Solidarity against Gentrification: Turn off the Internet!

January 1 rally against gentrification in San Francisco

January 1 rally against gentrification in San Francisco

by Sasha / Earth First! Newswire

The Security of the City

On January 1, an anti-gentrification rally took to the streets of the Mission District to protest gentrification. The rally chanted anti-capitalist slogans and carried banners praising the Zapatistas. Much of the demonstration was aimed against increased police presence, as well as rising evictions, which many see as resulting from tech industry employees who are increasingly taking over traditionally poorer neighborhoods populated by people of color.

One of the most interesting strategy of the anti-gentrification movement in San Francisco has been the blockading of Google’s private busses from taking employees out to their jobs in suburban campuses.

As Erin McElroy who helped organize the bus blockades with Eviction Free San Francisco explained, “The private buses are really not integrated into city planning. We’re also seeing rents have gone up 20 percent in the last year along tech bus routes, because [tech company employees] move to units near those stops. Eviction rates also go up along tech bus routes because of speculation [by landlords]” Here, the relative autonomy of the corporation over the city planners reproduces the city, itself, as a plutocratic zone of private security and intellectual domination. At this point, the New Years protesters’ revolting signs and chants, such as “We Hate You,” are tools against the superficial “niceness” that conceals outrageous exploitation.

Echoing the slogan of New York City’s former Mayor Ed Koch—“If you can’t afford to live here, mo-o-ove!”—one Google employee yelled from a blockaded bus, “This is a city for the right people who can afford it.” Doesn’t this enigmatic slogan say more than it seems to? The notion that San Francisco is only a city to those who can afford it holds a strange underside—to those who are too poor, San Francisco is not a real city, it is something else. What if this was true? What if the very context of escalating urbanism relies on such capitalist accumulation to the extent that, if Google was stopped from gentrifying the city, the city would cease to exist. This is not to say that San Francisco would simply implode, but that the dynamics of capitalist relationships that define the difference between Town and Country would fall apart, and communities would start to re-establish control over their locales.

This is why from Portland, Oregon, to Miami, Florida, the same pattern keeps reappearing. Jobs are relocated to concentrated corporate campuses, while the higher-salaried employers settle in the inner cities, and cities are able to re-establish dominance over the periphery. Google’s control over much of the information flows through which the periphery connects to the center evinces the colonial quality of mass media in the era of hyper-modernism. It is important, then, that protestors are not simply against central city planning (ultra-modernism), but the singular actions of plutocrats who visibly flex their control beyond even that bureaucratic apparatus while maintaining an image of political correctness.

On an even broader level, Google has also become a symbol of geopolitical oppression that comes along with increasingly urbanized accumulation. Google’s rockstars, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, and Eric Schmidt, live the high life, flying personal jets millions of miles around the world with taxpayer money as they assist governments from China to Egypt in the suppression of information and radical mobilizations. Apart from owning their own attack jet, Google is used by the NSA as the leading purveyor of personal, “monetized” information. Though they invest in renewable energy, like industrial wind and solar to feed their voracious data centers, Google also touts false solutions like cap and trade (they tout themselves as being “carbon neutral”), hosts expensive luncheons for climate deniers, donates huge sums of money to conservative think tanks, and maintains ties with ALEC (the same lobbying group that brought us the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act).

Turn off the Internet

In 2002, the rap group Dead Prez released a mixtape series, “Turn off the Radio,” in which the eponymous song warned, “What’s on the radio, propaganda, mind control /And turnin’ it on is like puttin’ on a blindfold / ‘Cuz when you bringin’ the real you don’t get rotation / Unless you take over the station.” For Dead Prez, the radio becomes a media for capitalist ideology; an ideological apparatus that condones certain manners of behavior and thought while suppressing others. Given Google’s involvement in NSA spying as well as information suppression and environmental treachery, the same thing could be said about them. Dead Prez continues: “You can hear it when you walk the streets / How many people they reach, how they use music to teach / A radio program ain’t a figure of speech / Don’t sleep, ‘cuz you could be a radio freak.”

The interaction between life in the city—walking in the streets—and the propaganda value of the radio becomes crucial, as the juncture between ideology and the subjective life-world are intertwined in the production of the lived (urban) environment. What if the same was true of the Google-dominated internet? As one Harvard study shows, the very method of data acquisition tied to massive search engines like Google has a negative impact on the human memory—not to say anything about the environment or the imagination. “We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools,” the researchers conclude, “growing into interconnected systems that remember less by knowing information than by knowing where the information can be found.”

The manner of thinking that goes along with the hyper-modern is strikingly similar to what Urban studies theorist, Henri Lefebvre identified thirty years ago as the problem of communication in the context of vertical, urban accumulation: “Within this space, and on the subject of this space, everything is openly declared: everything is said or written. Save for the fact that there is very little to be said—and even less to be ‘lived’, for lived experience is crushed, vanquished by what is ‘conceived of’. History is experienced as nostalgia, and nature as regret—as a horizon fast disappearing behind us.” In the wash of data, facts, and knowledge, humanity is not merely writing and saying “too much,” but rapidly becoming dependent on cyber-reality in order to structure those fundamental myths and narratives that ground our conception of time and nature.

By taking to the streets, the anti-gentrification movement enacts a resistance to the false consciousness of urban accumulation, leveling the vertical relationships between people and their environment. The cheeky condemnations from above ground, quasi-liberal news blogs expose the deficit of support and analysis coming from the online community. One can almost feel Grist trembling over the prospect of losing favor with the royal court of Google in their most recent fumble, “Hey, protester, leave those Google buses alone.” As many an activist has learned in the past, once you start getting condemnations from the quasi-liberal blogsphere, you are doing something right. Grist offers the possibility of raising taxes on the wealthy, and tells activists to focus on changes to zoning ordinances, which will make the city more densely packed in like Manhattan. But what if this direction falls in line with the paradigm of capitalist accumulation and informational alienation that drives gentrification?

Returning to Lefebvre, we can contemplate how the architecture of verticality and urban intensity articulates a breach of community: “We are deprived of both internal and external distance: there is nothing to code and decode in an ‘environment without environs’. What is more, the significant contrasts in a code of space designed specifically to signify and to ‘be’ readable are extremely commonplace and simple. They boil down to the contrast between horizontal and vertical lines – a contrast which among other things masks the vertical’s implication of hauteur. Versions of this contrast are offered in visual terms which are supposed to express it with great intensity but which, to any detached observer, any ideal ‘walker in the city’, have no more than the appearance of intensity. Once again, the impression of intelligibility conceals far more than it reveals.” Is not Google Glass precisely the manifestation of the crisis of the intelligibility of urban space that Lefebvre is talking about? Here, two classes, one rich and one poor, can co-exist in the same city while literally living on two utterly different levels of intelligibility. For the rich, the city is comprised of data and information that may provide elite accessibility, while the lower class, which lives outside of the city and works in the service industry, perform the role of automatons, reproducing a city that they, themselves, have no chance of experiencing.

There is a vertical wall of intellectual space that is built by gentrification. Even in co-opting that anthem of angst and social unease, “Another Brick in the Wall,” the Grist article sets its role forward as a site of the “upwardly mobile” while busting up and even misrepresenting the main core of genuine thought.

Against Grist’s failure to acknowledge the need for system change, rather than accommodation and compromise, Dead Prez’s call for honest communication might be applied to the fight against Google in its full force as a crucial aspect of the fight against gentrification: Turn off the internet! Turn off that bullshit!

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