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Activists discuss sustaining quest for racial justice

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Clockwise from top left, Michelle Maine, Vincent Pan, Phelicia Jones, and Keith Baraka talked about racial justice and election issues during an Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club virtual meeting Monday. Photo: Screengrab via Zoom
Clockwise from top left, Michelle Maine, Vincent Pan, Phelicia Jones, and Keith Baraka talked about racial justice and election issues during an Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club virtual meeting Monday. Photo: Screengrab via Zoom  

At a virtual meeting of the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club July 13, a panel of activists discussed how people can sustain this moment of advocacy on behalf of the Black community with an eye toward the November elections.

The panel was moderated by Keith Baraka, a gay, Black man who is a vice chair of the San Francisco County Democratic Party Central Committee. It included Phelicia Jones, founder of Wealth and Disparities in the Black community; Vincent Pan, the co-executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action; and Michelle Maine, the communications director of Swing Left San Francisco.

'Black people fare far worse'
Jones said she has been an "all-around community person" since she was 15 years old. Born in San Francisco and raised in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, Jones is the founder of Wealth and Disparities in the Black community, which began as a way to look at differences between Black Americans and others in the areas of housing, health, employment, and mass incarceration.

"Don't take this as discriminatory, because that's not my intention, but Black people fare far worse than immigrants in San Francisco," Jones said. "They have been studying Black people in San Francisco for 55 years. There have been three reports in 55 years and Black San Franciscans are doing worse than we were before."

So-called urban renewal schemes in the mid-to-late 20th century destroyed many Black communities in American cities by building freeways and exercising eminent domain in heavily Black neighborhoods.

In San Francisco, redevelopment in the Western Addition's Fillmore district, rising rents, and gentrification have contributed to an exodus of the city's Black population, which went from 13% in 1970 to less than 6% in 2010.

Jones said that while San Francisco is a very liberal city, there is a lot of covert racism. Despite committees and reports discussing disparities between Black people and other San Franciscans, there hasn't been enough concrete action, Jones said.

"If people would have followed [the recommendations of past studies], Black San Franciscans wouldn't be in the position we are in now," Jones said. "We [San Franciscans] want to do reports, and task forces, but we don't want to see results."

Jones said that Mayor London Breed has faced a tougher time from her political opponents because she is Black.

"I may offend a few people, but the Board of Supervisors — these white progressives that run San Francisco — need to get a grip because they are not culturally competent," Jones said. "It's a dog-and-pony-show. They want to have a hearing. 'Let's have a hearing!' Then what happens? Nothing. ... So if people wanted to do something, then something would be done."

Progressive supervisors contacted for this story did not respond to requests for comment.

According to Jones, the lack of community engagement extends to the San Francisco Democratic Party.

"The majority of Black people don't know a thing about the DCCC," Jones said. "The only Black people who know about the DCCC are those in politics."

Baraka, the DCCC member, suggested people refer to the body as just the local Democratic Party so that it sounds less "esoteric" to people.

Jones said she was originally not involved in issues of police brutality, but after San Francisco officers fatally shot Mario Woods, a Black man, in 2015, "Justice for Mario Woods" was added to the name of her organization.

Jones said that members of the Board of Supervisors are often not responsive to her letters.

"Do you know how many Board of Supervisors will answer you? Not many," Jones said. "That's why you see such an uprising all over this nation. People are getting it. [Police] Chief [William] Scott gets it. He meets with us on a quarterly basis about reduced use of force on Black people."

In a phone call to the Bay Area Reporter late Tuesday, Scott said those meetings with Wealth and Disparities in the Black community have been "fruitful."

"We started that process a year and a half ago, if not longer," Scott said. "They are productive meetings, candid meetings, and we've made progress both on communicating with Wealth and Disparities and with what we're doing to change the narrative of some of the issues important to them, particularly as it relates to use of force against African Americans in our city, and other issues. They have come to be productive and fruitful meetings."

Jones said that her organization did not ask for the meetings.

"He asked me because he is interested in bringing down use-of-force because Black is the highest. For every other ethnicity, use-of-force has gone down, except for Black people," she said.

Jones urged people who have been protesting to avoid a "romanticizing of social justice" and to take concrete actions in their communities. She said she's working with the San Francisco Human Rights Commission to pass out masks, hand sanitizer, and COVID-19 information every Thursday.

"We're feeding 10 families a month in the Bayview," Jones said. "We're not talking about things sitting around two to three months but good groceries, nice produce."

Affirmative action
In addition to the elections for political office, California voters will have a number of ballot initiatives to vote on this November, covering issues including parole and teenage voting rights, cash bail, rent control, and affirmative action.

If passed, Proposition 16 would repeal Proposition 209, a 1996 initiative that banned the state from considering race, ethnicity, or sex in public employment, contracting, and education.

Vincent Pan, the co-executive director of Chinatown-based Chinese for Affirmative Action, said that repealing the state's ban on affirmative action will help advance people of color.
"This is a movement proposition," Pan said. "This isn't just some technical water bond where you have to explain the details. This is about us."

But Pan pointed out that there is "a lot of opposition even in our own communities," mentioning "very, very loud conservative Chinese voices" and Ward Connerly, a Black former regent of the University of California who was a major voice behind Prop 209 and who is returning to the spotlight to fight Prop 16.

"CA-16 goes a long way to remedying the wrongs we have had to contend with from an institutional perspective," Pan said.

Pan also took a few moments to condemn the incidents of racism against Asian Americans that have occurred related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Over 2,000 such incidents nationwide had been reported to advocacy groups as of early June, according to CBS News.

"In the Asian community we've seen a rise in anti-Asian hate incidents as [President Donald Trump] blames Chinese people to distract from his own failures," Pan said, saying that 800 reported hate incidents have occurred in California alone.

Trump and his officials have sometimes referred to the novel coronavirus as the "China virus," drawing from its origins in Wuhan, China, and as the "kung flu."

COVID changes campaigning
Swing Left San Francisco is the local chapter of a national organization created following Trump's election four years ago.

"The goal was simple — winning back the House [of Representatives] from the Trump regime in the 2018 election," Maine said.

To that end, Swing Left sought to match people interested in politics from heavily Democratic districts — such as California's 12th Congressional District, which encompasses most of San Francisco and is represented by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — and paired them with swing districts.

To that end, San Francisco-based Democrats did the nuts-and-bolts campaign work of knocking on doors and calling voters in California's 10th and 21st congressional districts, which include Modesto and Kings County, respectively.

"We spent a lot of time going out, getting to know these parts of California, making sure our voter lists were clean," Maine said. "It paid off. Nationally, we flipped 40 seats."

The blue wave hit the 10th and 21st districts, too.

"T.J. Cox — we thought on election night that he'd lost [the 21st district] but as two to three weeks of ballots came in it turned around and he'd won by 862 votes. All that making contact with people worked," Maine said.

Maine said that this year, Swing Left has expanded its focus from the House of Representatives to the Senate and the White House. They were planning on returning to the 10th and 21st congressional districts and also volunteering in Arizona, where incumbent Republican Senator Martha McSally will most likely be facing off with Democratic challenger Mark Kelly, a former astronaut and the husband of former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Arizona), who had to resign from the lower chamber after being badly wounded in a 2011 assassination attempt.

"We were looking forward to canvassing trips but then the world turned upside-down," Maine said, referring to this year's COVID-19 pandemic. "Knocking on doors is the most reliable, surefire way of turning out the vote and now we don't have that."

In response, Swing Left will be doing phone banks into the California House districts and Arizona from people's homes. Volunteers will also be sending postcards and text messages to voters.

Baraka asked a viewer-submitted question of Maine "what should we be telling folks who are energized and want to help but who have not been in nuts-and-bolts work?"

Maine said that people who are interested in phone banking should not be dissuaded because they find it hard to talk to others. Swing Left has workshops titled "Phone Banking for Introverts" that are "taught by folks who consider themselves to be introverts."

"Just give it a try," Maine said. "People are less scary than you think. People will be polite — they're much meaner on the internet than they are [on the phone]."

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