SF Sheriff Mirkarimi: When Politics Trumps Truth in California

Michael Bernick
California Labor Department Director from 1999-2004; Counsel with the international law firm of Duane Morris and a Milken Institute Fellow.

In early January, this “California Employment” column departed from its job focus  to detail an  important and brave action in San Francisco. Advocates against domestic violence  stood up against the attempt by newly elected Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi and an Old Boys Network of  former San Francisco politicians to  sweep under the rug a domestic violence claim against the Sheriff.  The message went out that domestic violence is not a “private matter”, and that there would be accountability.

One more time we take up the Mirkarimi case, but the report is no longer upbeat.  Mirikarimi and his political allies, particularly  former Mayor Art Agnos and former Supervisor Aaron Peskin have prevailed.

Mirkarimi worked out a plea deal, by which he pled guilty last Monday to false imprisonment of his wife. Given the political support he has on the Board of Supervisors (the political body that can remove him), he will remain as Sheriff for at least 4 years, and most likely far longer. More importantly, already the incident is being whitewashed and rewritten by Agnos and Peskin,  with Mirkarimi as political victim. The strong message against domestic violence has been silenced by politics.

For  two months the case appeared regularly in the press. A flow of newspaper articles detailed  Mr. Mirkarimi’s violence against his present wife, Ms. Eliana Lopez. Other former girlfriends came forward with similar stories of violence, including Ms. Christina Flores. Though Mr. Mirkarimi initially claimed that he wanted a speedy trial, his attorneys spent weeks trying to suppress evidence, including the video made by a neighbor, novelist Ms. Ivory Madison, of his wife crying and describing her bruises. On nearly every motion, his attorneys lost.

Suddenly last Monday, Mirkarimi  pled guilty to a charge of false imprisonment. He apologized to Ms. Madison and other neighbors who reported the abuse, and declared  that he knew he needed to be held accountable.

Immediately, though, it was clear that Mirkarimi had no intention of being accountable, and the rewriting of history began. On Wednesday, Mr. Agnos told the San Francisco Chronicle that Mr. Mirkarimi did nothing wrong,  but pled only because of his mounting legal bills. Mr. Peskin piously declared the incident over, and announced that Mr. Mirkarimi had suffered enough.  Other allies of Mr. Mirkarimi went to work portraying Ms. Flores as a bitter ex-girlfriend—just as these allies had previously portrayed other major women in the case, particularly Ivory Madison, as hysterical and unbalanced.

The future is clear. After a decent interval, Mr. Mirkarimi will announce that he has become anti -domestic violence advocate. He will raise money from businesses, who do work with City Hall. By the time he runs for re-election, Mirkarimi/Agnos/Peskin will have spun the domestic violence incidents so that Mr. Mirkarimi is portrayed as a victim of unnamed  Republicans and wealthy Californians who oppose his politics.

Yet, before we move on completely, it is worth bearing witness to the ongoing bravery of the anti-domestic violence advocates. There have been quite a few, and here I’d note Ms. Beverly Upton, Ms. Kathy Black, Ms. Minouche Kendel, and Ms. Sharon Johnson. These brave women not only stopped the issue from initially being ignored. They also fought to keep it in the public view throughout, including placing a freeway sign “Domestic Violence is Never a Private Matter” near the Bay Bridge at private cost,  fighting against the sliming of Ms. Madison and the other women involved, and fighting to oppose the rewriting of this case’s history.

Even at the end, they alone fought for accountability. On Thursday, they held a rally at City Hall to call on Mayor Lee to remove Mr. Mirkarimi from office.  They held this rally, even in the face of urgings from Mr. Mirkarimi’s allies that they keep quiet  in exchange for future funding. They could not be bought off.

We have much to learn from these women.

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