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Ruth Williams Memorial Theater, a historic monument, desecrated on Mother’s Day

May 24, 2018

An act of hate or an act of fate?

by Kevin Williams

The causal connection between District Attorney George Gascon’s referral of ‘willful misconduct’ to the Ethics Commission and the desecration of Ruth Williams Memorial Theater Historic Monument

This sign made of art tiles, some decorated by children, a sign familiar to everyone who travels Third Street, was vandalized on Mother’s Day, May 13, and subsequently completely removed. Now a page on the Opera House website calls for the community to donate $10,000 to replace it – but doesn’t the Opera House’s insurance cover vandalism?

On May 9, 2018, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon’s White Collar Crime Division issued a letter to the San Francisco Ethics Commission referring allegations of “willful misconduct” violations of the Sunshine Ordinance under San Francisco Administrative Code section 67.34 by management of the San Francisco Arts Commission. Specifically, on March 27, 2018, the Sunshine Taskforce issued a written opinion ruling 9-0 that the Arts Commission violated two separate provisions of law by failing to timely produce public records.

Twenty-four hours after receipt and distribution of the District Attorney’s letter, the decade’s old signage marking the “Bayview Opera House Ruth Williams Memorial Theater” was vandalized and quickly removed. Following Ruth Williams’ death in 1995, she was credited by the city, the California Assembly and Senate and the U.S. Congress for having saved the historic landmark from demolition. She produced 37 plays and musicals at the Opera House spanning 40 years.

Two thousand community members successfully petitioned the Arts Commission to change the building’s name to Ruth Williams Memorial Opera House. Danny Glover wrote in support: “Generations of youths and adults who had the good fortune to learn theater arts under her direction today and in the future harvest their present and prospective success from the fruits of Mrs. Williams’ labor.” Danny knew. He had been one of those youth who proudly called Ruth Williams his teacher.

Twenty-four hours after receipt and distribution of the District Attorney’s letter, the decade’s old signage marking the “Bayview Opera House Ruth Williams Memorial Theater” was vandalized and quickly removed.

On Mother’s Day 2018, community residents were stunned and horrified to see that the big sign made of art tiles identifying the building, the only historic monument in District 10, as the Bayview Opera House Ruth Williams Memorial Theater had been desecrated. Immediately they sent photographs to the Williams family.

The initial explanation was that the big sign, facing Third Street, had been struck by a vehicle and accidentally damaged. However, that depiction was immediately refuted by reliable sources who say that Opera House Director Barbara Ockel directly ordered the sign bearing community icon Ruth Williams’ name removed from the brick wall in front of the Opera House.

A community resident who witnessed the removal stated: “I knew Ms. Williams since I was a youngster and all of the good she did for the Bayview Hunters Point community. It is common knowledge that Barbara Ockel deeply dislikes and personally despises her name being recognized on the Opera House.

In this photo, taken by a Bayview Hunters Point community resident, Bayview Opera House staff, on orders from Barbara Ockel, remove the undamaged tiles from the only sign identifying the building by its full name, Bayview Opera House Ruth Williams Memorial Theater. Later they were ordered to remove the frame and all traces of the sign. Yet, only a small section had been damaged, so why didn’t Ockel bring in artists who could restore the full sign?

“Everybody on Third Street was shocked when the sign got torn down along with Ms. Williams’ name because it has been there so long. It’s all bad! That was no f…ing accident. The Opera House woman straight up ordered that s..t done.”

Neffertice Williams-Lomax, a 37-year-old mother of four and granddaughter of Ruth Williams, observed after seeing the pictures: “Whether or not the damage to the monument honoring my grandmother was intentional, it still provides an opportunity to display her name more prominently directly on the Opera House building itself, where her name should have been placed all along, and not on the brick wall annexed to it, where it could possibly be susceptible to vandalism.

“Since the sign has been there in the same location for many years, undisturbed, and is of apparent artistic and historic value, I personally telephoned Ms. Ockel to ask why it simply could not have been preserved rather than entirely removed. She never returned my call.”

My younger brother, George Williams Jr., told me that on the day of the July 20, 2016, Opera House Grand Opening, Ms. Ockel asked him if it were OK to cover the sign naming the monument after his mother with a tarp because some of the tiles on it were either cracked or broken. George visually checked them and found no damage whatsoever. He repeated what Ockel had said to him to each family member, detailing his suspicion that Ockel had lied because she did not want his mother’s name to somehow sully the public event.

Previously, George innocently tried to reach out to Ockel by giving her a coveted collection of dozens of hand drawn classic posters of past productions dating back to the early ‘60s through the ‘90s together with other artistic memorabilia of the Bayview Repertory Theater. When he asked Ockel for its return, she told George all of the art had been lost when the Opera House closed for renovation and she moved to a new office across the street.

A former staffperson informed us that Ockel ordered it tossed in the garbage can. Similarly, she claims the handmade bust of Ruth Williams was accidentally broken, which she also destroyed.

“Everybody on Third Street was shocked when the sign got torn down along with Ms. Williams’ name because it has been there so long. It’s all bad! That was no f…ing accident. The Opera House woman straight up ordered that s..t done.”

Before that event, Ockel approached the late Mother Mary Booker during a meeting at Ockel’s 4702 Third St. satellite office to solicit her support to campaign for the removal of Ruth Williams’ name from the Opera House. Mother Booker was widely regarded as a supremely talented actress, a highly regarded poet and a great playwright.

Mother Booker promptly walked out of the meeting because for 40 years she and my mother were like sisters in the arts. They frequently collaborated in producing original and contemporary plays by borrowing actors and actresses to perform from each other’s respective theater companies. Ruth Williams performed with some of her sons in Mother Bookers B&B Experimental Theater Company plays and skits, while Ms. Booker acted in Ruth William’s Bayview Repertory Theater Company productions.

This unlawful destruction of public property, coupled with an immoral desecration of a sacred monument, is in a place and time when few heroes or heroines of the ‘60s like Mother Booker are left, remembered and fully appreciated for their lasting contributions to the community. Ms. Ockel’s acts of hate stem from a depraved form of jealousy over the recorded accomplishments of educated Black women such as these two sisters of the performing arts which she is trying but will fail to claim as her own.

Ockel flaunts her violations of public disclosure and equal employment opportunity laws

Ruth Williams was a member of the “Big 5,” five women who gave Bayview Hunters Point some of the best leadership in its history. – Photo: KQED

Ockel stubbornly refuses and continues to “stonewall” lawful requests for disclosure of public records because transparency will expose Ockel’s wholesale cronyism, retail favoritism and discount nepotism. She has been granted special permission to misallocate millions of taxpayer dollars and to buy influence to keep the poor of the neighborhood out of the Opera House.

Ockel must go because she has abused the indigenous people of Bayview Hunters Point long enough. She has fired four African Americans and a Latina female and replaced each of them with white staffers who don’t reside in Bayview Hunters Point. Her excuse? Ockel insists that the nonprofit status of the Opera House exempts her from public disclosure requirements and allows her to violate equal employment opportunity laws.

Racial slurs made to Black female clergy of Hunters Point

Ockel is documented making highly offensive racially charged references to African Americans as “goons and animals.” She made this slur in direct response to the Black “first lady” of a respected Hunters Point church and pastor who merely asked Ockel to use the facility for a non-secular event. She was so taken aback by Ockel’s insult towards her people the pastor had to hold his wife back from grabbing Ockel.

The first lady returned with approximately 60 congregants to picket Ockel for that racially insensitive remark, which would never be tolerated in any other ethnic or LGBTQ community of San Francisco. The City dismissed the protest and went right back to doing nothing about Ockel’s racism towards Blacks.

Like Ruth Williams, none of the four other members of the “Big 5” ever once compromised the needs of the poor. These leaders both lived and died on the principled bedrock of self-determination, rather than selfishness and “selling out.”

Eloise Westbrook, Osceola Washington, Rosie Lee Williams, Julia Comer and Ruth Williams, collectively known as the “Big 5,” became the most powerful group of women in Bayview Hunters Point in the ‘60s because they cared less than a damn about a job, a consulting contract or a commission appointment for themselves and more about the community. These great women’s independence of action – unbossed and unbought – was the driving force behind dreams made real for new housing, better jobs and business opportunities, not just for the chosen few, but for all.

Like Ruth Williams, none of the four other members of the “Big 5” ever once compromised the needs of the poor. These leaders both lived and died on the principled bedrock of self-determination, rather than selfishness and “selling out.”

But no, Ockel is not alone in repeatedly desecrating their memory, because this City’s acquiescence to misappropriation of millions of taxpayer dollars flies in the face of the women of the Big 5, who gave their very lives in service to a community they believed deserved more than the racist leadership this City was willing to give to its people.

Ockel and BVOH Board’s nonconformance with fiscal responsibilities and duties of a nonprofit after no audit in six consecutive years

The Bayview Opera House (BVOH) is a California nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization with a board of directors whose function is ostensibly “cultivation of arts and culture” according to its Articles of Incorporation on file since 1990 with the California Secretary of State.

Its articles strictly prohibit any member of the board from receiving any pecuniary or personal gain from the net proceeds of the organization after serving as a board member. Yet, its current executive director, Barbara Ockel, participated in firing her predecessor, resigned from the board and assumed a six figure paid position with full taxpayer financed benefits. The BVOH IRS 990 tax returns also indisputably show that the BVOH is engaged in prohibited unreported “economic development” business activities.

This nonprofit has received millions of dollars in taxpayer funding primarily through the Arts Commission and has not been audited by the City Controller in six consecutive years. The most recent Controller’s audit, dated April 23, 2012, is addressed to the San Francisco Arts Commission and entitled “Bayview Opera House, Inc., Did Not Comply With Some Grant Agreement Provisions and Needs to Improve Its Internal Controls.”

Ockel hosts ‘invitation only’ Oakland Warrior championship team private event at the Opera House

Last year, Ockel hosted the Oakland Warriors basketball team at the Opera House, a public building owned by the City, for a private “invitation only” event. She did not invite a single Black child or teen from Bayview Hunters Point to meet any of these beloved world class athletes. Indeed, a profoundly empowering opportunity was missed to inspire possible “hoop dreams” in BVHP, where few, if any, positive role models exist for young, mostly at risk African American boys and girls.

For 40 years, Mary Booker and Ruth Williams were sisters and collaborators in the arts, acting in each other’s productions at the Opera House. More recently, when Barbara Ockel approached Mother Booker to solicit her support of Ockel’s campaign to remove Ruth Williams’ name from the Opera House, Mother Booker walked away in disgust. – Photo: Anne Hamersky, Bayview Opera House

Even more ironic, Joseph Lee Gymnasium, situated less than 50 feet across a parking lot from the Opera House, is where Black boys and girls frequently play basketball, but they were totally unaware that these great champions were a stone’s throw away in their own neighborhood.

The community has come to know that Ockel merely serves as “gatekeeper” for a nefarious form of political prostitution. If you serve at the pleasure of this patronage army and promote Lennar’s deadly development goals for so called affordable condos and houses situated on radioactive and toxic contaminated soil, Ockel will grant you full use of the Opera House free of charge.

Ockel or others should not be paid for any period after serving on the board

No less important is the use of nepotism, favoritism and cronyism, and, if that were not enough, the Arts Commission, complicit with the Opera House, authorized excessive compensation to yet another board member in excess of $50,000, preceding the illegal appointment of Ockel, also in direct violation of its 1990 Articles of Incorporation.

Refusal to account for $3.1 million of BVHP community money

Regardless of what the law requires, Ockel has failed to provide a full accounting of $5.6 million purportedly spent to renovate the historic building. Only $2.5 million has been accounted for with respect to construction contracts primarily used to fence off the Opera House to keep out Mendel Plaza’s perceived undesirables.

The balance of millions of dollars remains Ockel’s secret, including donations and other money actively laundered to conceal flagrant influence peddling to help her maintain control over the Opera House. Neither will Ockel produce any financial records showing how the remaining balance of $3.1 million was allocated.

Ockel has failed to provide a full accounting of $5.6 million purportedly spent to renovate the historic building. Only $2.5 million has been accounted for with respect to construction contracts primarily used to fence off the Opera House to keep out Mendel Plaza’s perceived undesirables.

Therefore, it is reasonable to deduce that the balance of this unaccounted for money has been used, in part, to reward cronies to retain her illegally procured position as executive director. The Arts Commission charges Ockel only $1.00 per year for rental of the Opera House building and pays her a six figure annual salary through Arts Commission grants that exceeded $500,000 from 2012 to 2016 and are now over $700,000. That funding continued uninterrupted during the four consecutive years in which the Opera House was closed for renovation.

Conclusion

City officials are handing taxpayer money to Ockel like a personal checking account, without enforcement of any compliance standards or fiscal controls. Regardless of repeated notices of “nonconformance,” this City has chosen to ignore them ALL year after year.

The reason Ockel is allowed immunity from any accountability is that the Bayview Opera House has become over time a conduit – a “false front” – for “invitation only” private political fundraisers and economic development aided by local government racketeering to funnel and hide campaign contributions, without consequences and in total secrecy.

When Ruth Williams’ son, George Williams Jr., gave Barbara Ockel his prized collection of dozens of posters for his mother’s productions, she “lost” them all. At the July 20, 2016, grand re-opening of the Opera House after years of renovations, Ockel asked George’s permission to cover the sign with his mother’s name with a tarp during the celebration. He did not agree, and now the sign is completely gone.

Ockel’s attack on a dead Black woman and her family’s respected name and living legacy of good should justly be appreciated rather than despised and honored instead of trivialized. However, Ockel’s actions are unfortunately endorsed by callous government conspirators who will neither say nor do anything about Ockel’s hateful defacement of government property.

It is now common knowledge Ockel openly despises the very Black woman she owes her job to. If Ruth Williams had not saved the building from all but certain demolition, there would be nothing Black for Ockel to direct, control or destroy.

Her bogus claim that she is responsible for the historic structure becoming a national landmark is also a glaring falsehood. Long before Ockel’s arrival, in 1995 the Opera House was already renamed after Ruth Williams and at 107 years of age recognized as a historic landmark. (See United States Department of the Interior National Park Service OMB No. 1024-0018 National Register of Historic Places pp. 30-31.) The official Bayview Opera House website intentionally omits the real history in order to keep this record from public view.

Moreover, Ockel’s ill-gotten and unlawful appointment as executive director has emboldened her to hire whom she pleases, hand out sham consulting contracts, utilize public funds to buy and peddle political influence, fire Latina American and African American male and female employees en masse, charge community residents excessive rental fees, while simultaneously administering Black History events, all at her whim.

In no other ethnocentric corner of this City but in the Black community would such cultural disrespect be tolerated. The white power structure of San Francisco is protecting Ockel because she is linked to a duplicitous patronage army, wholly financed by unsuspecting taxpayers of the City and County of San Francisco.

If either a Black or Brown administrator, male or female, ever ran a multimillion dollar historic structure “ringing wet” with sloppy fiscal neglect and dirty internal accounting controls, that administrator would be fired immediately. But not Ockel; she is allowed to use tax dollars to buy protection for a job she lacks the cultural competency to properly perform.

It is now common knowledge Ockel openly despises the very Black woman she owes her job to. If Ruth Williams had not saved the building from all but certain demolition, there would be nothing Black for Ockel to direct, control or destroy.

The mean-spirited desecration of “Big 5” community icon Ruth Williams’ name from the building is the white power structure’s brutal response to her eldest son and his entire family for demanding accountability just as Ruth Williams would have if she were alive today. This is being done to send a strong message signifying serious consequences will follow for anyone with the temerity to simply speaking back to power.

Concurrently, that same “white power” is fully prepared to destroy or otherwise strip away any symbolic representation of self-pride, dignity and equality that offers true hope towards uplifting Bayview Hunters Point residents.

In the 2015 documentary titled “Point of Pride,” longtime resident Tyrone Primus said it best: “You had to be a wolf and not a sheep to grow up in Hunters Point.” Therefore, the Williams family is appealing to the families of the Big 5 and all other “First Families” from Bayview Hunters Point to rise up in solidarity with our family to publicly condemn this shameless desecration of our beloved mother’s monument to this community.

We pledge to mobilize these families’ children, grandchildren, greatgrandchildren and beyond, including recruitment and close coordination with existing Black and Brown movement organizations, to shut down selected future events at the Bayview Opera House until this historic landmark is returned to the people of Bayview Hunters Point to whom it rightfully belongs.

To sign up for participation, email williams532001@yahoo.com.

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.

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4 thoughts on “Ruth Williams Memorial Theater, a historic monument, desecrated on Mother’s Day

  1. Barbara Ockel

    You should be surprised, because we did NOT do that. Part of the sign came down on its own, whether by force, or just because the plywood the tiles were mounted on had rotted completely in the 10 years since the sign was installed. Our staff took the remaining tiles off the rotten wood immediately to SAVE them from falling to the ground and breaking. We have all the tiles we took off the wall safely stored until a decision is made whether to repair the sign or make a new and improved sign.
    Almost every single statement in the article is a blatant lie, and the editor appears not to be ashamed to publish statements that are easily shown to be lies. Here's just one example – Mr. Williams claimed that the Warrior came to the Bayview Opera House and not a single Bayview child was invited. The fact is, the event was organized ONLY for children from Bayview elementary schools that we regularly work with. Here is the Warriors' video about that event: https://tinyurl.com/ybcbl8co
    We at the Bayview Opera House Ruth Williams Memorial Theatre work hard to produce quality community events for Bayview residents to enjoy and provide free arts education to hundreds of Bayview students every year. In our theatre tech internship program young people learn how to be live sound engineers, lighting pros and stage managers. Please attend one of our next events, and you can see for yourself.

    Reply

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