Tag Archives: San Francisco Chronicle

Hangin’ with Judge Hoffman

POST #8

This is the eighth in a series of posts that recall what it was like to serve as Judge Julius Hoffman’s law clerk from 1967 to 1969.

The “Chicago 7” Trial (continued)

            How did the Nixon victory lead to the trial of the “Chicago 7”?  The answer is simple.

             With prosecutions by the U.S. Justice Department shifting from the Johnson administration and its attorney general, Ramsey Clark, to those on Nixon’s team who began running the Justice Department, things changed dramatically. 

            AG Clark had been reluctant to go after antiwar activists.  But Nixon was a warped personality, bent on punishing those he viewed as his enemies.  Once in office, with his own attorney general, John Mitchell, securely installed, he could prod federal prosecutors to go after his perceived foes.

            With the assistance of the FBI, long under the direction of another warped individual, J. Edgar Hoover, Nixon was able to track down his enemies, including antiwar protestors who had militated against him.  At the Democratic convention in Chicago in August 1968, antiwar activists’ outspoken opposition to the ultimately successful nomination of Hubert Humphrey (who in their view had not supported their cause with sufficient enthusiasm) disrupted the convention and undermined Humphrey’s ability to defeat Nixon.  As I noted in Post #7, Humphrey’s popular vote total in November was only one percent short of Nixon’s.  But that one percent made all the difference in the now-notoriously-undemocratic Electoral College.

            Many of these protestors had opposed the Vietnam War even before 1968, and they promised to further disrupt things once Nixon was elected.  Hoover’s FBI moved on from targeting people like members of the Communist Party USA to antiwar activists.  A covert program, Cointelpro, used a wide range of “dirty tricks,” including illegal wiretaps and planting false documents. 

I’ll add a recent update on Cointelpro here.

A fascinating revelation appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2021

            On March 7 of this year, The San Francisco Chronicle revealed an FBI break-in that underscores what the agency was doing at this time.  On March 8, 1971, Ralph Daniel, then 26, was one of eight antiwar activists who had long suspected FBI malfeasance and broke into a small FBI office in Pennsylvania to seize records that would prove it.  (March 8 was chosen because, they hoped, FBI agents would be focused on the title fight between prizefighters Ali and Frazier that night.) The break-in was successful, and the records uncovered were leaked to journalists and others, exposing Hoover’s secret FBI program that investigated and spied on citizens accused of engaging in protected speech. 

            This was the massive Cointelpro operation that had amassed files on antiwar activists, students, Black Panthers, and other Black citizens.  Fred Hampton, the leader of the Chicago Black Panthers, was one target of this operation. (He plays a small role in Aaron Sorkin’s film, “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” before his shocking murder is revealed during that trial.  I remember learning of Hampton’s murder and feeling sickened by the conduct of local law enforcement, whose homicidal wrongdoing later became apparent.)

            In 1975, the U.S. Senate’s Church Committee found the FBI program illegal and contrary to the Constitution.      Exposure of Cointelpro tarnished Hoover’s legacy and damaged the reputation of the FBI for years.

            The recent revelation appears in the March 7th edition of The San Francisco Chronicle.  Ralph Daniel, a resident of the Bay Area, revealed his story to a Chronicle reporter fifty years after the break-in took place.

The legal underpinnings of the trial of the “Chicago 7”

            With John Mitchell running Nixon’s Justice Department, federal prosecutors were instructed to focus on one section in a federal statute originally intended to penalize those who created civil unrest following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and specifically to use that statute to bring charges against antiwar activists.  The statute, which had been enacted on April 11, 1968, was mostly a follow-up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and it applied to issues like fair housing and the civil rights of Native American tribes. 

            But Title X of this law, which became known as the Anti-Riot Act, did something quite different.  It made it a felony to cross states lines or make phone calls “to incite a riot; to organize, promote or participate in a riot; or to aid and abet any person performing these activities.” This provision, sometimes called the “H. Rap Brown Law,” was passed in response to the conduct of civil rights activist H. Rap Brown.  

How did Judge Hoffman become involved?

            In September 1968, shortly after the Chicago convention, the Chief Judge of the Northern District of Illinois, William J. Campbell, convened a grand jury to investigate possible charges against antiwar protestors who had been active during the convention.  The grand jury, which met 30 times over six months and heard about 300 witnesses, indicted the eight antiwar protestors who came to be dubbed the “Chicago 8” with a violation of the Anti-Riot Act.  AG John Mitchell then asked the U.S Attorney for the Northern District, Thomas Foran, to stay in office and direct the prosecution.

            In Hoffman’s chambers, I was unaware that any of this was happening.  But in the spring of 1969, Hoffman became the judge who would preside over the prosecution.

            Anyone could see from the very beginning that this case was a hot potato–such a hot potato that before it was assigned to Hoffman, it had bounced around the courthouse a couple of times.  Cases were supposed to be randomly assigned to judges according to a “wheel” in the clerk’s office.  But this time, the first two judges who’d been handed the case had reportedly sent it back.  One of these judges was Chief Judge Campbell.  I’m not sure about the other judge, but whoever he was, he had a lot more smarts than Hoffman did.

            [I had my own run-in with Judge Campbell, beginning in February 1970.  But that’s a story for another time.]

            When the case landed in Hoffman’s chambers, he seemed somewhat taken aback, but I think he may have been secretly pleased to be handed this case.  He might have even liked the idea that he’d be handling a high-profile prosecution that would draw a lot of attention.  In any event, his ego wouldn’t let him send the case back to “the wheel,” even on a pretext.

            I kept my distance from the “Chicago 8” case.  As Hoffman’s senior clerk, due to leave that summer, I wasn’t expected to do any work on it.  My co-clerk, at that time the junior clerk, would become the senior clerk after my departure, and he assumed responsibility for the pre-trial motions and other events related to the case.  I was frankly delighted to have little or no responsibility this case.  It was clearly dynamite, and Hoffman was clearly the wrong judge for it.

            Since I was still working in Hoffman’s chambers, I could of course observe what was happening there.  And I could see what was going to happen long before the trial began.  Attorneys for the eight defendants (who later became seven when defendant Bobby Seale’s case was severed, in a sadly shocking episode about a month after the trial began) immediately began filing pre-trial motions that contested absolutely everything. 

            As I recall, one pre-trial motion explicitly asked Hoffman to recuse himself (i.e., withdraw as judge).  The defense lawyers’ claim was that Hoffman’s conduct of previous trials showed that he couldn’t conduct this trial fairly.  If Hoffman had been smart, he would have seized upon this motion as a legitimate way to extract himself from the case.  He must have already suspected that things in his courtroom might not go well.  But again, his pride wouldn’t allow him to admit that there was anything in his history that precluded him from conducting a fair trial.

            Soon the national media began descending on the courtroom to report on Hoffman’s rulings on the pre-trial motions.  One day Hoffman came into the clerks’ room to show us a published article in which a reporter had described the judge as having a “craggy” face.  “What does ‘craggy’ mean?” he asked us. 

            My co-clerk and I were dumbfounded, wondering how to respond to such a bizarre question.  The word “craggy” had always sounded rather rugged to me, while Hoffman looked much more like the cartoon character Mr. Magoo (as many in the media soon began to describe him).  I muttered something about “looking rugged,” while my co-clerk stayed silent.  Hoffman looked dubious about my response and continued to harp on the possible definition of “craggy” for another five or ten minutes until he finally left.

            The problem with Hoffman’s treatment of the “Chicago 7′ case was, fundamentally, that he treated it like every other criminal case he’d ever handled.  And the defense attorneys were right.  He had a record of bias in favor of government prosecutors.

            This problem became his downfall.  He refused to see that this case was unique and had to be dealt with on its own terms, unlike all of the other criminal cases in his past. 

            Further, he lacked any flexibility and remained committed to the way he’d always conducted proceedings in his courtroom.  If he’d had some degree of flexibility, that might have helped the trial proceed more smoothly.  But at 74, after 16 years on the bench, he was accustomed to running an orderly courtroom with lawyers and defendants who followed the rules.

            He would not have an orderly courtroom this time, and he was completely unable to bend those rules.

The film, “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” written and directed by Aaron Sorkin

            This film, which first appeared in September 2020 (I’ll call it “the Sorkin film”), has made the trial the centerpiece of a lengthy and detailed dramatization of the trial itself, along with the events that led up to it. 

The film is an impressive achievement.  I applaud Sorkin for bringing attention to the 50-year-old trial and to many of the people and events who were part of it.

I’ve chosen not to critique the film but simply to add comments based on my own recollections from that era along with what I’ve gleaned from my independent research.

The Sorkin film has notably garnered a 90 percent positive score on Rotten Tomatoes, based on nearly 300 critics’ reviews.  Some of the reviews are glowing, others less so.

I’ll quote from a sampling of reviews.

A.O. Scott wrote in The New York Times:  The film is “talky and clumsy, alternating between self-importance and clowning.”

David Sims wrote in The Atlantic:  This is “a particularly shiny rendering of history, but Sorkin wisely [focuses] on America’s failings, even as he celebrates the people striving to fix them.”

Joe Morgenstern wrote in The Wall Street Journal:  The film “diminishes its aura of authenticity with dubious inventions” and “muddies its impact by taking on more history than it can handle.”

Sorkin’s overall themes are opposition to an unjust war, specifically the Vietnam War; the attempt by activists in 1968 to achieve what they viewed as justice and to strengthen democracy; and how all of this played out politically.  As A.O. Scott noted in his review, “the accident of timing” helped to bolster these themes, with “echoes of 1968” clear to most of us in 2020:  “the appeals to law and order, the rumors of radicals sowing disorder in the streets, the clashes between police and citizens.” 

Sorkin himself told an interviewer that protestors in 2020 got “demonized as being un-American, Marxist, communist—all things they called the Chicago 7.”  He added, “The movie is not intended to be a history lesson, or about 1968—it’s about today.”

(As I point out later in “A Brief Detour,” these themes also played out in Greece during the 1960s.)

In his screenplay, Sorkin sets the scene well.  He begins with news coverage noting LBJ’s escalation of troops and draft calls to beef up the war in Vietnam.  He includes a clip of Martin Luther King Jr. stating that the war was poisoning the soul of America.  He also highlights the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, who had spoken out against the war, while at the same time noting the increase in casualties among the troops in Vietnam.

In addition, Sorkin makes clear that two of the Chicago 7 defendants, Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis, were leaders of SDS, an organization maintaining that the Vietnam War was contrary to our notions of social justice.  He also shows us Abbie Hoffman (hereinafter Abbie, to avoid confusion with the judge) and Jerry Rubin–who wanted to see either Senator Eugene McCarthy or Senator George McGovern nominated for the presidency– proclaiming that there wasn’t enough difference between Humphrey and Nixon to merit a vote for Humphrey.  (Gosh, this sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  It reminds me of Ralph Nader in 2000, proclaiming that there was no difference between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Thanks, Ralph, for helping to defeat Al Gore and giving us George W. Bush and the war in Iraq.) 

One more thing:  Abbie and Rubin claim in a clip that they’re going to the convention in Chicago “peacefully,” but “we’ll meet violence with violence.”

The film has deservedly won over a large number of admiring movie-watchers, but let’s be honest: Many if not most of them have little or no knowledge of the real story portrayed in it.

Sorkin’s screenplay received the Golden Globe award as the best screenplay of 2020, and it’s been nominated for an Oscar in that category.  The film has also been nominated for an Oscar as the Best Motion Picture of 2020.  One of its actors, Sacha Baron Cohen, is nominated for best supporting actor, and the film is nominated in three other Oscar categories.  In April, the cast received the Screen Actors Guild award for the Outstanding Performance by a Motion Picture Cast.

A few of my own comments

            As I’ve previously pointed out, in the spring of 1969 I was serving as Hoffman’s senior clerk.  I wasn’t responsible for advising him on his rulings during the trial (which began after my departure that summer), and I also didn’t take part in his rulings before the trial.  But it was impossible not to observe what was happening in his chambers while I was still working there.

            Although I therefore could observe what went on in Hoffman’s chambers, I was unaware of many of the events that were taking place outside of his chambers, and I don’t recall whether I personally observed any of the pre-trial courtroom appearances of the defense attorneys.  I also never observed the conduct of any of the defendants before the trial began, unless they appeared on local TV news coverage.

            For these reasons, I found much of the Sorkin film illuminating.  Although I’d very much like to know the sources Sorkin relied on in crafting his screenplay, I haven’t attempted to find out exactly what they were.  For proceedings in the courtroom both before and during the trial, I’m sure that Sorkin relied on the court transcript, which would have recorded everything said in court by the prosecutors, the defendants, defense counsel, the judge, and the many witnesses. 

            [Because of my own experience with court reporters, I know that not every word said in court is in fact recorded properly.  When I said during an oral argument (in a case called Doe v. Scott) that there was “no consensus” among medical experts regarding when life begins, the court reporter recorded my response as “no consequences.”  A very different word with a very different meaning in that context.  But in the trial of the “Chicago 7,” it’s probably safe to assume that the court reporter got most of the words right.]

            As for anything said outside of court, I’ll assume that Sorkin chose to rely on reputable sources.  I know, for example, that defense attorney William Kunstler published a book titled “My Life as a Radical Lawyer,” which probably provided helpful background for some of what happened (at least from Kunstler’s viewpoint).  Countless other books, interviews, and media accounts were no doubt researched and used to support scenes in the film.  Kudos to Sorkin if he and his staff perused these books and other background material for insights into what happened.

            I nevertheless want to ask, on my behalf as well as yours:

            How accurate is the film?

            Although Sorkin may have done a thorough job of research, there’s no question that he took considerable “creative license” when he wrote his screenplay.  He chose to emphasize certain events and to de-emphasize, revise, or omit others.  He also created totally new stuff to dramatize the story.

             For a review of what’s accurate and what’s not, I recommend two online articles.  One that strikes me as a careful job that squares with what I remember is “What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in The Trial of the Chicago 7” by Matthew Dessum, published on Oct. 15, 2020, in Slate.com.   A similar article appeared around the same time in smithsonianmag.com.

                                                To be continued

Proms and “The Twelfth of Never”

It’s prom season in America.

Do you remember your senior prom?

The twelfth of June never fails to remind me of mine.

The prom committee named our prom “The Twelfth of Never,” and it’s easy to remember why.  The prom took place on June 12th.  The name was also that of a popular song recorded by Johnny Mathis–one of my favorites on his album, “Johnny’s Greatest Hits.”

As one of Johnny’s fans, I owned this album and played it over and over till I knew the words to all of the songs, including this one.  Many of his songs became standards, and PBS has recently been showcasing his music in one of its most appealing fund-raising lures.

I immortalized the song title in my own small way by writing in my novel Jealous Mistress that the protagonist, Alison Ross, hears it playing while she shops in her supermarket in 1981: “My fellow shoppers were gliding up and down the aisles of the Jewel, picking items off shelves to the tune of ‘The Twelfth of Never.’”

When I was 11 or 12, my favorite crooner was Eddie Fisher, who was then at the top of his game.  But by my last year of high school, I’d shifted my loyalties to Johnny Mathis and Harry Belafonte.  In addition to Johnny’s album, I treasured Belafonte’s astonishing “Belafonte” LP and played it, like Johnny’s, over and over, learning those words, too.

Although I wasn’t part of the prom committee (I was busy chairing the luncheon committee), and “the twelfth of never” referred to a date when something was never going to happen, I was okay with the name the committee chose.  My more pressing concern was who would be my date.  Would it be my current crush, a friend since first grade who’d metamorphosed into the man of my dreams?  (I hoped so.)  Would it be last year’s junior prom date?  (I hoped not.)  Who exactly would it be?

As luck would have it, an amiable and very bright classmate named Allen stepped forward and asked me to go to the prom.  I could finally relax on that score.  But we weren’t really on the same wave length.  When we went on a few other dates before prom, they became increasingly awkward.

On one date we saw “Some Like It Hot” at a filled-to-capacity downtown Chicago movie theater, where we sat in the last row of the balcony.  The film was terrific (it’s been judged the top comedy film of all time by the American Film Institute), and Allen clearly loved it.  His delight unfortunately ended in an ache or two.  When he heard the last line, spoken by Joe E. Brown to Jack Lemmon (“Well, nobody’s perfect”), Allen laughed uproariously, threw his head back, and hit it on the wall behind our seats.  I felt sorry for him—it must have hurt—but it was still pretty hard to stifle a laugh.  (I don’t think it hurt his brainpower, though.  As I recall, Allen went on to enroll at MIT.)

Although the bloom was off the rose by the time the prom came along, Allen and I went off happily together to dance on the ballroom floor of the downtown Knickerbocker Hotel, noted for the floor’s colored lights.  (The Knickerbocker spent the 1970s as the icky Playboy Towers but since then reverted to its original name.)  We then proceeded to celebrate some more by watching the remarkable ice-skating show offered on a tiny rink surrounded by tables filled with patrons, like a bunch of us prom-goers, at still another big hotel downtown.

Most of us were unknowingly living through an era of innocence.  For some of my classmates, the prom may have involved heavy kissing, but I doubt that much more than that happened.  In my case, absolutely nothing happened except for a chaste kiss at the end of the evening.

For better or worse, proms have evolved into a whole different scene.  In April, The Wall Street Journal noted that although the rules of prom used to be simple, they’re more complicated today.  At Boylan Catholic High School in Illinois, for example, a 21-page rulebook governs acceptable prom-wear.  Other schools require pre-approval of the prom dresses students plan to wear–in one school by a coach, in another by a three-person committee.

Administrators add new rules every year “to address new trends and safety concerns.” These have included banning canes, boys’ ponytails, and saggy pants, as well as two-piece dresses that might reveal midriffs and dresses with mesh cutouts that suggest bare skin.

But students have begun to revolt.  The students at Boylan Catholic have organized their own prom, arguing that the 21-page dress code contributed to body-shaming.  They point to a rule that states: “Some girls may wear the same dress, but due to body types, one dress may be acceptable while the other is not.”  A male student who helped organize Morp (the alternative prom) said that “girls were offended…. Somebody needed to step up and do something.”

At a school in Alabama, one student hoped to take his grandmother to his prom since she’d never been to one, but her age exceeded the maximum of 20, so she wasn’t allowed to go.  The student was “mad,” skipped the school prom, and celebrated at his grandmother’s home instead.  Not surprisingly, the school defended its rule, stating that it wanted to discourage students’ inviting older relatives who might present a safety issue by drinking alcohol:  “It just causes problems.”  But the school district later joined with a senior center to host an annual prom for senior citizens.  Presumably, Granny went to a prom after all.

According to the Journal, New York City students have another option altogether.  The New York Public Library hosts an annual free “Anti-Prom” in June for students 12 to 18, who can attend in any garb they choose.

In the Bay Area, another phenomenon has occurred:  “promposals”–photos and videos posted on social media in which one student asks another one to prom.  The San Francisco Chronicle views these as a way for kids “to turn themselves into YouTube, Twitter and Instagram sensations.”  In 2014, a boy trotted up to school on a horse, holding a sign that asked his girlfriend to “ride to prom” with him.  Last year, a kid built a makeshift “castle” and wrote a Shakespearean-style play to ask a friend to prom.  And in Berkeley, a boy choreographed a hip-hop dance routine with a bunch of other kids and performed it for his hoped-for date in front of 200 classmates.

In April, the Chronicle reported data on the national emergence of promposals.  From only 17 on Twitter in 2009, the number grew to 764,000 in 2015, while on YouTube, videos went from 56,000 in 2009 to 180,000 last year.  (Millions of teens also post pictures about the prom itself on Instagram.)  The promposal phenomenon may be dying down, with fewer elaborate ones noted this year at a school in Oakland.  But who knows?

One thing we know for certain:  The high school prom-scene has changed.

But even though things have changed, prom-goers today are still teenagers much like us when we went to prom, with all of the insecurities and anxieties that go along with being a teen.

For me, mostly-happy memories of “The Twelfth of Never” return every year on the twelfth of June.   Maybe mostly-happy, or not-so-happy, memories of your prom return every year as well.

As Johnny’s song reminds us, our memories of prom can endure for “a long, long time.”

I’ve Got a Tip for You

Next time you order a BLT at your favorite restaurant, will you leave your server a tip?

Tipping is an issue fraught with questions. Who do I tip? Where do I tip? How much do I tip?

When it comes to tipping, lots of people are confused.

But the people on the fuzzy end of the lollipop–the ones who do the hard work–live in hope that the folks they serve will cough up a big tip.

People who work as servers in restaurants are particularly vulnerable. Thanks to a crazy federal minimum-wage provision, in some states employers can pay tipped workers only $2.13 an hour, the same rate allowed since 1991.

The result? Tipped workers are about twice as likely to be living in poverty as workers who don’t rely on tips. According to a recent study by the Economic Policy Institute, tipped workers have a poverty rate of about 13 percent, compared with a rate of 6.5 percent for other workers. The median wage for tipped workers—including tips—is $10.22, compared with $16.48 for workers overall.

Let’s look at how this result has come about.

Most of us favor a fair minimum wage for employees in our country. Witness the recent adoption of a higher minimum wage in such politically conservative states as Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota, where referenda increasing the minimum wage passed in the 2014 midterm elections. And even though Republicans in Congress have stood in the way of enacting a higher federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour, as proposed by President Obama, some state lawmakers have taken the initiative and increased the income of workers in their states by passing minimum-wage legislation of their own.

One group has been largely left out of this benevolent trend: Workers who depend on tips. According to articles in Mother Jones magazine in May 2014 and the Wall Street Journal in August 2014, only seven states, including California and Alaska, require employers to pay tipped workers the same minimum wage as nontipped workers.

The federal minimum wage for tipped workers has remained stagnant at $2.13 since 1991. If tipped workers aren’t earning the regular minimum wage (currently $7.25) via tips, employers are supposed to make up the difference. Are you surprised to learn that they don’t always do it?

President Obama’s proposed Minimum Wage Fairness Act would gradually raise tipped workers’ minimum wage to 70 percent of the regular minimum wage. That would help. But this increase has been opposed by the National Restaurant Association, which spent more than $2 million lobbying against it in 2013. (Some may remember that former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain lobbied against any change during his tenure as president of the NRA.)

The NRA claims that no one is making only $2.13 an hour. But the “servers who make ‘good money’ are in the minority,” according to a spokeswoman for Restaurant Opportunities Center United, a group that tries to improve conditions for servers. She notes that servers are hit especially hard by the “wage theft” by restaurant owners who don’t make up the difference they’re supposed to. When the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division investigated the restaurant industry from 2010 to 2012, it discovered that nearly 84 percent of restaurants had some kind of wage and hour violation.

Barbara Ehrenreich has documented the deplorable life of servers in her 2001 bestseller, Nickel and Dimed. Trying life at poverty-level wages, she spent her first month as a waitress, resulting in a “monthlong plunge into poverty” during which she often endured dehumanizing treatment at the hands of restaurant managers.

One problem is that servers are often unaware of the law requiring employers to make up the difference. One server states that unless tips were on credit card receipts, “We never logged our tips or reported them to our employers.” And when she told other servers what they were entitled to, “nobody felt comfortable asking employers about it.”

In the last few years, a new trend has appeared: a ban on tipping. A handful of restaurants in California, New York, and elsewhere have adopted a no-tipping policy, paying servers between $10 and $20 an hour in lieu of lower wages plus tips. How do these restaurants cover the cost of the higher wages they pay? Some, like Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, add a service charge (like 15 or 20 percent) to their diners’ bills. Others are experimenting with higher menu prices. The San Francisco Chronicle noted in November 2014 that a new restaurant in that city plans to simply raise all prices on the menu by 15 percent.

As the Wall Street Journal has noted, servers in some upscale restaurants who currently earn “a handsome income” might not welcome losing out on tips. But the no-tipping trend is clearly underway. If adopted throughout the industry, it would likely benefit the vast majority of servers who right now are seriously underpaid, often living in poverty as a result. Doing away with tipping would require enormous change for most restaurants, however, so it may never become the standard policy in American restaurants.

In the meantime, next time you order that BLT, think about putting a generous wad of your own lettuce in the hands of your server. You just may be helping that server escape the grip of poverty.

Gimme a Little Sugar

As human beings, we’re all programmed to like things that taste sweet. As a June 2012 article in the Journal of Nutrition pointed out, human desire for sweet taste spans all ages, races, and cultures. This may begin with breast milk, universally acknowledged as tasting sweet.

So it’s not surprising that most of us pursue food and drink that taste sweet. The problem today is the low cost and ready availability of sweeteners in our food supply. These have led us to consume more sugar, contributing to the current obesity epidemic.

In San Francisco, voters will decide in November whether the city can levy a “soda tax” of 2-cents-an-ounce on sugar-sweetened beverages. If the measure (Proposition E) passes, SF will become the first city in the nation to impose such a tax. Similar proposals have been defeated elsewhere, but if Prop. E passes, other communities will probably follow suit, so watch what happens in SF.

Prop. E almost didn’t make it onto the ballot. According to Heather Knight at the SF Chronicle, Mayor Ed Lee argued it would be a distraction on a lengthy ballot including other important issues, but it squeaked through the SF Board of Supervisors. It needs, however, more than a majority of voters in November to pass. It has to get two-thirds of the vote because it directs revenue to a specific purpose. This purpose is extremely worthwhile: programs benefiting children’s nutrition and physical education via the public schools, the Recreation and Parks Department, the Public Health Department, and nonprofit organizations.

The SF City Controller’s Office has provided key statistics in this fight. Right now, SF guzzles about 3 billion ounces of soda and other sugary beverages every year, but the city’s chief economist estimates that the tax could reduce consumption as much as 31 percent, and revenue generated by the tax could amount to as much as $54 million a year.

Besides the Board of Supervisors, the measure is supported by the SF school board, a host of PTAs, the teachers union, several medical groups, and local food banks like Project Open Hand, which provides healthy meals to seniors and the critically ill.

Now who in the world would oppose such a proposal? That’s easy: the American Beverage Association (the ABA). It seems that Big Soda is spending big bucks to diminish the possibility of passage. For one thing, it has enlisted opponents who argue that the tax will fall disproportionately on poor people. Most of the tax would be passed on to consumers, raising the retail price between 22 and 36 percent, and conservative SF Chronicle columnist Debra J. Saunders noted that less-educated and poor populations allocate a “larger proportion of their spending on sugar-sweetened beverages than other groups.” She also noted that the SF supervisors who voted against putting the tax on the ballot are “people of color who represent neighborhoods with many minority voters.” (Heather Knight recently reported that at least one of them has decided to endorse it.)

But aren’t these less-educated and less affluent residents the same people who have traditionally spent more on tobacco products than better-educated, more affluent groups? Yet in 2010 SF banned the sale of tobacco products at pharmacies, big-box stores, and grocery stores in the city. Many other communities have followed SF’s lead, and earlier this year pharmacy chain CVS banned their sale in its stores nationwide. Determined smokers, who need to find tobacco and pay more for it, seem to be getting along just fine.

The latest news makes clear how big a stake Big Soda has in defeating Prop. E. According to Heather Knight’s most recent update, a DC public affairs firm has already received almost a million dollars from the campaign to defeat Prop. E funded by the ABA. The firm produces the noisy commercials blaring on TV and radio in a number of languages. This is the same firm that defeated efforts to curtail consumption of sugary soda in NYC and two small cities in California, and it has already spent $800,000 to defeat a proposed soda tax in Berkeley. A spokeswoman for Yes on E notes that opponents will “stop at nothing to protect their profits…” and predicts they will spend much more before the November election.

My go-to source on all things nutrition-related is Nutrition Action (NA), a newsletter published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). NA has recently made clear how detrimental sugar-sweetened sodas can be. In July/August 2014, it quoted Frank Sacks, professor of cardiovascular disease prevention at the Harvard School of Public Health: “The data are pretty compelling that we should basically cut out sugar-sweetened beverages.”

JoAnn Manson, director of preventive medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, noted “strong evidence [these] beverages lead to weight gain because people [don’t tend to] compensate for liquid calories by reducing calories elsewhere.” But weight gain isn’t the only result. Manson and others tracked about 75,000 nurses and 39,000 health professionals for 22 years and found that those who drank a sugary soft drink at least once a day had about a 30 percent higher risk of diabetes than those who drank one less than once a month.” According to other researchers, including Kimber Stanhope at UC Davis, studies show that a high level of fructose (found in sweeteners like table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup) impairs insulin sensitivity, a risk factor for diabetes.

In September 2014, NA lobbed even more ammunition at sugary beverages, reporting a study showing that sugar-sweetened sodas may raise the risk of rheumatoid arthritis (RA), a disease that causes painful, chronic inflammation of the joints. Researchers who tracked 186,900 women for over 20 years found that those who consumed at least one sugary soda per day had a 63 percent higher risk of being diagnosed with the most common kind of RA than those who consumed less than one per month. Diet-soda drinkers had no higher risk of RA.

Big Soda is beginning to see the handwriting on the wall. Roberto Ferdman reported in the Washington Post in September that the ABA has agreed with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, Coke, Pepsi, and Dr. Pepper/Snapple to cut the calories in their beverages by 20 percent. How? By promoting smaller portions, as well as zero and low-calorie offerings. Ferdman noted one reason for this concession: soda consumption has been declining in the U.S. for over a decade. But soda is still a big part of the American diet, and 20 percent less sugar isn’t a whole lot.

Ferdman quotes Michael Jacobson, CSPI executive director, who urges the industry to go further than the proposed voluntary measures and drop its opposition to taxes and warning labels on sugary drinks: “We need much bigger and faster reductions [in sugar consumption] to adequately protect the public’s health. Those taxes could further reduce calories in America’s beverage mix even more quickly, and would raise needed revenue for the prevention and treatment of soda-related diseases.”

We all love to consume things that taste sweet. But let’s set some limits. Sugar-laden drinks like regular Coke and Pepsi? No one needs more than one a day, and kids don’t need any. Let’s impose reasonable taxes, add warning labels, and make sure we get our calories in far more nutritious ways.

Sure, gimme a little sugar. But just a little is more than enough.