Bayview Opera House Executive Director Barbara Ockel’s attack on Black culture is to secretly promote gentrification and Shipyard developer Lennar’s political agenda
by Kevin Williams
On Oct. 2, 2017, a group of Hunters Point residents, including seniors, youth and disabled persons, appeared at a hearing of the full San Francisco Arts Commission to protest excessive rents charged by Executive Director Barbara Ockel of up to $4,000 for one day’s use of the Ruth Williams Memorial Theater Bayview Opera House (BVOH). Ockel is purposely making the building inaccessible to the poor, fitting in with Mayor Edwin Lee’s long-range commercial development plan to depopulate Blacks altogether from San Francisco.
Ockel refuses to give a full accounting of $5.6 million purportedly spent to renovate the building. Only $2.5 million has been accounted for with respect to the hiring of the construction contractions. However, both the Arts Commission and Ockel refuse to produce records showing how the remaining balance of $3.1 million dollars was allocated.
Mayor Lee has made it clear that he no longer considers Bayview Hunters Point (BVHP) as a Black community. Ockel by profession is an economic developer with no performing arts background. In other words, neither does Ockel act, write plays, sing, dance or play an instrument, but she cleverly uses the amazing ideas and talents of young Black professionals, teens and children from the community and elsewhere to obtain grants. After paying them a small fee, Ockel spends the money as she pleases, with little or no oversight by the Arts Commission staff.
Last week she fired young Black Bayview Opera House staffer Martin Ward, who complained that her actions towards overcharging the community appeared bigoted. She fired him on the spot. In an email, this is what Martin said about his experience under Ockel:
“With so much to say and a mass of information that I would like to share to the community about the dealing with the Opera House under Barbara Ockel, I will first begin with ‘She needs to be replaced ASAP!’ I’m not aware of the board or their motives. But I am completely aware of Barbara’s mistreatment toward staff as well as the community of Bayview.
“I believe she treats the place like it’s her personal slave quarters for her to order and be demanding of ridiculous tasks that are counterproductive, demeaning and just purely illogical, spending money that should be used for programs to build the youth but rather used to facilitate groups like the Church of Scientology.
“The whole staff had witnessed her speaking ill toward the people in the community, creating inflated rental invoices to push them from the rental to reserve the space for a higher paying corporate client: ‘pricing the community out.’
“The whole staff had witnessed her speaking ill toward the people in the community, creating inflated rental invoices to push them from the rental to reserve the space for a higher paying corporate client: ‘pricing the community out.’”
“I had to speak. So after confronting her on these issues, she resorted to firing me on the spot and sent me off with two checks that were not reflecting my hours or pay. And no one should tolerate such behavior.
“All and all it’s corruption and racism at its finest.
“When I first heard her speak about getting rid of the ‘pests’ in Mendell Plaza [adjacent to the Opera House], I was disgusted!
“Who are the pests? The Black people in the community holding communion. They could be drinking, smoking, eating, laughing, dancing, dealing or simply in conversation with their brother or sister.
“But who is she to judge a human in their stage of life and times? We are all someone’s child, someone’s loved one.
“And we all deserve assistance to heal from addiction and sickness and the opportunity to love.
“She thinks she can lock the doors and build the prison gates to keep the community from activating the Opera House for the real reason Mrs. Ruth Williams saved and preserved the space.
“But I’m prepared to expose the unjust treatment toward this community and support in any way I can to combat systemic racism that has plagued minority based neighborhoods for years!
“When I first heard her speak about getting rid of the ‘pests’ in Mendell Plaza [adjacent to the Opera House], I was disgusted! Who are the pests? The Black people in the community holding communion. They could be drinking, smoking, eating, laughing, dancing, dealing or simply in conversation with their brother or sister.”
“With the community’s help, her dehumanizing attitude and treatment will be reprimanded.
Just before the temporary closure of the Opera House for renovation, she fired Rebecca Gallegos, a Latina, as BVOH assistant director because Black and Brown artists, including the Williams family, greatly appreciated her leadership.
Ockel fired her and replaced Ms. Gallegos with a Caucasian woman following completion of renovation and reopening. Ockel also recently charged George Williams Jr., the son of Ruth Williams $200 to hold a date for an appreciation ceremony for his late mother, the very woman and BVHP icon that the name of the Ruth Williams Memorial Theater Bayview Opera House is supposed to honor.
Prior to charging George, Ockel sent him an email demanding that he prove to her satisfaction why the building was named after his mother – something she should already know about the historic landmark she controls along with Black cultural programs she directs. In relevant part, her email stated:
“Subject: The history of Ruth Williams
“Following up on your phone call today, below is a brief description of the questions I have, and the answers would enable me to write up a history of your mother. I am interested in ALL her activities and accomplishments, related to the Opera House or otherwise, not just about “saving” the building. If someone has a timeline of when she operated in the building and what she did at various times, that would all be of great interest. An anthology of the plays she produced would also be good.
“Regarding saving the Bayview Opera House, it would be great if someone had the information to answer these questions:
“1. Was there an actual plan or proposal on the table to demolish the Bayview Opera House, and who was advocating for this plan? Was Ruth Williams the main advocate opposing the plan and if so how? Did she have significant allies? Is there any sort of documentation in existence about the discussion around demolishing the Opera House?
“2. Was the landmarking of the Bayview Opera House a deliberate effort to save it from destruction? Who proposed to landmark the building and successfully got it registered as landmark #8? Was Ruth Williams involved with this effort in any way and is there any information about specific meetings, letters sent, phone calls made about this subject?
“3. In the paper written that placed the Opera House on the National Register of Historic Places in 2011, there is a section that describes what the researcher was able to find from historic records. Please read Section 8, pages 16-18. It describes the shooting incident in 1966, the landmark designation in 1968, the City’s purchase and subsequent restoration in 1971. There is a mention of concern that it might get torn down, and [the writer] seems to think that the landmarking was deliberate to save it from that possibility.
[This link from the National Registry of Historic Landmarks, http://bvoh.org/aboutUs/history/pdf/SouthSanFranciscoOperaHouse_NRNomination.pdf, specifically showing that Ruth Williams saved the BVOH from demolition, was removed from the BVOH website at the direction of Ockel. On this page of the website, http://bvoh.org/culturehub/history-2/, the photograph of Ruth Williams appears but nothing about her saving the building from demolition.]
“If anyone in your circle has additional information about the role of Ruth Williams in all this, I would really appreciate hearing about that. If anyone has additional information about her work at the Opera House or as an activist in general with a timeline, that would be really useful as well.
“Hope to hear back soon – would like to put this story together now.
“Barbara Ockel, Executive Director”
Ockel’s rent for use of a priceless historic structure is the same as 500 acres of Hunters Point Naval Shipyard land sold by the City to Lennar
The Arts Commission charges Ockel only $1 per year for rental of the Opera House. Yet, at her sole discretion, she may charge whatever suits her. She receives a City six-figure salary per year from an Arts Commission annual grant of over $500,000 that continued to be paid over the four consecutive years the Opera House was closed for renovation, from 2012 to 2016. The grant is now over $700,000 a year. Even while living in subsidized housing in Hunters Point, Ockel is buying real estate all over BVHP for profit.
Ockel previously served on the Opera House board of directors. As a former member of the artists’ colony at the Hunters Point Shipyard with strong present day political ties to Lennar, she saw an opportunity to orchestrate removal of Shelly Bradford Bell, the Black woman former executive director, to then assume control the Opera House in furtherance of Mayor Lee’s objectives of promoting “development” and using the structure most known and respected as the Black cultural hub of the Southeast sector of San Francisco to subvert its theatrical use.
Rather, the facility has become a conduit for political fundraisers, economic criminality and a main artery to promote systematic Black depopulation of BVHP under an illusory promissory notion of inclusion.
Articles of incorporated corruption
The Articles of Incorporation for Bayview Opera House, Inc., filed with the Office of the Secretary of State on Dec. 3, 1990, at Article II state: “[T]his Corporation is a nonprofit public benefit corporation and is not organized for the private gain of any person.” In addition, Article IV clearly provides that no substantial part of the activities of this corporation shall consist of carrying on propaganda or otherwise attempting to influence legislation … participate or intervene in any political campaign.” This is exactly what Ockel has placated by her numerous acts of moral turpitude, dishonesty and pecuniary gain supported by the willing ignorance of the Arts Commission.
Moreover Article V further provides: “No part of the net earnings of this corporation shall inure to the benefit of any directors, officers, trustee’s private shareholders, or members, or to individuals.” To that extent, Ockel has been illegally hired because she at all relevant times served as an active member of the board prior to her appointment to the position of executive director.
Former Arts Commission, Redevelopment and other City staff have infiltrated such cultural and community-based organizations as the BVOH, either as business concerns or individuals, solely for pecuniary gain. Such City employees are rewarded with contracts for infiltrating and destabilizing politically neutral nonprofit organizations that once served the best interests of the poor for the advancement of Mayor Ed Lee’s commercial development and political agenda.
BVOH 990 tax returns reveal intent to take from the poor, not to give back
Bayview Opera House 990 tax returns, the tax form for nonprofit organizations, filed from 2012 to 2016, show that Ockel is involved in prohibited “economic development” activities as a public benefit corporation. These same returns show that her travel expenses exceeded $1,700 where no documents requested under Sunshine Ordinance 67.1 show any proof that the travel expenses are job related.
Breach of the grant agreement and breach of fiduciary duty
The Bayview Opera House’s current July 1, 2016, lease with the Arts Commission at Section 5.1, page 13, provides: “Except as specifically permitted by this Lease, Tenant shall use and continuously occupy the Premises during the Term primarily for use as a cultural community arts center to promote artistic and cultural activities of the type described in the Grant Agreement, and for such other uses, if any, as may be specified in the Basic Lease Information, and for no other purpose.”
The economic development activities reported to the federal government are inconsistent with the character and purpose of the organization’s Articles of Incorporation and, more specifically, the lease. Accordingly, the improper use of the facility is sufficient grounds for termination of the lease.
We propose to work with the board to expand its direct financial governance and programmatic controls of the organization, in sync with the desire of the BVHP community for transparency towards greater accessibility to the facility by residents and nonprofit organizations, such as churches, schools and children’s centers within BVHP, who cannot afford the event fees Ockel charges.
Termination of the lease is required
BVHP residents and taxpaying citizens are correct to call for the immediate termination of the lease agreement under the City’s termination right pursuant to Section 3.1(b). Conditions of Lease and Termination Option, and Section 3.1(c), City’s Early Termination. The lease at Section 5.2 goes on further to state, “[W]ithout limiting the foregoing, Tenant shall not use, occupy or permit the use or occupancy of any of the Premises in any unlawful manner.”
Economic development is an unlawful use of the Ruth Williams Memorial Theater premises. Section 501 (c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1954 strictly prohibits a nonprofit public benefit corporation that has declared its activities are limited to cultivation of the arts and education from pursuing economic development.
Such change in status, including but not limited to the “character or purpose” of the organization must be reported to the IRS under Section 23701d of the Revenue and Tax Code. Also, unrelated business income associated with economic development activities must be reported to the State Franchise Board pursuant to Section 23731 of the code.
Are Blacks not qualified to manage Black cultural programs?
Barbara Ockel is a so called Naval Shipyard artist put in charge of the Ruth Williams Memorial Theater Bayview Opera House to direct Black cultural programs and the arts, oversee the removal of Black people from Mendell Plaza and further Mayor Edwin Lee’s short term economic development goals of removing urban blight, which in practice is defined as poor Black residents of Bayview Hunters Point.
Mayor Edwin Lee’s short term economic development goal is to remove urban blight, which in practice is defined as poor Black residents of Bayview Hunters Point.
Mayor Lee has proclaimed that BVHP is no longer Black. According to his urban renewal initiatives for the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard and elsewhere, fewer Blacks are better for diversity and, thus, his development progress goals.
‘San Quentin prison fence’ Keith ‘Kilo’ Perry fought against to his last breath
Barbara Ockel has erected a heavy steel fence to keep Blacks who gather in Mendell Plaza away from the theater Ruth Williams is honored for having given her life for the COMMUNITY, not the CITY to exploit for political and economic gain. The community now demands the prison fencing keeping Black people separated from that trust be removed to allow open access and free entry, as before the 2012-2016 renovation, between Mendell Plaza, Joseph Lee Gym and the Ruth Williams Memorial Theater Bayview Opera House. The Arts Commission would not listen to me, Ruth Williams’ eldest son, when I attempted to inform them that other community leaders reported the same observations in the Aug. 1, 2016, edition of the Bay View newspaper, the story headlined “Rebuilt Bayview Opera House opens to community concerns.”
The late Keith “Kilo” Perry, known and respected as a BVHP soldier for community justice, collected hundreds of petition signatures to fire Ockel. In appreciation for his service to the community, we will demand that the city rename the area used merely as a parking lot by the BVOH between Joseph Lee Gymnasium and the Opera House KEITH PERRY PLAZA in honor of his profound COMMUNITY leadership and for giving his life to protect and defend the youth, seniors and children of BVHP that he insisted Ockel has exploited with impunity.
We also call for the renaming of Mendell Plaza, adjacent to the Opera House, to KENNETH WADE HARDING JR. PLAZA in memory of his shooting death in broad daylight by police in July 2011 for being unable to pay bus fare. Kenny’s police murder is reminiscent of that of Matthew “Peanut” Johnson in September 1966, which fueled massive uprisings at that same location. Protest in 2011 and since has been severely and literally beaten down by the City.
The late Ruth Williams, the mother of six sons, organized thousands of BVHP residents against such murders executed under color of authority to the end of her life.
What we demand now!
Barbara Ockel has attempted to have Ruth Williams’ name removed from the history of the building. We invite the BVHP community and all other interested persons to appear and end the disenfranchisement of Bayview Hunters Point to the next meeting of the full San Francisco Arts Commission on Monday, Nov. 6, 2017, 2 p.m. at City Hall, 1 Dr. Carleton B. Goodlett Way, Room 416, San Francisco, to demand that:
- The BVOH lease is terminated for noncompliance and replaced by responsible citizens most indigenous to the BVHP community at large.
- The executive director is removed for promoting and benefiting from improper pecuniary gain in violation of the BVOH’s own Articles of Incorporation and the operative provisions of the federal tax code.
- Ockel must be removed for breach of fiduciary duty for clear and present violations of its own Articles of Incorporation by ignoring unreported, illegal and unethical economic development activities when the BVOH articles limit this public benefit corporations indisputably to cultivation of arts and culture. Instead, for improper and fortuitous purposes, it acts as a mere conduit for political propaganda connected to the commercial development of the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard by City sponsored developer Lennar.
- Ruth Williams’ name and image must be properly posted high and made visible to the public on the building, rather than at merely eye level where it is inconspicuously displayed on the side of the Opera House Third Street fence.
Barbara Ockel’s patently racist attitude toward many BVHP citizens appears akin to the German Stalag 13 prisoner-of-war Nazi camp. Ockel has remarked that the renovated Opera House, replete with fences, bars and cameras to watch the movements of Blacks in Mendell Plaza and prevent their entry, would never be rented to those BVHP residents because she considers them to be “animals and goons.”
“She (Ockel) thinks she can lock the doors and build the prison gates to keep the community from activating the Opera House for the real reason Mrs. Ruth Williams saved and preserved the space,” wrote Martin Ward, a young staff member she fired when he questioned her overcharging the community for use of the Opera House.
The Arts Commission, with approval of Mayor Lee, has through Ockel been able thus far to do anything it pleases in furtherance of exploitation of BVHP residents by seizing our culture.
As the eldest of six sons of Ruth Williams, I have for years continued to receive an overwhelming number of complaints about Black culture not being directed by Black people in authority. Recent televised news reports show that the Bayview Opera House was burglarized for the first time in its 125-year-old history.
Unfortunately, this tragic event strongly implies that the cultural hub of Southeast San Francisco is no longer perceived as sacred but has become culturally desecrated. Moreover, the community also complains that it cannot verifiably see where $5.6 million for the so-called historic renovation went.
There appears to be very little spent inward on the building itself, but far more spent on fencing off Mendell Plaza from the Ruth Williams Memorial Theater Bayview Opera House. In the eyes of the residents, the bars closely resemble a maximum-security prison fence.
Needless to say, my entire family enthusiastically applauds, supports and genuinely appreciates the BVHP community’s powerful expressions of appreciation for our mother’s hard fought struggles to insure that the neediest of the needy of Bayview Hunters Point have access to that building at a very nominal charge. ALL of my family has pledged, along with dozens of other families rooted deepest in BVHP, to simultaneously rise up in protest against Black culture being hijacked by local government controls.
My entire family enthusiastically applauds, supports and genuinely appreciates the BVHP community’s powerful expressions of appreciation for our mother’s hard fought struggles to insure that the neediest of the needy of Bayview Hunters Point have access to that building at a very nominal charge. ALL of my family has pledged, along with dozens of other families rooted deepest in BVHP, to simultaneously rise up in protest against Black culture being hijacked by local government controls.
We are sincerely encouraged that certain members of the board have recently begun the reaching out to the community with new and inspiring ideas towards corrective action. Notwithstanding, if the Arts Commission remains adversarial by refusing to cooperate with recommendations for change, every event held in the future thereafter will be picketed and/or boycotted, until this unauthorized political and/or governmental intrusion into Black culture effectively comes to a complete end.
For a very long time, I have withstood severe community criticism for my hesitancy to support, engage in or promote any such community opposition because in my judgment to do so could potentially provoke unintended consequences inimical to preserving public safety of persons and property. Rather, I have in the recent past attempted to resolve matters amicably.
Now, the consequences of such confrontation with the Bayview Hunters Point community will fall solely on the shoulders of local authorities. NO MATTER HOW LONG IT TAKES, OCKEL MUST GO!
Kevin B. Williams has over 30 years of experience investigating discrimination based on race, color, sex, sexual orientation, age, disability and gender, having retired from the City and County of San Francisco Human Rights Commission as a senior discrimination investigator in 2004. He now offers expert witness consultation and related litigation support services in private practice. He can be reached at KBWprofessionalservices@comcast.net.