Sounds like the beginning of a joke, or a riot, or a UFC bout, right? Well... it wasn't. Surprised? Read on.
Last week, over 100-plus San Francisco tech workers and housing activists came together at Virgil's bar in the heart of the Mission district, to talk about what's currently at the forefront of everybody's mind: the gentrification and economic disparity happening in the city.
A city that's historically been the beacon for so many underserved and underrepresented people, a city that has activism running through its Muni-line veins, a city proud of its NIMBYs, progressives and free spirits.
I am a tech worker and I co-organized this event along with housing activist Gus Feldman whom I met at a tenants meeting just a few weeks ago. I had never been to a tenants meeting before, and upon reading about it in a local paper, I decided to see what these meetings are about -- to hear the stories of those most effected by the changing landscaping. I seemed to be the only one who worked in tech at the meeting, and the crowd was shocked I actually attended.
You see, there is false divide that has been created between people who work in tech and those who don't. "Techies" have been stigmatized as a group who are completely unaware of the housing crisis, who don't care about their neighbors or local businesses, and who cringe at the word activism.
In my mind, this has caused a horrendous split between two imaginary groups: tech workers and activists. They are not mutually exclusive groups at all. In fact, there is a strong history of tech-activism that has changed the world we live in. WikiLeaks, Aaron Swartz, the on-line activism that helped spark the Arab Spring in Egypt, to name a few.
So Gus and I decided to join forces and create an event where tech workers and activists can come together to have a conversation about the issues, and more importantly, share ideas on what we can do to fix them. What happened next was nothing short of awesome.
For the first half of the evening, we invited a number of speakers to talk about what they were currently doing to alleviate the pain of unattainability in the city. We had Supervisor David Campos, representatives from Causa Justa, P.O.W.E.R, Housing Rights Committee and the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, all showcasing the current work their groups were doing to combat the issues, and inviting anyone who was interested to join in.
During this portion, there was one heckler in the crowd who was frustrated at the lack of discussion (which was planned for the second half of the evening). "Is this a dialogue?" he interrupted, "I'm a representative of the tech community, and for 25 minutes now, this has felt pretty one-sided." After the crowd shushed him, and after Gus explained that this was coming in the second half, the night continued. This was the one, and only, interruption of the night.
The second half of the evening was the open dialogue portion. This was where everybody embraced why we were all there in the first place: to talk. Anyone who had anything to say could have the mic for two minutes, and speak their mind. Whether it was ideas for solutions, stories of evictions, volunteering opportunities, activist hackathon invitations, and yes, even a poetry slam session.
There were folks who had just been Ellis Acted, to those who owned land (whether independently or through the San Francisco Community Land Trust). There were tech workers who relayed stories of having to move because they simply couldn't afford it anymore, to the creator of the Tech Workers Against Displacement group. There was a UCSF worker who had to move to a more affordable living space in Oakland, along with most of her co-workers, even though UCSF is the largest employer in S.F with over 21,000 employees. And the stories went on.
Even the one-time heckler was invited up on stage to have his say, and surprisingly, what he was most concerned about was, short of creating a website, how he could actively help and effect real change. This is how passionate attendees were to really make a difference.
By the end of the night, it was very apparent that the imaginary divide between fictional groups had melted, and we all saw each other as simply people, working together to bring change.
That night, San Francisco showed what it was truly about all along: peace, love and activism. I decided to walk home the 20 blocks, and take in the S.F heartbeat. I walked by establishments that made me fall in love with the city: Ali Baba's (still my favorite falafel joint), Dolores Park, and Harvey's. I also walked by the places under construction, taken over by real estate moguls. I walked by Esta Noche, a neighborhood sanctuary and an S.F staple going out of business.
This is what we are fighting for, I thought. This one's for you. When I woke up the next morning and read the news, however, I was dismayed by all of the appalling misrepresentations by the media outlets and their desperately skewed reporting of the event.
"S.F tech workers, housing activists clash at happy hour" wrote the SFGate. "Tech and Activist Meet, Tense Conversations Ensue" was Mission Local's spin.
It's as if the story of us getting together wasn't juicy enough, and didn't fit the original bias that the reporters came into the event expecting. A tech worker and an activist walk into a bar, get together with their groups to have an open dialogue, and it is actually working? Nah. Not a story for us. Let's focus on the one, single person who interrupted the night, who was then able to come up to the mic and speak his mind with support from the crowd.
There is some good news, however. The trend of tech and activists working together is on the rise, and there are no signs of slowing down. "SF's Tech Industry Joins Campaign for Ellis Act Reform" reported BeyondChron, and just this week, "Google donates $6.8 million to fund free transit rides for San Francisco youth" wrote The Verge.
A tech worker and an activist walk into a bar... and it was awesome. You should try it, too.
Follow Rolla Selbak on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RollaSelbak