by Mary Ratcliff
“We’re trying to get in. Some people don’t want us in.” That’s the message Willie Ratcliff took from the bullet that crashed through our bedroom window at 1:45 a.m. on Thursday, May 13. Ratcliff is publisher of the San Francisco Bay View newspaper and owner of Liberty Builders, a general contracting firm challenging the 12-year lockout of Blacks from construction in San Francisco. The second floor flat where we live and where both his businesses are headquartered overlooks the main intersection in Bayview Hunters Point, San Francisco’s Black heartland.
The bullet, apparently a .44 caliber, made a 2-inch hole in the double pane glass, tore up the blinds and exited through the open bedroom door into the hall, where I found the bullet on the carpet. From the trajectory, it had to have been fired from the roof of the bank next door.
Ratcliff has a strong hunch it was fired by someone trying to scare him into withdrawing from the competition for the contract to build the new Bayview Library. If the rumors are right that City Hall has decided to let Liberty Builders build the library and hire from the community, the lock that large contractors have on San Francisco’s multi-billion dollar capital budget would be broken. There are, of course, many other issues the Bay View newspaper covers that could be riling someone up.
It would be easy to say that a bullet through a window in Bayview Hunters Point is simply a stray and not necessarily aimed at us, but this one didn’t come from the street or any public place but from the bank roof. However, though the bullet must have been aimed at our flat, it was apparently meant as a warning, not to hurt us.
I was still up working in the next room with the light on, sitting at my computer right in front of a window that can also be easily seen from the bank roof. If someone had wanted to shoot one of us, I would have been an easy mark. Willie was asleep just a few feet from the window the bullet passed through, but the hole in the window is 4 1/2 feet off the ground, too high for the bullet to have hit him unless he’d been sitting or standing.
We can’t help recalling the hangman’s noose on Liberty Builders’ jobsite at the San Francisco International Airport back in ’98. The noose at the airport – a major front page prime time story at the time – signaled the lockout of Blacks from the construction industry in San Francisco that has continued ever since. As we work to make a comeback a dozen years later for Liberty Builders and the Black community, here comes a death threat once again.
Why we did not call the police
Many people would have called the police; we didn’t. It occurred to us that one way not to attract attention on the roof of a bank in the dead of night is to wear a police or security guard uniform.
Only three months ago, on Feb. 18, a former San Francisco police officer turned security guard attended an EPA-sponsored meeting that packed the mosque a block from our home office. He signed in with an assumed name and was armed with a gun. On April 20, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to urge the company that hired him to issue a formal written apology to the Bayview Hunters Point community.
That company is Lennar, our neighborhood’s nemesis since 1999, when it was named “master developer” over hundreds of acres of our land, snatching economic control of local jobs and contracts from the people who live here and poisoning us with toxic dust in the process.
Lennar’s hired gunman, who had been embraced like a brother by the numerous SFPD officers who responded to a call from the mosque Feb. 18, stalked – with the help of current police officers – the mosque’s security head who had called the police. See “Lennar’s hired gun” and “Are SFPD officers stalking Nation of Islam security head?”
‘Terror at the Airport’
In 1998, Willie Ratcliff’s Liberty Builders was the only Black contractor working on the multi-billion dollar expansion of the San Francisco International Airport. Today, Liberty Builders is the only Black contractor competing for the $4.5 million contract to build the new Bayview Library that is not partnering with a much larger non-Black firm. Among the competitors for this relatively small contract is construction industry giant Turner Construction, which performs many billions of dollars of work per year worldwide.
Ratcliff is dead set against “fronting.” He described it in his editorial, “Economic apartheid,” in the Sept. 2, 1998, issue of the Bay View, the first paper following the Aug. 27 discovery of the hangman’s noose on his jobsite at SFO, this way:
“Fronts are joint ventures and other partnerships between large White firms and small Black firms formed to subvert affirmative action. … (W)hile the White partner performs the work with his workforce, the Black firm gets a small fee, usually 2 percent of the contract price. …
“The pain of fronting afflicts us all. Black workers stand outside the construction site fence looking in, the Black community gets poorer and poorer, and Black children see no future and ask, ‘Why try?’”
To avoid that pain and ensure that hundreds of Blacks could earn high construction pay at SFO, Ratcliff had worked with a coalition of contractors of color and top SFO officials for years prior to the huge airport expansion to eliminate racist barriers to participation. Their efforts gave birth to the city’s bonding and financing program, which still exists but has rarely benefited Blacks.
Despite the barriers, a number of Black contractors won subcontracts, assembled their crews but were turned back when they showed up to begin work at SFO. At a hearing by the Board of Supervisors Oct. 8, 1998, that drew hundreds from the Black community and many hours of testimony, much of it transcribed in the Oct. 14 issue of the Bay View newspaper, one of those contractors told his story:
“’It’s a fact that African American contractors hire African American people. No one wants us to be viable because they know that unemployment in our neighborhoods would go down,’said August Sanford, a drywall contractor with 26 years experience who was awarded $10.9 million at the airport. But, he said, ‘We did not perform not one job. We didn’t put in not one screw.’ He and his son were threatened with physical harm if they tried to perform their work, he explained, calling such threats the ‘invisible noose.’”
Only Ratcliff and his all-Black crew braved the risks and performed their contract. Lee Hubbard’s Sept. 2, 1998, Bay View article, headlined “Terror at the Airport,” that broke the story explains: “Although the [Colorado-based prime contractor] Hensel Phelps, the nation’s 14th largest construction firm, listed Liberty Builders as the concrete subcontractor in its successful bid, he [Ratcliff] said that Hensel Phelps intended to perform the concrete work with its own workforce and tried to run his company off.
“’Hensel Phelps wanted Liberty Builders to be a minority “front” for them,’ said Ratcliff. ‘They wanted to do all of the work with their crews, while using Liberty Builders’ name to get the work.’”
For a year and a half, Liberty Builders’ crew building Boarding Area A, a new five-story, 1,150- by 200-foot building, stood up to daily personal threats and attacks, contract violations such as the prime’s refusal to provide hoisting so that the Black crew had to pull its materials up five stories with a rope, and the prime’s refusal to pay Liberty Builders a single progress payment – covering only direct costs – effectively putting Ratcliff’s construction firm out of business. That ended the subsidy Liberty Builders had long provided to fund his other business, the San Francisco Bay View newspaper.
“The noose appeared after the Human Rights Commission had found Hensel Phelps in ‘willful noncompliance’ with the City’s anti-discrimination law and the company feared it might be barred from further City contracting and heavily fined,” Ratcliff wrote in his Sept. 30, 1998, Bay View editorial, headlined “Desegregate construction.”
All of Liberty Builders’ work but a checklist of small items had been completed by Aug. 27, 1998, the day the noose was discovered and photographed by Liberty Builders’ superintendent, Delton Sanders. “When I first saw the nose, I thought back to the South when Blacks were being hanged,” Sanders was quoted as saying in “Terror at the Airport.” “The [Hensel Phelps] labor foreman flat out told me that the noose wasn’t for me to take pictures of, it was for me to put my neck in,” Sanders said.
Despite the incessant hostility culminating in the noose, Liberty Builders’ all-Black crew worked so hard and with such skill and efficiency that Boarding Area A, which had been two months behind schedule when their work began, was topped off with the traditional evergreen tree ahead of schedule. Grudgingly, Hensel Phelps issued a letter of commendation.
Breaking the 12-year lockout of Blacks from construction in San Francisco
For the 12 years since the noose at the airport, Black construction workers have rarely been dispatched, youngsters have graduated from training programs to find white contractors’ doors slammed in their faces, and construction professionals – contractors, architects and engineers – have lost their businesses or come close. These are the master builders descended from the mighty Africans who built the White House and developed nearly all of the South and much of the North.
The noose had shocked and shamed “progressive” San Francisco. Alex Pitcher, who as a young lawyer had helped Thurgood Marshall fight racism in Louisiana, led a fired up Black community as head of the San Francisco NAACP to fight for justice with a ferocity comparable to the current struggle for justice for Oscar Grant and the struggle for environmental justice against Lennar.
“In conclusion,” Pitcher said, wrapping up his testimony before the Board of Supervisors and hundreds of Blacks at the Oct. 8, 1998, hearing, “we urge that these proceedings carefully consider all those who are affected and offended by the violent epithet of a hangman’s noose found conspicuously displayed on city property. The NAACP has pledged not to retreat from such acts of hate. To ignore it threatens our social order and thus creates a climate of racial tension and fear. Given the historical perspective of hate motivated by a hangman’s noose, to a Black American it is just as offensive as a swastika is to a Jewish American, and rightfully so. To that end, we must all share our mutual indignation at perpetrators of hate to the full extent permitted by law.”
Pitcher poured his heart and soul into the struggle at the cost of his health. Throat cancer struck, taking his voice and then his life little more than a year later.
Nobody was penalized or punished in any way for the hangman’s noose or any of the racist hostility that poisoned the SFO expansion. Hensel Phelps promised checks to several nonprofits and was completely exonerated by the Human Rights Commission over Pitcher’s passionate protest.
Today, Liberty Builders, after being out of business for a decade, is one of only three licensed Black contractors in San Francisco; none to our knowledge has a crew in the field. As Ratcliff foresaw a dozen years ago, “Black workers stand outside the construction site fence looking in, the Black community gets poorer and poorer, and Black children see no future and ask, ‘Why try?’”
“Where are the Black men working?” renowned actor J.B. Saunders – also a construction worker – had rhetorically asked at that Oct. 8, 1998, hearing, adding that Blacks in San Francisco were awarded “less than 1 percent of the contracts.”
“NO BLACKS WORKING,” blared the banner headline in last December’s Bay View atop photos showing the absence of Blacks even from federal stimulus funded projects in San Francisco. Later that month, construction of the new Bayview Library was put out to bid.
In February, under the headline “A new sheriff’s in town: If Blacks don’t work, nobody works!” the Bay View editorial – this one written by Joseph Debro, co-founder of the National Association of Minority Contractors, a general engineering contractor and a bio-chemical engineer – began:
“There is a new sheriff in town. Joseph Debro was elected president of the Bay Area Black Builders. Willie Ratcliff, vice president. For the first time, Black workers and Black contractors are together. Their deputies are unemployed veterans of our recent foreign wars. They have all returned from fighting terrorists on foreign soil to a home where they are being terrorized by imported labor taking their livelihood. [At last report, 98 percent of the billions of dollars San Francisco spends every year on construction is paid to contractors and workers who live and spend their paychecks outside the city.] These fighters must now live with the terror of unemployment.
“On Jan. 15 at 10 a.m., the Black Builders and friends shut down a pre-bid conference for a library in the heart of Hunters Point. This action was designed to send the mayor of San Francisco a message: If Black people do not work in Hunters Point, no one works here. This notice applies to all of the proposals in the pipeline at Hunters Point.
“We requested that the mayor award the [$4.5] million construction contract for the new Bayview Library to a Black builder of our choosing. We would arrange jobs on that contract for Black workers.”
By early March, City Hall had changed course, replacing the invitation to bid with a more flexible procedure. On April 23, City Hall wrote to Ratcliff: “We are pleased to inform you that the City’s selection panel has determined that your firm meets the pre-qualifications outlined in the Request for Qualifications (RFQ) for Construction Manager/ General Contractor (CM/GC) for the Bayview Branch Library.” Liberty Builders had advanced to the second stage of the competition for the contract to build the new Bayview Library.
On May 4, the Board of Supervisors unanimously passed Agenda Item No. 100333 to amend the law to make it easier for small firms to win city contracts. Especially encouraged are joint ventures between disadvantaged contractors, such as the one Ratcliff has formed with longtime friend and fellow Black contractor Leroy Griffith of Bonatech Engineering of Stockton, where Griffith serves on the board of the NAACP.
But the Bayview Library contract is not yet won. Obstacles remain, including bonding, the most common excuse for barring Black contractors.
“Access to lines of credit and bonding would take care of 90 percent of the problems that continue to segregate the construction industry,” Ratcliff wrote in his Sept. 30, 1998, Bay View editorial. “But the City’s financing and bonding program has proved impotent in assisting African American businesses wanting to contract with the City. We demand that the program be revised to meet the needs of Black contractors.”
Last month, that program rejected Ratcliff’s bond application. In the May Bay View, Debro’s editorial addressed the issue:
“Governments limit access to contracts by Black contractors. No Black contractors means few Black workers. All government construction requires a bond. Bonding companies are all white. Their ownership is white, their boards of directors are all white, their executives are almost all white and their underwriters are all white. Bonding decisions are all subjective.
“As the executive director of the National Association of Minority Contractors, I proposed and helped enact into law a surety bond guarantee program. That program is now called the SBA Surety Bond Program. It provides a 90 percent guarantee against loss for any surety company that writes a bond of up to $5 million for small contractors. Only 12 percent of these bonds are written for Black contractors.”
Black power does not bow to a bullet.
We are in this fight to win. Victory means Blacks building the Bayview Library and a whole lot more – not fronts but real Black contractors and their Black crews. Victory means an infusion of hope that can heal the frustration and rage that lead to violence. Victory means good jobs that bring peace and prosperity to our hood. Before the Shipyard closed, back when people were working, Hunters Point was so peaceful they felt no need to lock their doors.
We believe the bullet that crashed through our bedroom window at 1:45 a.m. on May 13 was fired by someone who supports the status quo. Someone must be scared that Black power is about to break the 12-year lockout of Blacks from construction in San Francisco.
“This is 1998,” Ratcliff wrote in his Sept. 30, 1998, editorial, “and the Black community has its back to the wall. There is only one way out, and that’s forward. … Our time has arrived to secure our true freedom in our new land. We have paid our dues in wars and slave labor. We will not rest until we have economic and political freedom in our city.”
Those words remain true today. Black power does not bow to a bullet.
Bay View editor Mary Ratcliff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (415) 671-0789.