Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the month “March, 2012”

Starbucks Stand Their Grounds

From the MoveOn.org website (I have added the pictures):

Starbucks stuck their neck out to publicly support the right of all people to marry, regardless of the gender of their partner.

Now it is under attack by the ironically named, ultra-conservative “National Organization for Marriage”. Already over 10,000 NOM members have pledged to boycott Starbucks. We don’t want to just criticize corporations when they do bad. We want to encourage them when they do good. So we’re going to blow the opposition out of the water by getting more than ten times as many people to thank Starbucks for standing up for gay marriage.

Show your support for Starbucks by signing our giant Thank You card.

A compiled petition with your individual comment will be presented to Starbucks.

Here are a couple of blogs that I have written about Starbucks or coffee in the past – in case you are looking for something to read with your low-fat, extra-whip, slightly agitated…oh never mind!:

Occupy Starbucks

Coffee I Couldn’t Resist

Have a great weekend!

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

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Brainwashed in 3.5 Minutes (by Roger Ingalls)

The History Channel aired an interesting program a few days ago about the design of convenient stores. It’s amazing how much thought goes into the layout of a 7-11 and other twenty-four hour quick turn stores. Their goal is to get you in and out within three and a half minutes while manipulating you into impulse buys. Convenient stores generate an amazing $1.7 billion every twenty-four hours.

After watching the program, I went online to find out more about retail and convenient store tricks that make us spend more money. Here are some of the manipulating tactics they use.

People usually go to a convenient store for a purpose which means they are headed for a destination in the store. Of course, there are common purposes for being in a 7-11, such as buying milk, soda and coffee. Impulse items are placed between the door and the destination item. This is why most of the stuff we want is in the back of the store.

If you grab a soda from a cooler at a Quik Stop, the cooler door is hinged to close in a way that directs you past more impulse items. For example, if the door swings open from left to right, you will more likely turn to your left when walking away so flashy products are place in that direction. Coffee is a huge seller at convenient stores. Donuts, bagels and breakfast sandwiches are grouped with coffee to entice you into making a package purchase.

Grocery stores are big manipulators too. All the basic real foods like milk, meat, bread, eggs and produce are place in the back and far sides of the store. You must walk past everything else to get to these staple foods. The meat section uses slightly tinted lights to make the items look pleasantly fresh. Did you ever wonder why produce is misted? It gives us a sense of freshness but it actually reduces the shelf-life. Additional produce tricks include displays that put fruits and veggies in crates along with signs resembling chalkboards to give them a farmers market feel even though they may have been trucked in from another country.

Grocery carts and flooring play a big role in how much money we spend. Stores that switch from small carts to larger ones see an average revenue increase of 37%. Have you noticed the trend to put kid carts in stores? Parents who bring their children spend 25% more than if the kids were left at home. Floors are also being modified with color changes every few feet or the physical texture changes to make us watch our step, look around and slow down. The slower pace correlates to a spending increase of 6%.

Even apparel stores are getting into the act. They put harsh lights and plain mirrors at the entrance and then put tinted mirrors and filtered lighting in dressing rooms. Once we are in the changing room, our appearance is improved giving the illusion that the clothing made the difference. Many retailers are also engaging in the practice of vanisizing where the sizes of the clothes are actually larger than what is on the tags. We can now fit into pants, dresses and shirts that were previously too small so we make a vanity feel-good buy.

There are many more tricks to get us to buy and spend; the more human behavior is understood, the longer the trickery list gets. I don’t know…maybe I’m making a big ado about nothing. After all, the economy is driven by commerce.

But I just hate being manipulated!

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Roger Ingalls is well traveled and has seen the good and bad of many foreign governments. He hopes his blogging will encourage readers to think more deeply about the American political system and its impact on US citizens and the international community.

Creating Coalitions Pt. 2

Following on from Monday’s post, I have been summarizing Mark Bittman’s excellent article in the NYT. Mr. Bittman stresses the realization of “an oligarchy in this country, one that uses financial strength to gain political power, one that fights and bullies for its “right” to make money regardless of the consequences to the earth or anything on it.

Exxon will do all it can to prevent meaningful climate change legislation; Cargill and Pepsi will fight any improvement in agriculture or diet that threatens their profits; Bank of America would rather see homeowners go under than discuss changes in financial structures. And so on.”

Mass movements have begun to emerge as one method to break this ring of influence and the Occupy Bank Transfer Day is an outstanding example. To organize at both the personal and local level can have a resounding effect. 

The second focuses on voting. Very few Presidents, our present one might be an exception, initiate change. Again, Mr. Bittman: “Does anyone believe that Lyndon Johnson wanted to combat racism, or that Richard Nixon cared about American troops or Vietnamese citizens? No: they were forced, respectively, to support civil rights legislation and to begin ending the Vietnam War. Forced by masses of Americans marching, yelling, demonstrating, sitting in and more — Americans driven by their conscience, not by profits.”

This makes the organization and coordination of huge numbers of citizens absolutely critical. We need to identify politicians who are willing to shun corporate money and pressure in favor of reflecting the needs of their constituents. This is so much more difficult than taking several million dollars to support your campaign.

We can sit around and complain of the blatant undemocratic process of corporate sponsorship of politicians or we can focus on establishing a list of candidates that are true to their principles and will rely on mass support from the street. The alternative is to create our own big interest PACs, and this has its own scary elements to it.

A few weeks ago, I bemoaned the idea of ‘playing their game,’ but now I am not so sure that we can create a sustainable framework whereby politicians are elected and held accountable by their voters.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

“Stand Your Ground” Justifies Trayvon Martin’s Actions, Not George Zimmerman’s – Tom Rossi

The Trayvon Martin “controversy” is at conflagration level this week. In case you’ve been living under a rock, I’ll give you the quick version of what was already a short story.

Trayvon Martin, a black teenager, was returning to the house of his father’s girlfriend in a gated community in Sanford, Florida. He was carrying a can of iced tea and a bag of the candy, “skittles.” George Zimmerman, a (some say “self-appointed”) neighborhood watchman followed him, called the police and got into a scuffle with Martin and ended up shooting him.

In the aftermath, Zimmerman (who was not dressed in any sort of security uniform) claimed to have been defending himself and therefore was not arrested by the police.

Zimmerman followed Martin. Then and only then, some kind of confrontation occurred. The only reasonable way that Florida’s “stand your ground” law could be applied in this situation would be to say that Trayvon Martin was in fear for his life – as he was the one being followed. That would have given Martin the right to use deadly force to defend himself.

But Martin didn’t have a gun, so he defended himself with his fists, it appears. Then Zimmerman shot him. Zimmerman single-handedly decided that Martin was a criminal. And as a self-styled vigilante he chased Martin, confronted him, and killed him.

This seems the most simple case to me. There’s really not much more to say. However, just as in the killing of Oscar Grant, race has become the center issue. Let’s hope that, this time, the cries of racism (though they may well be accurate) don’t drown out the simple circumstances that make it clear that this was an unjustified killing.

Is racism a factor in this case? It’s all over it. Zimmerman singled Martin out because he was black. The police immediately asked on the phone if he was black. And the police appear to have accepted “self-defense” without any question because Martin was black, even though they had clear knowledge that Zimmerman was following him, possibly even running after him.

George Zimmerman is guilty of murder and, in my opinion, it was clearly a hate crime. Nonetheless, it’s the Sanford police department that should be charged with racism. After yet another incident like this, it’s no wonder so many people of color have no faith in the rule of law in this country.

-Tom Rossi

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Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.

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Creating Coalitions Pt. 1

An excellent article by Mark Bittman recently caught my attention.  While the Presidential elections and the circus that precedes it, captivates the media and offers us a measure of entertainment, the danger is that it is becoming more of a distraction.

 2011 was a pivotal year, whichever side of the fence you dwell. The Arab Spring, Tea Party and Occupy movements sent a clear message that the people have had enough and want change. Moreover, there is a wide understanding that coordinated, mass movements can effect change.

What is imperative now is to band together and organize so that the President and Congress take our claims seriously. The Republicans are tied up with their desperate attempts to find a candidate who is…well remotely Presidential.

The left, whether it be the green movement, the occupy movement, or the mainstay democratic party and trade union activists need to coordinate a clear rallying cry around those issues most critical tothe 99 percentand be ready in Mr. Bittman’s words “to garner enough political will and power to pressure the president and Congress to move resolutely on the issues that matter.”

This coalition will certainly include the environmental movement, the Occupy movement, the foreclosed homeowners movement, the indebted students movement, the food and health movement, or the unemployment movement, and I am sure there are others that I have missed.

Somehow, the plethora of movements worries me. Once you get individual leaders and proud movements there is inevitable competition for the microphone and the ear of the media. There needs to be a clear channel recognized by the President and government as a respected pulse of the people.

As Mr. Bittman says: “It doesn’t matter what you call the movements, or the people behind them. What matters is forcing the government to act in the interests of the sometimes-silent majority rather than its corporate paymasters.”

He also points to a recent Pew poll that found just about half of all young people now have a more positive view of “socialism” (whatever that is) than “capitalism” (we know what that is), as do nearly a third of all Americans.

How do we take this momentum and turn it into clear, measurable changes in policy? Mark Bittman lays out a course that I will present on Wednesday.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

New Orleans and San Francisco – Soul Mates

I am currently concluding a week of volunteering in New Orleans with students from our San Francisco Hillel Jewish Student Center. A lot has changed since my first time here in ’06 when we gutted as many houses as we could to allow the residents to received their insurance and begin the long rebuilding process.

In my second and third years, we helped build drywall and roofs for those who could only afford the materials but not the labor. In the last few years we have been helping with sustainability programs such as establishing a community garden in the Lower 9th Ward, the hardest hit area, or helping create a community center. While the work changes, the need of the residents to tell their stories remains. New Orleans, and particularly the low lying parishes, remain a traumatized community.

One surprising aspect is that we keep meeting people living in New Orleans who were linked to the San Francisco Bay Area. I feel there is an indefinable link between two cities that just don’t comply with the American norm.

The piece below is from my next novel, Unwanted Heroes. I wrote it after my first trip here.

Chapter 2: The Fog Rolls In

Yeah, I grew up in London with fog rolling off the Thames, but I do not recall locals stopping to admire it. Other cities share similar traits to San Francisco: Rome has hills, London has immigrants and culture, and Paris the artistic mystique. But San Francisco has all of this and it is not thrown in your face. It just is.

I lean over the rails on the Embarcadero and stare out at the looming Bay Bridge, gray and partially veiled by early morning mist. Next to me stands a metal woman, eighteen feet high, a creation welded from hundreds of recycled pieces of junk. She holds hands with a child about eight feet tall, and together they stare out to sea.

The metal woman lacks the elegance of the Statue of Liberty. That is what makes San Francisco special. It works without pretentiousness. I am told that the metal mother and child stand at the annual Burning Man festival in the Black Rock desert. Fire courses through her body and out of her hand into the child.

We could do with a fire right now. I shiver as I watch wisps of cloud hover above the water. It is very early and I must open the coffee shop. Despite the cold, I love this hour of the day when the city slumbers, but is not asleep. It is simply preparing for the onslaught.  In two hours, tens of thousands of people will spew out of the BART and MUNI public transport tunnels. Others will stubbornly drive in, searching for elusive and pricey parking spaces. The more enlightened drivers have recruited passengers from the casual car pool pickup points scattered around the bay, thereby paying less for the bridge tolls and utilizing the carpool lanes. The passengers, for their part, get a free ride into town.

Walking down Mission Street, I see Clarence, a huge African-American, dressed in a shiny black suit. I cannot tell if he is awake behind those big black sunglasses until he raises his saxophone to salute me. The shiny instrument gleams, even in our fog-filled streets, and Clarence lets rip a short riff to announce: The barista has arrived!

Clarence customarily stakes his position in the early morning. There are more street musicians than ever these days and, with only a limited number of prime spots, Clarence must claim his territory. But at this time of day, he plays only for me and I feel like a king. Clarence knows I do not have spare change to throw in his open sax case—perhaps he would feel insulted if I did.

Later, around 9.30, when the herd is safely corralled into their office cubicles and Clarence’s muscles are aching, he will come and rest in The Daily Grind. When I think Mr. Tzu, the owner, is not looking, I leave a cup of coffee on Clarence’s table. I used to mutter under my breath that some jerk had changed his order after I had already poured his cup and there is no point wasting it. After about the fortieth time, I figured Clarence had picked up on my ruse so I just place the steaming cup on his table without a word.

No thanks, but I know the gesture is appreciated, just as I appreciate Clarence playing for me as I pass him in the early morning. He will sit for an hour or so and then slowly move off. I know little of Clarence, but he is part of my life—another strand that weaves this urban tapestry called San Francisco.

Two weeks ago, a bunch of students entered The Daily Grind, their clothes covered with ‘New Orleans’ insignia. They were excited and boisterous as they passed Clarence at his regular table. From the way Clarence eyed them, I thought that their intrusion annoyed him, but I was wrong.

“Hey! What’s with th’ shirts? What y’all doing with New Orleans?”

A young woman, blond, thin and tanned, excitedly explained how they’d just come back from a week helping to rebuild houses damaged by Hurricane Katrina. “You should’ve seen the damage that hurricane did,” she said.

“Ain’t no hurricane did that, gal,” Clarence replied with a growl. “Weren’t no nat’ral disaster. Don’t let ’em bull ya’. The hurricane would’a done some damage, but if those levees had held, if those bastards had built ’em like they should, well, ain’t no one have died there. My grandma’s house waz swept away. Broke her, it did. Such a proud w’man.”

Clarence rose and moved heavily to the door, but then turned. We all watched. He spoke now in a softer tone. “But I thank y’all for going down there t’help. It’s import’nt y’all show ya’ care, that some’n shows they care.”

We saw his tears as he left, leaving behind a heavy wake of silence. I could not stop myself. I nodded to Tabitha to cover for me and followed him out of the café.

He stood on the corner of Mission and Spear, caressing his saxophone, and let rip the most beautiful, soulful jazz I have ever heard. He was not playing for me that time; he was not even playing for San Francisco. I could almost see his tune rolling out of the bay along with the fog and making its way to the Gulf Coast.

When he finished, I approached, unsure what to say. We stared at each other.

“I’m so sorry,” I said. “I’m so sorry.”

I had spoken with Mr. Tzu, that day. I had an idea and from that week, every Friday at lunchtime, Clarence would play in The Daily Grind to a packed audience. Big jars were scattered around the tables with labels: All Proceeds to New Orleans Relief Projects, and as the music touched our customer’s souls, the jars filled, because San Francisco has a heart, and that heart was bleeding for a sister on the Gulf Coast.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

Void the Senate – Roger Ingalls

Do we really need a Senate and a House of Representatives?  Considering the economic disparity between politicians and the masses (out of touch mindset), legislative gridlock, and general impotency of Congress, having two chambers may be a waste of resources.

picture from citizen.org

Refresher: We have 435 members of the House of Representatives and 100 Senators. States with larger populations have more representatives. Each of the fifty states has two Senators. In theory, Reps champion the causes of their local constituents. If they don’t, the voting public can give them the boot quickly because the election cycle occurs every two years. Senators are elected for six years with the intent of focusing on the good of the nation as a whole. Elected for longer terms, they can make decisions without influence from short-term public opinion. The two-chamber system has inherent checks and balances because both the House of Reps and the Senate must pass a bill or resolution before it goes to the President for approval or veto.

The nation’s political system has changed considerably since the Founders defined it two-hundred years ago. Over time, State’s rights have given way to Federal control. Also with endless funds given to politicians from special interest groups, Super PACs and similar organizations, our elected officials have become agents for these large money giving entities. Since both chambers are working for the highest bidder and not representing the voting public nor watching over the health of the nation, it is now legitimate to examine the necessity of the two-chamber Congress. Do we need a Senate and a House of Representatives that panders to the same group?

Since both chambers are essentially doing the same thing (and not necessarily the right thing), it’s time to get rid of one of them. Let’s eliminate the Senate. Each Senator costs approximately $3.5 million when considering salary, staff and overhead expenses. By giving pink slips to all of them we could save $350 million. This is not a lot of money compared to the overall U.S.budget but they are now redundant dead weight so give them the axe.

Keeping the House and booting the Senate would give the voting public a fighting chance. The House Reps must, at least somewhat, consider the public’s opinion because the election cycle returns every two years. Also, with the Senate gone, State’s rights may come into play again and allow regional governing inline with the will of the people without retribution from the Federal government.

Obviously, this is a tongue-in-cheek post. Eliminating the Senate would require a Constitutional Amendment. A majority of Senate would have to vote to fire themselves and that isn’t going happen. But I do hope this post points out the monetized-ridiculousness and bastardization of our political system.

The two-chamber system no longer represents the people nor does it protect the nation as originally conceived and defined in the Constitution…it now only serves deep pocket interests.

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Roger Ingalls is well traveled and has seen the good and bad of many foreign governments. He hopes his blogging will encourage readers to think more deeply about the American political system and its impact on US citizens and the international community.

Journey Across America

My week of service learning in New Orleans is almost over. My mind focuses on my journey back to San Francisco. Last year it took me almost 24 hours as I was passed from airport to airport trying to get around the inclement weather that closed down much of the center of the country. I felt sorry for myself. I just wanted to get home to my dear family.

Only when I was back in the Bay Area and telling my stories from the week did I realize how absurd my feelings of wretchedness as I moved from dry, clean airport, to dry clean airport. Those I had gone to help faced a much worse journey and many are still traveling, whether physically or psychologically.

I would like to share a beautiful song that accompanies a beautiful video. Mary Chapin Carpenter has done an amazing job using music and visual to make a statement that stays with you.

Thank you, Mary.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

PG&E – Supplier of Golden Skeletons – Tom Rossi

Note from editor:

The following Disassociated Press Article was apparently beamed back to the present day from the year 2029 in an as-yet-uninvented time machine or possibly a wormhole in the space-time continuum:

March 20th, 2029

San Francisco:

A settlement in an undisclosed amount was announced today in case of the PG&E (Pacific Gas & Electric) napalming of large areas of northern California back in 2016. This was an incident in which several thousand people were killed and hundreds of homes were destroyed.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs in the case, survivors of the event, argue that PG&E deliberately burned many acres of trees in order to eliminate interference with their power transmission lines.

Gordo Assesino, chairman of PG&E since 2027 was interviewed outside the courtroom:

“This was really just a continuation of the program of elimination of ‘flesh-based’ jobs that we began back in 2010. That’s when we started, on a large scale, to replace meter-readers with microwave-band radiation emitting ‘smart meters‘. Installing the smart meters was a huge investment, sure. But in the long run it saved us many millions on salaries and retirement benefits that we would have had to pay out to our flesh-based implements. And although there were countless health ‘problems’ reported, pinning the cause on the smart meter radiation proved to be too difficult, especially since we had all the government regulators like the CPUC on our payroll.”

Assesino continued, “In 2012, the executive board realized that PG&E was spending around $180 million per year clearing tree branches and other vegetation from our power lines. Then we put two and two together and realized that what had worked with meter-readers would work with trees!”

So, in what was (to say the very least) a very bad pun, just as PG&E had fired meter readers and replaced them with “smart” meters, they “fired” the trees – literally set them on fire by dropping napalm onto heavily vegetated neighborhoods. According to PG&E, this reduced the need for trimming by 90% in what they called the “rollout” or “application” areas.

Assesino: “Of course, there were some collateral damages. A few lives were lost and a few properties were damaged. But overall, the program was a success and we were able to cut our vegetation control costs by an astounding amount. And we certainly do appreciate the sacrifices that some have made in order to allow this boost to our economy.”

The wrongful death suit, among other legal actions, was brought in 2017.

Assesino: “The board knew that most of the litigants would simply die before the case even reached the courts. In the meantime, our lawyers filed motion after motion in order to delay the case as much as possible. If you look back at the case of the Ford Pinto, strictly from a business perspective, even with the damages awarded, Ford profited over $100 million from the entire product cycle. And those are 1977 dollars! You can see from this that what looks like a skeleton in Ford’s closet it really a “golden skeleton.”

When asked why he would make such a bold statement in public, Assesino said, “We’ve found that we no longer need to maintain the facade that we “care” about our customers. We have them by the you-know-whats. They need us.”

“If the plaintiffs see us as a huge, cold, corporation, they will only be intimidated and become more likely to just drop the case or at least settle for a lesser sum. Our lawyers convinced the judge that most of these people could have died anyway, for who knows what reason. They took the smoking gun and buried it so deep that the plaintiffs became afraid they would lose. That’s why they settled.” 

“I’m not supposed to tell you anything about the settlement that was reached today, but I’ll just say that it’s far, far below anything that will make a significant dent in our profits. This will be yet another golden skeleton in our closet. This should inspire confidence in our stockholders, which will be a good thing for the overall economy. Way back in 2010, we miscalculated the balance sheet with our natural gas pipelines, it’s true. We honestly didn’t expect as big a fire as there was in San Bruno. But enough years have gone by that I can tell our stockholders now, we still came out on top of that deal too.”

With that it appears that it’s back to business as usual. In fact, on news of this settlement, PG&E stock went up 16 points today.

-Tom Rossi

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Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.

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Classless Bureaucrats

I never understood why I saw this sign was on every street corner in the Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans, amidst the devastation and tragedy.

Sign says: We Cut Tall Grass

Don’t these people have enough to contend with without worrying about the state of their lawns? Hear what Mack, the visionary leader of the Lower 9th Ward Village, has to tell you about this:

After all these people have been through, you would think the local government would be happy to cut their grass for them, seeking any way to help them return to their homes.

It defies the imagination how these bureaucrats can have the audacity to actually fine displaced people, their own people, who paid their taxes their whole life under the illusion that their government was there to help them when they needed it.

Mack tracks where his neighbors are settled.The sign hangs on the outside of the community center so that no one will forget.
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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

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