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Interview :: Gentrification
Gentrification and resistance in San Francisco
by Posted by Tibor Szamuely
Email: proletaire2003 (nospam) yahoo.com
14 Sep 2015
Orthodox protest methods have failed. It's time to retool...
A little over a month ago on a Thursday in late July I ran an Amoeblog piece entitled #TBT To Earlier Era San Francisco Gentrification/Tech Invasion Backlash in which I looked back at a period in recent decades of San Francisco real estate and cultural history when an earlier era of tech fueled gentrification of The City was well underway. It was the late 1990's and while, in contrast to 2015, things may not seem as drastic as they are nowadays it was in retrospect clearly a warning signal of what was to come in 2015 when SF rentals now rival Manhattan's most expensive. The previous first wave tech invasion was when struggling local musicians and other artists were fleeing San Francisco due to being unable to keep up with increasing housing costs - prompting me at that time to theme and entitle one of the five Amoeba Music Compilations I produced Just Payin' The Rent because at the time that was about all most artists could at most afford to do (scrape by and barely pay their monthly rent that they hoped didn't get jacked up). It was a period seen by many as the "dot com" invasion of areas South Of Market particularly the Mission District. And it was when a housing rights activist/protester who went by the pseudonym of Nestor Makhno (the name of a pre-Russian revolution era anarchist) and operated an ad hoc organization called the Mission Yuppie Eradication Project (MYEP). As such in 1997 he began a controversial street level poster campaign that involved the sniping of anti-gentrification posters plastered on walls and mailboxes all over the Mission that encouraged fellow longtime residents to slash tires and damage the property of the perceived culprits of that tech invasion of two decades ago. Eight months into his grassroots campaign, that raised the ire of the SFPD and the FBI who he successfully eluded for a long time, he got caught in the act and arrested for "suspicion of making terrorist threats and malicious mischief."
As noted in the previous Amoeblog the MYEP's founder was an individual named Kevin Keating whom the San Francisco Chronicle at the time described as a "self styled anarchist-communist…38-year- old office temp, struggling writer, and direct action." Also as articulated in the previous Amoeblog, I wondered where Keating was now and what his thoughts would be on the current SF housing market that is a direct result of the implosion of new tech companies in the city. I had tried to contact Keating in vain, but after the piece was published did connect with him. He then agreed to do a follow up interview piece with the Amoeblog - which follows immediately below.
Amoeblog: First up what do you know think of San Francisco's housing market today in September 2015, and did you ever envision it getting to this stage back in the late 90's when you ran your campaign against gentrification?
Kevin Keating: Capitalism is on the rampage. San Francisco is being turned into the world's nicest-looking office park. The city is being transformed into a great place for vapid buck-chasing slobs and a lousy place for everyone else. I was surprised that San Francisco wasn't rendered completely uninhabitable by the late 90's dot-com-fueled housing speculation boom. Happily the cyber-bubble popped in early 2001. I suspect something similar will happen this time as well. The biggest problem here is not what capitalism is doing to our lives and to the places where we live our lives. It's the lack of credible, ongoing, bare-knuckle resistance to what capitalism is doing to our lives. By credible I mean actions that are taken seriously by friend and foe alike.
Effective resistance means establishing a dynamic where laws and elected officials are outflanked by widespread ongoing collective action. This means doing an end-run around the conventional decision-making apparatus of this society. We cannot vote our way out of our problems. Effective resistance means direct action. This is the only way that liberatory social change happens. In the current context this means inflicting visible damage on the economic interests of the predators and exploiters who profit from gentrification and displacement. The prevailing economic climate in San Francisco is the source of the problem. We need to mess up this economic climate. We can do this now. This involves the physical destruction of property owned by well-off types who invade low income neighborhoods. And of course it means more than this; we need big neighborhood public meetings, where we figure out who among us is most under the gun. We need to figure out where the landlords and investors preying on wage earners and low income people live. We should bring it home to them -- publicize their faces, home addresses, office addresses, and uncover and spread their personal information.
We need to draw high-profile public negative attention to specific landlords and speculators. With this we can make it far too expensive for banks, speculators and landlords to conduct business at our expense. Bourgeois conformist types who colonize working class areas like San Francisco's Mission District are eager tools of the larger miscreants here. Bourgeois conformists value convenience above all else. They are not accustomed to resistance. A sustained effort to make things inconvenient for them in the working class areas they invade will persuade them to seek convenience elsewhere. This perspective was a key aspect of what the Mission Yuppie Eradication Project of the late 1990's was about.
Amoeblog: What are the key differences (if any) between the 90's and the current gentrification waves in San Francisco?
Kevin Keating: My surface impression was that the cyber-conformists were into a much more in-your-face type of conspicuous consumption during the late 90's phase of the problem. Or maybe the sudden proliferation of Jaguars, Benzes and Beemers on the streets of a rough working class neighborhood like San Francisco's Mission District was more shocking then. That sudden surprising incongruous presence of their high end rides was why the Mission Yuppie Eradication Project of the late 1990's began with a widespread public call to vandalize yuppie vehicles. Targeting cars was an extremely effective way to get a combative message out. Nothing is more important to an American than their car. And to my surprise it turned out the spectre of vandalism was a more effective way to electrify the situation than all the actual vandalism was. Both are necessary. They help to feed each other's fire.
Amoeblog: From your Facebook page it seems you are still fighting the good fight on behalf of housing rights. What exactly are you doing these days in continuing the battle you began back two decades ago?
Kevin Keating: I wish I could say that I am still fighting the good fight. But effective anti-capitalist action is a collective effort. In recent years I haven't been able to get this together. First we should take a look at what the SF Bay Area's anarchist community has amounted to in the context of the current housing and displacement catastrophe. So-called anarchism is the biggest leftist current in the U.S. right now. A self-styled "anticapitalist social center" called Station 40 is located on 16th Street near Mission Street, across the street from the 16th Street BART Plaza. They have a photo of a black flag fluttering in a blue sky seen from a heroic angle on their Facebook page, and have hosted numerous public meetings where anti-authoritarian subculture dwellers groove on revolt in faraway places like Barcelona and Athens. For several years I attended these events. At Station 40 there was always plenty of fiery talk.
Around 2010 and 2011 the recent phase of mass evictions and embourgeoisification was taking off. It was clear that I couldn't just do the exact same thing that I'd done in the late 1990's. We needed mass public resistance from the very earliest phase of the problem, and with that in mind I tried for a period of almost two years to get people at the "anticapitalist" social center Station 40 to host a meeting about accelerating gentrification that would be open to working people in our neighborhood -- that's the key point here, open to neighborhood people at large, and not just another vicarious living event for subculture scenesters. Nothing happened. There was no movement of any kind on this. It took the people at Station 40 almost two years to get around to telling me that they were unwilling to use their meeting space for a public discussion about the gentrification of the Mission District.
This anarchist subculture space is located at the virtual ground zero of Mission gentrification. They've had scads of anti-authoritarian subculture events for a number of years, but they were unwilling to hold even a single event about the galloping demographic ruin of the working class neighborhood where their space is physically located that would be open to the Mission's working class. They nixed my using their space. They refused to get anything together on their own. And when their own eviction threat inevitably came, they hollered deceitfully about what a blessing Station 40 has been to the Mission District!
The abysmal scene at Station 40 is an accurate reflection of what gets called anarchism or anti-authoritarianism in this part of the world. In regard to gentrification and the accompanying housing crisis the anarchist scene in the San Francisco Bay Area has been completely useless. I was around the Bay Area anarchist scene for about twenty five years, since the beginning of the 1980's. In real world social conflict terms the anarchist scene has proven to be a completely worthless phenomenon. It is a grease trap of passivity and terminal disengagement. The Bay Area's anarchist subculture is no different from what is seen with subcultures that coalesce among fans of Star Trek, fans of the Grateful Dead, and fans of role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons.
To continue to give discredit where discredit is due: After things went nowhere with the Station 40 poseurs I tried working with the group that is now called Eviction Free San Francisco. This was at the beginning of the summer of 2013. They were then called Eviction Free Summer. That's now more than three summers ago. A measure of their failure to make a difference is that after three years of existence under extremely fruitful circumstances for a combative message around housing Eviction Free San Francisco is still completely invisible to and ignored by a high ninety percent of San Francisco renters.
Unlike the flakes of the anarchist subculture the people in Eviction Free San Francisco operate in the real world, and they have actually prevented a few evictions. But stopping a handful of evictions per year when more than a thousand people a year are being driven from their homes is a massive failure. These work within the system housing activists fail to have an impact because they choose to take on the problem from the least effective angle, at the final stage of the problem, when atomized renters have already been hit with the eviction notice. Once you are served with the eviction notice, you are probably going to lose your home. The people in Eviction Free San Francisco refuse to attack the root of the problem, which is the prevailing business climate in San Francisco and the economic interests of the rich.
Eviction Free San Francisco has failed to communicate a message to most renters in San Francisco because Eviction Free San Francisco has no message to communicate. Unlike the Mission Yuppie Eradication Project, Eviction Free San Francisco offers no tools that embattled people can use. Everything with Eviction Free San Francisco is about begging politicians at City Hall to be nice to us. Begging elected officials doesn't impress elected officials. And it doesn't resonate with anyone other than a small number of people who aspire to become elected officials themselves, or get paid positions working for politicians, which is the long term goal of the main people behind Eviction Free San Francisco. In a capitalist society there are politicians who win most of the time, politician who lose most of the time, and politicians who lose all of the time. Work within the system housing activists are capitalist politicians who lose all the time. Eviction Free San Francisco is an unpaid appendage of City Hall. They try to act like players while getting endlessly played. They have no power at City Hall because they have no constituency to deliver to the powers that be. Work within the system housing activists are no threat to anything. They are easy to ignore.
Amoeblog: Back in 1998 when you got arrested, what was the outcome of that and how was that whole experience for you?
Kevin Keating: Getting arrested was no big deal. I've been arrested many times. And the police raid on the apartment my girlfriend and I shared on Folsom Street helped draw attention in a big way to my extremist perspective against the gentrification of the Mission District. But unfortunately the San Francisco Police Department also ended up victimizing my girlfriend, who was never involved in the anti-gentrification effort. The cops contacted my girlfriend's employer and got my girlfriend fired from her job. And in the vast assortment of items they seized from our apartment they also "accidentally" confiscated her grandmother's wedding ring. Later they threatened to bring more significant charges against her than they tried to bring against me. After I got out of jail the cops didn't mess with me but they messed with my girlfriend. These cowardly cop antics had a real cops-like-to-take-hostages feel to it.
Amoeblog: As with anything that expands so rapidly - the bubble has to burst at some stage, as you alluded to earlier in this interview. So would you say that the bubble is going to burst and soon?
Kevin Keating: I think so. I hope so. All I can do is hope for the best on this. One thing to bear in mind is that a huge percentage of internet-related economic activity is geared to the production of air sandwiches. The internet economy is largely about junk that doesn't actually exist; candy crush saga, apps for dweebs to find other dweebs in a bar without actually having to walk into the bar, as real people are inclined to do, new ways to go shopping, and of course Facebook and stuff akin to Facebook. It's like Gertrude Stein said: there's no there there. Facebook for example is every Facebook users personal urinal wall, appealing to the needy and vindictive twelve year old in all of us. This stuff has an Emperor's New Clothes quality to it. It is predicated on prepubescent novelty, and novelty is never novel for long. The capitalist mode of production is predicated on crisis -- and what goes up must come down. I believe that something similar will happen with the current dot-com plague.
Amoeblog: Do you think that SF will ever return to the type of housing market (one affordable for lower income and middle income working people) again and if so what would that take to happen?
Kevin Keating: In an immediate sense I think the tactics I've outlined above can be used by working and low income people. People who haven't been evicted yet can still hang onto their homes. It isn't too late to keep what's left of livable Oakland and SF from becoming bedroom communities for the rich. The suggestions I've made are merely points of departure, they are just starting points, and as combative people launch into action better and more far-going ways to resist may emerge. I definitely don't think we should pine for the supposedly good old days, when we only paid forty percent of our incomes to feed a landlord. We should think of something better than what's existed in the past. No single set of problem caused by capitalist social relations can be remedied without attacking the sum total of market society.
Here I speak only of the U.S. because the U.S. is what I know a little about, but the problem is global and the solution will be global as well. Market-driven gentrification and the accompanying housing crisis are functions of accelerating extreme social inequality in the United States. No tendencies in conventional U.S. political life are going to slow down, stop, or reverse extreme social inequality. There has never been a stable bourgeois democracy without a large and complacent middle class. We no longer have this. Intensifying social inequality is a potentially deadly wound for the owners and rulers of this society. The Occupy movement was far from revolutionary. It was not terribly radical. It failed to sink deep roots in the everyday life struggles of mainstream working people. To mix metaphors in a clumsy way, Occupy was a flash in the pan and a mile wide and an inch deep. But it was the first widespread spontaneous expression of much bigger and badder events to come.
I think the United States today is like France in 1788 or Russia in 1916 -- we are in a period of social peace that will end explosively and this will be all the more shocking because so few expect it. What we need today is something in the spirit of the old I.W.W., although not in its organizational form. And that's an anti-wage labor social movement of the wage-earning class. I can't see a situation emerging where I get to move back into a third floor railroad flat at 24th and Alabama and pay $240 a month for my room the way I did when I moved to the Mission in 1988. But I can see the possibility of all the converging crises of this society giving rise to a new mass popular movement that will be so widespread and so self-aware that it becomes impossible for banks and landlords to get money from people for housing. This will be a function of the permanent suppression of banks and landlords, and of ending the use of money for housing or anything else.
Amoeblog: Thanks for your time and input on this topic. Is there anything you would like to add?
Kevin Keating: The posters of the late 1990's Mission Yuppie Eradication Project can be seen here:
My hope is that combative people will take efforts like these as a point of departure, and go farther than my efforts have.
Some of my other revolutionary extremist docs can be found here:
This work is in the public domain