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Photo: Brooke Anderson: http://www.movementphotographer.com
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Which side are you on?

Blame, innocence and privilege in SF’s class and culture wars.  

Which side are you on?

Blame, innocence and privilege in SF’s class and culture wars.  


I first and foremost identify as an activist but I am also most definitely a code writing techie. I have never worked for a .com, I have always been more of a .org kind of guy. It is very interesting to be caught between the activists and the nerds these days in the Bay Area. There is a lot of shouting going on but it does allow you to hear some some different points of view as the class war heats up into a cultural war that is battling for the soul of San Francisco.

One of the great questions asked by labor activists for the last 100 years or so is “which side are you on”? It is pretty clear question in most major fights for social justice. Are you with the workers or the bosses? Are you for against the war? Do you like the gays or are you just a fucking idiot? Drawing clear lines in the sand make fighting a battle a hell of a lot easier and is tactically necessary in most political and social conflicts.

I thought this was a fascinating point of departure as I looked at my Facebook feed this morning. I saw two posts right next to each other both with pictures of a protest. The protest involved a group of anti gentrification activists that had surrounded one of the infamous Google Buses that transport tech workers from the Mission District to Silicon Valley every day. I am not going to get into all of the controversy around the busses, the brilliant Rebecca Solnit does a very good job talking about their existential threat to the city, while the folks who organized the protest make a good argument about private busses using public resources and not paying for them. In the end I believe the buses are more about a sense of entitlement then a real transportation policy debate, but they are potent symbols.

The first post was from my friends that were organizing the protest the other was from a friend who works for Google and was sitting trapped on the bus. My Google worker friend posted some pictures taken from inside the bus. Folks responded on her page with a mix of sympathy for the bus riders, to concern over the housing crisis, to confusion and anger about why the protestors were picking on them. Soon a displaced artist called the tech people assholes and the normal state of dialogue in online comments took over as they often do in this city. Civilized debate soon returned and then I added my two cents:

So I am a nerd, but I am an activist nerd so I don’t make any money and have been pushed out of SF and into Oakland like the artist who commented above. I think most of us here agree that gentrification is a structural problem but the fact is that structural problems manifest in personal ways. In this case the structural problem is that the city has no low income housing and almost no middle class housing (which some how now means people making under 120K, which is insane). Also the tech companies have been able to use their political influence to get massive tax breaks (see Twitter) and there is not as much profit in building middle income housing so developers are completely focused on building high end units. The mayor’s low income housing fund keeps getting money added to it but there are almost no plans to do much with it because it is not profitable. This coupled with the Elis Act is causing the rental housing stock actually decrease as it is more profitable to take rental units off the market.
This is happening because the tech boom has put a lot more money into the economy and the buses in particular have pushed up rents in parts of the Mission that used to be more affordable. The economic forces of the tech boom have caused real impact on people being forced out of the city. While this is not the fault of a specific Google employee the impact of income inequality is being felt in real ways by individuals in the communities that they move into. That means that the rage people feel may not be that individual’s fault but the bus is a symbol and that rage is being directed at the symbol of their displacement. The protest and even the fake video are a rallying point to build the political unrest that will make changes in housing policy like the repeal of the Ellis Act possible.
While the details of the arguments may not make sense on a sign and not all people that are being displaced have a complex economic assessment of housing market forces they do know that they can’t afford to live in the city they love and if they do not organize they are going to have to leave (as I did).
So while I am sorry that you are getting yelled at and I know that capitalism is not your fault I am not sorry that people are organizing and trying to create the political power that they need to not be displaced. As it turns out people without money and political access really only have disruption as a tool to build power and you are they symbol they have available to disrupt. So if you want to live in a city with income diversity, shit is going to get more intense as people build power to stay in the city they love.
If you care about a diverse city then the best thing you can do is not get angry with the protestors but tell them you also support reform of the Ellis Act and the development of low income housing and understand that you are just a symbol for the ways that capitalism is broken and destroys people’s lives. Understand your privilege and think about how you can use it to help those less fortunate than you, which may mean not demonizing these folks, even if they are demonizing you.

I have lived in San Francisco’s Mission District for the last ten years. I knew from the start that I was a gentrifying force in a hispanic working class neighborhood, but it was where I could afford to live on an activist salary. I was no-fault evicted by a landlord who bought my building with speculative intentions from the nice old lady that raised her family in the apartment but was too old to care for the property. Hearing the new landlord (who was underwater on 3 other properties) say, “we are waiting for the neighborhood to gentrify more so we can evict the taqueria and put in a hip little cafe with outdoor seating” was first met with laughter. I thought 24th and Shotwell had a long way to go before the chronically drunk homeless people outside my window and and gang kids across the corner were going anywhere. But sure enough, 2 year later I was evicted and El Tonayense became the hip jewish deli, Wise Sons, famed for patronage by Mark Zuckerberg. I was lucky and found another rent controlled apartment I could afford though my status on the lease was more than tenuous and I lived in fear of losing my home again. When I decided to move in with my girlfriend it became clear that I had choice between staying in the city I had spent 10 years of living, loving and fighting for its beautiful people and inspiring communities and starting a new life living with an amazing woman. I was pissed that stupid capitalism even presented me with this choice.

So now I live in Oakland, riding the next wave of gentrification. My own experience has taught me that gentrification is not something that a person can really choose or not choose to participate in unless they are real estate speculators. Working people, even working people who work at Google are forced into this system. We are all victims, most of us are perpetrators and those us that are not are pretty much just fucked. Our former mayor Art Agnos summed it up well when he said that is all over for the poor in the city and we are currently just fighting to see if there will be a middle class. I think it is pretty depressing that most of the community organizers I know who have been doing amazing work for the last few decades can not afford to live in San Francisco anymore.

There are lots of things to argue about in this crisis that I think touch on deep emotions but don’t quite get to the core of the issue. Is it the fault of the tech worker? Is it better that the neighborhood now has more coffee shops, less violent crime and fewer poor people? Isn’t change inevitable, after all the Mission used to be predominantly Irish. Isn’t this just the fault of rent control not allowing the free market to wave its magic hands around? (No!) Should white middle class public employee and non profit workers not buy or rent homes in West Oakland that are displacing African Americans?

For me there is one questions that we need to answer to get to the heart of this debate:

Is a city’s housing stock a public good that provides members of a community a place to live or is it a financial instrument used to store and expand wealth?

This is a hard question that is at the root of our recent economic collapse, the mythology of the American dream and most middle class families long term retirement plans. It cuts deep into a lot of assumptions that we have about our economy, our identities, our communities, our families and our futures.

I firmly don’t believe that the market will ever address the housing needs of most of the community, and in the end a city is a community. We need to pass laws that will protect tenants, that remove incentives for housing speculation, and encourage more affordable housing in a manner other than an add-on to luxury developments. (Land trusts are pretty cool)

I love my brave friends that are fighting the good fight to keep this city economically and culturally diverse. I love their tactics. I love that they are not rolling over and accepting buyouts. And here comes the but…..

Our job as activists and organizers is to not just to shine a light on the straw man that is the privileged tech worker destroying a community but to also see how we can organize together. I am not saying I did not love what Max Alper did but in the longer term fight gentrification is not the same as a picket line. The complexity creates a situation where the question of “which side are you on” does not apply in the same way. It is not boss vs worker. Often times the opposition of landlord vs tenant fails as well, as long time owners who are working class and Latino or African American want to cash out. I have seen my white activist friends get in legal battles with their Latino working class landlords.

We all need to acknowledge that this issue is complex and that it is not someone’s fault, but the fault of a fucked up system that everyone other than the super rich are trapped within.

I think the mistake that my activist friends make is to assume that all workers on the other side of the of the Google bus window disagree with them on this point. Many of them do not want to cross the picket line and be called scabs but in this case the picket line is capitalism for which we don’t really have a choice but to participate when it comes to housing. (I grant the existence of the libertarian, techno-utopian, Ayn Rand crowd but don’t really care what they have to say in this debate.)

It is also the responsibility of the tech workers to own their privilege and engage in their communities and not just reshape them to be comfortable. The buses are a powerful symbol of tech workers being better than the rest of us even if they might be a sound environmental transportation policy taken outside the larger social and economic context. As my wise friend Molly Merson said in the comment deluge:

“I think you’re on the right track in asking what folks can do to use their privilege in a way that lifts up others who don’t have the same access. Displacement and gentrification has been going on for a long time, and I wonder how many changes we will see now that white folks are getting displaced, since we tend to have the most leverage in these kinds of situations.”

So here is an idea or two for the privileged who care:

  • Tell your very rich companies to pay their damn taxes. (The Twitter tax break was a scam.)
  • Ask your companies to lobby for Ellis Act reform. (They have a lot of lobbyists that I am sure need something to do.)
  • Participate in the politics of the community and support the local supervisors that support tenant’s right (Not Scott Weiner!!).
  • Attend an eviction defense rally and get to know the folks trying to stay in the neighborhood.
  • Sign a petition to the CA legislature demanding reform of the Ellis Act.
  • Give some cash to Tenants Together and the SF Tenants Union.
  • Find some awesome nerd way to help. (You know use the Twitter and the Google and the Facebox and stuff. I mean for the love of god, look the Tenants Union website, it has a non ironic animated gif, a redesign would look great in your portfolio.)

And to my dear activist friends: Don't just spit on all the tech workers and assume they created this whole situation by getting a job as code monkeys, but consider them your potential allies in getting us out of this mess (but feel free to blockade their busses when tacticly necessary). Unless of course they are free market libertarians, then fuck them!