A small group of San Francisco protesters blocked a private bus from delivering Google employees to their jobs today, halting its route and blasting the company's use of public bus stops by their cushy, private shuttles. The move is part of a larger campaign to fight gentrification, including rent hikes, evictions, and the displacement of poorer resident of a San Francisco Bay Area that's been overrun by the latest tech boom.
The protest caught fire online, after a 90-second snatch of dialogue, between a protester and alleged Google employee, seemed to evoke the worst moments of class warfare during the height of the Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party movements. Caught by the
San Francisco Chronicle San Francisco Bay Guardian, that video lays out the conflict as succinctly as any media report will:
"I can pay my rent, can you pay your rent?" yells the flustered and infuriated Googler, who claims to have lived in the city for six months. "Why don't you go to a city where you can afford it? This is a city for the right people who can afford it. If you can't afford it, it's time for you to leave." The unidentified man refused to give his name or job, but he seems to perfectly encapsulate everything despicable about a greedy and entitled industry.
That's assuming that he was a Googler. It took viewers just a few moments to confirm that he wasn't. Turns out the argument was staged, like everything else on the Internet, this time by a union organizer. From the San Francisco Bay Guardian:
Various tips have streamed in that this shout-out was staged. Protest organizer Leslie Dreyer talked to us on the phone and verified that this person's identity was Max Bell Alper, a union organizer from Oakland. This person was not a Google employee, and Dreyer was not able to verify if Alper was there in the morning with the group of 20-30 protesters
In fairness, plenty of observers were skeptical even before that revelation:
On second viewing, I have $10 on that Google employee being fake.— Kevin Roose (@kevinroose) December 9, 2013
What smells fake to me: when I was a Google employee, I would’ve been scared as hell to say ANYTHING on record, let alone abuse like that.— Lisa McIntire (@LisaMcIntire) December 9, 2013
So there you go—the argument was fake. But the culture war between Silicon Valley's wealthy young miners and the Bay Area residents who are increasingly priced out of their old neighborhoods by rising housing prices is real. And the buses, which come equipped with Wifi and leather seats, have become a key battle ground for the conflict, as Rebecca Solnit argued memorably last February. Solnit bemoaned the impact of the tech industry on "what was once a great city of refuge for dissidents, queers, pacifists and experimentalists." Those protestors seem to have been doing the same.
But, perhaps, it's the city that should share the brunt of the blame with Google. San Francisco's outdated and occasionally counterproductive housing policies have received plenty of criticism and arguably do more to undermine fairness than the legions of well-paid tech workers. The protestors may have done more harm than good with their stunt today, but hoax or no hoax, the cause isn't fading away soon.