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March 1 - 5, 1999

Tuesday, March 2, 1999

Dances with lions

Last Saturday evening San Francisco once again transformed itself into a trans-Pacific outpost of the Celestial Kingdom as the annual Chinese New Year's parade made its noisy way through the city streets. It was a happy occasion, displaying little of the rowdy behavior that marred the solar new year's celebration last January. One lone USA Today newsrack upended at the edge of the Financial District looked jarringly out of place in the midst of the otherwise upright onlookers.

The parade was truly a family affair. Children in pink bunny suits or fuzzy white ears were everywhere, marking the Year of the Hare. Toddlers on parents' shoulders stared in wide-eyed seriousness as adults in gaudy costumes and teenagers in ROTC uniforms marched past. ("I hope we're not planning to send these kids into battle," remarked a burly blond man.) Majestic dragons and giant rabbits materialized in clouds of atonal music. Strange vehicles carried a variety of dignitaries, for on this night of suspended disbelief, Willie Brown and Tom Ammiano were as proudly Chinese as Leeland Yee and Mabel Teng. Southwest Airlines, the official sponsor of the event, contributed a pair of brightly painted planes, looking as air-worthy as the plastic facsimiles that fill many nurseries. Each carried an inscrutable banner that read, "Symbol of Freedom."

But the stars were the lions  --- orange, chartreuse, magenta, black  --- which wove back and forth, scaring away evil spirits with their fierce flashing teeth and the incessant accompaniment of firecrackers. One wore its own illumination: a string of electric light bulbs lit the ridge of its back while an attendant followed close behind, pushing a small, wheeled generator. It's hard to imagine the hours of practice required to synchronize the footwork of 20 or 30 vision-obscured dancers so that they can progress smoothly. One false step, and the feline centipede would surely land in a heap, sneaker-shod feet waving helplessly in the air.

To be ethnic Chinese in San Francisco, or in any other part of the United States, has required a constant adjustment in response to changes in the mainstream culture. The most obvious obstacle to an uneventful existence began in 1882 with a series of exclusion acts passed by Congress, which often prevented friends and family members from joining earlier immigrants. But Chinese-American history has been strewn with roadblocks: local regulations defined where Chinese could live; national laws denied the rights of citizenship; informal movements such as Dennis Kearney's Workingmen's Party threatened residents' very presence with slogans like "The Chinese Must Go!"

Nevertheless, when the Great Earthquake and Fire struck San Francisco, one community was safely settled in a city-designated seven-block area within the confines of Broadway, California, Kearny and Stockton. A contemporary photograph shows a street scene where the gutted buildings of Chinatown are banked with heaps of rubble. In the foreground, his back to us, stands a man in traditional Chinese clothes. He holds his arms stiffly away from his sides in an oddly naked gesture of despair as he stares at the ruins.

For many people in the city in 1906, the destruction of the old Chinatown offered an opportunity to remove what they considered offensive Asians from the downtown area. Why not relocate them in Hunters Point or evacuate them completely? Then a coalition of Chinese leaders and more sympathetic San Franciscans came up with a better scheme. The old enclave was rebuilt, using salvaged bricks. Rows of Edwardian buildings rose there, just as they did in other parts of the burned-out city. But in a deliberate bid for tourists' attention, the new Chinatown structures acquired vaguely "Oriental" bits of decoration, creating what photographer Arnold Genthe called "imposing bazaars of an architecture that never was." Genthe's photographs of the "old" Chinatown began to arouse new interest. Carefully cropped and retouched to exclude non-Asian faces, they depicted an exotic Shangri-la, a magical territory to be re-created for the benefit of Westerners within the humdrum modern city.

"Make tourists WANT to come," urged a local Chinese newspaper. They poured, despite acknowledgments that the area's long-term poverty and high crime rates remained unchanged. And Chinatown and its inhabitants continue to survive, although the district has fallen on harder times lately, since the destruction of the Central Freeway, and other attractions seeking cheap rents  --- tarot readers, sushi bars  --- have begun to move in.

But there was another Chinese life behind the garish façades. In the early years of the 20th century, this Chinatown and others like it provided funds and training for the nationalist revolutionaries who overthrew the Qing Dynasty and introduced democratic practices to the country of China. The great Sun Yat-Sen himself lived in San Francisco for a while, using the city as a base for his Young China Daily newspaper while he worked for political reform at home.

Most Americans closed their eyes to these activities, which threatened the simple constructed "reality" that was visible from the street. Similarly, in the waning years of the 20th century, San Franciscans turned out by the tens of thousands to watch a wonderfully fabricated parade that gave one marginalized group a brief moment of integration into the mainstream. But despite the full moon, some Chinese Americans may have glimpsed impending storm clouds as they remembered a headline in Saturday's Chronicle: "State Dept. Criticizes China Sharply on Human Rights." The story that followed, like others in the past few months, fed white Americansí deep-seated suspicians of Asian behavior. It began with a gruesomely exaggerated façade of broken promises, religious suppression and mass political imprisonment, enough to convince hasty readers that the China of today is nothing but a barbarous bed of brutality. Small matter that the second half of the article spoke of actual improvements in recent years  --- "Over all, average citizens go about their daily lives with more personal freedom than ever before"  --- and suggested that the government's fears of social unrest have stemmed quite naturally from the country's widespread economic chaos. It's easier to build a theme park based on fantasy than a bridge based on hard facts.

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1999

Wednesday, March 3, 1999


The following is the February 25 statement of Rahula Janowski, one of the Cherry Pie Three, at her six-month sentencing for pieing Mayor Willie Brown last November. It has been edited slightly for space.

Today a large number of people are participating in a 21-day fast as a part of Religious Witness's "Save The Dream Campaign" for Presidio housing for homeless people, as recommended by the voters of San Francisco when they passed proposition L in 1998. While Willie Brown doesn't have ultimate authority over the use of the Presidio, he does have considerable influence which he could use to try to make that dream come true. So far he hasn't, and so for the next fourteen days hundreds of people will be fasting to show their commitment to humane and respectful treatment of homeless people in San Francisco. In all honesty, I doubt that Willie Brown will be swayed to advocate for homeless people in any way. Yet I plan to participate in this fast because we must have hope and we must engage in a variety of activities to secure justice for the poor and homeless.

In the past five years I have engaged in a variety of activities focused on justice for poor and homeless people. I have written letters and signed petitions. I have marched in the streets; I have fed hundreds of hungry people, I have engaged in civil disobedience, and, yes, I have thrown a pie.

In the years I have lived in San Francisco, I have watched the numbers of homeless people in our city increase at a heart-sickening rate. I've seen vacancy rates plummet as rents rise drastically and affordable housing goes the way of the dinosaurs. Hand in hand with this housing crisis, I have also seen many of our public officials respond by victimizing and criminalizing homeless people. Matrix did not end when Willie Brown was elected; it simply became a nameless policy of harassment, as quality-of-life infractions, which specifically target homeless people, increased. Where is the compassion, the humanity, in our collective response to this situation?

Willie Brown began his political career as a tireless campaigner for civil rights. When civil rights activists staged sit-ins in the sixties to fight racial discrimination, Willie Brown was there, lining up legal support for arrested activists, among them our current District Attorney, Terence Hallinan. Throughout his political career, Willie Brown has maintained his commitment to civil rights for African American people. This makes it all the harder to bear when we see him ignoring and denying the civil rights of homeless people.

There is a famous quotation from Pastor Niemoeller, a Holocaust survivor: "First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew....Then they came for me, and there was nobody left to speak out for me." What that moving quotation does not mention is that before they came for the Jews, they came for the homeless, the mentally disabled, the unemployed, and all those categorized as "asocial."

The rationale behind the purge of poor and "asocial" people in Germany was as follows. "The psychological importance of a planned campaign against the nuisance of begging should not be underestimated. Beggars often force their poverty upon people in the most repulsive way for their own selfish purposes. If this sight disappears from view, the result will be a definite feeling of relief and liberation. People will feel that things are becoming more stable again, and that the economy is improving once more." The similarities between this rhetoric from Nazi Germany's Ministry of Propaganda and the rhetoric of our own local officials in their fight to rid San Francisco of visible homelessness is obvious. Let me be clear; I am not accusing Willie Brown or anyone else of being a Nazi. I am simply pointing out that by forgetting or ignoring that aspect of the Holocaust, we are in grave danger. As they say, those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it. The few people objecting to, and protesting, the scapegoating of our homeless community, are ignored. In one of his earliest acts as Mayor, Willie Brown canceled a much needed summit on homelessness, claiming it was a problem that couldn't be solved. Yes, homelessness can be solved, but it will take honesty, integrity, bravery, and a commitment to putting human needs ahead of economic profiteering. When our elected officials are so firmly in the pocket of wealthy interests, it is hard to be optimistic about change.

From the beginning, this case has been politically charged. Throwing a pie at Willie Brown was an act of political theater intended to hold him accountable for the harm he does as mayor to homeless people, and to draw attention to the plight faced by poor and homeless people in San Francisco. The aggressive prosecution of this case by Brown's longtime political ally, Terence Hallinan, has been politically motivated. Throughout the whole process, my codefendants and I have been willing and eager to find compromises and solutions to this situation. We offered a public apology to Willie Brown; we stated that we are sorry he was frightened and we are sorry he was hurt.

It was never our intention for anyone to be hurt; I have never in my life intentionally caused physical harm to another person. We also offered an apology to those members of the African American community who felt that for three white activists to pie a black mayor was racist. We met with the Reverend Cecil Williams and Supervisor Amos Brown, to try to engage in dialogue, because our act was not done in a racial context, it was done as a cry of protest from the disempowered to the over-empowered. Our attorneys met with Hallinan to express our willingness to plead guilty to a lesser charge and perform significant hours of community service. All of our efforts were met with disdain and rejection because this is a political case, and as stated by Willie Brown here in this courtroom, we were to be made examples of.

And examples we are. We are examples of how the justice system can be discretionary and discriminatory; of how politics and power brokering affect an individual's opportunity for fair treatment under the law. Our case is also an illuminating example of the lack of perspective and proportion in our society today. To treat pie throwing as a violent act and to prosecute it so aggressively is ridiculous beyond all measure.

It is apparent to me that the real crime we are here to be sentenced for is the crime of rocking the boat, challenging the status quo, and irritating one of the state's most powerful and influential politicians. The crimes committed against homeless people on a daily basis in this city consistently go unpunished. Homeless people are regularly assaulted, their belongings are regularly stolen, and their civil liberties and human rights are consistently denied and violated. I can only hope that a day will come when crimes against the dispossessed and the powerless are prosecuted as thoroughly as crimes against the ruling class and the powerful are prosecuted. For that day to come, the values held by our society must be dramatically altered. The most basic of human needs must become more important than greed and the relentless drive for acquisition of goods and power.

I know that the act of throwing a pie alone will not bring about this change. However, it is my hope as the people of San Francisco look at our action and the aftermath of our action, they will become more aware of the disparities of our governmental, criminal and judicial institutions. And it is my hope that, as they become aware, they will be moved to act; to say, No More!; and to dismantle this unjust, compassionless and humorless system.

--- Rahula Janowski, #1818075 (c/o SF County Jail 8, E Pod, 425 7th St., SF, CA, 94103)


Friday, March 5, 1999

Bosnian unionists seeking a united front

The following report was prepared by the Brussels-based International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU).

Bosnia is caught up in a dual transition process: from a country at war to a country at peace, and from a socialist economy to a capitalist system. Convincing workers of the need to join a modern trade union movement is not a foregone conclusion, given that before the conflict affiliation was automatic and compulsory. Without labor legislation, trade union activities, including strikes, have no legal backing. Employers of private companies take advantage of this to apply their own laws. Most of them occupy their position thanks to the support of the ruling political party, both in the Croat-Muslim Federation and the Serb Republic of Bosnia. Woe betide those who protest: "Criticizing management or simply insisting on your rights is risky for a worker and his or her family," says an ICFTU representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina. "We know many cases where the relation of a protester has been refused normal service from their local authorities, who tell them it is because of protests at the factory."

The same legislative vacuum surrounds the privatization process. Before the war, all enterprises were, theoretically, the property of society --- i.e., of the workers, who ran them through representative bodies largely influenced by the Communist Party. Often they financed repairs or an extension to the factory through deductions from their wages. Since the beginning of the 1990s, the government of the former Yugoslavia took steps towards the early stages of privatization by allowing workers to buy shares in their enterprise. War broke out while this process was underway; some companies had already sold 60 percent of shares to their employees, others had still not sold anything. At the end of the war, the state adopted a law by which it granted itself ownership of the enterprises. The workers were not stripped of their shares, but all the rest became the property of the public authorities who, under pressure from the international community, decided to privatize.

A first wave of privatization is due to start in the next few weeks (it was postponed months ago). It only concerns enterprises with less than 50 employees and of a value of less than 500,000 marks, but the problems it raises are already inextricable. In many cases the written proof of share ownership was destroyed in the fighting. "We have been robbed twice," say union delegates. "First, the state sells for its own profit the factories whose investment we have helped fund through deductions from our wages. Second, it will be impossible for us to buy the shares that will be for sale in the privatization process. Nobody has that kind of money in Bosnia-Herzegovina, except the criminals or war profiteers and those with the right political backing."

For the time being, none of the Bosnian trade unions represent all the country's workers. "One of the principal reasons for the ICFTU's presence in Bosnia is to try to promote a rapprochement between the trade unionists of the three communities (Muslim, Serb and Croat)," says an ICFTU official. "They have a lot of interests and problems in common. I am thinking in particular of the thousands of workers who lived in the other entity before the war: the documents relating to their previous working life are still with their former enterprise. It is very important that they get them back, for calculating their pensions, for example, but they don't dare go back to the other entity."

An international conference on the reconstruction and transition process in Bosnia and Herzegovina was held in Sarajevo on February 11 and 12. It was an opportunity for the trade unionists of Bosnia, both from the Croat-Muslim Federation and the Serb Republic, to present joint demands to the federal authorities and the international community. Represented at the conference were the ICFTU, International Labor Office, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Office of the High Representative for Bosnia, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and international trade secretariats. Speakers insisted on the need for real dialogue to help ensure the social peace essential for the reconstruction process. At the moment there are many strikes in the country, which have arisen spontaneously as a result of worker frustration. Conference participants also regretted the lack of labor legislation in the Croat-Muslim Federation (the code dates from the pre-war period), a problem felt all the more keenly because of the beginning of the privatization process. Modern labor legislation, harmonized between the two entities and in conformity with ILO conventions and recommendations, is at the top of their demands.

The trade unionists have repeatedly highlighted the plight of the most vulnerable groups, the absence of adequate funding for health and education, the problem of low wages and the delays in paying wages. They are demanding a coherent wage policy, with minimums that reflect the real cost of living. There are huge disparities between the different cantons, as well as between the Croat-Muslim Federation and the Serb Republic: the minimum wage is 150 marks in the former and 80 in the latter, while the average wage in the Serb Republic is only 38 percent of that in the Federation.

The conference deplored the fact that little investment in reconstruction has been directed at reviving production. The lack of jobs, technical unemployment and the poverty they cause are the major evils to be tackled, a priority reinforced by the authorities' failure to implement a social program.

--- The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) maintains a Web site at.


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