Monday, December 9, 2013

It Isn't Nice to Block the Buses

Last Friday, the litigation group at the law firm I work for held its annual bash at a restaurant in the Marina.  It’s a very fun event where the associates present skits and videos making fun of the partners, made funnier by a fair amount of alcohol consumption.  Since the restaurant was several miles from the office, they chartered a bus for staff – attorneys had to get there on their own.

This was my first time on one of the huge white buses everyone calls “Google buses,” although in fact, lots of companies use them to transport their employees to and from work.  The wi-fi equipped buses (no one said anything to us about wi-fi, incidentally) have become one of the most visible symbols of the rapid gentrification that is destroying the cultural and economic diversity of San Francisco.  I told one of my coworkers that getting on it reminded me eerily of riding settler buses in Palestine, which I tried not to do, but occasionally it was the only affordable way to get from Tel Aviv or Petakh Tikvah to the village where I lived in the West Bank.

This morning, a bunch of people I know were involved in blocking a Google bus at 24th and Valencia, in the heart of the Mission District.  The Mission has been one of the areas hardest hit by recent gentrification.  Once predominantly Latino/a, the Mission has experienced waves of gentrification beginning with artists and queers in the seventies, drawn by the cheap rents and eclectic culture, and vastly accelerated during the first tech boom in the nineties.  According to the Cesar Chavez Institute at San Francisco State, “On Valencia Street, 50 percent of the businesses that existed in 1990, mostly local operations that catered to the low-income Latino community were gone by 1998. Rental evictions tripled, and owner move-in evictions quadrupled in just two years.”  Today, the Mission teems with white hipsters.  Every time I go to Valencia Street, I see a couple new upscale restaurants, many replacing bookstores and bodegas that have been there for decades.  Every long-term business I know of on that strip has been threatened by skyrocketing rents.

The blockade of the Google bus highlighted a few issues.  One, the displacement being fueled by the influx of techies with lots of money to throw around, driving up rents and housing prices by offering cash up front over the asking price, motivating developers to use whatever dirty tricks they can to get rid of long-term tenants or owners.  And two, and more directly, the fact that the companies which attract skilled workers partly based on their proximity to chic and lively San Francisco choose to invest in private transportation for their employees, rather than contributing to better public services for everyone.  At the same time, their buses hog city bus stops and tear up the roads.  Trust me, during the two strikes by Bay Area Rapid Transit, I considered jumping on one of the buses I saw picking up workers downtown – only problem was, I didn’t know where they were going.

The highly organized protesters surrounded the bus carrying signs proclaiming, “Warning:  Illegal Use of Public Infrastructure,” “Two Tier System” and “San Francisco, not for sale”.  It attracted a ton of coverage not only from local media but also from national and even international outfits including a pretty good piece from Reuters, and coverage in Slate, Salon, Huffington Post and even China Daily.  Yahoo and Bing had it up top, but I didn’t see it on Google.

Someone got off the bus and yelled at the protesters that “This is a city for the right people who can afford it. You can’t afford it? You can leave. I’m sorry, get a better job.” The video of that confrontation went viral and probably helped to generate some of the media frenzy, before someone at the Bay Guardian realized that the “Google employee” in the video was actually well-known labor organizer Max Alper.   

This led to another frenzy of coverage, some negative, calling the theater piece a “hoax” and some surprisingly positive, like the Wall Street Journal’s observation that, “However false, Alper’s stagecraft touched a nerve in San Francisco, where some longtime residents say wealth from technology companies is pushing up housing costs and altering neighborhoods.”

On Facebook, the discussions were heated, thoughtful and mixed.  Many people felt that the controversy over the staged video distracted from the issue of gentrification, while others felt it enhanced it.  Some people said the performance was too understated and should have been readily identifiable as theater.  Several activists I respect a lot thought it unnecessarily alienated the Google workers, who are not the source of the problem and might have been sympathetic, by painting them all as hostile and clueless.  Others said they immediately knew it was fake because no Google employee would be that polite.

In later media coverage, Max said that he had just been there to support the action and decided to stage the confrontation on his own.  One of the organizers, Deepa Varma, a lawyer with the group Eviction Free San Francisco, condemned it in the press, saying, “‘We didn’t know that was going to happen and it’s too bad because the point was really to connect the housing crisis to the tech industry.”  

If it’s true that the organizers didn’t know about something that became a focal point for the media, that’s unfortunate, and it’s a learning experience.  My guess is that at least some of the organizers did know – there were a number of groups involved in the action, and it may be that the communication between the groups left something to be desired.  I’ve definitely been part of actions where some of us did things that others weren’t that comfortable with, and it’s generally been a matter of unclear agreements.

As an outsider, I feel like the invisible theater unquestionably strengthened the action.  It exponentially increased the attention to the action, both in social media and mainstream press.  I have been on the receiving end of that kind of upstagemanship and I can empathize with frustration that people may be feeling who did the grunt work to make the action happen – made the signs, fliers, wrote press releases, all that good stuff.  But without them, Max’s theater never would have happened.  In terms of more substantive critiques, no one said that all Google employees feel the way his fictitious one did.  But I can absolutely attest that every single thing he said has been said to me, in all seriousness, and not only by tech workers or people new to San Francisco.  Calling the workers names or yelling at them that they were single-handedly responsible for gentrification would not be useful, but as far as I know, no one did that.

Did any of the Google workers respond to Max’s outburst?  Argue with him, tell him to shut up, get back on the bus and wait?  Did any of them tweet, “Good for the protesters bringing attention to need for public transportation?”  Not that I heard about.  The media mainly quoted someone named Adelle, whose handle is @FashionistaLab, tweeting, “it’s not nice to hijack ppl on their way to work!”  Which makes me want to sing Malvina Reynolds (“It isn’t nice to block the doorway …”)

If any of the workers were sympathetic to the protest, great.  This video is not going to stop them.  Maybe next time they hear someone say those things in earnest, they will call it out.  Maybe they’ll get involved with the Housing Rights Committee or pressure Google to spend money on public transportation for San Francisco instead of free wi-fi in the parks, which is only going to benefit the people with laptops or tablets to use it.

To all the activists, whatever their roles, I say, “Bravo!” (and count me in next time).