Have you ever been so embarrassed for somebody that you felt it in your gut? I felt that way last Wednesday night as I watched our high-profile District Attorney, Kamala Harris, participate in an Urban Slam “spoken word face-off” at a Potrero Hill Starbucks, attended by maybe a dozen people and two TV news cameramen.
To her credit, Harris — wearing a smart black suit with a polka-dot blouse — comported herself admirably. She stood alone on stage and read a piece called “Catch the Fire” by Sonia Sanchez, a black activist poet and former SFSU instructor. Sample lines: “Catch your fire … don't kill/ Hold your fire … don't kill.” (Appropriate for a DA hoping the homicide rate goes down on her watch.) Harris read one swinging part with impressive rhythm and enunciated carefully when the poem required a change in approach (“Sister/Sistah. Brother/Brotha. Come/Come”). The small group clapped politely. But there was no getting around it: Here's one of the most prominent politicians in the city reading a poem in front of a tiny audience, with a plastic palm tree hanging in front of her and the whine of an espresso machine in the background.
The event, part of the Black Film Festival, was clearly a bust. After the MC, Javier Reyes, did a “remix” of “We Shall Overcome,” Harris came in from the back door, read the poem, stayed for 15 minutes, and left (as did the cameras).
She was followed by a guy introduced as “The Mad Poet”; Jeremy Bautista of Oakland's Destiny Arts Center, an arts education and violence prevention program for kids; an unnamed fellow singing a song in a vivid falsetto; and one Richard Houston, a young volunteer. Finally, “Jav” finished with an occasionally funny piece he called “Scam Francisco,” in which he described S.F. as “also known as Sucka Free, but you gotta be a sucka to think you livin' free.” (Supervisor Fiona Ma, another promised performer, never showed up.) Jav repeatedly begged the “sistahs” in attendance to come up on stage, but no one bit. I left when he made everyone — including the audience members — stand in a circle and hold hands.
There is one thing I can say about Kamala Harris' performance, though: She didn't kill.