Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Police Shut Down BART Entrance; Pour Into Mission during Block Party against Gentrification

Kids space at the plaza.
On Tuesday, April 30th, police were stationed across Valencia, in cars, on foot, walking the beat. No, they weren’t involved in a massive Sit/Lie sting, they weren’t out looking to find the next Kenneth Harding evading a fare on Muni, they were trying to, “Prevent another May Day riot,” as they told a friend of mine who they questioned about their presence. Another person that was interviewed stated that they were questioned by police, “Why were they wearing black?” Last year, marching from Dolores Park, anarchists wearing black with masks to cover their faces from police and video cameras, attacked affluent shops and police along Valencia Street, seen to many as the epicenter of the hipster invasion of the Mission and an extreme symbol of gentrification of what used to be a largely lesbian enclave in a working-class Latino neighborhood. 
Eddie Falcon
Several weeks after the riot, I sat down with a friend that had grown up in the Mission and asked him what he thought of the riot, which quickly was understood as an attack on gentrification based solely on targets alone. “I thought it was fucking great,” he remarked. “Fuck the caviar Left and their denunciations, everyone I know understood it exactly what it was, a riot against gentrification in the area.” Flash forward to present day, several weeks ago I stood in a donut shop on Mission Street, staring at a poster for an upcoming block party against gentrification. An older white man noticed me looking at it and I asked him his thoughts were. “Have you been to Valencia lately?,” he asked me. “It’s fucking disgusting. Those people just sit there on their phones. They’re destroying the Latino culture here.” It’s clear that the police agreed, and they chose very clearly what side they are taking. In the aftermath of the riot, affluent business owners were furious that the police, who have a substation on Valencia, seemed to be powerless during the assault on their property. Several months later, anarchists again rampaged in the neighborhood, attacking the police station, businesses, and banks after SFPD shot a young man close to 16th and Mission. Judging from the police presence that was stationed on the street on Cinco de Mayo, May 5th, police weren’t pulling any punches this time, or should I say, letting anyone else throw them. 

BART Station was shut down.
Walking up to 16th and Mission on May 5th, I was not prepared for the amount of police. I’ve been going to protests and demonstrations in the San Francisco bay area for over ten years. I remember the marches after 9/11 decrying the invasion of Afghanistan that now continues via Obama’s drone strikes and somewhat secret “kill-lists.” The mass marches against the Iraq war (round 2), which continued Clinton’s string of extended air strikes and sanctions which left hundreds of thousands dead and shut the city down when the war started. I handed out flyers to bus drivers and riders against MUNI fare hikes; I took the streets against the police killings of Kenneth Harding and when BART tried to shut down limited cell phone and internet service after people raged following the police murder of a homeless man. I’ve seen the police in this city do a lot of shit, but for a block party? 

View from the plaza.
In the run up to the block party, internet blogs such as ‘Uptown Almanac,’ played up the fact that there would be ‘Google Bus Piñatas,’ instead of the fact that this would be the first public demonstration in the Mission District specifically against gentrification in several years. One person even emailed the group asking, “Where can I buy a ‘Google bus piñata’ for my own party?” Reading the reports on Uptown Almanac and others that did cover the block party seemed to focus solely on this aspect: the Google bus piñatas, so much so that they miss the whole story of the event, the police repression that it brought, and what made it interesting. According to the Almanac blog, only 30-40 people attended, which is way off the mark. By around 1:30pm, about 50 people had gathered in the plaza, and throughout the 3 hours that the block party went on, up until about 4:30PM or so, over 150 people had passed through the space and enjoyed the food, speakers, and music. It seemed that what media was there, was mostly only interested in a photo op of the Google bus smashing. At the plaza, people had placed banners up throughout the square, in both Spanish and English. Banners read, "No Condos in the Mission," "Stop Evictions and Displacement," "Ellis Act is Racist," and "Save the 17 Reasons Building." Various groups had tables, including anarchist distros, the newspaper FireWorks, SF Needle Exchange, Homes Not Jails, and the Housing Rights Committee.

At around 1PM, the same time that the block party was to start, police were built up around the 17 Reasons building, which was recently bought by a new landlord who is currently trying to evict some of the tenants. The landlord, Rick Holman, was close by, chumming it up with the cops, and also stationed private security which checked id’s at the building and placed surveillance cameras around it. One of the spaces there, In the Works (ITW), which is a ‘Community and (Anti) Art Space,’ was served with an unlawful detainer. During the block party, large amounts of police were stationed all around the building, perhaps in their minds, to prevent an occupation of the building. Clearly, there was a level of coordination between the landlord and the police in trying to keep the block party from happening and also trying to attack ITW at the same time. Police kept a strong presence around the building throughout the day, as well as across Valencia Street. Police were trying to attack the block party and hinder people from participating in it.  

Tommie Mecca
The block party itself drew in a lot of people, both from the street, who were already in the plaza, and who had come just for the party itself. Dee Allen, a long-term anarchist and poet who has published several works of poetry was the MC for the event. Several people performed and also spoke. Among the first people to perform was Tommi Mecca, of the Housing Rights Committee. Tommi unfortunately played several acoustic songs about gentrification. I say unfortunately, because his song with the chorus that goes, “Yuppie, yuppie, yuppie, stole my pad, yuppie, yuppie, yuppie, bad, bad, bad!,” is still in my head. Tommi’s recent editorial that ran in The Guardian, sums up the spirit of much of the entire event. 
“Where is the building-by-building organizing of renters? Where is the street outreach in every neighborhood? Where are the blocked doorways of those being forced out of their apartments by pure greed? Where are the direct actions against the speculators and investors who are turning our neighborhoods into a monopoly game? Where is the pressure on the Board of Supervisors to pass legislation to curb speculation and gentrification rather than approve tax breaks for dot-com companies? Where is the pressure on state legislators to repeal the Ellis Act and other state laws that prohibit our city from strengthening rent control and eviction protections? Every moment we wait, more people are displaced from their homes, more neighborhoods become upscale, more small businesses are lost….It's time to take back what's left of our city.”
Dee Allen’s opening speech was also on point: 
"Since the 1990’s, we have seen thousands of people displaced, evicted, pushed out, and gentrified from the Mission and in the greater San Francisco era. Using tools such as the Ellis Act, landlords have been able to remove whole families from buildings and then covert them into condos – making millions. In recent years, these evictions have only gone up, not down, with the Mission one of the hardest hit neighborhoods. Local businesses have closed due to high rents, while others have been forced to declare bankruptcy and shut their doors. AIDS patients, those on a fixed income, senior citizens, and the working poor are especially hard hit, and many have become homeless.”
POOR Magazine
Also speaking at the event were representatives from POOR Magazine, Esperanaza Gardens, a community garden which is facing destruction from developers who want to turn the area into condos, as well as Homes Not Jails, who weekly meets to find housing for homeless people through the illegal act of squatting vacant buildings. Having gone to several of their meeting, I know that every week they go out, seeking to place in vacant homes homeless people who are interested in starting and keeping squatted spaces. I especially enjoyed the talk given by Kevie, a San Francisco native, who talked about the history of gentrification in the city, as well as background info on the developers who recently bought the 17 Reasons building. Performing at the event where two anarchist hip-hop acts, MC Lovelle and Eddie Falcon of the 40 Thievez. I’ve seen Eddie perform at 16th and Mission several times, the last time being outside of the part of the anarchist bookfair several months ago and Lovell at a graffiti festival in Modesto last year. Both of the artist’s game has improved a lot, and the crowd definitely loved both. I talked with Falcon after the performance, and asked him what the local 16th and Missioners thought. “I got a lot of support. A lot of people asked for cd’s,” he responded. Many of Falcon’s songs reference the Mission area. Eddie is a long term member of Iraq Veterans Against the War and became an anarchist after returning to the US following tours of duty in the army in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

MC Lovelle
Food not Bombs also was on hand, doing a fine job of feeding the gathering with homemade tacos and donated pizzas from the worker-cooperative Arizmendi, which is part of the NoBAWC group, which includes worker owned businesses ranging from ‘Mendi which slings pizzas, to the union strip club, ‘The Lusty Lady,’ made famous from the documentary, ‘Live Nude Girls, Unite!’ Food not Bombs, which has a rich history in San Francisco, and also helped spawn Homes Not Jails in the early 1990’s, serves free food in the 16th and Mission plaza several days a week.

By around 4:30pm however, the police had had enough. Just as the last Google bus piñata was being dramatically smacked down by a large wooden stick and Dee Allen was delivering a fiery set of poetry, the gas on the generator run out. Police then stepped in and stood in front of the generator – and also confiscated the gas can. When asked why they had also decided to shut down part of the BART station, they replied, “Someone threw a bottle at us.” It was clear that the police were done with the event and were ready for it to come to an end. As event organizers tried to squirrel away sound system before the police could take it away as “evidence,” around 20 police officers spilled into the plaza, in effect, shutting the event down. What was saddest of all was that talking with people that were there at the event, the open mic portion was about to start and many people who came to share their thoughts did not get to do so. I wish that more people had come to the event, and that even more would have stayed. It’s clear that the high numbers at the start of the block party kept police at bay for the first several hours of the event. Unfortunate as it is that the open mic did not happen due to police harassment, still a clear message was articulated to the Mission neighborhood on May 5th: condos are coming in, gentrification hasn’t stopped – it’s gotten worse. Ellis Act evictions aren’t a thing of the dot-com past, they have continued and this year, reached their highest yet. Clearly the police presence in the neighborhood and also around the 17 Reasons building is a clear reminder that the state understands and supports the side of wealth and power. They are organized and have made their plans. Those that stand with poor and working people have got to start making theirs. 

Food Not Bombs serving food.
It’s important to keep in mind that displacement and removal of people – and resistance to that displacement and removal in the Mission District is nothing new. Ohlone people fought and died in what is now the Mission District to stop colonization and being forced onto Missions. Radical labor organizers and militants have called the mission home for decades, using the neighborhood as a staging ground for action and resistance, including the San Francisco general strike. Since the 1950’s, people have clashed with everyone from BART to yuppies to stop the flood of upper-class residents and developers in the neighborhood. Using and collection of tactics from marches, to arson, to postering, people have fought the removal of thousands of poor and working people from their homes in the Mission District and struggled against Ellis Act evictions and landlord greed. What happened on Cinco de Mayo isn’t anything new, but it is part of a history of resistance against something that poor and working people have been fighting against for a decades. 

Read more on the history of resistance in the Mission here and recent history of the fight against gentrification here


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