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Newsom Unleashed 

"I told him I'll go after any mayor that didn't try to improve conditions." – Bay View Publisher Willie Ratcliff

Wednesday, Dec 21 2005
For obvious reasons, this column loves a politician with a serious bark. We just didn't imagine that the image-conscious, hair-gelled Gavin Newsom would be the one doing the woofing. Especially at a relatively small dog: the San Francisco Bay View newspaper.

It seems the neighborhood weekly ran a scathing editorial about the serious economic and crime problems in Bayview-Hunters Point and the mayor's responsibility for them. The piece, by Ebony Colbert, was a strong condemnation and effectively said the cops were the real gang dressed in blue.

It also equated Newsom with a slave master who would throw a social or a barbecue to appease any unrest, sending the slaves off to sleep thinking things will get better.

"Every time our community makes a peep about racial, political and civil injustices or unfair educational standards for our children, Gavin Newsom is right there with his SFPD buddies and a basketball -- readying us for a good ol' fashioned barbeque," Colbert wrote Oct. 19 (before said SFPD buddies became political pariahs for their videos).

Colbert's saucy commentary apparently produced a welt on the shin of the normally calm and cool mayor.

Newsom runs one of the most tightly controlled image organizations in any large city, according to a political consultant in town. Yet in an obvious moment of pique, Newsom, a man who sometimes has 20 meetings and social engagements a day, set aside valuable time to do some barking at Bay View Publisher Willie Ratcliff. The publisher's wife says Newsom called and tried to intimidate her husband, but the publisher did some yelling of his own. "The whole building was shaking," Mary Ratcliff remembers.

Colbert says Newsom told her boss that the opinion piece was "one of the biggest pieces of crap" that the mayor had read. In his life. Newsom supposedly tried to get a retraction. Instead he got some attitude from the publisher. "I told him I'll go after any mayor that didn't try to improve conditions and allowed people to drive us out through gentrification," Willie Ratcliff says.

Then the conversation got more lively.

"He asked if I was threatening him. I said yes, I'd try to put him out. He got irate, and I got irate right with him," recalls Ratcliff, who adds: "Hell, we can buy our own barbecue."

The rant raises some questions. Does Newsom have time to micromanage neighborhood newspapers? Does this son of a judge not know that Ms. Colbert has a First Amendment right to write a strongly worded opinion, no matter how over-the-top? Perhaps Newsom flamed up over the piece because he has poured so much energy into building street cred in the projects. Gavin might now have to work a little harder at buying burgers and taking kids to sports arenas.

We want to know which of the five paid media staffers was minding the mayor on the day he went ballistic. Was it the communications director, the chief deputy communications director, the two deputy communications directors, or perhaps the communications officer? Or were they all out sick that day? Not one in the five got back to us about our request for comment. (Tom Walsh)

Farewell, Tookie

"So what do you think?" our friend asked as we made our way past some bored-looking cops near San Quentin's east gate. "If you were in there, would tonight be the best or the worst night to make a break for it?"

The helicopter spotlights above suggested it might be the latter, but the crowd did have miraculous flight on the brain.

The last time Dog Bites dropped in on a state execution, we took in Donald Beardslee's date with the needle less than a year ago. The similarities between Beardslee and this evening's condemned, Stan "Tookie" Williams, were painfully common: Both were graying black men with sensational murder convictions in their past, and both were denied a barrage of last-minute, high-profile clemency pleas.

But the story of Tookie -- as death penalty abolitionists and their T-shirts are wont to call Williams -- had more biting irony: The Cripps co-founder spent over six years in solitary confinement for brutal prison crimes before being nominated for nine Nobel Prizes, and was denied clemency for refusing to apologize for crimes that he had never admitted to in the first place. Strangest of all: As he drank milk, watched the tube, and waited to die, his life was in the hands of a former gym buddy.

"Arnold made a big mistake," a middle-aged black man was telling a Japanese news crew as we arrived. Since a couple thousand of us were packed ass-to-ass outside the prison, it only seemed right that everyone -- including our archfoils, Arnold and Tookie -- was on a first-name basis. "Arnold really messed up with the black community."

Of all the oddities about crashing a state-sanctioned murder, one of the most peculiar -- after the helicopters, and posses of hymn-singing schoolmarms, and pickup trucks with homemade "Burn in Hell Tookie" billboards -- is the dearth of parking, a situation that could frustrate even a veteran resident of the Lower Haight.

When we finally found a spot at a quarter to midnight, we rushed up the road into the floodlights at the prison gate. There was a small platform with speakers near the gate, and supposedly Snoop and Jesse Jackson might show, but it was too crowded to get near the stage, and the speakers were too quiet to hear -- a courtesy extended to the residents of the neighborhood, who after suffering the daily unpleasantness of living down the street from California's oldest prison and the occasional chopper-and-floodlight protest, were spared the Valley of the Shadow soapboxing.

So with nothing to do, or hear, or see in the blinding lights, everyone stood around and looked at his feet, or held candles, or murmured quietly. Some people took pictures of these activities with their camera phones. Some people ate sandwiches.

When midnight came and went, little changed except the mood -- which had lost even the faintest breeze of hopefulness -- and the crowd volume, which grew a bit louder. Three women pattering on a djembe drum were accompanied by the wail of Harlem community mayor Queen Mother Dr. Delois Blakely (whose picture appeared the next morning in the New York Times) and a noodling saxophone player. Two men were videotaping each other as they talked about police brutality, and -- just far enough away from the officers -- one of them let fly: "Fuck the police."

But mostly, no one said anything, and the same kind of unexplainable impulse that brought people here urged them back to their cars.

"If you want change," said one man on the long walk back, preaching to people mostly trying to ignore him, "you have to think of a different way to get your message out there. It's like Nike. When Nike has a shoe that doesn't work, they get another shoe. They get one that works."

"But Nike has millions of dollars of marketing behind a pair of shoes," someone said, dutifully taking the bait. "A political movement is nothing like marketing sneakers."

"And that's the problem," the preacher countered. "Sometimes the unimaginable has to be done."

But by then, it seemed like it already had. (Nate Cavalieri)


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