Wag the Mission
Thank you, Emily Gurnon. Thank you deeply from all of us here at SF Weekly.
Without your assistance (and, to be sure, the assistance of your employer, the San Francisco Examiner), we wouldn't have been able to do what we've done. And what we've done is, even if we say it ourselves, quite amazingly absurd and wonderful, even for San Francisco, where outre performance art is considered a staple of life. We have pranked the Examiner, KGO radio, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Associated Press, a bunch of television reporters, the man who might be Nestor Makhno, and a couple of hundred people who take neighborhood politics much too seriously, and we have pranked them far into the next star system. We have made up a political movement out of thin air, called a rally on its nonexistent behalf, called into being a large counterdemonstration (complete with a significant police presence), and created a minor media uproar.
We have also had ourselves a hell of a lot of fun on a bright sunny Sunday, and, as I will explain soon enough, performed a much-needed public service.
But we couldn't have done it without you, Emily. So once again, and with genuine feeling: We thank you, Emily. We really, really thank you.
Three or four weeks ago, I had an offhand idea. SF Weekly Managing Editor Laurel Wellman had been writing regularly about Nestor Makhno, the pseudonymous activist connected to the so-called Mission Yuppie Eradication Project. I believe you probably know the man, and the project; he and it have posted fliers throughout the Mission District, putting forward the preposterous notion that working-class denizens could halt the macroeconomically driven influx of affluent professionals into the Mission by direct action of an extralegal sort. Specifically, by trashing sport utility vehicles and other "yuppie" automobiles, and by doing something dire to four specific restaurants that Nestor and his cohorts apparently believe to be the work of the Dark Yuppie Lord.
Our writings about Nestor had riled a few Mission residents who own so-called live-work lofts, who felt that we were supporting Nestor's preposterous work, and who objected to having their lofts inscribed with anti-yuppie graffiti. This is a reasonable objection, but a couple of these residents called our offices repeatedly, abused our editorial administrator robustly, and generally proved themselves to be jerks extraordinaire. Among other things, they complained preposterously of being the objects of hate crimes.
The sudden appearance of groups of citizens behaving preposterously tapped like a professionally wielded hammer against my sarcasm reflex. Here was a real opportunity. What if, I thought, we ran a phony advertisement, calling on San Franciscans peaceably to assemble to protect the endangered rights of yuppies living in the Mission? If we could trick San Franciscans into demonstrating against "hate crimes" inflicted on yuppies, wouldn't that prove San Franciscans will demonstrate about anything?
The idea for a phony demonstration was just that, an idea, brain effluvium. Executing the idea would require talent and energy and daring, for the prank could fail in many ways. It could fail by being too subtle and going unnoticed; or it could fail in the other direction, by being too obvious, an easily spotted, over-the-top goof. And there is nothing uglier or more embarrassing than a failed prank.
Luckily, I have trusty lieutenants who salivate at the mention of prank-playing.
Laurel Wellman (perhaps best known as the author of our preternaturally arch Dog Bites column) sprung to the task of writing the ad. A good prank should fool only fools and the unwary; people of reasonable intelligence should be able to discern clear hints that something is very, very amiss here. Wellman succeeded admirably, creating an absolutely plausible imbecility of an advertisement for the protest rally we "sponsored" in Dolores Park on Sunday last.
The ad, titled "Stop the Hate," was written entirely in the gooey vocabulary of underdog leftist social protest; at the same time, the ad's content clearly called for the masses to rally and rescue professionals who had used six-figure salaries and Silicon Valley stock portfolios to buy homes in the Mission District. This conflict of syntax and semantics, we felt, would be enough to warn away the witting.
But Ms. Wellman went the last mile in terms of protecting the innocent, ending the ad with a long list of mythical sponsors whose names were absurd enough to raise the eyebrows of snails. (My personal favorite: LOFT, the Live-Work Owners' Fairness Team.)
The Weekly's art director, Darrick Rainey, did his part, styling our ad closely after those posters, periodically strewn about the city, that call for marches against whatever U.S. or NATO bombing campaign is under way at that particular time. Then he threw a stray clenched fist into the mix, which should have made sentient readers wonder, "How do you stop hate with a fist?" But somehow, the fist was just right.
I made sure the ad ran prominently in our June 2 issue (Page 9, as it turned out).
Of course, any protest needs an organizer, a guiding spirit, a media personality. Soon enough, SF Weekly Associate Editor David Pasztor gave us one: Bradley.
Bradley is the first name of a nephew of one of the writers at the Weekly. It also seemed to be the way-perfect name for the kind of yuppie who would organize a "Stop the Hate" demonstration that used these actual words: "It's time to acknowledge that our pain is real -- not a joke!"
"Bradley" made his initial appearance as a message that Associate Editor Pasztor created on a voice mail number at the Weekly. (Bradley's phone number had, of course, been placed in the ad.) The message was perfect. No real yuppie could have done a better job of calling the faithful to the barricades: Stirring verbiage was enunciated in a nasal, please-like-me, rich kid's voice. Of course, part of the message asked members of the media to leave their names and numbers, if they wished further information.
Almost immediately the Bay Guardian and the Examiner's Ms. Gurnon bit. Bradley left the Guardian reporter a message to the effect that because the reporting of the Guardian and the Weekly had caused this Mission gentrification mess, Bradley did not have time to speak with either before Sunday's demonstration.
Ms. Gurnon was a different matter altogether. We wanted her to keep nibbling at our baited hook -- but we did not think we could risk an actual interview. Ms. Gurnon might begin to ask such embarrassingly journalistic questions as who, what, where, when, and even why. So Bradley called Ms. Gurnon long after working hours and left a voice mail message that indicated he was interested in talking to her, but was just so busy with the "Stop the Hate" demonstration that he would be awfully difficult to contact before Sunday's rally.
During the first couple of days after our June 2 issue, with its "Stop the Hate" ad, hit the streets, Bradley's voice mail filled with messages. Many were simple hang-ups. More than a few of the callers believed, or at least hoped, the ad was what it was: a joke. (A more complete set of transcriptions of the messages can be seen at our Web site, www.sfweekly.com.)
"I am convinced this has got to be a fuckin' joke," one caller said. "You people are fucking pathetic. This is a fuckin' joke. I'm not accepting this as reality."
Then there were the angry people:
"I'm gonna fucking kill you, you bitch. I'm gonna fucking kill you, you little fucking piece of shit. I'm gonna fucking rip off your head. Fucking piece of shit. Get the fuck out of my city, you bitch. Yeah you, you fuckin' honky scumbag. Fucking suck on these nuts you [expletive unintelligible]."
One caller, who claimed to be a member of the Aryan Nation, said members of that pathetic white supremacy group would show up early for Sunday's rally.
And then there was Emily Gurnon, who called back two more times. In one of her messages, she noted that she was working on a story "that's gonna run very soon."
My trusty lieutenants and I were hoping against hope that if we did not call anyone in the media back directly, if we held our breath and prayed to all the household gods, if the stars moved into utterly perfect alignment, our prank would go undiscovered until Sunday. Should 20 or 30 people show up, we would laugh and claim victory and get on with our lives.
We certainly did not expect Emily Gurnon to forget all about those bothersome who, what, where, when, and why questions, and go off and write a story about Bradley's "Stop the Hate" rally -- without talking to anyone who had anything to do with organizing the phony event. But write she did.
The story, headlined "Fed-up yups take on Mission hostility/ Targeted residents, merchants plan rally against 'hate crimes,' " ran on Page 1 of Friday afternoon's Examiner. A long and oddly coherent work, the story cobbled the views of the man who might be Nestor Makhno and various Mission residents seamlessly together with information from our fake "Stop the Hate" ad and Bradley's puling, phony voice mail message. Of course, significant amounts of Ms. Gurnon's story were nonsense; as a matter of empirical fact, our phony rally could have had nothing to do with the comments of the people she quoted on the rally and Mission gentrification in general.
But even if based in nonsense, the article was effective.
Bradley's voice mail registered at least 60 messages on Saturday. One came from KGO radio, which wanted to interview Bradley live on Sunday morning, before the "Stop the Hate" rally. Bradley thought he could fool a radio person, so Bradley agreed.
First, KGO interviewed the man who police say is Nestor Makhno, Kevin Keating. The interview was preposterous, except for the part when Kevin said he does not see why he should have to pay rent at all; just then, it was silly and kind of sad. Kevin announced that he would be conducting a counterdemonstration to "Stop the Hate."
During his KGO interview on Sunday morning, Bradley whined and puled and said he felt the pain of renters displaced when yuppies buy homes in the Mission. When informed that the phrase "feel your pain" has come to be seen as condescending and phony, Bradley apologized profusely. He was abjectly, unconsciously condescending. He insisted he did not want a confrontation with Nestor's counterdemonstration.
Confrontation? I was beginning to wonder whether my idea had become a little too good.
Nah. Sunday was a sunny, wonderful day for a prank, and the prank went off like a 3-D psychedelic rendering of a real demonstration. Damn, it was perfect.
Kevin Keating, also known to police as Nestor Makhno, and a small band of followers met about noon at the 16th Street BART plaza. Kevin was being interviewed by a reporter as I wandered by. About 1 p.m., people began gathering at the northeast corner of Dolores Park, next to the tennis courts. Although a few carried pro-yuppie signs, most of them appeared to be, themselves, pranking the issue; serious protesters were in the clear majority, and they were clearly, vehemently, preposterously anti-yup.
Bradley, of course, did not appear.
But that didn't stop the demonstration. This is, after all, San Francisco. No need for reality when protesting is in the air.
In the end, a couple of hundred people gathered in the sun at 18th and Dolores streets. The demonstration had a little of something for everybody. Kevin/Nestor and his band of 15 or so charged down the Dolores Park hill, chanting, "One, two, three, four, this is class war." There was a bullhorn. There were arguments, and milling, and shouting, and police to keep the peace. This was a full-scale demonstration, one of the better ones I've seen in San Francisco, in fact -- and nobody stopped things to ask why the people who supposedly called the rally never showed up.
Laurel Wellman will describe what happened at our "Stop the Hate" meta-demonstration more completely in her Dog Bites column, which follows this piece by a few pages. I will answer, now, the burning question: Why? Why would we fake a demonstration?
Hey, why not?
If the San Francisco news media are habitually lazy, press-release driven, gullible, and focused on easily presented controversy, rather than substance -- and believe me, they are -- don't they deserve to be pranked into the next star system? (And believe me, gullible they were. The short-list of news outlets that reported our phony demonstration as real includes: the Examiner, the Chronicle, the Associated Press state wire, KGO radio, and Channel 2 television.)
And if a couple of hundred people in the Mission are so focused on neighborhood politics that they cannot recognize absurdity staring them right in their faces, is it not the clear duty of SF Weekly to bring humor back into their lives?
There are real gentrification and housing problems in this city. We have covered them, and will continue to cover them, seriously, and in detail. But we also do pranks. It's part of our shtick. So let's just publish Mecklin's Maxim, and make everyone aware: When people behave preposterously in San Francisco, they deserve to be pranked.
And, by God, we will prank them!
We understand that executing this maxim next time will be more difficult. Each prank will be harder than the last. People will begin to be on their guard. Some might even stop behaving preposterously for five or 10 minutes.
But preposterousness is endemic to San Francisco, and pranking is necessary for the mental health of the city. So prank we will.
Even when we don't have Emily Gurnon to help.