February ballot measure seeks support for removing the prison from Alcatraz
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Native American spiritual leader Marshall "Golden Eagle" Jack admits he was just a kid in 1969 when a group of American Indians occupied Alcatraz Island. They claimed that the island's reclassification as surplus property following the 1963 closure of Alcatraz Prison entitled them to take possession of the iconic island.
But Jack says he knows enough people from the American Indian Movement, which began advocating for urban Indians in the late '60s, to understand that "the people standing up for their rights back then didn't have enough clout in the legal system" to keep the island and build an American Indian cultural center on its craggy slopes.
Instead, the island became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which is operated by the National Park Service. Today it attracts 1.5 million visitors per year, the GGNRA's chief of public affairs, Rich Weideman, says. But having a brutal former prison as one of San Francisco's top tourist attractions is unsettling to some.
So Jack and AIM founder Dennis Banks, Chief Avrol Looking Horse, Laynee Bluebird Woman, and Rose Mary Cambra of the Muwekma Ohlone tribe have sponsored Proposition C, a nonbinding declaration on the February 2008 ballot that would make it city policy to explore acquiring Alcatraz Island and setting up a global peace center in place of the prison.
They envision a white domed conference center, a labyrinth, a medicine wheel, and what their campaign literature calls an "array of architecturally advanced domed Artainment [sic] multimedia centers," which sounds more like a new age resort than a Native American cultural center. But Jack said the most important thing is turning the page on the island's bleak modern history.
"My bottom line is getting the actual prison off the island," Jack explains. "There's a lot of crystal energy, spiritually wise, on the island. It's an icon for a lot of tribes around the Bay Area who were here way before the Europeans. A Global Peace Center idea is just an option, but if it doesn't manifest that way, if it becomes an ecological center, fine."
Jack serves as assistant director of the Global Peace Foundation, a branch of the nonprofit San Francisco Medical Research Foundation, which Mill Valley resident Da Vid founded in the late 1970s about the time he first had a vision of domes on Alcatraz.
"I saw them during a Celestial Healing Festival on Mt. Tam in 1978, seven years after the Indian occupation ended," says Da Vid, who says he is a medical doctor and artist and currently serves as treasurer of the Alcatraz Conversion Project, a political action committee whose coffers contain $30,000 from Da Vid's mother, Miriam Ornstein.
Da Vid is also the founder of the Light Party, which he describes as "a spiritual-political party using its resources to promote the Alcatraz Conversion Project in order to garner support for the construction of a Global Peace Center."
But to the San Francisco Republican Party, Prop. C represents nothing but a tax burden. "Were this proposal implemented the burden of maintaining and operating Alcatraz would shift from the federal government to San Francisco taxpayers," San Francisco Republican Party chair Christine Hughes writes in an official ballot argument against the measure, also claiming the measure's sponsors are "an unaccountable and loosely organized nonprofit which envisions a billion dollar project administered by a local-international trust."
Yet GPF assistant director Kevin Ohnsman told the Guardian, "We feel that the Republican Party's opposition to Prop. C is our best endorsement.
"Once acquired by the city, a portion of the considerable revenue from the ferryboats will be shared with the city," Ohnsman said. "This income will be more than sufficient to cover the minimal administrative costs for maintaining Alcatraz."
Currently ferry tickets to Alcatraz cost $16.50 each, of which about 25 percent, or $4.5 million annually, goes to the GGNRA, with the bulk of those monies covering Alcatraz's night security and maintenance of the buildings and sewer.
According to San Francisco controller Ed Harrington, "should the proposed policy statement be approved, it would not increase the cost of government."
But that's only because the policy statement wouldn't do anything.
"However, should San Francisco actually work to acquire Alcatraz Island from the feds," Harrington adds, "there would be significant costs."
But Da Vid says there's something more important at stake than money. He asks, "The bottom line is, do we want an old, decaying prison to continue to be a prominent landmark for the Bay Area or do we want to create a new Alcatraz, which will define a new emerging paradigm committed to progressive, enlightened values?"
Weideman cites Alcatraz's landmark status and the 10,000 birds that nest on the island each spring as major hurdles in Vid's path: "To remove the prison, which is a national historic monument, along with the Civil Warera fort beneath it, would take an act of Congress."