The Green Sensibility of Ross Mirkarimi

American politics with artistic merit

What kind of person fights to get plastic bags banned from grocery stores? Having visited the Fresh Kills landfill in New York a few years ago, I was struck by the image of plastic bags swirling everywhere—like a million scenes of American Beauty projected onto a mass of human waste on Staten Island. Who knew that our dirtiest and trashiest secret was the plastic bag?

San Francisco Board Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi knew.

He made San Francisco the first city in the U.S. to regulate plastic bags and co-founded the California Green Party. From equalizing tobacco bans to include golf courses to organizing medical marijuana dispensary regulations, Mirkarimi hasn’t shied away from hot button issues.

I first saw Mirkarimi by accident, which rarely happens with politicians. Normally everything is so polished and press-friendly that you end up scraping snowmobile tracks and culling old preacher friends for evidence of “authenticity.” It was with great shock that I found myself next to him at a silent vigil for Neda Soltan, the 26-year-old Iranian woman who was killed during the Iranian election protests. In a moment of silence, as candles were held skyward, an unstable man passed by and started dropping F-bombs and killing the solemn tone of those in mourning.

“What’s this f**king protest for?” the man ranted about, as the crowd stood in silent vigil. Moments of crisis reveal true character and I thought about how to deal with this man when a voice called out: “Show some respect, brother!” With that, the crowd exhaled, and the man fell silent. He even smiled, satisfied that the world was not absent to him. The person who said something was Mirkarimi. Flexing a gift for relating to people reserved only for politicians and couples counseling, he rose from the crowd to take charge…

What kind of music are you listening to these days?
I listen to a lot of international music—a lot of Persian music and Middle Eastern influences. I’m representing part of the Fillmore that was the epicenter of the jazz of the West, so jazz plays a big role as well. My music spans from the ’60s ‘til now: rock, new wave and punk.

Do you have any songs that you relate to specific points in your life as a politician?
It’s a culmination of so many impulses that led me to be a politician, so it could be everything from the Beatles to the Who to the Clash, to Roxy Music, Bryan Ferry, the Police, the Velvet Underground, Nico, Fela Kuti, to Youssur N’Dour, Nirvana and forms of hip-hop and rap. I can’t sum it up to one song.

One of the great things about San Francisco is its diversity and art Mecca status.
I love it here. I’m actually surprised it’s not elevated in stature nationally. San Francisco has such a great underground art movement, and a recognized mainstream art movement, but it pales in comparison to Chicago, New York or Los Angeles. Frankly, the government has more responsibility to bolster the appreciation of the underground art movement. When I came into office in 2005, every third Friday of the month we converted my office into an art gallery with a new artist show. We ended up having 45 shows. Inspired by my predecessor,  we were the only ones who did it in city hall and it was phenomenal.

So, why plastic bags?
The common plastic bag is made from virgin petroleum. Our landfills continue to grow at exponential rates because you can’t recycle the bag. I targeted the banning of plastic bags in all major chain stores as a first phase to send a signal that we’re going to take responsibility for the conveniences of life that actually inconvenience us in the long run. I had no idea when I proposed it that we would be the first city in the country and first city in the hemisphere, to do it. We’re going to have a war on plastics. We have to. The great line from the movie The Graduate that this is the future? This is subverting our future. The future from 40 years ago was about making money, not caring for the environment.

One word Benjamin…
That’s right: Plastics. Have you seen the pictures of the floating landmass of plastic bags in the Pacific? It looks like white caps. When you get closer; they say it’s larger than the state of Texas. Almost looks like a man made version of a polar ice cap, but it’s plastic bags. It’s a surreal art form that epitomizes man and society’s greed.

I’m excited for the billion-dollar train they’re building from here to Los Angeles.
Great step in the right direction and one I support. We built this country, for good or bad, with the trains, the railroad.

There will be blood…
There will be blood. Now that whole experience will be applied not to oil but to water. It will be all about water. In California, the west coast, moving south, and of course abroad—it’s going to be all about water.

It’s like Chinatown with Jack Nicholson.
Totally. Amazing movie, by the way.

Forty years ahead of the curve on the issue of water.
That era of movie making was just so precocious; they hit all the right notes. Not long after the so-called summer of love. In about a 10-year span, movies were hitting all the right notes as warning signs. If only we had listened.

It was before Star Wars and big studios realized how profitable movies could be.
Commercialism and consumerism sort of hijacked the intellectualism of good movie making and independent movie making, which is its own machine now. I wonder if movies have the same level of impact on helping formulate the kind of philosophies and outlooks as films had pre-1975. The films made you work your mind back then. It wasn’t a ‘7-Eleven’ approach to getting the quick read on the meaning and instant gratification.

Yeah, you had William Faulkner writing the screenplays.
You had Bergman and Akira Kurosawa explaining.

You had directors coming from a background of literature and theater, whereas the brightest directors today, like Spike Jonze, come from making television commercials.
It’s just different training areas I think. However, if I ever turn the TV on, I watch Weeds or Californication, South Park, the Daily Show and Colbert (where I get some of my news). Otherwise there’s not much need for TV at all. As for the movies, thank god for the Coen Brothers and Wes Anderson. In the ’80s and ’90s it was Jim Jarmusch.

You’re the Supervisor for Haight-Ashbury and it’s been 40 years since the Summer of Love.
The Summer of Love is almost relegated to something superfluous or a ‘sign of the times.’ People don’t appreciate the philosophy: anti-Vietnam War, attention to corruption of the United States, beginnings of environmental movement (which was nascent at that time), women’s rights, civil rights, freedom of expression through arts and music, and sexual liberation. Those categories built a sound liberal philosophy we are still refining. That genesis of liberal philosophy was rocketed by the Summer of Love to a new recognition, ‘How do we save the planet from our excesses?’

What role do you think musicians, painters and poets have in America right now?
I have to insist, that the painters, poets, musicians, demand entry in city halls and to government. More than ever, we need the artist’s world to help save the day. It’s not something to be seen as an extracurricular activity or where dilettantes and intellectuals toy or struggle through a phase of their life. Artists can lead the revolution.

– Gabriel Leif Bellman