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“Unleashed on the Streets”: Marin’s Liberal Gatekeepers

“The family grew wealthy in the early 1970s when Mr. McGlashan’s father helped commercialize a way of quickly checking urine samples for drug traces. ‘At the drop of a hat we were flown into Vietnam,’ the elder Bill McGlashan recalls. ‘Nixon at the time was worried about the troops being addicted to heroin, and coming home, and being unleashed on the streets.’” ~ The Financial Times, April 4, 2019

On a sunny Tuesday afternoon this past June, I found myself on the other end of a Marin County Board of Supervisors’ Zoom meeting, with Jose Varela, the County’s Public Defender of the last 10 years, who joined the office in 2001. Mr. Varela is a man of many talents, one of which is the ability to deliver a speech about social justice so passionately, you might overlook the fact that the first Latino Public Defender in Marin has for over a decade consistently failed to demand racial demographics on arrests and prosecutions from Marin County’s District Attorney Office.

Such evidence would arguably have been beneficial to Mr. Varela’s impoverished clients who were being racially targeted by the Marin County Sheriff’s Department.

But first, Mr. Varela wished to tell us about his necktie. The necktie, he said wistfully, had been a gift from Charles McGlashan, the former District 3 Supervisor, another courtly man of the County whose actual processes had never been met with much scrutiny. “Chuck taught me about sustainability,” Mr. Varela shared, with no apparent appreciation of the fact that the McGlashan family’s path to riches and their later political power had been built on the exact opposite of sustainability.

It is no surprise that Chuck McGlashan made few friends in historically Black Marin City during the years he was charged with representing District 3. Our fifty-year, so-called “War on Drugs”, with a few wealthy white victors like the McGlashan family on one side, and a vast battlefield of working-class, primarily Black and LatinX victims on the other, has long roots in Marin County.

Neither the McGlashans nor the Nixon Administration ever questioned the efficacy or the ethics of the drug tests that made the McGlashans their initial fortune. Nor did anyone question the protocols used to process the tests, which were first administered to traumatized US soldiers in Vietnam before they returned stateside. Dr. Jerome Jaffe, who oversaw the program for the Nixon administration, has admitted there were errors with the program overall, specifically that the numbers the Nixon administration claimed were addicted were nowhere near 20%, but were far more modest, at around 6%. And though the program promised amnesty, journalist David Young has reported that thousands of soldiers were dishonorably discharged simply for testing positive, which meant a permanent reduction in benefits.[1]

What was remarkable about the program wasn’t just the siphoning of necessary benefits away from poor, frequently African-American GI’s, into the coffers of yet another Nixon White House Fellow such as Bill McGlashan, but that the potential for inaccuracy and carelessness in the program later found its soulmate in all the tainted police drug labs stateside. In the end, Bill McGlashan Sr.’s expression “unleashed on the streets”, was a better description of the abuses against our own soldiers, and later of US civilians during our five-decade “War on Drugs”, conducted not only by police and sheriffs, but by district attorneys and judges.[2]

After the talk of the necktie and the passionate speech about social justice, Mr. Varela expressed great praise for Marin’s District Attorney. In any other county, such generous praise of a district attorney by a public defender might raise a few eyebrows. It also placed Mr. Varela in contrast to the sentiment of younger residents of the County.

Over the course of three days of all-day meetings from June 22-24, 2020, hundreds of Marin residents vehemently denounced Marin County’s institutionalized racism, personified by its criminal justice system, which is represented by its Sheriff and its prosecutors. The callers were white, Black, LatinX and Asian-American, but they were disproportionately young and female: their calls alternating between requests and flat-out demands to defund the Sheriff’s departments, restore social services, end cooperation with ICE, and investigate the use of force.

On Tuesday, the early afternoon portion of the Supervisors’ meeting included a presentation by Ms. Frugoli, the white former police officer who worked in the DA’s office for almost three decades - some of the most intense decades of the “War on Drugs” - prior to winning the District Attorney seat in 2018 against two younger, more progressive contenders, both of mixed-race heritage.

As the candidate most tightly linked to Marin’s decades-long tradition of racial profiling, Ms. Frugoli had been backed by the County’s controversial Sheriff, Robert Doyle, whose close cooperation with ICE and contempt for reform was harshly criticized by the young Marin residents who called in during the Zoom meeting. It is fair to report that Mr. Doyle’s overall demeanor, and his refusal to appear on screen during the public comment period, did little to win over his critics.

In his absence, one was left to wonder if the manly confidence he projected during his own presentation might not have withstood the withering critique of a succession of young Latinas.

On the Zoom meeting, District Attorney Frugoli was also greeted with effusive praise by Frank Shinneman, head of the Marin ACLU, who enthused that he had met with Frugoli and, despite their disagreements, he had full confidence in her. This would seem a curious position for the head of a local ACLU chapter to maintain. The fact that Frugoli had just cheerfully bragged in her presentation that her office had been working on a “diversity” project with Jackie Lacey - the Los Angeles District Attorney who has notoriously prosecuted only one police officer out of 340 cases of people killed by LA County law enforcement in her eight years in the position - went unremarked upon by Mr. Shinneman.[3]

Ms. Frugoli was also praised by Lisa Bennett, a wealthy Sausalito business owner and activist who heads an unnamed working group that has also been granted private meetings with DA Frugoli.

Both Shinneman and Bennett are decent and charming people, and Bennett in particular has done diligent and thoughtful outreach to the neighboring community of Marin City. I do not write this in criticism of either of them, personally, but rather to consider the possibly counterproductive convention of a particular form of liberal gatekeeping.

Why are wealthy, white, property-owning business leaders - or the groups they establish - granted special access to District Attorney Frugoli, while poor, working-class Marin residents are restricted from even sending emails to the DA’s office? I ask that literally, because the staff at the Marin DA office is forbidden to disseminate any of its office email addresses - as if email addresses were simply too much liberty for the poor to handle.

In this day and age, and particularly in the times we’re now living in, that restriction is repressive, since email is a particularly vital tool for working-class activists of all races and genders. Email permits an accessible, affordable, shareable, method of archiving their communications with people in positions of power.

Frugoli’s office only permits communications from the public by fax, which is an archaic, onerous, and time-consuming expense for people who likely do not have access to a landline or fax machine. Frugoli’s office will also accept voicemail, which of course does not permit the constituent to keep a record. Many contend that the refusal to accept email from her constituents isn’t an accident, it is by design. It reduces the power of ordinary people subject to her office, and reinforces Frugoli’s lack of accountability.

When I was, once, able to get through to DA Frugol’s office by phone last year, I asked her how I could access racial demographics on the County’s traffic stops, arrests, and prosecutions. She responded that they didn’t keep such data. (For various reasons, including internal monitoring of the County’s own liability, I find Frugoli’s claim difficult to believe.)

When I asked if I could submit a public records act (PRA) request to review past records and compile the data, she was blunt in stating that she would block my request first by waiting out the statutory deadlines, before concluding in the formal response that the data wasn’t available. I would then, she explained, have to make another PRA request, which she would also likely block. Rinse and repeat. Throughout the conversation, Frugoli maintained a terse “don’t f*ck with me” tone, but if nothing else, she was candid. (When I brought this up in public comment on Tuesday, Frugoli denied having stated she would block the request.)

I believe Shinneman and Bennett have been received more warmly than me, because it is difficult to imagine a colder reception than my own questions received from Frugoli, and because so little for which Shinneman and Bennett praised Frugoli was actually in line with the purported goals of their respective groups. They just seemed to really “like” her, in the way that charming people with power tend to gravitate toward other charming people with even more power, never realizing that they’re sucking the rest of the county into an orbit we would never have asked to enter.

Bennett has praised Frugoli for “expunging 500 or so marijuana records”, without recognizing that this wasn’t a reform that Frugoli undertook out of repentance for the long history of her office’s racially selective prosecutions; rather it is a matter of compliance with AB 1793, which Jerry Brown signed into law two years ago and which took effect in 2019.

Neither Shinneman nor Bennett seem to have any interest in pursuing the question of the long history of racial profiling in Marin County. Frugoli made a great fuss of her efforts to compile demographic information about current arrests, while remaining utterly unspecific about whether and how that information will be shared with the public. (In fact, the new RIPA law means that a jurisdiction like Marin will not have to release the information until April 2023.)

But Frugoli’s sudden realization that racial demographics should be accounted for will not be applied retroactively. By not investigating the actual numbers behind the three decades that Frugoli was working in the DA’s office with the County Sheriff to target Black and LatinX communities, there will be no possibility of redress or restitution to the parties, whose constitutional rights were violated and whose lives were ruined or even ended through Marin County’s Jim Crow criminal justice system.

Mr. Shinneman had raised hackles on the Monday Zoom meeting by scolding the tone and language used by young callers from the Canal, Marin City, and other parts of Marin. If, like Shinneman and Bennett, you live in houses high in the hills overlooking the Bay, it could be easy to miss the desperation and suppressed rage that the working poor, mostly people of color, have been feeling for several decades, and why this moment calls out so urgently to us.

When I used a small portion of my public comment time to very gently chide Mr. Shinneman by pointing out that the young people wouldn’t sound quite so angry if the Marin ACLU had been more responsive to requests made by Black and LatinX residents of Marin, I soon found myself on the receiving end of a curious volley of emails from a Marin ACLU donor, whom I had never met, but who claimed to have received my email from an unnamed MVCAN member.

This donor, having apparently never read MLK Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, stated that it was unacceptable for an activist to criticize another activist. “You sound like a little tattle tale,” the septuagenarian concluded without a note of irony in her third email to me. Of course, she herself was member of a generation that was celebrated for its public spats over everything from the best strategy for ending the war in Vietnam to passing the E.R.A.

She was perhaps ten years younger than Mario Savio, whose still-stirring speech on the steps of Sproul Plaza, rightfully condemned the strategy of “well-meaning liberals.”

Mr. Shinneman, whose ACLU chapter declined to offer assistance in re-desegregating the public pool, or assisting the residents of Golden Gate Village, or becoming in any way involved in the matter of Sausalito Marin City School District (SMCSD) prior to the California Attorney General’s 2019 deus ex machina order to desegregate, has not responded on this matter.

Lisa Bennett, who by many accounts has been wonderfully supportive in the SMCSD matter, was kind enough to detail, in an email, her praise of Frugoli, but she did not respond to my request that her next private meeting with our Marin County DA should be open to more working class persons such as myself.

It is worth noting that Lisa Bennett has been active with “Indivisible,” a group admirably formed in resistance to Donald Trump’s administration. But Indivisible’s advocacy pales in comparison to the political momentum and surprising electoral victories of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the group favored by younger progressives.

When I wrote to Mr. Varela to inquire about his praise of Ms. Frugoli, he stated that she had not been the Director of the office until three years ago. In essence, his explanation was that Frugoli was, as they say, just following orders for 29 years in an already corrupt office. While that may be so, it does not excuse Frugoli’s decades-long refusal to function as a whisteblower and compile the demographic information herself from within the DA’s office.

It appears that in not pursuing release of past demographic data, the desire not only from the District Attorney but from the Public Defender’s office has been to simply dismiss Marin County’s decades of racial targeting. Upon further query from me on release of demographic data, Mr. Varela stated: “I will seek out what I can find.” As you might imagine, I am not holding my breath on delivery.

To be clear: Frugoli didn’t “merely” participate for three decades in a DA office that unfairly targeted Black and LatinX communities for minor offenses. Her office steadfastly refused to prosecute white “white-collar” criminals (and wealthy, white drug offenders) who operated right out in the open. These matters have largely been left to federal agencies, such as the FBI, to prosecute, years and sometimes decades after they were common knowledge in Marin.

So here Marin finds itself: the County recently rated dead last for racial equity, with the suspects in full view the entire time. Now, at last is the time for D.A. Frugoli to hand over the demographic information about her office’s decades of racial profiling. And then, as one of the young, newly registered female voters on the Zoom call said of Marin’s elected officials (with refreshingly little regard for whether Mr. Shinneman or Ms. Bennett would approve), “Time to start cleaning your offices and say goodbye - we’re voting you out.”

[1] Were the McGlashan-built tests specifically unfair to Black GI’s, as many Vietnam veterans have related to me? These questions can be difficult to answer because institutions often don’t provide relevant stats. Among the many I contacted in pursuit of an answer were Dr. Jerome Jaffe, Dr. Arnold Leff, (who worked for Dr. Jaffe during that time); Professor Alfred McCoy, author of the groundbreaking 1972 study, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia; Dan Baum, who wrote Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure; as well as attorney Howard de Nike, who helped represent the Presidio 27 in their 1969 court-martial. Dr. Jaffe and Dan Baum have not yet responded; Dr. Leff promised to look into the matter; Dr. McCoy reasonably wrote that the question was too technical for his “area of expertise, which is trafficking”; Mr. De Nike wrote that “there were too many variables” but that “drug testing could have reflected a race-based bias.”

I also reached out to Professor Jeremey Kuzmarov (The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and The Modern War on Drugs) whose fascinating responses will be included in an upcoming article I hope to write on the McGlashan family legacy.

[2] Public Defender Varela replied to me in a June 27, 2020 email: “I don’t (know) much about this history but I do know that many vets in war zones become addicted to drugs… speak to those sober and in recovery it was the testing that caused them to know how to ensure sobriety.” I feel reasonably certain that even Mr. Varela, were he to consider US-Vietnam War drug testing program overall, would concede that the McGlashan-built testing system had less to do with protecting soldiers’ welfare than with providing the Nixon administration with a political narrative for why the world’s greatest superpower was losing a decade-plus war to barely equipped Vietnamese peasants.

[3] Unsurprisingly, the Marin ACLU leadership, as I learned when I presented the issue of a racially re-segregated Marin public swimming pool to the group in 2018, is made up entirely of white, male, baby boomer property owners. At least two of the board members either worked for the County or had nonprofits that were funded by the County, and they seemed far more interested in what the presentation might reveal about their employers’ liability than in what could be done to restore racially integrated pool access. If you would like to know how it feels to be the lone woman in a navy suit presenting before 13 or so older white men in so many relaxed khakis and greying ponytails, I can assure you, it feels odd. Not just because of the gender imbalance but because of the enormous wealth imbalance between just two generations.