John Ross takes no prisoners


By Tim Redmond

Ross tell the supes how it is. Photo by Luke Thomas

It wouldn’t have been John Ross Day in San Francisco if they didn’t have to call the cops.

And, indeed, a few minutes after Ross – the poet, journalist, activist, author and Bay Guardian correspondent – was honored at the Board of Supervisors, with a proclamation sponsored by Sup. John Avalos, his companeros and campaneras recessed to a conference room down the hall to await refreshments, and since it was 4:20, and the windows of the room were open, well …. The smell of fresh herbal medicine wafted out the door and down the hall, and pretty soon you could smell it in front of the supervisors chamber, and before long a couple of sheriff’s deputies came by and – politely, respectfully – informed us all that smoking – “of any kind” – was forbidden in City Hall.

And for a moment, I shuddered, because whenever the cops are around and John is around, there always seems to be trouble.

But remarkably enough, everyone on all sides kept cool, and the deputies walked away, and John made it through an entire afternoon and evening at City Hall without getting arrested.

That’s a far cry from the old days.

Typically, when people are honored by the supervisors, they thank the board, praise the wonders of this city and politely and meekly receive their award. Not John Ross.

The half-blind, half deaf rabble rouser made a short statement in which he managed to insult city government, denounce the entire process of giving out awards and demand that the board reject the Muni fare hike. Then he read a poem denouncing the “motherfuckers” who are driving poor people out of the Mission.

It was a great moment in San Francisco history. Supervisors Chris Daly, David Campos, Avalos and Ross Mirkarimi seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely; some of their colleagues, as Daly later told me, were squirming.

But that’s why we love John Ross, an uncontrollable shit disturber who is utterly and sometimes insanely fearless, who is pure of heart and devoted so deeply to the cause of social justice that he can’t put it aside, even for a minute.

Here’s his statement, in entirety.

It's called "Life, like reporting, is a death sentence."

40 years ago when I would appear before this honorable board as an organizer for the Mission Tenants Union to protest the devastation of working class housing in our neighborhood, certain disgruntled board members would signal San Francisco County deputies to throw a hammerlock on me, drag me out of the chambers, and book me at the so-called Hall of Justice on charges of disturbing the peace.

To prevent a repeat of these painful events, I ask my companeros and companeras to join me at the podium today and watch my back.

Punishment for the commission of the crime of independent journalism can be harsh. I have danced with death throughout my checkered career - May 1st 1986, the 100th anniversary of International Workers Day on the streets of Santiago Chile when I inadvertently walked into one of Pinochet's machine guns; climbing into a guerrilla camp in the Cauca Valley of Colombia; at the end of a road to a Waste Management toxic incinerator above Playas de Tijuana where some company goon took 13 potshots at my person -- when I called the Examiner for whom I then slaved, I was told to forget all about it.

Death was on our plate when we set out for Baghdad to place our bodies between Bush's bombs and the Iraqi people in March 2003 and when I went picking olives with Palestinian farmers in the Nablus Valley where Israeli settlers beat me within an inch of my life.

Life like reporting is a kind of death sentence. Pardon me for having lived it so fully.

I have mulled too long about whether or not to accept an honor from a city that has become nothing less than a sanctuary for the rich. This was once a sanctuary city for the refugees of U.S. wars in Latin America -- now the indocumentados are being rousted, jailed, and sent back to their devastated home countries from right here in Sanctuary City. I have debated receiving an honor from a city where greedy landlords bleed their tenants dry, a city that pushes the poor into the street and treats the homeless like so many cockroaches, a city where the police continue to run riot in neighborhoods of color -- a few weeks ago, recuperating from liver cancer chemotherapy I was slammed twice in the chest and threatened with being sent back to hospital by a Mission District cop while I witnessed a rough arrest on Valencia and 24th -- you can read all about it in my citizens' complaint recently reprinted in the Bay Guardian.

How can I accept an honor from a city that cloaks itself in rampant hypocrisy and the fake green of filthy lucre?

The truth is I cannot. Thanks anyway.

Hell, I don't even live here anymore. For the past 25 years, I have been an expat holed up in the Centro Historico of Mexico City, an exile from the racist social and economic policies of the United States of North America.Instead of drawing up hollow proclamations "honoring" derelict beat poets and wild parrots, the Board of Supervisors would do well to honor the poor and working class citizens of this city who struggle daily to survive here in this lap of luxury by making San Francisco a place where they can still live. One place to start is by nullifying the outrageous Muni fare hikes that will soon come before you.

There is one more thing you can do for me today. In 1967, I ran for the Board of Supervisors under the banner of "Rent Control Now! Out of Vietnam!" We paid our registration fee and five days later I was attacked by the SFPD after an anti-police brutality rally at the old Mission station -- I eventually lost my left eye as a result of this attack. The notoriety attracted the interest of a candidate with a similar name -- Tom Ross -- who had me barred from the ballot after he discovered that I was an ex-felon -- I was the first U.S. citizen to be sent to federal prison for refusing induction in the Vietnam-era military. When we demanded our filing fee returned the county registrar refused. On election day, people who voted for me were arrested for tampering with the voting machines.

I want my filing fee back. With interest.

As a veteran San Francisco performing poet, I am obligated to leave the Board with a poem from a recent collection "Against Amnesia."


Coming out of the underground
On the BART escalator,
The Mission sky
Is washed by autumn,
The old men and their garbage bags
Are clustered in the battered plaza
We once named for Cesar Augusto Sandino.
Behind me down belowIn the throat of the earth
A rough bracero sings
Of his comings and goings
In a voice as ronco y dulce
As the mountains of Michoacan and Jalisco
For the white zombies
Careening downtown
To the dot coms.
They are trying to kick us
Out of here
They are trying to drain
This neighborhood of color
Of color
This time we are not moving on.
We are going to stick to this barrio
Like the posters so fiercely pasted
To the walls of La Mision
With iron glue
That they will have to take them down
Brick by brick
To make us go away
And even then our ghosts
Will come home
And turn those bricks
Into weapons
And take back our streets
Brick by brick
And song by song
Ronco y dulce
As Jalisco and Michaocan
Managua, Manila, Ramallah Pine Ridge, Vietnam, and Africa.
As my compa QR say
We here now motherfuckers
Tell the Klan and the Nazis
And the Real Estate vampires
To catch the next BART out of here
For Hell.