District Attorney Kamala
The only problem with immortality
this year's Herb Caen Day luncheon
at Moose's, former mayor Willie Brown said, "the long knives would be
running" from Caen's words, were Caen alive to defend District Attorney
Kamala Harris. The D.A. has been widely criticized for her decision
not to seek the death penalty for David Hill, the 21 year-old accused
killer of SFPD Officer Isaac Espinoza.
It was the first time since Caen died in 1997 that I didn't cringe the
instant someone declared what "Herb would've" thought or done. Caen
and Harvey Milk have handed down more judgment from the afterlife than
Oliver Wendell Holmes did in the fore life, if there is such a thing.
In fact, Caen once said, "The only thing wrong with immortality is that
it goes on forever."
Brown's reflection on Caen and Harris could not have been more appropriate.
Just a day shy of 44 years before Moose's party, on May 1, 1960, Caen
commented on the death penalty in his Chronicle column on the occasion
of the execution of Caryl Whittier Chessman, a 39 year-old kidnapper
and rapist known as the Red Light Bandit.
Caen called the death penalty a "savage rite." He had witnessed executions
including hangings at Folsom prison. During one hanging, as witnesses
were fainting around him, Caen recalled something the warden had told
him, "Doesn't hurt a bit."
"And from that day on," wrote Caen, "having been made properly aware
of the State's awful vengeance, no holdup man ever again killed a shopkeeper?
You bet." Chessman was gassed on May 2, 1960.
Though certain details of Chessman's case remain fascinating - Eleanor
Roosevelt and Christopher Isherwood were among the learned who plead
for mercy on his behalf - thoughts of present day politics weigh heavily.
While hangings seem completely of the past, the extremeness of the national
administration and an oppressive media climate also seemed like history
in America until recently.
A well-known media personality and death penalty opponent said to me
over red wine and shrimp cocktail, "If Kamala's decision is already
final, don't even mention it in print." That's not only part of the
problem, it's a big part. With a few exceptions, support for Harris
by those in politics or in public life through the media has been timid
"They shouldn't be afraid to speak out," Harris told me, "It's not just
about me being stubborn."
True. It's about the new wave of leadership from Mayor Gavin Newsom
and this district attorney. This new wave, you will recall, was ushered
in with much fanfare a few months ago. What have we learned about it
since then? The new wave rejects discrimination, as Newsom did when
he issued a marriage license to lesbians Phyllis
Lyon and Del Martin.
The new wave keeps its campaign promises. Imagine that. Voters chose
Harris over incumbent Terrence Hallinan, who also opposes the death
penalty, in a campaign in which the issue was prominent.
Senator Dianne Feinstein personifies the old wave. The former mayor
ignited the death penalty fracas when she cruelly and inexplicably called
for Hill's life at Espinoza's funeral.
Many years ago, Feinstein hosted a commitment ceremony for Nancy Achilles
and the late Jo Daly in Feinstein's own garden. Lyon and Martin stood
up for the couple. Earlier this year, Feinstein opposed the gay weddings
taking place at San Francisco's City Hall.
San Francisco is filled with millions of small ironies. The bronze bust
of Feinstein on the mayor's balcony at City Hall is dark brown with
ordinary oxidation. On the sculpture, only Feinstein's wedding ring
is polished, sparkling and bright. Scores of visitors, all making a
good luck gesture, have worn it smooth - the City's own version of the
statue of St. Peter at the Vatican.
Caen knew that here in the City it borders on ethereal to pretend the
small stuff is important. It's a nice life for every Mr. and Ms. San
Francisco who has the time to think about who makes the best margarita
and whether the view from Tank Hill
is better than the view from Twin Peaks!
But what really matters in extraordinary and trying times are courage
and character. Kamala Harris, it seems, has enough of both to spare.
What else can keep the rage and revenge of the Bush era out of San Francisco?
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