Friday, January 20, 2012

San Diegans Rally Against Citizens United Decision


Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

    One hundred protesters from Occupy San Diego, Activist San Diego, Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and a wide variety of organizations arrived January 20 for a rally outside the Federal Building in downtown San Diego to protest the U.S. Supreme Court’s two-year-old Citizens United decision. But instead of the traditional location directly in front of the Federal Building, it was held on a side lot two blocks away, a less visible space.
The rally featured speakers Marjorie Cohn, professor at Thomas Jefferson College of Law and former head of the National Lawyers’ Guild,; Lori Saldaña, former California State Assemblymember and current candidate for Congress against Republican incumbent Brian Bilbray; and Tara Ludwik, a 37-year-old single mother from Point Loma who described herself as “amazingly moderate” politically until last September, when she joined Occupy San Diego.
Ludwik mentioned the 100th anniversary of the Industrial Workers of the World’s (IWW) Free Speech Fight in San Diego, “where the IWW, one of the first international unions, put up soapboxes, real soapboxes, along ‘E’ Street between Fourth and Sixth Avenues. They were protesting the economic injustice of the 1 percent back then, specifically the Spreckels family. And here we are again, 100 years later, fighting that same fight.”
Ludwik pointed out the similarities to the way the IWW’s soapbox orators were treated by the San Diego city government and police department in 1912 and the way Occupy protesters are being treated today. “The city leaders quickly passed a local ordinance banning free speech in the Gaslamp Quarter,” she explained. “With the help of citizen vigilantes — whom we now call Right-wingers — the San Diego Police Department used harassment, intimidation, detained and brutalized the members, and even killed members of the Wobblies [IWW].”
According to Ludwig, California’s then-Governor, progressive Republican Hiram Johnson, appointed Commissioner Harris Weinstock to lead an investigation into San Diego’s systematic destruction of free-speech rights. “Weinstock reported, ‘The right of free speech should be inviolable, and it should not be left to the police and their discretion to prevent men from exercising this Constitutional right. Your Commissioner, Governor, finds the Police Department of the City of San Diego has gone beyond its legal limitations in forbidding men and women from holding street meetings.’ Does this sound familiar? It did to me, too.”
Ludwik said that in the modern era, “we’re still fighting for our free-speech rights. They’ve been hijacked by corporations and the billionaire families of today. They are still using the police department to suppress our free speech, again with harassment, intimidation and illegal detainment without charges. We see history repeat itself again in the streets of San Diego.” Ludwik drew another historical parallel to the murder of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who at the time he was killed was planning to lead a Poor People’s Campaign, setting up a tent city in Washington, D.C. to call public attention to economic inequality and injustice — essentially an Occupy-style campaign in 1968.
The two other speakers, Cohn and Saldaña, focused more on the specific facts of Citizens United and its impact on the 2010 and 2012 elections. “In Citizens United, a five-justice majority of the U.S. Supreme Court gutted campaign finance laws, saying they violated corporations’ freedom of speech,” Cohn explained. “The Court ruled it was unconstitutional to limit in any way the money corporations spend in attack ads or other electioneering to influence a political race. Citizens United opened the floodgates to unlimited ‘independent’ election expenditures by corporations … and made it harder for citizens to know exactly who’s behind it.”
That, Cohn said, is because the primary vehicle by which corporations are using their new-found power to control our politics is through so-called “super-PAC’s” (“PAC” stands for “political action committee”), which can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to support or oppose particular candidates and, unlike the candidates’ own campaigns, don’t have to disclose who their donors are. The only legal restrictions on super-PAC’s is they may not “coordinate” their activities with the official campaigns of the candidates they’re supporting — and even that limit, Cohn said, is honored more in the breach than the observance. She cited Stephen Colbert’s satirical attempt to get on the Republican Presidential primary ballot in South Carolina with the aid of a mock super-PAC run by Jon Stewart, who hosts the show that runs just before him nightly on the Comedy Channel — but who, according to the way Citizens United defined the law, has only a “passing acquaintance” with Colbert.
“Super-PAC’s have changed elections,” Cohn said. “Over 1/3 of all outside ad spending in the 2010 Congressional elections came from secret sources made possible by Citizens United. Super-PAC’s gave Republican [Presidential] candidates who lost badly in Iowa and New Hampshire the money to keep going. Usually they’d be out of the race by now, but super-PAC’s are making everybody spend more money.” She also quoted retired Justice John Paul Stevens’ dissent in Citizens United, which mocked the majority opinion by saying, “While our democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.”
Cohn also explained how corporations became legally acknowledged as “persons” in the first place. It happened in 1886, when the U.S. Supreme Court heard a case called Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad. “A passing remark made by the Chief Justice before oral argument that corporations were entitled to protection under the Fourteenth Amendment was recorded by the court reporter,” Cohn said. “That passing remark was picked up in later Supreme Court decisions affirming that corporations have constitutional rights.”
Saldaña recalled her own experience running for the California Assembly as a political novice against highly connected opponents in both the Democratic and Republican parties. “In my first campaign I signed the clean elections pledge, which limited my total spending to $350,000,” she recalled. “I was told I had no chance to win. I won 40 percent of the vote in the Democratic Party. I was outspent by over $1 million in that campaign, and people who were doing the analyses afterwards were scratching their heads wondering, ‘What happened?’ The people spoke, and the people overwhelmed the money.”
Though defenders of Citizens United have argued that it was fair because it freed labor unions, as well as for-profit business corporations, to make unlimited donations to political campaigns through super-PAC’s, Right-wing activists have qualified so-called “paycheck protection” initiatives for the November 2012 ballot in California and other states that would effectively kill union political activity by requiring unions to get signed permissions from each of their members, every year, to use shares of their dues for political activity. Meanwhile, says Saldaña, in the financial industry it’s just the reverse: financial corporations can spend any of their money on political activity any way they wish, but their employees are forbidden from contributing their own money as individuals unless they get permission from their bosses first.
“Money should never equal speech,” said Saldaña. “You see that in Civic Center Plaza, where people are being told they cannot put up a soapbox and speak. We need to organize not only in defense of the right to speak, but also the right to vote. We have a government ‘of the people, by the people and for the people’ who vote. Get out there and show that the people can overturn money.”
The people’s power to overturn money is, according to some legal scholars, under threat from a broad-based offensive by a Right-wing U.S. Supreme Court. Citizens United, they argue, is just the start of a movement to return the Supreme Court to its position from the 1880’s to the 1930’s, in which it declared in case after case that any government interference with the workings of the private economy deprived corporate “persons” of their rights to equal protection and due process under the 14th Amendment. While, as Cohn pointed out at the rally, the 14th Amendment was passed three years after the end of the Civil War (1868) and its purpose was “to protect the newly freed slaves,” a Republican Court majority soon seized on it to protect corporations against minimum-wage laws, regulations protecting workers’ health and safety, and virtually any regulation that might interfere with corporations and their ability to maximize profits.
The most notorious of these cases was Lochner v. New York, decided in 1905, in which the Court invalidated a New York state law setting maximum daily and weekly hours for bakers. As Jedediah Purdy explained in “The Roberts Court vs. America,” an article in the winter 2012 issue of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas (available online at, the Court ruled in Lochner “that the law violated constitutionally protected ‘liberty of contract,’ the freedom of both employees and employers to make whatever agreements they saw fit.” Between the 1880’s and the 1930’s, Purdy explained, “the Supreme Court struck down more than 200 pieces of state and federal legislation as violations of ‘economic liberty’” — including minimum-wage laws and laws guaranteeing workers the right to join unions.
Today, according to Purdy, the Right-wing Court majority has the same reactionary economic agenda as the Lochner court but has adapted its strategy for a different sort of economy. Instead of the 14th Amendment, Purdy argued, it has seized on the First Amendment and has essentially overruled a 1942 case that “purely commercial advertising” did not constitute constitutionally protected “free speech.” Indeed, one quite remarkable passage in Citizens United — written not by Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion, but by Antonin Scalia in a previous case Kennedy was quoting — says that restrictions on corporate speech “muffle the voices that best represent the most significant segments of the economy.” This suggests that to the current Supreme Court majority, corporations are more important economic actors than flesh-and-blood humans and therefore should have more speech rights.
Justice Kennedy appeared to endorse this position in 2011, when he wrote the majority opinion in Sorrell v. IMS Health, in which the court threw out a Vermont law barring the sale of information on individual doctors’ drug prescription records to pharmaceutical companies unless the doctors specifically gave permission for their records to be sold. Kennedy, Purdy explained, “wrote that the law was unconstitutional because it burdened speech — i.e., marketing — based on the identity of the speaker (patent-holding pharmaceutical companies) and the content of their message (advertising of drugs). Kennedy described the issue as follows: ‘The State may not burden the speech of others in order to tilt public debate in a preferred direction.’ … There is, of course, something otherworldly about describing as ‘public debate’ companies’ targeted pitches to physicians. … [T]he case extended First Amendment protections beyond anything recognizable as speech.”
Purdy summed up the Right-wing economic ideology behind both Citizens United and Sorrell as follows: “[M]arkets are the best way … of capturing and maximizing … value. Therefore, elections and other institutions should come to resemble markets as much as possible. The one incontrovertibly valuable kind of freedom, then, is freedom that makes markets work. It is in this market-fixated climate that courts can declare that spending is speech, advertisement is argument, and the transfer of marketing data is a core concern of the First Amendment. …Whether in elections or in marketing and the vast data economy behind it, the market itself, with all its inequality, is ever more thoroughly constitutionalized as a realm of freedom.”
As on so many issues, the Left has been divided on how to respond to Citizens United. Reformist liberals have called for legislation narrowing the scope of the opinion, perhaps by subjecting super-PAC’s to requirements that they disclose their contributors, just as candidates’ official campaigns have to do. Others have called for amending the Constitution itself, though they split on exactly how they would want to change the Constitution. Some would simply reverse the decision and add to the Constitution a provision that money does not equal speech and therefore the government can prevent corporations from donating to campaigns and enact limits on contributions and expenditures.
But the one essentially endorsed at the January 20 event was a far broader proposal from a coalition called “Move to Amend,” whose banner was posted as a backdrop to the speakers. Move to Amend wants to change the Constitution to “firmly establish that money is not speech, and that [only] human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights; guarantee the right to vote and to participate, and to have our votes and participation count; [and] protect local communities, their economies and democracies against illegitimate ‘pre-emption’ actions by global, national and state governments.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this post stated that the rally was originally scheduled for the front of the Federal Building until Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agents moved it to the grassy area south of the Federal Building where it took place. According to an e-mail received from event organizer Pam Page, the permit for the event was originally arranged for that location and "in no way did Homeland Security move the event or restrict our actions. Quite the opposite. On the day of the rally, HS officers were courteous and respectful of us as well as those in attendance." Zenger's regrets the error and has corrected the post above, as well as the version of this story in the March 2012 print edition, to reflect Page's information.

Democrats Are Not Evil


Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

“Why were there no progressives settling the Old West?”
“Because every time the progressive wagon train was attacked, they put the wagons in a circle and shot inward — at each other.”
   Old saying

In Germany in the early 1930’s, the Left was faced with an existential threat. A Right-wing populist party called the National Socialist German Workers’ Party — better known today by its initials, “Nazi” — skillfully exploited Germans’ long-standing racial prejudices and anxieties about the country’s economic collapse to become the largest party in the German legislature. Germany’s two largest Left parties, the Social Democrats and the Communists, responded not by joining together to fight the Nazis, but by attacking each other. The Communists even put out propaganda calling the Social Democrats, not the Nazis, “the real enemy.” We all know how this history turned out: the Nazis took power, annihilated the German Left, and ultimately murdered millions of Jews, Communists, Gypsies, Queers and other “undesirables” in the Holocaust as well as launching a campaign to conquer first Europe, then the world, that led to the deaths of millions more in what became known as World War II.
Unfortunately, all too many people on the Left in the U.S. today are not only following in the misbegotten footsteps of their German forebears, they are actually irrationally proud of doing so. U.S. liberals, progressives and radicals alike are faced with an existential threat in the combined forces of the Republican Party and the Tea Party — a movement which already controls the U.S. House of Representatives and the Supreme Court, and if it wins the Presidency and the Senate in this year’s election it will be able to implement a scorched-earth agenda including the final destruction of the U.S. labor movement, the abolition of the welfare state and of Social Security and Medicare as public programs, an adventurous imperialist foreign policy that will require even more swollen military budgets and make the U.S. even more of an international-law scofflaw than we were under the second President Bush, wholesale destruction of the environment and elimination of all regulations and controls on corporations, with the result that the “1 percent” the Occupy movement likes to talk about will control even more than 50 percent of America’s wealth and income.
Under this transformation — which I call the replacement of the USA with TPA, Tea Party America — this country’s workplaces will become hellholes and sweatshops rivaling anything Charles Dickens wrote about in 19th century Britain. The middle class will become a distant memory. So will the minimum wage and any other protections for workers’ rights. Human-caused climate change — which both the Republicans and the Tea Party deny even exists — will accelerate to such a level that, as one long-time environmental activist has put it, it will be “game over for the climate.” Corporations will be “above the law” in a way even beyond what they are now. TPA will be a sort of neo-feudalism in which we will be continually at the mercy of our corporate overlords, who — without any government regulations or labor unions to restrain them — will do what unrestrained capitalists always do: drive down wages to bare subsistence levels and create a society with a tiny handful of super-rich at the top, a huge mass of barely surviving super-poor at the bottom, and almost no one in between.
You don’t have to believe me. If you want to see what TPA will look like, look at the programs Republican governors and legislatures have pushed in states like Wisconsin and Ohio, where they’ve had total control of the government and have used that to destroy organized labor, vote huge tax breaks to businesses and run the economy into the ground. They’ve told the people ignorant or crazy or misguided or brainwashed enough to vote for them that slashing wages, public schools and social programs and giving more and more tax breaks to the 1 percent will “trickle down” — oops, I mean “unleash the private sector” — and create jobs. It didn’t in the 1930’s, it didn’t in the 1980’s and it won’t today. Businesses don’t hire people because they get tax breaks from government; they hire when there are people with the money to buy things — and the more Republican and Tea Party governments impoverish the 99 percent, the more corporations will continue to sit on great wads of cash while real live people face ever-lower incomes and ultimately impoverishment and even homelessness.
And what is the U.S. Left — whatever it calls itself, “liberal,” “progressive” or “radical” — doing to stop the total takeover of America and its transformation into TPA? Having the same old destructive battles that destroyed the German Left in the early 1930’s and have rendered the U.S. Left essentially impotent for the last 40 years. While the Right gets ready to use the electoral system to achieve the final triumph in a campaign it’s been waging since the 1930’s — since the current Right-wing revolutionary (misnamed “conservative” when in fact there is nothing conservative about it: far from wanting to preserve existing institutions and traditions — the basis of modern conservative philosophy since Edmund Burke founded it in the late 18th century — it seeks as radical social transformation as the French and Russian revolutionaries, only in the direction of greater inequality) movement began as a reaction to Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal — the Left still can’t get its act together. Its members still can’t decide whether to engage with electoral politics at all, or whether to do so within the Democratic Party or chase the will-o’-the-wisp (in the context of this country’s single-member districts and winner-take-all politics) of alternative parties.
For me, the strategic conclusion from logic and history is clear: America’s Leftists must unite behind and within the Democratic Party and must do so clearly and resolutely, not because the Democrats are particularly progressive (they aren’t) but because they remain the only organized force standing in the way of the Right’s replacement of the USA with TPA. The Democratic Party in the U.S. today is basically what the Social Democratic Party was in Germany in the early 1930’s: deeply compromised, largely in thrall to powerful business and military interests, but also the only realistic vehicle by which progressive candidates can win public office and progressive organizers working outside the electoral process can have sympathetic, or at least potentially pressurable, politicians in office with whom they can work.
I’ve presented this analysis at several public meetings of groups like Activist San Diego and the San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality (S.A.M.E.), whose members and their contributions I have the highest respect for, and in every case I’ve got the same reaction. No one has actually debated me on whether my analysis is correct. No one has used logic or reason to question my analogy between the Nazis in early-1930’s Germany and the Tea Party in the U.S. today. Instead they’ve reacted with a shocked emotionalism and a visceral disgust that anyone within their ranks would dare suggest that they sink so low and compromise so much as actually to support the (ugh!) Democrats. In their rhetoric they call the Democratic Party “the lesser of two evils,” while strategically they act as if they regard the Democrats as the greater evil than the Republicans.
When Frank Gormlie of the O. B. Rag organized a protest against the provisions of the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that allow the President to declare U.S. citizens “terror suspects” and hold them anywhere in the world without trial and even have them summarily executed, he didn’t target the headquarters of the Republican Party. Instead, he staged his protest at the headquarters of the Democratic Party, even though virtually all the bad stuff in the NDAA was put in by Republicans who forced the Democrats either to accept it or bring the entire U.S. Defense Department to a screeching halt. Blaming the Democrats for what’s wrong with the NDAA is like blaming your partner for being raped.
Just about everyone who has publicly taken me to task for urging that we work with the Democratic Party has done so from so viscerally emotional a level that I’ve come to realize it’s become about more than politics, more than electoral strategy, more than learning from and following previous eras’ models of how you achieve social change. Instead it’s become a way of redefining oneself not only politically but personally, a sort of secular Left equivalent to the Right-wing experience of becoming a “born-again Christian.” For all too many Leftists, what should be matters of political strategy have become moral issues. Plenty of people on the American Left have separated from the two major parties — and in some cases, notably the anarchists within the Occupy movement, from any involvement with electoral politics whatsoever — not caring that that effectively deals them out of any effect on U.S. politics at all. Instead they go forth with a misguided sense of pride in their “moral purity” — while the dedicated grass-roots organizers of the Tea Party and the members of the 1 percent that fund them, if they think about us at all, smile and chuckle that our naïveté is making things so much easier for them.
In my previous editorials I’ve urged the U.S. Left in general and the Occupy movement in particular to move beyond “consensus,” “non-hierarchical” or “horizontal” decision-making and realize that, as Malcolm Gladwell wrote in the October 4, 2010 New Yorker, “If you’re taking on a powerful and organized establishment, you have to be a hierarchy.” Now I’m saying that the phrase “lesser of two evils” to describe either of America’s two major political parties should be thrown on the same scrap heap as “consensus decision-making.” A look at the Obama presidency so far confirms that, as much as he and the Democrats in Congress have fallen short of progressive ideals, this country is still better than it would have been had the Republicans had their way.
The economic stimulus package — though too small by half to generate a real recovery — at least saved hundreds of thousands of jobs nationwide and prevented the Bush II recession from becoming a full-blown depression. The bailout of the auto industry, which like the stimulus was almost unanimously opposed by the Republican party, salvaged a major sector of the economy and kept hundreds of thousands of people employed. On environmental issues, Net neutrality (if the Republicans have their way the Internet will be turned into as total a transmission belt for only Right-wing ideas as talk radio), women’s rights and Queer rights, Obama hasn’t been a fast friend but he and Congressional Democrats have offered major advances. To take just one example, whereas the Republicans in 2011 held the National Defense Authorization Act hostage in order to slip in provisions to destroy due-process rights for so-called “terror suspects,” the Democrats in 2010 held it hostage to get rid of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that prohibited Queers from serving openly in the U.S. military.
Part of the problem is that the Republican Party has become so doggedly ideological, so thoroughly Right-wing revolutionary, that it’s long since ceased to be an alternative for progressives. That wasn’t always the case. The Republican Party was born in 1856 as a progressive alternative to the Democrats, who then were so closely aligned to the Southern slaveocracy that they literally would not allow the issue of slavery even to be debated in Congress. After the Civil War the Republicans largely took the place of the Federalist and Whig parties as the representative of Northern business interests and the capitalist “robber barons” who were the 1 percent of the 1880’s and 1890’s — but a strong streak of liberalism and even radicalism remained within the GOP. It began to fade, ironically, exactly 100 years ago when it refused to renominate Theodore Roosevelt (a far more progressive candidate than either major party would run today!) for President — but as late as the 1960’s the phrase “liberal Republican” hadn’t yet become the oxymoron it is now. In the early 20th century progressives had an option they don’t now — to play both major U.S. parties against each other for the best deal we could get from either — and now that the Republicans have become so extremely ideologically Right, the Democrats have become the only game in town for progressives and therefore they don’t have to do as much for us as they would if the Republicans were serious competitors for our hearts, minds and votes.
But the main problem is that the American Left has totally forgotten that achieving social change in a representative republic like the U.S. requires a coordinated strategy involving both electoral and non-electoral activism. We used to know that in the 1930’s, when mass movements from the Left — not only organized labor but Huey Long’s Share-the-Wealth campaign for redistributive taxation and Francis Townsend’s for old-age pensions — pushed Franklin Roosevelt and the Democrats in Congress much farther Left than they would have wanted to go and created Social Security, the legal recognition of organized labor and massive public employment programs. We still knew it in the 1960’s, when the civil rights movement and the bodies it put in the street pushed John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson farther than they wanted to go and led to the end of legally sanctioned racial segregation and equal voting rights for Americans of color. Now it is the Right that understands the connection between electoral and non-electoral politics — between the grass-roots demonstrations of the Tea Party and the corporate-funded campaigns of Republican Congressional candidates — and they are using it to shift American politics and social policies so far to the Right they threaten to undo all the progressive gains of the last 130 years.
From 2013 to 2017 the President of the United States will be either one of two people. Either it will be Barack Obama, whose strengths and weaknesses we have become all too familiar with over the last three years, and who — undoubtedly because he’s felt the kind of pressure from the Occupy movement that grass-roots activists are supposed to put on politicians — tried four times in the last three months to get the U.S. Senate to approve higher taxes on millionaires to fund Social Security payroll tax relief for working people, and got sandbagged by unanimous Republican opposition. Or it will be Mitt Romney, who epitomizes everything the Occupy activists say they hate: a charter member of the 1 percent, a former hedge-fund manager and serial job destroyer who proudly boasts that he enjoys being able to fire people and who has publicly said that “corporations are people” in a tone of voice that shows he can’t conceive of anybody seriously believing that they aren’t. How any reality-based person can possibly still say that there is “no difference” between the Democratic and Republican Parties when faced with a choice like that is simply beyond me.
I’m not saying that we should take the Democratic Party as we find it and accept whatever meager rations it’s willing to dole out to us out of fear that the alternative would be far worse — although the alternative would be far worse. What I’m saying is that we should be seeking to copy the Tea Party by fighting both inside and outside the electoral arena. We should be marching and demonstrating against every abuse of our rights as citizens — every massive environment-destroying boondoggle like the Keystone XL pipeline (which the Republicans want to rush through and Obama wants at least to delay, if not block altogether), every restriction on women’s right to reproductive choice, every attempt to enshrine anti-Queer discrimination in the U.S. Constitution, every attempt at further deregulation of the economy and tax cuts to enrich the 1 percent even more — no matter how much support it has either from Republicans or Right-wing Democrats. Indeed, we should be emulating the Tea Party by running primary challengers against the most egregious pro-corporate, anti-choice, anti-labor, anti-environment Democrats and replacing them with genuine progressives.
What we should not be doing is either abandoning participation in electoral politics altogether or voting for minor-party candidates, which under the U.S. system amounts to the same thing. Just as every progressive German in the early 1930’s who did not vote for the Social Democrats was effectively voting for the Nazis, every progressive American who does not vote for every Democrat over every Republican in the 2012 elections is effectively voting for Tea Party America and its pro-corporate, pro-1 percent, anti-labor, racist, anti-woman, anti-Queer, anti-environment, anti-opportunity, anti-American Dream agenda. It’s time for those in the American Left who see some weird virtue in avoiding what they regard as moral contamination by the Democratic Party to look at things logically and realize that by dropping away from the Democrats, they are hastening the triumph of the Republicans and the Tea Party and digging their own “virtuous” progressive graves.

It Didn’t All Start at Stonewall!

Activists Hear from Pioneers of San Francisco’s Queer Rights Movement


Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTO: L to R: Pat Brown and Leo Laurence

“In the mid-1960’s I led a double life,” pioneering Queer activist and Zenger’s associate editor Leo E. Laurence told members and supporters of Activist San Diego (ASD) at the Pleasures & Treasures adult store in North Park January 16. “By day I was a reporter for KGO-TV” — the San Francisco affiliate of ABC — “and by night I was a writer for the Berkeley Barb,” the Bay Area’s pioneering “underground” paper. Laurence also led a double life of another sort — as a closeted Gay man in an era when almost nobody was “out” in the modern sense — until March 1969, when the firing of a friend with whom he’d appeared in a provocative Barb photo led him to found the Committee on Homosexual Freedom (CHF) and lead the first protests in U.S. history against a private employer for firing a Queer employee.
In the late 1960’s Laurence was volunteer editor for Vector, a monthly magazine published by a conservative Queer organization called the Society for Individual Rights (SIR). Laurence had met a young man named Gale Whittington and asked him to do a photo shoot for Vector; he also invited Whittington to write a monthly column on Gay fashion for Vector.
“He and I arranged a photo shoot in his bedroom,” Laurence recalled, “and for some reason I invited Ron Hoffman, a photographer for the Barb, to be at the shoot. After I got the photos I wanted for Vector, I turned to Ron and said, ‘You know, I’d like a shot with Gale.’ He said, ‘What do you want?’ I just went up to Gale, who didn’t have a shirt on, put my arms around him and said, ‘How about this?’” Hoffman’s photo was published in the Barb, illustrating an article by Laurence called “Don’t Hide It,” and the Barb editor cropped the photo to make it look like Whittington was naked.
In March 1969, a few days after the Barb came out with the photo — and three months before the riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York City that are commonly considered the birth of the Queer rights movement — Whittington called Laurence at 11 p.m. and said he’d been fired from his job in the mailroom at the States Steamship Line after someone at work had seen the picture. Tearing up at the memory, Laurence recalled to ASD, “I told him, ‘We have to do something big.’ I was using the word ‘big’ in a sense that the Gay community never knew before. We weren’t planning on launching a worldwide movement, but that’s basically what happened.”
What they did was mount a picket outside the States Steamship headquarters from noon to 2 p.m., Monday through Friday. Laurence recalled that his group started with 13 “core” members and ultimately grew to about 25, plus other people on a contact list they could bring out for the States pickets and other demonstrations. Brown recalled that he was made picket captain “because I already had experience leading demonstrations with the anti-Viet Nam War movement.” He sought out training from the American Friends’ Service Committee (AFSC) on how to do nonviolent protesting, but that group — which, Brown recalled, had “organized in the South and risked their lives for Black civil rights” — refused to help a Queer group mount a protest. So Brown bought a dozen copies of the AFSC’s instruction manual on nonviolent civil disobedience and the group’s members taught themselves.
The nascent Queer rights picket also needed an organizational name, and Laurence recalled brainstorming one on his own, writing on a napkin at a coffeehouse at midnight. His first thought was to call it the “Homosexual Freedom Committee” — at the time the few Queer activists there were called themselves either “homosexual” or “homophile” for public consumption, and the word “Gay” was private community slang almost never used in the outside world — but then he realized the initials “HFC” were already being used by the Household Finance Corporation, a local Bay Area savings-and-loan. So he changed the order of the words and called the group CHF, for “Committee on Homosexual Freedom.”
“The first meeting was held in Leo’s house,” Brown recalled. “People had seen it announced in the Barb. [Barb publisher] Max Scherr had been a labor lawyer, and the Barb was distributed on the East Coast. The protests had spread to Los Angeles, where Rev. Troy Perry [the founder of Metropolitan Community Church for Queer and Queer-friendly Christians] was leading pickets against the States Steamship offices in L.A. Before we started, the only [Queer-rights] picketing going on was one time a year outside the White House on the Fourth of July. We did the first long-term, consistent picketing because we realized we had to.”
According to Laurence and Brown, it was that organizational consistency that differentiated their activities from the Stonewall riots and marked their group as the real founders of the ongoing Queer liberation movement. “Stonewall was a clash between Puerto Rican drag queens and the police,” Laurence said. “What was happening in San Francisco was a carefully planned civil-rights action.” Indeed, Laurence said that the first he heard of the Stonewall riots was from a friend in New York, accountant John Marks, who lived across the street from the Stonewall Inn and, while the riots were going on, called Laurence “and said, ‘We like what you’re doing, and we’re doing it in New York.’ So it’s safe to say the inspiration for Stonewall was what happened in San Francisco.”
“Stonewall was the spark that set the fire, but we were the bricks and mortar,” said Brown. We picketed every workday from noon to 2 p.m. to get the lunchtime crowd. We were there from late March until mid-July 1969, two weeks after Stonewall. I knew we had to maintain order on the picket line, and it was always present in my mind that [the police] could just come in and wipe us out.”
Why didn’t they? “The police had quite a few people on the other side of the street from us,” Laurence recalled. “I walked up to the police sergeant — which I could do since I had a media pass from ABC — and asked him, ‘Why are you on the other side of the street? If this were the Black Panthers, you’d be right on top of them.’ He said, ‘We can’t touch them. If we do, we’ll become them.’”
Whittington never got his job back at States — and neither did Laurence when he was fired from KGO-TV in 1971 — but according to Brown, they did win back the job of a Gay employee at Tower Records (then the largest music retailer in the Bay Area) who, ironically, probably didn’t deserve it. “We opened another front and picketed at Tower, and in two weeks they buckled and took him back,” Brown recalled.

Seeking — and Finding — Allies

Like more recent Queer activists, Laurence, Brown and the other CHF founders realized they needed allies — and they looked for them in the same places modern Queer activists often do: the militant organizations of people of color. In 1969 that meant the Black Panther Party and the United Farm Workers (UFW). Laurence and Brown recalled how CHF joined the UFW’s pickets outside Safeway supermarkets to get people to stop buying grapes. In addition to signs with the UFW’s slogans, they also carried signs reading “Gay Is Good” and other messages from the new Queer movement.
Not everyone on the UFW picket lines liked the idea of marching with a group carrying “Gay Is Good” messages. So, Laurence said, they went right to the top. “We called [UFW president] César Chávez, and he said, ‘Let them picket.’”
Later Laurence got a call from the Black Panthers, who essentially wanted him as a human shield to forestall a police raid on their headquarters they’d been tipped was about to happen. “They wanted some white people there,” he recalled. “I went down and it was obvious that I was Gay. The Panthers were impressed, and they taught us. For example, one lesson we learned from them was that when you do a street march, do it completely legally. Don’t even jaywalk.”
Laurence said their training and relationship with the Panthers stood them in good stead when they started targeting Right-wingers and businesspeople within the Queer community. “The closeted ‘homophile’ community opposed us,” he said. “There was one very elegant Gay bar in San Francisco where one of our members was refused service, and we decided to stage an action there. When the Black Panthers wanted to intimidate people, they would stand with arms locked across their chests and not look around. We went in that bar and stood there in the Panther pose, and the bartender threatened to call the police. We emptied that bar in three to four minutes. People did not want an action in a bar, and before the police arrived, we were gone.”
The next day Laurence heard through the grapevine a wildly exaggerated account of the action in which the members of their group had supposedly entered the bar carrying guns. “We would never think of using guns, but the Panthers would,” he recalled. “They gave us a phone number and told us to use it. I always knew that if this got heavy and one of us feared for their safety, they would be there. The Panthers told us we were more revolutionary than they were, because they couldn’t change the color of their skin — but we didn’t have to come out.”

The Forgotten History

Not surprisingly, both Laurence and Brown are at least somewhat bitter that the pioneering efforts of the CHF have been relegated to footnotes — or ignored completely — in the depoliticized, New York-centric orthodox view of how the U.S. Queer movement got started. They’re also appalled at the changes in how the community named itself. While they applauded the abandonment of the words “homosexual” and “homophile” and their replacement with the term “Gay” in the early 1970’s, they haven’t supported the addition of the word “Lesbian” and are even less enamored of the initials “LGBT” — for “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender” — that has become the standard term now.
“I remember when the Daughters of Bilitis [the pioneering group founded by Lesbian couple Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon in San Francisco in the 1950’s] went through the name change, and a number of older Gay women said, ‘Aren’t we Gay anymore?’,” Brown recalled. “This was concocted at a Socialist Workers’ Party convention in New York, and I think it deprived Gay women of a common same-sex humanity.”
“One of the most difficult days of the year for me is the annual Gay Pride Parade here, now,” Laurence said. “To the local [LGBT] Center, Pat and I are invisible. The Center’s director won’t even speak to me. There are some books which refer to us in two to three paragraphs. One problem with Gay historians is they prefer to print the myth, and they continue to refer to Gale and I as lovers — which we were not. I lost my job at ABC and went through a lot of emotional hell, and it’s difficult when Gay Pride rolls around and people won’t even acknowledge that things happened in San Francisco before Stonewall.”
“They did eclipse everything we did, but New York City is the center of the news and entertainment industry,” Brown ruefully added. “To call the San Francisco Gay Pride Parade ‘Stonewall West’ is a grave miscarriage of nomenclature. It’s just outrageous. We didn’t try to make any mileage or get ourselves set in stone as the ‘founders’ 43 years ago. In fact, we were relieved when Stonewall happened, fired the public imagination and spread the movement.”
Brown said that “we really haven’t protested” the enshrinement of Stonewall as the official “founding” of the Queer rights movement. “I have friends who were at Stonewall, including Jimmy Fouratt, whom I just saw for the first time in 30 years. Stonewall had its role, but the history should show that we were the brick and mortar, and we were completely nonviolent. It’s easy to throw rocks and bottles at the cops, but what really works is peaceful, consistent, continuous activity.”

Occupy 2.0

Movement Switches from Fighting Police to Making Demands


Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTOS: Occupy San Diego march January 7
The occupation is dead but Occupy San Diego lives on. That was the message in the streets of downtown San Diego on January 7 as members and supporters of Occupy San Diego staged a march from Children’s Park on the Embarcadero to Civic Center Plaza. The march was called to commemorate the three-month anniversary of the original occupation — and was advertised with a similar-looking leaflet — but it took a considerably more circuitous route, going out to the entrance of Seaport Village (where police formed a human barrier to keep marchers from going in), then turning and walking along the Embarcadero to the Broadway Pier and going up Broadway and into the Gaslamp Quarter.
That was also the message of John Kenney, who in a movement that prides itself on being “leaderless” nonetheless emerged into prominence when he staged a 36-day hunger strike to protest the San Diego City Council’s refusal even to vote on, much less approve, a resolution supporting the occupation as the city governments of San Francisco and Los Angeles had.
“Clearly, Phase One is over,” Kenney told Zenger’s in an exclusive interview January 16. “We are no longer occupying spaces like Civic Center Plaza across the nation. We’re more into occupying the mind, occupying places like banks, places like foreclosures. We don’t want the focus to be on occupying that space — which we can’t do right now — or the daily rugby match with the police here. This isn’t about fighting the police. We really have a bigger movement and a lot more things to say.”
The day before the January 7 march, Kenney had an article in La Prensa, a long-existing bilingual San Diego publication targeting the Latino community, describing what Occupy San Diego and an allied organization called Ocupemos el Barrio/Occupy the Hood are doing to reach out and address the concerns of people of color in general, and African-Americans and Latinos in particular. Kenney quoted Carlos Pelayo, president of the San Diego/Imperial Counties Chapter Labor Council for Latin-American Advancement, as saying, “This foreclosure crisis was a wake-up call for many in my community … [Foreclosures] really are making people aware of their 99 percent consciousness, and making them wake up to the actions of the 1 percent. This crisis will serve to get our communities together and activated to fight this travesty.”
The Occupy movement is also moving away from its initial decision not to present actual demands to the political system. Occupy San Diego and its sibling organizations have scheduled an “Occupy San Diego County Strategic Summit” Saturday, February 4, noon to 6 p.m., at the Centro Cultural de la Raza, 2004 Park Boulevard in Balboa Park. “We’re trying to call anyone who’s been involved with the Occupy movement since its inception to this date,” Kenney explained, “as well as outreach to various communities of color. The [San Diego/Imperial Counties] Labor Council is working on it in a big way. They have a representative who comes to all our meetings. [We’re doing] outreach to many women’s groups, LGBT [Queer] groups. The Radical Feminist Committee is working with us.”
Along with a moratorium on foreclosures, Kenney said, other specific demands the Occupy groups are coalescing around include a call for local governments to “divest from huge financial institutions and allow modifications on credible debtors for 80 percent of the current value, not the inflated prices they bought their homes for” during the boom. In addition, Kenney explained, “We are for Move to Amend, which is the campaign to amend the U.S. Constitution to eliminate corporate personhood. We are against the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and the PATRIOT Act, and we want money out of politics. So we have four different resolutions sitting in front of our City Council.”
Kenney doesn’t have much hope that the San Diego City Council will endorse any of the Occupy positions. After all, they had shown themselves perfectly willing to let him starve himself to death rather than so much as consider a resolution allowing the occupation of Civic Center Plaza. (Kenney said he ended his hunger strike at 36 days because that was “as long as César Chávez did.”) “We expect almost the same deal as we got out of them the first time,” he explained. “We presented Move to Amend to our City Council on December 6, the very day the Los Angeles City Council passed the resolution. Our guys won’t even look at it. Surprise, surprise.”
One week after the Strategic Summit, on February 11 or 12, at a location to be announced later, Occupy San Diego is planning to host an “Occupy Southern California Conference” in San Diego as a follow-up to one in Long Beach January 14 and 15. The Conference is also targeting the California Democratic Party convention scheduled to take place in San Diego the same weekend. “We’ll try to formulate some direct actions, like a march, maybe a mic check or something like that, while the Dems are in town, as well as outreach. A lot of our issues are the same as theirs. We both have big umbrellas. We hope some of the Democrats come and join us. That being said, we have disparate elements in our Occupy movement, including some anarchists who want nothing to do with representative government. But we’re dealing with that.”
Four activists with Occupy San Diego — Mike Garcia, Tahra Ludwig, Tito and Chris McKay — are facing felony charges of conspiracy to disturb the peace when they disrupted Mayor Jerry Sanders’ state-of-the-city address January 11 with a “mic check.” “That was just absurd,” Kenney said. “They’re charging them with ‘conspiracy’ for expressing their right to speak under the First Amendment. This is what they [the San Diego city government and police department] have done straight from the get-go. They have clearly targeted us. We have a federal suit in. Not only that, they have deliberately ratcheted up the charges so we would have even higher bail bonds” — according to the Occupy San Diego Web site, bail was set at $10,000 for each defendant — “so it would drain our resources as well.”
According to Kenney, the San Diego city attorney’s office doesn’t have to present the charges immediately. They have one whole year to decide whether to go to court with the original charges, reduce them or drop them altogether — and, Kenney said, they’re using that to put Occupiers in “legal purgatory” for a year. “They can press those charges against you any time for a year, so basically you’re in legal limbo,” Kenney explained. “So it’s very difficult to carry a civil suit. They’re clearly targeting us. We’re almost going to have to wait a year out to press a civil suit against them.”
Kenney called the disruption of the Mayor’s speech “a spontaneous direct action of those individuals, not of our entire movement,” but added, “We stand behind the fact that they shouldn’t have been arrested on those trumped-up charges. It’s just indicative of what they’ve been doing from the get-go.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the form in which the above article appears in the February 2012 print edition of Zenger’s Newsmagazine. Since then, Zenger’s has been informed by Occupy San Diego member William Johnson that the February 4 and 11 events mentioned by John Kenney had not been “consensed to” — i.e., approved — by a general assembly of Occupy San Diego, and therefore they should be regarded as John Kenney’s personal projects rather than official Occupy San Diego events.

“The Hard Edge” Comes to San Diego Jan. 26-29

Workshops for Experienced Leather/BDSM Players in Second Year

PHOTO: Christi Campbell
The Hard Edge, the four-day series of Leather events and workshops sponsored by Ms. San Diego Leather 2009 Christi Campbell, will take place Thursday, January 26 through Sunday, January 29. Online registrations will be open until Wednesday, January 25 at Registrations can also be made in person at Pleasures & Treasures adult store, 2525 University Avenue in North Park, and at the opening event: an introduction and reception for the presenters Thursday, January 26, 7 to 9 p.m. at 428 Fourth Avenue, suite C downtown. Locations for the other events will be given out only after people register. The fee for the entire four days is $125.
The scheduled workshops and their presenters are:

Shit or Get off the Pot
Friday, January 27, 8:30 to 11:30 p.m.

Spiritual liberation or just a shitty idea; digesting, creating movement, and releasing for the purpose of cleansing oneself of the waste that no longer serves. There are many ways to achieve transformation. During this workshop we will explore some often misunderstood means to achieve such release.
Presenter Tommie StarChild has been an active member of the San Diego Leather community for 11 years. In addition, he has been in the D/S, BD/SM lifestyle for 22years. He lived 24/7 in a DS relationship for 6 years, was Padric Halls’ boy for 1 year and grandson to Jo Blas. He was under the teaching of Ms. Cynthia for his 3rd year, and assisted for 2 year. In addition, he is a priest of the Anderson Feri tradition, has been practicing the magic arts for 18 years, and now owns My Authentic Self where he works as a spiritual counselor, Reiki Master, healer, teacher, artist, and crafter of magical jewelry.

Forgive Me, Father, for I Have Sinned
Saturday, January 28, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

This workshop, “Bless me Father,” is an example of the guilt/absolution interplay between a Priest (authority figure) and an altar boy (poor little sinner who doesn’t have a chance in hell of doing anything right) as the Priest sets up the Altar Server and then exacts an appropriate penance for the sins committed.
Presenter Mistress Melissa, Southern California Leather Woman 2011-2012. is a Professional/Lifestyle Dominant that has been in, on, and around the BDSM scene over 15 years. She’s worked as Head Mistress at the Chateau and Bar Sinister where I was the Head Mistress, and you may have seen her at The Dominion. She’s been on HBO, MTV, The WeNetwork, and many other publications.
Assistant Domina Angelina focuses on lifestyle education, with numerous workshops at Dungeon Servitus, skill training for select Dommes, as well as workshops for the local LGTBQ and Leather communities. Domina Angelina is the head of the Servitus F/family, a diverse group of Lifestyle Dominants, Switches, submissives, Tops, bottoms and fetishists. Domina Angelina is also a proud Poly Partner with Steve Hayworth.

WTF!?! A journey from A to Z and everything fucking imaginable in between …
Saturday, January 28, 2:30 to 5:30 p.m.

On this road we will explore the concept “WTF!?!” A to Z in definitions, terminology, protocols, and instructions on many absolute methods to get the proper answers to the “WTF!?!” questions at hand.
Presenter Mistress Shae Flanigan has been a Lifestyle player for the past 15 years and a member of the Los Angeles and San Diego Kink and Leather communities since landing in California from the Pacific Northwest a little over five years ago. To learn more about Mistress Shae and her classes or professional work, please check out her sites: and For information about her life coaching, please visit
Presenter Temptrx comes from a long line of perverted and twisted folk. She has over 20 years experience in the Leather ommunity and was trained in the old school traditions. She loves sharp and shiny objects and the sight of blood, whether her own or that of a tasty victim, brings out her very, very long fangs.
Assistant Astrid is a service-oriented versatile who plays and blurs lines between gender, power, and sensation. Shie plays hard and works hard at learning how to play. She likes to be aware of the risks, as safe as possible and always with consent (even if it may not sound like it to the casual observer).

If It Didn’t Hurt, I Wouldn’t Do It Because In Doing It I Bring You Joy
Saturday, January 28, 8-11 p.m.

Rough body punching is an interactive workshop that has been presented by Master Z at numerous events and venues around the country. A thorough explanation and demonstration on the art of rough body play is presented and hands-on experience will also be available to the participants of this energizing and sexy workshop. How to body punch, kick and face slap safely will be covered in detail.
Master Z of Texas is a well known Dominant, Presenter and Leader in the Leather and BDSm scene. He is the International Master 2004 and travels all over the United States and Canada making presentations on the Master/slave-Leather lifestyle and BDSm technique. He has also served as a popular Keynote Speaker and Emcee for a number of events. He is the Owner of slave bill and slave kiki.

Mums, the Word in Mummification...Lessons From The Tomb
Sunday, January 29, 10:15 a.m. to 1:45 p.m.

The mystery of the Mummy. Who or what lay buried beneath those wrappings? This workshop will show various forms of wrappings for mummification and different techniques for both the enjoyment of the Top and bottom roles. Wrapping of the body fully in materials from head to toe is mummification. This is one of your Edgier play scenes.
Presenter David Janisch has been active in the Leather community for over 30 years. David started his involvement with Club X in 1994, served 2 years on its board X, volunteered for Leatherfest San Diego for five years and co-directed Leatherfest IX. He was HeadMaster of SM-University for LF X and was Workshop Coordinator of over 60 workshops for Leatherfest XI. David has served on several judging panels and his workshop talents have taken him to Denver’s “Thunder in the Mountains,” Odessey 2000 in San Jose, Realm of the Leather Spectrum @ S.D. pride for 3 years, the Pain Guild & numerous Club X & Leather events. His most requested workshop is mummification.
Assistant Peter Gieblewicz’ involvement with the Leather/kink community has taken him fast forward in the last 10 years within the confines of IML, MIR, Southern Decadence, Hellfire Inferno & Folsom St. Fair in San Francisco, to name a few. He is a strong experienced bondage aficionado, a talented man who can give and receive in an equal balance. His motto is, “Bondage, bondage & more bondage.”


Immigrant Musician, Producer, Activist in San Diego


Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Fabio A. Rojas has certainly packed a lot of living in his 20-something years. He’s been making music ever since he was four or five years old, when he formed a family singing group with his older sisters in his native Colombia. His parents brought the family to Miami to get away from Colombia’s unrest, particularly the threat of kidnapping, and after studying music in Minnesota he ended up in San Diego. At present he’s the owner of Refugio Roots Music, a combination recording studio, performance space and art gallery at 906 21st Street in Golden Hill (it’s a corner building and the entrance is on “E” Street). He’s also recording progressive events for Activist San Diego’s under-construction radio station, KNSJ 89.5 FM in Descanso, and he recently returned from a tour with the popular, long-lived (17 years) Latino rock band the B-Side Players. Rojas can be reached online through Facebook at, or via e-mail at

Zenger’s: Why don’t you tell me a little bit about your background, your history, and how you got into music?
Fabio A. Rojas: I was born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia for the first 15 years of my life. My family raised me with the tradition, culture, values and style of living of a typical Latino. My dad was very passionate about music. He had sung as a very young man, but because of money-related issues and stuff like that, he couldn’t really pursue the dream. He owned his own company — not too big, not too small, a very medium way of living. So we struggled at the beginning, but by the end of the day he always got us into school, into some music classes here and there.
I started singing when I was a baby. I’ve sung all my life, ever since I have been conscious. My dad took us to the churches and the local spots to perform with my sisters. He would train us to do harmonizing and play the guitar a little bit, like a couple of chords. And he would get us a teacher. We couldn’t stand it. We wouldn’t have a teacher for more than two or three months because we would somehow find a way to get them fired. I guess, because We wanted a way to play our own stuff, or we just couldn’t stand to have a teacher.
My sisters and I ended up doing an album of traditional Christmas songs, ones we all liked, like “Feliz Navidad” and stuff like that. We were 8 or 9 when we recorded that. We went around the country, did a couple of tours there, and a famous producer who was in charge of the project said he wanted to do a TV special showing us recording an album. We ended up recording in the best studio Colombia has, working with top-of-the-line recording equipment in a million-dollar studio.
So you really get impressed. You’re a kid, you see how everything’s getting recorded. It’s got pots [volume controls] and buttons and clicks and ProTools technology. You’re in an amazing booth, comfortable, perfect temperature, everything’s fine. You feel like you want to pursue that. You feel like this is music, it’s capturing music, so this is an art.
I started out doing my own recording when I was 10, since I had some kind of knowledge with a computer. I still remember Windows 95 really well, which was my beginning, really. I definitely started recording with little microphones and doing stuff like that when I was 13. Through all those times, in school I was always the top student in music, because it was like my favorite class. And when you put passion into something, you become the best you can get. When I was 12 I started playing in programs, in commercials, in TV, whatever I could get myself into. My sisters would back me up sometimes, and I would back them up sometimes.
We finally left Colombia for two reasons. One was we thought there would be more opportunities in music in Miami. The other was the bullshit, if I may say this in an interview, all the terrible things that happened in our country sometimes. Colombia is a beautiful, amazing country with wonderful values and people. But my father’s company was becoming bigger, so he was making a little more money, and so we started receiving letters and people threatened our lives.
My dad felt like, “My family’s in jeopardy, because for some reason we travel a little bit with our kids, and they know that they’re singing and we have a little bit of money, so they want to do something to us.” All that social struggle over the 60 years of guerrillas, of wars, of false leaders, caught up to us, to the point where my family would watch TV, and all you would hear in the news was 10 more killed, 20 more killed. We were especially afraid of being kidnapped, because they were talking about kidnapping and doing something to us.
So my dad took a decision for both the music and for our lives, and we decided to move to Miami to start a new life. That’s true. That’s why people come to this country. This is a beautiful land of opportunities. It started with immigrants. I didn’t understand that back then, but of course I didn’t want to because I was 15. I had my friends and all my people there, but when you’re 15 you still don’t have much to say. You still have to go with your parents. You might have a lot of things in your mind, but you still have to be with your family.
We ended up moving to a retirement village called Cape Coral, two hours away from Miami, which was very cool. My father fell in love with it. He’s a very laid-back guy. He works a lot. He taught me a lot in life, but we still have a little bit of problems with each other because we both have that passion, that revolution inside, of like saying what we have in our minds. And if he’s right, we go for it. So I ended up moving out of my house when I was 17. I started looking for opportunities, went to Miami and recorded a couple of tracks with different people there. I started working with a radio station there, doing the jingles, cutting up tracks. Sometimes the radio station needed a short clip, so I would edit it or do something with it or try to find a way to get involved.

Zenger’s: So you were both performing and doing engineering and technical?
Rojas: Yes. Yes, sir. When that started happening, I found that my voice was changing late. Most people’s voices start changing when they’re 14 or 13. I started it when I was 16 or 17 because I took good care of it, so that made me stop a little bit as an artist, as a singer and stuff. But I kept developing the keyboard and the piano, and the guitar, and other instruments like percussion. I always had my hands around because in Colombia it’s always like you’ll never miss a plate of food or an instrument in the house. There’s always an instrument and there’s always a family member or somebody that comes from out of town.
I started developing more on guitar and piano, and music overall. I graduated from high school in a music school. It’s called Cypress Lake Center for the Arts High School, located in Fort Myers, and I’m a 2005 graduate with honors in music. I was a tenor in the choir. I did some jazz and some Latin. Definitely I was in charge of the Latin section. I remember there weren’t too many Latinos, but we kind of took over with the band.

Zenger’s: In Florida? That’s a bit of a surprise.
Rojas: Well, it’s just that it was two hours from Miami. It was a retirement community, and most of the people were in their 60’s and 70’s, retired people, American people, people that had lived here all their lives, U.S. citizens, not too many Spanish speakers. But I would travel to Miami constantly, I would have to say every month. It was so close. It was just an hour and 45 minutes.
Then I started developing a lot of contacts with Puerto Ricans and Jamaicans. My accent is very Colombian, but sometimes if I am talking to a Dominican or Cuban or Puerto Rican, I could pretty much pass as a Puerto Rican or a Dominican because there’s so much unity.
I started doing and listening to music that was very real. I mean, saying things about social and political stuff. They don’t just stay quiet about it. They don’t just go pop and whatever is hot, whatever is cool, but when people actually want to say what needs to be said through the songs and through music.
The local newspaper had a Spanish section, and I would write little things like how Dominicans thought about the new law that the government was putting in, or how Puerto Ricans have approached that since they’re part of the U.S. They’re a colony of the U.S., and so how does that relate to them?
As soon as I graduated from high school, I went to a college of music called McNally’s College of Music. Back then it was called Music Tech. These days, they changed the name to McNally’s. Very popular, one of the top 10 recording schools in the country. Very nice, because it had a lot of free time to record, so I happened to be in amazing studios for a long time.

Zenger’s: Where is that?
Rojas: This is in Minnesota, in the Twin Cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul. I would perform every Friday and Saturday. Of course, Minneapolis and St. Paul don’t have too many Latin people concentrated in the areas. You actually have to find the clubs and where they go.
There were two clubs, two very popular clubs, in downtown Minneapolis. Conga Bistro was one of them. I used to play there with a band that would just come together every Friday or Saturday. That’s how we got our money to survive. I started producing a little bit, of course, just right away, because the first months that you start going to a school of production you don’t know very much, if anything, about the art of recording.
But since I already had my ideas since I was 13, working with my computer, that gave me a little bit of extra kick. So that way I was able to start recording from my very first semester, start making myself noticeable. The course was usually three years; I ended up finishing it in two. I took a full-time schedule, 8 in the morning until 12 at night, very constant and very focused on that.
I took an extra month of broadcasting, and I took a little bit of contracts and stuff like that because I wanted to be a little more into the business side, and understand how to make a living out of it. I also had to show clear results that will produce and will make sense, as far as putting yourself out there. My dad was very strict on that all my life, because he was a businessman. He was a salesman. He would take me around the country, selling and showing me how to make things run, as far as his business.
So he would always say something to me, “Not everything in life is music, mi’jo. Not everything is music. Remember that.” And that always sticks in my mind, because it’s true. Not everything is music. I always wanted to make it in music. I wasn’t having fun if I wasn’t making music. Sometimes I wouldn’t even think about anything but just music. And, you know, you’ve got shirts to do. You’ve got to clean your room, and you’ve got to go to where you can help the family, especially when we came to the U.S.
When we came to the U.S., I remember working construction, working in restaurants, cleaning bathrooms. I put in a tile floor. I did air conditioning. I mean, we all had to hustle when we came for the first time, because when we came for the first time, all the money we had, of course, those were thousands of dollars, of course, to bring five people to the U.S., and to make — try to find a way to make them [documented] residents and go through the whole bullshit and scam that it is. There’s a lot of money involved.
I went to college to get my degree, came back to Florida, lived in Tampa for about six months, graduated with a diploma in business and stuff like that — it was a short program, five or six months — and that gave me the idea of going to Colombia and starting a recording studio, because it made sense to make it a business. So I said I’m going to take this to the next level, hopefully.
I went to Colombia. I didn’t find what I was expecting, obviously — a lot of closing doors — but thank God that I already had the language. In those five or six years that I was already here, I learned most of the English I’m speaking right now. Knowing English in Colombia — or any Latin country — is very important, because we do a lot of business in the international language, which is English. They wanted teachers that could teach in both languages.
So I started working in a very popular pre-school over there that has a lot of kids that are from people that are in good and in bad positions. It’s a big school that’s funded by the government, so I was able to get into teaching English through music. I was a teacher for about two years. But then I started receiving letters from the U.S. again, and it was like if you want to be able to be in the U.S. and stuff like that, you need to be here. You need to report yourself every three months from now on. Then it became every three weeks, and it became terrible. I didn’t want to take the chance of not being able to see my family for years, so because I didn’t want to take that chance, I decided to come back to the U.S.
A wonderful thing happened to me. As soon as I came back, a recording deal happened in L.A. Somebody that I knew had won a recording contract, and he included me in the recording deal. They flew me to Miami. I recorded with Sony Music some tracks of this up-and-coming artist, and I was part of the production, ready to go back to Miami when they had closed for 15 days. Then I went to a concert featuring the B-Side Players. I met them and we talked. They liked the way I played and we had a good energy going. So I ended up in San Diego, and I’m now in my 13th or 14th month here.
I know I have a lot of things ahead of me to learn. But now I can see a little bit more clearly as, for example, this beautiful place we are in right now, in the Activist San Diego movement and Occupy San Diego, and all these amazing things that are happening lately, are because I think this is the real deal. These days people want to stay real. People want the truth, and they’re trying to look for that truth.
I think this is the time to say what we need to say, at all cost, because then if we allow the next thing to happen — the revolution to stop at this point — then how much more time are we going to have to wait before we have some open channels? We’re getting to the point where we need to take the little channels that the people in power, the people in the government and the people who call themselves “leaders” and stuff like that, haven’t yet closed. This is the time to strike hard. And I think the media are the most effective way of making a statement of what’s happening out there.

Zenger’s: So what are you doing now?
Rojas: When I first came to San Diego, it was rough. I’m talking about anybody who starts somewhere new, sleeping in the car, sleeping on couches, trying to find myself in a stable position, trying to stable myself. Finally, I started working with different bands around San Diego, so that it gave me a little bit of extra income so that I could pay for my rent and stuff like that.
One of the most beautiful things that has happened to me lately to me is opening Refugio Roots Music, which is something I started with in Colombia. We have an idea: Unidos produciamiento arte. That is, “United producing art.” I wanted to find something that included my passion for music, which I know how to do, and which has given me my living for the last year at least.
Refugio Roots Music has been able to stay open because I work with three non-profit organizations, not only providing some of the furniture and equipment, but also some of that inner power, that thing that says, “Yes, we can do it. Let’s open a recording studio that’s community-based.” My passion about the recording studio is not just, oh, I want to make money, and I just want to make it for me and to make my music, or to just make profit out of it.
My main passion about the studio is how to work with the community, how to work with the nonprofits and people who have a real and clear message, such as Activist San Diego I want to use the media and what I know how to do, which is produce and record jingles, tracks, record live events, even graphic design. you have a computer with good software — ProTools, Prism, Flash, Photoshop and stuff like that — you have a powerful machine. Now you have a way of saying something to the masses.
We have done graphic design at Refugio Roots Music. We have done art gallery events, because I have a space for them. We have done live recordings. We have bands that have come there, recorded on the spot, and then they play them back so that people can get involved. Everybody in the room is recording at the same time, with a laugh, with a clap, with a joke, with movement — because everything you do in the room is getting recorded. It’s kind of like a concert that I’m putting together, just like recording whatever is happening with a band, so everybody can get together and record right away, on the spot.
The second part of my life that is really amazing lately is Activist San Diego and the Occupy movement. I think we’re right in the middle of la oja, like where you cook food. It’s like a pot. We’re right inside of the pot, and we either find a way to bring the heat down from the pot, so we can have some good-tasting food — or we just stay quiet and don’t do anything. And of course that’s not the option I took. I’ve taken the option of saying it, because of everything we have spoken about.

Zenger’s: You mentioned earlier the kind of music that’s popular today versus what you’re trying to do, trying to write songs about social issues and raise people’s consciousness. Were you ever tempted to go after being a pop star and making a lot of money?
Rojas: Not at all, not at all. I’ve realized if I’m going to sacrifice my art, I’d rather not even do it. It makes me actually mad that people have such an amazing talent and they’re talking bullshit. They sell their souls. They sell their souls. They sell their lives. They’d sell their mama trying to get to a status and to a position of, “Oh, we got money and we got the jewelry and we’ve got the cars.” That’s terrible. That really makes me understand how bad a condition we are in, how people sell themselves.
I know there are so many people who want to do good, but they took a decision earlier in their lives, so these days they don’t even have a way back. They got into the craziness that comes when they try to make it very successful, and they decided to sell their soul, sell their art. There’s all kinds of private organizations that are behind the media that are trying to corrupt you, because that’s how they get in the minds of the youth. And if the children and the youth learn bullshit, what are they going to become in the future? They’re going to become a bunch of shit. They’re going to grow up to be a bunch of people talking nonsense.
I prefer not to sell one album but to be heard, to have something to say, than to sell millions and have nonsense in my music. That’s something I have not even questioned, ever.. I really don’t care what car you drive or what you’re doing with it. I want to see what you’re actually doing with people that are coming right behind you. What are you leaving? What are you saying? How are you putting this out there so that people learn something? You don’t have to be a teacher or a revolutionary messenger, or a “souljah,” as they say. Just be real.
I’m hoping to release my album in 2012, sometime in June or July, and I think I’m very close to that. Somewhere between June or July or something like that. That’s when people are going to hear the music, and as we all know, music speaks so much more than a regular conversation. You can say so much more through a tune, through a song. Then probably it will make more sense to find me as a musician, as a composer, as an artist, as an activist, whatever you want to call it.