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San Francisco Dreaming?
EAMONN McCANN journeys to America s west coast and encounters the same GLOBAL issues of bigotry and prejudice. To compensate, though, he also savours the pleasures, musical, cultural and alcoholic, of San Fran.
Eamonn McCann, 02 Mar 2000
I nipped across for the weekend to San Francisco, where it s the same the whole world over.
On Saturday afternoon, at an art gallery showing an exhibition based on the sights and sounds of Bloody Sunday, I shared a platform with District Attorney Terence Hallinan.
It could only happen in San Francisco , half a dozen people said, meaning that Terry had once been a member of the Communist Party. Of course, now he s the DA.
The first question from the floor, after we d all said our piece, came from an Asian man, who invited the DA to reconcile his angry concern about Bloody Sunday with his handling of a killing in San Francisco last year.
Officers Gregory Breslin and Michael Moran, who don t sound like Anglo Saxons, opened fire on the driver of a stolen car which had failed to stop at a police checkpoint, killing the front-seat passenger, Shiela Detoy, 17. The murder trial now under way is big news in the local media.
It s not Breslin or Moran but the driver of the car, Michael Negron, who is in the dock. The DA explained: Ms. Detoy had been killed in the course of a crime committed by Negron, which makes Negron to blame.
Lee Clegg never thought of that one.
Clegg was the paratrooper who shot 18-year-old Karen Reilly dead in west Belfast in September 1990. She d been riding in a stolen car which allegedly crashed through a British Army check-point. Clegg was convicted of murder. His release after serving a little over two years sparked violent demonstrations across the North.
Of course, the cases aren t identical. The driver of the car Karen was killed in, Martin Peake, 17, wasn t available for prosecution. He d been shot dead, too, by the para fusillade.
Still, just for a moment, the ghost of Karen Reilly wafted through the room.
Earlier the same day, I d spoken at a rally in pouring rain outside San Francisco City Hall with Maxine Bailey, whose son, Richard, 18, was kicked and beaten with baseball bats last month by around a dozen white youths from the Sacred Heart Cathedral High School. Also speaking was James Letbetter, father of Chris, 17, who had been attacked a fortnight previously by four white men wielding an iron bar and a baseball bat.
Both complained about the seeming indifference of the city authorities to hate crimes against their children. Mr. Letbetter explained that the police, when they came along, far from trying to arrest the attackers, had used a pepper spray against the victims.
Among those temporarily blinded was Chris s mother, who had been trying to shield her son.
My boy is almost as big a I am , said James Letbetter, a huge, humourous man of enormous natural dignity. But when the police see a six foot three black teenager, they don t see a kid. They see a big, black guy.
I tell him now that when he s stopped, not to wait, to put his hands high in the air, and, if they tell him to get down, to kiss the pavement. It s the only way he s going to survive .
The big story of the weekend in the US national media had to do with the conviction in Jensen, Texas, of John Billy King for the racist murder of James Byrd, who was chained to a truck and dragged along a rural road until his body, decapitated, was scarcely recognisable as the remains of a human.
The London papers at Heathrow en route home were dominated by reaction to the report of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry. Institutional racism had apparently been to blame. Or, as Home Secretary Jack Straw had it, unwitting racism .
Nice one, New Labour.
IN Belfast, naturally, the Irish News was giving more prominence to the trial of a 21-year-old Portadown man, Paul Hobson, for his alleged participation in the murder of Robert Hamill, kicked to death by a sectarian gang in April 1997. Perhaps, in light of the reaction of the Metropolitan Police and the Labour Government to the Lawrence Report, the fact that armed RUC men sat nearby and watched the murder happen can be put down to unwitting sectarianism.
Enniskillen RUC chief Jonathan McIvor, the senior uniformed policeman at the scene in Eltham on the night of Stephen s murder, will be able to explain the drill.
Home at last, in a zombie state at the Foyle Street bus station, I find the Derry Journal s front page featuring news of a scathing attack by Councillor Sean Gallagher of the SDLP on Sinn Fiin and the Derry Travellers Support Group, for supporting plans for a travellers community centre in the Shantallow area of the city.
It has now become clear that bringing the centre to Shantallow would strengthen the argument for a travellers housing scheme for the area , warned Gallagher. Local people, he felt sure, would totally resist any such plan. He pledged that he personally wouldn t be found wanting when it came to providing leadership to the total resistance movement.
It would be too sarky to suggest that the SF cops and DA s office, the Met, the Paras, the RUC and the SDLP might get together to discuss their unwitting similarities. Not least because everywhere there are reasons also to be cheerful.
Ruminating on the comparisons and contradictions, one of the organisers of the Bloody Sunday group in San Francisco, a woman from South Derry, told me that her two sons, both of mixed race, are regularly, routinely, harrassed and humiliated by the police when they go out for an evening.
Another of the group, a law lecturer, chipped in that she tells her black male students to try to find a baby-seat to put in the back of the car when they re out driving. That way, the police might assume they are family men, and treat them like regular citizens.
A majority of the Irish-Americans at the Bloody Sunday meeting were calm and open-minded in discussing the parallels between racism in the US and religious bigotry in the North. A majority of the crowd at the sodden City Hall rally were white. Neville Lawrence said last year that the first groups to organise to demand the truth about Stephen s murder were white trade unionists. The SDLP will hit local opposition every inch of the way as they campaign against travellers in Shantallow.
Hate is all around and smells the same everywhere. But, as Wet Wet Wet warbled on the mega-hit single which made a million for top Trogg Reg Presley to squander on crop circles, Love Is All Around, too.
Over a couple of spectacularly alcoholic nights it s amazing what you can fit into three days when you ve forsworn sleep we rediscovered that Specs on Columbus Avenue is still probably the best pub in the world, run by its eponymous owner, a union militant through the dread days of McCarthy and co-author of The Man Who Never Returned.
Which in Ireland only the Beep, myself and maybe Christy Moore will remember but which was a world smash for the Kingston Trio on the cusp of the folk boom , post Guthrie, pre-Dylan.
Will he ever return, no, he ll never return,
His fate is still unlearned.
He will ride forever neath the streets of Boston,
He s the man who never returned .
It was written about a misfortunate low-life who scabbed on a Boston subway strike, and made it through the picket line down to work where he rode his train through the empty tunnel in earnest devotion to the boss. Up above, Specs and the spontaneous picketing poets produced the requisite instant song to announce that no way would he ever operate again in the clear overground air. The contagious chorus ensured the song s spread.
The Kingston Trio, college boys from California, riding high after a Billboard Number One with Tom Dooley , put out a too-wholesome version as their follow-up single and sold zillions. Specs tells me he still gets royalty cheques in the post.
Postcards from the working class make a museum on the walls. A fellow drunk long after time showed me his poem with the line, The eyes of Elvis are upon you.
A dander through Chinatown takes you to Foley s, the only 100 percent Irish and nil percent Oirish pub I know of in north America.
Now, there s your drinking planned for you if you hit San Francisco this summer.
We spoofed our way into Berkeley Rep. for the hottest-ticket-in-town, Peter and Wendy, a reimagining of Barrie s Peter Pan like you d never imagined at all. Michael Colgan has been across and taken it in, presumably with a view to production at the Gate.
I explained afterwards to Susan McKeown that this is an infernally difficult production for the humble hack to enthuse over: how to convey something the likes of which was never known?
The last time I saw and heard Susan she had a full rock ensemble behind her, six thousand in front of her, and she was lifting the girders off the hundred foot ceiling of a venue with the worst acoustics in the world. Here, she was perched high above and to the side of the stage, with accordion and harp and the Scottish fiddle of Johnny Cunningham, gorgeous voice exquisitely apt as accompaniment to the New York Mabou Mimes company below using puppets, pop-up sets, film sequences and techniques of theatre as yet unnamed to tell the story of Peter Pan in a way that s devoid of drippiness, giddy with fun and altogether enchanting.
Words by Liza Lowin, music by Johnny Cunningham.
The entirety of the dialogue, involving a dozen or so characters, is spoken by Karen Kandel, on stage throughout two and a half hours. Truly astonishing.
If Colgan brings it to Dublin, grab a ticket before word gets around. Or spoof, like we did.
There s an exhibition of Irish 20th century figurative painting at the Berkeley Art Museum. Why, I don t know. It must have cost three fortunes to assemble, transport and insure. Why should anybody in California put effort into contemplating the twee conventionalities of Walter Osborne or Sir John Lavery when there isn t a soul of taste and discrimination in Clontarf who d cross the road for a peep?
There are one or two worthwhile pieces distributed among the dross the cartoonish grotesqueries of Rita Ann Duffy, for example, or Derek Seymour s sardonically witty depiction of a Red Army helicopter above the bovine fields of south Armagh.
But Sean Keating s pastel pix of civil warriors, each reminiscent of a Zane Grey cover, although nowhere near as deft in execution?
A far more interesting, smaller-scale show at the adjacent Phyllis Wattis Gallery featured more challenging Irish works, some of which I couldn t understand and which therefore must be meaningless. Of other pieces, by Richard Gorman, Colin Darke and Fionnula Ni Chiosain, more later.
There s a huge amount of Irish cultural product on the road in the US at the moment, which elements in the Irish and Irish-American press seem to account it a duty to cheer on indiscriminately.
We must be careful. This is where Riverdance came from.