The Right Target

Anti-gentrification protesters in San Francisco block the Google shuttle.

Anti-gentrification protesters in San Francisco block the Google shuttle.

A flashy protest campaign was launched in the Bay Area a few weeks ago, and, immediately, it was hit by a torrent of criticism for its choice of target. 

"The protesters are alienating potential allies!"

"This company is one of the good ones. They're trying to make progress! Haven't you heard their amazing corporate motto?"

"There isn't coherence about the issues in this protest... or a realistic demand for change!"

You might think that I'm writing about DxE's "It's Not Food, It's Violence" campaign against Chipotle. That would not be a bad guess. Chipotle describes itself as an ally to the AR movement. It has a beautiful corporate motto: "Food with Integrity." And even some AR activists, with a narrow view of this movement's ambitions (and a similarly narrow understanding of the theory of nonviolent direct action), say they are puzzled by the campaign. 

But you would be wrong.

I'm writing, instead, about the protests against the "Google shuttles" and the tech-financed gentrification they have come to represent.

Let's give our readers some backdrop. For the past 10 years, tech money from Silicon Valley has been infusing itself into SF and Oakland. The result is skyrocketing rental prices that are effectively excluding those from the lower (or even middle) classes from their long-time homes. Families that have lived in these historic neighborhoods for decades are being evicted by profiteering landlords, armed with swarming teams of unscrupulous lawyers, who find legal pretenses for kicking them out -- even where they've been perfect tenants for years. The goal is to replace these long-time tenants with high-paid tech workers, or to knock down the buildings to make expensive condos. Not only is this a tragedy for the individuals who lose their homes, but the resulting demographic exclusivity compromises the Bay Area's historic role as a community renowned for its inclusiveness, innovation, and commitment to social justice. 

Construction in the Bay Area is booming, but as the New York Times notes, the beneficiaries are not the city's historical residents, but tech companies and their wealthy employees. 

Construction in the Bay Area is booming, but as the New York Times notes, the beneficiaries are not the city's historical residents, but tech companies and their wealthy employees. 

The protesters decided they needed to do something about this, and they chose Google -- and its intimidating fleet of "elites-only" buses that ferry employees from SF to Silicon Valley -- as their target. By choosing a "sexy" target, one with huge public influence, and one that is known as a "good company," they immediately triggered not just media attention (in social and mainstream media alike).... but a firestorm of criticism.

Critics complained that the protesters had no realistic or coherent demands ("What control does Google have over housing policy in SF?") , that they were alienating potential allies ("Tech workers are liberal!"), and that Google (whose company motto is famously, "Don't be evil.") was far from the worst offender in corporate America.The critics complained: "Why not target City Hall for its failure to address the housing shortage? Or one of the evil real estate companies pushing for evictions? Or even one of the tech companies that has a less sterling reputation than Google?"

The critics, however, are missing the point of nonviolent direct action. The point is not to affect one of the tiny cogs of injustice in some marginal way. For sure, a protest against a landlord could stop a single eviction. Absolutely, a protest against City Hall might achieve some marginal shift in policy (that would mostly likely be repealed or evaded by enterprising lawyers and lobbyists). Those protests and goals might very well be worthwhile. But the primary goal of nonviolent direct action has never been marginal. The goal is to change the way we think about an issue. And by doing so, to effect real and permanent change -- rather than marginal shifts that are too easily reversed -- in the way we act, too

And as was recently reported by the Uptown Almanac and SF Magazine, the shuttle protests -- and the ambitious model of nonviolent direct action -- are working. The former collects the evidence in support: 

Ed Lee coming out in favor of a $15/hour minimum wage hike, activists "shaming the [tech] billionaires into philanthropy," new ideas for spurring middle-income housing development, Ron Conway's lobbying group going on a public relations campaign, and three new pro-tenant measures getting passed by the Board of Supervisors.

And it doesn't just end there.

Tech companies themselves are scrambling to look good, with companies like Airbnb and Zendesk pledging community classes for children, donating unused office space as free community spaces, and even hosting lectures on the industry's impact on the city.

Even former Mayor Willie Brown, arguably patient zero in the artisocratization of San Francisco, has come out slamming the industry, writing, "What the tech world needs to do is nip this thorny plant in the bud. They need to come off their high cloud efforts to save Africa or wherever they take adventure vacations and start making things better for folks right here."

The morals of this story are sundry: You have to have a target, and a prominent one. You have to have a powerful (and even surprising) storyline. And you need to create drama and tension to get your issue the attention you think it deserves. 

But perhaps most important of all, you have to believe in the power of your message, even (and perhaps especially) when confronting a popular target. You have to believe you can win the debate, even against your opponent's supposedly "strongest case." 

The truth is, targeting Google in an anti-gentrification protest makes a lot less sense than targeting Chipotle for violence against animals. Google, after all, has no corporate policy in favor of evictions. Most of its employees are probably against the practice. And Google is one of the most popular and useful companies in the world. Its direct role in the problem of gentrification is purely incidental. 

Chipotle, in contrast, is directly implicated in massive violence against millions of animals. Not only that, it has a clear corporate policy that advocates the killing of animals (most recently, a huge billboard in the Bay Area that simply says, "MEAT MEAT MEAT"). It attempts to transform eating animals into an ethical and humane thing to do. And actively propagandizes the public into the belief that buying a violence-filled burrito is cultivating a better world.

There is, in other words, a compelling case that Google is a wonderful protest target, despite the fact that it's a 'good company.' But with Chipotle, it's not even a 'good company.' The company (which is one of the largest and fastest growing animal killing enterprises in the world) is, purely and simply, a moral fraud. 

So when you hear critics getting defensive about our campaign, don't be chastened or deterred. When you hear them say they don't understand our choice of target, or the nature of the demand, don't be frustrated or annoyed. Forcing people to revisit basic assumptions, or appreciate the systemic nature of a problem, will leave many unsettled or confused. While we should never give up on anyone, even our fiercest critics, the dialogue itself is powerful evidence that we have hit a pressure point, that we have struck a nerve, that we are making important cultural waves.

And if we are as persistent and strong as the anti-gentrification protesters, even in the face of withering public criticism, we can achieve the same success.