March Madness

Demonstrating may soothe the psyche, but it won't save San Francisco's arts scene

For the sake of charity, we'll assume no renters were displaced -- as is often the case in tenancy-in-common move-ins -- when Kaplan and her co-owners took possession in 1992 of their red and white, neo-Edwardian building. Still, it is clear that Kaplan owns a "nice" $300K apartment as she fights against otherpeople's capitalism.

Kaplan spread the word among Mission artists and got permits to shut off a block of 22nd Street next to the old Leeds store. She and her supporters built a stage.

Kaplan seemed timid when she first took the microphone. But she warmed quickly.

"I’ve spent the past five years crying, and this is much better than depression. This is doing something," she exclaimed to the throng. "This is therapy! This is therapy!"

Following the Aug. 19 protest rally Kaplan and several of her companions (none of them formally associated with the Dancer's Group) "occupied" the Leeds building for a couple of days. They sent out press releases. After a while, Reisman and Sagerman called the police, who arrested the squatters.

I took a walk around the Leeds building two days after it was vacated. The squatters had covered the walls with graffiti slogans such as "Corporate greed = spiritual cowardice! Wake up." One wall was hung with felt-pen-scrawled butcher paper, a leftover from an impromptu nonviolent-resistance workshop that had been frozen in time, Pompeii-like, by the police raid.

I watched Sagerman attach a bicycle lock to one of the windows, lest the squatters try to return. Sagerman explained he was able to attract "angel" financiers to his project through connections he had forged while working as an architect.

"It's all about connections," he said. The unnamed investors are people "who do all the math; they look at the way we work, and they know that we are sincere in what we say. So we make this project a big fat success and go on to the next one."

The Pomegranate folks are in negotiations with a shoe store to occupy the bottom floor of the building. On the second floor is Reisman's belly-dance teacher.

It was hard not to see the demonstrators' point, if only fleetingly.

Preening preciousness aside, Sagerman and Reisman are among the gentlest members of a tribe of speculators drooling over Mission District commercial space. Unless something is done soon, every last arts group located there will be priced out of its home.

Troubled by this juxtaposition — a dire social crisis and a misguided response — I called my friend Bob Cary, who lives half a block from the Leeds building. Bob knows as well as anyone about taking an active stand in a social struggle. He was put in a labor camp during WWII because he was a conscientious objector. Later, during the late 1970s, Bob became recognized as a pioneer in the struggle for gay rights.

"There's terrific unrest in the Mission right now, but it becomes self-defeating," said Cary, a spry octogenarian. "We need to improve things in the Mission, but protest can become a way of life. Some people join protests for the fun, and to some it becomes a profession in itself. When we were protesting something, it had a basis on lifestyle and changing people's way of thinking. In the Mission, I think it's gotten to the point where the public is disgusted and doesn't know what to do."

Next I spoke with my friend Becky Bond, an editor at News for Change, a leftist news service funded by the Working Assets progressive-cause telephone company. She had phoned me intermittently from the street protests in Philadelphia and Los Angeles to say things like, "Hey Matt, guess what? I'm in a riot! Gotta go."

She went to both conventions hoping to find the germ of a new social movement. What she found was a bizarre protest/riot/rave/party.

"It was people who want to turn their recreation into something meaningful. There are kids who think there's something wrong with the way corporations have taken away culture. But it was also a lot of dreadlocked white kids who aren't that bright," Bond said. "It was very hard to talk to a lot of them. You know, they say, ‘Fuck this, fuck that.' It becomes extremely specialized. It's not like a groundswell will develop because of this. It's the professional protesters now. They're very young, and very white. It's not a gathering that could radicalize people."

And naturally, I called my mother, whose protest résumé includes a dozen or so peace-demonstration arrests, near death from fasting against nuclear proliferation 18 years ago, and leadership positions with a half-dozen or so Northern California Peace Movement organizations during the 1980s.

I told her about Rachel Kaplan's Big Adventure. She said protest movements, by their very nature, tend to attract unstable people.

"That people do that because they have emotional needs is across the board. It happens all the time," Mom reminisced. "There are going to be people with ego needs coming out of the woodwork any time there's a public stage. With the civil rights movement, it was different, of course. Then, if you stuck your neck out, you got killed. You don't get quite as many crazies willing to get killed."

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