Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Governor Signs Harvey Milk Day into Law

Among hundreds of bills Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law Oct. 11 and 12 was a bill establishing Harvey Milk Day, making the gay rights activist part of California's law as well as its history.

The day of honor for the slain politician will fall on May 22, Milk's birthday.

The highly contentious piece of legislation drew strong support from the gay community and ire from conservative groups. After vetoing a similar bill last year, and recently implying that he would veto all of the bills on his desk if the legislature did not agree on a water bill, Schwarzenegger surprised many with his decision to honor Milk.

"Honestly, I didn't expect it to pass," said Autumn Barr, 21, president of SF State's Queer Association. "I didn't expect support at all, so I'm really excited and surprised."

Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill last year because he deemed Milk a figure of local instead of statewide significance.

"He means so much to people all over the nation, all over the world, and to say that he only matters in San Francisco is not supported by the evidence," said Alice Kessler, the government affairs director for Equality California.

Equality California advocates for gay rights and introduced the idea of Harvey Milk Day to State Sen. Mark Leno two years ago, according to Kessler.

With the passage of the bill, California will now regard May 22 as a day of significance and schools will be encouraged to teach their students about Milk. The state currently honors John Muir, teachers and the California poppy with honorary days. The decision to feature Milk in lesson plans will be left to each school district.

Opponents of the bill focused on the effects that lesson plans about Milk will have on the classroom environment, referring to him as a figurehead of social politics and interest groups rather than a part of history.

One such group is the California Family Council, which advocates for opposite-sex marriage and against same-sex marriage. The group aims to "protect and promote Judeo-Christian principles in California's culture for the benefit of its families," according to its Web site.

Everett Rice, the legislative coordinator for the California Family Council, thinks that Milk's story has no place in an academic setting.

"The reason for schools is so children can learn academic materials, not so they can learn things from a special interest group," Rice said. "That's what people are missing in this argument."

Many parents will pull their children out of school on Harvey Milk Day, according to Rice.

"(Milk) could have won the Nobel Peace Prize and it still doesn't justify taking time away from students," Rice said. "We shouldn't put things in our schools that forces parents to take their kids out."

Others think that Milk's pivotal role in the gay rights movement gives him the historical weight to deserve a day and are celebrating the decision.

"Acceptance is something that needs to be taught," Barr said. "Milk is a fantastic man to learn about...and his memory can help us be a better, more accepting community."

Domestic Violence Shelters Fight for Funding

A bill reinstating funding to domestic violence shelters failed in the state Senate Sept. 11, forcing shelters to continue scaling back services or close.

But shelter workers in San Francisco struggle to maintain the same level of service despite cutbacks and layoffs.

The bill, authored by Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, would have loaned $16.3 million to California shelters after they lost all of their state funding as a result of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's $20.4 million budget cut on July 27.

Although it passed 63-1 in the state Assembly, the bill did not garner enough votes in the Senate to constitute a two-thirds majority. "Petty Sacramento politics" led to the bill's demise, Yee said in a press release.

"It just shows where the priorities are in this country," said Hilda Gomez, volunteer coordinator at the Riley Center's Community Office.

The Riley Center, a program of the Vincent de Paul Society of San Francisco, helps more than 1,000 women a year get settled into shelters and find referrals for housing or legal advice. Its community office is housed in the Women's Building in the Mission, making it easier to serve women because legal advice or services to obtain restraining orders are simply a few offices away.

Since the budget cuts, six of California's 94 shelters have closed. Others have been forced to cut staff and services or to implement furlough days. Bay Area shelters are keeping their heads above water, but not without difficulty.

The Riley Center, which is composed of one office space for walk-ins and two shelters, has been forced to cut three staff members already. One staff member was cut from each program -- one from the Brennan House, one from the Rosalie House and one from the Community Office.

"The staff that is staying is doing the same amount of work in the same amount of time, but with less people," Gomez said.

The severity of the cut was unexpected. Representatives for domestic violence shelters originally negotiated that only 20 percent of funds would be eliminated, according to Gomez.

Negotiations "had gotten it down to 20 percent and then the day of, Schwarzenegger crossed it off and cut it 100 percent," Gomez said.

The news shocked the domestic violence shelter community.

"To have it be completely eliminated was stunning," said Walesa Kanarek of La Casa de las Madres, the first domestic violence shelter to open in California.

"Talking about this always makes me sad."

Shelter workers believe that cutting preventive services will ultimately cost the state more, according to Kanarek. Police officers could see a spike in domestic violence calls while hospitals will probably see more abuse victims coming through their doors.

"Police respond to 500 calls a month. That's our officers going into potentially dangerous situations, that's officer time and overtime," Kanarek said. "You have [victims] going into hospitals. Those resources are really important to care for people properly and in the long run we would save money."

Despite the cuts, local organizations are determined not to change their services, which include counseling, legal referrals, 24-hour hotlines and support during trials as well as providing shelter for women and children.

"The community will do this work," Kanarek said. "On one hand we need funds to keep our doors open, but we're not going to cut our services or cut hours."

The current economic climate has done more than strain shelters financially. Since the economic crisis began, shelters have seen an increase in domestic violence.

"This year alone we've experienced over 20 percent increase in crisis calls, in over 20 languages," said Vanessa Flores, an advocate for the Asian Women's Shelter.

"We do a lot of community work, but we also think there's correlation between the economy and domestic violence."

Although the bill was shelved, the community is still prepared to push for their funding and Yee has promised to reintroduce the bill, or a different version of it, again and again until some funding is reinstated.

"The women are so inspiring and we see how hard they're fighting with what they're going through," Flores said. "We have no excuse not to do our day to day work while also fighting for our funding."

Potluck Promotes Healthier School Lunches

The Civic Center morphed into a picnic area on Labor Day, as local residents gathered to share homemade dishes and learn about Slow Food's Time for Lunch campaign. Referred to as an "Eat-In," the potluck was a pleasurable protest to get real food into school lunches.

"The idea is that sitting down to a meal with your neighbors is not only enjoyable, it's a political act," said Darrow Vanderburgh-Wertz, a Slow Food San Francisco volunteer.

"The super ideal situation would be if each school could have its own kitchen and use local produce."

Similar events were held across the country, with more than 300 potlucks total and two more San Francisco gatherings in Ingleside and Portrero Hill. Slow Food is a global movement, as well as a philosophy, that encourages meals that are "good, clean and fair."

"It's a beautiful day and a great gathering," said Sen. Mark Leno, who spoke to the crowd about the need to change what children eat for lunch in school.

"We can prevent the tsunami of an epidemic if we do what Slow Food is suggesting," Leno said in his speech.

As well as raising awareness, Slow Food wants to pressure Congress into reforming lunches by adding $1 more per child to the budget when it comes time to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act on Sept. 30.

"[The way it is now] there ends up being $1 worth of actual food in every meal," Vanderburgh-Wertz said. "We're asking for an extra $1 from Congress, which doesn't sound like much but would be a doubling of money for food."

Daphne Miller, a local doctor and author of "The Jungle Effect: The Healthiest Diets From Around the World -- And How to Make Them Work For You," gave a speech about the rising trends in diabetes, obesity and heart disease she has seen in children.

"[Serving real food for lunch] is an obvious solution to childhood obesity and diseases I never saw in kids that age," Miller said. "The answer is not a biomedical has to do with bringing more culture back into schools -- farming culture and family culture."

Children's Choice, a company that provides schools with healthy lunches, set up a sushi-rolling booth that was a big hit with the kids. Rolling teriyaki, California, and avocado concoctions engaged the kids in a way that CEO Justin Gagnon thinks is crucial to introducing them to vegetables and foods they would normally avoid.

"It's really fun to see them engaged in the food," Gagnon said. "My goal is to get the kids to try new things. Our kids have the spontaneity and the ability to respond. They're up to the challenge."

Alongside companies like Children's Choice, chefs, culinary students, and locals contributed homemade creations to the mix. The long lunch table was filled with a variety of picnic foods: green and red and yellow heirloom tomatoes swathed in vinaigrette, pesto pasta and cous cous, crostini piled with herbs and goat cheese.

People walked around with plates of delicately fried chicken, at least one of the many varieties of potato salad, and slices of honeydew melon or organic green apples. Hunks from a giant wheel of peppercorn cheese made their way through the masses and ended up on nearly every plate, as did saturated slices of bourbon-glazed peaches.

A planting station was set up as well, with volunteers teaching children how to grow their own vegetables.

"This is cool...we almost made vegetables," said 7-year-old Aliyah Hopkins.

"My favorites are sweet corn, pinto beans, broccoli and fruit salad," her friend Mariah Murillo, 10, added.

Sunday Streets Finale a Hit

On Sept. 6, children whizzed through the foggy air on the Great Highway, a local band played bluegrass for cyclists leisurely passing by and in a spot where only cars normally sped through, a bike-powered carnival swing was set up instead.

Although San Francisco is normally rife with traffic and the rumbling of Muni cars, Sunday Streets provided an alternative to the congestion by reintroducing people to the concept of open streets and unlimited movement.

"I think it's tremendous," said Pat Osbon, a volunteer at a booth called Playland Not at the Beach, a museum dedicated to the amusement park that used to be located on the Great Highway. "It's getting people not only out of their homes but out of their cars."

The idea of opening city streets up to residents originated in Bogata, Colombia and was introduced to San Francisco by Mayor Gavin Newsom. Newsom released a statement on Sept. 5 saying that "Sunday Streets will be back in 2010 with more routes, longer hours, more San Francisco neighborhoods, and more programs at the event."

Although it receives government funding, the life force behind Sunday Streets is Livable City, a two-person nonprofit that relies on volunteer work to put on the events.

"Now that we've built the consensus and people know what it is and are ready for it, we are going to work with the community to expand the project," said Susan King, who organizes for Livable City. "The reason for its popularity is that it allows you to take a city infrastructure and temporarily repurpose it."

The car-free event took place along the Great Highway and through Golden Gate Park, providing open streets for the last time this year. Although fog overtook the Great Highway, people showed up in hordes to take part in the bike rides and activities.

"Today shows that even with the foggy weather, and even with the Bay Bridge closed, a lot of people want to come out and play," said Andy Thornley, program director for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. "It's not a lot of athletes in spandex on fancy bikes, it's little girls on pink bikes. The little kids and the community is really what makes this fun."

A big hit was the Cyclofuge, a bike-powered carnival swing that children and adults stood in line to ride.

The fact that vendors are not a part of Sunday Streets is a source of reoccurring praise. Instead of bringing in business for the event, Sunday Streets brings people to neighborhood businesses.

"We had a lot of customers who came back to our store after finding out about us here," said Shanta Sacharo, the owner of Other Avenues, a natural food store on 44th Avenue and Judah Street. "The only thing we would like to see is the event starting later, like 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., because this is such a sleepy neighborhood."

While Sunday Streets is appreciated for its impact on communities and residents, it also garnishes support from environmental groups. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District has sponsored the initiative since it came into fruition, partly because it reduces emissions on warm, windless days when air pollution is most potent.

Lisa Fasano, the communications and outreach director at BAAQMD, also hopes that the experience of riding a bike will alter the way that children look at travel.

"[The event] is making sure that the kids recognize their ability to get around on their own power," Fasano said. "We need to change the way that kids think about being drivers from what we think and what our parents think...if we're really going to be able to combat air pollution and ultimately, global warming."

Street Food Fest Fills Folsom with Foodies

Sweet smoke filled the air over Folsom Street as thousands of hungry San Franciscans slurped down barbecued oysters, poked at powdered-sugar confections or settled into one of the many long lines that led to gastronomical bliss. The scene on Saturday marked the first San Francisco Street Food Festival, an event organized by nonprofit business incubator La Cocina.

"I'm really stoked that all of these people showed up," said Jamie Lauren, a contestant on the fifth season of Top Chef and the current executive chef at Absinthe. "It's great for the Mission and it's great for the city."

Lauren served up her famous hot dog for the masses, although her grill briefly ran out of propane and caused some people to leave the line.

La Cocina, the nonprofit that planned the event, is a community kitchen that gives local women the resources and teaching they need to establish formal eateries. Many of the businesses La Cocina helped start were selling their tamales, tacos, and pupusas alongside restaurants like Kasa Indian Eatery and Poleng Lounge.

The event fittingly takes place after a summer that could be known as the summer of street food. During the past few months, cart owners with names like Magic Curry Man and Sexy Soup Lady have used Twitter to mobilize impromptu gatherings in a city that has harsh laws against non-traditional eateries and heavy fines for carts without proper permits. Crème Brulee Man, a popular underground cart owner, had the opportunity to serve his flavorful French desserts on Saturday.

As the crowd of more than 5,000 proved, street food has become a hot commodity. The carts offered $7-8 "forks and finger" foods, $3-4 bites and $3 drinks. Because of the myriad options and heavy crowds, "divide and conquer" was the phrase of the day. Groups split up in order to sample the most food in the least amount of time.

"Having the food come to me midway in this line was key," said Ben Softness as he munched on a lemon grass pork vermicelli bowl delivered by his friend while waiting in line for a barbecue chicken sandwich from Zella's Soul Food.

By the time people reached the front of the lines, they were antsy from boredom and hostile towards cutters.

"I don't care how pretty you are and how nice your hair looks, if you cut in front of me, I will eat you," Heather Melton said about two women who attempted to stand in front of her.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

This ain't your principal's suspension

Spectators cringe and groan as, one by one, six thick hooks are pierced through the skin of Justin’s back.

“He’s insane,” some say.

“Don’t get blood on the bed,” the girlfriend of the apartment owner warns.

Some hooks slide smoothly through. Others hit veins, sending blood trickling. The piercer, a friend of Justin’s, comments that he’s done more piercings on one person in the past 20 minutes than he did in three hours at work in a tattoo parlor. Throughout the hurried piercing, 20-year-old Justin Scott is fed Kit Kats to keep his blood sugar high. This will keep him from passing out later, like he did last time. “Later” refers to when he plans to hang from those hooks on a questionable wooden stand that a few friends built 10 minutes earlier.

Suspension—the act of hanging oneself by multiple hooks pierced through the skin—never receives a mild reaction. Lately, it has been receiving attention and spawning a slew of Web sites and groups across the country, mainly in large cities (However, Google “suspension” in San Francisco and the most you’ll find are Web sites for auto shops, unusual sexual devices, and one actual occurrence at the Fetish Ball in 2003).

Some consider suspension to be an act of stupidity. Justin’s girlfriend, for example. After the piercing, she leaves the room to hide her tears of dread. While friends comfort her, she curses the boyish sense of mortality she usually admires in her boyfriend. “Unlike Peter Pan,” she vehemently sputters, “he can’t actually fly!”

Others gulp the experience down like an adrenaline-spiked cocktail of euphoria, a reminder that nothing exists besides the current moment. The main propagators of this viewpoint are a group of women in their 20’s, who are chain-smoking on the porch. If Justin and his friends are adrenaline junkies, these women are adrenaline groupies. They seem to glorify the thrill-seekers as if they are actually capable of floating through air.

“I’ve always noticed the euphoric state that people go in. It’s like a haze,” explains Bailey Foehr, 23, who has attended several suspensions. “Because of the euphoria, the out-of-body experience, you get in touch with who you really are in essence. Like some people walk on fire, it’s their version of an outer body experience, overcoming death and overcoming pain.”

Others also consider the out-of-body feeling that suspension induces to be a spiritual experience. As far back as the history of suspension is known, it has been linked to spirituality. According to, a Body Art site, North American tribes practiced piercing and then hanging themselves from the piercing as a form of spiritual sacrifice during Sundance, which occurred around the Summer Solstice. Similarly, the Tamils of South Asia fused piercing practices with the worship of their god, Murugan.

In modern times, “people are seeking the opportunity to discover a deeper sense of themselves and to challenge pre-determined belief systems which may not be true,” reads the Web site “Some are seeking a right of passage or a spiritual encounter to let go of the fear of not being whole or complete inside their body.”

Others, like Justin, see suspension as a defiance of the impossible through the embrace of pain. With a buzzed head, multiple tattoos, and holes in his ears that were created by one fell clutch of a hole punch, Justin defies norms in his appearance as well as through his actions. He’s the traditional image of a badass, someone who Hollywood would type-cast as the guy who inadvertently burns down an orphanage when he flicks a cigarette out of his car window. However, Justin breaks stereotypes as well as traditions. His many tattoos are in honor of his mother and sisters. His fuzzy head is less noticeable than his sharp sense of humor. He works as a piercer himself, but hates to hurt people. And most interestingly, in this Berkeley apartment filled with alcohol and probably other substances, he refuses to partake. After drinking his last beer three years ago, Justin has been completely sober despite his surroundings and peers. Suspension, it turns out, is his last high. More importantly than the high, however, hanging from hooks is a middle finger to the safe. It is an act that will separate him from the normality of others.

“I think it’s awesome doing something that barely anyone on earth has done,” Justin says. “To know how much pain your body can actually take is cool.”

Considering Justin’s desire to attempt the unlikely, it is fitting that he is about to try a suspension named after a superhero. Suspended only from his back, he will be attempting the “Superman.”
Before the hanging, he meditates and exhibits confidence in what he is about to do.

“You can’t think about the pain or the people watching,” he said. “You just have to center yourself, no matter how much partying is going on.”

Despite the superhero allusion, however, friends worried about Justin’s mortality.

“I pray to God that it goes smooth and there are no injuries,” said friend Travis Souders, 18. “I was shaken up at first (when he was pierced). I had to step out of the room.”

When it comes time for the actual suspension, the group of about 30 people crowds into the apartment’s living room. Everyone grows silent. While friends look for a stool for him to stand on as he lowers himself, some appear to grow more anxious. Justin’s girlfriend clutches her fists and is incapable of looking at the people patting her back, incapable of acknowledging anyone besides her boyfriend. Even Foehr nervously fidgets and picks at her nails.

Justin himself remains silent and calm. An appropriate stool is found.

As Justin slowly lowers himself, people start muttering encouragement. When he is hanging only by the skin of his back, Justin’s face exhibits something between a grin and a grimace. Cheers grow louder as the skin of his back starts to resemble hills of flesh, rising up to where the hooks are pierced through. The stool is abandoned as Justin’s body, like a grotesque puppet, is held off the ground only by the hooks.

Now, fully suspended, Justin is steadily swung back and forth. His ease appears to grow as friends shout “Mission accomplished!” mingled with “take it easy man.” As Justin’s legs dangle and his face breaks into a smile, a friend of Justin’s jokes “makes you feel like river dancing.”

After a couple of minutes of suspension, Justin comes off of the hooks. Spectators, both relieved that their friend is whole and amazed at what they have just witnessed, talk excitedly. Many give him words of praise like “tonight you became a man.”

Afterwards, Justin talks about the pleasure in accomplishing something he has wanted to do for years and the reality of what it felt like. It is in his nature to stay calm and cool, but he also seems satisfied.

“I felt it more than I thought I would, but I liked it,” he says. “It felt like pressure, like someone was standing on me.”

“But I’m happy,” he adds.

Friends are also excitedly in shock.

“Oh man, that was gnarly. His skin just stretching, it was insane, it was ridiculous, it took my breath away!” Souder says before starting to sing his rendition of “Take My Breath Away.”
He then breaks into “I Believe I Can Fly,” appropriately ending the night.