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Robin Abcarian
Commentary, news and analysis
2014 in 3 acts: Cheerleader, ex-Marine, filmmaker provide the drama

An indignant NFL cheerleader. A politically savvy gay filmmaker. A directionally challenged former Marine.

As I look back on some of the California stories I covered in 2014, a few stand out as self-contained dramas — with a beginning, a middle and an end. Each had a compelling protagonist, raised important issues and got people's blood boiling.

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In January, a wage theft lawsuit was filed in Alameda Superior Court by a rather unusual plaintiff. It was the first time a professional cheerleader had decided to take on a pro football team — in this case, the Oakland Raiders.

The story made headlines around the world.

Lacy T., a member of the Raiderettes squad for the 2013-14 season, was appalled that the team did not even pay cheerleaders a minimum wage. Her lawsuit described working conditions that would have been familiar to cocktail waitresses or airline stewardesses in the pre-feminist 1960s.

I managed to get my hands on a copy of the super-secret Raiderettes handbook, and, frankly,...

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Berkeley effigies' powerful racial message was hurt by unclear intent

Early last Saturday, as students prepared for finals, two effigies were discovered hanging from UC Berkeley's famous Sather Gate. They were cardboard cutouts of blown-up photos: a black man and a black woman with the words "I can't breathe" stenciled across them. A similar figure was found hanging from a campus tree a block away.

Word spread like wildfire.

Students cramming for exams at the African American Studies department's "study jam" were shaken. "At first it was like: not again," said doctoral student Michael J. Myers II, 30, who fielded calls, texts and emails from family and friends. "There's no reprieve from everything that's been happening in the last several weeks."

Environmental engineering grad student Regan F. Patterson, 24, became angry. "The reaction was, 'Oh, my God, another racist attack on the black community.'"

Education graduate student Krista L. Cortes, 26, was finishing a paper when she saw the images on Instagram. "It seemed just cruel," she said, "kind of...

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After a long battle, Drake's Bay Oyster Co. packs it in

It's the end of the line for Drake's Bay Oyster Co.

On Dec. 31, after a long battle with the National Park Service, the California Coastal Commission, the Department of the Interior and wilderness advocates, owner Kevin Lunny and his family will vacate the starkly beautiful Drake's Estero, a 2,500-acre estuary where some of the tastiest oysters on the West Coast have been farmed for more than half a century.

A 40-year lease agreement between the feds and the oyster farm's original owners has expired. Former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar could have extended the lease for a decade, which was allowed by 2009 legislation that Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein sponsored. But in 2011, Salazar — fearing a policy precedent — decided that wilderness and oyster farming were mutually exclusive.

Starting next year, Drake's Bay oyster lovers — like celebrity chef Alice Waters, who supported the Lunnys — will have to look elsewhere for their supply of slimy but delicious bivalves.

Lunny, 56,...

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Brother's death in Bakersfield haunts critic of Sheriff's Department

Chris Silva slipped a disc into his computer, then stepped back to watch as the deposition of a Kern County sheriff's deputy began to play on his TV.

On May 7, 2013, just before midnight, Jeffrey Kelly was the first deputy to respond to a call about a man lying on a grass strip across the street from Kern County Medical Center on the east side of town.

The man was David Silva, Chris's big brother, a father of four. Kelly testified that he tried to wake Silva up using a "knuckle rub" on his sternum. He had not been trained to perform it.

Silva, 33, woke up, disoriented. Kelly decided Silva might be on PCP and tried to handcuff him. Silva never hit or kicked him, Kelly testified, but kept trying to move away.

Worried that the 260-pound Silva might stand up, Kelly released his dog, Luke, from his patrol car by remote control. Silva became even more agitated as the dog attacked him. He screamed and grabbed Luke by the neck. The dog also bit Kelly.

Then things got even more chaotic.

Over 20...

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Pope Francis says dogs go to heaven, sparking an animal rights debate

Pope Francis set off a fascinating debate about whether animals have souls when he offered consolation earlier this week to a boy whose dog had died.

“One day, we will see our animals again in the eternity of Christ,” the pope said during a public appearance in St. Peter’s Square, according to Italian media. “Paradise is open to all of God’s creatures.”

[Updated 8:36 p.m. PST Dec. 15: According to Religion News Service, the quote attributed to Pope Francis was uttered decades ago by Pope Paul VI, who died in 1978. The widespread misreporting of the pope's remarks was sparked by an ambiguous headline in the Italian daily Corriere Della Serra: "Paradise for animals? The Pope doesn't rule it out." Pope Francis made a much more opaque remark about the afterlife that was misconstrued in reports.]

Having lost my two dogs within three weeks earlier this year, I would love nothing more than to think of them romping around some Elysian field, chasing balls and stinking up the place the way...

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Berkeley's soda tax a sweet victory

Three years ago, Richmond City Councilman Jeff Ritterman became aware that about a third of his city's fifth- and seventh- graders were obese, and that the numbers were getting worse.

A retired cardiologist who got into politics to improve public health, Ritterman began researching the issue. He concluded that sugary drinks were a culprit. The empty calories made kids fat and susceptible to incurable illnesses, such as diabetes.

"It was clear to me that it was a crisis," he told me.

In 2012, he persuaded the council to put a measure taxing sugary drinks on the city's November ballot. "Consumption taxes" have proved effective in reducing smoking rates and lowering tobacco-related ailments such as heart disease and lung cancer. Why not do the same to soda?

Two weeks later, then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed his infamous 16-ounce limit on soft drinks. While that ultimately doomed fight captured headlines, Richmond was quietly becoming an important front in the fight...

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