How San Francisco’s Media and Mayor Turned a Family Affair into a Soap Opera
By Rasa Gustaitis
May 29, 2012
Just about everyone in San Francisco has an opinion about the black-and-blue mark on the upper-right arm of Eliana Lopez, Venezuelan TV star and wife of Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi. A controversial videotaped image of that bruise has been in the news for five months now. Some believe it is evidence of abuse; others think it is being used by Mayor Ed Lee and his allies to unseat the newly elected progressive sheriff. The still-evolving public drama triggered by that videotape is tragic for the Lopez/Mirkarimi family. It also suggests that inflexible laws meant to shield women from domestic violence can inadvertently harm the very women they are meant to protect.
In Caracas, Venezuela, Eliana Lopez sits straight-backed on a living room chair, facing a TV reporter from San Francisco. Does her little son miss his father, the reporter asks. Her voice breaks as she answers. “Last night he said, ‘One day I will open the door and Daddy will be standing there.’”
In San Francisco, Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, father of three-year-old Theo, watches the interview in obvious pain. He is banned by a restraining order from contacting his wife, but is allowed to visit his son for an hour a day. They are 5,000 miles apart, so he Skypes. “I live for that hour. It’s my lifeline,” he says.
Reporter Dan Noyes of ABC7 News was sent to Caracas for the first interview Lopez has given since she was separated from her husband against her will five months ago. The Lopez/Mirkarimi story has been food for local news media since early January. It’s a drama of Shakespearian dimensions.
The precipitating incident was a heated argument, during which he grabbed her arm so hard it left a bruise. She tells Noyes that she shouted “Stop!” and he immediately let go, a shocked look on his face. This was a wake-up call. They agreed to seek counseling. But the next day, worried their discord could lead to divorce, Lopez visited a neighbor who made a videotape of the bruised upper arm, for potential use in a custody battle. That video was to be confidential, but it did not remain so.
The mayor and his allies, the media, and domestic violence victim advocates — all purportedly acting for the public good — used the video against Mirkarimi. He was prosecuted on domestic violence charges, suspended without pay from the job to which he was elected, and separated from his wife and son by a restraining order that she had not asked for or wanted.
Eliana Lopez, 36, is an actress well-known in Venezuela for roles in films and TV novellas. Mirkarimi, 50, born in Chicago to a 19-year-old mother of Russian Jewish descent and an Iranian Muslim father, grew up fatherless after his parents divorce when he was five. After seven years on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, he ran for sheriff in an election that brought a conservative shift in city government. Mirkarimi, a progressive, won by a substantial margin.
The couple met at an environmental conference in Brazil in 2008 and married in 2010, after their son was born, at home, in San Francisco. The argument that led to the fateful arm-grab took place on the last day of 2011, en route to lunch at a local pizzeria. She wanted to visit her family in Caracas again, he didn’t want her to go, partly because she did not yet have her green card, he said, partly because her visit six months before had lasted more than two months and he missed her and the boy.
Emotions spiked. She told him she had consulted an attorney, and he realized she might leave him and custody could become an issue. He swore at her. Theo started crying. Not willing to appear in public in their distraught state, Mirkarimi turned the car around. Lopez objected. After he parked near their home, she hurried to get out. As she moved to unfasten the child’s seat belt, Mirkarimi grabbed her arm to get her to stay. It was that grip that left the bruise.
Had she not visited her neighbor, Ivory Madison, whom she believed to be an attorney, the following day, they might have managed to resolve their conflicts with the help of counseling, one way or another. It was Madison who suggested they make the videotape, according to Lopez.
Madison is a law school graduate but not licensed to practice. She is a writer, editor and entrepreneur who runs an online publishing site. Through an attorney, she stated that she did not promise confidentiality to Lopez, and that Lopez knew she was not a practicing attorney.
Madison called Phil Bronstein, then executive editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. Then, four days after Lopez’ visit, she called the police. She only told Lopez after the fact. Lopez was horrified. Police confiscated the videotape under a subpoena. In the past, they had the power to offer interventions such as anger management counseling instead of arrest. That option has been eliminated in current law.
On January 8, five days before being sworn in as sheriff, Mirkarimi was charged with domestic abuse battery, child endangerment, and dissuading a witness. Lopez’ protestations that she had not been abused did not count for much because victims are known to deny abuse, out of fear.
Photographs of the bruised arm, taken from the videotape, were provided to media by the district attorney. One appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle the next day. From then on, the Chronicle ran articles almost daily for weeks, often with front-page banner headlines. Repetitive recitation of the abuse charges hammered Mirkarimi’s good name.
“I know how the media can create and influence public opinion to justify political actions,” Lopez wrote in an article published by the Chronicle April 6. “I saw that from the inside in 2002, when the privileged class used the media to justify a takeover of a democratically elected president and appointed one of their own to lead our country. I am shocked to witness the same formula being applied to my husband… I am being used to bring my husband down.”
Seeing an opportunity to promote awareness of domestic abuse, victim advocates put up several billboards, in English and Spanish, with a slogan based on something Mirkarimi denies having said. “Domestic violence is NEVER a private matter.”
As jury selection began, Mirkarimi’s jury consultant advised that negative publicity had poisoned the jury pool. All 200 of the first group of potential jurors called had been dismissed. It would be a long trial and might not be fair. So, hoping to put the matter to rest quickly, Mirkarimi plea bargained. He pleaded guilty to one count of misdemeanor false imprisonment, based on the incident in the car. Doing so did not deprive him of the right to carry a weapon, which his job required.
He soon regretted foregoing trial, however. Victim advocates now demanded that the mayor fire the sheriff, contending that a person guilty of falsely imprisoning his wife was not qualified to imprison people.
Mayor Lee ordered the sheriff to resign. He refused. The mayor does not have the power to fire an elected official, only the Board of Supervisors does, so Lee took his “official misconduct” charge to the Ethics Commission asking it to recommend dismissal to the Supervisors.
The Commission has never dealt with a case of alleged official misconduct. It meets May 29, for the second time, to establish standards and procedures. The mayor has proposed a list of 25 witnesses, including a woman who lived with Mirkarimi for three years and has said he was “like a pitbull.” Their relationship broke up after he met Lopez. Another woman, who lived with Mirkarimi for seven years, has offered to testify on his behalf, saying no violence ever occurred between them. Proceedings are expected to drag on for weeks if not months.
The setup is “designed to break you along the way, “ Mirkarimi told Chronicle columnist Debra Saunders.
In Caracas, the boy runs up to a laptop held by his mother and his face lights up as he sees his father and hears him say, “Hello Ba-ba!”
“[All this] because he grabbed my arm?” wonders Lopez in the interview, posted May 23. The next day she is seen reacting with disbelief to the news that a judge has allowed the mayor to use the infamous videotape to make his case against her husband before the Ethics Commission, and to distribute it without restriction. She had pleaded that not be permitted. The criminal case was over; its release now would only humiliate her and her family. Now she considers the prospect of the image of her bruised arm on the Internet, for all to view, in perpetuity.
“Is this right? Is this really right?” she asks. “Don’t they think of my son? My career, my life, my family? Looks like it’s right for them.”