Your actions have fused guerrilla theatre, tactical media and smart mobs to spotlight the tech boom’s impact on displacement and wealth disparity in the Bay Area. For the uninitiated, what’s a smart mob and how can the public learn about and become part of these kinds of actions?
I designed several of the performative interventions you’re referencing, but they are the work of all involved in Heart of the City Collective, an affinity group of trusted friends, organizers, artists and housing rights advocates. A smart mob is a pre-planned flashmob where folks come together quickly at a predetermined location for collective action, and in many of Heart of the City’s efforts, it was to block “Google” buses.
Our interventions are often organized offline with individuals, groups and organizations working on gentrification and displacement issues. They aren’t announced to the broader public to ensure that we’re able to pull them off with an element of surprise. If folks want to be involved, they can write to Heart-of-the-city.org or get involved with one of the organizations with which we regularly collaborate: Eviction Free San Francisco, a mutual aid direct action group fighting evictions throughout SF.
Can you describe what happened during Gmuni: Free Luxury Free Market Free For All?
On April Fool’s Day, artists, activists and community members came together to stage a blockade in the form of a faux launch party (in front of Google’s luxury coach) for Gmuni, an imaginary Google service allowing the public to ride the private shuttles, “Google Buses,” for free. It unfolded just hours before the SFMTA hearing in which they voted on the legality of letting private shuttles use public bus zones for a mere $1, even though MUNI was in desperate need of funds, and a fare hike was imminent.
This intervention was designed as an absurdist parody to draw attention to the corrupt relationship between wealthy tech corporations and our elected “representatives,” which has played a key role feeding real estate speculation, worsening the eviction crisis and widening the inequality gap. Tech giants profit off our personal data and public infrastructure while avoiding billions in taxes and getting millions in subsidies, meanwhile both local and national governments privilege those waving their lobbying dollars and providing additional surveillance. Thus, Google merging with and/or taking over Muni, our public transit system, sadly doesn’t seem that dystopian. With six of us clad in Google-colored spandex, a stilt-walking Google/Darpa surveillance robot, and the inimitable Annie Danger playing the Gmuni CEO, even the cops were confused for a minute.
For a bit of background, these private shuttles, a.k.a. “Google buses,” have been using tax payer-funded public bus stops illegally thousands of times a day since 2007. SFMTA made backroom handshake deals with wealthy corporations, such as Google, to turn a blind eye, while ticketing the public $271 if they stop their vehicle in a MUNI zone. This is just one blatant example of the two-tiered system that exists in SF. The Gmuni action was one of several tech shuttle bus blockades in which we protested the gentrification and displacement that has followed the second tech boom (no fault evictions are up 83%; rents are up 20% where “Google buses” stop).
How can the public access and use The Disrupt the Free Market Free For All Kit?
With this “kit,” I’m experimenting with ways to document and display ephemeral work that serves a secondary function of suggesting others could easily throw on a spandex suit, grab a Google bus map and stop the bus. I don’t foresee folks actually trying to replicate this exact action nor do I see myself mass-producing the kits. Though, I hope the objects might stir some ideas in viewers to gather their friends and neighbors and take direct action to fight displacement – in spandex, on stilts, or just the with one’s own body on the line (if they are able and aware of risks and/or legal implications). Important disclaimer: be sure to know your rights. Contact the National Lawyers Guild if you think you’re doing something that may put you at risk of arrest.
Did any of your campaigns generate unexpected results or reactions? What were they?
Heart of the City’s actions unexpectedly captured world news headlines for over six months. Many of us had been organizing against real estate speculators and rallying at City Hall to fight evictions, but larger news outlets didn’t seem to start paying attention until we stood in front of the Google bus. The first blockade alone (December 9, 2013) generated about 150 articles. City politicians and even Google representatives were quick to issue statements, though the statements were completely benign.
Unfortunately – and not unexpectedly – many press outlets became part of the problem. Instead of acknowledging our intention of stopping these luxury coaches in their tracks to draw attention to displacement and to City Hall privileging the wealthy and tech elite, they focused on creating the “we hate all techies” trope. After replicating these actions in SF, and after activists in other cities like Oakland and Seattle stopped tech buses, press started asking to be connected directly with tenants facing eviction for interviews. This was, indeed, our biggest victory. Getting media to tell stories of disenfranchisement and eviction is usually like pulling teeth. Heart of the City’s efforts along with those of Eviction Free SF and others helped make these stories ‘the beat.’ Now the question is: What is the next “Google bus”? What symbol, tactics and points of intervention will capture the imaginations of a wide demographic and keep the momentum moving towards transformative, liberatory models of living together in this fight for a right to the city?
About the Interviewer:
Milda Vakarinaite is an Arts Leadership Associate at SOMArts.