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- You Must Be Present To Win
- by Rebecca Solnit
- Found on a poster from "Take This Hammer" at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco 2016
- Radical politics is bodies in places. In San Francisco it was the union waterfront workers in the 1934 General Strike, was the drag and trans people clobbering police with high heels and handbags at the 1966 Compton's Cafeteria riot in the Tenderloin, was the occupation of bleak, iconic Alcatraz by Native Americans in 1969-71, was feminist Take Back the Night marches in the 1980s, was massive blockades in the Financial District when the first Gulf War broke out in 1991, was Queer Nation in the 1990s, is Black Lives Matter in 2014-16.
- It is never only bodies in places; organizing in private matters, other political avenues, and even electoral politics also matter. Good journalism matters, the movement of money and power and ideas in private arenas matters. But in the end, when it comes to changing the world, from the French Revolution to the civil rights movement to the fall of the Berlin Wall to the new civil rights movement known as Black Lives Matter, bodies in places matter. In public space, to be specific. The place in which democracy is direct.
- We think of democracy as an ethereal thing, an abstract one, an intellectual one, but bodies coexisting in space is the direct experience of democracy where civil society finds itself and its power. That power can be taken away by direct means — that’s what totalitarian regimes that ban gatherings and crack down on dissent do — but also by indirect ones, such as the design of auto-based, private-space suburbias, or the technologically driven retreat from the public sphere and from embodiment. The Bay Area has been the scene of terrible conflict between a place that has traditionally been all about bodies in public space and the forces endeavoring to wither away both bodies and place.
- The Bay Area’s combination of bodies and places was often volatile and generative and radical. Some of the reasons were in the place — the mild weather that made it easy to protest when New Yorkers were freezing or Texans were frying, and the urban density. San Francisco as a gold-rush boomtown was (before the annexation of Hawaii and purchase of Alaska) as far from the Puritans and proprieties of the East as you could get, a reinvent-yourself town, a multiethnic town, a town benefiting from proximity to Asia and Mexico and distance from European intimidation, and then later a refuge town for the weird, the wild, the dissenting, and the experimental. It was what the queer historian Nan Boyd calls “a wide-open town,” good at celebrating, libertine and sometimes liberated, radical and a center for resistance. It was a city of refuge, for antiwar young men and people fleeing the Central American dirty wars of the 1980s ad the undocumented and people from wholesome small towns that wanted to kill them for being queer.
- San Francisco is the second-densest city in the United States, possessed in its older reaches of a European kind of density. There’s a way in the sprawling spaces elsewhere in the West that you’re no one nowhere — there’s no place to speak up, to take a stand, and the privatization of public space as shopping malls replaces main street and corporations flee city centers ( as the oft-targeted Chevron, for example, moved from Market Street in San Francisco to a pastoral fortress in San Ramon.) Bodies in place is theater, and the place needs to have some of the lineaments of a stage. San Francisco was and is a good stage.
- Then the Bay Area produced the offshoot that turned around and endeavored to kill the host. It did so in two ways. The one we talk about is the gentrification and displacement. For the past few years I’ve been watching friends and acquaintances organize and show up for demonstrations (aka bodies in places) about evictions, about the Google Bus’s usurping of public bus stops and enablement of Silicon Valley workers’ migration to the city, about the police murder of young Latino men whose deaths seemed to due to, at least in part, being perceived as menacing outsiders in the Mission — including born-and-raised Alex Nieto. For most of my life here I’ve been watching radical culture — art, writing, music, theater, dance — flourish, but the places in which this can happen are drying up. Most of the renters I know are on their last round in San Francisco: they will not find replacement housing if evicted, burned out, or otherwise displaced. That is, the protestors themselves, the people committed to being political bodies in places, are an endangered, fading species; they certainly do not exist in the abundance I knew in the 1980s and 1990s.
- The places in which the bodies of these defenders reside are withering away, and a space in which like-minded next generations might take up lives here hardly seems to exist. As Silicon Valley becomes an ever more looming global power, people are losing their homes, their community spaces, their neighborhoods, and then we are losing those people whose memories and commitments weave together the disparate objects of a city into a beloved whole.
- The other sabotage is the subtle and unsubtle attacks on the value, meaning and enthusiasm for bodies in places. At least since the first aggressive influx of tech workers during the original dot-com boom, the paradox of people who want to live in San Francisco but whose official ideology is that the less you leave your house and encounter strangers and have unmediated contact, the better, has resulted in groups of six who stand around in lines waiting for brunch on Valencia Street while looking at six different phones. More seriously, it results in a host of products whose official virtue is convenience, which means not leaving home and being in places you share with other people you don’t know. Isolation becomes an ideal.
- It seems to be a culture, if “culture” is the word, for anywhere-but-here strategies. The sensibility of Silicon Valley is: all things mediated, and the means of mediation is corporations in search of profit. Sex, food, cars and drivers, furniture , and services are all orderable online and by phone via Grindr, Tinder, Uber, Google Shopping, Craigslist, TaskRabbit, and the rest. For workers these app-driven corporations are under-the-radar attacks on working conditions, including the condition in which workers might readily organize. Workers do much of this piecework in isolation with no job security, benefits, or rights. The bodies in space together that was a workplace made it possible to organize and build relationships; isolated workers are expected to also be nearly invisible.
- Andrew Callaway, who spent a month working for TaskRabbit, Postmates and Uber, wrote of the experience: “Postmates couriers are told that it is strictly against the rules to shake a customer’s hand. Like all rules, this didn’t come from nowhere. The truth is that using sharing economy services can breed contempt for the workers…Plenty of people requested that I drop off their food at the door. Customers grow to love apps that make the worker anonymous. That way, you don’t have to feel guilty about having servants.” So you hire someone to buy your frozen yogurt so you don’t have to leave the house and go out into communal space, and then you avoid even seeing the person who helped you avoid that contact, avoid being a body in public space. Or even a body in the same place as one other body.
- Being a body in public matters to democracy. So does having privacy from your government and other large powers. Facebook and Google and the rest gather data about you to build sophisticated profiles to allow advertisers to target you, because Silicon Valley has also brought up the surveillance state that Edward Snowden and others have revolted against in the name of democracy and freedom. That a place once so associated with these latter things is where the attacks on them are now masterminded is demoralizing. The new digital panopticon is run in large part from Silicon Valley.
- There was another bodies-in-space demonstration about the NSA and AT&T’s role in gathering information on February 11, 2014. The activists stood in front of AT&T headquarters, a few blocks from Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The demonstration was after dark; the demonstrators held glowing letters that spelled out “stop SPYING,” and the West Coast version of the Illuminator, the outdoor projector used so well in Occupy Wall Street, projected in lettering imitating the ad slogans of the corporation: “AT&T. Your World. Delivered. To the NSA.”
- Of course choosing to be in a region where bodies and place still matter made some of these corporations vulnerable. The suburban campuses were largely out of reach for First Amendment activities, though there were minor protests at their gates, but in late 2015 activists invaded San Francisco-based Airbnb with a brass band and balloons bearing well-crafted messages about eviction and homelessness that floated up to the ceiling and stayed their for the duration. 48hills, the online local news site run by former Bay Guardian editor Tim Redmond, reported in January, “The report shows that the company made $194 million in SF during that one-year period, and $105 million was from illegal units.” The rental corporation is another force withering away the available housing in the city, replacing stable populations with an investment in place with transients. Thus shrivels the available housing for the people who show up at the demonstrations that have made this place a key spot for the struggles for democracy, for liberty, for justice.
- The bodies for democracy are still at work. They blocked the Bay Bridge on Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2016, blocked freeways after the grand jury exonerated the policeman who killed the black teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri (as they did after the first Rodney King verdict in 1992, when various wars broke out). There are still paint-balloon stains on the Bay View Bank building at 22nd and Mission Streets from when activists furious about the eviction of non profits serving low-income Latinos tossed their projectiles at the place, where a start-up called Bigstep.com came, saw, conquered, fizzled, disappeared, and, like so many other arrivistes of the dot.com boom, left a void. There were simple blockades and demonstrations. There were also poster campaigns and sophisticated interventions during that wave of incursion and resistance. The project Together We Can Defeat Capitalism mounted flashing signboards — the kind that warn you of roadwork and detours — south of Market with messages such as “WARNING. DIGITAL DIVIDE AHEAD.” That was May 1, 2000; on January 21, 2014, activists held official-looking signs in front of a tech shuttle bus that said “WARNING. TWO TIER SYSTEM.” (A less professionally crafted sign said in big round purple letters, “Fuck Off Google.”)
- In the current round of resistance — or at least objection — to Silicon Valley, demonstrations have been organized by email and other online means, and digital projects such as the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project proved crucial parts of the discourse. Bodies blocking the Google Bus (as all tech shuttles were termed) in 2014 made the impact of these private luxury shuttles international news and obliged local politicians to address their illegality, but the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project demonstrated that rents and evictions rose in proximity to the tech shuttle stops. The sheet density of no-fault evictions on their 2014 map on the subject was shocking; I called the map a picture of a city punched by money.
- Some of the resistance during the first and second tech booms has been more successful; many evictions have been stopped, and vulnerable populations and institutions have been protected. But there may come a point when the people who have engaged in these kinds of defensive skirmishes are no longer here. They will have lost their homes, or their ranks will have thinned, and there will be no replacements among those who have to work far more than what we used to call full-time at high-end corporate jobs to pay for housing in this gilded cage. And those people may have never known why bodies in places matter, or how they mattered in this place.
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