“You guys live fat as hogs with your free 24/7 buffets”
On Friday, a group of protestors in West Oakland blocked a Google bus carrying workers that had stopped to pick up people at the West Oakland BART and carry them to the Google Mountain View campus. According to SF Gate, a brick was thrown through the window of one bus and a tire slashed on another, all in the name of anti-gentrification, pro-affordable housing policy. The bus was freed by Oakland police, but not before passengers were handed flyers stating “Get the fuck out of Oakland.”
As we all know, the Google–and other–commuter buses that ferry workers to Silicon Valley campuses from around the Bay have become symbols of displacement and privilege. The appearance of the buses dramatizes the disconnection from place that many locals sense in the newcomer techies, who live on our streets but are perceived as a breed apart, focused on their tech tribe, aka corporation, and insensitive to issues of race, class and community that honor those who came before. The buses–and the people who ride them–are also perceived by many as willing participants in the gentrification and displacement of long-term residents and working class people from Oakland neighborhoods–and a factor in people being pushed out and even evicted in San Francisco.
It’s tricky for a city like Oakland, that wants to court tech companies to move here, to align with protests against Google buses and privilege–and yet we all know that tech, with its tradition of founders hiring their friends, can be a closed network. Not only does bringing tech companies to Oakland not ensure those companies will provide jobs for Oakland people, the rise of tech in the area ensures that as more and more displaced San Francisco wanna-bes move to the East Bay, our friends and neighbors may get pushed out of their communities.
In an effort to understand what folks have been feeling about this–and as a means of tracking the sentiment and the level of discussion about the recent #googlebus the bus demonstrations–which are about affordable housing and displacement as well as class–I did a scan through the twittersphere using Topsy. I saw the posts by Occupy-flavored activists and black bloc anarchists, some frustrated tech folks, some housing organizers, and lots of locals reading and watching through the news stream. Consensus: conflicted, mostly.
I also came across some full-blog essays and blog posts about the incidents, and the issues they raise, that are well worth a read. Some excerpts follow:
“When I say “give back to the larger community”, I’m not talking about charity. I’m talking about reaching out and getting to know your SF and Oakland native neighbors. Step out of the tech bubble. Participate in events like Occupy. Feed the homeless with Food Not Bombs. Become a community activist. Get off the private bus and take muni. Go to the laundromat and do your own laundry.”
Rebecca Solnit, writing in the London Review of Books, has a powerful–and lengthy–essay about class, privilege and tech work. A quote about San Francisco (but becoming as true for Oakland as rising prices and displacement increase in the East Bay) has special resonance for me:
“In the same spaces wander homeless people undeserving of private space, or the minimum comfort and security; right by the Google bus stop on Cesar Chavez Street immigrant men from Latin America stand waiting for employers in the building trade to scoop them up, or to be arrested and deported by the government. Both sides of the divide are bleak, and the middle way is hard to find.”
Davie Taylor, a young–and admittedly privileged–techie living in Oakland published an essay on Medium called Which side are you on? that splits the hairs of the issues right down the middle:
“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.”
How do I feel about all this? On one hand, I feel very strongly that tech businesses, and businesses that use tech as part of their utility suite, are essential to Oakland’s economic health and growth. On the other hand, we all need to work together to make sure that education, networks, access and community ensure that our Oakland residents–adults and youth alike–are employed in these newly founded or relocated companies, and that our neighborhoods are not colonized and transformed by new people with no understanding or respect for what came before.
Maybe it is very Oakland to want to embrace growth and do it in an inclusive and values-driven way, but that is exactly how I personally feel–and how many people I am talking with in Oakland also feel. What we need to do is convene and align not only around opportunities, but around values–and programs that support those values–and translate them into reality.