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The Kid’s Got Guts
Chris Smith | Photo: Matthew Scott | January 30, 2013
At just 24, Theo Ellington has already faced down Ed Lee—and made political insiders take notice.
It’s 7:30 a.m., and Theo Ellington is a little nervous. He’s onstage, facing a sleepy crowd in a University of San Francisco conference hall, about to introduce one of his idols: Van Jones, the civil rights activist and former Obama green-jobs czar. A hundred or so people, most of them African-American, have turned out for this fundraiser for Ellington’s fledgling political club, the Black Young Democrats of San Francisco.
Raising his voice, Ellington breaks out a staple from the Obama campaign canon: “Fired up!” he calls out, borrowing a bit of the president’s clipped delivery as well. Everyone knows the proper response: “Ready to go!”
By the third time through the refrain, the room is crackling with energy. The people here have been waiting for Van Jones, but in a sense, they have also been waiting for someone like Theo Ellington.
This 24-year-old community organizer from the Bayview has, in his brief career, held posts on various city commissions, worked for local political campaigns, and become a leader in the city’s shrinking African-American community. It wasn’t until last summer, however, that the city at large heard his name: That’s when he led the opposition to Mayor Ed Lee’s brief, doomed flirtation with “stop-and-frisk,” an ethically dubious policy that allows police to stop anyone whom they deem “suspicious-looking.”
Now, as Ellington joins the city commission that oversees billions in development projects, he is also emerging as one of the millennial generation’s most potent political voices—and, insiders say, a rising citywide leader. District 10 supervisor Malia Cohen, whose campaign Ellington volunteered for in 2010, says that Ellington’s appeal transcends his roots in the Bayview. “Until now, we’ve had the Amos Browns and the Rose Paks,” she says. “But Ellington is multilingual. He speaks for the entire city.”
Ellington considers it a minor miracle that he has made it this far. His father was out of the picture early, and his mother reared him and his brother in a house just off Third Street (he still lives there). His route to school was dotted with memorials to young people killed in the neighborhood—sad little shrines made from balloons and teddy bears. “There was no guarantee that said, ‘Theo, this won’t happen to you,’” he says.
Although he was an indifferent student, Ellington found inspiration in after-school film programs that sparked both his creativity and his social conscience. As a junior, he made The Homeless Orchestra, a 10-minute film on San Francisco’s discordant homeless policy. Salesforce.com founder Marc Benioff saw it and showed it to then-mayor Gavin Newsom, who took it to the World Economic Forum in Davos. Ellington was now on Newsom’s radar, and appointments to city commissions followed. Ellington also threw himself into community organizing. In 2010, he helped Cohen pull off her nail-biting supervisorial win. The following year, after earning a degree in political science from Belmont’s Notre Dame de Namur University, he managed southeastern volunteers for City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s mayoral bid.
Last June, when Mayor Lee told the Chronicle that he was intrigued by New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy, the issue struck a personal note with Ellington. The police are often seen as an occupying force in the Bayview—cops have pulled guns on him without cause, Ellington says, and once a SWAT team broke down the door of his house. “Long story short? Wrong search warrant.” And the police who did it? “Not necessarily the best attitudes.”
Ellington’s Black Young Democrats, which began with 40 members and is slowly growing, was the first group to push back against Lee. Ellington launched a petition that quickly garnered 2,300 signatures, along with a photo campaign in which he and others posed with signs that read, “Am I suspicious?” In mid-July, a coalition built by Ellington’s group held a press conference on the steps of City Hall. Asian Americans, Latinos, and African Americans turned out, and the Board of Supervisors passed a resolution condemning stop-and-frisk. A couple of weeks later, the mayor stood down.
In truth, stop-and-frisk was never likely to become city policy. Ed Lee is a former civil rights lawyer, and Police Chief Greg Suhr categorically dismissed the idea. But Ellington’s campaign showed that the African-American community—down to about 6 percent of the city’s population—still has some fight left. It also heralded the emergence of a new leader. “Brotha Clint” Sockwell, a community activist, a teacher, and one of Ellington’s mentors, puts it sardonically: “Theo represents the hope of the remaining three or four black people in San Francisco.”
Indeed, Ellington says that protecting the Bayview is his main priority. In December, he assumed a seat on the new Commission on Community Investment and Infrastructure, which replaces the Redevelopment Agency. (The mayor, who nominated him, apparently holds no grudge over stop-and-frisk.) Ellington hasn’t forgotten the displacement of African Americans in the Fillmore in the name of redevelopment. “One of my jobs is to make sure that doesn’t happen again,” he says. “Folks are moving into the Bayview, which is fine, but we need to preserve the diversity that we preach to the rest of the world.”
That said, Ellington has every incentive to look beyond the Bayview’s borders for support. African Americans in San Francisco no longer have the numbers or the political juice to accomplish their goals—and tackle issues affecting low-income people citywide—without forging alliances. Viewed through this lens, the young, multiracial coalition that Ellington built for stop-and-frisk can be seen as a dry run for campaigns to come, whether issue-based or when Ellington runs for office himself. (He is refreshingly open about his ambition, though noncommittal on the specifics.) As James Taylor, chair of USF’s politics department, says, “The black community should not have permanent friends or permanent enemies—just permanent interests. Theo understands that.”
Back at the fundraiser, Jones wraps up his speech with an exhortation to his millennial listeners. The civil rights generation, he says, led the way, but now it is the younger generation’s turn. “You have the responsibility to govern,” he tells them. The audience roars in approval.
Retaking the stage, Ellington slowly repeats Jones’s words, as if considering the enormity of the task ahead and of the hopes placed on him. The room grows silent. “I don’t even know what to say right now,” he admits. But then he recovers. “I’m gonna need you guys’ help. This is not a battle that we can do alone.”
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of San Francisco.