The Last Guardian - Chapter I
Note to readers: This is the first installment of a memoir-in-progress that I'll be serializing in this space on an occasional basis. All rights reserved by me, helpful feedback from you most appreciated, to sfscribe (at) gmail (dot) com.
San Francisco arrested me right after I moved here. It was glorious, so filled with possibilities, even with defeat in the air from the start. We filled the streets and shut down the city in protest of Bush’s stupid war, a march on Baghdad that everyone knew would unfurl disaster. At least everyone in my new home.
It was the high-water mark for progressives here, 2003, back when this was still a contested city. We rose up against the military invasion as part of the same war we were fighting at home, the people’s struggle against the powerful, from cops to corporations, and all their self-serving lies. We asserted our right to be in whatever space we chose to occupy, and for a little while, we held it.
My job was to cover the action for the Bay Guardian, not participate. I didn’t even need to be on the streets that day. All seven of our reporters would be with the masses, my role as the newspaper’s city editor was to process it all through to our readers. But how could I not be out there, capturing the chaos?
Instead, the democratic spirit of my new city captured me. And so did the San Francisco Police Department, sweeping me off the streets, an early fish among the nearly 2,000 caught that day. A catch and release, I swam free before noon, sloshing around in that sea of populist energy as it buffeted the walls of power.
It was like that my whole time at the Guardian. Later that year, as the establishment tried to smoothly pass the mayoral reins from slick Willie Brown to ambitious Gavin Newsom, an upstart campaign around Green Matt Gonzalez came tantalizingly close to breaching the wall. But again, I felt its immovable impact as I was knocked back.
Leftism was surging in the city like nowhere else in the country. There was hope. Yes, we were still losing all the big battles, yet even our villains would sometimes feed our fire. Sure, Newsom was a shill for capital in almost everything he did, but at least he let the gays get married, striking the blow that later flipped California.
The culture of the city felt so rich, the soil sown with vital, creative juices for decades, and it seemed to be sprouting up all around me, vines that engulfed me and drew me upward. I wrote about all this beautiful life that I saw all around me and my words fertilized the growth, and when I told stories about the obstacles and barriers in our way, I watched our energy grow through and around them.
Well…sometimes — at least in those isolated moments when I sensed our progress and hoped that the truth mattered. Looking back now, it seems more like we were doomed from the start. For every great story we wrote exposing injustice, two more got added to the other side of the scales. Corruption begat more corruption. We pilloried greed and those who owned the city just got greedier.
It was just the way things were headed at the dawn of a new millennium in one of the country’s last battleground cities. First they came for the downtrodden and homeless, sticking them on buses or into tiny Tenderloin rooms so they wouldn’t scare the tourists. Then they came for the rest of us, marginalizing dissent as an impediment to getting things done, things like luring Big Tech into the poor part of town with promises to contain the rabble.
The Guardian’s mission was always to rouse the rabble, but now, the Guardian is dead. They killed it on Oct. 14, 2014, but it had been a dead man walking for awhile, condemned behind closed doors months earlier without our knowledge. It was the once-mighty ship that I somehow ended up captaining in the shoals after a voyage that shed most of its crew along the way. But it was the corporations that killed it, not us.
San Francisco has always been a capital of capital, but it was also a place for dreamers. Some dream of inventing the next great gadget and getting rich, while others just dream up new identities for themselves, the fabulously queer or the world-changing revolutionary. We shared the city, but those who had it all still wanted more. They invented the “sharing economy” to profit from making it easier to catch a cab or dodge rent control, but they aimed to own more of the city, not share it.
Even Burning Man, that idealist bacchanal that captured my dreams and journalistic attention for so long, somehow got away from us. The overlords that ran our city even finally coopted our favorite party, the one they cast into exile way off in the Nevada desert, replacing this utopian experiment with their velvet rope elitism.
Oh, but there was a time when I felt things turning. I would ride my ridiculous burner bicycle through the streets and everyone smiled, someone every single day telling me, “Cool bike,” genuinely struck by my unique but amateurish art. It was the little things that sustained me through the losses, seeing the joy that simple gestures could spread and watching them gather force with the little things that everyone was doing.
We were creating our own culture, like organisms in a petri dish that had somehow locked the laboratory door and shut out the scientists, freeing ourselves to ooze all over the counters and up the walls. It felt that way, but I now know it wasn’t true. We were being watched the whole time, and the sponsors of our experiment were always ready to capitalize on the most fertile dishes.
It was the culture that finally got me, not the city’s rolling beauty or status as a hub of power. I had orbited San Francisco all my life, sometimes touching down for a few hours or days to walk this exotic surface before retreating back to the East Bay suburbs where I grew up, the Central Coast where I was born and began my career, or the Sacramento area, my last stop before The City’s gravitational force finally drew me in for good.
I thought that I knew and appreciated San Francisco’s culture before I arrived, but it was mostly nostalgia for bygone eras. I was a Deadhead and pothead during my college years, so I romanticized the Haight-Ashbury of the ‘60s, with Jerry Garcia igniting the smokey air during free concerts in Golden Gate Park.
When the first Gulf War turned me onto the peace movement, sparking me to protest and publish anti-war articles in my local and college newspaper, the legend of San Francisco as a countercultural epicenter grew in my mind. So when I finally arrived a decade later and saw that it was real and more vivid and alive than even the best black-and-white photos, I was hooked hard.
It wasn’t just old hippies in the streets, it was everyone. After the cops penned me in and before they handcuffed me, I interviewed teachers and young urban professionals who called in sick, students with lessons to teach their country, a doctor ducking out of a nearby medical conference to make her voice heard, lawyers volunteering to safeguard our rights yet getting scooped up in our net, silver-haired retirees still marveling at the folly of the war machine. And outside our circle, avoiding arrest for now, a pack of black-masked teenaged anarchists prowled past on their way to cause mayhem.
Even some of the city’s more progressive politicians stood with the people, but not Newsom, Willie, or the other agents of power. While the streets roiled with righteous anger over the missiles that were raining down on Iraq, there were eyes looking down at us from the corporate suites, tut-tutting the futility of our gesture and upset only that a day of business as usual had been disrupted.
They knew this was a blip — and even as proud as I felt of this defiant, empowering energy that surged through my adopted city — so did I on some level. We had to be on the streets, standing against them, but the war was underway and the damage had been done. We were battling inevitability, and it was already marching toward its next wars, including the one on the messiness of democratic dissent.
San Francisco was always a tale of two cities, that literary phrase that has taken hold here on the dying left over these last couple years, spoken by progressive politicians during their losing campaigns and written by journalists and artists as they were being evicted from their homes. The tale of two cities — one rich and prosperous, the other poor and displaced — was an illuminating metaphor that grew into a tired cliche, dulled by overuse and eventually buried in the same grave as the Guardian.
Our corporate overlords suddenly shut the newspaper down exactly three weeks before the election and 48 years after the Guardian launched its mission “to print the news and raise hell.” Our community rose up and we all railed against this shot to the heart of progressive San Francisco, but we were already bleeding out.
Little victories, such as quickly getting our website and its archives and election endorsements back online, or raising the money to do a final commemorative issue by the Guardian-in-Exile, simply reinforced the finality of the loss. And of course, all the progressive candidates and measures, those that could have slowed the rapid displacement underway in San Francisco, were then narrowly defeated by the voters. Could it have gone any other way?
All year long, I had been wrestling with death. Not the metaphorical death of progressive journalism and possibility in this great city, but the very real and sudden death of my loving girlfriend. So this blow compounded that profound sense of loss, the two events resonating with one another in my reeling head, and I knew that my life as I knew it was over.
Rhonda was dead. The Guardian was dead, and along with it my newspaper career and the only identity that I had ever known. All of the hopes and dreams that I had infused into my love for this crumbling place were destroyed, leaving me in tatters. And in the end, I could only mourn my lost city, the illusory one conjured by the tip of my pen, and try to tell her story.