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¡Todo el Pueblo al Sueno!

Behind a chain link fence on 35th Ave, the man who gardens every day for other people grows his own roses, gathered around a statue of the Virgen de Guadalupe. Off 98th Ave, backyard barbeques are legendary, as is the young cousin who always wins the battles of wits and words that break out after the hot links are finished. The elders on 8th Street trace smooth Tai-Chi flows into the crisp dawn air, pivoting on one heel to turn towards the sunrise. These are the flatlands of Oakland. These are the places we call home and they are now at great risk.

In the space of only a couple of years, the Oakland flatlands went from being the epicenter of the foreclosure crisis, losing tens of thousands of long-time Black and Latino residents welcoming a wave of corporate investment that will not only fill the gap left by those who were pushed out, but reshape working class neighborhoods in Oakland, and transform the city as a whole.

Corporate investors are ahead of the game. They have descended on Oakland and snatched up a shocking 42% of homes lost to foreclosure, 93% of which are in the flatlands . And finance capital is creating the conditions for a growing bubble in the housing market — rent securitization, a way for investors to trade on rents the way they did on mortgages . They will profit from the new renters created by the foreclosure crisis, and from an entire new class of people coming into redeveloped neighborhoods, attracted by highly paid tech jobs in the region.

Proclaiming that "a rising tide lifts all boats" even city officials who identify as progressive have embraced and facilitated this ruthless brand of corporate investment, anxious to bring revenue in, without enough consideration of the impacts those investments will have on neighborhoods vulnerable to the dynamics of gentrification.

Oakland Mayor Jean Quan recently unveiled a new project — 10,000 new units of housing aimed explicitly at housing tech workers priced out of San Francisco. This is Oakland's second "10k Plan". Mayor Jerry Brown (1999-2007) implemented the first in the early 2000s. It ushered in the first wave of widely criticized gentrification in Oakland, and reshaped the area spanning Old Oakland, Chinatown, and downtown, that developers renamed "Uptown."

The second 10k plan stretches into adjacent areas like North Oakland, and the light industrial zone between downtown and East Oakland. The plan's vague promise of "up to 25% affordable units" is inadequate to address the urgent and overdue needs of the neighborhoods that are being targeted for this development.

In North Oakland, for example, 40% of residents are under the poverty line. New housing at 29th and Telegraph should be built for those working class residents. We need to have stronger protections to keep the housing they rent affordable and in livable condition. It somehow seems beyond the limits of local officials' political imagination to prioritize housing and development for people who built this city and need it the most. Or perhaps is it just easier to let the problem of poverty, and its survivors, get pushed out to underserved working class suburbs, where they become someone else's problem.

Causa Justa :: Just Cause member Mustafa Solomon has lived with his daughter near Market St. in North Oakland for 17 years. "We like living in Oakland," he says. "I'm a photographer and it's close to the cultural scene that I work with. I have lived in the same neighborhood all these years. It's where I'm the most comfortable." He and his daughter were displaced after an accidental fire in their kitchen. They lacked a smoke detector, which is a landlord's legal responsibility to provide. The landlord took advantage of the situation to evict them. Without relocation assistance, Mustafa lived in his car for a week while coming up with the resources to move him and his daughter to a motel in Vallejo for 6 months while the unit was being repaired. Now that he's back in the unit, the landlord is trying to pass through the cost of repairs by raising his rent.

As this new wave of investment comes into Oakland, situations like Mustafa's are commonplace. Thousands of other African American tenants face similar challenges, as do immigrants, senior citizens, disabled people, queer people, and other tenants vulnerable to discrimination and harassment.

Causa Justa's tenant rights clinics have recently seen a sudden and significant increase in these types of cases. While investment money floods in to build luxury lofts, what's left of the affordable housing stock is in deplorable condition, and tenants lack the legal tools, or political power to defend themselves against the pressure of displacement. Tenants who pay more affordable rent due to long-term tenancies are finding themselves unable to get basic repairs, are being harassed and discriminated against, and living in unhealthy conditions.

Without legal protections, tenants cannot compete with the profit motive that entices landlords to push them out. Refusing repairs and harassing a tenant is an easy way to do so without having to follow any legal process. Building new housing doesn't address the problem of habitability that working class tenants face, and it often accelerates their displacement. More affluent people, many of them single, young white tech workers, quickly take up the space that is left when people like Mustafa are pushed out without so much as a legal eviction notice.

Gentrification – the profit-driven race and class remake of urban working class communities of color that have suffered from a history of divestment and abandonment – is evident all over urban centers in the US, where long-time communities are being pushed out of their homes. Can Oakland stand up and be a bold model of something different?

At the grassroots, people are ready. Resilient in the face of crisis, Mustafa is not about to give up, despite the odds stacked against him. "I want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem, and if we keep moving out of Oakland, that means they win. Landlords have resources to get lawyers and work the system. We need some laws to protect tenants."

Tenants at the Hillside Apartments in East Oakland for instance, have organized to collectively demand remediation of the infestation of mold in their building and reclaim their right to healthy housing. Dansheeka was one of the first to stand up in her rent controlled building, moved to take action after her daughter was hospitalized for respiratory problems caused by the mold. As if it wasn't hard enough to deal with illness, mold, and a negligent landlord, Dansheeka's struggle is compounded by the lack of investment in city infrastructure to oversee and maintain rental housing in livable condition. Our city needs to prioritize direct investment into the housing that people who live here already have.

Without aggressive action on behalf of existing residents, gentrification will destroy the rich cultural fabric that Oakland, the most diverse city in the country, has always been so proud of.

The impact on Oakland's African American community is already evident, as documented by the Alameda County Public Health Department and reported by Wendy Georges at Oakland City Council in March of 2014: "Gentrifying neighborhoods have resulted in a substantial displacement of African American households in Oakland, including a loss of Black home ownership." She spoke the number of African Americans in Oakland decreasing by nearly half between 1990-2011, and how home ownership dropped from 50% to 25% and the decline of this population by 17 percentage points – from 43% to 26% — "the largest drop of any population group." She added, "The impact has clearly been disproportionate and favorable to people at the higher end of socio-economic income scale at the expense of people at the lower end of that scale."

The African American community is clearly the canary in the coalmine. A warning of what's to come for all of Oakland's working class communities if we don't change our approach to development.

Rather than step up to the challenge of addressing racialized poverty and investing in Oakland's longtime African American communities, immigrant communities, and communities of color, plans to streamline corporate development simply push people out. Out of the town, out of their homes and diverse cultural communities, and away from the network of community-based infrastructure through which they exercise progressive political power.

What we have in the Bay area housing market is not a simple problem of supply and demand; it's a problem of the lack of corporate and political accountability. We need aggressive, progressive taxation, regulation, and accountability in the housing market and from our city government. We need city officials and decision makers who will step up to the challenge of defending long term residents from gentrification, and partnering to support those residents in building a long-term vision and strategy for healthy, stable communities.

Oakland is now majority renters. That post-foreclosure-crisis reality needs to be reflected in the policies and approach the city takes to housing. We need strong regulations in the rental housing market.

Causa Justa :: Just Cause is proud to have co-created the Tenant Justice Campaign, a broad-based effort to improve laws regulating tenancies and rental housing. Earlier this month we were successful in forcing the Oakland City Council to strengthen rental laws by limiting the ways landlords can raise the rent, forcing them to register every rent increase with the city, and limiting total rent increases to no more than 10% a year, ever, for any reason . This is the first right tenants have gained in Oakland since 2002, the year our organization was founded here, through a broad community-based campaign to implement a Just Cause ordinance limiting evictions.

We will be back at the City Council to finalize and strengthen this victory against rent increases. And we are building towards a ballot initiative in November 2014, asking Oaklanders to support an ordinance creating legal precedent to protect tenants, immigrants, seniors, queer people, and families with children from being evicted and displaced by landlord harassment, including the neglect of basic repairs and maintenance.

These policy reforms are crucial to addressing the crisis of gentrification in the lives of everyday people. Both by providing legal handles for people to fight for their homes, and by building the political protagonism of directly impacted people. That said, these policy changes are just one aspect of the long-term transformative change we need. The difference between a policy on paper, and one that Mustafa or Dansheeka can count on to live in a healthy home, is organizing, and the collective power we build when we come together to defend our neighborhoods and homes.

As longtime West Oaklander, Causa Justa :: Just Cause member, retired bookseller, and Black grandfather Kokovul says "It's bigger than evictions. It's alienation. We've been convinced by capital that we are individuals, that we are consumers, that there is no collective future."

The struggle for healthy, stable housing shouldn't be an individual fight — a source of anxiety that jolts Dansheeka awake in the middle of the night and moves Mustafa to tears as he contemplates his future. In order to be successful the struggle must address the collective needs of the working class African American community they are both leaders in, and build the sense of community that Oakland as a whole is so proud of.

An individual approach to the gentrification crisis will not work. It will only reinforce our isolation, turning us from families and communities into consumers of housing, convinced that gentrification is natural, displacement is inevitable, and the best we can each do is try to save our own skin.

For the sake of our city, for the sake of the communities we thrive in, the struggle for stable, habitable homes needs to be a collective one; a people-powered process that shows us our power as creators of community instead of as consumers; a process that city officials accompany us in as allies of the people they represent; a process that builds grassroots institutions through which we build long-term progressive political power and grow in community with each other in the city we call home.


Join us April 26 at Met West High School for a people's forum to build the struggle for the flatlands.


This essay is published in the book "Claim No Easy Victories: The Legacy of Amilcar Cabral," published by CODESRIA, Senegal, available in the US at Powell's Independent Bookstore Online.

Join the Bay Area Book Launch event featuring book contributor Walter Turner, host of KPFA's "Africa Today," and María Poblet, on 2/21 at 6pm at Oakland's Eastside Arts Alliance. Full event information »

As a Left community organizer in the United States, working with oppressed and exploited people in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, I have benefitted greatly from Amílcar Cabral's work and thought. I am part of a broader growing political tendency that is building a working class base for the Left in urban centers inside the United States, innovating with organizing fights for housing and transportation, immigrant's rights, and women's rights, building race-conscious class unity, particularly between oppressed communities of color who are pitted against each other at the bottom of the economy in the US, and have a strong basis for solidarity with working class and poor people throughout the world.

Like a lot of radical political organizing in the 21st century, our tendency, in part, comes out of critiques of the 20th century socialist models. From rejecting the authoritarianism of Stalin, to broadening the concept of the revolutionary subject to include a broader set of marginalized groups not limited to the industrial working class, to rejecting race-blind class reductionism, to lifting up the liberatory aspects of cultural traditions among oppressed people.

Amilcar Cabral's work has been profoundly influential to the development of this political tendency, among many others around the world. His theory provides a way to engage with the shortfalls of 20th century models of radical change that do not throw the class struggle baby out with the Soviet bathwater. Cabral is a luminary among the broader set of Third World Marxists who, from Nicaragua to Kenya, led successful national liberation movements. He formed and led the PAIGC, and was instrumental in strategizing the successful overthrew of Portuguese colonialism, not only in his home of Cape Verde & Guinea Bissau, but also throughout the continent of Africa. He was core to the development of a broader Pan-Africanist tendency, which built strong links to liberation movements in Asia and Latin America, and had inspiring, global impact.

Even in the United States, the belly of the beast, in such a markedly different time, place and set of conditions than the ones Cabral operated in, we have a lot to learn from his work. He grappled with theoretical questions that have parallels to the ones we face today. And, he reached a level of depth and sophistication regarding movement strategy that we have yet to achieve in the 21st century.

Revolutionary Democracy

Today's emerging movements in the west hold Democracy to be a core value. They have have emphasized collective decision-making as an attempt to increase engagement, inclusion, and community control. This approach, heavily influenced by Anarchism and Zapatísmo, attempts to remedy problems attributed to top-down approaches by Left political parties of the 20th century. The vast majority of the people involved in those movements have little knowledge of Cabral's insights on the question of what he called "Revolutionary Democracy."

Cabral's work presents a different approach, in a very different context, with some of the same values. His advice to militants in his organization reflected a commitment to revolutionary democracy: 'Do not be afraid of the people and persuade the people to take part in all the decisions which concern them – this is the basic condition of revolutionary democracy, which little by little we must achieve in accordance with the development of our struggle and our life.' (1) He addresses this question in a dialectical way, acknowledging what our movements have been beginning to understand: that oppression and exploitation rob people of the capacity to self-govern, both structurally and psychologically, and that building that capacity is a core task within the revolutionary struggle, and not after. This very same assessment is built into radical community organizing that seeks to develop working class leaders who can advance the social justice movement as a whole. Structures of support, capacity-building, and decision making that we have built in the community organizing sector prioritize people directly impacted by the problems of capitalism, and are attempts to build that kind of revolutionary democracy within our progressive movements.

Cabral called for both collective and individual leadership, and theorized the role of individual leadership as part of a collective whole. He said 'The leader must be the faithful interpreter of the will and the aspirations of the revolutionary majority and not the lord of power'. (2) This approach affirms the role of leaders in and developing the vision emerging from the people, while not putting leaders on a pedestal of unchecked power. To that end he called on militants to 'Tell no lies, claim no easy victories,' and encouraged a practice of profound humility, honest evaluation, and integrity throughout his organization.

He also theorized collective leadership:

To lead collectively, in a group, is to study questions jointly, to find their best solution, and to take decisions jointly, it is to benefit from experience and intelligence of each and all so as to lead, order and command better. In collective leadership, each person in the leadership must have his own clearly defined duties and is responsible for the carrying out of decisions taken by the group in regard to his duties... But to lead collectively is not and cannot be, as some suppose, to give to all and everyone the right of uncontrolled views and initiatives, to create anarchy (lack of government), disorder, contradiction between leaders, empty arguments, a passion for meetings without results. Still less is it to give vent to incompetence, ignorance, intellectual foolhardiness...In the framework of the collective leadership, we must respect the opinion of more experienced comrades who for their part must help the others with less experience to learn and to improve their work. In the framework of the collective leadership there is always one or other comrade who has a higher standing as party leader and who for this reason has more individual responsibility...We must allow prestige to these comrades, help them to have constantly higher standing, but not allow them to monopolise (take over) the work and responsibility of the group. We must, on the other hand, struggle against the spirit of slackness, and disinterest, the fear of responsibilities, the tendency to agree with everything, to obey blindly without thinking. (3)

The PAIGC was so committed to being an instrument of the people, that, in 1973, after more than a decade of armed struggle, when they finally defeated Portugal militarily, they did not storm the palace of power. Rather, they returned to the people, conducting a vote of confidence among the population, affirming their approval through a popular vote before officially taking up governance. This referendum is a powerful example of revolutionary democracy.

What would today's movements look like if we had highly effective, collectively controlled instruments of political struggle? What would organizations look like if we held individuals to high standards of integrity, provided structured developmental support, and consciously built our capacities towards governance?

Re-imagining political power is a central challenge to today's 21st century generation of freedom fighters. I have been part of experiments in structure that sought to uphold the value of collective leadership, from flat collectives to ultra-democratic centralism, to developmental hierarchies that focused on in-depth training and mentorship for emerging leaders. These approaches, none of them perfect, have re-enforced the core lessons that Cabral offers: the need for clarity on the outcomes you seek, the necessity for alignment and accountability, and the value of collective leadership among people who share a political goal.

Class Analysis & Class Consciousness

Cabral argued that no revolution could be truly successful without leadership from the working and peasant classes whose work produced the wealth of the country and of it's colonizers, and whose strategic position was powerful enough to turn the tables on economic injustice. And that a revolutionary vision of liberation would not be satisfied by simply replacing Portuguese political and economic control, putting the national bourgeoisie at the top of the exploitative structure created by colonialism.

Gaining political representation or even political control would not be sufficient to truly change the economic structure that colonialism put in place. Neither would it be possible or ideal to return to the way indigenous societies were organized before colonialism. So, Cabral argued, the task of revolutionaries was to make possible the development of national productive forces (the capacity of Cape Verde & Guinea Bissau to sustain an economy independent of Portugal), while laying the ideological foundations and movement infrastructure to fight against exploitation that would emerge under the rule of the national bourgeoisie.

This sophisticated strategy came from a deep conviction in the fundamental right of his people to live free of exploitation of any kind. He described the national liberation movement in this way: 'We are fighting so that...our peoples may never more be exploited by imperialists not only by people with white skin, because we do not confuse exploitation or exploiters with the colour of men's skins; we do not want any exploitation in our countries, not even by black people.' (4)

Today's reality is one where the exploiting class is no longer made up only of European colonial rulers. There are plenty of political and corporate leaders from oppressed nationalities, some of whom use their oppressed identity as an excuse to not only exploit others, but to celebrate that exploitation as if it were a hallmark of progress.

The question of class exploitation was core to Cabral's strategy, and is just as important for freedom fighters today. Without organizing working class people from oppressed nationalities, our movements lack the strategic base of power that can challenge capitalism's core. Without organizing working class and peasant communities, our movements can easily remain focused on social issues without tackling the underlying economic structure of capitalism. That is why organizing working class people is so important to building a successful movement towards economic democracy.

He also detailed the role of privileged layers of society in the revolutionary project. The fact that the national petty-bourgeoisie live the contrast between the world of the colonizer and the world of the colonized, he said, could be a catalyst for revolutionary consciousness. In fact, he theorized, these layers of society who were privileged in some ways but still not owners of the means of production were likely to see the need for national liberation sooner, given their role in society and in the economy:

The colonial situation, which does not permit the development of a native pseudo-bourgeoisie and in which the popular masses do not generally reach the necessary level of political consciousness before the advent of the phenomenon of national liberation, offers the petty bourgeoisie the historical opportunity of leading the struggle against foreign domination, since by nature of its objective and subjective position (higher standard of living than that of the masses, more frequent contact with the agents of colonialism, and hence more chances of being humiliated, higher level of education and political awareness, etc.) it is the stratum which most rapidly becomes aware of the need to free itself from foreign domination. This historical responsibility is assumed by the sector of the petty bourgeoisie which, in the colonial context, can be called revolutionary, while other sectors retain the doubts characteristic of these classes or ally themselves to colonialism so as to defend, albeit illusorily, their social situation. (5)

Organizers in the 21st century can learn from this type of detailed assessment based on the time, place and conditions, and should be asking ourselves these same questions. What is the most strategic role for privileged layers of society in social movements today?

The economic crisis has pushed more and more racially privileged and self-identified middle class people into precariousness and even poverty. Foreclosures, unemployment, loss of pensions, and lack of basic resources like healthcare are no longer problems unique to the self-identified working classes. While it is true that these privileged sectors have not felt the brunt of the burden of the failures of neo-liberalism, denying their experiences, or writing them off as irrelevant to the movement is a self-marginalizing mistake. Unless we can leverage this opportunity to provide new entry points into the movement, and engage the falling "middle class" in the project of fighting for economic justice for the working class as a whole, our movement will not be able to grow to the scale we need to win. Nor will we be able to capture the imagination of society as a whole.

How to best engage privileged sectors is a complicated question. Just as capitalism has robbed oppressed and exploited people of leadership capacities, it has ingrained privileged people with a complex of superiority that undercuts our collective capacity for revolutionary democracy. A more nuanced understanding that recognizes that we all have experiences of privilege and oppression allows us to build a more intersectional analysis. Just as Cabral theorized the unique potential of a sector of the petty-bourgeoisie, while positioning the working class as the motive force of change, our movement should also get clear on the role of particular sectors of the falling "middle class," in a broad multi-racial, multi-class, multi-gender movement led by working class people.

Class suicide and Cross-class movement building

This type of cross-class movement building requires a particular framework. Freedom fighters from privileged backgrounds, who Cabral identified as an important force within the broader front against imperialism, would need to gain a new kind of consciousness and develop a core sense of revolutionary ethics if they were to make real contributions to the movement.

He called for a profound transformation: 'in order to truly fulfill the role in the national liberation struggle, the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie must be capable of committing suicide as a class in order to be reborn as revolutionary workers, completely identified with the deepest aspirations of the people to which they belong. This alternative — to betray the revolution or to commit suicide as a class — constitutes the dilemma of the petty bourgeoisie in the general framework of the national liberation struggle.'

Class suicide is an amazing concept: a vision of profound transformation and alignment with the revolutionary project, on a collective level that breaks open the next stage of development for the movement.

This is particularly relevant in the face of the ongoing crisis in the capitalist economy and in the world's ecology, as more and more people are downwardly mobile or experiencing ecological collapse and are mobilized to join emerging movements. Not only is there an opportunity for class-consciousness as wealth becomes more and more polarized, there is also an opportunity for privileged sectors of society to develop the moral consciousness that can help create the conditions for the development of 21st century liberation movements.


Theory, according to Cabral, was a crucial weapon in the struggle. He agitated for militants to engage in intellectual work, saying 'The ideological deficiency, not to say the total lack of ideology, within the national liberation movements - which is basically due to ignorance of the historical reality which these movements claim to transform - constitutes one of the greatest weaknesses of our struggle against imperialism, if not the greatest weakness of all.' (6)

He challenged militants to engage critically, but also advised, 'Do not confuse the reality you live in with the ideas you have in your head', (7) and warned them: 'We are not going to eliminate imperialism by shouting insults at it.' (8) He challenged freedom fighters to train themselves ideologically, and to simultaneously ground their efforts in the aspirations of every day people: 'Always bear in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for the things in anyone's head. They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children. . .' (9)

This dialectical approach that intertwined theory and practice made Amílcar Cabral one of the greatest visionaries of the 20th century. Even though his theories are deeply rooted in the movement for national independence in Cape Verde and Guinea Bissau decades ago, they have a much broader reach and meaning. From the groundbreaking concept of class suicide, to the imagination and application of revolutionary democracy, Cabral's contributions have the potential to support a successful re-emergence of social movements in the 21st century.



1. Cabral, A. "General Watchwords" speech to PAIGC militants, from Unity and Struggle, 1979

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Cabral, A., African Communist, No. 53, second quarter 1973

5. Cabral, A. "The Weapon of Theory" Address delivered to the First Tricontinental Conference of the Peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America in Havana. January 1966

6. Ibid.

7. Cabral, A. "General Watchwords" speech to PAIGC militants, from Unity and Struggle, 1979

8. Ibid.

9.Cabral, A. Semin rio de quadros, Conakry, 1969


San Francisco’s gentrification has reached a ridiculous new extreme, making it the most expensive city in the country,[i] outstripping even Manhattan, the home of Wall Street and its corporate tycoons.

The affordability crisis is so extreme that many of those who rode into the Mission District on the first wave of gentrification, during the dotcom boom in the 90s, are now crying foul. Even they can’t afford the 2-bedroom apartment on Valencia Street renting for $11,500/month.[ii] They find themselves priced out of their lofts and community networks, by a whole new wave of highly paid tech workers who ride in on the Google bus every evening, driving rents and home prices to dizzying new heights.

If a well-paid tech worker can’t stay in the Mission, what are the prospects for someone like Jessica, a student whose mother works as a janitor? Born living at 24th and Harrison, she came to Causa Justa :: Just Cause to find our what her family could do to keep their home. They battled valiantly, but were ultimately pushed out of their home of 23 years by an investor who forced them to accept a buy out, by threatening to Ellis Act the entire 9-unit building. The Ellis Act, passed by the real estate lobby in 1986 allows landlords to remove rent-controlled units from the rental market, and turn them into condominiums for sale. It’s a real estate speculator’s dream, and a long-term tenant’s nightmare. Particularly in gentrifying neighborhoods, where real estate prices spike and there’s a profit motive to kick out long-term tenants.[iii]

Jessica’s working class Latino family is deeply committed to staying in San Francisco. The city is more than just their home. It’s home to their extended family of aunties, godfathers, cousins and in-laws. It’s where they have worked in service-sector jobs since the 80s, when so many Central American immigrants arrived to the Sanctuary City[iv], infusing local politics with internationalist ethics. It’s the web of community networks, public schools, and neighorhood-based social services that supports kids as they grow up, and adults as they become elders. It’s that way-beyond-nuclear type of family we call “community.”

Community is that palpable sense of connectedness you feel at the Palestinian-owned corner store on Mission Street. At the Spanish-only Thai grocer on 16th street, where decades-long neighbors run into each, buying freshly fried plantain chips made by a Honduran neighbor, hard-to-find Vietnamese hot sauce, or prickly delicious Rambutan fruit, while catchy Arab pop and Northern Mexican Rancheras blare onto the street. Community is the lunch counter that has served southern Barbeque to SRO residents ever since the days that same building was a tenement, housing African-American migrants who came here from the South to build the naval shipyard in Hunter’s Point. Their descendants are now scattered as far as Antioch and Sacramento, over-represented in homeless shelters, absent from the streets of the Fillmore, SF’s former center of Black culture, now decorated with painfully ironic “Jazz Legacy” street signs for tourists.[v] Community is the traditional Mexican Tres Leches cake the inter-racial queer couple buys at the Chinese bakery every year, wishing a transgender partner “Happy Birthday” to celebrate their gender transition.

Community is the social fabric made up of each of these inter-twined threads. It’s not something you can put a price on. But there is a price - a huge price.

In order to stay in San Francisco, Jessica’s family now pays 40% more for their housing. Did janitors' wages go up 40% this year? Did the cost of living decrease 40%? Did mom-and-pop stores that serve families like Jessica’s get a 40% decrease in skyrocketing commercial rents, so they could lower prices? Not a chance. Instead, Jessica’s family makes it work the way thousands do, by living in more crowded, less habitable conditions, cutting costs on everything from healthcare, to transportation, to food.

For the thousands of families like Jessica’s, the battle to expand tenant rights is more important than ever. Yes, building affordable housing is important. But, by itself, it is just not enough. Non-profit developers struggle to make ends meet and keep units off the market, and, ironically, they need to raise money from the very same corporate interests that are razing our communities. Inclusionary zoning – a few affordable units within huge market-rate developments – is at best a drop in the bucket, and, most often a window-dressing used to justify huge luxury developments that accelerate the pace of gentrification. While all of these reforms have a place in a larger strategy, tenant rights are crucial today more than ever. The single most aggressive way to increase affordability and defend thousands of working class families in San Francisco is to regulate the rental market.

Last year, Causa Justa :: Just Cause lead an effort to win a “hassle-free” housing law -penalizing landlords who harass, making it harder for them to push working class people out & double the rents in gentrifying San Francisco. We also won a subjective battle. We proved to ourselves, to elected officials, and to our communities who are under attack that displacement is not inevitable, that regulations in market housing can curb displacement, and that impacted communities can lead the fight to build a different kind of San Francisco – one that holds community at its heart.

Who are we up against?

Is it tech corporations, real estate developers, local government? Recent protests against the Google Bus highlighted this question, and made national headlines. Some blame tech workers - highly paid, primarily young white people who are pouring into long-time working class communities of color; workers who too often treat our communities like a colorful “ethnic” backdrop for their corporate lives. Some blame the real estate industry - the most active wing of the finance sector that has a stranglehold on California’s economy. The ruthless industry is famous for creating the foreclosure crisis, embodied now by “flippers” that circle like vultures around Mission District Victorians after a working class family has been evicted, setting up sandwich board signs that signal the conversion of a rent-controlled unit into a million-dollar condominium.

This question came up at a meeting I recently attended, where Mission-district community-based organizations met with tech sector representatives, convened by District 9 Supervisor, David Campos. Google, Facebook, AirBnB, and a host of smaller crowd-source start-ups approached Supervisor Campos, wanting to fix the image problem tech has earned for itself in the Mission District. Rather than letting the big companies make a token gesture for PR purposes, to his credit, he brought mission community organizations together so we could express our concerns directly.

It was enlightening, to say the least, to speak directly to representatives of these companies. I noticed that smaller start-ups tended to have a very different character than the big corporations. And yet, somehow, in the public eye, huge tech corporations retain a kind of “perpetual start-up” image – as if its passion, creativity, genius, that drives them, not the billions of dollars they make in profit. A little research revealed that the giant tech corporations are, in fact, known for cartel-like behavior. A huge lawsuit is currently pending, seeking compensation for tens of thousands of engineers whose wages were kept artificially low. CEO’s from Google, Apple, Intel, and Adobe are being sued for violating the Anti-Trust Act, conspiring with each other so that none of them would recruit engineers at each other’s companies with higher wages, thus repressing engineer wages throughout the industry in order to increase profits.[vi] Not to mention wi-fi buses that shuttle workers from SF to Silicon Valley squeeze at least two more hours of work out of each employee. It was ironic, then, to hear company reps defend tech employees from community criticism. If you wanted your employees to be treated more respectfully, shouldn’t you start by doing so, yourself?

What these tech corporation representatives (many in new “community liaison” positions just created a few months ago in response to public pressure) heard from the community was how tech workers flooding into the Mission creates the profit motive for landlords to push people out. Whether the individual tech workers are conscious of it or not, they are complicit in the process of gentrification. The Google bus protests struck a nerve because they highlighted how the Tech sector is facilitating the forced displacement of families like Jessica’s, all while using city infrastructure built with taxes her family has paid, for decades, while tech companies have dodged taxation. The recent ruling by the Metropolitan Transport Agency requiring these huge corporate buses pay $1 per stop was like a slap in the face to the community. Jessica herself pays $2 each time she rides Muni or gets on the bus – each individual bus rider pays DOUBLE what these tax-dodging multi-billion corporations pay. [vii]

Both the Tech and the Real Estate Industries have to take responsibility for the affordability crisis in San Francisco. Blaming Real Estate is an easy out for Tech companies that claim to be “innovating for social good” but ignore the impact their boardrooms of innovation have on surrounding communities. Meanwhile, Real Estate happily lets Tech workers take the blame for their reckless profiteering, hiding behind the myth that the housing market is some kind of force of nature, instead of a real time series of power relationships that human beings have responsibility for. In the background of each wave of gentrification, each massive increase in rents, each conversion of a rent-controlled apartment into a luxury condominium is an incredibly powerful finance industry that shapes not just San Francisco, but California as a whole.

Who will defend the heart of San Francisco?

Local governments need to step up to the challenge of holding corporations accountable. Accepting gifts from Tech Industry tycoons as a way to let them avoid real taxation is neither sustainable as a strategy, nor defensible morally. Letting Real Estate throw in a couple affordable units as a way to avoid real regulation in the housing market is not just insufficient to meet the affordability needs – it’s fueling the displacement of working class communities of color.

In his “State of the City” address, Mayor Ed Lee promised to defend tenant protections, fight the Ellis Act, and build affordable housing. Without a strategy of corporate accountability, these promises will be impossible to keep. What does the city gain by depriving itself of tax revenue? Billions of dollars come through San Francisco this way, pushing working class communities out and filtering into private hands. Promising to provide “Housing for All” without an aggressive corporate accountability strategy is like handing out free umbrellas in the face of a Tsunami.

And it's bigger than just the Mayor. Every one of us has a role to play in the battle for the heart of San Francisco. Concerned individuals, direct action collectives, neighborhood associations, small businesses committed to the community, tech workers exploited by their bosses, we all have a responsibility. Causa Justa :: Just Cause organizes people like Jessica, people directly impacted by the crisis, who instead of being victims are, through community struggle, becoming protagonists in the fight for the heart of San Francisco. We know that supporting grassroots leadership is the only way we will change the balance of power in the long term, and we built an organization to play that role in the movement. And there are many more roles to play – from legal and policy work, to direct action in the streets, to building affordable housing, to cultural and community healing work. If we work together, we are stronger. As we learned in the late 90s in the mission, we must work together at a scale bigger than any one neighborhood if we are to contend with the powerful forces driving gentrification.

Today, we have citywide organizations like San Francisco Rising and the San Francisco Anti-Displacement Coalition, poised to fight the battle for the heart of San Francisco. If local government isn't representing us well, then we can make ourselves heard – at the ballot box, in the streets, at corporate headquarters and bus stops, in church halls and city hall.

Gentrification is not natural. Displacement is not inevitable. Everyday people, when we come together, can change the course of history.

Join Jessica, and hundreds of impacted tenants as we come together to build grassroots power, Sat, Feb 8th, at the citywide San Francisco tenant convention!

Live elsewhere in California? Sign the petition to repeal the Ellis Act.

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About the Author

  • Raised in Buenos Aires, politicized in East Los Angeles, Maria Poblet is a nerdy Latina rooted in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Building off a decade of radical community organizing and movement building work, she lead the merger of the Latino organization she built with a Black organization, forming a single, multi-racial powerhouse called Causa Justa :: Just Cause ( Before organizing, she was Artistic Director of Poetry for the People, and had the honor of being mentored by June Jordan. Follow her on twitter @mariadelpueblo

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