Finding His Niche

Steve Bingham, a famously exonerated ex-fugitive who advocates for the poor, helps lead the charge against Care Not Cash

It's Monday afternoon and Steve Bingham is already worried about the way his busy week is shaping up. "You see this stack of papers," he says, pointing to the Spartan desk in his cubbyhole office at Bay Area Legal Aid in the Tenderloin. "Every piece represents something that's urgent for one of my clients."

Among those clients is Linda Pettye, the homeless woman who is a plaintiff in a lawsuit, now on appeal to the California Supreme Court, challenging the legality of Care Not Cash. Despite an appellate decision against the suit, it's a case that Bingham and lead attorney Oren Sellstrom still hope will turn Mayor Gavin Newsom's signature homeless program on its head.

In 1971, Bingham was accused of smuggling a gun to imprisoned Black Panther leader George Jackson and igniting the bloodiest massacre in the history of San Quentin. He was later acquitted and now works quietly on behalf of poor people. It's work that he says suits him fine. In fact, it's part of a survival strategy.

"I've never sought to draw attention to myself based on what happened in my past," the soft-spoken legal aid attorney says. "For one thing, I didn't want it to detract from my chosen work. And for another, it isn't healthy to live in the past. I had to move on."

Bingham was a young radical lawyer fresh out of UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall and working as a tenants' rights organizer when he became part of Jackson's legal team in 1970. A revolutionary whose writings fueled the black militancy of the era, Jackson had been accused of killing a guard at Soledad State Prison.

On April 23, 1971, two days before his scheduled murder trial, Jackson and his accomplices inside San Quentin's notorious Adjustment Center -- a building reserved for the prison's worst inmates -- murdered three guards and two fellow prisoners before Jackson was gunned down while running across a prison yard in an alleged escape attempt.

The Black Panther leader had managed to get ahold of a 9mm handgun and two ammunition clips. The person who had visited him just before he went on the rampage was Bingham, who, as a lawyer, had been allowed to carry a briefcase and tape recorder into the meeting.

The incident remains an unresolved flash point from a violent epoch. Authorities accused Bingham of doing the Panthers' bidding by smuggling the gun into the prison, although they had no credible evidence. The Panthers and their sympathizers have long suspected that prison officials conspired to make the gun available to Jackson -- a prolific author and prison revolutionary -- as a pretext for killing him.

Bingham contributed to the controversy by disappearing within hours of the bloodshed.

He spent the next 13 years living underground under an assumed name in Europe, where he met his wife and worked an assortment of odd jobs, even making a documentary film. (The couple and their 17-year-old daughter now live in Marin County.) In 1984, he voluntarily returned to California to face murder and conspiracy charges in connection with the massacre. Former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark helped broker the return. At his celebrated 1986 trial, Bingham -- who always maintained his innocence -- testified that he went on the lam because he was terrified at being wrongly accused and feared that he would be killed in prison.

Despite his newfound celebrity status within leftist circles, Bingham vanished from the limelight upon his acquittal, eschewing book and movie deals and the chance to pursue a career on the lecture circuit. Instead, he went back to work as a legal aid lawyer, representing welfare recipients and homeless people. When Mayor Art Agnos unveiled an anti-panhandling crusade in the late 1980s, Bingham took to the legal trenches to help resist it. Ditto when Mayor Frank Jordan later sought to sweep the homeless from parks and sidewalks as part of the ill-fated Matrix program.

"I've always thought of Steve as an unsung hero," says Peter Haberfield, who worked with him in organizing migrant workers in the Central Valley in the 1960s shortly after Bingham returned from a stint in Africa with the Peace Corps, and who was among the friends who served as a lifeline during Bingham's years underground.

Another friend, criminal attorney Paul Harris, who once represented Black Panthers co-founder Huey Newton and who was a member of Bingham's defense team, agrees. "It doesn't surprise me that Steve continues to do what he does," he says. "He could have leveraged his credibility from the movement into a lucrative practice, or he could have just gone around the country speaking. But he's a principled guy who's devoted to making life better for dispossessed people."

When he talks about Care Not Cash, Bingham bristles at what he sees as a program that punishes some of society's most vulnerable people. "Everyone agrees we want to move people off the streets. But who's going to pay for it? To take away meager assistance from the poorest of the poor, as opposed to taxing those who can afford it, like businesses and property owners, is unconscionable."

Ironically, there are no such high-sounding arguments in the appeal before the state high court. Instead, the lawsuit on behalf of Bingham's client and a nurse at San Francisco General Hospital challenges Care Not Cash not on the merits, but on an arcane question of law. It asserts that under state law only the Board of Supervisors, and not the electorate, has the authority to reduce cash grants to persons receiving General Assistance. "You go with what tactic is available to you," he says. "That doesn't detract from the basic justice of what we are fighting for."

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