There has been a lot fallout from the April 30th violence in the Mission. After being interviewed by a number of press outlets and my interactions, both online and in meatspace with people affected by it, I wanted to write a blog and try to bring to light some of the motivations of the ‘anti-gentrification’ element that is partially responsible for the actions that night. My intent with this is not to offend, but to illuminate. Not to alienate, but to educate. I’m not an expert, just a big fat gay guy who watches a lot of cat videos on the internet.
First off, evidence has come forth that there were specific groups involved in this that had nothing to do with OccupySF. Our attempts to denounce the action have divided OccupySF so deeply that as of right now, we have split into two groups, a group which is for ‘diversity of tactics’ and a group which is decidedly non-violent and against property destruction and vandalism. Secondly, despite knowledge of groups involved, I still maintain my assertion that there is bacon in that sandwich, for reasons I’ve already gone into in my last post.
After posting my last blog, I was questioned and even attacked by some for perceived assaults on their person. Most of these people somehow intimated that I was attacking them for being affluent whites, or that i was attacking them for being rich and successful, when in fact, I made no such call to violence and no such accusations against anyone.
I live in the Mission at Valencia and Duboce. My street was ravaged by these attacks and I had to walk home across piles of broken glass from places I have shopped at. I support local businesses and I support local communities, and this hurt. Now here comes the rough part: while I support my community, I understand the message and motivation behind the anti-gentrification efforts, though I vigorously disagree on tactics and targets.
Before we go further, a little about myself. I’m poor. I live in a living room that I have turned into a ‘bedroom’ by hanging 2 sheets. It’s the only way I can afford to live in the city that I fell in love with when I had nothing and no one else. I have a few nice things that I have worked tirelessly for, and I have no problem having them. We’re all allowed nice things. I’m white, I’m gay and I’m elbows deep in activism of an anti-capitalist and social justice tilt. I live and love in the Mission and I plan to for as long as it will have me and just like my years in Oakland, I’ll never forget the time and memories Mission has given me.
With that said, let’s talk about that word, “gentrification” and why it inspired individuals to smash your windows and cars. First off, I want to steer anyone unfamiliar towards the wikipedia article on gentrification for some background reading: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gentrification it’s really good and not a hard read, I promise. As the definition states, “it is the result of wealthy people acquire or rent property in lower income and working class communities.” That right there is the genesis of the problem and where this all gets difficult. As I’m going forward, please remember I’m not trying to make a villain out of anyone, I am trying to let you understand why there was an attack, and what you can do to help prevent the conditions that cause attack friendly sentiment to rise.
Imagine that you are the first person who moves into a neighborhood full of lower income people and you rent an apartment and open a business. *pop* goes a little bubble in the middle of this neighborhood. Nobody is saying you’ve had an easy time of it or you intentionally are doing this, but suddenly, another affluent family moves in and they open a business right next to yours. *pop* that bubble gets a little bigger. A few more follow over the next few years. Now this is where the friction and the snowballing starts. Some enterprising real estate agencies recognize a trend and raise the market value of properties in this area. Landlords follow suit (and some cities don’t have rental laws like SF and landlords can raise rent drastically within a year) and suddenly, families that have lived in this community for years and decades can no longer afford to rent their homes. If it’s an ethnic or minority community, new members cannot afford to live in this neighborhood and people leave. Additional numbers of affluent people, perhaps your customers, perhaps people who drove through and saw how “charming” the neighborhood was, decide to move here. And thus the bubble grows. As it grows, it uproots and displaces dozens, hundreds and eventually thousands of people who formerly were able to live in that neighborhood. This is a pattern that is repeated throughout history, and is part of the insipid, sneaky structural and institutional violence that is built into the capitalist model. I say that not because I have some agenda to convert you to anti-capitalist causes (although that would be fucking awesome!), but because this is an intrinsic part of capitalism: markets, supply and demand, survival of the fittest/fattest wallet.
This is where friction starts, both in the local community and from external forces, such as those who engaged in a show of force on April 30th. I am aware of my privilege, as a white male and a gay male in San Francisco, that I am sitting in a gay bar on Church street writing this. As white Americans, we cannot deny our history hasn’t been kind to those unlike us. I’m not going into an essay on privilege here, but merely highlighting that I am aware of mine. I’m well aware that we have displaced and marginalized an active and vibrant culture already existing on this continent when we settled here, and I’m well aware my own people, predominantly single white gay males, gentrified many neighborhoods in San Francisco in the past, repeating the cycle of uproot and destruction. Some people want to throw around words like ethnic cleansing and economic warfare and imply that there’s a deliberate effort to do this. I disagree. I do not think a bunch of merchants and real estate agents sit around a table and discuss how they can dissect and capitalize on killing an already existing community (see the note at the bottom for an update on this sentiment!). Instead, I think it just comes down to the ignorance, greed and ambition instilled in each of us by our economic paradigm.
I’m going to confess something here, so that way we’re equal. I’m highlighting a vulnerability on your end, so I’ll go ahead and throw something out there from my end. This way, we’re equal and maybe, just maybe a few of you will understand how earnestly I want this to be taken seriously and how desperately I want this to inspire meaningful changes in our community. So here goes.
It was not too long ago that I was a proponent of gentrification. I can clearly remember, in my ignorance, sitting in a diner in Allentown, Pennsylvania in 2002 or so, excited at the prospect that the neighborhood would be ‘cleaned up’. That’s actually really painful for me to confess because I understand now that there’s an untold Human element to all this ‘cleaning up’, and it is heartbreaking and these people, already marginalized, are made to suffer in silence as everything they know is uprooted and they are made to feel aliens in their own communities. I couldn’t wait for the nice new office buildings and condos to go up, and the new coffee shops to open up, it would be so neat, wouldn’t it? It would look so nice, wouldn’t it?
Well, I’ve come a long way since then. I understand now that when downtown Allentown was revitalized, it displaced untold hundreds of Black and largely Puerto Rican residents. These people were then forced into new neighborhoods that did not afford them the same opportunities that their former homes did: already existing cultural infrastructure, proximity to mass transit, proximity to downtown core and shopping corridors and thus good jobs. No, these people were forced into neighborhoods that became known as the “ghetto” and the “hood”. People turned to crime because they had no opportunities for success, because now there’s a shiny new office building where the old Carniceria and Bodegas and Produce Markets used to be. There’s condos where affordable housing used to be and a hockey arena going up soon, further gentrifying an already ravaged neighborhood. Obviously I’m generalizing here, and there’s even more I haven’t covered and there are additional factors to many of these things, but gentrification exacerbates many social ills that do not need any more intensity.
I could go on at length here about quite a variety of things such as the racism inherent in gentrification, or how insulting it is that city governments deign to offer former residents a set percentage of low income housing units, as though that’s supposed to assuage their collective grief. “Oh, I’ll forgive this because at least 25% of the units in that one building are low income!” “Oh I can get over this grief because the city is offering special mortgages to help affluent members of my community afford to live here.”
In America, we’ve not been encouraged to take accountability for our actions and or presence. The meme of ‘manifest destiny’ has colonized every aspect of our culture and our minds and we very much have a “what, me worry?” attitude at the world. We wring our hands at broken windows while denying the reality, the misery and the pain that our lifestyle brings, both to our neighbors and to the ‘global south’. We get angry for vandalized luxury cars, but we care nothing for the literal holocaust that American and European economic and foreign policies wreak on our own people and our brother nations. I’m not in any way, shape or form telling you to pack up and go back to wherever you came from. It’s too late for that. You have your nice things, you’ve earned them (and ssssh anti-capitalist friends, i’m not writing this to debate the legitimacy of the capitalist paradigm. this isn’t for us.) I’m writing this so we can talk about moving forward and where we go next. It sucks and I empathize with you greatly that this sudden burden is on your lap, but we’ve lived too long disregarding the cost of our footprint. We’ve lived too long thinking everything we do and have is a right, when it’s really a gift, and one that we must share if we’re going to succeed. I believe in the future, and the only way we’re going to get there is together. So let’s talk about that.
This situation is not hopeless. In fact, there is much hope to be found here. The potential in this situation is unparalleled because we’ve got a chance to do amazing things here. Valencia Street. Mission District. San Francisco. I am challenging you to set a precedent here. Remember when you used to do that? Remember the summer of love? Well in that spirit, let’s have another one, but this time, let it be the Summer of Community. I’m going to provide links to some worthy organizations that I’d love to see you contact. I’d love to see dialogue and progress and real, meaningful progress in our community.
San Francisco Community Land Trust
People Organizing to Demand Environmental & Economic Rights
Now what you do with this blog entry and these resources are your decision. I’m not in a position where I can offer anything but my heart and a hug or some counsel. I understand how alienating it can be to find out that despite doing what you think is right, it’s actually causing harm. I understand how confusing and how shocking all of this might be. I’m writing this because I love people and I care about my community. It’s why I gave up the last 6 months of my life to OccupySF and Occupy Oakland, because I believe we all deserve a just and equitable life, free of many of the fears we have today. I care enough about people that I don’t want to see windows smashed and I don’t ever want to see the looks of pain and confusion on the faces of my neighbors ever again. And this is also a warning. You cannot deny the reality of the times we life in. More and more people are growing uneasy and are falling through the cracks. We’ll keep politics out of this for now. Look around you. If you think Monday night was an isolated or unique incident, I’ve got a bridge on the bay to sell you. Think of the night of April 30th as a wakeup call and think of those that did this as a symptom of a vast and nigh incomprehensible sickness. A sickness that is getting worse as time goes on.
I hope this helped bring some measure of understanding and opened a few doors that would otherwise not have opened. These are strange days we find ourselves in, and we’re all waking up to an interesting world. We have every chance to reverse course on a lot of destructive activities and I certainly hope this helps you do the right thing, not by Occupy, not by me, but by you, your neighbors, and your community. I’m going to close this out with a bible verse that’s relevant here. I’m not a Christian by any means, but it’s certainly applicable:
“And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt.” - Deuteronomy 10:19
Thank you for reading.
EDIT: I’m actually having some interesting conversations with some activists in the Bayview neighborhood of San Francisco and it turns out that there apparently ARE some merchants and landlords and real estate agents conspiring to make gentrification happen. FUCKING DESPICABLE. Don’t be an asshole like that. In fact, that’s not even asshole behavior, that’s Imperialist, Classist, Racist, Colonialist whatever you want to call it, it’s profoundly fucked up and good people everywhere should condemn that behavior! :(