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June 21 - 25, 1999

Tuesday, June 22, 1999

You have to be carefully taught

The catalogue of human inhumanity contains many entries. It may be edifying, on a sunny summer day, to contemplate a few.

Sacramento County, California. June 18, 1999. Orange flames break the early morning darkness as, one after another, three synagogues begin to blaze. The burning of any synagogue contains strange, foreign resonances --- of pogroms, Kristallnacht, the Holocaust. These nearly simultaneous firebombings reek of anti-Semitism, made more pungent by the presence of pamphlets denouncing the role of the "Jewish media" in NATO's war on Kosovo.

No one incurred physical injuries in the fires, and two of the buildings escaped relatively unharmed. The third, B'nai Israel --- the oldest Jewish house of worship west of the Mississippi --- sustained substantial structural damage. This temple, located downtown in the state capital, had known other, less devastating sneak attacks. On July 26, 1993, a Molotov cocktail burst against one of its stained-glass windows and fell, searing the lawn below. But in the new assault, the temple also lost its library, including a collection of videotapes recently compiled in preparation for a 150th anniversary celebration. It lost memories.

The local police, suspecting hate crimes, called for federal assistance, and within hours agents from the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms arrived on the scene. Local notables such as Governor Davis and Senator Feinstein expressed horror at the incidents. And the executive director of the Anti-Defamation League in San Francisco noted an increase over the past two years of harassment and vandalism aimed at Jewish targets. Law enforcement officials promised a speedy and satisfying conclusion to their investigations.

Sonoma County, California. May 2, 1996. The sound of boots echo through the chilly midnight air. Shadowy figures bend over a youth, kicking his head as he lies helpless on the sidewalk.

Sixteen-year-old Dylan Katz had been walking his dog in a borrowed red sweatshirt. To keep warm, he thought. "To fly gang colors," his assailants alleged, as they cruised the town of Windsor in search of trophies and action. Stripping off the offending garment, they stomped Katz, a complete stranger, to the brink of death. The young man refused to slide over the edge. He confounded his doctors by pulling out of a coma after ten weeks. Then he went on, during the next three years, to leave his wheelchair, shakily regain his walking skills and reassert his freedom astride a motorcycle.

Katz's attackers, aged fifteen and seventeen at the time of the attack, were tried as adults. Acquitted of attempted murder, they were convicted of felony assault and robbery. Last December the courts upheld their respective sentences of ten and twelve years in prison.

Neshoba County, Mississippi. June 21, 1964. The sound of a car on a lonely country road interrupts the stillness of the Southern night. Three frightened men flee for their lives --- and lose.

Seven Klansmen, including a sheriff's deputy, stopped the car in which James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner were traveling and shot the young freedom riders to death for attempting to register African-American voters. The FBI discovered the bodies more than a month later. The identity of the killers was never in doubt and the federal government eventually prosecuted them successfully on conspiracy charges. But murder is a state --- not a federal --- offense, and Mississippi never managed to pin the rap on anyone. The case simmered in unresolved judicial limbo for decades, until recently when a busload of people re-creating the dramatic events of that historic summer urged the state to reopen the case.

If a new trial does indeed take place, the chances for conviction seem promising, given the enlightened climate of the new South and the inevitable nationwide media coverage. In this most racially charged of cases, justice will be served by a conviction for murder, not for hate crimes.

It was the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s that gave rise to the concept of hate crimes. At first, activists simply sought a tribunal for offenses that were going unpunished in local racist courts. Even though the white murderer of a black man might get off scot-free at the state level, they discovered, retribution was still possible on a higher plane if the Department of Justice could prosecute him for the federal crime of violating his victim's civil rights. But the 1980s and 1990s climate of identity politics upped the ante. A whole new category of "hate" crimes entered the arena --- that is, criminally discriminatory acts perpetrated on people because of their race, ethnic group or religion. (The actual basis for selection varies. The Hate Crimes Prevention Act presently before Congress, originally sponsored by Ted Kennedy and impelled by the murder of Matthew Shepard, adds sexual orientation, gender and disability to the list. A diverse state like California throws as much as possible into the hopper: the Ralph Act includes political affiliation and position in a labor dispute.)

The avowed intention is still the one that prompted earlier civil rights legislation --- to insure universal justice in areas where local courts are remiss. And yes, the murderers --- and the harassers --- of Wyoming gays or Mississippi blacks should not go unpunished just because local prejudices prevent fairness. But instead of justice-for-all-at-all-times, this approach to law enforcement promotes particularism: we'll pay special attention to you if you manage to get on our approved list. It promotes a psychology of victimization. It encourages a reliance on patronage. It's fundamentally divisive, pitting victim against victim, in a denial of everything Chaney, Goodman and Schwermer lived for.

And worst of all, it takes the easy way out. Knocking a few skinheads together makes everyone else feel virtuous but does nothing to prevent other bigots, armed to the teeth but more subtly skilled in inflicting pain, from taking their place. More hate crime legislation won't prevent the torching of synagogues and the brutalization of straight white males like Dylan Katz --- or gays like Matthew Shepard. It won't reduce the undercurrent of violence that is destroying America, both at home and overseas.

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1999

Wednesday, June 23, 1999

Gimme shelter

For globalism to work, American can't be afraid to act like the almighty superpower that it is....The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist.  McDonald's cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley's technologies is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.

 ---" What  the World Needs Now," Thomas Friedman, New York Times,  March 28, 1999

So you see, you no longer have to take only my word for it: you now have the corroborative testimony of Thomas Friedman as evidence that the destruction of Yugoslavia was Silicon Valley's war. Friedman's usual logorrhea has been on view recently in his new book of pied piper one-liners about the inevitable glories of globalization, and however inadvertent was his summation of its dynamics in the above Times column (surely you weren't thinking it was jingoism!), let's express our collective gratitude anyway.

Our neighbor down the highway has, of course, a very visible and substantial physical presence there, though its operative raison is thoroughly domiciled elsewhere, since home for the vanguard of global capital is wherever its heart chooses to be. And lately that has preeminently been the Balkans.

There's nothing particularly cryptic about that observation. Just as there should not be any befuddlement that Silicon Valley's proximate municipality, the city of San Francisco, has for some years had a de facto foreign policy. "Think globally, act locally," as advocated by those in the city with the temerity to believe in the democratic process, has engendered much opposing ire and sniggering among those whose appointed task it is to purvey grown-up realism and fair-minded perspective. You'd hear them implore, How does what is occurring in Rangoon or Pretoria have any applicability to, say, the problems of homelessness and unemployment here? Indeed, it was predictable tunnel vision sorely in need of an extrapolative kick in the butt. Which the long arm of Silicon Valley, in its ravenous boardinghouse reach to Belgrade, has summarily provided.

I offer the latest go-round over live-work development as furnishing ample proof. Yesterday Supervisor Sue Bierman's proposed moratorium on construction of the lofts received its first airing, in the Land Use and Transportation Committee, and with the expected full cast of public players in attendance. What emerged clearly from this frequently strident face-off between the legislation's adherents and its cornered adversaries was the inescapable fact that this city is fast becoming a social appendage and an incorporated economic vessel of Silicon Valley.

The embattled Joe O'Donoghue, head of the Residential Builders Association, let fly with a tirade of faux working-class sentiments, citing his immigrant roots and erroneously sermonizing that elitist housing policies have over the years denied access to home-ownership and rental opportunities to African Americans. O'Donoghue persisted in his tired and mistaken declarations that blue-collar jobs in San Francisco are a thing of the past, and that the forces of high-tech must be accommodated by his building hulking suburbs for their "artist"-workers. The monoculture of the wafer chip imperils upward of 25,000 blue-collar jobs in the industrial zones where O'Donoghue and his cohorts would like to place their planned 8,000 one-room cubes. Low-income and family housing, for which this still-diverse city and its entry-level work force are in dire need, hasn't the lucrative appeal for developers like the RBA.

State capitalism has no better friends than people like O'Donoghue. And there's a sad piquancy to the realization that there is no stronger working-class tradition and sense of solidarity than that possessed by the Irish. One might wonder, for instance, what O'Donoghue and his comrades think of the mad dog Tony Blair fronting for the Valley's wafer kings in the decimation of the infrastructure of Yugoslavia. Is there to be made any extrapolation --- that word again --- between the fact that the homes and factories where Serb workers spent their days no longer exist, and O'Donoghue's reciprocal commerce with the moral titans down in the South Bay?

"Not a bit, not a penny," Clinton said the other day when asked if U.S. funds would be available to help Serbia rebuild its bridges and roads. On the other hand, rebuilding is afoot for Kosovo, and a high-ranking State Department official states that "What we will do in Kosovo, as soon as we get a legal structure in place, is start privatizing." The province's electric plants and mines alone, eyed hungrily by Western companies, are worth the equivalent of one-quarter of Kosovo's total economy. The returns on these enterprises, as of three months ago under Belgrade's control, could be from 20 to 100 percent  in a very short time. Ownership of them is now an open question, and of course will be determined by the interim multinational government which will be emplaced.

Now, would Joe himself, if asked to participate, help rebuild in Kosovo? Would he accept a personal invitation to aid in reconstructing Serbia? Or just Kosovo, but not Serbia? Are working people within the global schematic entitled to economic sovereignty at the national level and the city level? And is it allowable that their economies be internally self-sufficient? Or is there an overriding commercial and economic logic to the world stage which must be appeased, or else?

The questions of Southeast Europe are the questions of San Francisco. And if you think that's a bit of a stretch, you've definitely got a hidden fist headed your way, however circuitous and tempered in comparison with what struck Yugoslavia. Last night this city did an initial bit of anticipatory blocking and parrying of that blow in voicing its anger about the live-work issue. It has seen the enemy, and has seen the enemy's surrogates. It has, as the expression goes, acted locally. You'll get no surrender here.

--- Copyright John Hutchison 1999

Friday, June 25, 1999

Municipal munificence

Doesn't anyone in this town read mystery stories? The classic variety often includes a scene where murder most foul has been discovered and the survivors assemble, usually in the library, to ascertain the identity of the murderer. The brilliant detective outlines the cunning course of the crime to a mystified audience and pauses dramatically, announcing with a signature gesture that the moment of truth has arrived. One fictional sleuth adjusts his pince-nez; another twirls his marvelous mustaches; a third carefully lays down her knitting. Then each in his or her own way asks the crucial question: Cui bono? Who benefits?

Perhaps when the jubilation subsides, somebody will ask this question in connection with the recently proposed charter amendment reconstituting the Municipal Railway and the Department of Parking and Traffic. Who benefits most from the frantic negotiations that led to the present version? Not, I fear, the public.

The measure that will go before the supervisors' Rules Committee in July and the voters in November was dramatically compiled behind closed doors and triumphantly announced on the steps of City Hall. It attempts to resolve the public transit crisis that has dogged Our Mayor's first term and threatens his reelection. As George Cothran details in the SF Weekly, it is truly a compromise measure, an amalgam of several official plans and a widely supported popular initiative sponsored by Rescue Muni.

The proposed bureaucratic reorganization aspires to the loftiest of goals: "San Francisco's transit system," says the Preamble, "should be comparable to the best urban transit systems in the world's major cities." Although many Muni riders would be content with continued evidence of gradual improvement, the amendment actually specifies desired performance percentages --- by July 1, 2004, "at least 85 percent of vehicles must run on time," "98.5 percent of scheduled service hours must be delivered" and a whole roster of safety and service measures must be implemented.

What a relief this amendment must be to the thousands of San Francisco voters who have made it clear that they want Muni reform. And maybe, in the best of all possible worlds, it will work. Maybe. But the prospect for success in the real world of politics and personal ambition is worrisome. Here's why.

Over the years, a scenario has evolved to explain Muni's deficiencies. They have arisen, the story goes, because of the greed of organized labor, which has consistently refused to give up any of its prerogatives and join in a selfless search for solutions. (Forget that the transit unions are only one part of a large system beset by underfunding, understaffing and outdated equipment.)  Every newspaper account of an accident bolsters the popular impression that Muni employs a large crew of incompetent, inconsiderate workers. (Forget that this large crew generally performs admirably, without public commendation.) This week's media disclosures suggest that Muni workers are fat cats living high on overtime pay. (Forget the all-too-obvious need for more trained workers that Emilio Cruz hammered home during last year's budget hearings.) Reports of the recent bargaining sessions reveal that these potentates are so wedded to the seniority system which ensures their lucrative incompetence that they refuse to consider a system of bonuses for doing their job properly. (Forget that "merit" pay almost inevitably incites suspicions of favoritism, if not favoritism itself, and weakens cooperative bonds among workers.)  In this world of strange bedfellows, labor has a partner in crime --- Our Mayor, a beleaguered politician ignoring the public welfare and toadying to the unions in his quest for reelection. (Forget that the intensity of public anger over Muni's problems means he hasn't a chance of reelection unless he finds a solution.)

This out-of-whole-cloth script underlies the two-pronged method devised to cure Muni's ills: increase efficiency by consolidation, and decrease inefficiency by depoliticization. Bring everything related to public transit under one roof, and shield it from outside influence. In effect, create a transportation empire within the framework of the city government that answers to no one but itself.

The new Municipal Transportation Agency will be governed by a board of seven directors, appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the supervisors. But in fact, a board-appointed director of transportation will run the agency, and "any dictation, suggestion, or interference by a director in the administrative affairs of the agency, other than through the director of transportation or his or her designees, shall constitute official misconduct." The agency will run its own personnel office, separate from the Department of Human Resources, with the power to determine wages, hours, working conditions, and benefits for employees it designates as "service-critical." The agency will present an annual budget --- including proposed changes in fares or service --- to the supes for what amounts to rubber-stamping: they have no line-item veto, but can reject the entire proposal by a two-thirds vote. Every two years the agency will submit to an independent audit of its performance and present the results to all the world --- to its own citizens' advisory council, the board of supervisors, the mayor, and the public. Even an unfavorable review shouldn't be a problem, since the amendment makes no provisions for dealing with one. Apparently, all the agency has to do is say, "This is what we've done," and keep on doing it.

And they laugh at the measures Italy took to run its trains on time! Rescue Muni had success within its grasp. Everyone in City Hall realized that cooperation with the grass-roots movement was their only chance for success, both at the bus stops and at the polls. But to create a government agency without any of the usual checks and balances asks for big trouble, unless we can find a saint to direct the new agency.

To return to my original question: Cui bono? It's often the quiet ones, the characters who have managed to avoid the spotlight. How about the downtown corporations, which silently witnessed a setback for organized labor and escaped the threat of a transit tax when the Committee on Jobs joined Rescue Muni and turned its attention elsewhere?

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1999

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