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Could Google’s New Mobile Game Make the City Safer?

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By Beth Winegarner
Wednesday, Apr. 10, 2013

On any given night, Golden Gate Park’s Music Concourse is bustling with smartphone-wielding gamers, battling over virtual energy-spewing “portals” on the park’s landmarks.

Unlike the park’s usual complement of crazies, these gamers are playing Google’s new mobile augmented-reality game,Ingress. Although Google won’t divulge just how many Ingress players are in San Francisco, the game was born at the tech giant’s Spear Street office, and the city remains one of Ingress‘ most competitive zones, says John Hanke, vice president of Niantic Labs, the game’s design team.

Niantic includes engineers who created the technology underlying Google Maps, and Ingress is entirely location-based. Fire it up on your phone, and you’ll see a grid of the streets around you, lit up with portals centered on landmarks such as Lotta’s Fountain or Cupid’s Span. Players compete day and night to capture portals for their faction.

As anyone who reads the local papers knows, local thieves are making a pretty steady gig out of snatching smartphones from distracted users’ hands. Mobile-device theft continues to make up about half of all San Francisco robberies, says Sgt. Michael Andraychak with the San Francisco Police Department.

And nothing’s more distracting than a video game, right? But actually, there hasn’t been any spike in cellphone robberies sinceIngress launched last November, Andraychak says. In fact, Bob Lotti, who supervises the city’s park rangers, speculates that a game bringing more people out to San Francisco’s parks and streets could make those places safer.

Hanke agrees. “Our hope was to get people to use public spaces more,” he says. “It’s good for people to use them, and I think they’re safer when people use them.”

When those places are populated, particularly at night, it not only discourages no-goodniks, but people can report any suspicious goings-on, Lotti says. Local Ingress players report feeling no more or less safe when they’re playing than when they’re walking around the city with their phones out of sight — but some have stepped in when they came across a bad scene.

After Dexter Lau watched a nightclub bouncer punch a drunk man to the ground, he stuck around to make sure the man got help. Tom Campbell tried to intervene one night when an inebriated cyclist attempted to bicycle home, and also chased away a fellow Ingress player who had unsafely parked in a bus zone to play.

There are less-savory moments, too, as when meth users harassed Eisar Lipkovitz in portal-rich Clarion Alley and insisted he take a hit with them. Andraychak and Lotti urge players to use the buddy system and keep their eyes peeled for trouble. After all, “not everyone in Golden Gate Park is playing a video game,” Lotti says.

This article originally appeared in the SF Weekly.

Written by Beth Winegarner

April 10, 2013 at 11:26 PM

Infested BART: Inspection Reports Reveal Serious Pest Problems

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by Beth Winegarner
September 12, 2012

Trying to keep BART stations clean is akin to bailing out the Titanic with a shot glass.

For starters, you’ve got folks using elevators and escalators as their own personal toilets. Then there are the rats and the pigeons, skittering and swooping and excreting willy-nilly. It’s enough to drive a station agent bonkers, as we discovered recently when we examined a stack of station inspection reports.

June 12, 24th Street station: “RAT PROBLEMS MAJOR RAT PROBLEMS.”

June 18: “CAN WE JUST SIMPLY GET SOME MORE RAT TRAPS PLEASE.”

June 19: “RATS RATS RATS.”

June 25: “Greeted this morning by the residential rat. Then a few early morning passengers (older females) were startled (she says it nearly gave her a heart attack) by two (2) rats (not mice). Rats running up down the stairs playing in the plaza (her words).”

June 26: “RATS ARE STILL TAKING OVER THIS STATION”

Twice a day, BART station agents report how well service workers are keeping the concourse, platform, stairs, and conveyances clean. There are 20 separate chores each day, from wiping escalator rails to mopping platforms, says BART spokesman Jim Allison.

Station agents file these reports to provide an objective look at service workers’ performance. But the demands of coping with tense BART customers can leave agents feeling less than copacetic — hence the theatrics, Allison says. “Some are obviously upset about what’s going on at that station, and maybe emotions are running high when they write the reports.”

While investigating BART’s elevator-tinkler woes, SF Weekly requested a month’s worth of inspection reports for San Francisco stations. The results revealed a BART computer glitch preventing 13 days’ worth of inspections being reported (which they fixed once we inadvertently alerted them to it), 22 soiled elevators in the remaining 17 days, and a wildlife population that would pique Jeff Corwin‘s interest.

And it isn’t just the rats.

On June 5, at Powell, the agent reported, “Pigeons are nesting, having babies throughout the station.” There was so much pigeon poop, the report stated, that passengers were slipping around in it.

Throughout the month, agents at Colma station begged for more pigeon-proofing measures, pigeon-dung cleanup, and “DO NOT FEED THE PIGEONS” signs, which are not standard in BART stations. Rats are not an ongoing problem, and when they arise, BART hires an exterminator to set out traps, Allison says. Pigeons, on the other hand, are regular denizens of the transit system, prompting plenty of counter-measures.

“Pigeons are pretty resourceful birds, and they find a ways around a lot of the anti-pigeon measures,” including nets, spikes and barriers, he says. He doubted anti-feeding signs would be added: “There is probably more important information we need to convey to customers.”

This article originally appeared in the SF Weekly.

Written by Beth Winegarner

September 12, 2012 at 11:16 PM

iPads for School Lunches: SFUSD Woos Applicants with Prizes

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By Beth Winegarner
August 22, 2012

In public schools, there is such a thing as a free lunch. In San Francisco, it might even come with a free iPad.

Roughly 62 percent of local public-school students qualify for meal subsidies, but their parents have to file paperwork to make it happen. When they don’t, the San Francisco Unified School District loses money — $250,000 last year, for example.

Now, school leaders have dreamed up a new way to reel in applicants: prizes. This year, everyone who applies for meal subsidies will also have the chance to win fancy gadgets and memorabilia such as an iPad 2, an iPod Touch, a football signed by 49er Frank Gore, iTunes gift cards, and more.

It’s potentially a cheap fix for an expensive — and labyrinthine — problem. It goes something like this: Kids from a four-person clan that brings home $42,648 per year can eat at school for free. In turn, the U.S. Department of Agriculture gives schools just under $3 per lunch for every student who qualifies. But if a kid doesn’t apply, and then lunches for free, the school eats $3.

Some years, feeding kids who don’t pay for lunch or apply for subsidies has cost the district $1 million, says Dana Woldow, who chaired the district’s nutrition committee for many years. “We discovered this was a problem the first day there was a nutrition committee [in 2002],” she says. Nobody knew what to do about it.

There are a number of reasons eligible families might not sign up. Some undocumented families may fear that filling out the forms might tip off immigration officials. (It won’t). Or, the application may get lost in the tidal wave of paperwork families face when their child enters school, says Woldow.

It’s tough to nail down how many eligible students aren’t registered, since meal applications are the district’s only way of gauging families’ income levels, says district spokeswoman Heidi Anderson. But in San Francisco, where minimum wage is $10.24 an hour, every last clam from the government matters.

Money shortages are covered “out of the general fund, and is money that could be applied toward any number of unmet funding needs — including offering more menu choices to our students,” Anderson says.

SFUSD isn’t the first to try prizes. Baltimore City Schools recently gave away tickets to see Jay-Z,Kanye West, and Disney on Ice to families who filled out free and reduced-price lunch applications, though district spokeswoman Edie House Foster couldn’t say how many more applications they attracted. Locally, the prizes were either donated or obtained at no cost, Anderson says.

So far, it seems to be working: This year, 6,000 families applied before school started, which is unusual, Anderson says. Prizes will be awarded Sept. 1.

This article originally appeared in the SF Weekly.

Written by Beth Winegarner

August 22, 2012 at 11:30 PM

Schools not reeling in cash from film shoots

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by Beth Winegarner
Special to the San Francisco Examiner
Aug. 6, 2012

Superstars such as Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn have had some unlikely co-stars in their films: San Francisco public schools.

A number of films have been shot on local campuses, including “Hemingway and Gellhorn” and “Milk.” Although such projects earn the San Francisco Unified School District $880,000 a year, the majority of school-site filming is for advertising and corporate videos, which are not eligible for city programs intended to lure film crews here.

Clarendon Elementary played the part of a 1970s-era school in a Blue Shield of California commercial filmed recently, said Lauren Schwartz, owner of Kaboom Productions and producer of the ad. Parts of “Milk” were shot at Everett Middle School, while “Hemingway & Gellhorn” filmed at 135 Van Ness Ave., one of the district’s administrative buildings.

In April, San Francisco expanded its perks for film crews working locally. However, many projects filming in schools are too small to qualify for rebates, which could limit the amount of money the school district makes from hosting film crews, said Lauren Machado, film coordinator for the Film Commission.

Kaboom has operated in San Francisco for 17 years and has been pushing The City to include ad filming in its rebates, but it hasn’t paid off.

“I try hard to keep shoots here because I want to support the community,” Schwartz said. “I’m psyched we’re giving money to the public schools.”

The district accepts about 10 shoots per year, charging $82 an hour for the privilege, according to district officials. Much of that money pays for security and cleanup costs, but some goes back to the district, school board member Jill Wynns said. Crews also pay for city permits, insurance and other expenses.

“It’s great, as long as the money makes its way back to the kids and not into some administrator’s pocket,” said Michele Jones-Siegel, whose children attend Clarendon.

Kaboom donated extra funds to Clarendon, which Schwartz’s child will attend in the fall. Ed French, a San Francisco-based location manager who filmed a Chevrolet event at Claire Lilienthal School last summer, also donated to the school after his shoot.

“They don’t ask for that, but oftentimes it makes it worth their while,” French said of thedonations.

Crews are generally restricted from filming when schools are in session. “The district is very protective of the kids,” he added.

Rolling the cameras

Number of projects filmed in S.F. schools: About 10 per year
Cost to film in a school: $82 per hour
Film fees paid to SFUSD: $880,000 per year
City fees: $100 to $300 per day
Police fees: $104 to $110 per day
Productions citywide that applied for rebates: 9
Average rebate: $189,871.51
Maximum rebate earned by a production: $600,000 (“Trauma”)
Productions filmed citywide from 2008 to April 2012: 504

Sources: SFUSD, Budget Analyst’s Office

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

August 6, 2012 at 6:02 PM

Off-Leash Dogs: Owners Fight Increased Ticketing at Glen Canyon Park

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by Beth Winegarner
Wednesday, Aug 1 2012

One dusky June evening, a woman was reportedly jogging with her small, off-leash dog deep in Glen Canyon Park when a coyote snatched the pooch in its jaws and ran off. When Animal Care and Control responded, they couldn’t find the jogger, or what remained of her dog.

In response, Recreation and Park Department police handed out a rash of citations in the park, where it’s illegal to take dogs off leash, said department spokeswoman Connie Chan. But many who visit Glen Canyon’s untamed trails say they want the freedom to let their pets run free – and risk the consequences.

“I think it’s ridiculous for well-behaved dogs to get ticketed,” says Dan Balsam, a Glen Park resident who was handed a $118 citation in June for letting his terrier, Cosette, off leash. Cosette was so ill she couldn’t run. “Yes, it’s a shame that a dog got killed by a coyote. But everyone has been off-leash in that park. It seems like an overreaction.” He’s fighting the ticket.

In 2007, two coyotes in Golden Gate Park were “dispatched” — that’s police-speak for killed — by U.S. Department of Agriculture officers after the canids allegedly attacked a pair of leashed dogs.

Since then, ACC has gotten wise to the ways of coyotes, says Lt. Le Ellis Brown. “Now, that’s not how we handle wildlife. Dispatching a coyote is a last resort.”

Coyotes are naturally curious and protective of their dens, particularly during the April-to-August pupping season. Each time a coyote report comes in, Brown investigates whether the coyote’s behavior is “acceptable.” Following or chasing an off-leash dog near a den? Acceptable. Approaching an on-leash dog on the sidewalk? Not acceptable.

Tales of dog-coyote meet-ups are numerous. Jason Spain was walking his basenjis in Glen Canyon one foggy evening when he heard his dog, Jungle Jane, running with another dog. “When I turned around, I saw she was engaging with a coyote,” he says. “It wasn’t threatening, wasn’t growling or lunging. She was playing with it. I called her off, we leashed and left.”

Like many Glen Canyon regulars, Spain prefers to take his dogs off leash so they can sniff, wander, and get more exercise. He also likes the coyotes. “When I walk into that park, I understand I’m taking a risk. And I’m okay with that,” he says.

ACC, on the other hand, isn’t okay with that — particularly after a recent video emerged, showing a dog owner in Glen Canyon letting an off-leash rottweiler chase and taunt the coyotes. “We felt citing dog owners was in their best interest,” Brown says. “You guys are putting your dogs, yourselves, and the coyotes in harm’s way.”

This article originally appeared in the SF Weekly.

Written by Beth Winegarner

August 1, 2012 at 6:00 PM

Posted in animals, San Francisco

Surprise: BART Elevators Are Filthy and Poorly Serviced

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by Beth Winegarner
July 11, 2012

Every night when Juma Muhammad comes home, his wife scrubs his wheelchair’s wheels with bleach before he rolls through the door. It keeps him from tracking human waste across the floors where his 16-month-old son plays, but it doesn’t protect him from skin infections he believes come from riding BART’s germ-ridden elevators.

Bathrooms in 12 BART stations — including four along Market Street — have been locked since 9/11. Instead, some folks use BART’s elevators as Porta-Potties, grossing out wheelchair-users, cyclists, parents with strollers, and anyone else requiring the lifts.

Muhammad, who regularly rolls through Civic Center station, wears latex gloves in the elevators but still got a severe facial infection after touching the buttons.

“This is a big public-safety issue,” says Jessie Lorenz, executive director of the Independent Living Resource Center of San Francisco (ILRCSF). “They say if there’s a problem to call the station agent, but they’re left dirty. It’s obviously not a priority.”

BART has 22 to 33 service workers on duty at any time, four of whom are assigned to the downtown stations. One of their jobs is to scrub the elevators twice daily, plus whenever they’re fouled, says spokesman Jim Allison.

“Nowhere is the quality of your work showcased better than in the elevator, where there is a virtual ‘captive audience,'” says a page from the BART service workers’ handbook. “John Q. Public should be able to ride our elevators without worrying about stepping on trash, foul odors, or rolling over unknown substances.” Mopping, deodorant soaps, and Lysol ensue.

The problem actually predates the 2001 terrorist attacks. Berkeley’s Disability Rights Advocates (DRA) led a class-action lawsuit against BART in 1998 over elevators’ frequent breakdowns and feculence.

“When we brought our case, 50 percent of the time, people who needed to use the elevators were encountering filth,” says Larry Paradis, DRA’s executive director. “They had floors rotted out from all the urine.”

These days, BART doesn’t track how often elevators are defiled or unavailable during cleanup. It does offer free tokens for the public loos on Market Street — another condition of the DRA settlement. Although there are eight restrooms within walking distance of downtown stations, they’re frequently broken or dirty.

ILRCSF has pushed for more cameras in elevators, helping BART police catch tinklers in the act. Violators face a $250 fine and up to two days of community service, Allison says.

It may be security theater, but BART plans to keep the bathrooms closed indefinitely. Meanwhile, Muhammad has dealt with the problem his own way: His wife now drives him to work.

This article originally appeared in the SF Weekly.

Written by Beth Winegarner

July 11, 2012 at 10:23 PM

Fare Hack: Exploiting a Clipper Card Flaw Is Easy

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by Beth Winegarner
Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Not that we think you would, but with a visit to Radio Shack you could hack into that Clipper card in your wallet, allowing you to load it with free rides or create and sell copies for profit — and funnel money away from the Bay Area’s crash-strapped public-transit agencies.

What it would take: an oscilloscope, an antenna, a transponder, a bit of know-how, and about seven hours.

That’s according to David Oswald, a Ph.D. student in IT security at the Ruhr University of Bochum in Germany, who broke the encryption in Clipper and similar transit cards last year. Clipper cards contain a chip that uses radio signals to talk to fare gates and the transponders on buses, making it easy to “eavesdrop” on the conversation.”It’s comparable to a professional thief who can open a safe by listening to the mechanical clicks of the lock. In our case, we are listening to electromagnetic fields,” says Oswald.

From there, a hacker can narrow down which key will break the encryption and gain access to the information on the chip. Lest you think it takes an IT degree to read the data, the Farebot app for Android phones lets you peek at the travel history and balance on your own card — or anyone else’s nearby.

The vulnerability poses “a severe threat to the security of real-world systems” that use the chip, Oswald wrote in a paper published in October.

Cubic Transportation Systems, the company that supplies Clipper cards, downplays the finding. “Cubic continually monitors card activity to determine if unauthorized modifications have been made,” says Derick Benoit, vice president of customer services.

However, Metropolitan Transportation Commission spokesman John Goodwin says card-cloning is possible. That’s a problem, since Andres Townes, a former employee of Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority and later Cubic, was indicted for selling millions of dollars’ worth of cloned magnetic-stripe transit cards on Craigslist. Townes kicked off his alleged racket in 2007, before Cubic took over the MBTA’s transit-card system, but wasn’t arrested until 2011 — well after Cubic got involved.

The MTC has asked Cubic to finesse the Clipper system in light of Oswald’s findings, and Cubic is “considering this request,” Goodwin said. Cubic also plans to use a new, less-vulnerable chip in Clipper cards this year, but that still leaves over 1 million weaker cards in circulation.

“No smart card is, or will ever be, absolutely 100 percent hack-proof,” Goodwin said. “The goal is to stay at least one step ahead of the people that would look to take advantage of discovered vulnerabilities.”

That’s easier than staying out of cities with Radio Shacks.

This article originally appeared in the SF Weekly.

Written by Beth Winegarner

February 1, 2012 at 9:42 PM

Posted in San Francisco, Transit

More San Francisco women choosing home birth despite the higher cost

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by Beth Winegarner
Special to the Examiner
January 29, 2012

Rita Kearns lies back as her midwife measures her gravid belly. Maria Iorillo presses a fetoscope to Kearns’ side and finds the baby’s heartbeat. “It’s perfect,” she says, passing Kearns the earpieces.

Kearns, 43, is 41 weeks pregnant — one week past her due date. By now, many obstetricians would suggest inducing labor. Iorillo is content to wait. And, when the contractions begin, Kearns will give birth at home, as she’s done twice before.

She is one of a growing number of area women choosing to give birth at home. Local home births have doubled since 2005, even as overall births declined nearly 7 percent from 2007, according to the San Francisco Department of Public Health. Many families choose home birth even though insurance companies frequently leave them holding the bag for some or all of the costs.

Families choose home birth for a variety of reasons, said midwife Michelle Welborn. Some fear hospitals and medical intervention. Others want a natural birth, or control of the birthing environment, Welborn said.

At hospitals, women often face doctors eager to accelerate labor, said Redwood City doula Sandra Caldwell. That can lead to complications, even Caesarean sections.

Others turn away from hospitals because they don’t appreciate rushed prenatal visits attended by a revolving-door cast of nurses and doctors. Gia Schultz, 30, was 22 and 30 weeks pregnant when she hired a midwife to deliver her son at home.

“Instantly knew I wanted her at my birth,” Schultz said. “She had an actual interest in getting to know us … our wants, needs and unique characteristics. In the hospital you didn’t have enough time for that.”

San Francisco’s midwives and home-birth supporters have worked hard to make The City a home-birth mecca.

They network through the Bay Area Homebirth Collective, offer birth classes and potlucks, and have fought to legalize home birth and encourage hospitals to embrace it.

When Iorillo came to San Francisco in 1985, it was illegal for her to deliver babies at home, despite her license from a renowned midwifery school. She served on the California Board of Midwives for 10 years, during which she saw two bills legalizing non-nurse midwives fail before the third passed in 1994.

Local midwives worked with UC San Francisco’s birth center to overcome the hostility many women faced when they told their obstetricians they were planning a home birth — hostility that often returned if they wound up transferring to a hospital during labor.

“We had doctors who think home birth isn’t safe, and I think the majority of doctors feel that way,” said Judith Bishop, a former home-birth midwife who now delivers babies at UCSF. “We wanted to make sure there isn’t a divisive feeling between hospital and home birth, that people don’t feel they’re treated badly for coming in, or that we treat them with less respect.”

When that happens, she added, women and midwives become reluctant to transfer, risking the health of both mother and child.

Now, the only San Francisco hospital where doctors may decline to accept home-birth transfers is the California Pacific Medical Center.

Spokesman Kevin McCormack said CPMC isn’t opposed to home births, but its obstetricians, who are independent practitioners, can choose not to back up patients planning home births. CPMC delivers nearly half the babies born here each year, and has a 29 percent C-section rate, just slightly lower than the state average of 32.8 percent.

California hospitals charge upward of $15,000 for an uncomplicated vaginal birth, and often $30,000 or more for a C-section. While health-insurance providers cover most or all of those costs, they routinely reimburse 50 percent or less for home birth, which costs just $4,000 to $6,000 — including all prenatal and postnatal care.

“It’s kind of amazing when you think about it,” Bishop said. “It would be so much cheaper for insurance companies not to pay the hospital bill, which is gigantic.”

Coverage for home birth varies depending on the insurance provider and the patient’s plan, noted Schultz, who now handles insurance billing for Rites of Passage Midwifery. Kaiser doesn’t cover anything. Others may pay anywhere from 20 to 50 percent — even 100 percent, if the stars align.

“The key is patience,” Schultz said. “Insurance companies always come back and say they won’t pay you; you have to go through the process of denial over and over.”

Susan Pisano, spokeswoman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, a collective of 1,300 insurers, said the coverage issues relate to patient safety. “The bottom line,” she said, “is the evidence has been pretty sparse on the safety of home births.”

But according to a 2005 British Medical Journal study of 5,000 American births, home birth has similarly low rates of infant and maternal mortality as low-risk hospital births. Other studies have echoed these findings.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists is beginning to soften. In October, it met with midwives for the first Home Birth Summit in Virginia. “Instead of all the backstabbing and trying to squelch us out of existence, they had an open conversation about where we can find consensus,” Iorillo said.

Natural-birth centers forced to close doors

Home births are increasingly popular, but the sagging economy has hit natural-birth advocates hard, leaving pregnant parents with fewer choices.

St. Luke’s Hospital closed its “Homestyle” program — which offered in-house midwives and a more natural birthing model — in 2007 to help keep the financially strapped hospital from closing. Earlier this year, Sage Femme, The City’s only independent birthing center, shuttered its Capp Street facility after reimbursements from Medi-Cal and other insurance providers shrank.

Natural Resources, the 24-year-old shop that provides classes, birth-tub rentals and supplies for natural-birth families, narrowly escaped the same fate in November when it raised $48,000 through crowd-sourcing.

“It started with the economy,” said Natural Resources owner Cara Vidano. “Over time, our revenue has decreased.

Even with cutting costs, we haven’t been able to pay all our bills.” After failing to find a buyer for the struggling store, Vidano faced two choices: raise donations or close.

Sage Femme and its head midwife, Judy Tinkelenberg, delivered hundreds of babies in their 12 years in the Mission district. Tinkelenberg was the only midwife in San Francisco to accept Medi-Cal. The average client paid $3,820 to $4,500 for a birth at Sage Femme, including all prenatal and post-natal care. Until recently, Medi-Cal would cover almost $2,000 of that, but in recent years, their reimbursement dropped to less than $1,200 per birth.

“And, if the patient transfers to a hospital” — which 5 to 40 percent of home-birth moms do, depending on the midwife — “I don’t get paid at all,” Tinkelenberg said. “If I had cut Medi-Cal I don’t know if it would have been made up for with paying patients.”

For both businesses, the community — not the health care industry — is what may keep birth options alive.

Tinkelenberg is now attending home births and working with the Alameda-based Birth Options Foundation to raise money for a new birth center somewhere in the Bay Area.

For Natural Resources, the influx of donations “means we will be able to function again,” Vidano said. “If everything goes as planned, we will be in business for a while. This isn’t just a short-term solution.”

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

January 29, 2012 at 9:46 PM

Book captures Bay Area’s thrash heyday

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Beth Winegarner
Special to the Examiner
Dec. 30, 2011

The Bay Area may be known for Silicon Valley’s innovations, but it was another breakthrough altogether that gave it a permanent spot on the international heavy-metal map: thrash.

The early years of such seminal local bands as Metallica, Exodus, Testament, Death Angel and Vio-lence — plus their Los Angeles brethren Megadeth and Slayer — are captured in the new photo book “Murder in the Front Row: Shots From the Bay Area Thrash Metal Epicenter,” by Harald Oimoen and Brian Lew, out this week.

Oimoen and Lew’s snapshots reveal fresh-faced kids who worked hard onstage and played hard offstage. In one backyard shot, Metallica spits beer at Oimoen’s lens. In another, Exodus members balance light bulbs on their heads in bassist Gary Holt’s mom’s garage.

“One of the coolest, least known, and most unpublicized things about the Bay Area thrash metal scene back in the day has been the great brotherhood and camaraderie that was and is so prevalent,” Oimoen wrote in his introduction to the book. “There was no distinction between bands and fans like there is today.”

That camaraderie allowed Oimoen and Lew to get close to many bands and capture photos that couldn’t happen today — such as Metallica’s James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett lying side-by-side in bed with guitars, cigarettes and beer in their hands.

For many bands, the volume is a kind of yearbook of the early 1980s, said Death Angel singer Mark Osegueda. “I saw it at Kirk Hammett’s house — we sat and went through it for about an hour, and it brought back some memories of things we didn’t know were captured,” he said.

For the rest of the world, “Murder in the Front Row” is either a reminder of those times, or an introduction to the original thrash metal scene for a new generation of teens just discovering the genre. Serendipity led Lew and Oimoen to release the book now, just as Metallica and Slayer are celebrating their 30th anniversaries and toured with Anthrax and Testament this year.

“We’ve had these pictures for 30 years,” Lew said. “It’s better that we didn’t put the book out 10 or 15 years ago, because a lot of the younger metal bands are being influenced by the book the era covers.”

Outcasts latched onto thrash in the 1980s because it was the most aggressive music available, and fans today are looking for the same thing, according to Osegueda.

“I think it’s more viable now, ironically enough. Politically, the world’s in a state of utter chaos and turmoil, and that’s when this type of music seems to resonate,” he said. “This aggressive sound makes them feel like they’re getting something out of their system.”

BOOK NOTES
Murder in the Front Row

By Harald Oimoen and Brian Lew
Publisher Bazillion Points
Pages 272
Price $34.95

Written by Beth Winegarner

December 30, 2011 at 8:36 PM

SFPD’s Ugly History with Pepper Spray

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by Beth Winegarner
Nov. 30, 2011

When San Francisco Police came calling in June of 1995, 37-year-old Aaron Williams probably didn’t think it would be his last day on Earth. But as the pet-store-burglary suspect emerged from his house, a dozen officers piled on him. Police pepper-sprayed him, restrained him, and placed him face-down in a police van. Within an hour, he was dead.

That same month, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California issued a sobering report on pepper spray, which had been legalized for police use in October 1992. By May 31, 1995, California law-enforcement officers had used it nearly 16,000 times, roughly 24 times per day. Twenty-six people had died — not including Williams — giving pepper-spray victims a 1-in-600 chance at death.

By October 1995, the San Francisco Police Department had updated its use-of-force policy, which details when and how pepper should be used. However, it appears that SFPD didn’t follow that policy six months later when officers picked up an incoherent Mark Garcia, then pepper-sprayed and hog-tied him. He died the next day, after suffering two massive heart attacks.

Since then, no one has died in SFPD custody following the use of pepper spray, according to Officer Albie Esparza. But with a wave of police pepper-spray attacks on Occupy Wall Street protests in Davis and across the United States, could it happen again?

“Davis was an eye-opener,” said Sean Seamans, a camper at Occupy San Francisco. “As with all ‘non-lethal’ items, as long as you put the ‘non’ in front, it gives you the excuse to use it liberally. And if you have asthma or respiratory issues, it puts lives at risk.”

Pepper spray, sometimes known by its formal name oleoresin capsicum, is a concentrated version of the substances that give spicy peppers their heat. In the human body, these substances release a brain-signaling compound called Substance P. Among other things, Substance P causes the airways to close, triggering uncontrollable coughing and making it difficult to breathe.

“Occupational Health Services, Inc., [a private research facility in Kansas City, Missouri], reported that because [oleoresin capsicum] caused the subject’s breathing passages to swell and constrict, the use of OC on persons with pre-existing respiratory conditions such as asthma could, in rare instances, cause death,” according to the ACLU report.

Local police don’t see it that way. “People do not die from pepper spray itself. There are other, associated factors,” such as alcohol or drug use, as well as the “hog-tie” or hobble restraint, Esparza said. “The pepper spray we use is nothing more than Tabasco sauce in a canister.”

Hmm. According to Tabasco’s website, its spiciest sauce — made of habanero peppers — is a bit more than 7,000 on the Scoville scale, used to measure capsaicin’s potency. Meanwhile, U.S.-grade pepper spray rates somewhere above 2 million on the Scoville scale, according to Scientific American.

While the ACLU report called for better tracking and oversight into police use of pepper spray, other agencies went further. The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights — then based in San Francisco, demanded a moratorium on the practice, in part because of its potential lethality. No police departments took them up on the demand, according to Ella Baker spokesman Abel Habtegeorgis.

“You’re quicker to use things like that because you’re told that this is not lethal, when in all actuality, your haste in using them can prove to be deadly,” Habtegeorgis said. “If police are going to have these weapons that can be deadly, they should use the same precaution they would use for a gun.”

Eight Headwaters Forest demonstrators won a victory over the police use of pepper spray in 2005, when a Humboldt County judge ruled that officers used excessive force in swabbing the stuff into protester’s eyes. However, the precedent only applies within that county, according to Headwaters Forest Defense spokeswoman Karen Pickett.

“It’s way too limited,” Pickett said. Although the Headwaters trial focused on pepper spray’s potential to cause permanent eye damage, some court evidence showed that it can be fatal when people have respiratory problems.

No Occupy Wall Street demonstrators have died after being pepper-sprayed — and SFPD hasn’t used it on local protesters, according to Esparza and Seamans.

During a recent raid, “I had eight officers on me at one time, and pepper spray was threatened,” Seamans said. He keeps goggles and a respirator at hand, just in case.

“Officers don’t like to use force unless we have to,” Esparza said. “But when someone’s given a lawful order, it’s against the law for them not to follow those orders. If you do what the officer tells you, there’s no need for further escalation.”

This article originally appeared in the SF Weekly’s online news column, The Snitch.

Written by Beth Winegarner

November 30, 2011 at 8:20 PM