By Markos Kounalakis
Special to The Examiner
Castro Street is the world’s most generous stage for the daily live performance of San Francisco free expression. It is where America’s gay rights movement found fertile ground and where people from across the United States can land and find a community that celebrates brave individuals who may elsewhere be oppressed.
For this reason, it was appropriately symbolic that the San Francisco premiere of the documentary “Navalny” was screened at the Castro Theatre as part of the S.F. International Film Festival. The film is about imprisoned Russian dissident Alexei Navalny and his struggle against the corrupt and criminal regime of Vladimir Putin.
Navalny’s daughter, Dasha, was at the Castro with the film producers to view and discuss the extraordinary and thriller-like documentary. The film follows Navalny’s activities, from his full-throated political opposition to his poisoning, and then, while recovering from the poisoning in Germany, his preparation to return and continue to fight for justice in Putin’s Russia — landing him again in prison. It is now viewable on CNN. Watch it!
But this is not a film review. It is a reflection on San Francisco and how far our progressive California communities have come in allowing for the very freedom of political expression that has landed Navalny on both hospital gurneys and behind prison bars. It is our fierce individualism within a collective sense of justice and freedom that makes us a magnet for people everywhere.
That freedom can be expressed in ways that offend some — witness the unofficial honor guards who stood near the Castro Theatre entrance dressed in their full-buffed birthday suits, with only an easily breeze-lifted wisp of cloth modestly draping their members. Not everyone is going to stand butt naked in the street on a somewhat sunny mid-spring day to express themselves; but on this film premiere day, some filmgoers were amused while none were insulting or assaulting these guys. Regardless, for many, this is an extreme form of free expression.
San Francisco has fostered a dramatically increasing level of freedom of speech and assembly since I was born here in the 1950s and raised not too far away from the Castro Theatre in the 1960s. My dad took night classes at Mission High School to prepare for his naturalization exams and my first non-Greek words as a kid were in Spanish, not English. We were working class and spent our post-church Sundays promenading from our Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral on Valencia Street down a clean and mostly welcoming Market Street, but for the few “winos” and “bums” who dotted the sidewalks and who didn’t obstruct or aggressively panhandle.
When not on a walk, we would picnic in Dolores Park or, on those rare warm weekends, take the N Judah across town to Playland. My city was all working class and seemed to enjoy the same things I did out at the beach: Fleishhacker Pool, Doggie Diner and It’s-It Ice Cream.
My folks came to San Francisco on a refugee program a few years after my dad fought the Nazis, who occupied his island of Crete, and then the Communists, who tried to take over Greece after World War II. This was all a long time ago, but the point is that my family history is one of fighting for freedom.
If there is one place on Earth that puts freedom of speech and religion at the top of its list, it is the United States. That’s why the First Amendment came first. It guarantees us a way to check authority, advance society and elevate individuals. Stifle speech — as Florida is now trying to do — and you kill the critical societal feedback loop that keeps our communities healthy and vibrant. “Don’t say Gay” is just another way of saying “don’t be gay.” It is another expression of intolerance and fear rather than an opening to explore and understand difference.
My privilege growing up here was knowing that Greek Americans had a role model in City Hall. Mayor George Christopher was one of us. Seeing someone who I went to church with and who had a company that supplied school kids with milk gave me both pride and an understanding of life’s potential. The Bay Area’s own Vice President Kamala D. Harris also does this for her respective communities. As bestselling author and chef Jeff Henderson puts it: “If you can see it, you can be it.”
Putin’s Russia, however, is now doing its best to hide the heroic Navalny and his anti-corruption movement. The regime uses sophisticated and ham-handed ways to slander him, suppress him and disappear him. The Russian government fears freedom of speech and quashes any form of expression from its opposition. As a result, the feedback loop so critical to democratic governance is not only broken, it is nonexistent.
This is a problem and a motivation for Navalny. He’s a truth-telling, whistleblowing, corruption-revealing, humor-using, charm-leveraging opposition leader whose YouTube popularity and large national following makes him an apotheosis of political dissent and a threat to Putin and his entire illegitimate Kremlin crowd. He has used investigative tools to reveal the sources and manifestations of Putin’s ill-gotten wealth. (Putin is rumored to be richer than Elon Musk … according to Elon Musk).
Which brings me back to the Castro District, San Francisco and the United States as a whole. Do people seriously think we have speech police? Have those people taken a walk through San Francisco? It was in the Bay Area — whether on the campuses of UC Berkeley or San Francisco State — where Vietnam protests took flight. When America was preparing to invade Iraq on the grounds that it harbored weapons of mass destruction, it was San Franciscans who shut down the Bay Bridge in protest.
In Russia, to even use the word “war” is punishable with 15 years of imprisonment. Russians who cleverly tried a workaround by holding up blank signs were arrested; the white space was clearly meant as an anti-war message and interpreted as such by St. Petersburg security services.
Navalny still sits in his prison cell. His family is here and in Germany, working as activists where they are free to protest. In the Castro, there was yet another reminder that dedicated and self-sacrificing people often step up to wage hard fights for human rights. Harvey Milk was one of those people who organized the fight from his camera shop up the street from the Castro Theatre. Milk is unfortunately no longer with us. Thankfully, Navalny is still in the fight for his nation and for us all.
Markos Kounalakis is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the author of Freedom isn’t Free: The Price of World Order.