Confronting Expulsion from the City: Organizing in San Francisco

Source: Chris Martin, wikimedia

Source: Chris Martin, wikimedia

(by: Nick García and Daniel Gutiérrez)

Earlier this month, San Francisco Municipal Transit Authority began holding hearings to restrict the use of Google and other companies from using public transit stops for their employee shuttles, and by August will begin charging 1$ per Google bus stop to create revenue for public transportation. This was a result of public outcry and organizing around this symbol of the growing economic inequality and gentrification of San Francisco.

From Smart car tipping to Google bus blocking, San Francisco has become synonymous to gentrification.

While organizing around such strong symbols as Google buses has created a short-term success and brought these issues into the mainstream, debates and actions have fallen short of responding to the deeper causes and effects of gentrification both locally and globally. Housing rights activists and journalists have brought up how techies and hipsters moving into low-income communities of color leads to evictions, pricing long time residents out,  and racist and classist restructuring of the city, but little focus has been drawn on the broader causes and effects of gentrification, urban policy and political economy, and the groups that have been working to address these issues.


A good way to look at gentrification is that it is a form of urban development that benefits white, upper- and middle-class professionals, and private companies at the cost of working class communities of color. It is a deliberate form of urban policy organized by private and public policy makers. The goal of this development plan is to promote “urban renewal” by pushing out the lower income communities and encourage new wealthier and whiter residents. Problem is, it doesn’t solve any questions of poverty or disenfranchisement, it merely moves it elsewhere.

Landlords evict original tenants to increase profits and make way for new higher income, mostly white tenants. Businesses in these neighborhoods also change, as landowners push out older businesses the same time as these new tenants don’t patron older (read: nonwhite) establishments, and major companies move into these “developing” districts, being able to out-price the original tenants.

As a result, cities have pushed low-income residents out of the city to make way for these new laborers necessary to generate more capital. Gentrification, at its core, is about expanding markets spatially.

Title about intersectional groups that fight gentrification:

While the Google bus demonstrations, signs saying “hipsters get out”, anti-police brutality work, and organizing against expensive condo developments target  different issues pertaining to gentrification,  they don’t attack the source from which gentrification results: the housing market, widening income inequality, privatization of state industry, and globalized systems of economic control, which city elites, private companies like Google, and policy makers all promote.

People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER) and a community group in San Francisco, CA, produced one of the strongest analysis of gentrification in their publication Towards Land, Work & POWER.  Alongside several other groups such as the Mission Anti-displacement Coalition (MAC), they have been organizing stronger movements against gentrification based on a deep and structural analysis of the root source of issues. POWER explains that gentrification arose out of a result of de-industrialization, with cities becoming centers not of well-paying, unionized jobs, but of international finance, high paying white-collar labor, and low-income service sector labor.

What makes POWER even more interesting is that they connect their figh to anti-imperialist work, seeing the transformation of US cities as centers of global finance and part of international systems of oppression. As a result their work against companies like Apple, connects not only to Apple’s impact in San Francisco but globally through the use of sweatshop labor in the manufacturing of their products.

Walking the Walking, not Just Talking the Talk

Furthermore, POWER also succeeded at making real, tangible political gains. In December of 2012, POWER was able to win free public transportation for low and moderate income youth in San Francisco. Their dedication to expanding the right to the city resulted in the Free Muni for Youth Program. According to the group’s website, “the 16 month pilot program runs from March 2013 through June 2014, benefitting over 30,000 youth”. Since then, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors approved continuing this program through the 2015 and 2016 Fiscal Year.

However, the campaign did not begin as something geared for only poor working class youth. Rather, the campaign was focused at expanding public transportation to all youth. And this is vital. As Steve Williams, a core member of POWER, explains in a text published by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung called “DEMAND EVERYTHING: Lessons from the Transformative Organizing Model”, POWER’s campaign to guarantee free public transportation to all youth was highly strategic:

“This demand was a departure from how the organization would have frame this campaign in previous years. Before refining our vision, we would have called for the provision of free public transportation only for low-income young people. This new demand helped to position POWER not as an organization seeking to win charitable concessions for only low-income people but as a force aiming to expand the commons of San Francisco.”

Hence, POWER moved beyond mere policy-making or charity work. This struggle was about redefining power relationships and expanding rights to the city for all. This kind of program specifically attacks definitions of who brokers these rights, and through community organizing and pressure, forces the system to bend to the will of working class folk.

Getting by with a little help from friends

Perhaps even more importantly, the success of winning free public transport for disenfranchised youth was only feasible through strategic alliance building.

And this was difficult for a group that maintained a strict theoretical line. Williams notes that at the beginning, POWER was unable to build coalitions because it made theoretical unity a priority in building such relationships. Williams notes that this level unity was “unrealistic”.

Instead, POWER built relationships with organizations based on a necessity of praxis. That meant coalition building at the local and national level with organizations that shared the same immediate goals rather than faraway destinations. Solidarity and movement building became hugely important with groups like Causa Justa – Just Cause, the Chinese Progressive Association, the Coleman Advocates, the Miami Workers Center, CAAAV, and the Labor Community Strategy Center.  Together, and only together, these groups were able to make real political gains that result in programs like the Free Muni for Youth Program.

In a flood of images of an ever-changing San Francisco that increasingly alienates its native population, POWER’s success may serve as a shining beacon in organizing efforts against gentrification. Moving beyond immediate and sponteanous actions that yield little political result, POWER organizes on a basis of building movement through sustained action and solidarity, making real political gains that reshape the political map.

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