"Politics — it's my life's blood"
We have too much technology to say that we
can’t do better than we’re doing.
- Rev. Samuel A. Morgan, Union
Spring Baptist Church
june 12, 2000. In early May the local media moved into
film noir mode with news of the "rap gang war"
that was terrorizing the southeastern part of the city. The
Chronicle announced portentously, "A war between two
gangs… has claimed three lives in the past week and
traumatized San Francisco's Bayview-Hunters Point" in
the latest of 20 shooting incidents since November. Speaking
anonymously to avoid reprisals, several residents expressed
a fear of walking through their own neighborhood: "We
don't want our pictures in the paper. They will kill
you." An editorial condemned city officials for their
silence in the face of "brazen and lawless, startling
acts carried out with a ruthless disregard for public
safety." Chron-Ex duly reported community meetings of
mourning relatives and friends who spoke of the need for
jobs, youth-oriented activities, and parental attention, but
added headlines drawn from grade B movies — Death on the
Mean Streets; Tearful Service for S.F. Gang Victim; Gangs
It makes a difference where you’re
standing. Some members of the community saw the situation in
a different light. Bay View publisher Willie Ratcliff spoke
of "the loss of young people whose talent and value to
the community were just beginning to be known." Teacher
Julie Coghlan mused, "People don't love their children
less when those children are in danger, but I suspect they
love less the society that allows guns and hopelessness to
flourish." And for the crowd that twice filled the pews
of Providence Baptist Church in public meetings, the
predominant mood was anguish over the death of its children.
What the media viewed as a crime issue, these residents
called a public health problem. Handouts at the second
meeting, held last Monday, included a packet from the
Northern California African American Health Promotion Task
Force providing statistics about, and recommendations for
preventing, not only violence but also breast cancer,
diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
That’s the point, isn’t it? Violence
is bad for your health. African Americans know all too well
that violence is just one of the reasons their life
expectancy lags so far behind that of white Americans.
According to a recent World Health Organization report, the
United States stands well behind other industrialized
countries in both general and "healthy" life
expectancy because of its large minority population. Says
demographer Carl Haub of the Population Reference Bureau,
"If you look at the U.S. by ethnic group, you see a
somewhat different result. African Americans in the U.S.
have a much lower life expectancy, particularly males."
Closer to home, the Alameda County Health Status Report 2000
observed that even in cities like Berkeley, "African
Americans have significantly higher rates of deaths and
disease than the other racial and ethnic groups and do not
meet most of our nation’s health goals for the selected
indicators." And San Francisco, a world-class city, its
coffers overflowing, within the richest nation on earth,
cannot figure out how to promote the general welfare of all
What’s going on here? For guidance in
understanding the present, it’s often useful to look at
the past. In this instance, the name Ella Hill Hutch keeps
Today Ella Hill Hutch refers to a community
center on McAllister, the self-designated
"principal African American assemblage center in San
Francisco's Western Addition for recreation, employment,
education, community forums for action, and senior
activities during the past decade." Until his premature
death in early May, the executive director of the center was
Leonard "Lefty" Gordon, a native San Franciscan
who made it his personal mission "to help save young
black men and bring them into manhood."
But Ella Hill Hutch was once a
flesh-and-blood woman. Like Gordon — and like Carmen
Ramirez, whom she resembles in many ways — Hutch died
early and suddenly, before her work was finished. Few people
remember her today. Lefty Gordon did. So do Amos Brown and
Our Mayor. So does her friend Ruth Dewson.
The seventh of twelve children, this
daughter of a Florida Baptist preacher came to San Francisco
shortly after World War II "because all along I had
heard people saying what a wonderful place it was."
Imagine her disappointment when she "found conditions
as bad for blacks as they were where I had come from."
Apparently a woman of great energy and determination, she
found a staff job with the International Longshoremen’s
and Warehousemen’s Union in the early 1950s and set out to
tilt at dragons wherever she encountered them. As a member
of the Fillmore Tenants Council, Hutch made such a pest of
herself in a tenants rights fight that the landlord tried to
evict her as "a nuisance." She organized a concert
appearance by Paul Robeson at a time when the long arm of
Joe McCarthy made any left-leaning association dangerous.
She chaired the equally suspect San Francisco chapter of the
Labor Youth League. And she organized a local boycott of the
then lily-white Washington Redskins.
One thing led to another. Hutch, along
with 25 other African-American women joined the Democratic
Women’s Political Workshop in 1959, swept up by national
civil rights activity and the excitement of John Kennedy’s
presidential campaign. From there it was a short step to the
Democratic County Central Committee in 1966, the BART board
in 1974, and the Board of Supervisors in 1977, first from
the Fillmore-centered District 4 and then citywide. When
Mayor Dianne Feinstein announced Hutch’s death in February
1981, she noted that her colleague had been "especially
proud of the fact she was the first black elected supervisor
who had not first been appointed."
Sounds like a fiery radical, doesn’t
she? But no, Ella Hill Hutch trudged straight down the
middle of the road, with only occasional detours for labor
or tenants legislation. A thumbnail sketch in the Chronicle
before she was elected in 1977 describes her simply as a
"BART director and Democratic party regular." You
might say she was just being practical, that it was good
politics to cultivate downtown interests in exchange for
campaign contributions and support.
You might also say that times were
different. Look at the five new supervisors who came on
board with district elections in 1977. They may have
traveled in the middle of the road, but it was a one-way
street, veering sharply to the left. Hutch based her
campaign on government-financed low-cost housing,
improvements in MUNI without increases in fares, and
expanded health and childcare services. Harvey Milk, Carol
Ruth Silver, and even the fiscal conservative Lee Dolson
shared her concern for MUNI, with Milk and Silver also
pushing for more job opportunities and expanded social
service programs. Only the lonely Dan White swam against the
tide, arguing that "the time for people’s reliance on
government programs to solve their problems is over."
But somewhere along the way, something
happened — a lot of somethings — and the one-way street
branched off in a different direction. Dan White’s pent-up
frustration exploded, not in gang warfare but in gunfire
inside City Hall, killing Milk and then-mayor George Moscone
and opening the door for a succession of pro-development
mayors. The city’s new economic era relegated older
concerns to the side of the road, with the assumption that
they would somehow manage to hitch a ride on a passing BMW.
Hutch’s seat on the Board of Supervisors went to Willie B.
Kennedy, an African-American woman of little political
experience. When Kennedy retired in 1996, at the same time
that Carole Migden left the board for the state assembly,
Our Mayor poured salt on many wounds with their
replacements. African-American Amos Brown has riled many
gays by opposing domestic partnership legislation and needle
exchange programs to curb the spread of AIDS, and angered
advocates for the impoverished by his proposed crackdowns on
disruptive homelessness. Caucasian Leslie Katz has fashioned
herself into the champion of dot.com building rights,
thereby aiding and abetting the present parade of private
prosperity that is driving less affluent residents outside
the city limits.
We’ve gone full circle, back to last
Monday’s meeting at Providence Baptist. The grieving
community members assembled there — and the speakers at a
hearing on crime conducted by the supervisors’ Housing and
Social Policy Committee the next day — kept returning to a
common theme: the damage that occurs when part of the
population is left out of a booming economy. African
Americans feel the omission most acutely because they
mustered 97 percent of the black vote for the election of a
mayor who seems to have abandoned them. But their sorrow —
and astonishingly, it is sorrow and not rage — is
shared by low-income people all across the city.