that grieving process, and it was very difficult to get the community through that grieving process and to come back together and collaborate.

I don’t really see it happening in 2010, so I think our next best chance after that would be 2012. I hope we can get it together. I think it would make a very powerful statement if we were able to bring it together, bring it in, unite and just knock it out of the ballpark. Wow, I used a sports reference! That never happens.

Zenger’s: Not just on this issue but on so many other things, it seems like our side — and I don’t just mean Queer people, I mean progressives and the Left in general — we seem to sleep a lot. They are always awake. The Right was on top of Obama from the get-go, and they’ve managed still to control the political agenda in this country even after losing Congress and losing the Presidency.

Lopez: That’s quite amazing, isn’t it?

Zenger’s: They just never give up. They never stop. It might be that they’re the ones who have the messianic, utopian vision the Left used to have in the teens and in the 1930’s: the sense that they are remaking the world in their direction. So my question is, what is it going to take to get us to have that same level of commitment, that same level of devotion, that same level of dedication, to where we don’t need to take off, we don’t need these grieving periods, that we can be in the trenches right after we’ve taken the hit? What is it going to take?

Lopez: I think you hit it when you said you look at the Right and they have this singular, unified vision of what it is that they want. You look at the ultra-conservative Fundies: they want something, and they spin that message in order to control that result. Then you look at the Left; and inherently, by what we are as the Left, is so many things. So, while they can focus on one issue at a time, we are focusing on this complete fractured rainbow of an array of issues that runs the gamut.

We are very diverse in the Left, and that diversity sometimes works to our detriment. But if we didn’t have it, we wouldn’t be the Left! And somewhere in that, hopefully we can find that unifying place. We definitely haven’t found it yet, but we keep trying. I mean, kudos to the person who finds that one unifying linchpin, right?

Zenger’s: Any comments on the current court case in San Francisco, Perry v. Schwarzenegger?

Lopez: I didn’t see it coming. I guess a lot of people didn’t see it coming, so there was a little bit of shock to the community. But I’m very hopeful at least with what can happen in the Ninth Circuit. The case is solid. The witnesses for our side are fantastic. The lawyers have a great track record. II know some of the lawyers that are involved in the case, and I know how dedicated they are and how hard they have been working, and are continuing to work. Our own Mayor, Jerry Sanders, testified, and I think that’s fantastic to have a Republican mayor of a conservative city testify in favor of same-sex marriage. It means we’ve come pretty far. So I’m hopeful.

I don’t know how hopeful I am outside of the Ninth Circuit, but if the case is strong and the early rulings are solid, they’ll build a strong case for past precedent in the court system. Really, the result of this at the end of the day has potential to have sweeping change for Gay rights in this country. It could go so far as to immigration and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and employment rights, and marriage and adoption. This single court case can really be the game-changer for Gay rights.

I’m very disappointed in the U.S. Supreme Court for saying that this can’t be televised and this can’t be on YouTube. I think that’s blatant disregard for the openness of the courts. I think the arguments on both sides should have been transparent. And the opposition, our opposition knew exactly what they were doing when they pushed for that. They know that their arguments don’t stand water. If you’re under oath and you’re forced to tell the truth about why you think Gay people can’t get married, and do that from a logical standpoint, that’s the last thing they wanted: to have those arguments on television for either side. Because theirs just don’t cut it when compared to ours, if they’re forced to tell the truth.

Zenger’s: My initial reaction is believing that an overwhelmingly Republican court is going to go this far away from popular opinion on such an explosive issue is like believing in Santa Claus. But let’s say it does. Let’s say it goes all the way to the Supreme Court and we squeeze out a 5-4 decision that same-sex marriage is legal throughout the United States. How do you think that’s going to galvanize people, both on our side and on the opposition? Aren’t you going to end up with essentially a political civil war that is going to make the abortion debate look polite by comparison?

Lopez: Probably. That’s probably a really good way of putting it. It’s going to be the “activist judges” all over again. It’s going to be a media maelstrom. I’m almost concerned that our side will be celebrating and rejoicing, while the other side will be galvanizing and angered.

Of course, if the courts rule in our favor it’s an immediate drop in opinion polls. Every time that a court rules in our favor, we drop; and every time we lose at the ballot box, opinion polls go up because people feel sorry for us. So I think you’ll see backlash. I think you’ll see a sudden increase in hate crime. And I think you’ll see a very high stress level come from that, just in the amount of vitriol that will be spit by our opposition. You’ve got a lot of really angry, hateful radicals out there that may take things to an extreme. I guess that would be my biggest fear.

And you mentioned the abortion debate, or women’s health and women’s choice debate. There are a lot of similarities, and a lot of differences, but that debate was “settled” through a court case. But that debate is ongoing, and we’ve seen the deadly results of the conservative extremism that’s come out of that. So I’m almost fearful of what that’s going to look like if we are given our civil rights through a similar court ruling. And how long is that argument going to go on for afterwards?

Zenger’s: The obvious avenue for that backlash would be a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage throughout the country.

Lopez: Which I don’t see passing — unless we could have some sweeping loss from the liberal side — but they could try. Laws are put in place essentially to effect an even playing ground for our citizens. But it doesn’t necessarily dictate to those citizens how to operate in day-to-day life. So while we might have equal rights for African-Americans or equal rights for women, that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily treated that way in the general public, day to day. That varies by region.

The same thing will be true for the Gay community. There’s going to be parts of the country where you can go and Gay people still won’t be overly welcome. Then you’ll have San Francisco and Hillcrest to come and be a part of. It may change the laws and legal standing, but ultimately what is going to make the difference at the end of the day, again, goes back to that education work and how we’re seen by the general population, and treated.

We still have a Planned Parenthood, we still have an NAACP, and we’re probably still going to have a Marriage Equality USA once we have same-sex marriage rights. I don’t see the HRC going anywhere after we win sweeping federal rights.

Zenger’s: And there’s another question: do you think there might set in a kind of issue fatigue that might set in on both sides? We’re dealing with a major recession, possibly a depression. We’re dealing with global warming. We’ve got the health care crisis. We’ve still got foreign troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, and all over the world. We’ve still got a threat of terrorism, even if it’s gone down from 19 commandos who knew what they were doing hijacking four planes to one guy with a bomb in his underwear. Might people just tune out on both sides of this thing and say, “We’ve got so many real problems in this country, your struggle is just totally irrelevant”?

Lopez: There’s some of that already, with some people. But as long as people’s lives are being affected, and families are being torn apart, and people are dying, and children are separated from their families. I think those real issues, that are still happening every day — I mean, the person who’s fighting in Afghanistan, but their same-sex partner here in the States doesn’t have the right to claim their body? Those types of real issues are what keep that alive.

It’s never the quote-unquote “right time” to fight for civil rights. You look at the suffragists during World War I; people told them it wasn’t the “right time,” and they kept pressing on. I look back to them and think, “They had the right idea.” They weren’t willing to settle for anything less than equal rights, and kept talking while people cared — and didn’t care — and finally things turned and women got the right to vote.

I think it’s going to be very much the same for the Gay community here in the early 2000’s, the same as it was in the early 1900’s for them. We’ll get there, and hopefully we won’t bore people in the process. But there are still very real, compelling, life-changing issues that come along with marriage that affect people every day. And maybe some of us in the “Gay bubble” don’t feel that as much. But there are people out there that really do, and it’s their stories that are important and need to continue to be shared.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Imperial County Tries to Intervene in Federal Marriage Case

Prop. 8 Supporters May Need a Government Plaintiff to Appeal

Last December 15, local marriage equality activist Fernando Lopez found himself involved in the marriage equality issue in an unexpected way when the Board of Supervisors in Imperial County voted 3-2 to intervene in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the federal court challenge to California’s Proposition 8.

According to Lopez, the Alliance Defense Fund, one of the organizations involved first in passing Proposition 8 and then defending it in court, sought out Imperial County Board of Supervisors chair Wally Leimgruber and asked him to get the county involved in the case. Lopez said that the Alliance Defense Fund offered to pay all costs for the county if it agreed to intervene in the case on the side of upholding Proposition 8. Leimgruber told the Web site that the Board was acting in the interest of the more than 69% of country voters who supported Proposition 8, to “uphold what they voted on.”

“Wally’s up for re-election, and so with the conservative base there he took it up and brought it to the board,” Lopez recalled. “It actually wouldn’t have passed, but one of the seats there was just vacated by a progressive Democrat, and Governor Schwarzenegger appointed a Republican to fill his seat. So it passed on a 3-2 vote.”

One complaint from marriage equality supporters about Imperial County’s action was that it came without public notice. California’s landmark open meetings law, the Ralph M. Brown Act of 1959, prohibits elected officials and government agencies from acting in secret, with only a few narrow exceptions. According to officials of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “the Supervisors treated the item as an ‘emergency exception,’ but their petition to the court…shows the Board members have been discussing the issue for weeks.” The ACLU is investigating any possible Brown Act violations.

“The fact that they were doing that kind of back-door dealing, and we were able to expose what the opposition is doing and trying to do, shows that they know they have a really good chance that they’re going to lose and we’re going to win,” Lopez told Zenger’s.

Speaking as an Imperial County native as well as a national board member of Marriage Equality USA (MEUSA), Lopez said that just because Proposition 8 carried Imperial County with 69 percent of the vote, that doesn’t necessarily mean the voters still feel that way. “Having grown up in Imperial County and visiting my friends and neighbors there post-Proposition 8. I have witnessed an ongoing change of hearts towards supporting marriage equality,” Lopez said in a MEUSA press release. “If the Board of Supervisors truly wanted to support the will of the people of Imperial County, this decision would have been made in the light of day, with a fair and open process — not in a secret agenda item. It is clear that the public was not informed that this decision was pending, or given an opportunity to voice concerns about the issue.”

“I am outraged that the local elected officials paid with my tax dollars have secretly voted to attack our families with this mean-spirited intervention in co-hoots with anti-Gay organizations,” said Lopez’s father, Imperial County resident Fernando Lopez, Sr. “I plan to make them accountable for the misuse of our resources. There is no reason our county should be involved in this case.”

In the same release, Molly McKay, MEUSA media director, said that Imperial County had missed the deadline to insert itself into the litigation. “The time to intervene in this case is over,” McKay said. “We are disappointed in the Supervisors’ judgment and the way this secret vote was taken without a public hearing process. The counties stand to lose revenue if Proposition 8 stands and there is no county-based interest in supporting Proposition 8 other than prejudice and bias.”

Lopez later said that the court hearing Perry v. Schwarzenegger hasn’t actually ruled on Imperial County’s request to intervene. “It turns out they didn’t file the paperwork correctly,” Lopez told Zenger’s. “The judge still heard their request, but he didn’t make a ruling one way or another before the case started, so it’s doubtful that they’ll be allowed to intervene.”

In his Zenger’s interview, Lopez also explained (better than MEUSA had in their press release) just what the significance of Imperial County’s action is. “The state legislature is not going to appeal this case if we win in the lower courts,” Lopez said. “Governor Schwarzenegger is probably not going to appeal this. And there’s some question as to whether the Proposition 8 campaign and the other people who’ve intervened on behalf of Proposition 8 even have the legal standing to appeal. So they needed a municipality. The opposition needed a municipality to get involved so they could ‘protect the rights of the voters.’”

Frances Moore Lappé and Matthew Fox Speak in S.D.

Hunger Activist, Dissident Priest Highlight “Justice” Conference


Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Despite the unlikely physical setting — St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral at 2728 Fifth Avenue, full of such high-church trappings as vaulted ceilings, fixed pews, massive stained-glass windows and a huge pulpit that emphasized the hierarchical attitude towards spirituality one of the featured speakers once ridiculed as “worshup” — authors Frances Moore Lappé and Matthew Fox communicated intense and timely messages at the opening session of the fourth bi-annual Transformational World Opportunities conference Monday, January 18.

The theme of the conference was “Justice for Women and Children,” and the opening session on Monday was followed by a bus journey and a conclusion of the event in Mexico with additional speakers. Lappé and Fox both came down from Oakland, California to speak — one of the conference organizers recalled that they’d been trying to get Lappé every year the event was held, and this was the first year when it fit into her schedule — and they both first achieved prominence in the 1970’s. But they came from very different backgrounds to do it.

Lappé’s breakthrough came in 1971 when she published a book called Diet for a Small Planet, which argued that people could cut down or eliminate meat-eating without health risks through picking plant-derived foods with so-called “complementary proteins” similar to those in meat. She was also one of the first to make the now familiar vegetarian argument that feeding vegetable crops like grain and corn to livestock for meat is an inefficient use of land and energy, and both we and the earth would be better off if we ate the grains ourselves. But her agenda soon grew beyond that.

In 1975, Lappé and Joseph Collins founded the Institute for Food and Development Policy, also known as Food First. The premise of this organization is that the earth holds enough good land and other resources to feed all its people, and the reason so many humans live in perpetual hunger is because those resources are not distributed fairly or effectively. Lappé and Collins also said that, except in response to natural disasters and other emergencies, First World nations shouldn’t ship surplus food to Third World countries. Rather, they should help the people in those countries work out ways to feed their own people, taking into account their knowledge of their own environments and cultures.

Fox was ordained a priest in the Roman Catholic Church in 1967. (Born Timothy James, he took the name “Matthew” after the Gospel author.) He began writing a series of books in the 1970’s that challenged many of the practices of both Catholic and Protestant Christianity, especially the hierarchical model of salvation. In 1988 he lost his right to teach in Catholic universities on order of the Office for the Defense and Propagation of the Faith — formerly known as the Holy Inquisition — then headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who is how Pope Benedict XVI. In the early 1990’s Fox was expelled from the Dominican order, and while the Wikipedia entry on him said it was “due to controversy surrounding his denial of original sin,” Fox himself said it was mainly because he referred to himself as a “feminist theologian” and gave sermons calling God “Mother.”

Leaving the Roman Catholic Church, Fox became an Episcopal priest in 1994 and has continued to seek out new ways of preaching and teaching his version of the Gospel. Drawing on the work of medieval scholars and theologians like Thomas Aquinas, Meister Eckhart and Hildegard of Bingen, he has developed a vision called “creation spirituality” that proclaims feminism and gender, social and environmental justice. He has also celebrated “techno cosmic masses” that attempt to bring together the traditional church ritual with trance-inducing modern dance music, and in his current program at charter schools in Oakland encourages students to document their interests by making videos using another form of modern pop music, hip-hop.

Lappé: Challenging an Abhorrent World

Lappe, a tall, striking woman who sat unassumingly in the front row of the church next to one of the conference organizers until it was her turn to mount the hierarchical pulpit and speak, began with a clarion call to optimism. “Pessimism,” she said, “is a luxury that we now cannot afford.” She held up a book called Diet for a Hot Planet, a post-global warming version of her original best-seller — written not by her but by her daughter, Anna Lappé. Then she openly questioned why humans in general and Americans in particular are working so industriously to build a world that any morally decent person would hate.

“Why are we creating a society, a world, that we as individuals abhor?” Lappé said. “Why are we creating a world that we as individuals would not choose? I don’t think anyone gets up in the morning and says, ‘Yes, I want to make sure that another child dies in poverty.’ And yet you have 24,000 children a day dying of hunger and poverty. Here in the U.S., one out of every two children will be dependent on food stamps at some point in their upbringing. Who chooses that? I don’t remember choosing that.

“No one gets up in the morning thinking it’s a great idea to heat up our planet and cause great, untold levels of natural disasters,” Lappé continued. “Yet this is what has happened. We have to have an answer to that question, some working hypothesis to explain how we got here, interrupt those forces and reverse them towards the life we would choose. I’ve come to the conclusion that one part of the problem is we start out feeling powerless because we’d never choose that world. It seems we feel powerless to make changes.”

Whatever the reason we’re stuck in Lappé’s nightmare world, she said, “it’s not for lack of solutions. The answers are right in front of our noses. Between the 1940’s and the 1970’s we made huge strides against poverty. Real family incomes [in the U.S.] more than doubled. We know how to feed the world. We know how not to heat the planet. A study by [energy activist] Amory Lovins indicated that we could be off oil for less than the cost of the economic stimulus package.”

So how did we create a world in which the rich get richer, the poor get poorer and the entire planet gets warmer to a degree that threatens the very survival of the human race itself? “First,” said Lappé, “because we create the world with these big, complex brains very much according to the assumptions we hold.” Citing a book by the late liberal philosopher Erich Fromm called The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, Lappé said, “Our ideas about the world literally determine what we see and what we can’t see. We see the world through mental maps that determine what we believe is possible.”

Instead of creating mental maps that offer a positive view of human nature and the potential abundance of the earth’s resources to feed everybody, Lappé argued, we’ve made maps that teach us the opposite: “lack, insufficiency, scarcity.” Our mental maps say “there’s not enough goodness in us and not enough goodness in the world. From this premise, if we believe it, there’s not enough goodness in us for us to come together on a common path that works for us and includes all.

“Instead, we look for automatic forces. Ronald Reagan called it ‘the magic of the market,’ and that was the notion of the 1980’s. It was a market based on the idea that the highest return to existing wealth would benefit us all.” That’s not how it’s worked out in practice in the last three decades, Lappé said. She cited a memo from Citibank actually called “Plutonomy,” which advised investors to put their money in “toys for the rich” and get on the “gravy train” of producing for the super-rich while letting everyone else starve. She also mentioned that just one American family — the Waltons, relatives of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton — control as much wealth as the bottom 40 percent of the entire U.S.

Lappé also talked about the way the giant concentrations of wealth and income created by “the magic of the market” shape our political system and the decisions made by government. Besides whatever corporations and wealthy individuals contribute to political campaigns, Lappé said, they spend $3.3 billion per year to influence elected officials after they take office. According to Lappé, Washington. D.C. contains 24 lobbyists for every elected member of the House of Representatives and the Senate. She quoted a speech by then-President Franklin Roosevelt in 1937 that said, “The liberty of democracy is not safe if people tolerate the growth of private power,” and used an unoriginal but appropriate phrase in describing America’s political system as “the best democracy money can buy.”

It’s not that we don’t know how to produce a society that wouldn’t have such vastly unequal distributions of wealth and income that we’re literally starving people to maintain the black magic of the market, Lappé said. “It’s very clear there are enough goods in the world if we align ourselves with nature and live well,” she said. “There’s plenty of food in the world. The sun provides us with 15,000 times as much energy as we’re using. Science is showing us that human beings are soft-wired to enjoy cooperation and fairness, and have a desperate need for social justice” — that last comment a slap in the face to those who regard humans as basically materialistic, acquisitive and greedy and therefore believe total free-market capitalism is the only economic system that accords with our basic nature.

Lappé, not surprisingly, couldn’t disagree more. “When human beings cooperate, it stimulates the same part of our brain as eating chocolate,” she said. “When we give, it engages the same parts of our brain as when we have sex. Other animals often have a great sense of fairness. In studies, people will get nothing rather than take less than their share.” She’s enough of a realist to know that the halcyon picture of people as always cooperative and fair is as wrong as the vision of capitalism’s defenders that we’re always out to screw each other over for our individual gain.

What brings out the worst of us, Lappé said, are three conditions: “(1), an extreme concentration of power, (2) shielding those at the top from financial responsibility, and (3) the ‘blame game.’ Once we begin to identify the complexity that there are plenty of goods, but we can also be cruel, we can reverse those conditions. People are diversing power and dissolving anonymity through face-to-face connections. They are refusing to blame others, and accepting responsibility as problem-solvers. They can reverse the cycle of powerlessness by dissolving those negative communities and developing face-to-face positive communities.”

Lappé sees these signs of hope in some surprising places. Some are in 15,000 U.S. schools where “young people are not seen as empty vessels, but as problem-solvers … where young people are being taught to work out their own problems, a sense of living democracy.” Some are in the programs of a group called Youth Build, in 273 sites across the country, in which so-called “at-risk” youth who dropped out of schools are brought together to rehabilitate old buildings. In these programs, Lappé said, the young participants not only learn building-trade skills that can make them employable later, they also get their GED’s (high-school equivalency diplomas) and “also learn skills to work together … [and] retain their power.”

Hope and “Bold Humility”

Though Lappé has toured the world many times, both to speak and to observe, one of her most inspiring examples came from a program she hasn’t seen personally. She found out about it through a 40-year-old Canadian-based non-governmental organization called the International Development Research Center (, which has sponsored a program in India to work with subsistence farmers — mostly dalit (“untouchable”) women, the lowest people in the country’s caste system — in the semi-desert Deccan Plateau of the state of Andhra Pradesh. Lappé brought an elaborate publication — a book with four DVD’s included — produced by IRDC to showcase the program and build awareness of it.

“A lot of people think of India as a country that’s enjoying a high-tech driven economic boom,” Lappé said. “India is still home to more hungry people than all sub-Saharan Africa. Through a cooperative network of dairy producers, Indian women produce one-fifth of all dairy products in India and have helped make India one of the world’s largest dairy producers. These women have created six times the number of jobs as India’s high-tech industries.” But that wasn’t the program IRDC was publicizing, and which Lappé got to see in action on the group’s DVD’s.

The effort in Andhra Pradesh came about, Lappé explained, as a result of heavy marketing by Monsanto, the world’s largest producer of genetically modified (GM) seeds. “Monsanto came into the Deccan Plateau with cartoon TV ads claiming that if farmers bought GM seeds, their yields would go up and pesticide use would go down — and most of the farmers fell for it,” Lappé explained. “These women documented the effects of those seeds. You cold see the farmers’ hopes evaporate. Suicides went up, including one woman who leased out two acres of land to plant GM cotton and got left with nothing.”

According to Lappé, the women activists, organized in voluntary associations called sangams, not only drove Monsanto out but they worked out a positive alternative to GM crops. Their next target was the Indian government, which was attempting to end hunger in the Deccan Plateau by making mass distributions of white rice — which was not only much less nutritious than the natural varieties indigenous to the region, it crowded out the traditional crops and “displaced the biodiversity of the region.”

The Deccan women — members of an oppressed class as well as an oppressed gender — “came together and devised an alternative plan to take back all the biodiversity. They’re saying yes to food security and developing their own safety net, including [determining] which families need extra help. The villagers have created a storehouse where everyone contributes, and it goes to the families they decide need it. They also created a Mobile Biodiversity Festival to re-educate their neighbors about their biodiversity heritage and the need to save seeds from each year’s crop for next year’s planting. The first year the Festival was ignored, but each year more people attended and more and more people are engaging in seed-saving and seed-sharing.” What’s more, they called a conference where they democratically debated whether they should adopt GM seeds — and they decided not to.

Lappé said there’s a long list of similar efforts around the world that illustrate the power of what she calls “living democracy” — the decisions of small groups of people coming together to make decisions on the basic issues of their lives instead of trusting elected “representatives” to a large central government to take their issues to heart. She cited Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathi’s tree-planting program in Kenya and the Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil.

“If there is plenty of goodness in us, what do we need more of?” Lappé said. “We need more bold humanity. The ‘bold’ part is because human beings are so deeply connected with each other, we want approval. We want to stay in our tribe, and it’s hard to say no to our home tribe even when it’s heading over Victoria Falls. It’s a willingness right now to find the language to say what needs to be said. The ‘humility’ part is it’s so great to be 65 years old and to see so many people in my generation seeing things that inspire us to believe that we have a chance of success.”

Fox: Justice Everywhere

Matthew Fox may have started his philosophical and spiritual journey at a different place from Frances Moore Lappé, but he has ended up in many of the same places. He began his talk by noting that it was the official Martin Luther King, Jr. Day holiday, and quoted King’s famous statement that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He noted ruefully that the poor, usually invisible in the U.S. media, were finally getting some coverage — only it was the poor in Haiti, whose situation was desperate enough even before the recent earthquakes and has now just got unimaginably worse.

“We can feel the essence of our needs to be human, and also feel the gap — as we should — not only between the Third World and the overdeveloped world, but the gaps in our own country as well between Main Street and Wall Street,” Fox said. He noted that the Haitian earthquake happened “the same week those plutocrats came to Congress to defend their salaries. The average salary [of top executives] at Goldman Sachs is $600,000 per week before the bonuses. There’s such an imbalance between economics and finance, and between the First and Third Worlds. Our entire species has to wake up.”

Unlike Lappé, who delivered a tightly focused, organized presentation, Fox flitted around among many of his favorite themes, including female spirituality, youthful creativity (and how most modern-day education destroys it) and the need to challenge the hierarchical structure of the church itself. He gave a multimedia presentation, ranging from slide shows of images of the Black Madonna to videos made by his classes in schools for at-risk kids, mostly students of color, in Oakland. Like Lappé, he had to deal with the contradiction inherent in his message, wanting people to know how bad our current reality is but also needing to leave them a strong sense of hope.

“The good news is the return of the Divine Feminine in our lifestyle,” Fox said. “It’s a radical part of the imbalance in our society that the feminine has been denied and exiled for centuries. That’s been dangerous for our species, the earth and life itself. I celebrate strongly the return of the Divine Feminine in small ‘consciousness-raising’ groups of women telling stories of their lives [the groups in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s that birthed the so-called ‘second-wave’ feminist movement]. It shows up in the scholarship women have done in joining the professions and bringing their wisdom. It’s shown up in the recognition of the divinity of women. The number one objection to me when the Pope silenced me was that I was a ‘feminist theologian’ and I referred to God as ‘Mother.’”

Not that women’s spirituality is all nicey-nicey, holding hands and looking at the sky, Fox explained. He cited Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ 1992 best-seller Women Who Run with the Wolves as an inspiration, even though he felt it didn’t go far enough. “She drew on stories from many traditions and spun them from her own Jungian perspective,” Fox said. “This is the Goddess at work. The return of the Goddess is not a nice thing. The Black Madonna, like [the Hindu goddess] Kali, is fierce. She watches over creation, and there is no creation without destruction. There is terror in creation, and we’re also seeing something of the Divine Feminine in both women and men.”

Fox argued that the Divine Feminine is associated with art, with nonviolent resistance (he cited King and Mahatma Gandhi as men who tapped into the Divine Feminine when they organized their mass campaigns to dramatize injustice), and with the inherently female function of carrying the fetus to term and giving birth. “A wild woman’s main occupation is invention,” Fox said. “She resides in the guts, not the head. She is the woman who thunders after injustice. Getting in touch with our guts, with our lower chakras, is part of getting in touch with our fuller spirit.”

At one point Fox actually had everyone in the room chant two Biblically-based incantations — to make a point about the unity of all religious tradition and say that the words of the Bible could be used as meditation mantras. “We should chant our Scriptures, not just read, study and argue about them,” he said. “Silence is a part of healthy prayer. We can turn out sources into mantras. I had one of my religion classes chanting, and 70 percent of my students said they were up all night. Protestantism grew up with the modern era in the invention of texts, but texts are only one-half the picture. Why do so many Westerners think they have to go East to find mysticism? Because they’re so locked into text, which feeds the left brain, that they don’t know how to do chants and silence, which feed the right brain.”

From Knowledge to Wisdom

Fox talked about the educational system and the need he feels it has to move “from knowledge to wisdom.” He recalled that when he was thrown out of his teaching positions at Catholic universities, he wondered what to do next — and ended up doing outreach to high-school students of color. He cited the high dropout rates among these students — “72 percent of Blacks in California don’t graduate from high school; in Baltimore it’s 76 percent; 65 percent of Hawai’ians and native Americans don’t graduate” — and said the reason those numbers are so high is that America’s text-centered (and test-centered) mode of education, based on reading things out of textbooks and repeating them to teachers and on tests, don’t work for members of what he called “the first post-modern generation of youth.”

So how do you teach young people who may or may not be able to read, and even if they can, they don’t like to? In his pilot program in an Oakland charter school, aimed mostly at African-American and Latino students as a sort of last-ditch attempt to educate them before they drop out, he organized a program that would do so with as little use of the written word as possible. He asked his students to identify a topic they felt passionate about, and gave them basic training on the iMovie video program so they could make short documentary films about it.

“One kid was passionate about muscle cars, so he made a movie about muscle cars,” Fox said. “Another was passionate about graffiti, so he made a movie in which he hung a canvas and painted the word ‘chaos’ in graffiti style, meditating about what ‘chaos’ means.” Fox showed his St. Paul’s audience the “chaos” graffiti movie and another one about “turfing” or “turf dancing” — often mistakenly called “break dancing,” a term its practitioners never use — and its importance in the culture surrounding hip-hop (“rap”) music. At least one audience member pointed out the contradiction between the positive, community-oriented, “sharing” message of Fox’s program and the sexist, violent language of the hip-hop songs used in the students’ movies, but Fox said he didn’t want to censor the students and instead would open discussions about the songs later in his course.

“I realized 30 years ago you cannot teach spirituality with the Western method of education,” Fox explained. “We must move from knowledge to wisdom. Wisdom is about the feminine, and is involved in the creation of the world, not something tiny.” After he did the film program, Fox said, “one hundred percent of our students wanted to stay in school … [because] it rekindled the joy of learning. Our educational system is killing the joy of learning. The most creative teachers are leaving the profession en masse because ‘teaching to the test’ is killing everything they wanted to do.”

Controversial “Men on a Mission” Calendar Returns

Producer Does New Edition After Church Excommunicates Him


Copyright © 2010 by Leo E. Laurence • All rights reserved

PHOTOS, top to bottom: Kenny Church, © 2008 Sebastiani Studios. Used by permission.

Eric Healey, courtesy Eric Healey.

Straight and very hot, young Mormon guys stripped down to their muscular, bare chests for one of the most exciting 2010 calendars for Gays: “MEN ON A MISSION.”

It’s available at the Obelisk bookstore at Tenth and University in Hillcrest, or online at The name of its Web site says it all: Mormons exposed … but not naked.

While the calendars’ appeal will be strong in the Gay community, most of the models showing off their bare pecs are straight. Some Gays will find that even more appealing.

“It was my first-time modeling,” says Matt Moser, 24, who appeared on the cover of the ‘08 “Men on a Mission” calendar. “It turned out to be pretty cool. It was fun.”

Another straight guy who stripped off his shirt and posed bare-chested is Kenny Church, 24, of Ogden, Utah. He’s married and said his wife was sitting next to him during the telephonic interview for this article.

He was 19 when he served as a missionary in New Zealand, and is now a sophomore at Weber State University.

“When the first calendar came out in 2008, some friends suggested I model for it, so I sub-mitted photos,” Church explained. (The producer) liked them and I went to Las Vegas for a pro-fessional, photo shoot.

“Looking at that (‘08) calendar, I thought it might be fun to do a calendar,” said cover-boy Eric Healey, 26, now living in cold Chicago and appearing on the 2010 cover showing a very HOT body. He was originally from Provo, Utah.

“I loved doing (the photo shoot)” in Las Vegas where the producer, Chad Hardy, 33, lives and also owns a corporate team-building company, Healey reported.

Hardy’s calendar Web site is, and interested Mormon missionaries who would like to try modeling can reach him at

The unique Men on a Mission, beefy calendars show close-ups of bare-chested, young, Mor-mon missionaries who served when they were 19-20 years old.

Each month displays the former, Mormon missionaries posing bare-chested with lots of skin showing.

In sharp contrast to that large, sexy pose, off to the side in an inset photo is a much smaller, gold-framed photo of the same guy in the standard “uniform” of a Mormon missionary: with a white shirt and tie and reverently holding the Bible.

The visual contrast is stunning.

“Why the beefy Mormon calendar? I wanted to make a statement that not everyone has to look a certain way to have faith, and that not all Mormons are bigoted,” producer Hardy said in an ex-clusive interview with Zenger’s Newsmagazine.

“There are a lot of stereotypes attached to you being a Mormon, even if that doesn’t really de-scribe you as a person,” Hardy said, in explaining why he first created the bare-chested Mormon calendars in 2008.

“That was always my problem with the church. I loved being a Mormon, but I was embarrassed to tell people that I was a Mormon” — because of the stereotypes.

Indeed, the Mormon Church largely bankrolled Proposition 8, the successful ballot measure that killed future Gay marriages in California. Challenges to the Mormon’s financial activities are now pending in different administrative courts. Several persistent formal complaints of state-law violations related to Prop. 8 were filed by Fred Karger of Californians Against Hate (

As might be expected, the Mormon officials came down hard on producer Hardy. But, the church did not punish the mostly- straight models. Indeed, several are still very active in the Mormon Church.

Hardy’s first bare-chested, “Men on a Mission” calendar appeared in ‘08. He was excommu-nicated in July 2008. Next, after he graduated from Mormon-owned Brigham Young University in August 2008, his university refused to give him a diploma.

“The ex-communication created a ton of sales (for the calendar). We’ve probably sold a total of over 25,000 so far,” Hardy reported.

Initially, it cost about $25,000 to produce the sexy calendars. “But we know how to do it now and we got our costs way down (to about $20,000).

A Girly Calendar, Too

With the success of the sexy Men on a Mission calendar, with their close-ups of bare-chested, muscular, young guys; Hardy decided this year to add a female edition, but its style is really dif-ferent.

The new edition, however, doesn’t have the class of the male version.

The calendars of guys are professionally posed and shot from largely from the waist up. While showing lots of skin, the poses are professional and the models are in positions that might easily appear in posters on the wall of a commercial workout gym.

But, the women in the female edition, called “HOT MORMON MUFFINS, A taste of motherhood,” are “dressed” and posed in a manner more likely to appear on the wall of an auto mechanic’s garage.

Producer Hardy says they are “more flirty” than the male calendar poses.

Admitting that the female calendars are really different that the male Mormon edition, Hardy explained that “it was my intention to make them sexy, but they are not bikini-clad calendars.”

Profits Helping Charities

“A portion of the profits of the sale of this calendar benefit charities around the world,” both editions of the calendars say on the back.

“For the first couple of years, the guys contributed to their own charities. But, now we have two, major charities: (1) putting computers in underprivileged schools and (2) benefiting breast cancer treatments for women,” Hardy explained.

Copies of the calendars can be obtained online at, or e-mail to

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

Rethinking AIDS 2009: A Weekend to Remember


Photo: Peter Duesberg, Ph.D. (right) being interviewed by a reporter at the Rethinking AIDS Conference. Taken by D. B. Murrieta

I didn’t go to the Rethinking AIDS 2009 Conference, held at the Waterfront Hotel in Oakland, California on a three-day weekend , Nov. 6-8, 2009, to be a journalist. It was for a very personal reason that I went. I wanted to meet the person who had the greatest influence on my life.

For me, the genesis of Rethinking AIDS began in 1998, when I came across a book called Inventing the AIDS Virus while browsing at the Seattle Public Library, Published in 1996 by a UC Berkeley professor Peter Duesberg, Ph.D., it flew in the face of mainstream science. Since then, I have been committed to letting other people know of what some call the “Greatest Medical Blunder of the 20th Century”: the idea that the various health phenomena lumped together under the name “AIDS” are caused by one microorganism, the so-called “Human Immunodeficiency Virus” (HIV).

During the 1980’s just about everyone I knew was running scared of HIV/AIDS. I look back now and feel relieved and convinced that I came down with the right position on this subject. My confidence came because of the strength and the consummate leadership of Peter Duesberg. Not that he mounted any campaign or organized groups of people. He didn’t. He just continued his research and teaching according to the principles and rules by of science that preceded him over the last three hundred years. Once the most prominent and honored virologist in the country, now silenced and scorned by the mainstream, he never wavered in his stand. He maintained that the science was wrong; there simply was no evidence that HIV=AIDS.

I remember as early back as 1987 while sitting on the living room floor, reading a Sunday rag paper in Hollywood that said a couple of doctors who weren’t even named (though Duesberg was likely one of them) had an alternative theory to the consensus view. AIDS, they argued, was caused by a life style of too many drugs and too many different sex partners. Kaposi’s sarcoma, the skin lesions characteristic of the earliest AIDS cases, could be caused by “poppers,” they said. They also claimed that many of the anti-AIDS medications, including the brutally toxic AZT, could actually cause the disease. Looking back, it seems obvious to me that the prescribed treatment of high-dose AZT was responsible for most all of the 300,000 “AIDS” deaths from 1987 to 1997. I never bought into the belief of either the contagious notion that HIV caused AIDS or that AZT was viable.

Before I read Inventing the AIDS Virus, I had read the late Dr. Robert Willner’s 1990 book Deadly Deception, which also argued against HIV as the cause of AIDS. But I didn’t find it as convincing, mainly because Dr. Willner was not a research scientist. He was an M.D. who had left the profession to pursue alternative modes of healing. Duesberg was a virologist who for decades had specialized in researching retroviruses, the sort of virus HIV is claimed to be.

Inventing the AIDS Virus contained an introduction by Kary Mullis, Ph.D. who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1993 for his invention of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), used every day in DNA testing and the so-called “viral loads.” Mullis started on his journey to rejecting the HIV-AIDS model when he was asked to write a paper explaining how PCR could be used to test for HIV. When he asked, as a matter of form, to see the paper that showed that HIV caused AIDS, he was told, “You don’t need a reference for that. Everybody knows that.” To his surprise, Mullis could not find a paper establishing HIV as the cause of AIDS, for no such paper had been written.

I always had been unsettled by the science and treatment of “HIV/AIDS.” Inventing the AIDS Virus solidified my skepticism and set me on a road, which continues to this day, to correct the mistake.

I soon realized that it was not going to be easy or quick to change others’ minds. People did not want to hear that they had been misled. Ever since HIV was proclaimed to be the cause of AIDS in April 1984 at a White House news conference, without benefit of debate or evidence, the case was closed by the medical establishment.

I therefore owe a huge debt of respect and admiration to Peter Duesberg for his unyielding and relentless pursuit of truth during these past 25 years. I had never met the man and since the cause was so essential in my life during the last decade. I wasn’t about to miss this conference. After all, Oakland was next door to Berkeley, where Duesberg lives and works, so I felt sure to see him when I attended.

I was not disappointed.

He and many of the well-known AIDS dissidents were on hand for the event. I knew most everyone from my intermittent e-mails throughout the last decade. Dr. Peter Duesberg was particularly affable and gracious. He remembered me from my few direct e-mails to him.

For more information on the Rethinking AIDS 2009 conference, I would direct you to an article by one of the key organizers, David Crowe, at
Immigration Reform Means Economic Justice


In the upcoming weeks, you will repeatedly hear the words “illegal immigrants” and phrases like “they’re breaking the law” from some members of Congress to justify why we have tolerated a sub-society of second-class people working for substandard wages, living in substandard housing, and when injured on the job, refused medical care. We have allowed undocumented workers to be exploited for many years because their "shadow" communities have given us inexpensive goods and services. These jobs come at a cost to all because these workers perform jobs with low wages and without basic rights to decent working conditions.

Recently, Congress introduced a comprehensive immigration bill that streamlines the immigration process by providing a gateway to citizenship. Immigrant children living in the U.S. before the age of 16, who clear security and criminal background checks, and who pass general education requirements including English and civics, will be given an earned pathway to citizenship through education, community service or military service.

Undocumented immigrant families pay sales taxes, gasoline taxes and whether they rent or own their homes, property taxes. These taxes have contributed to the payment of public services.

Notwithstanding the human interest, there are economic reasons to grant earned immigration status. The U.S. work force has aged. New citizens can help pay social security and Medicare benefits for the baby boomers now retiring from our workforce. In addition, we must act now to bring back many jobs that were shipped overseas so our country can be self sufficient rather than rely on foreign countries. Consequently, together with immigration reform, Congress must implement policies that create good-paying jobs for our unemployed and those it seeks to immigrate to carry our nation forward far into the future.

Naturally, the proposed bill contemplates costly “tough” enforcement methods with an employer verification provision that creates significant civil and criminal penalties for employers. Additionally, the bill targets human trafficking, gun and drug smuggling crimes, and provides for compensation to border states that incur costs for prosecuting federal crimes. Some say we need even tougher border enforcement and longer prison sentences.

Clearly, Mexico must step up to the plate and respect our border. While some amount of border “protection” may be necessary, it is also clear that tougher U.S. border enforcement will result in higher taxes to support an already overcrowded prison system. There is a finite amount of taxpayer dollars. We must be honest and acknowledge that border “policing,” “security” and “prisons” are a substantial taxpayer drain but do not produce any gross domestic product. We should therefore remove the rhetoric and be open to examining all solutions.

Unfortunately, the “reform” bill fails to address the major cause of illegal immigration. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, about three-quarters of the nation’s undocumented immigrants are Hispanic, 59-percent originating from Mexico. Some economists say that NAFTA hurt Mexican farmers. Others say that Mexico’s protection of certain industries resulted in its lack of economic growth. We need not find blame to look for solutions. U.S. companies that do business in Mexico do not even pay minimum wage to their Mexican workers. Simply doing this would help establish a middle class in Mexico.

America’s immigration policy must be tied to a fair, strong and effective foreign and economic development policy with Mexico, built on equal partnership. If we are to solve this problem, the U.S. must find a way to insure that Mexico deals with its economic problems related to poverty, employment, health care, drug corruption, and democratic governance. Unless we change our strategy, our immigration dilemma will continue with or without "immigration reform."

Real solutions begin by creating a middle class with good-paying jobs which build strong communities. If we do not encourage economic justice by building a middle class in Mexico and Central America, where 95 percent of the wealth is held by 2 percent of the population, we will never solve the problem.

Ask yourself this question. How long would you watch your family starve before you would leave your home and walk three thousand miles to get a job for which you risked death and live in fear of deportation? This is the question that many of our neighbors to the south ask themselves every day.

Tracy Emblem is an attorney and a Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress in California's 50th District.
Hazards in Covering Immigration Stories


San Diego — Immigration stories can be difficult to cover and remain balanced. It’s a “hot-button” issue and awkward for some Anglo reporters with little, real-life experiences with other cultures.

America is a nation founded by immigrants, and we have immigrant values embedded in our national psyche. They should also be in our news stories. Balance is so important.

“Immigrants always have been the canaries in the mine shaft — an early warning system about the health of the U.S. economy,” wrote columnist Linda Chavez, who is also an author.

“The greatest passion generated during the immigration debates over the past few years concerned illegal immigration (and especially along our Mexican border),” Chavez wrote.

“Children of Latino immigrants are doing well on most measures. They fare better on most health indicators (except obesity) than native-born Americans, despite being less likely to be covered by health insurance,” Chavez reports.

Immigrant children “who graduate from college actually earn slightly more than their native-born counterparts,” the Latina columnist explains.

“The overwhelming majority of Latinos born in the U.S. to immigrant parents are able to speak English well … In fact, Asian immigrants are slightly more linguistically isolated than Latinos.

“Contrary to the impression that Latinos remain poor no matter how long they’ve lived in the U.S., upward mobility is still the rule, not the exception. And some studies show that immigrants, including those who are undocumented, pay more to the government in taxes than they receive from the government in benefits.”

We in the news media need to tell these stories, and not just report on the inflamed, distorted and often false political rhetoric.

It is incorrect, as a matter of law, for a journalist to use the phrase “illegal immigrant” or “illegal alien” when referring to specific individuals. Under our federal Constitution, the doctrine of innocent-until-proven-guilty means that only a judge in court can say that a person is “illegal.”

We need to make sure that we interview community leaders in the immigrant cultures when working immigration stories, to maintain ethical balance.

In addition to being associate editor of Zenger’s Newsmagazine, Leo E. Laurence is a Member, SPJ Nat’l. Comm. on Diversity and Latino Journalists of California and the editor of San Diego News Service ( This article originally appeared on the international Web site of the Society of Professional Journalists []
Advocacy Journalism: Powerful Tool for Social Change


Historically, advocacy journalism has created massive, cultural changes in America in widely diverse, minority communities from Latinos is the barrios to the Black Panthers, to launching Gay Lib.

“Until the latter part of the 19th century, virtually all American journalism was advocacy journalism,” wrote Zenger’s Newsmagazine publisher and editor, Mark Gabrish Conlan in an e-mail.

He describes advocacy journalism “as reporting that combines factual information with a distinct, readily identifiable and honestly expressed point of view on the part of the writer, editor or publisher.

In the early days of American journalism, “Publishers almost invariably owned their own printing presses and made most of their income printing jobs for political parties, campaigns and candidates,” Conlan explained.

Advocacy journalism shakes things up, intentionally. But it insists on maintaining the Society of Professional Journalists’ (SPJ) highest ethical standards of journalism.

“The principal responsibilities of any journalist, including advocacy journalists, are honesty and accuracy,” Conlan also wrote. “If they assert a fact, it has to be true.

“During the 20th century, advocacy journalism survived in the U.S. mainly in specialty news-papers published by and for specific communities,” Conlan said.

Virtually all minority communities today, including Gays and the disabled, today have successful businesses in print, broadcast, on-line and in multi-media. They serve in the international Society of Professional Journalists, the CCNMA-Latino Journalists of California, the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association and the National Association of Black Journalists.

Advocacy journalism is not the endless, distorted yet entertaining diatribes of Rush Limbaugh or the writings and Fox News commentaries of Sarah Palin.

Professional advocacy journalists today are typically credentialed members of the working press.

Creative writing styles can be involved. In the “Berkeley Barb” in the late 1960’s, in stories on the launch of Gay Lib three months before Stonewall in NYC, the reporter was a key community organizer. He would often quote himself in “Barb” stories to explain the issues in his stories more accurately, and used no by-line when writing in that style.

It’s all in a new book by Prof. Josh Sides, the Whitsett Professor of California History at Cal State - Northridge, entitled Erotic City. (See review in the December 2009 Zenger’s).

While many advocacy journalists today are on-line and work for well-funded Web sites, the fly-by-night bloggers and amateur tweeters are not included.

The Berkeley Barb in the late 1960’s and Zenger’s Newsmagazine today are prime examples of advocacy journalism.

Contact writer Leo E. Laurence at (619) 757-4909 or This article was adapted from January 21, 2010 post on the international Web site of the Society of Professional Journalists [], where the reporter serves as a member of the SPJ’s National Committee on Diversity.

Marijuana: The Culture War in San Diego

by ROCKY NEPTUN • Covered by Creative Commons copyright

Photos: Steve McWilliams, Eugene Davidovich

A seemingly dysfunctional San Diego City Council voted 7 to 1 on January 5 to stall many more months deciding the mere basics of regulating medical marijuana dispensaries by rejecting the modest recommendations of its own task force.

The transparency of its motives in setting up the task force rather than having staff prepare ordinances, shows its smoke and mirrors approach to the issue — pretend to do something, while an organizing effort of the usual NIMBY suspects gets under way. Someone named Grandma posted a right-on explanation, “Fork-tongued politicians,” she wrote, “I may be old but I know bait and switch,” while Fred Williams pointed out, “This is not leadership…it’s cowardice.”

With five of the councilmembers seeking re-election or election to another office and the two brain-dead tokens of identity politics blabbering along (at least Councilmember Carl DeMaio is honest in his usual right-wing, knee-jerk opposition), the Council showed that it seems too scared to help the many citizens who are in pain and need a safe, legal place to obtain medical marijuana as approved by California voters in 1996 through Proposition215.

The vote, which sent the plain and simple recommendations of the Medical Marijuana Task Force, to the Council’s Land Use and Housing Committee, is a ploy to allow organized resistance to the use of medical marijuana to focus on preventing the logistics of providing it for those in need by using zoning ordinances and building codes as weapons, like those used against youth arcades and adult entertainment. Tellingly, included in that vote was a requirement that local Planning Groups weigh in on the discussion; which is kind of like asking the Catholic Diocese where the abortion clinics should be located and the details of the permit O.K. process. The city’s half-dozen planning groups, for the most part, are made up of property owners and businesspersons wedded to land values, NIMBY’s all. (The City Heights Area Planning Committee where I was elected in 2001 was run by real estate interests.)

Now, a deceitful City Council and its big lie about wanting to really develop a comprehensive policy on medical marijuana use could laughingly be passed on as politics as usual if it were not for the fact that many innocent San Diegans are being persecuted and prosecuted by an ambitious, despotic District Attorney.

Bonnie Dumanis, Republican Party ideologue and personal tyrant, stepped in where a fearful City Council has failed to act and has been busting legal, legitimate users and dispensers of medical marijuana. Using her prosecutorial power to implement public policy in an attempt to appear tough on crime, she steps over the ruined lives, broken families and lost jobs of ill people who tried to follow the law as best they know how. Like a local version of former despot J..Edgar Hoover, without the secret dress, Dumanis seems to bully the Council by creating an illusion of crime around medical marijuana by selective prosecution and outright lies about the defendants, thus creating a trap for any politician who supports upholding California law allowing personal medical use of cannabis.

Buried in January 5th’s cowardly Council action was the quiet removal of any language calling for an ordinance to be drafted regulating the dispensaries. The hard-working 11-member Task Force on Medical Marijuana, established by the Council in September and co-chaired by my friend and former Council candidate Stephen Whitburn, labored to bring before the Council a set of common-sense recommendations on basic regulations such as dispensaries had to be more than 1,000 feet from schools, playgrounds, libraries, areas where children frequent and barred from being within 500 feet of one another. Also, the storefronts would have had to hire security and obtain appropriate land-use permits as well as limit the hours they are open and operate as non-profits. These fairly small recommendations from the Task Force were a natural process of the thinking of its members, mostly businesspersons, clergy, former police officers and professionals, rather than actual providers or patients.

However, one member of the task force, Mark Robert Bluemel, a San Diego attorney saw the matter clearly. He said the District Attorney’s misinterpretation of state law “has cruelly criminalized innocent medical marijuana users who not only suffer maladies but now face arrest, detention and federal charges.”

In early summer, the San Diego Renters Union proposed to the City Council that it find some statesmanship on this issue by setting up a permanent San Diego Medical Marijuana Regulatory Board, which would oversee the operation of the dispensaries including the cost, quality, personnel and non-profitability of the coops and cooperatives. The Renters Union suggested that if the providing process was taken out of individual hands and become a volunteer effort on the part of the organized group of patients, overseen by the city, then the District Attorney could not attack them on an individual basis as she has in the past.

While Councilwoman Frye supports the use of marijuana for medical purposes, her timidity reflects an interest in running for the County Board of Supervisors. “The goal here is to put in some guidelines that actually make sense and people can understand what the rules are,” she said “the guidelines put forward by the state are not clear.” Yet, even she did not support the humble suggestions of the task force.

However, the average citizens in San Diego are beginning to have their say on the matter. In a clear rebuke to the D.A. a Superior Court jury last week found Jovan Christian Jackson, 31, not guilty of five charges of possessing and selling marijuana illegally from a medical marijuana dispensary in Kearny Mesa called Answerdam Alternative Care.

Jackson’s attorney, Lance Rogers, successfully showed the jury that the collective operated legally and professionally. He said members of the collective were asked to show a valid doctor’s recommendation before obtaining any marijuana and sign an agreement to abide by the collective’s rules.

A San Diego police detective testified that he lied to a doctor, used a false ID and fraudulently signed a contract/agreement with the collective to make two buys in June and July 2008. Trying to find out who set up this ridiculous entrapment has been difficult. Steve Walter, the assistant chief of the narcotics office in the D.A.’s office agreed to talk to me and then backed out (could it be because Bonnie Dumanis has appeared on my annual list of San Diego piss-ants four years in a row?). Captain Miguel Rosario of the SDPD’s vice squad originally agreed to an interview about the marijuana busts, but when I e-mailed him a list of questions about the D.A.’s involvement, he quickly canceled.

Dumanis and the Culture War

San Diego’s District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis struts onto the stage. Her swagger, her measured pace, her menacing stare in front of the cameras reminds me of the persona John Wayne created on his way to becoming an American icon. As I watch Dumanis mount the platform, amid camera flashes and reporters’ shouts, my friend, who is Gay, whispers, “Who does this tough broad think she is — Raymond Burr in high-heels?”

“No,” I answer, “I know many really tough gals who are Lesbians; cab drivers, construction workers, even a few rodeo gals, whose personalities are real, they are warm, caring persons.

“This demeanor, this show, is not about Freudian over-compensation or being tough in a masculine world; it’s all about power and ambition,” I comment as she is book-ended on the stage by two modern “Dukes” of bluster and armed might, then-San Diego County Sheriff William B. Kolender, who allowed his deputies to shoot down unarmed Latinos in the barrios; and San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne, who protects murdering police officers, encourages brutality against the homeless and uses his detectives to circumvent city ordinances.

John Wayne, even though he provided a cultural context, a mythical arrogance to the national character, which continues to drive American Empire, never, personally harmed anyone in his illusion. Dumanis, on the other hand, wields her power as District Attorney to manipulate the legal system for personal ambition at the expense of sick people needing relief from their suffering and pain.

American Empire seems to be a double-edged sword. It is not just bombing distant cities to protect oil pipelines or corrupt world corporations. (Would Wayne’s modern movies show him gunning down Afghan poor in their own villages and homes?). Empire is also reflected in ideology and national assumptions. From the Romans to the British to modern Corporate-Owned Capitalism — an emerging state without defined borders and its own armed forces, as the movie Avatar spectacularly highlights — the domination of others and the plunder of national resources were always driven by a mind-set that depended on power and hierarchy.

Thus the flip side of U.S. troops making the world safe for Wal-Mart and McDonald’s is the other edge of the blade; narrowing the parameters of freedoms and liberties in our neighborhoods and in our everyday lives. Empire must own and control its base, provide wonderful motivations for conformity and terrible consequences for dissent and, most importantly, make alternatives not only impossible but unthinkable. Today, everywhere, human beings, either individually or in associations such as governments, are increasingly incapable of calculating possibilities because the freedom to choose is an illusion.

Like shoppers on an escalator or cattle prodded through chutes, there is no room to maneuver. Behavior is no longer innovative and spontaneous because consciousness itself [to stand apart, the ability to give things meaning] is hammered into a socially determined aspect of self. In a corporate-owned world, most of us are trapped by the lack of alternatives and increasingly, the ability to even imagine options. Human praxis, the reflective process of thought and action, has become stunted; liberty an illusion, and the notion of individuality a cruel myth.

C. Wright Mills’ warnings, decades ago, about the continuing constraints on human freedom by those who have institutional and economic power have come to pass. Political and economic tyranny, even the manipulation of truth itself, have become commonplace, with little dissent. Thus the San Diego District Attorney can go before the press and not only spoon-feed local journalists a fraudulent legal basis for her harassment and downright lies about her victims’ personal affairs, but she is never challenged by the media — even when her statements are not what the official court documents say.

Dumanis, like any self-respecting addict, is hooked on the egotism of power and the selfishness of wealth, the rewards of Corporate-Owned Capitalism, its high, its opiate, its material comforts, its insatiable requisite for supremacy’s self-definition and purpose.

Her place in the continuing cultural wars for economic purposes, where everything is made into a commodity and sold at a price, even the health of one’s one body and the alleviation of pain, is assured as she persecutes and prosecutes medical marijuana users in San Diego. The violence of stalking ill persons, particularly fellow LGBT people, for personal ambition makes her addiction to wealth and power even more sad and pitiful.

My mother advises me not to suggest a fierce District Attorney is vindictive, deceitful, power hungry and a crook. Of course, dear old mom lives in the far-off piney woods of the Ozark Mountains and worries about her only son; she doesn’t see the shattered lives and broken families that Dumanis has scattered around San Diego neighborhoods.

I assure my mother I have nothing personal against the D.A. In almost 20 years in San Diego, I have never been arrested or even had to pay a traffic fine. I can pity Dumanis for her infirmity, her madness, the tyrannical, autocratic abuse of authority, like Richard Nixon or Jack Abramoff; and still fight the system that allows one person to have so much power to destroy lives, circumvent state law and the will of California voters and great personal greed.

“The authoritarian ideology she represents, owned by corporate dollars and backed by the armed might of all our militarized forces is what I fight,” I tell my mother, “not this tragic, fleshy android, another piece of equipment in Empire’s mechanism.”

Love and Death of a San Diego Hero

Dumanis is, indeed, just another delusional villain in a long list of San Diego prosecutors and legal violence which, under corporate-owned ideology and the police power of local authorities, has disrupted lives, harassed, entrapped and imprisoned many innocent people and led to the martyrdom of one of San Diego’s greatest heroes — Steve McWilliams.

The only time I ever saw Steve McWilliams laugh was in early summer of 2005; little realizing that soon, like a Buddhist monk wrapped in flames, he would use his own life as a metaphor for justice and light in a society gone blind with fear and greed.

I stood there talking to him, as I often did when he walked his dogs along the sidewalk in Normal Heights, discussing the weather, the dogs or the large garden I tended. With great sadness, he looked beyond my eyes, over my left shoulder, watching the bulbous clouds as they slid through the blue-green brightness. As the gray shadows moved over the daisies and roses; he remarked how, as human beings, driven by either selfishness or compassion, we can make the world either ugly or beautiful.

On his walk back, where the street ends at the edge of that great San Diego canyon, Mission Valley, he was on the opposite side and watched as I came out of the courtyard just as someone was pulling their dog off the grass, leaving a large pile of doggy-doo. Now, I had a shovel in my hand, so I scooped it up on the shovel and walked behind, yelling “Sir, you forgot something.” All the neighbors came out to witness his attempt to ignore the selfishness and contempt reflected in this act. Steve joined in that communal laugh.

It will take more than a shovel, even a skip-loader, to trail behind Judge Reuben Brooks or former U.S. Attorney Carol Lam and all the other government tyrants. Not even a freight hauler could carry the blood, anguish, wasted lives in prison, the pain and suffering they have created in their obscene efforts to control our lives.

McWilliams, nailed to a cross of pain for his efforts, fought the power of the state to regulate our personal freedoms and choices, not only for himself but every person in need of inexpensive medication without side effects. Yes, the truth shall set you free, and the government and media, both owned by powerful pharmaceutical companies, don’t want you to know that you can grow your own medicine in a coffee can, right there on the table in front of the window, alongside the geraniums and ferns.

If Steve, who suffered from severe neuropathic migraines caused by a traffic accident, had continued quietly to self-medicate with marijuana, as he had after his arrival in San Diego in 1997, he would still be with us today. However, his integrity and compassion drove him to found, with his partner, Barbara MacKenzie, Shelter from the Storm, San Diego’s first Medical Cannabis Resource Information Center.

He sought not only to empower sick people in pain with information but to liberate them from the evils of store-bought chemicals: manufactured dangerous pills, without long-term study, with threatening side-effects, developed primarily to make others, CEO’s and wealthy investors, richer.

He understood that the power of the federal government has been bought; from the President, through Congress to the Supreme Court, they have been ordered by their corporate masters to make the world safe for profit. This is what the War on Drugs is all about; why there are over 2 million young people, mostly of color, in our prisons and jails, more than the rest of the world combined.

Poor folks don’t have the resources for Valium or Prozac, so they have been criminalized, persecuted and stigmatized by the fear mongers as an excuse, the learning methodology, over the years, to build the links of the chain — a prison state, with the police and military in control, to protect the rich and to punish all who dissent.

When President George W. Bush was re-elected, a new phase in the clash of freedom over corporate tyranny began. The federal police system, using its years of experience in the hoods and barrios, moved its battle lines into middle-class neighborhoods, to win the cultural war, once and for all; to mop up the last vestiges of hippie notions and free will. Using simple-minded, cruel judges like Reuben Brooks, who McWilliams in his suicide note called “a wretched, evil little gnome,” and ambitious, ruthless agents of fear, like Carol Lam, they sought total control of our private lives.

And while the Obama administration has sought to stand down a little on the federal offense against marijuana users, local Right-wing elements and tyrannical ideologues like San Diego Police Chief Lansdowne, using his badge and taxpayer money to fund his goon squads, have went after San Diego medical marijuana users, even though that use is protected under city ordinances (as well as state law).

Steve McWilliams called himself an “impeccable warrior” in his death letter. He was facing the usual fascist response to dissent — prison- and in increasing pain, under court order not to grow or use the natural herb of relief. Saying he refused “to allow the government to control my life,” his last words were that he had “given ever thing to the cause — all my possessions, my time and, now, my life.”

In an obituary posted on the IndyMedia Web site in July 2005 I wrote the following: “Our greatest tribute to Steve, will be our own efforts toward overcoming hypocrisy and selfishness; to fight this increasingly cruel, authoritarian government on behalf of our children and neighbors. Steve, like all great and noble persons of history, hands back through space and time the courage to be free. His walk with love and death widens that path that we all must take; to make our lives meaningful, loving and liberating.”

One of Dumanis’ Victims

In his brief 28 years, Eugene Davidovich has followed all the rules, adhered to the law and lived an exemplary life. Yet, today, he stands broken, alone, homeless, persecuted and in daily pain. Clean-cut, honest spoken, go-getting; he was a child of the American dream, going from good son to impressive student to serving his country in the military. Afterward there came a fine loving marriage, a young son and a promising career in the computer programming field.

When the migraines came several years ago, he followed convention; visiting his doctor, prescription after prescription, with side-effects, until a friend turned him on to the benefits of medical cannabis. Again, following all the rules, Davidovich joined a medical marijuana collective, got a doctor’s recommendation and a city-issued patient card. Self-medicating, effectively and cheaply, he continued his family’s support, confident that he was a law-abiding citizen following the guidelines issued by the California Attorney General as outlined in Proposition 215 and adhering to the city codes and ordinances that legalized and regulated medical marijuana use.

Early in 2009, along with other legal patients of citywide medical collectives and cooperatives, he was swept up in what appears to be an illicit conspiracy by Police Chief Lansdowne and the ambitious Dumanis, to use the power of the badge and the prosecutorial muscle of the D.A.’s office to overturn and nullify city ordinances adopted by our elected officials.

Representative democracy appears to be under attack in San Diego as the Police Department, under the apparent orders of the D.A., has broadened a legitimate campaign against drug use on military bases and our campuses called alternately called “Operation Endless Summer” and “Operation Green Rx” into a witchhunt against medical marijuana users, particularly in our LGBT community.

Week after week, Davidovich and other legal cannabis users, trudge down to City Council meetings, hoping for fairness and justice, using the open forum period to plead their case. And week after week, eight sphinxes sit, roll their eyes, study reports and continue to ignore the persecution of San Diego citizens or the usurpation of the representative process in San Diego by dictatorial powers. Now, they have added insult to injury by withdrawing a mandate for city action on any kind of protection from the predatory D.A. and leaving the 30 or so dispensaries in legal limbo at risk of more attacks by Chief Lansdowne’s twisted priorities.

If the Police Chief can attack legally protected patients, as he is doing in Operation Green Rx; if the District Attorney ‘s office can tell a judge that they have arbitrary and tyrannically decided that San Diego’s ordinances and laws are invalid [which they did at the preliminary trial of Donna Lambert] without ever informing the City Council or using the legal process to go to a Superior Court or Federal judge to get them overturned: then we have moved ever closer to an Orwellian state.

“I believe in our justice system, in the rule of law,” Davidovich told me over coffee when I interviewed him in late 2009, “If I had done anything wrong, if I had broken the law, then I would simply plead guilty, accept a plea bargain and end this nightmare.” His fight back, is, indeed, our struggle. If his rights, his legal protections are not valid and can be withdrawn on a prosecutor’s whim or ambition; then, are any of us safe?

Davidovich, who followed the rules, yet ended in this Kafka-like nightmare, and all the other ill San Diegans, who thought they were protected by law, only to be attacked and prosecuted by those very authoritarian forces that should be protecting their legal rights, need our help.

What We Can Do

1. Call, write or e-mail your City Councilmember and demand they quit hiding from the issue and develop ordinances that protect the rights and access of legal users of medical marijuana.

2. Contact the District Attorney’s office and insist that this blatant political use of her office to persecute and prosecute legitimate medical marijuana users stop.

3. Contact San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne and suggest that department manpower spent lying to doctors, falsifying documents, and infiltrating professional co-ops and collectives should cease. Scarce funds could better be used to fight real crime against persons and property.