Nishat Kurwa on Sunday, Jun. 29th
San Francisco’s Pride parade hit Market Street this weekend and marked 44 years of queer communities agitating for civil rights and recognition. But there’s another, emergent activist tradition being linked to Pride: the demonstrations known as the Google bus protests.
If you’ve somehow missed the slew of coverage about the protests, they’re not just targeting Google, but a number of big technology firms that use the white luxury coaches to transport workers to the South Bay and Peninsula — workers that protesters cite as a key factor in skyrocketing San Francisco rents. The first bus blockade to go viral in the media happened last December, when a labor organizer posed as a Google employee and shouted down fellow activists on Valencia Street.
But a few months earlier, the luxury shuttles had already been used by activists — one of whom was artist Leslie Dreyer — in Pride 2013.
Dreyer and a group of friends, some of who later formally organized as a performance art group called Heart of the City Collective, had been engaged in anti-eviction work in Oakland and San Francisco, and wanted to highlight the connections they saw between the tech industry and the region’s housing crunch, she told me during an interview this spring. She said they registered for the parade as a faux tech contingent, and, feigning admiration for tech firms, requested a spot alongside Google and Twitter. Their rented luxury bus entered the parade with a sign slung across the length of it that read, “Gentrification and Eviction Technologies,” in a Google-logo-evoking four color font.
Google employees in the parade themselves, Dreyer said, “reacted differently,” to the activists’ bus. “Some laughed it off, some took pictures with it, some had discussions about it.”
The protesters felt that the stunt was a success, especially in demonstrating their displeasure with the changing tone of Pride, which Dreyer calls “a corporate advertising event that kind of looks like the Rose Bowl a bit. We also used the action to raise awareness about a group that was starting, called Eviction Free Summer at the time…and draw people out to go to meetings and actually take action against the evictions.”
The work protesters have done includes creating technology like the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, which amasses data on tenants’ rights issues in the city. Its founder Erin McElroy, who has been a vocal and visible leader of the anti-eviction movement, came to San Francisco as a grad student. Her academic work had touched on evictions in an international setting — she studied the displacement of Roma communities in Transylvania as part of her thesis — but in 2010, she turned her focus to housing issues in the Bay Area when she began seeing the evictions of artist and activist collectives, she said. San Francisco, of course, is renowned for its hospitality to queer people and others who have seen the city as a refuge. McElroy views the city’s current unaffordability as a threat to that reputation. “Whether through it being a sanctuary city for folks in Latin America, or providing resources for trans folks or folks that are HIV positive that don’t exist in other places in the country,” she said, “there are resources here that have attracted marginal communities. And now it’s kind of abandoning a lot of these folks that it has historically opened its arms to.”
There’s lots of overlap, and collaboration, between McElroy’s group and others that continued anti-gentrification protests after Pride 2013. For many of the activists, Dreyer said, the luxury shuttles seemed to be an enduring and powerful symbol of the tech industry’s excesses. “We decided to stay with it and stop it,” she told me. “Literally to stand in front of it as another way to bring awareness to the issue. A spectacle at Pride is one thing, and actually stopping something in its tracks is another.”
There are other notable precursors to the series of direct actions involving the “Google buses,” and to the stunt activists pulled back at Pride 2013. Gay people have employed political theater for decades, most prominently during Queer Nation’s actions in New York in the 1990s. More recently, in San Francisco, a white pinata fashioned after the shuttles took a beating in a protest back in May, a month before Heart of the City’s prank at Pride.
“I think that we can’t separate out the success and persistence and enlarging of the movement around the tech shuttles from the anti-gentrification, anti-eviction, anti-displacement, and housing and tenants’ rights work that all of the organizations such as ours have been doing for many, many, years,” said Sara Shortt, executive director of the Housing Rights Committee of SF, when we talked about the bus protests in her cramped office recently. “And we’re all saying the same thing — we need to protect longtime renters in San Francisco, and the tech industry cannot keep behaving like this is the Wild West.”
No matter its origins, Shortt says, “the tech shuttle bus protests are part of the same movement,” for tenants’ rights, one that she sees as “making great progress and having some really profound successes.”
And though anti-eviction organizers often invoke the tech industry, the protesters that target the tech sector are not a monolith. Many that I talked to in San Francisco wouldn’t comment on the tactics of East Bay protesters who’ve carried out the most sensational actions, like breaking the windows of a Google bus, vomiting on the windows of a Yahoo shuttle, and demonstrating at the home of a Google engineer.
But as one extremely visible branch of a larger protest culture in San Francisco right now, the Google bus protests are a lightning rod. And after a year, their viability is being questioned.
At the same time, there’s potential for upcoming ballot measures to move the tenants’ rights agenda forward. The San Francisco Anti-Displacement Coalition is backing an “anti-speculation tax” that would impose a heavy financial burden on house flippers who try to sell a building within five years of its purchase. On the splash page of its website, there’s a photo of former mayor Harvey Milk (who introduced a similar law) and a closing exhortation, all in caps with one word multicolored: THERE IS NO PRIDE IN EVICTIONS!