The Millionaire’s Arts Club of San Francisco

by David Romano

We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied to a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects me directly affects all indirectly.” – Martin Luther King, Jr

We need to reinvent our relationship with planet Earth. The future of all life on this planet, humans and our societies included, requires us to become effective stewards of the global commons—the climate, ice, land, ocean, freshwater, forests, soils, and rich diversity of life that regulate the state of the planet, and combine to create a unique and harmonious life-support system.” From a statement by a group of academics including 13 Nobel laureates issued on April 29, 2021 (as reported in the SF Chronicle)

There is a millionaire’s club at work in San Francisco, bringing corporate money and corporate influence into public spaces, grabbing public resources and exploiting what little remains of our green spaces and our night sky in the City. This millionaire’s club goes by the name of Illuminate and is, ostensibly, a non-profit arts organization. Its mission: “Illuminate rallies large groups of people together to create impossible works of public art that, through awe, free humanity’s better nature” (from the Illuminate website). What on earth does that even mean? There is so much wrong with Illuminate, on so many levels, it’s hard to know where to begin.

You do not create art by rallying large groups of people. Millionaires plus technocrats plus electric lights do not equal art. It is not possible to create “impossible” works of art. It’s not possible to create “impossible” anything. But it is clever, if deceptive: if you do make something that you had previously said was impossible, why then you must be a creative genius. Right from the start you get the impression that Illuminate is laughing at us; we can tell these fools anything if we dress it up in some new age jargon. David Hatfield, part of the three-member executive team, has the title, Chief of Opportunities.

Illuminate is a group mostly composed of elite white capitalists who hire contractors to put up electric lights in public spaces”

Illuminate’s Ten Principles include, “Live or die with integrity. Never compromise for corporate dollars, even if that means failing.” Are you kidding me? Is Iluminate like Doctors Without Borders whose members risk their lives to bring life-saving medicine to victims in conflict zones? Is it like Greenpeace whose members risk their lives and possible jail time defending whales and dolphins from slaughter? Is it like the tribes trying to stop the oil pipelines who are putting their lives on the line to save the planet from fossil fuels? No; Illuminate is a group mostly composed of elite white capitalists who hire contractors to put up electric lights in public spaces. I don’t think “dying with integrity” really enters into it, unless someone is accidentally electrocuted.

So, who are these guys, anyway? I have to ask, with all due respect, how are these people qualified to sit on the Board of a non-profit arts organization that’s taking in tens of millions of dollars and using its spending to influence City officials to favor its projects? 

A quick look at some of the Illuminate Board members tells you that art is likely not their strong point: 

John Combs, Founder/Principal RiverRock Real Estate Group; Jeff Jungsten, Jungsten Construction, President; Ken Maxey, Director of External Relations Comcast NBC Universal; Matt Mullenweg, Founder/CEO Automattic Inc.; Dickon Pinner (chair), Partner, McKinsey & Company; Patricia Wilson, CEO, P.S. Think Big, Inc.; Lisa Vogel, Director of Asset Management, Wareham Development.

Illuminate’s most prominent supporters are: The Lisa & John Pritzker Family Fund at $3 million plus and Tad and Dianne Taube at $2 million plus. “The Lisa and John Pritzker Family Fund seeks to improve the trajectories for young children in San Francisco, by investing in their health and learning” (from their website) so it’s a bit of a head scratcher why they would give so much to Illuminate. The Taubes give money to youth programs, pediatric cancer research and the San Francisco Opera, amongst others, so it’s also puzzling why they would donate so much to fund lighting projects that diminish children’s experience of the night sky and their ability to see the stars, moon and planets. Artificial light only obscures the celestial lights, which have always been humanity’s true source of awe and wonder.

More from Illuminate’s Ten Principles: “Be free to all. Create nothing that requires paid admission.” Shouldn’t be hard to do when all you do is put up lights in public places and you’re funded by donations. “Take worthy risks.Try difficult things and be transparent in sharing all lessons.” Again, are you kidding me? What risks is Illuminate taking? What lessons are they sharing?

It goes on: “Bring light to shadow. Pursue positive expressions that address real-world shortcomings.” “Be in it for others. Self-sacrifice toward the greater good.” Such noble sentiments! These people are veritable saints. “Always aim high. Seek to unite all people around higher values of love and equality.” And the way to do this is by putting electric light displays in our public spaces, causing untold amounts of wasted energy and light pollution?

Somehow, all this quixotic double-talk has also translated into putting lights in Golden Gate Park. Illuminate is lighting up the bandshell for the next two years with bright, colored lights. Also, they apparently plan to light up the Conservatory of Flowers indefinitely “…the dazzling light projection on the historic building’s exterior continues nightly into its third year.” (from the Illuminate website.)

“In ways we have long understood, in others we are just beginning to understand, night’s natural darkness has always been invaluable to our health and the health of the natural world, and every living creature suffers from its loss.” The End of Night by Paul Bogard

We need this? Perhaps Illuminate is thinking that the destitute and disenfranchised individuals who congregate on Market between 6th Street and Van Ness will be so mesmerized by the lights they’ll forget about their plight?”

Ben Davis, the CEO of Illuminate, asked if he could address a Zoom meeting of San Franciscans for Urban Nature, (I am a member) and we agreed. Once the meeting had begun, he announced that he had invited Dana King to join us and shortly afterwards handed his presentation over to her. He was looking to get our support for Illuminate’s latest project, putting an electric light installation across the facade of the bandshell. Dana King is the creator of Monumental Reckoning, a newly installed sculpture in the Music Concourse. A few weeks later he again asked to speak at our meeting and, after the meeting had begun, again announced that he had invited Dana King, and he let her do the talking.

It may be a somewhat underhanded way of doing business, but it is very effective. Who’s going to dare to oppose what a celebrity African American woman artist says? I guess that’s why Mr. Davis gets paid the big bucks. According to ProPublica in 2018 his compensation was $169,623. Total executive compensation was $249,056 (38.7% of total expenses); other salaries and wages were $202, 805 (31.5% of total expense). For 2019 Mr. Davis made a more modest $137,066. 

So be aware, if Ben Davis asks to speak to your group, he will likely produce Dana King in his place once he arrives. He won’t tell you ahead of time.

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“… light pollution poses a serious threat to nocturnal wildlife, having negative impacts on plant and animal physiology. … The rhythm of life is orchestrated by the diurnal patterns of light and dark, and disruption of these patterns impacts ecological dynamics.” Connie Walker, A Silent Cry for Dark Skies, The Universe in the Classroom.

Illuminate’s current big project is Lightrail – “Lightrail will be the world’s first subway-responsive light sculpture. Designed with more than 20,000 LED lights, it will run for two miles along San Francisco’s iconic Market Street, from Van Ness Avenue to The Embarcadero.“(Illuminate website). We need this? Perhaps Illuminate is thinking that the destitute and disenfranchised individuals who congregate on Market between 6th Street and Van Ness will be so mesmerized by the lights they’ll forget about their plight?

“Working with local artists George Zisiadis and Stefano Corazza, an extraordinary technical team, a range of city agencies, and the SF Board of Supervisors, Illuminate holds a major encroachment permit to install Lightrail, a two-mile-long piece of artwork that will run from One Market Street to Van Ness Avenue” (Illuminate website). May I point out that it is not artwork; it is light pollution and a wasteful use of energy we should be trying to conserve. It is ironic that as part of the same project, Illuminate “plans to retrofit the … streetlights–from the Ferry Building to the Rainbow Flag–with new energy-efficient LED bulbs that will cut energy use by “80%” Yes, exactly; we need to cut energy use and direct lights downward. But if this is going to cut energy use by 80%, why isn’t the City taking care of it? Why is our public space being co-opted by Illuminate who, otherwise, plans to produce only more light pollution using ever more energy? Dana King may be willing to lend her name and credibility to Illuminate, but the City should not cede rights to our public spaces to a non-profit “Arts” organization propagating ecologically damaging activities.

The stakes are very high and San Francisco is on the wrong path. Has no one at the Recreation and Parks Commission or the Mayor’s office heard of Greta Thunberg? I guess what Greta has to say is just an inconvenient truth. What would Greta think of Illuminate’s projects? Jason Mark, the editor-in-chief of Sierra, makes our situation very clear in his editorial, Writing the Future, “The twin threats of the climate crisis and the extinction emergency mean that the decisions we make today will reverberate on a geologic time scale.” What does Illuminate do to mitigate the climate crisis or the extinction emergency? Sad to say, thus far, they are part of the problem, not part of the solution. Illuminate can yet become a good steward of the Earth by turning it’s creativity, imagination and technical knowledge toward reducing the negative effects of artificial light in our public spaces.

“Artificial light at night disrupts a wide range of natural processes. Recent research has shown significant impacts of coastal lighting reducing foraging of intertidal invertebrates, disrupting marine food webs, suppressing movement of juvenile fishes, increasing predation on nesting seabirds…” Dr. Travis Longcore, Associate Adjunct Professor at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.

Everything we do matters. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. It’s past time to recognize this.

The Pentagon and Climate Change

I listened with disbelief and dismay as Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey told the world, from the forum of COP26, that increasing the Pentagon budget was a good way to fight climate change. Yes, you read that correctly. Congressman Pallone thinks that we can help fight climate change by increasing the Pentagon budget. He has just been told, by Abby Martin of the Empire Files, that the Pentagon is a bigger polluter than 140 countries combined, and is exempt from the COP26 climate talks. Ms. Martin then asks, how can we justify an increase to an already massive Pentagon budget?

The question is being put to Nancy Pelosi but Rep. Pallone can’t wait to jump in. “There is no reason why what we’re putting together with Build Back Better and other things can’t respond to the Defense Dept. and have some impact in terms of reducing emissions.” What, exactly, is he saying? How does this address the issue of pollution or the massive increase in the Pentagon budget. Compounding his Orwellian doublespeak, Rep. Pallone goes on to say, “I don’t see what we’re doing, in any way or, you know, increasing the defense budget as being something that’s inconsistent with climate action.”

The Empire Files @EmpireFiles.@AbbyMartin confronts Nancy Pelosi at #COP26 for overseeing massive increases in the Pentagon budget—a bigger polluter than 140 countries combined—while touting “historic” leadership on climate change November 9th 2021

Not only is the Pentagon exempt, apparently, from any resolution coming out of COP26, it is also exempt from EPA regulations. It is free to pollute as much as it wants and there are no consequences. If another country polluted our land, air and water the way our military has, we’d declare it a terrorist act and go to war with them. It is the supreme irony that our military is damaging the very country they are pledged to protect. One example was recently reported in the San Francisco Chronicle,

“Amid a continuing crisis over fuel contaminating the Navy’s tap water at Pearl Harbor, Honolulu’s water utility said Friday it shut off one of its wells so it doesn’t taint its own supply with petroleum from an underground aquifer it shares with the military. The Honolulu Board of Water Supply said it acted shortly after the Navy on Thursday disclosed that a water sample from one of its wells had shown the presence of petroleum. The well is near a giant World War II-era underground fuel tank complex that has been the source of multiple fuel leaks over the years. The tap water problems have afflicted one of the military’s most important bases, home to submarines, ships and the commander of U.S. forces in the Indo-Pacific region. They also threaten to jeopardize one of Honolulu’s most important aquifers and water sources.Nearly 1,000 military households have complained about their tap water smelling like fuel, or of physical ailments like stomach cramps and vomiting. The Navy water system serves 93,000 people. Nearly 1,000 military households have complained about their tap water smelling like fuel, or of physical ailments like stomach cramps and vomiting. The Navy water system serves 93,000 people. (Honolulu utility shuts well to prevent fuel contamination by Audrey McAvoy, Associated Press)

So, not only is the Navy polluting the water of nearby residents, it is poisoning its own personnel and their families. Don’t you think, Rep. Pallone, that the Navy needs to clean up it’s act and be subject to EPA regulations, if it’s going to lead on climate change?

The true story of the US invasion of Afghanistan

“In 2001 when the US and its allies invaded Afghanistan in retaliation for the 9/11 terror attacks …” So begins Sandip Roy’s August 25th report on “Women of Afghanistan” on National Public Radio. We invaded in retaliation for the 9/11 terror attacks. Of course, it seems logical and almost like common sense; they attacked and we invaded. There’s just one problem; no Afghans attacked us. Neither the citizens, nor the government of Afghanistan played any part in the 9/11 attacks. The US has never said otherwise. And yet we invaded, and have occupied, Afghanistan for 20 years.

Our reason for going to war was that the Taliban refused to hand over bin Laden. Actually, the Taliban asked for some evidence of bin Laden’s participation in 9/11 before handing him over. We had none; there is no evidence. The FBI never charged bin Laden with any crime. There was no warrant issued for his arrest because there was no evidence linking him to 9/11.

In fact, bin Laden denied repeatedly that he had anything to do with 9/11:

“In a statement issued to the Arabic satellite channel Al Jazeera, based in Qatar, bin Laden said, “The U.S. government has consistently blamed me for being behind every occasion its enemies attack it. I would like to assure the world that I did not plan the recent attacks, which seems to have been planned by people for personal reasons,” bin Laden’s statement said (as reported by CNN in 2001). We might have been able to question him about it but the person purported to be Osama bin Laden was killed in his home in Pakistan by Navy SEALS and the body dumped into the ocean at night.

Twenty years later we are no further along. “A Taliban spokesperson has claimed there is no evidence that the late Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was responsible for the 9/11 terror attacks against the United States. Zabihullah Mujahid made the claim during an interview with NBC Nightly News. There is no evidence. Even after 20 years of war, we have no proof he was involved,” (Newsweek, September 2021)

So, not only is Afghanistan not implicated in 9/11, it can’t even be established that Osama bin Laden was involved. No matter that bin Laden wasn’t ever found in Afghanistan and likely wasn’t there within weeks of our invading. We made war on the people and country of Afghanistan for the next 20 years.

And we invaded Iraq because Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

Beach Chalet Soccer Fields

See my article at https://westsideobserver.com/news/beachchaletsoccer.html#jul20

Sent from my Samsung Galaxy smartphone.

Examples of the artificial turf migrating from the Beach Chalet Soccer Fields to the Park.

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Homelessness

Money that could have been used to create infrastructure, jobs and a better educated and healthier America went, instead, to the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us against. Hundreds of billions of dollars that should have gone to meet the needs of the American people disappeared in Afghanistan and Iraq.  In 2016, 57% of the federal budget was spent on the Department of Defense, wars and weapons programs, according to the American Friends Service Committee; 6% was spent on education.

A federal report from 2011 shows $60 billion lost to war zone contractor waste and fraud alone. Disabled and traumatized veterans return home and don’t get the support or treatment they need. Homelessness and opioid addiction is the result. “About 11% of the adult homeless population are veterans. Roughly 45% of all homeless veterans are African American or Hispanic, despite only accounting for 10.4% and 3.4% of the U.S. veteran population, respectively,” – National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.

The prison-industrial complex, where corporations run prisons for profit and poor people and people of color are the main “clients” makes it even harder for those on the margins to maintain homes and get jobs. The United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world. The self-serving actions of bankers and government officials during the housing crisis complete the picture of the looting of America’s tax revenues and the eviction of people from their homes.

According to Forbes magazine “The Special Inspector General for the Toxic Assets Recovery Program (TARP) summary of the bailout says that the total commitment of government is $16.8 trillion dollars with $4.6 trillion already paid out.” That was in 2016. The banks got the money and have grown even larger but the regular wage earner can’t get financing for a home purchase. With easier credit after 2008, people would be in houses now, not out on the street. The taxpayer’s money bailed out the big banks. Nobody could get a home loan while the banks bought back their stock, bought other banks, and bought the houses they foreclosed on. Does anyone think that might have something to do with the current housing crisis?

The federal minimum wage is $7.50 an hour. California’s minimum wage is $10.50 an hour. “Experts estimate that still buys only about half of what a minimum wage did in 1980,” – San Francisco Chronicle.

The leading cause of bankruptcy is medical expenses. Single payer universal health care would cost less and provide better care than a system that is drowning in paperwork and regulation. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq marked the beginning of the privatization of military services and supplies. The contract to build Guantanamo went to Halliburton (Dick Cheney’s old company.) An unintended irony of the so-called war on terror: the inmates of Guantanamo get better medical services than most Americans, as Michael Moore shows in his film, “Sicko.”

“U.S. spending on the Afghanistan nation-building project over the last dozen years now exceeds $104 billion, surpassing the $103.4 billion current-dollar value of Marshall Plan expenditures, which helped rebuild European nations after World War II”(“U.S. aid to Afghanistan exceeds Marshall Plan in costs” San Francisco Chronicle, August 2014). Imagine if $104 billion had been invested in preschools, education, job training, and social services in the US?  Helping individual homeless people is important, but if you really want to change people’s lives for the better, take a look at where our tax dollars are going and imagine where they could be going.

Pulling down statues

Pulling down statues doesn’t feed the hungry or house the homeless. In fact, cleaning up the mess made by the black-clad mob at the Concourse in Golden Gate Park will cost the City money that could have been spent helping people. What is the significance of defacing the monument to Cervantes? What is accomplished by pulling down and defacing statues? The City voluntarily took down the statue of Columbus at Coit Tower. The black-shirts could have asked the City to take down the statues they didn’t like. Who are these guys anyway? And where were the police while this was going on? Golden Gate Park is a haven for families and children, a peaceful refuge, especially at this time. It is not the place for a disruptive, destructive political action. Are the black-shirts willing to pay to have the statues removed? Just how deep is their commitment to social justice?