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Year in Review: SF Examiner’s Top 5 stories of 2017

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San Francisco had no shortage of headline-worthy news in 2017. (S.F. Examiner photos)
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The end of the year is a time for reflection, and there’s one thing we know for sure: 2017 was not for the faint of heart.

The Bay Area, and San Francisco in particular, had much to celebrate. After the Golden State Warriors broke ground on a new arena in Mission Bay in January, the team claimed in June its second NBA Championship in three years, defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers and giving the dynastic San Francisco Giants a run at team of the decade. Also in January, the long-embattled City College of San Francisco successfully retained its accreditation after years of uncertainty and weeks later reached a deal to provide free tuition to all of the The City’s residents.

All year long, San Francisco played a vocal and powerful role in local resistance to troubling policies and leadership within the federal government. In January, more than 150,000 people marched in solidarity down The City’s streets for the Women’s March; days later, hundreds gathered inside the terminals of SFO to protest President Donald Trump’s immigration ban. Mayor Ed Lee, along with City Attorney Dennis Herrera and other local leaders, continuously pushed back and spoke out against crackdowns on sanctuary cities amid threats of funding cuts. And in the wake of violent, hateful gatherings in Charlottesville, Va., both sides of the Bay united in their opposition to radical right-wing rallies.

But 2017 was not without reason to mourn, either.

In June, a UPS employee opened fire at the company’s Potrero Hill facility and killed three people before turning the gun on himself. In October, the North Bay was ravaged by a series of wildfires that claimed the lives of dozens and destroyed thousands of structures. And this month, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee died at the age of 65 after suffering a heart attack.

In between the highs and lows, San Franciscans will recall The City’s ongoing struggles to address its homelessness and affordable housing crises; political battles over cannabis retail in advance of recreational legalization and safe-injection sites to address drug use on the streets; numerous police shootings and debates over the implementation of Tasers; and a seemingly endless list of stories about technology, transportation and their intersection in the tech capital of the world.

In all, San Francisco had no shortage of headline-worthy news in 2017.

Here are our Top 5:

Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green poses with an excited fan and a cutout of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James during the Warriors’ championship parade through Oakland on June 15. The Warriors beat the Cavs in Game 5 of the NBA Finals to claim the franchise’s second title in three years. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

5. WARRIORS WIN NBA CHAMPIONSHIP

After failing to convert a 3-1 series lead into a championship in the 2016 NBA Finals, the Golden State Warriors were subjected to being the butt of endless jokes. The franchise responded by signing former MVP Kevin Durant and going on a warpath the following season.

Despite Durant missing significant time toward the end of the regular season, the Warriors entered the playoffs as the No. 1 seed and proceeded to submit the best postseason performance in the history of the league. The Dubs didn’t lose from April 11 to June 9 — a span where they played 16 games.

And they did a lot of that without their head coach, Steve Kerr, who was forced to step away from the team while dealing with excruciating symptoms from a botched back surgery. The Warriors didn’t miss a beat with interim head coach Mike Brown, who saw the team win 11-straight games.

Durant endured constant criticism for his decision to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Warriors, who logged an NBA-record 73 wins the season prior. Detractors questioned his toughness and whether he had what it takes to compete with generational talent LeBron James. With Golden State trailing by two in Game 3 of the NBA Finals, Durant confidently stepped into and nailed a 3-pointer over James with 45 seconds left in the game. It was the kind of shot that cements a great player’s legacy. Five days later, the Warriors wrapped up the title, and Durant was named Finals MVP.

Defense attorney Matt Gonzalez speaks to reporters at the Hall of Justice on Nov. 30 after his client, Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, was acquitted of murder and manslaughter charges in the 2015 death of Kate Steinle on Pier 14. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

4. KATE STEINLE MURDER TRIAL

Whether it wanted to be or not, San Francisco was thrust into the national spotlight with the 2015 killing of Kate Steinle on Pier 14. The same July 1 day she died, police arrested an undocumented homeless man, 45-year-old Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, on suspicion of her murder.

President Donald Trump, a candidate at the time for the nation’s highest office, quickly called for a crackdown on sanctuary cities like San Francisco. Rather than hand Garcia Zarate to immigration authorities, the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department had released Garcia Zarate from jail three months before the shooting when prosecutors dismissed a 20-year-old marijuana case against him.

Garcia Zarate admitted to firing a single bullet that ricocheted off the ground and fatally struck Steinle in the back, but his attorneys argued the shooting was an accident. When a San Francisco jury acquitted Garcia Zarate of first-degree murder, second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter on Nov. 30, San Francisco’s sanctuary policy once again came under fire. Jurors did convict Garcia Zarate of being a felon in possession of a firearm, but his attorneys have promised to appeal that conviction.

After the verdict, the Twitter hashtag #boycottsanfrancisco began trending, with users promising never to visit the City by the Bay because of Garcia Zarate’s acquittal. Trump called the verdict “disgraceful.”

Garcia Zarate was subsequently indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of being a felon in possession of a firearm and being an undocumented immigrant in possession of a firearm. The outcome of Garcia Zarate’s appeal and federal charges will no doubt spill over into 2018.

A group of counter-protesters marches up Hayes Street toward a right-wing protest at Alamo Square Park on Aug. 26. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

3. PATRIOT PRAYER RALLY AND COUNTER-PROTEST

San Francisco is a city that accepts almost everyone — a notable exception being white supremacists.

In August, fear that such a group would take to the streets of San Francisco in the name of free speech prompted more than 13,000 mostly peaceful protesters to march from the Castro District to Civic Center Aug. 26, as bubble-blowing love-fests celebrated peace.

The Patriot Prayer group does not identify as white supremacists — Joey Gibson, its leader, told the San Francisco Examiner that he is Japanese — but city leaders warned that past rallies by the group have attracted white supremacists, neo Nazis, alt-right militiamen and violence, and therefore urged the National Park Service to deny the group a permit for its rally.

So when the group received its permit, San Francisco mobilized for a giant rally meant almost as a way to hug itself and shield against what many worried would turn into riots.

Patriot Prayer ended up shuttling their rally all over The City, as well as to Pacifica, before Gibson meandered back to Crissy Field, where he entered a vehicle and drove away.

In the end, a handful of people were detained by police and no major injuries were reported as a result of the events that day.

Mary Brunet stands outside her destroyed home on Sleepy Hollow Drive in Santa Rosa as multiple fires ripped through the North Bay on Oct. 9. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

2. NORTH BAY WILDFIRES

In early October, the North Bay was scorched by a series of devastating wildfires that ultimately led to 44 deaths and the destruction of thousands of structures. In the days after the fires ignited Oct. 8, ash rained down and smoke filled the skies of the Bay Area. Stories of devastation, heartbreak and heroism emerged as the North Bay continued to burn.

Priest Morgan, a 62-year-old U.S. Army veteran, may have been responsible for saving the last standing block of mobile homes in the Journey’s End Mobile Home Park for seniors as the Tubbs Fire raged in Santa Rosa. The former paramedic said he commandeered a hose from firefighters battling a blaze at the adjacent Kaiser Permanente hospital and attacked the flames engulfing his neighbors’ homes.

Another Santa Rosa resident, Phillip Blackman, said while looking at the burned-down houses in his neighborhood that he was surprised to learn that his home was still standing. “I’m always worried about earthquakes,” Blackman said. “A fire, never would have even thought it.”

By the end of October, what Cal Fire had dubbed the “October Fire Siege” included 250 new wildfires, including 21 major wildfires that — fueled by high winds and dry air — burned over 245,000 acres. As many as 100,000 residents were forced to evacuate, and at least 8,900 structures were destroyed, according to Cal Fire.

“This is the worst fire I’ve ever seen,” Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane told the San Francisco Examiner on Oct. 9 of the Tubbs Fire, which itself killed at least 23 people, burned 36,807 acres and destroyed 6,957 structures, many in the city of Santa Rosa. “It’s horrible. It’s devastating. It’s hellish. You don’t see urban fires like this.”

Mayor Ed Lee waves as he’s sworn into office on Jan. 12, 2011. (Mike Koozmin/2011 S.F. Examiner)

1. DEATH OF MAYOR ED LEE

The news that San Franciscans awoke to the morning of Dec. 12 felt unreal. For some, that news broke in the middle of the night, when Mayor Ed Lee — the first Asian-American mayor of San Francisco who led The City as it transformed into the global center of the tech industry — died at 1:11 a.m. at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital after suffering a heart attack. For others, the news came hours later on their TV, smartphone or via word-of-mouth.

Lee has been remembered as a career bureaucrat who worked in city government for more than two decades before becoming the 43rd mayor of San Francisco in 2011. His death signified the loss of the most prominent Chinese-American leader in The City, and for the Chinese community, Lee was a historic mayor who lent his ear to their needs, and inspired new Chinese leaders.

Upon Lee’s death, Board of Supervisors President London Breed became acting mayor. San Francisco was unexpectedly thrust toward a June 2018 mayoral election to finish Lee’s term, more than a year earlier than the anticipated November 2019 mayor’s race. A handful of high-profile candidates have already signaled their intent to run for mayor, including former state Sen. Mark Leno, Supervisor Jane Kim and former Supervisor Angela Alioto.

Lee may have died in 2017, but The City will continue to mourn his death far beyond the end of the year. Next year may bring a new mayor to San Francisco, but The City will never forget the man in Room 200 who cracked light-hearted jokes and shied away from cutthroat politics.

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