There are times when a medium-sized protest is just a bunch of people marching around. There are other times when every small action is amplified by its connection to a broad Zeitgeist, if not necessary a large movement.Because gentrification is so virulent in the Bay Area, and because of the diligent and often thankless work of many grassroots activists for lots of years, protests targeting gentrification have finally entered into the second category. The latest salvo in this battle for the hearts and minds of San Francisco took place on Tuesday, January 21, the day the San Francisco Municipal Transit Authority was to begin discussing a $1 per stop fee for tech companies using private buses to ferry workers from San Francisco to technology office parks in the South Bay.
When I got to the meetup point for the day’s action, it didn’t look very promising. I saw about 20 people hanging out in UN Plaza with one sign. The Brass Liberation Orchestra, in their trademark pink and black, were the only bright spot. After half an hour or so, our numbers swelled – if you can call it that – to about 50, though almost half the people seemed to be grassroots media with giant cameras and boom mics. The action would be nothing if not well documented.
We set off on a small march behind the band, kind of like a workday second line. When we got to Eighth and Market, we saw that a larger group was already blocking a Google bus, with the big and now iconic bright yellow diamond signs, on long poles, reading “Stop Displacement Now” and “Public $$$$$$ Private Gain.” Groups in front and in back of the bus held up huge orange and white barriers saying “Warning: Two Tier System” and “WARNING: Rents and Evictions ↑ Near Private Shuttle Stops.” There were also a lot of yellow signs stenciled with silhouettes and “Tenants Here Forced Out.” No one can claim these actions don’t have a clear
Some people had made a hopeful “Get off the bus – join us” banner directed toward the tech workers. Sadly, I didn’t see anyone take the invitation. Someone did, however, leak Google’s memo outlining talking points for its workers to use at the hearing on the bus fee that afternoon.
Pretty soon, another tech bus – this one headed for Facebook – rounded the corner, taking up half the street as it did. A small breakoff group jumped in front of it, using a lavender on purple “Fuck Off Google” banner (I guess people don’t worry about black & white photos any more) for a barrier. Other than the bannerholders, there were only a few people with bikes blocking it, so I went to join them. The bus driver didn’t make any effort to get around the blockade or yell at us to move. I saw a worker up on the top level watching with his temple in his hands. If he was so grieved about being late, I wondered why he didn’t fire up his laptop and get to work on that famous wifi, or just post on Facebook about the annoying people blocking his bus to work.
The police arrived and seemed to feel our group was the weak link. They told us we had to move or be arrested. When we didn’t move right away, they grabbed a guy with a bike, started to cuff his hands behind his back, and a few seconds later, let him go. Pretty soon, the auxiliary blockade broke up and we rejoined the group around the Google bus. A community member from Our Mission No Evictions spoke, and then we marched off down Market Street, a couple hundred of us blocking half the lanes of traffic. A lot of the crowd took off before we made it to the San Francisco Realtors’ Association, where we had a short, small rally and then headed to City Hall, where Tommi Avicolli Mecca of Housing Rights Committee laid out our position — $1 per stop per day (something like $292 per month) is a pathetic response to the evisceration of our communities by unrestrained corporate greed. Author Rebecca Solnit provided a little bit of star power, speaking about the importance of people’s movements, and then we broke up, promising to return for the MTA meeting at 1:00 p.m. At that meeting, they agreed on the $1 per stop charge, with Supervisor David Campos mentioning that it wasn’t enough, and Google workers protesting that the buses are “not a luxury, it’s just a thing on wheels that gets us to work.”
The action got huge press. Fortunately I had taken a legitimate vacation day, because my boss saw me on the CBS Morning News the next day. Time Magazine called it “the biggest protest yet,” in an article called “A Big, Good, Bad Day for Google Buses in San Francisco”.
It even made The Daily Show at nine in a half minutes into the show (though Jon was pretty snarky and you have to suffer through a ton of ads to get to that clip).
Here in the East Bay, a smaller action the same day targeted GoogleX developer and gentrifier, Anthony Levandowski, at his home in Berkeley.
More, and even more creative, actions are in the works. Stay tuned, or better yet, join the fun. Follow Eviction Free San Francisco on Facebook and check out EvictionFreeSummer (Video).