San Francisco

Last Occupiers Standing

occYou might have heard that Occupy’s dead. Certainly it’s changed. The large occupations of public space are gone, as are most of the marches. But the movement lives on through the work of groups like Occupy Bernal, which fights illegal home foreclosures in San Francisco’s southern neighborhoods. My piece for San Francisco magazine:

Housing justice organizations like the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment have been doing such work for years, but Occupy Bernal–like similar groups around the country, from Oakland to Minneapolis to Atlanta–has brought fresh bodies to the cause, along with a certain theatrical flair. It organized a bus tour of Peninsula mansions belonging to Wells Fargo board members, has occupied homes to stave off evictions, and is pushing for a moratorium on foreclosures in San Francisco. And when any San Francisco home goes up for auction, occupiers go to city hall to drown out the auctioneer with whistles and loud music.

Photo by Stian Rasmussen.

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Rose Pak is Winning

rpI’ve got the cover story in December’s San Francisco magazine: a profile of Rose Pak, Chinatown activist, community leader, and power-broker extraordinaire. This was a fun one to report and write.

PAK HAS BEEN general consultant to the Chinese Chamber of Commerce since the 1980s, but the title hardly does her justice. She is a confidante of mayors, a consumate political infighter who can get people hired or fired, and one of the leaders of a Chinatown-based political machine that has helped elect generations of local politicians. Most famously, of course, Pak and Brown engineered Lee’s ascension to the mayoralty in 2010, making him the city’s first Asian American to hold the position.

Pak’s political enemies—and they are legion—have their own loaded terms to describe her. They see her as a Chinatown “godmother,” ramming through policies that benefit her friends and punish her enemies. They say that she’s corrupt, dictatorial, an all-around nasty piece of work. Even the extent of her power is the subject of much debate in political circles. Sometimes she revels in her notoriety, but mostly she down-plays her influence. “Power,” she likes to say, “is an illusion.” If so, a lot of people can’t take their eyes off the shadow on the wall.

A COUPLE OF WEEKS after the banquet, I find myself careering down a steep fairway in a golf cart at the Olympic Club, the old-line, members-only golf course out on the city’s southwestern edge. It’s a rare bluebird day with a light breeze off the ocean—perfect for the charity tournament Pak has organized here for the last 18 years to benefit Chinese Hospital. She has already raised $25 million for the hospital’s rebuilding. Today will bring in another $720,000.

Pak is in the cart ahead with the mayor, who drives hunched over the wheel as if fleeing a bank robbery. At the wheel of my cart is David Ho, a 35-year-old community outreach manager with the CCDC and one of Pak’s closest associates. Periodically, Lee and Pak stop to chat with golfers beerily playing their way through a round. At one stop, Pak yells to a man about to tee off, “Hey, you need a mulligan? We’re selling them for 125 bucks a pop!” She laughs—ahuh-huh-huh-huh, like a muscle car backfiring—and then they’re off again.

Photo by the great Jim Hughes, who also shot the legendary “Aaron Peskin in a Speedo” photos that ran with my profile of the supervisor back in 2007.

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Housing a Movement, redux

utne31The current Utne Reader features a condensed version of my story about Steve DeCaprio, Oakland’s punk-rock squatter guru. I remember Utne from way back–what liberal doesn’t?–so it’s pretty cool to see my work in there. (Here’s a pdf, by the way, of the uncut version that ran in California Northern a few months ago.)

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Rainmaker: The Sort-of Super PAC

credoimgThe current issue of San Francisco publishes a quick Q&A I did with Becky Bond, head of Credo’s super PAC–which has the distinction of being the only super PAC out there that disapproves of super PACs. Here’s a PDF.

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Housing a Movement

calnorthCalifornia Northern magazine runs my piece on squatting, punk rock, and the Occupy movement. I tell the story through an Oakland squatter and activist named Steve DeCaprio (he also plays in the black metal band Embers), in whom all of these threads converge. There’s just an excerpt posted online now, but I’m told the whole thing will be up there at some point.

“One night a little more than a decade ago, Steve DeCaprio pulled his bike up to an abandoned house in Ghost Town, a poor neighborhood in West Oakland dotted with vacant lots. He cut through the rusty lock on the chain-link fence with bolt cutters, then pried open a plywood sheet that stood where the front door once had. Then he replaced the locks with his own. This is how DeCaprio, a longtime East Bay squatter and veteran of the punk and metal scenes, “acquired” his home.

He already knew that the previous owner of the house had died in the early 1980s and that no one had come forward to claim it. The turn-of-the-century bungalow had sat empty for many years. The kitchen floor was burned out, and the back of the house hung off the foundation. An acacia tree in the back yard had grown into the roof, leaving the interior open to the elements. The top floor was piled with the carcasses of dead raccoons and other small animals. “They would climb the tree, jump down, and get stuck,” he says.

Later, DeCaprio and a crew of friends got to work making the place habitable. “At first, it was basically just urban camping,” he remembers. It took eight months of on-and-off work to fix the roof. He got the water flowing, bought storm doors and painted the exterior, planted cacti in the front yard, and yanked out another backyard tree that had begun to menace the house next door. He named it Noodle House, and he currently shares it with three people plus the occasional touring underground band.

DeCaprio, who turns forty in August, has tousled, graying hair and favors Carharts and black t-shirts bearing band logos. In a more mainstream context, he would be described as a “go-getter.” He plays guitar in a black-metal band named Embers, works as a member representative for the California League of Conservation Voters, and is pursuing a law degree through an independent study program (he expects to take the bar exam next year). And, of course, there’s the house. Right now, DeCaprio is working on a solar array to provide electricity. “There’s gonna be this moment when I turn on a light switch and it’ll be epic,” he says.

… “

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Who’s the Big Dog Now?

bigdogMy piece in San Francisco magazine on the relative fortunes of Gavin Newsom and Kamala Harris, now that both have ascended to Sacramento. To use a racing metaphor: Newsom’s stuck in neutral, while Harris is in the fast lane. (See pg. 35.)

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Season of the Witch

I review David Talbot’s Season of the Witch in San Francisco magazine:

“Most San Franciscans already have at least a passing familiarity with the history of our famously liberal politics. But David Talbot’s new book delves to impressive depths in tracing the city’s transformation from parochial backwater to countercultural beacon … “

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Crusaders Storm Gomorrah!

crusadersMy piece on evangelicals setting up shop in SF in San Francisco magazine:

“The idea of missionary-minded southerners setting up shop in SoMa sounds like an unfortunate business decision (didn’t they read the guidebooks?). But a year after coming to town, the evangelical Epic Church is thriving in ways that say a lot about religion Bay Area–style, and about how SoMa itself has changed.
On a typical Sunday morning, the vibe in this sanctuary, located in the basement of an office building, is more dance club than country church … “

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Death to the Penalty

death1This month’s San Francisco magazine runs my piece on a legal challenge that could bring California’s death penalty law crashing down. The decision is expected this fall, but no matter which way the judge goes we can expect appeals stretching to the horizon. Ultimately, though, it’s hard not to see this challenge as yet another step on the road to abolition.

One way or the other, members of the defense community are cautiously optimistic that the death penalty’s days are numbered. “It’s like pushing a boulder uphill,” Zimring says. “But things are changing.”

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Thoughts on Occupy SF (updated)

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Yesterday, the Huffington Post ran my initial take on the Occupy SF movement–and Occupy Wall Street in general.

The encampment, huddled on the sidewalk in front of the Federal Reserve on Market Street, was a veritable Noah’s Ark of lefty protest. There were dreads in camo pants, Boomers in recycled-rubber sandals, crust punks with Guy Fawkes masks — red meat for Fox news, in other words.

But then a DPW street cleaning truck trundled by on Market Street. The guy in the passenger seat was leaning halfway out the window, high-fiving sign-waving protesters on the sidewalk. And every time the F-line passed the driver leaned on his horn, prompting a cheer from the protesters.

Clearly, this wasn’t just another San Francisco protest.

This is a fast-moving story, though. After my piece went up yesterday, word got out that the police were planning another raid on the camp Wednesday night. The call went out, and maybe a thousand came out to protect the encampment, and stayed deep into the night. A few impressions from last night’s gathering:

SF’s Brass Liberation Orchestra played its highly danceable version of protest music. The guy with the tuba was my favorite.

A woman danced while wearing a gas mask.

A new chant (at least to my ears) was born: “Hella, Hella Occupy!”

Rumors flew that some 2,000 Oakland occupiers were marching across the Bay Bridge to reinforce the SF encampment. Alas, they were just rumors.

Word was that hundreds of riot cops were massing in Potrero and headed to Justin Herman. Somewhat puzzlingly, they had piled into Muni buses for the ride up to the encampment. The jokes, of course, told themselves: “Riot police are on their way, but they may be a little late–they’re taking Muni.”

Bart shut down Oakland’s 12th Street station to prevent the Oakland occupiers from coming to San Francisco. Then they closed Embaradero station–due to a “civil disturbance,” as the agency put it. If only Bart could monetize the commuter anger it’s been generating lately, there’d be enough money to fund 24-7 service across the bay.

There was a lot of cigarette smoke. Activism requires lots of standing around and waiting. Hence the cigarettes.

Organizers taught the crowds to link arms and form defensive lines encircling the camp. People scrawled the number for the National Lawyers Guild (415.285.1011) on their arms, and donned vinegar-soaked bandanas in case of tear gas.

And then nothing happened. The cops never showed. Possibly because there were so many people there and the City Family didn’t want to risk an Oakland-style melee. It couldn’t have hurt that a good chunk of the city’s elected officials–including mayoral candidates Avalos, Yee, Adachi, and Chiu–turned up in the plaza last night. (Yes, Occupy SF has become an issue in the mayor’s race.) Today, the police said their maneuvers were just late-night training exercises. Advisory letters sent to businesses near the encampment suggest otherwise.

In any case, the camp’s still there. At least until tonight.

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