2015 Third Place Writing Winner

Hannah Fleace

Third Place
Indiana University
$3,000 Scholarship Award and Hearst Medallion

Winning Stories

News | Personality/Profile Article | Spot News

News Story

As the country approaches the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death and the subsequent riots in Ferguson, Missouri, the conversation about race and police brutality is far from over.

The most recent national protests in Baltimore highlighted a new dynamic in the debate about police misconduct: three of the police officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray are black, as is the police chief, prosecutor and mayor of Baltimore.

Willie Brown, the two-term San Francisco mayor responsible for integrating the police and fire departments shortly after his first election, has some ideas about how the police violence can be addressed.

“The first thing city mayors need to do is make sure they appoint quality leadership in the police department,” Brown said in a press conference Tuesday. “Based on who the leadership is of those departments, the follow-ship will reflect the rules and regulations from the leadership.”

Brown’s statements follow a few tumultuous months for the San Francisco police force. In March, the department was at odds with a neighborhood in San Francisco’s Mission district for the shooting death of Guatemalan immigrant Amilcar Perez-Lopez. A month later, 14 officers were investigated for reportedly exchanging racist and homophobic text messages with a former officer fired on corruption charges.

Those events join the list of contentious use-of-force occurrences and misconduct allegations charged to police officers across the country. San Francisco hasn’t seen wide-scale protests like those in Ferguson, New York and Baltimore, but one prominent community member said it doesn’t matter.

“This is a moral issue,” said Reverend Amos Brown, president of the NAACP’s San Francisco chapter and minister at Third Baptist Church at a news conference. “Everybody is guilty, whether Republican or Democrat, whether judge, probation officer or police officer.”

In a May 2 blog, Mayor Brown called for a new conversation.

“This is not about white cop versus black citizen. This is about cop versus citizen, which is really what the issue ought to be when it comes to police misconduct.”

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Personality/Profile Article

To tour the newest building that bears his name, Willie Lewis Brown Jr. traded his usual Borsalino fedora for a white hard hat. Amid pink insulation and levels of scaffolding, he stood next to a statue of himself and laughed. At 81, his legacy is still under construction.

This super complex that includes a school, health and community center is one of three landmarks that are named for the San Francisco legend.

Thousands drive over the Willie L. Brown Jr. Bridge, students and aspiring leaders discuss politics at the Willie L. Brown, Jr. Institute and soon tweens will pour into the newest addition, Willie L. Brown Jr. Middle School.

When he’s gone, the statue and the buildings will represent conflicting histories to a city of more than 800,000 people. Brown is both a pinup of pricey fedoras and a public servant who tried to shake the hands of every voter. He is a success story and a political titan wielding serious power. He is a father to four children and a notorious womanizer.

That is to say, he was.

As Brown gets older and the city finds new champions, his role transitions from powerbroker to pundit, leader to legacy.

Eighty decades ago the Great Depression swept the United States and segregation split Mineola, Texas, where Brown was born in 1934. His family wasn’t dirt poor because of the grandmother’s bootlegging and his uncle’s gambling, but his childhood was marked by a lack of opportunity.

“I did not know they were rough and tough. They were the same for everyone around me,” Brown said. “We knew we were segregated, there was no question we were treated differently because of color.”

Brown was raised mostly by his grandmother. His parents worked to send money back to Mineola, so she oversaw his upbringing.

“She was really a tough cookie,” he said. “She was quite a woman and made it clear that we had to learn everything there was to learn anywhere and under any circumstances, and you couldn’t come home with anything less than a perfect grade.”

Despite the encouragement and expectations of his grandmother, Brown knew he had leave Mineola. There wasn’t room to grow.

“I’ve always been careful to steer clear of the rags-to-riches stereotype because it is much more complicated than that,” said James Richardson, author of ‘Willie Brown: A Biography.’ “They weren’t poor people, and he grew up with some uncles who knew how to work the system. They had a huge impact on who he is and how he does things.”

One uncle made success more than 1,000 miles west, in San Francisco.

Brown graduated high school and headed for the city to study at Stanford University. When he didn’t get in, he attended San Francisco State University to become a math teacher. It was in that hotbed of social and political unrest that Brown tasted his future.

“I got exposed almost on the first day of entry in that school to people connected in the world of politics,” Brown said.

He joined the NAACP Youth Council and became active in church as he promised his mother he would.

“In those early years, having transitioned from Mineola where you had no clue how bad off you were by comparison,” Brown said. “We were now right in the mix, in the middle of this collection of people . . . all with the passion for wanting to do something about change.”

In spring 1964, that change unfolded in the throes of the Civil Rights movement. Hundreds of African American protestors were thrown in jail for sit-ins and picketing at the Sheraton-Palace Hotel. Their attorney was University of California, Hastings College of the Law graduate Willie Brown. Newly seasoned from his work defending prostitutes and pimps, Brown was already striving to gain political power.

He lost his first Democratic bid for the Sate Assembly in 1962 by 1,009 votes, a number he’ll never forget.

“I don’t go for near-misses,” he said. “I expected to win the race, and I didn’t. The next day after I lost, I started ringing doorbells again.”

It was the only time he ever lost an election.

Two years later, Brown secured a place as one of four African American assemblymen.

In 1980 Brown was elected speaker, a reign that lasted 14 years and held unprecedented legislative power.

“I was perfectly satisfied with being speaker of the California State Assembly,” Brown said. “I ran for the state legislature, and I ran to make that a career. I would still be a legislature today, I would probably still be speaker today, had term limits in 1990 not imposed themselves upon us.”

In 1995, anticipating his retirement from the assembly, Brown decided to run for mayor.

Another win. Another reign. Brown dominated the city in his two terms as mayor. Ambitious development projects and beautification efforts filled his agenda like suits in his wardrobe.

But Brown’s wheeling and dealing political style earned him criticism from constituents and politicians alike. He created a political machine reminiscent of an age in American history when corrupt bosses pocketed votes and practiced patronage politics.

Soon the FBI was snooping, at least three separate times. But they never found a thing.

“They could look forever and it would not matter,” Brown said. “And they did look forever and it did not matter.”

His second term ended in 2004. In the years following he hosted a morning radio show, wrote a column for the San Francisco Chronicle and began practicing law again.

While his reign was recorded as one of San Francisco’s most controversial, Brown has his own idea of his legacy.

“I’m really proud of the folk that I got a chance to appoint, that I got a chance to mentor, that I got a chance to direct, that I got a chance to provide leadership for,” Brown said. “And I would hope that as time unfolds their careers will be reflective of that involvement in my commitment.”

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The little cards dot restaurant tables across San Francisco and other communities in California. “Our community is in a drought. Water provided only upon request. Agua servida solo si es solicitada. Thank you for helping us conserve.”

The cards hardly relay the seriousness of California’s sweeping drought. So serious, in fact, that one more year of parched weather could reshape the geography and sustainability of America’s most populous state.

Mark Strudley, a service hydrologist for the National Weather Service, said this drought is the worst California has seen in nearly 40 years.

“On a scale of one to 10, if one is bad, it’s definitely in those digits below five,” Strudley said. “Not a pretty picture.”

The most comparable drought in California history is the drought of 1976 and 77; although, some scientists can detect droughts so brutal they’re chiseled in the rock record.

“But this is the worst that people have seen out here in a long time,” Strudley said.

The West Coast is rounding on four years of extremely dry weather, prompting California Governor Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency in January and hand down mandatory water reductions across the state.

The water consumption cutbacks that began on Monday require 8 to 24 percent reductions depending on the water district. That’s a lot of scorched lawns and bricks in the toilet.

The problem is obvious, but the solutions are tricky, and the consequences could be devastating.

There are two main methods for water storage and retrieval: surface and ground reservoirs.

Surface reservoirs are colossal vats of water that are fed by snowmelt runoff and rainfall. Eighty-five percent of San Francisco’s water supply is from the Hetch Hetchy watershed in Yosemite National Park.

San Francisco has three major surface reservoirs nestled like lakes in the middle of the peninsula: the San Andreas Lake, Lower Crystal Springs and Upper Crystal Springs.

Ground reservoirs source their water from inside the earth.

“They are large volumes of water, covering large areas, fed by long time contributions from things that get into the ground,” Strudley said. “There is a limit but no one is sure exactly what that is.”

Ground sources generally take longer to deplete, but none of the water systems in California are in good shape. The expiration date on most of the state’s reservoirs is one year.

So what happens when the creeks literally run dry?

In one year the interior basin of California could look like a mosaic of cracked desert tiles, Strudley said.

“They could theoretically run completely dry,” Strudley said.

When water from underground reservoirs depletes, the ground physically sinks into those empty crevices. The lowering land cracks cement and damages underground pipelines.

“Now that water meant to go somewhere else is leaking,” Strudley said.

Warren Blier, scientist and operations officer for the greater San Francisco and Monterey regions said the ground in some areas is 20 feet lower than it was 100 years ago.

“You go down deeper and hit another layer and still deeper,” he said. “Well eventually you’re going to run into something impenetrable. It can’t go on forever.”

Coastal areas have a completely different set of problems. As their reservoirs begin to dry, the ocean replenishes the water. In theory, a good thing. But few communities can afford desalination plants to purify the water before it makes its way to preschool bathrooms and public pools.

It seems odd that a state bordering the world’s largest ocean could have any water problems.

“We have to watch where we pull water from,” said Carpinteria Battalion Fire Chief Robert Kovach. “We can’t just use ocean water and put salt water on the ground everywhere. It would be ideal but it isn’t environmentally friendly.”

Carpinteria is a small city pressed between the Pacific Ocean and more than 800,000 acres of drying wood in the Los Padres National Forest. It is one of several towns that could be in real danger if the drought continues.

Kovach said the station has been watching the live moisture fuel levels – a term used to describe how much water is left in the plants, the less water the faster it will burn.

Very quickly the fabled lush forests of California can become a 33 million acre matchbox.

“[When the fuel levels] fall to 60 percent we have extreme fire potential,” Kovach said. “This year alone we are already way ahead of schedule. We’re dipping down to that critical level in the next 30 days.”

He said normally those levels aren’t reached until late in the year.

“We haven’t even hit the hot time of the year,” he said.

Conservation efforts are being implemented across the state and many people are looking for a way to combat Mother Nature’s harsh conditions.

“There are things people can do,” Strudley said. “Low flow toilets and shower heads, not letting water run while you wash your hands, not watering your garden. Conservation efforts help, but they only delay the inevitable.”

Many have turned to meteorologists for answers.

“Ultimately you need water,” Blier said. “But when you’re talking about drought, unless you get enough precipitation or an exotic, semi-fairytale solutions like an iceberg or pipe line there’s not much you can do.”

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