"I was there..."
Willie Brown, San Francisco’s first black mayor, was a disaster for the Black community. Blacks continued to exit the city thanks to a landlord-friendly agenda and mishandling of the HOPE VI demolition of public housing. He refused to support a real cleanup of the toxic Naval Base at Hunters Point. His “solution” to runaway gang violence was to assign more cops to the neighborhood, increasing the tension and oppression that fuels gang formation in the first place. Mayor Brown hired and appointed so-called “leaders” to positions of power, turning the San Francisco Housing Authority and the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency into his own personal plantations. The Brown regime reached unprecedented levels of nepotism and crony-capitalism, starving the black community of badly needed resources, while expanding the airport, the convention center, and unleashing developers to build “lawyer lofts” throughout the city.
Lawyer lofts under construction at 18th and Harrison, 1999.
Photo: Chris Carlsson
On his way out of office due to term limits, Brown anointed Gavin Newsom as his heir apparent. When Newsom’s campaign was faltering in the face of the remarkable grassroots surge for Matt Gonzalez, Brown called a meeting of African-American pastors where he called Gonzalez “a racist.” But he knew that race was not the issue. He just knew what cards to play in the black community to get votes for his candidate. Playing the race card also diverted attention from the fact that he had just spent eight years trying to sell Bayview–Hunters Point to the highest bidder. It’s marketing in the ’hood.
Brown needed the Bayview community one more time to put the final nail in our own coffin, allowing him to solidify his financial power in the black community long past his time in office. Calling Gonzalez a racist was just a distraction, and part of his standard operating procedure whenever he faced meaningful opposition.
Willie Brown was not the first mayor to fail Bayview–Hunters Point; however, we had hoped for more from him. But he lived in the world of the rich and powerful. His San Francisco was remote from mine. My San Francisco isn’t a Disneyland or a playground for the well-to-do. My black San Francisco is a war zone. The value of human life in my neighborhood, the Bayview, is sometimes zero. Between the guns, drugs, evictions, police brutality, and lack of access to good education, my community isn’t a community anymore—it is a commodity.
Commentary on Willie Brown's limousine liberalism, 1999.
Photo: Chris Carlsson
This is a story about another San Francisco, which shaped the person I am. Who am I? Just another black statistic that society thought wouldn’t make it out of the ghetto. I grew up on the hardest street in San Francisco’s Bay View–Hunters Point where you’re lucky if you make it to puberty. But my story really starts in the Western Addition, the Fillmore.
My first memories were of shooting galleries, where people shot drugs, of not having enough food and being hungry. That was a normal part of life. I remember my mom as a beautiful woman in those days, but she wasn’t really cut out to be a mom. During my childhood, she overdosed all the time. She took beatings regularly from the men she got involved with. I wanted to become invisible, or to get out of there. By the time those scenes ended we had moved to the Sunnydale area at San Francisco’s southern edge in Visitacion Valley. New problems began immediately. Crack became mom’s drug of choice and I was beginning to feel like killing myself. I wondered what I had done to God in my short life to deserve this.
I started looking at myself from outside—I realized I could be anyone as long as I was true to myself. I got through this period thanks to my thick skin and by imagining what I wished my mother was. I tried to the best of my ability to be what I wanted to see in my mother.
I never had any home training so I really didn’t have much to work with. I learned as I grew. By the time I turned eleven, I’d had enough of this reality. One day I asked my mother a question, hoping that she would say “no,” because I wanted her to want me. “Can I go live with my aunt?” She said “yes,” and that same day I left and went to live with my favorite aunt in Double Rock, a crowded public housing project in the Bayview. It was all that I wanted—to be part of a poor but surviving family. My aunt worked her ass off just to feed and clothe us. We were five kids—she had four of her own—but she made it work. In those four years I got straight A’s in school and visited my father in the summer. That was the best time I ever had (I was safe). But it didn’t last long because then my aunt and uncle got involved in drugs too.
Some say you have choices. You don’t. You either go with the system or you go with the system. I could not go back home because my mother was too far gone. And she was having a new baby, my brother. I worked summer jobs to pay for my school clothes, but I now had to pay rent. I couldn’t tell my aunt at the end of the week I didn’t have her money. I couldn’t get out of the game even if I wanted to by this time. It was either sell drugs or go through the Child Protective Services into a foster home and you never wanted that as an option. The money I made selling drugs had to support me, my mother, aunt, and uncle, and sometimes my sister too.
I went to jail the first time when I was seventeen. I thought my life had been bad until then, but I was not prepared for that. This was one of the worst experiences in my life!
The day I got out I went right back to what I knew. That was the game. Me and my best friend at the time, Lisa, were two misfits hanging together. We both thought our families didn’t want us, or just didn’t know what the fuck we were going through. When you’re at that stage you don’t give a fuck! You can do anything and commit any crime and not even know why you’re doing it, because everything in your life has brought you to this point. In other words, you’re numb, your heart is shut down, and you cannot remember how to feel.
I had been through so much destruction in my life by this time. I made a promise to myself that if I made it through this, I would change my life, for myself and for my son, who witnessed me in prison while I was continuing the cycle that my parents passed down to me. So when I got out, I kissed the floor of the Hall of Justice, prayed to God, and never looked back. And then I found the Coalition on Homelessness, and they turned on the lights I needed to see my way and to find my voice.
I want to say to people who never think about what life is like in my San Francisco:
This is what it looks like when your neighbors get evicted. When property values go up and there are less and less people willing to form a community. It’s no longer a community, but a self-interested neighborhood controlled by corporations whose only interest is to make money. They say, fuck the people living life in those places. If you have issues, talk to an answering service!
This is what it looks like when the city government tears down homes and gentrifies your neighborhood. More and more families become homeless or simply disappear. I never knew what happened to my neighbors because I was so worried about what was going to happen to me. The government turns a blind eye to red-lining, making it impossible for black families in the neighborhood to qualify for credit. Creditworthiness is further jeopardized by a vicious cycle of “crimes” of survival. Most black families have at least one member carrying felonies because of the things they have had to do to survive.
This is what it looks like when your childhood friends go to prison. Where I come from going to jail is like setting the table for dinner. We have a harder time getting a job than going to jail. From your first day in school you’re being set up to go to jail. Schools are underfunded, starved for resources, and run like prisons. At our schools we find no books, no homework, no computers—we have the oldest teachers in the district, who haven’t even learned computers. Parents are seldom notified by schools about their children unless they are on the way to jail or Child Protection Services. Our high school graduates have little chance of attending college. So the next stop is prison. You can get a better education in prison than on the streets. By the time you get out you’re likely to end up in another institution or have so much hate for yourself that you are now a menace to society. After all, you still don’t have a job, your family life is wrecked, and now you’re homeless because of your record. This is the vicious circle trapping many of us.
This is what it looks like when Child Protective Service takes your kids. It’s as if your kids have a felony strike against them. I have a cousin doing life because of what all the years of foster care did to him. The CPS is set up as an institution for babies. But most of the time they are not protecting the children. Most black families here live in poverty and the CPS uses misfortunes that happen to people in poverty to justify taking their children. I’m not saying some kids shouldn’t be removed from their homes but curiously the system often doesn’t remove those kids because they are already considered too fucked up to be helped. Instead CPS bureaucrats look at the struggling parents that might need a little extra help and call them “unfit.” CPS makes it harder for single mothers who may have made a few mistakes but are still loving mothers—sometimes they take their children from them permanently.
This is the black San Francisco that existed when Willie Brown became mayor in 1995, and it has only gotten worse since then. When Brown was first elected, there was a lot of hope that he would make a difference, but he turned out to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Sometimes you run into false prophets and that’s what he was. He used the black community to get what he wanted. He basically pimped this city. He was like a cannibal that sucked his community dry, leaving nothing for future generations. He left the situation graver than it was before he took office.
He could have helped us put the community back together after three generations of “black removal” under the guise of redevelopment. Instead of helping he put us back years, and his parting “gift” to Bayview is a sweetheart deal with the Lennar Corporation to be master developer of the decommissioned Hunters Point shipyard—leaving the community, local businesses, and the 40% unemployed in the neighborhood out in the cold. Instead of a new unity, we’re still fighting among each other, calling names, and even using guns.
At least two years before the campaign for mayor began, Gavin Newsom came along with some of Willie’s people to Bayview–Hunters Point. They knew they couldn’t win the election without the black community, so they made all the promises and the back-room deals before the campaign even started. They used funding that the community was already entitled to in order to divide and conquer. They gave it to a small group of self-proclaimed “community leaders” who sold a bill of goods to the uninformed men and women in the neighborhood. It was a process that shut the door on true leadership.
On the other hand, it took the Gonzalez campaign a while to figure out that my community had to be dealt in. It took them too long to figure out that the black community was a political force. I worked with him but I felt a little cheated and played out because we were only given a few weeks to get the Bayview organized around his campaign. I really felt like we didn’t get the attention that other neighborhoods got.
If politicians really cared about bringing change, they would ask the communities how to implement policies that would work. The first step toward solving Bayview’s problems starts in the Bayview. We need to rebuild our own community—without “help” from all those false prophets and outside “father-knows-best” types who claim to have all the answers. We need to rebuild the families that have been knocked down by drug use and a lack of self-worth. We have to reconnect ourselves with our history of unity and believe in what the Civil Rights struggle was all about. We need to start to respect ourselves and stop looking for respect from others. Start looking at who we are and why we are dying and who is making the profits off destroying our communities.
A Vision for the Neighborhood
Replace the banks that redline our community with community-controlled institutions that will help us develop community-owned resources, cooperatively-owned housing, and develop jobs.
In a ghetto, we have so many people with talents that are misspent, but don’t tell me that the OGs don’t have the ability to handle money! We need to channel that energy into something positive. Take, for instance, a drug dealer. When a dope fiend comes into the neighborhood there are a hundred dealers waiting to sell the same drugs to him. If you can convince that dope fiend to come back only to you, you’ve done a great job of marketing. Imagine that energy and intelligence set loose in City Hall, or organizing our communities.
Depending on lawmakers to stop gang violence is silly. Going down to City Hall and begging for a change only results in more police. People need to step up and heal the community through cooperative efforts such as raising children of imprisoned parents.
As for housing in our community, we need more community ownership and limited equity ownership. When people don’t own a thing in their community they will let anything be dumped in it. Take a ride through the community. The cooperatives are in pretty good shape but the projects are messed up. It’s the difference between building a community and living on a modern-day plantation.
Black people, like everyone, have to have something to believe in. Crack and heroin in our communities generates despair. So many kids who grew up during the crack epidemic don’t believe in tomorrow or that there will be opportunities to do better. If you grow up not respecting your parents, how can they expect you to live in a just society? After all of the struggling we have done, we deserve a lot more peace than we have. We must carry the load of the people that are blinded by slave talk. Educate them about what our grandmothers and grandfathers know about a better day and what Martin Luther King meant when he said he had a dream. Remember Judas sold his soul for a few pieces of silver. We can’t let our movements be destroyed by people who had a chance to do good in their community but use their knowledge of the community to make money for themselves.
published originally in The Political Edge ed. Chris Carlsson (City Lights Foundation: 2004)