Saving Our Funky Shops and Flamboyant Political Theaters

Posted on February 5, 2014

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ImageA recent New York Times piece on Google Bus and Anti-Google actions in the SF Bay Area holds some unlikely insights for those seeking to fight gentrification in San Francisco and Oakland.

“Demonstrators regularly block the shuttles. Last week, a group of activists stalked a Google engineer at his East Bay house, urging the masses to “Fight evil. Join the revolution. One neighbor speculated that the protesters were associated with the Occupy Wall Street movement.

“It felt like regular old Berkeley behavior, to tell you the truth,” another said.

In many ways, it was. Mr. Levandowski’s house used to be a part of a small informal commune in the late 1960s. Tom Hayden, a founding member of the radical group Students for a Democratic Society, lived there.

Conditions are ripe for another large-scale protest movement, Mr. Hayden said in an interview.”

The author continues along this line for a bit, wondering if there will be an “Occupy Silicon Valley” and even takes a moment to separate the idea of “protesters” from “community”. Someone unfamiliar with discussions in activist circles about the protests, would be pardoned for being surprised that the protests were ostensibly anti-gentrification actions.

Nevertheless, one can’t fault the New York Times reporter for coming to such conclusions. Both in San Francisco, and especially in Oakland, the character of the actions left little doubt about the demographic behind them. They were indeed, what one of the interviewed experts describes as…

“… a very large, frustrated younger population watching the middle class disappear before their eyes just as they prepare to go into it [with a] a rising, serious hostility against Google…part of a class struggle around the means of producing information.”

Certainly projecting this image has not been the intention of anyone I’ve spoken to who was involved in, or supported, the actions. The opposite is true, in fact, that most protesters honestly believed they were also representing the powerless, those mostly people of color being priced out of their homes and forced out of their social and economic public space. But just as certainly it should not come as a real surprise to anyone that this is exactly how the actions are not being interpreted.

In San Francisco, the actions have at least been portrayed as being anti-eviction and there have been some instances of mentioning gentrification—though without any historical reference and scarce race or class component. It’s not surprising that in almost every report, journalists could not find a person of color to speak to at the demonstrations who could talk about gentrification and how it has already changed the low-income neighborhoods targeted before the tech boom.

And, of course, they would obviously not look very hard away from the crowd—the labor organizer who created a minor sensation by posing as a Google employee got more time at the mic than any person of color in danger of being displaced in the Mission district.

But even the minor contextualization and mention of displacement from the San Francisco conversation is missing in stories that focused on Oakland’s google flavored actions. The Guardian’s report on the action at the house of Google Engineer Anthony Levandowski focused on the group’s anti-surveillance message, citing the complaints in their literature about Levandowski’s work on “surveillance, control and automation” but not gentrification.

The issue of gentrification in the Bay Area is now obscured with a decidedly middle-class centered media focus–in San Francisco, the middle class is being “priced out” while in Oakland it is a middle class anarchist versus tech class battle. Natasha Lennard, in Salon, also wrote an entire ode to aggressive tactics against Google, but barely mentioned the idea of gentrification in the context of them.

All of this comes up at a moment of intersecting claims and rebuttals on the concept of gentrification in Oakland. Last week’s piece in Oakland Local by a meta-gentrifier [subsequently removed] set off a series of rapid-fire critiques and spit-takes on social media networks. A self-congratulatory ode to social terraforming, the article created an absurdly large target of its author, Stephen Kopff, who is basically seeking to drop a genesis device of personally financed lo-fi development on the partially gentrified Funktown neighborhood.

The backlash hewed to familiar lines in the Oakland political scene. From progressive circles came the idea that one can mitigate impact on communities one is inadvertently displacing by hewing to a code of conduct, placing the economic impact and process of gentrification in the hands of the individual. And from more radical corners emerges the concept that the individual is but the least crucial unit of gentrification, and that their activity and world view can act to stop gentrification as well.

Lost in these similar, if competing, narratives, is the reality that gentrifiers take up political public space beyond the scope of the economy and geography they subsume. When they arrive in a community, they bring with them the power of their social status, the clout from their rent and purchasing cash, and, usually white-identified privilege.All of these have the power to displace that is by now well-discussed in politicized circles. But displacement is not just an issue of buying out homes and replacing business with those preferred by the new owners.

The social space, where the possibility of independent popular resistance and organizing of, for and by poor communities is also being sold out from under these neighborhoods. The churches, the coffee shops, the diners, the corners, the lots, the playgrounds, the community centers where ideas once percolated in a long ago world where activism and action were not just in the hands of the economically privileged, are lost to the listening posts and social circles of the new, more affluent residents.

Thus, even activists attracted to places like Oakland who may bring the best intentions are inadvertantly gentrifying these political spaces, taking the concerns of local residents about jobs, gentrification and other issues, and forcing them through the lens of their own theories and experience—a lens clouded by a persistent idiosyncratic, often ideological, itnerpretation of the culture and history surrounding them.

Exacerbating this effect, are lazy, racist media purveyors unversed in class and economic dynamics with an unabashed economic bottomline to publish stories interesting to the middle class and affluent. Thus, gentrification earned a headline late in the now-decades long  process in SF when it began to affect earlier gentrifiers who’d already turned a neighborhood that once boasted two Spanish language movie theaters into a playground of cafes, bars, restaurants and boutiques.

But in Oakland, where the middle class and affluent refugees from SF’s super-rich displacement project are driving the process, there is not much interest in transmitting even that sad-trombone story. This is why corporate media don’t know what to do with the Google protests in Oakland, and instead are crafting their own middle versus upper class warfare narrative that quite purposefully ignores the intent obvious in the messaging and literature of the groups behind them—the “white faces on the block” amplification effect of gentrification, transferred to the public sphere terrain of the anti-gentrification battle.

Especially in Oakland’s context, where the spectacle of demonstration is almost always the story, the desire in the media to make the lede about the activists and to exoticize them as something foreign to the community seems irresistible. Despite very specific messaging and literature, the Google Bus Action groups have been interpellated, as in the case of the New York Times, as fighting for their own fortunes on the field of middle class opportunity that was their birthright—when they were not immediately dismissed as unserious dilettantes.

The Guardian put this succinctly in its description of the San Francisco gentrification battleground of “funky shops” being priced out of the city and the Bay Area’s activists milieu of “flamboyant political theater” with an “anarchist streak”. It’s not surprising, then, that bereft of a deeper message, national level-media have often been superficially obsessed with charging Google for use of city bus stops, a minor and symbolic aspect of the anti-eviction fight in SF and one not at all existing in Oakland.

The public sphere is conceptual, but it is also finite and it caters to those who have been capacitated to understand its terrain. Organizing with like-minded activists in a neighborhood or community undergoing gentrification can quite easily become organizing with one’s peer group, which assures that most of the people in the group will be most likely unrepresentative of the people being displaced at any given time.

There is a danger, which has been to a great extent realized in the Google Bus actions, of the activists becoming the center of attention, and consequently their own class and trajectory filling out the blank copy in the media narrative.

In that context, it seems crucial to understand where the sudden interest in actions around anti-gentrification activism is coming from, after decades in both SF and Oakland of the issue being almost unheard of outside of left of center activist communities. The focus is certainly not an accident nor twist of fate.

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