San Francisco’s Unsung Activist Heroes of 2006

by Randy Shaw on December 12, 2006

San Francisco progressives made great progress in 2006, a year that saw the city’s low-income workers win enactment of universal health care, paid sick leave, and historic contract gains for members of UNITEHERE Local 2. Tenants won two ballot measures, progressive Supervisor Chris Daly won re-election, Jane Kim led a progressive sweep at the School Board, thousands took to the streets on May 1 for immigrant rights, homeless single adults were housed in record numbers, millions of city dollars were redirected to families’ needs, and San Francisco’s Nancy Pelosi is now the most powerful member of Congress. Not all the news was good, as increased violence plagued African-American neighborhoods, the city’s largest remaining black community was put under the control of the Redevelopment Agency, and the City Attorney denied voters the opportunity to approve the Agency takeover of Bayview-Hunters Point through a public referendum. Here are some of the unsung heroes who made a difference in 2006.

Naffis Griffis

We begin with Naffis Griffis, the least known among our group. Born in Morocco, Griffis came to the United States in 1985 and joined HERE Local 2 the next year. Griffis has worked for twenty years as a banquet waiter, which means he is frequently dispatched to the large hotels that until recently were battling with the union..

Griffis is one of thousands of UNITEHERE Local 2 members who put their livelihoods on the line in a contract fight that began in 2004 and did not end until the fall of 2006. Griffis spent much of 2004 and 2005 on picket lines, and in 2006 was part of the grassroots campaign that brought the union a dramatic victory over the world’s largest hotel chains.

But like many union members, Griffis also sought to make a difference in the political arena. After working hard on Chris Daly’s 2002 campaign, Matt Gonzalez’s 2003 mayoral effort, and Ross Mirkarimi’s 2004 Supervisor’s race, Griffis was among the early volunteers in Daly’s 2006 re-election effort. So for a number of months in 2006, Griffis simultaneously performed his job as banquet waiter, participated in union rallies and events, and handed out thousands of leaflets and posted hundreds of signs for the Daly campaign.

Griffis never seeks public credit for his work, and consciously avoids the limelight. But San Francisco would be a different city without him.

Harrison Chastang

If you examine the stories making news in San Francisco’s African-American communities, and those covered by the Chronicle and other mainstream media, the disconnect is startling. The black perspective on San Francisco has almost disappeared from most local media, which is why Harrison Chastang’s reporting on KPOO radio is so crucial.

In 2006, Chastang noted the disparate treatment between the proposed ban on beer and wine for the free North Beach Jazz Festival while outdoor consumption of alcohol was permitted for the upscale Black and White Ball. He may have been the only writer to recognize that the North Beach event is one of the few outdoor music events in the city promoted by an African-American, and who raised troubling questions about how the city was treating the event.

Chastang also questioned the absence of elected officials (other than Mirkarimi and Adachi) from a large anti-Redevelopment rally held on the steps of City Hall on October 16. Noting the event occurred on the 11th anniversary of the Million Man March, Chastang discussed this absence of local politicians as part of the larger context of the steep and continuing decline in San Francisco’s African-American population.

Chastang, an occasional contributor to our pages, is often the sole reporter covering stories of great importance to the African-American community. He provided an increasingly essential perspective in 2006

Renee Saucedo

While Renee Saucedo is the well-known leader of La Raza’s Day Laborers Project and a former Supervisorial candidate, she has gone largely unacknowledged for what was clearly one of her top accomplishments: the galvanizing of San Francisco’s immigrant rights movement in 2006.

Latino immigrants and their supporters took to the streets across America in March 2006 to protest the House passage of a law criminalizing immigrants and those who assist them. But as I wrote on March 27, San Francisco was missing from the roster of cities engaged in public protest. The only action our city initiated was by Saucedo’s Day Laborers Project, which held a sparsely attended hunger strike at the Federal Building and then a small march.

But Saucedo was not deterred by the early lack of turnout. She began meeting with unions and other immigrant rights groups, and played a central role in organizing the mammoth immigrant rights march down Market Street on May 1, 2006. San Franciscans had a right to be proud of their city that day, but the fact remains it took someone with organizing skills, a broad vision and determination to make it happen: Renee Saucedo was that person.

Boris Delepine

Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi had a break out year in 2006, and one reason for his success was the excellent work of his unsung aide, Boris Delepine. Delepine worked tirelessly to pass the foot patrol legislation sponsored by Mirkarimi, and continued his efforts to win the Board of Supervisor’s first override of a Newsom veto.

Prior to becoming Mirkarimi’s aide, Delepine worked for the Progressive Voter Project, a group dedicating to increasing absentee voter registration and turnout among low-income tenants. He came to that job after a two-year stint as an aide to Supervisor Sandoval. These two prior jobs gave Delepine a wealth of experience dealing with the legislative and political process

Delepine is a throwback to the days when aides were close political allies of a Supervisor they helped elect. While some current aides have this background, most over the past decade have been hired for their administrative or policy skills rather than their prior relationship with the Supervisor. The complexity of the Supervisor’s job requires such skills, but in Delepine we have an aide who combines outstanding administrative, constituent service and policy skills with a personal and political relationship with the Supervisor. This clearly facilitates getting things done.

What particularly impressed me about Delepine’s commitment this year was his accompanying Chris Daly on early morning campaign appearances in the weeks leading up to the November election. Delepine was with Daly on Muni buses as early as 7:00am, and still worked his usual long days for the busy Mirkarimi office. As a new father of an eighteen-month old baby boy, Delepine could easily have taken a pass on helping Daly. But his commitment to progressive politics led him to add the Daly campaign to his other responsibilities, and his effort was rewarded when Daly prevailed and the foot patrol measure became law.

Meshá Mongé-Irizarry

I have never met Mesha Monge-Irizarry, but I seem to get e-mail from her nearly every day. Monge-Irizarry created the Idriss Stelley Foundation (ISF) after her son of that name was killed by San Francisco Police officers at the Sony Metreon on June 13, 2001. The high-profile shooting of an unarmed 23-year old African-American was part of a long history of local and national police shootings of black men. The most recent of these killings, in New York City, involved 50 shots by multiple officers against unarmed African-American males; Stelley was the victim of 48 shots as he stood alone in an empty theater.

Monge-Irizarry used her son’s death to help win major reforms in police conduct, including mandatory SFPD mental health training and a new appointment process for the SF Police Commission. She continues to be the city’s leading voice about a police violence problem that much of the city’s media ignores. Monge-Irizarry faces a similar challenge as Harrison Chastang: because her focus is often on African-American victims, it is difficult to convince media outlets to cover stories, or to provide ongoing reporting.

ISF provides free, confidential services to biological and extended families whose loved ones have been disabled or killed by law enforcement. But the greatest impact of Monge-Irizarry is her refusal to allow acts of police violence to fall into the background, and be quickly forgotten.

As we approach 2007, San Francisco and other cities continue to see unarmed men of color killed by inadequately trained police officers. Without Monge-Irizarry, these killings in San Francisco would garner little attention, and the need for police reform quietly swept under the rug.

To support Monge-Irizarry’s efforts, checks can be made out to:
ISF 4921 3rd St, SF, CA 94124

There are far more than five unsung heroes who deserve profiling, and we will try to tell more of these stories in the year ahead.

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