In a recent open letter to the mayor (Julia Carrie Wong, “San Francisco tech worker: ‘I don’t want to see homeless riff-raff,’“ The Guardian, Feb. 17), entitled tech bro Justin Keller whined that the sight of homeless people ruins his enjoyment of the local atmosphere in San Francisco. And when his family comes to visit, it just brings everybody down. Keller, owner of the Commando.io startup, added
I know people are frustrated about gentrification happening in the city, but the reality is, we live in a free market society. The wealthy working people have earned their right to live in the city. They went out, got an education, work hard, and earned it…. I shouldn’t have to see the pain, struggle, and despair of homeless people to and from my way to work every day.
But a closer look at the history of class privilege and ethnic cleansing in San Francisco suggests that “free market reality” isn’t as obvious as Keller makes it out to be.
About three days after reading about Keller’s traumatic encounters with the homeless (I can’t help thinking of “Cabin Boy” Chris Elliott — the Fancy Lad in a powdered wig — screaming in terror as a rabbit runs across his path), I learned of some other people in San Francisco with problems of their own.
Back in the ’60s, under the “Civic Redevelopment” program — San Francisco’s version of Urban Renewal — over 100 city blocks of black residential neighborhoods, businesses and churches deemed “slum areas” were bulldozed and their residents forcibly relocated. Under the cumulative effect of such Urban Renewal policies, in the ’60s and ’70s, the black population of San Francisco declined from 13.4% to less than 6% of the total. In 1968 the Midtown Park Apartments were opened to house residents “relocated” from one of the demolished neighborhoods, the Fillmore-Western Addition (“Petition — #BlackHomesMatter: Stop the displacement of long-term San Francisco residents at Midtown” Change.org).
Today, Midtown is a close-knit working-class community of long-time Black residents as well as immigrants from all over the world, including fixed-income seniors, disabled veterans, and children. Some tenants have lived at Midtown for over 40 years.
Despite decades of promises to convert the apartments to cooperative ownership by the residents, the city is once again collaborating with local real estate interests to rack rent the tenants, drive them out, and — ahem — “redevelop” the property.
Midtown residents have been working for decades towards the co-operative ownership of their homes and even paid off the mortgage for the Midtown property. Despite repeated promises from the City of San Francisco that Midtown residents would be eventual owners of their homes, two days before Christmas Eve in 2013, the City terminated the lease with the tenant’s association and without warning awarded it to Mercy Housing, a national Catholic affordable housing nonprofit. Since then, Mercy has raised the rent on many tenants (some up to 300%), implemented restrictive and discriminatory new rules, and has put forth plans to eventually demolish the entire Midtown property. Mercy Housing has also begun a program of harassing tenants – targeting seniors and tenants with low English literacy, cutting locks to enter apartments illegally and other tactics meant to intimidate tenants from fighting back.
The residents of 65 of the apartments have declared a tenant strike and are withholding rent in protest.
I guess that’s pretty small potatoes compared to the horror of having Mumsy and Daddy see a homeless person on their way to the grand tour of your new luxury condo.
Keller makes it clear, by the way, that his own idea of a “free market society” is fully compatible with such ethnic cleansing by the government. In his meltdown over the injustice of sensitive people like himself having to look at homeless people, he made positive reference to “street sweeps” by local government as a positive example:
I don’t have a magic solution … It is a very difficult and complex situation, but somehow during Super Bowl, almost all of the homeless and riff raff seem to up and vanish. I’m willing to bet that was not a coincidence. Money and political pressure can make change. So it is time to start making progress, or we as citizens will make a change in leadership and elect new officials who can.
So we live in the kind of “free market society” where local government, working on behalf of local real estate interests, can ethnically cleanse 100 city blocks of their inhabitants, in the process reducing the city’s black population by more than half, and then send uniformed thugs to drive people off the streets by the thousands for the crime of being homeless in public.
More generally, just about any city government is nothing but a showcase property of the local real estate interests, and its central function is to serve what Harvey Molotch called the “urban growth machine” by driving up real estate prices. And most of the many billions of dollars of wealth in Silicon Valley — with which tech bros like Keller are driving rents into the stratosphere — result from a business model centered on state-enforced “intellectual property” monopolies.
But it’s not as though these things are some kind of departure from the “free market” ideal, or that there has ever been a “free market society” at any point in history. Right-wing libertarians celebrate the 19th century Gilded Age as some kind of near laissez-faire utopia. But it never even remotely approached such a thing.
The so-called “laissez-faire” Gilded Age was heir to four centuries of land enclosure and other nullifications of customary peasant tenure rights in the land, mass enslavement, and the colonization and robbery of half the planet. Capitalism never emerged from a “free market”; it was a direct outgrowth of the “bastard feudalism” of the late Middle Ages, in which a major segment of the old landed classes reinvented themselves as agrarian capitalists and, in alliance with absolute monarchies and large mercantile interests, converted their own countries into prison societies and then forcibly conquered most of the world. The so-called “lassez-faire” 19th century was built directly atop the structure of inequality and concentrated property resulting from these centuries of robbery.
And the political centerpiece of the Gilded Age was the Great Betrayal of 1877, in which Rutherford B. Hayes agreed to end Reconstruction in return for the electoral votes of the southern states, despite his having a minority of the popular vote. This was a devil’s bargain in which the agrarian capitalists of the former Confederacy were allowed to institute a regional system of Apartheid, in return for giving industrial capitalists uncontested control the American state. Once this control was secured, the national government immediately began imposing a top-down corporate transformation of the economic system, and using the full power of the federal government to suppress the workers’ and farmers’ movements.
This groundwork having been established, the twentieth century saw an alliance between large corporations and the American state so massive that the very distinction between “public” and “private” ceased to have meaning. The tech industry itself was a direct outgrowth of the corporate state, as even a cursory overview of the role of the military-industrial complex in creating the cybernetic revolution and building the Internet backbone should tell you.
So no, Justin — this is not a “free market society,” and you and your ilk did not earn your wealth. As Ann Richards said of George Bush, “you were born on third base and thought you hit a triple.” But I like even better a saying of Martin Luther King Jr’s: “When you see a turtle sitting on a fencepost, you know he had help getting up there.”
If there’s anybody in the tech industry pushing for something resembling a genuine “free market society,” it’s not the venture capitalists and start-ups. It’s the people trying to free information work from the legacy of its origins in the bureaucracy of a total war state, and rebuild it on the basis of horizontalism, self-organization and p2p, rather than allowing it to fall under the control of new corporate bureaucracies through government-enforced “intellectual property” enclosure; the drivers unionizing Uber and Lyft; the people jailbreaking proprietary apps or developing open-source, cooperative versions of them; the hackers doing their best to destroy proprietary information culture; and the people organizing freelancers’ unions, cooperative temp agencies and other cost- and income-pooling platforms for precarious labor. If a “free market society” actually means anything, it also encompasses the struggles of the people rendered homeless by government collusion with capital, for the right to exist in public spaces. And above all, it includes the people displaced from their homes by brutal ethnic cleansing schemes, who are fighting to maintain occupancy of apartments of which they, by any acceptable moral standard, are the rightful owners.
So to tie this all up, let’s break the power of the real estate interests and tech monopolies in alliance with local government. I call on everyone reading this to support the Midtown rent strikers, to express unconditional solidarity for their resistance to eviction, and to unconditionally condemn local government, law enforcement, and the real estate interests that stand to benefit from this robbery. Force the city government to honor its promises and immediately transfer ownership to the residents of Midtown Park Apartment. At the very least, sign the petition in support of them and circulate the story of this injustice as widely as possible.