Freedom Is Not Their Goal

On the front page of my Saturday newspaper, I saw a photo of someone carrying this protest sign: “We are fighting for our freedom.”

No you’re not. Not when you’re carrying signs like “Wealth is Health” and “The cure is worse than the disease.”

As of this writing, 68,088 US residents have died from COVID-19 in just two months. To carry such signs and tout those slogans means that you either do not believe that over 68,000 people have died in this country from this disease, or that you do not care. But in either case, no, you are not fighting for freedom.

To say that the shelter-in-place orders have been devastating is an understatement. The livelihood of millions, including friends, including family members, hangs in the balance. Those who cannot work from home, who received furloughs and layoffs, who rely on unemployment payments, bear the brunt of the economic chaos caused by the pandemic and efforts to curb it. But the answer isn’t to blindly “reopen America” and risk putting people’s lives in danger.

We need money to flow like water from a faucet to everyone adversely affected by the shutdowns, furloughs, and layoffs. We should quite literally pay people to stay home. While a few relief packages have passed through Congress and Trump has signed off on them, it’s far from enough.

Furthermore, too much of the relief money approved so far has gone to those who do not need it. Multi-billion dollar corporations applied for and received money from the Small Business Administration Paycheck Protection Program. The Los Angeles Lakers came to their senses and returned the $4.6 million they received. By contrast, United Airlines eyes making layoffs in October, after they have received $3.5 billion in grants, $1.5 billion in loans, with an additional $4.5 billion in loans waiting on the table. Despite all this money coming in to offset the loss of ticket sales on flights, they still want to make layoffs. How much do you want to bet that their top executives will receive bonuses at the end of the year?

But no, the freedom people aren’t protesting that. They are going after governors who dare to put people over profits. While these protests have mostly targeted Democrats—Gavin Newsom of California, Andy Beshear of Kentucky, Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan—a few Republican governors have also faced their wrath: Gary Herbert in Utah, Mike DeWine in Ohio. 

As CNN has reported, many of these protests have the backing of conservative groups, like FreedomWorks, who helped manufacture the Tea Party protests against the Affordable Care Act in 2010. Like those protests, these “open up American” protests feature American flags, vapid patriotism, and heaps of bigotry, from anti-Semitic symbolism and Nazi slogans (Arbeit Macht Frei) to Confederate flags.

So a decade ago, these groups used an effort by the Obama Administration to increase access to healthcare as a political football to push their bigoted agendas. Now they are using a pandemic killing thousands. In 2010 conservative protesters decried that the ACA would bring about Death Panels that would kill off grandma if caring for her costs too much. Today, conservative protesters are the death panels, openly calling for the sacrificing of the old and infirm in order to reopen businesses and make money.

Make no mistake, folks are suffering economically and it’s horrifying to watch. With testing levels for COVID-19 still woefully insufficient, at this point, I have a hard time imagining when all this will end. But these conservative groups have a different agenda. It’s the same agenda they’ve always had: Make American White Again. And that they would use a pandemic killing thousands as a vehicle to forward their bigotry turns them into ghouls.

The Festival That Wasn’t: Saints & Sinners 2020

Me at S&S 2018.

I previously wrote about my excitement about attending the Saints & Sinners LGBTQ Literary Festival in New Orleans again. It was set to take place March 27-29. 

And then COVID-19 happened. Wisely, though sadly, the Festival cancelled this year’s edition. New Orleans has been hit hard by the pandemic and I wish all of my friends in NOLA and everywhere safety and health. This disease has taken a terrible toll.

Michele Karlsberg had invited me to write about S&S for her Words column for the SF Bay Times. And although the Festival didn’t happen, I wrote about what would have happened and about the importance of the arts even especially during times of crisis. Check it out here.

COVID-19: History Repeating

Grand Princess in the distance at the Port of Oakland

We’re not testing enough for the coronavirus, COVID-19. We’ve made this mistake before and it led to dire consequences. It gives me eerie flashbacks.

AIDS had already taken over 10,000 lives before a test for HIV became available in 1985. Prejudice and bigotry slowed the development of tests, treatments, or even a clear explanation of how HIV transmitted from person to person. All of this dithering cost lives. One cannot get a handle on a disease if you don’t know the extent it has spread. You can’t protect people without that simple knowledge.

The US falls well behind other nations in terms of testing for COVID-19. This chart from Business Insider tells a grim story:

Bigotry has also played a role in attitudes about COVID-19. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy referred to the disease as the “Chinese coronavirus” in a tweet. Sadly anti Asian bigotry is on the rise. But other foolishness has contributed to the lack of testing. That foolishness being the current resident of the White House.

Trump has called the coronavirus a “hoax” promulgated by the usual enemies, Democrats and the free press (aka Fake News). Repeatedly, he has demonstrated a lack of knowledge of even the basic facts. In a recent tweet, while trying to make a point that not many Americans have contracted COVID-19, he made the opposite point. The data he cited gave a 4% mortality rate.

But in truth, we don’t know what the mortality rate is in this country, because don’t know how far it has spread. We can’t. The test is not sufficiently available. Until that happens, we can’t know anything about COVID-19 or hope to contain it in any meaningful way.

This all comes from having incompetence in power. Neither Trump nor Pence have any credibility with managing a disaster. Trump horribly botched the response to the devastation of Puerto Rico caused by Hurricane Maria. And speaking of HIV, Pence helped to advance the spread of the disease as governor of Indiana. Instead of acting to an increase of infections by the use of dirty needles, he dithered, and more folks became infected as a result.

In an ideal world, both Trump and Pence would resign or get removed from office, opening the door for Speaker Nancy Pelosi to become president. Then, she could lead a proper response to COVID-19. I doubt she would run for reelection, so whoever the Democratic nominee turns out to be could win in November and then take over in January, 2021. Sadly, this scenario will not likely play out. Neither Trump nor Pence are going anywhere any time soon.

In the meanwhile, citizens and the media need to continue to hold Trump and Pence accountable. Lives are at stake. At the very least, they need to lose the election. With their leadership, disasters will become commonplace.

Keep Our Eyes on the Prize and Vote

We have to follow the old Civil Rights Movement slogan and keep our eyes on the prize. Donald Trump and the filth he has visited upon the nation and the world has us beside ourselves with anger, fear, and despair. But we can’t let him, his tweets, or his parasitic sycophants distract us. Our purpose is clear. We have to take out the garbage and then stay engaged. It will take a long time to undo the damage he has done.

His worst offense, in my view, has been his polluting the federal courts with unfit, immoral, ultra conservative ideologues. Many of them lack even a patina of qualification for the federal bench. Anti-women, anti-LGBTQ, anti-climate change, anti-black and brown people while also pro-billionaires and pro-corporations: these are their sole qualifications.

And Trump had help with these awful appointments in the form of the ghoulish Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Quite a switch from during the Obama years. At that time, both as Minority Leader and Majority Leader, McConnell did his level best to prevent President Obama from making judicial appointments, ending with his triumphant stymieing of Merrick Garland’s nomination for the Supreme Court. But during Trump’s presidency, McConnell has rubber-stamped each and every judicial appointment with frightening speed. Mitch McConnell is the most dangerous man in Washington, DC, the most dangerous since J. Edgar Hoover and he has to be stopped. It’s not enough just to flip the Senate to a Democratic majority. McConnell has to be voted out of office

Internecine battles within the Democratic Party must cease. We don’t have time for that shit now. Four more years of Republican rule could quite literally bring doom upon the planet. Time for us to lick our wounds and get going.

This Black History Month, I turn to one of my idols for inspiration, Congressman John Lewis. A fighter for nearly all of his 80 years, he received beating after beating during the Civil Rights Movement. As a Freedom Rider, as a leader in the march from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights, despite the beatings, he stayed firm, kept his eyes on the prize. 

Congressman Lewis has served in the People’s House for 33 years. He has fought for women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, environmental justice, and against big business and climate change. History will record him as a fighter on the side of justice for all.

Tragically, he has seen many of his accomplishments washed away by waves of Republican advances. This includes the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He nearly lost his life on the Pettus bridge fighting for blacks to have the unquestioning right to vote. In 2013, the Roberts court gutted the Act. This launched a wave of voter ID, racist gerrymandering, and other tactics to disenfranchise black and brown people. It pains me to see all he worked for destroyed by evil opportunists.

But despite all of the setbacks, he continues. His eyes have never wavered from the prize. Indeed, one could say that he has his eyes fixed on the prize more now than ever before, because the stakes are so high. This, despite his recent cancer diagnosis.

We need to follow his great example, the extraordinary life he has lived. We need to keep our eyes on the prize and vote. And after we’ve voted, continue to march, petition, and lobby for the just world we want to see.


This is why we have to do better. Trump and McConnell are successfully flipping one of the most reliably liberal Courts of Appeal in the county, the Ninth Circuit. Recent decisions have involved the rights of asylum seekers, stopping Trump’s Muslim ban, and of course legalizing same-sex marriage. If flipped, any future cases involving these and other issues (reproductive rights, for example) could go the other way. Judges last for a lifetime. Trump and McConnell have appointed young judges. So they will last for a long while.

As I stated before, Trump’s judges will outlast him. We can’t afford to have anymore polluting our judiciary. Reactionary judges can set our society back decades.

March 1, 2020
From the man, himself:

Saints & Sinners LGBTQ Lit Fest Fiction Contest

I’m very excited to announce that my short story, “Tom of Boalt Hall,” is a finalist in the annual Saints & Sinners LGBTQ Literary Festival’s Short Fiction Contest. The story will appear in their superbly put together anthology along with new works from a group of amazing writers.

I first attended Saints & Sinners in 2018, where I read from Sin Against the Race and spoke on a panel. It was an amazing trip and wonderful experience.

“Tom of Boalt Hall” takes place in the 1930s on the Berkeley campus. It represents the first time I merged my two worlds, as a writer and as a long time employee at Berkeley Law. With the help of the Law School’s Archivist Emeritus William E. Benemann, I learned about life at the then-School of Jurisprudence, as the Law School was known in the 30s, its original building and some of its quirks. All of this informed the story. Bill also has written about gay history on the Berkeley campus. I’m grateful to Bill for all of his help and knowledge.

If you go to the Berkeley campus, check out Durant Hall. Currently the home of the College of Letters and Science, it was built in 1911 as the Boalt Memorial Hall of Law. The School occupied the building until 1951, when it moved it its current location.

I’m looking forward to reading all the stories in next year’s Saints & Sinners Festival anthology. Laissez les bons temps rouler!

Kristallnacht and Mauerfall

Last May, to celebrate our 25th anniversary together, my husband and I took a trip to Germany. It was our first trip back in nearly 12 years. We went with a group organized by Dr. Marion Gerlind and JB of the Gerlind Institute for Cultural Studies. We had studied German at the institute many years ago and have been part of many of their other programs. So when the trip came around, we couldn’t resist. It was an amazingly wonderful experience. With eight of us in total, we toured Berlin, Hamburg, and Lübeck. Our group was lively and funny, great traveling companions. And Marion and JB were excellent co-leaders.

My husband and I first traveled to Berlin in 2003. It is a city I cannot get enough of. Lively, vibrant, cosmopolitan, it is truly a world city. During those early trips, internet cafes were still a thing. We met people from all over the world at them while logging in to check email to research places to eat and explore.

Above all, Berlin’s history fascinates me. It bore the brunt of the 20th century, from Nazism to the Cold War. Two milestone events connected with these eras occurred on the same day: the 9th of November.


On November 9, 1938, the infamous Nazi pogrom against the Jews occurred, Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. Set up as an act of revenge for the killing of a Nazi diplomat, the government inspired and encouraged two days of looting and pillaging of Jewish businesses and synagogues. In addition to the destruction of Jewish property, 91 Jews died and tens of thousands of Jewish men were sent to concentration camps.

During our trip, we passed by the New Synagogue of Berlin. An imposing structure, it sustained damage after Kristallnacht and the War.

Neue Synagoge (New Synagogue), Berlin. (Photo taken by author.)
“This Synagogue is 100 years old and was set on fire by the Nazis on the 9th of November 1938 during Kristallnacht. During the Second World War, 1939-1945, it was destroyed by a bombing attack in 1943. The frontage of this House of God should forever remain a place of warning and remembrance. Never forget. Board of the Jewish Community of Greater Berlin (Photo & Translation by the author.)
“50 years after the desecration of this Synagogue, and 45 years after its destruction, this House is newly rebuilt with the will and support of many friends in our country and around the world.” (Photo and translation by the author.)

A sad footnote: the New Synagogue, and all of the synagogues in Germany, have 24/7 police protection due to the rise of far right, Neo-Nazi groups in Germany. We all need to shout “Never Again” loudly and frequently, in Germany and around the world.


1989 brought a different event on November 9: the Fall of the Berlin Wall, Mauerfall. In the aftermath of WWII, Berlin became a divided city. The French, British, and American sectors became West Berlin and the Soviet sector became East Berlin. This mirrored what happened throughout postwar Germany, the creation of West and East. This divide took on a literal meaning on August 13, 1961, when the East German government constructed a wall that went through the city of Berlin.

In April 1989, East Germany removed the electric fence along its border with Austria and Hungary. East German citizens also went west via Czechoslovakia, which had opened its borders. In the fall, longtime East German leader Erich Honecker resigned. After many demonstrations, East Germany opened its border with West Germany on November 9, 1989, the result of a misunderstanding at a chaotic press conference.

One can still see sections of the wall or locations where the wall stood in parts of Berlin.

Berlin Wall marker, Potsdamer Platz, Berlin. (Photo by the author.)
East Side Gallery, Berlin. Sign reads: Berlin Wall, East Side Gallery: Erection of the Wall, after 1961; Mauerfall (wall collapse), 9. Nov. 1989; Painting, February – September, 1990; Repairs, 2009. (Photo & translation by the author.)
The author at the East Side Gallery, Berlin Wall, Berlin. (Taken by a friendly Scottish tourist with the author’s iPhone.)

The Day the Bay Shook: Remembering Loma Prieta 30 Years Later

Cypress Freeway, Oct. 17, 1989.

October 17, 1989.

Around 5:02 pm or so, I left my office, old room 349 Boalt Hall at UC Berkeley. I wound through the narrow catacombs that made up the third floor at that time, skipped down the stairs and exited the building via a backdoor between the second and third floors. The door exited to a little patio from where I jogged down another set of stairs that slanted towards the east and emptied into the parking lot behind the building. The North Addition to the Law Building, completed in 1995, now takes up this area.

The parking lot had a respectable grade. I trudged up the incline along the backside of the building, heading to my motorcycle parked on Piedmont Avenue. I had only joined the staff at the School of Law a little over two months earlier. Who knows what thoughts attended me that afternoon. Perhaps the Bay Bridge World Series—Game 3 was about to start soon. Perhaps the weather—I seem to recall that it was a nice, sunny day.

I was still on the steep incline at 5:04 when the earth shook, stopping me in my tracks. It was loud, very, very loud, and the motion pronounced. I suddenly felt as if I were riding a bucking bronco. “Whoa! Whoa!” I called out while flailing my arms. Until then, I had never experienced a major quake outside. How long would this one last? I expected it to continue for a while longer, but then it suddenly stopped. No noise. No shaking. The ground again felt steady under my feet.

I knew earthquakes. My first had been the Sylmar Quake of 1971 in Los Angeles. I was in bed at 6 a.m. when everything started to move. Just a few weeks shy of 6 years old, I had not yet developed a fear of quakes. I recall being rather fascinated by it. The shaking lasted for a good long while before finally easing and stopping. My mother came and checked on my at least twice. Her concern puzzled me. Why wouldn’t I be OK? my five year-old mind wondered.

Dazed by the noise and shaking, I looked behind me, to the west. A large plume of black smoke rose from somewhere in Downtown Berkeley off in the distance. During a moment of confusion, I wondered if it had been an explosion and not a quake that had caused the commotion. No, the quake caused the explosion. A car had fallen off its hoist at an auto shop. Months later, I learned that the car belonged to a retired faculty assistant at the Law School, the very person I had been hired to replace. 

Eventually, I continued walking up the incline to Piedmont Avenue. I was relieved that my motorcycle hadn’t fallen over. I rode a 1983 Kawasaki Spectre 550, black and red with gold trim. I named it Achilles. I would go on to own two other bikes, a 1993 Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 and a 2000 Honda Valkyrie. All were called Achilles; the bike regenerated like a good Time Lord.

As I rode home, many faces filled the streets, on the sidewalks, on bikes, scooters, and motorcycles, in cars and trucks. Confused faces. Shocked faces. Wandering, lost faces. Disaster had united us, briefly erasing our differences. I went slowly, navigating through our collective confusion and humility as I made my way southbound on College Avenue towards my home in Oakland.

When I reached Rockridge BART, I saw men in business suits holding improvised, handwritten signs. WALNUT CREEK. CONCORD. LAFAYETTE. BART had stopped running and they were trapped on the Oakland side of the hills. They were hitchhiking, their signs posing as thumbs.

Around this time, I started hearing sirens. They screamed everywhere. Disembodied sirens. They had an unnerving, agitating effect, like mainlining caffeine spiked with adrenaline.

Around this time, I also learned that a section of the Bay Bridge had collapsed. Then I heard about the collapse of the Cypress Structure (above), the double-decker freeway that dissected West Oakland. I had ridden that peculiar stretch just a few weeks earlier. Can’t remember where I had been going, perhaps my motorcycle shop in Alameda. I was on the lower deck. It felt wonky, wavy. The motorcycle bounced and bounced like a flimsy rollercoaster. Based on that experience, its collapse did not surprise me, but the news put a raw hole in my stomach. All those people. Originally, authorities thought hundreds had been trapped in the rubble of the pancaked decks. In the end, 42 lost their lives in the Cypress Structure. Nearby neighbors and factory workers climbed into the rubble with ladders and fork lifts to free those who had been trapped. In general, traffic was light that evening, because of the World Series. Most folks had left work early to catch the game at home or at a friend’s or at a bar.

I lived near Piedmont and McArthur in a little one-bedroom on the upper floor of a two-story, eight-unit apartment building. What will my place look like, I worried as I climbed the stairs. My very large stereo speakers (that my dad had made many years earlier) sat upon plastic milk crates. I elevated them to ameliorate my downstairs neighbor who complained constantly that I made too much noise. I mostly listened to classical music at that time; she should count her blessings that she missed my heavy metal phase. Fortunately, miraculously, the speakers hadn’t fallen over. In fact, I found no damage in my apartment at all. I was shocked.

But no worries about stereo noise that evening. I had no power. My phone didn’t work well, either. I could make a couple of local calls, but could not call my family in Los Angeles to tell them that I was OK. I asked a neighbor in the building across from mine if I could use their phone. I have a calling I card, so you will not be charged, I said, showing them the card. But they just smiled and said no. I rarely spoke with them after that. I ended up calling my family from a pay phone at the gas station on Piedmont. They had learned about the quake the same way the rest of America had: by watching it live during the start of the World Series telecast. The cameras started shaking then cut out.

I ended up spending time at a friend’s place that night. He lived conveniently close by, just a couple of blocks away. A group of us just sat in the dark, talking, eating cold food. I was new to the area and pretty freaked. Hanging with them helped me feel less alone. Maybe I should have stayed the night, but I went back home around 11ish, I think. I couldn’t sleep once I got into bed. Disembodied sirens screaming everywhere kept me up, along with aftershocks.

Reflections on the Castro Sweep 30 Years Later

photo by Rick Gerharter

Thirty years ago, October 6, 1989, the Castro Sweep happened. And I was there. What started as a fairly routine ACT UP demonstration turned into a police overreach of epic proportions.

I wrote about the Sweep a few years ago in a review/critique of a book by Paul Krassner (RIP), where he wrote about his experiences getting caught up in, and beat up at, the White Night riots. That rebellion happened after murderer Dan White received a namby-pamby verdict for assassinating Harvey Milk and George Moscone. During White Night, the police raided the Elephant Walk bar in the Castro, smashing its windows and randomly beating people.

I saw the Castro Sweep as a sort of sequel to White Night. Many of the same attitudes on the part of the SFPD prevailed: a need to “get back at” the queer community in general and ACT UP in particular. Here’s what I wrote in the Krassner book review piece (from January 11, 2015):

Just over a decade later, in October 1989, the SFPD would reenact the White Night Riots in what became known as the Castro Sweep. And I was there. It started as an innocuous ACT UP march from Civic Center to the Castro. It turned into a police take over of the Castro, with police quarantining people inside their homes, inside the bars, inside Different Light, while they marched down Market and then Castro and beat people. I was on top of a newspaper stand, screaming at them to stop beating a friend of mine. An officer calmly asked me to get down, so I got down. He was one of the few cooler heads in the police crowd that evening. Later, as I was walking to the Castro Muni Metro station, one or two officers charged at us, and we ran into the station. Fortunately, they did not pursue us any further. 

I should add that my future husband was out to dinner that night in the Castro with his then-partner. The police trapped them in their restaurant along with a lot of other bewildered, perplexed, and pissed off patrons out. Shutting down a whole neighborhood over a non-violent demonstration was an outrageous overreach of police authority. Had they allowed us to finish out demonstration at Castro and Market, we would have done our thing, departed, and joined the throngs out for a Friday night.

But the officers responding that night felt a need to act punitively, to put the “deviants” in their place. Just like in 1979 after White Night. Just like in 1966 when they attacked the transgender community at Compton’s Cafeteria. Just like any police raid on any queer establishment, something that occurred with alarming regularity in the years before Stonewall.

Unlike the pre-Stonewall raids or White Night, SFPD received a harsh rebuke from City Hall and the Hall of Justice in wake of the Sweep. Then-Police Chief Frank Jordan demoted his own brother, Deputy Chief Jack Jordan, after the affair. His brother had supervised the night’s activities. And a Take Back the Castro march happened the following night in which several elected city officials joined in, showing their support for the community.

While I’m happy that there has been no sequel to Castro Sweep, minority communities continue to have troubled relations with police departments across the country. Two years after the Sweep, the Rodney King beating happened. Today, we live in the age of Black Lives Matters and the state-sanctioned harassment of immigrant communities. A lot of work has to happen before all minority communities—sexual, racial, immigrant—can feel safe going to those who are sworn to protect and serve without fear of retaliation or violence. 

Herbie Hancock & Friends: Concert Reflections

Herbie Hancock at the Greek, Berkeley

Herbie Hancock entered the recording studio all smiles and excitement. “We’re gonna have a great time!” he enthused. So my brother Robert told me many years after this memorable gig, where he played bass with the Maestro. Mr. Hancock no doubt came in with such charged happiness and positivity to help calm the nerves of his younger colleagues, like my late brother. But he also looked forward to playing with them, because Herbie Hancock loves to play.

Many decades later, at age 79, Herbie Hancock still loves to play. He also still loves to play with younger colleagues, to give them the spotlight, to see them kill it. At Berkeley’s Greek Theater on August 23, he brought two sets of young masters, bands led by Robert Glasper and Kamasi Washington. Collectively, they all put on four hours of driving, complex, funky, and compelling music. We couldn’t get enough of their fire. The show was beyond category. A friend and I were able to attend thanks to a free ticket giveaway from KCSM, Jazz 91.

First up came pianist, composer, arranger Robert Glasper. His albums have ranged from straight ahead jazz to hiphop to electronica. Thus, his career has cut across musical boundaries, very much like the Maestro for whom he opened. Glasper commanded from a set of keyboards, supported by drums, a DJ on the ones and twos, a bassist, and a vocalist. In their music, I heard a series of meditations that seemed to melt one into the other. They reflected on the current state of the world while fighting to maintain a center of peace and harmony, to stay true to oneself. I particularly liked hearing riffs from his take of “Afro Blue,” with vocals by Erykah Badu, who’s voice the DJ looped into the mix. It was a beautiful way to start the evening.

Saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s set contained raw power and energy, with two drummers, two keyboardists, bass, guitar, and vocals. And he also introduced his own father, Rickey Washington, who played soprano sax. He launched into various tracks from his celebrated EP Harmony of Difference, including the celebrated “Truth.” All the themes from Harmony–Desire, Humility, Knowledge, Perspective, Integrity, as well as Truth–coalesced in Washington’s playing. At times, the young master blew as if his very life depended on it. And we all ate it up.

These amazing acts took up the first two hours of the show, which started at 7. Thus, the Maestro did come come to the stage until around 9:30. He greeted the crowd as he had my brother and the other session musicians on that long ago recording gig, with excitement and anticipation. From a grand piano and electric keyboards, he brought the house down.

Elements from his long career appeared throughout his set, a riff thrown in here and there from the classics. But when he launched into “Cantaloupe Island,” we all started to groove. Sitting or standing, no one stayed still. And then Kamasi Washington joined him and blew his heart out again. Hancock accompanied Washington wearing a brilliantly white, strap-able keyboard. They played facing each other. It was a magical moment.

At the end of the evening, during the encore, Herbie Hancock played a final chord on his strap-able keyboard and leapt into the air to bring the show to a decisive and exciting conclusion. The man is ageless, my friends and I agreed. Indeed, he’s been doing what he loves nearly everyday for over 60 years. That would make anyone ageless and leap for joy.

Stonewall’s Echo in “Sin Against the Race”

In 1988, I wrote an article for 10 Percent, the former LGBTQ news magazine at UCLA about Christopher Street West. The article also included a bit of history about the Stonewall Rebellion. As I had learned in my Civil Rights History classes, Stonewall did not just up and happen. Stonewall happened in the context of its era, a period of unprecedented rebellion against establishment norms that oppressed people of color, women, and queer folks. And, as with Watts and the Rodney King trial outcome, a series of tragedies led up to the night of June 28, 1969, when folks just couldn’t take it anymore. 

While researching for the 10 Percent article, I learned about a tragic incident that occurred just weeks prior to Stonewall. A young man impaled himself on a fence while trying to escape a police raid on a bar. This tragedy has stayed with me ever since. Indeed, it inspired a scene in my novel Sin Against the Race

Alfonso Berry, III, son of city councilman Ford Berry, was violently arrested by police at a needle exchange, a program his father disapproved of. In light of this tragedy, and at the instigation of Alfonso’s mother Eunice Berry, the city set up a Blue Ribbon Commission to investigate Alfonso’s arrest and beating. In this scene, Sammy Turner, the 60-something year-old store clerk, musician, and spiritual center of the novel, testifies before the Commission. 

He picked a time when he knew Bill and Roy would be in school. Of the familiars, only Charlotte and Mrs. Berry attended.

“Mr. Turner, please feel free to tell us anything that might help us in our search for the truth.”

Sammy spoke in a slow tempo, like the slowest blues he had ever accompanied. 

“By the time I arrived, Alfonso was already in the van. I saw when the officer yanked him out. I heard his head crack against the bumper, just like you can hear on the video. My heart stopped. And then they started beating on him.”

“Is that your voice on the video saying, quote, ‘Great fucking Dizzy! What the hell are they doing?’” 

The panel sat patiently.


“Did you hear any of the officers say anything prior to Mr. Berry being pulled out of the van?”

Another pause before he answered, “No.”

“Thank you, Mr. Turner. Is there anything else you would care to add?”

Sammy sat very still. Scattered coughs and fidgets punctured the silence.

“It was 1959. I was about 12. We lived on Carver Street next to one of the bars, The Owl. It was a two-story joint. I could see into the upstairs room from my bedroom window. I liked watching them dancing.” Remembrance of their tender faces touching while slow-dancing brought a glow briefly to his face. “It got raided one day, like so many bars did. Police started hassling people, hitting them. Some of the guys upstairs jumped out the window to get away. It was a good drop, but they risked it, ’cause if you got arrested, they printed your name in the paper.

“One guy didn’t make it. He impaled himself on a cast-iron fence post. I’ll never forget the way his face looked, tongue stuck out, eyes bulging. His arms and legs flailed for a bit before he went limp. They had to saw off the post to get him down. The newspapers reported the raid, printed names, but glossed over the man on the fence, calling it ‘a minor incident.’  Someone posted flyers telling the truth. I still have one. His name was Stevie Sampson. He loved to dance. Stevie survived four days with that pole stuck inside him before he died.

“I went into shock. Didn’t speak for a month, just played my drums. Finally, my dad come up to me and ask if I’d seen the police raid. I nodded my head and started crying. I couldn’t stop. I don’t think I’ve ever cried so much in my life. My dad took hold of me and said real soft, almost whispering, ‘Shhhh. That ain’t gonna happen to you. When you grown, they won’t be chasing folks out the bars no more. Know why? ’Cause you gonna see a better world, Son. A better world is waiting for you.’”

Mrs. Berry handed Charlotte a tissue behind Sammy’s back and used one herself.

“I’d had nightmares where I was the man on the fence with my eyes bulging and my tongue stuck out. I thought that was how my life would end. I don’t know how my dad knew, but he knew.

“For thirty-eight years, my store on Carver Street has been a safe space for young folks coming out into the life. That’s my contribution to make it better.”

Sammy felt his throat tighten. He squeezed shut his eyes and bowed his head slightly.

“But I couldn’t do nothing for Alfonso!” he shouted.

Mrs. Berry put her arm around him.

“This can’t happen again,” he said softly. “We can’t go backward. Not now. Not now. Not now. Not now.” His voice faded like the last track on an LP. 

“Thank you, Mr. Turner,” Larkin said.

Sammy rose slowly. Chairman Larkin stood, as did the rest of the panel and the audience. All remained standing as Sammy and Charlotte left the room.

from Sin Against the Race, (c) 2017 Gar McVey-Russell