WE HAVE LEARNED that our friend Dannie Martin has died. Many of you will remember Dannie from his column in the San Francisco Chronicle, the first by a prison inmate to appear regularly in a major American newspaper. Some of you may also remember the writer from his letters to the AVA describing life in the federal pen he was confined to at the time for a bank robbery he'd committed. His columns and letters so annoyed prison authorities they tried to shut him down, but the public outcry was so great they were forced to back off.
HEADLINE IN THURSDAY’S PRESS DEMOCRAT: “Cloverdale mayor optimistic about town, SMART…”
TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO the mayor of Cloverdale was just as optimistic. The town seems to have done all right, but the spiffy train station erected at Cloverdale a quarter century ago has yet to see a train. And is unlikely to see one any time soon, the usual cheerleading from the PD aside.
SMART stands for Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit. It's an unfortunate acronymn. A hundred years ago, a small group of private investors got a railroad up and running between Sausalito and Eureka in less than ten years, and they kept it running with two trains a day both ways much of that time with, for a while, a connecting train serving Fort Bragg. The line was more or less viable until the late 1960s.
BY 2014, which is next Wednesday, SMART'S passenger train was supposed to be up and running between Cloverdale and Larkspur Landing. The “economic downturn” of 2008, also known as Wall Street's looting of the American economy, put SMART behind schedule, way behind schedule. But now that the economy has “rebounded,” as the PD describes the fiscal bounce visible to no one but them and SMART'S directors, there are more complications again delaying the long anticipated arrival at the Cloverdale station.
SMART has now announced that it has dropped Cloverdale as a viable destination for, like, whenever, and we are told that the train will now run between Santa Rosa and San Rafael maybe three years from now.
“OUR GOAL is to make sure we are up and running by Christmas 2016,” SMART’s boss, Farhad Mansourian told the Press Democrat. “If it's the first half of 2016, I'm going to surprise everyone, but I don't want to get pinned down to that simply because there are many moving wheels. There are 15 state, regional and federal agencies that control many things that we do. We are operating a train that does not exist. We are building it from scratch,” Mansourian said.
MEANWHILE, SMART has ordered the engines and cars and works on track upgrades for a rail line to Santa Rosa from San Rafael, a pair of destinations — especially Santa Rosa — where few people will want to go.
LET'S SAY you get on the train from San Rafael, where the depot is at least placed near the shops and restaurants of 4th Street, for a ride through suburban backyards to the train station on the unappealing west side of the Rose City. You can then foot it a quarter mile or so east, enjoying the urine-soaked 101 underpass, until you arrive at a big brick mall beyond which there is… well, many square miles of architectural desolation.
WITH ANOTHER and more devastating economic “downturn” coming right up, SMART is dumber by the day.
It's been my second home for more than 25 years,
Growing up they were spilled on me until I was old enough to drink those beers
It takes an hour to get in and park,
But I won't forget how you kept us safe when the quake hit and the city went dark
Montana to Rice, Ronnie's pinkie, and Steve's stumble helped make up great 80's lore
Then through some very dark times until the arrival of Kap, Davis, Willis and Gore
And although it's been more than 10 years since I saw Burkett, Swift and Big Daddy pitch
I will never forget when Will hit the ball up the middle off Mitch
So now it's fitting that I end it all with a win that was very hard fought
And of course it took me two hours to just get out of the dirt parking lot.
(Ben Schecter, Los Gatos)
BILL O'REILLY'S WAR ON JESUS
By Robert Scheer
Maybe it is time to put Christ back in Christmas. Bill O'Reilly annually demands we acknowledge that the man, or myth, that has been moved to the center of this once pagan ritual be properly identified with a religion, or philosophy as he puts it, that carries a moral message. True, the nation's early Puritan settlers considered the holiday somewhat blasphemous, but we obviously are in need of moral guidance from any quarter that is plausible.
So, what would Jesus do about the profound inequality of opportunity that both the pope and our president have identified as the most pressing moral crisis of our time? O'Reilly didn't cotton to the statements of either man and took particular umbrage over the comments that the spiritual leader of his own Catholic faith made in late November: “…Pope Francis said that income inequality is immoral. … I don't know if Jesus is going to be down with that.”
It is a timely question to ponder when many of us honor the purported moment of Christ's birth with a last minute burst of shopping so desperate as to suggest the gluttony of the Roman Empire that led the early Christians to revolt in disgust. It is an indulgence much in evidence today, as the pope warns: “The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalance and, above all, their lack of concern for human beings.”
Score one for the pope. Although there is much to argue about in Christ¹s enduring legacy, divinely inspired or not, there can be no doubt that equality of opportunity is explicit in the core Christian doctrine that every infant has a soul as significant as that of any other, and that we all will be judged by how well we respect the sanctity of the lives of those born into the most forlorn of circumstance.
That is also the crisis of the moment. As President Obama stated recently in pledging, once again, that he would treat the growing inequality of opportunity as “the defining challenge of our time,” he noted “the premise that we¹re all created equal is the opening line in the American story.” That precept drew heavily upon the predominant Christian faith of the settlers even as they betrayed it in their treatment of this land’s original natives and its imported slaves.
Clearly the nation's founders skipped Christ’s tale of the Good Samaritan in Luke where a compassionate response to a disheveled wretch is offered as the necessary requirement for eternal salvation. But it is the sentiment that informed Pope Francis’ recent apostolic exhortation condemning the growing worldwide gulf between the super-rich and the vast majority of more humble folk:
“The thirst for power and possessions knows no limit. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the rule. … Behind this attitude lurks a rejection of ethics and a rejection of God.”
Quite a challenge for our nation that largely continues to request at every public occasion that God bless America. We are a country, as our president tells us, where “the problem is that alongside increased inequality, we¹ve seen diminished levels of upward mobility in recent years. A child born in the top 20% has about a 2-in-3 chance of staying at or near the top. A child born into the bottom 20% has a less than 1-in-20 shot at making it to the top. … The combined trends of increased inequality and decreasing mobility pose a fundamental threat to the American Dream, our way of life, and what we stand for around the globe.”
What we stand for is a launching pad for multinational corporations that wantonly exploit the resources and peoples of this planet with abandon. All the while, these modern plunderers are protected by the massive military power of a US government that those same corporations refuse to support with the profits they have buried abroad. In return, they stuff the shopping malls, real and virtual, with an intoxicating display of imperial spoils that most of our citizens can barely afford.
Sorry, Bill, Jesus is not going to be down with that; trust the pope on this one.
WHERE NO GOOGLE BUSES GO
The Bay Area's Ruthless Socio-Economic Order
by Darwin Bond-Graham
For every word written about the gentrification and displacement that is tearing San Francisco apart, there should be ten words written about the poverty, environmental racism, and financial predation battering the smaller industrial cities of Contra Costa and Alameda counties. In suburban hinterlands north and east of Silicon Valley and San Francisco are the bankrupted municipalities of the Sacramento Delta and Carquinez Straight. We’re talking Stockton and Vallejo. Even closer are other cities devastated by the economic crisis, places like San Pablo, or Richmond from where you can see the rising skyline of San Francisco across the Bay, growing with towers of luxury apartments.
Black and Latino residents have already been pushed to the fringes of San Francisco, both geographically and in the employment ranks of the new tech-centric economy. Fleets of Silicon Valley company buses that clog San Francisco’s streets picking up and dropping off the gentrifiers — mostly affluent white and Asian newcomers to the Bay Area — give the ruthless socioeconomic order a sense of literal arrival each morning and night.
It’s impossible to ignore, and the region’s media, fixated as they have always been upon San Francisco’s wealth and velocity, give the city’s problems frequent coverage. But San Francisco’s problems are really just a small part of the region’s destruction and reconstruction around new and even more severe class and race inequalities. In San Francisco the have-it-alls are now as busy purging the middle-class as they are the remaining working class communities of color. Beyond San Francisco, in its sunset shadow, are entire cities of the dispossessed, largely forgotten in the boiling public debate around housing, jobs, and community.
There is no Google bus that arrives in San Pablo, a small city across the Bay from San Francisco that for decades has been known as the Bay Area’s poorest municipality. What did arrive at least twice in the last two years were orders for the San Pablo’s 30,000 residents to shelter in place from toxic chemical clouds. San Pablo is less than two miles downwind from Chevron’s giant Richmond oil refinery, and another couple miles southwest of the ConocoPhillips refinery in Rodeo. If Twitter and Salesforce and cleantech and biotech symbolize the “green” and “postindustrial” corporate community of San Francisco today, it’s noxious oil and chemical giants like Shell and Valero that dominate the landscape of Contra Costa.
The landscape is relatively level where San Pablo’s 30,000 residents are concentrated. Most of San Pablo’s homes, schools, and businesses are built on the Bay’s flatlands bracketed between the Interstate-80 Highway to the east and the BNSF’s congested train tracks on the west side. BNSF is the rail road of the world’s fourth wealthiest man, Warren Buffet. Through San Pablo it pulls thousands and thousands of tanker cars filled with hazardous crude petroleum and refined petrochemical products. Warren’ Buffet’s net worth of $53.5 billion is 45 times greater than the total assessed value of all the land and buildings in the city of San Pablo. In 2013 Warren Buffett’s wealth grew by $37 million a day. In contrast, the average worker living in San Pablo earned $106 a day.
Up against the BNSF railway tracks are neighborhoods comprised of trailer parks and aging houses. The little wood-frame homes, many built in the 1960s and 1970s, are inhabited mostly by Latino immigrants and African Americans. San Pablo is 88% non-white. Children attend an elementary school just 200 feet from where oil trains race by around the clock.
Back in 2007, before the economic crash, the median household income in San Pablo was $46,000. This was already a community enduring serious poverty and higher than average rates of unemployment — 6% even at the height of the mid-2000s boom. Of course the Financial Crisis hit San Pablo hard, and the Great Recession, which officially lasted from December 2007 to June 2009 caused unemployment, poverty, and foreclosures to spike in the community. Incomes dropped drastically.
With an unemployment rate now at 12%, double its pre-Great Recession rate, and with median household incomes having actually declined by $7,000, to $39,000 in 2012, San Pablo’s residents have only fallen further behind in a region where there are corporations and individuals worth billions.
There has been no recovery so to speak of. Far removed as it is from the playground of San Francisco, and in the path of a polluting industrial facility, waves of techies aren’t clamoring to move into San Pablo, but the oil trains still stream through. For decades the community has been afflicted by property crime and violence bred from poverty and alienation. The city’s politicians now allocate 45% of their total budget toward police repression. Ironically about 19% of San Pablo’s city revenue is now gotten from a casino that was allowed to open in 2002 — sin funds the city, even while it arguably fuels social problems like gambling addictions, drunk driving, and assault.
There are no tech buses to block in San Pablo. It and other cities east of San Francisco have been left behind in the tech boom. The new economy’s billion dollar corporations and thousands of startups are concentrating themselves in downtown San Francisco all down the San Mateo Peninsula into northwest San Jose. Places like Palo Alto and Mountain View have become wealthier, whiter, and more connected to San Francisco through public and private transportation infrastructure investments, and through financial networks that link San Hill Road to the Embarcadero.
Across the Bay in San Pablo and further east there are no new tech campuses planned. Apple is building a multi-billion dollar campus in Cupertino. (No one actually knows how much it will cost.) In Contra Costa County the only multi-billion dollar investments planned are PG&E gas-fired power plants like the one to be built in the distant town of Oakley.
There are no techies pushing up rental prices in Contra Costa’s working class cities. There is only the sinking feeling of further declining real incomes, a generation of lost wealth, deepening racial segregation, and cities that are tottering on weakened fiscal foundations.
San Pablo’s neighborhoods were crushed by the foreclosure crisis. When the crash came it took what wealth many had saved up; the median home value in Contra Costa County dropped by 47% in 2008. It dropped another 24% in 2009. Prices haven’t recovered in many corners of the county since, especially those areas populated by Latinos and Blacks. Over the past year there were 168 notices of default issued on mortgages in San Pablo out of a total 4,030 loans — four%, according to Foreclosure Radar. HUD’s estimate of foreclosures at the outset of the Great Recession, from 2007 through the first half of 2008, showed that one in ten mortgages was foreclosed in San Pablo. At the same time San Francisco’s rate of foreclosure was a mere 2%.
Remarking on how much more devastated Contra Costa County cities like San Pablo were by the Great Recession, Chris Schildt and Jake Wegmann wrote in June 2012 that,“we now face a new map of regional inequality, one for which the entire region bears some responsibility, not simply the residents and leaders of southern Solano and eastern Contra Costa counties.”
How right that is. All the big banks that were responsible for the subprime boom — and the frenzy of packaging these predatory loans into complex derivative investment products that ultimately crashed the economy — have offices in San Francisco. Many of the bank architects that targeted African Americans and Latinos with subprime loans, financing their moves out of San Francisco and Oakland into Contra Costa County, are in downtown San Francisco. A few, like banking giant Wells Fargo are headquartered there. Their executives live in mansions in tony neighborhoods like Pacific Heights, or down in San Mateo’s wealthy enclaves like Hillsborough and Atherton. JP Morgan has a tower on Mission Street. Bank of America has a regional office in San Francisco, as do US Bank, Citibank, HSBC, and others. Tech, after all, isn’t San Francisco’s only industry. Finance is one of San Francisco’s big employers and has been since the Gold Rush.
But the boom today really is in tech. There have been rumors lately that Google is eying real estate in San Francisco for a second campus there in addition to its Mountain View headquarters. Google more than any other tech company has been obsessively reshaping the political geography of the Bay Area. Its executives privatized part of San Jose’s public airport. The company is building floating real estate in the Bay as part of its planned conquest of retail. It’s buses are most prolific, and most blamed for blocking streets in San Francisco, and parts of Oakland, and of course each bus represents perhaps fifty employees whose relatively flush incomes are putting unprecedented pressures on rents in San Francisco, and also areas of Oakland like the “Temescal.”
Google doesn’t send its buses into Richmond, and they probably never will. Like San Pablo, but much larger, Richmond has become a refuge for many of the displaced families forced to leave San Francisco and downtown Oakland, but even so Richmond’s housing stock is characterized by an unusually large number of empty and blighted homes, zombie houses from foreclosure. Larry Page, a co-founder of Google, is wealthy enough to buy up every parcel of land and every building in the entire city of Richmond, and still have about $3 billion left over. Google’s other founder, Sergey Brin, could do the same thing. To put the extreme wealth of Silicon Valley’s elite in a similar perspective, consider this: Richmond’s estimated 39,000 households earned a collective income of about $2 billion last year. If the Google co-founders Brin and Page wanted to, they could pay every household in the city twice their existing income for a total of eleven years.
Perhaps here I should conclude by adding that Google also claims a $130 million California research and development tax credit which will carry-forward indefinitely and allows the company to whittle down the taxes it owes to Sacramento for many years to come. Tax policies that favor the wealthy and large corporations, after all, are part of the cause of growing inequality in America today.
(Darwin Bond-Graham, a contributor to the AVA and CounterPunch, is a sociologist and author who lives and works in Oakland. His essay on economic inequality in the “new” California economy appears in the July issue of CounterPunch magazine. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion.)
REASSERTING COMMUNITY RIGHTS: Going Beyond Single Issue Activism—
Community Rights workshop Feb 15-16/2014
Are you frustrated by the apparent inability of local communities to stop corporate destruction of the natural world (unnecessary road building, fracking, sludge dumping on farmland, bottling and removal of water from local rivers, use of toxic pesticides in forests, oil drilling in pristine areas, etc.)? Are you wondering why the public seems to be powerless to stop these abuses of corporate power? This workshop will illuminate how and why the law has been used to progressively expand corporate powers. It will also provide a new and proven way to reestablish community rights, the power of community self-determination, and the power to stop destructive corporate practices through local ordinance writing. Used in more than 160 communities in ten states across the USA, local ordinances are enabling local communities to assert their right to protect themselves and nature from corporate domination and control. In support of this, the California Constitution says: “All political power is inherent in the people. Government is instituted for the protection, security, and benefit of the people; and they have the right to alter or reform the same, whenever the public good may require it.” Paul Cienfuegos will be leading this intensive two-day workshop on the President’s Day weekend – February 15-16, 2014 at the Community Center of Mendocino (998 School St., in the town of Mendocino). Workshop attendees will also learn about the history of the rise of corporate power. Paul is a well known community rights organizer, and partner with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF.org). To learn more about Paul and his activities and workshops see – *paulcienfuegos.com. Paul’s last workshop, a few months ago in Willits, was over-subscribed and filled up fast. To make sure you have a place in this one, you must register in advance. There is a sliding scale fee based on income, ranging from $60 to $260. To sign-up, contact *Charles Cresson Wood, with Mendocino Coast Transition Towns, at email@example.com or **707-937-5572. This event is co-sponsored by the Alliance for Democracy, the Mendocino Coast Chapter of Move to Amend, Community Rights Organization Willits (CROW) and the Ocean Protection Coalition.