He delivered the last lines in the staccato cadence of an entitled techie — or a caricature of one. McElroy recoiled. Like the other protesters, she wore a neon utility vest and held what looked like a big traffic sign, with the slogan "Warning: Illegal Use of Public Infrastructure." San Francisco Bay Guardian reporter Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez captured the incident on video and posted it to the Internet that morning; by noon, it had gotten enough clicks to crash the newspaper's web page. Commentators were driven into apoplectic fits, calling the Google Bus Guy a Social Darwinist, a rapacious gentrifier, and an idiot. One wag created the fake "Google Bus Guy" Twitter account. His interests: "Timely commuting, Ayn Rand, large search algorithm corporations."

It didn't take long for Oakland journalist Susie Cagle to out the Google Bus Guy as Max Bell Alper, a career union organizer and erstwhile thespian, who'd been a prominent member of the Occupy Movement. (He was one of a dozen Occupy Oakland protesters who shared a $1.17 million settlement from the city last year, to resolve police brutality complaints.) Alper tells SF Weekly his soliloquy wasn't scripted, although it may have been staged — he knew McElroy from other protests, and she appears to be goading him in the video. He wasn't prepared for the fallout, from critics who accused him of sensationalizing a legitimate social cause and journalists who scolded him for distorting the truth and hoodwinking the public. Alper insists that the plausibility of his performance made it more resonant.

"Every day when you walk down the street, you hear this," he contends. "I mean, the next day the guy from AngelHack said even nastier things." (On Dec. 10, AngelHack CEO Greg Gopman posted a Facebook screed about homeless people on Market Street, handing activists a perfect parable of tech-geek self-importance and callousness. By the time he deleted the post, it had already gone viral.)

Erin McElroy coordinates bus blockades when she's not tracking eviction data in San Francisco.
Juan Pardo
Erin McElroy coordinates bus blockades when she's not tracking eviction data in San Francisco.
Speakers at the citywide tenants convention in the Tenderloin.
Photographs by Josh Edelson
Speakers at the citywide tenants convention in the Tenderloin.

Alper explains that the Google bus protests are largely symbolic. Perhaps, on a micro level, they accomplish very little. A few tech employees get inconvenienced, a few roads are blocked, a few signs harangue about rising rents in the Mission. Alper says he wants to convey a message about income inequality; that Google, Apple, et al. are enriching themselves and despoiling the city at the same time they're acting as economic drivers. He compares them to a supervisor who mistreated his mom at her low-paying cafeteria job. Google is "the bad boss who's yelling at us," Alper says. "And he's going to keep yelling at us until we say, 'You know what? You can't do that anymore.'"

But he also sees tech companies as a more amorphous and all-encompassing enemy, responsible for a whole litany of misdeeds:

Offshore tax shelters. Scooping up personal data. Mass surveillance. Large-scale income inequality.

The tech buses serve the same purpose, for today's activists, as Wall Street served for Occupiers two years ago. They provide a baked-in allegory: That of the big, cushy, well-ventilated, Wi-Fi-equipped coach overtaking a public stop, forcing regular commuters — the ones who ride Muni to their low-paying, unglamorous jobs — to step out in the middle of traffic. It's an example of class privilege impeding public transportation.

To disrupt that scene is to break down the fourth wall, Alper explains.

"In San Francisco, we have front-row seats to these tech companies," he says. "We have a responsibility to hold them accountable."

The problem, then, is defining where accountability begins and ends — leaping from global to parochial issues. That's hard to do when the villain in question is a multinational corporation, rather than a venal landlord, or a seedy porn shop that moved in next to the local elementary school.

Google, Apple, et al. are global. They're embedded in our everyday lives; they're outsiders that wormed in and transformed not only San Francisco, but society at large. You can't hold up a picket sign or bang a tambourine and raise awareness about these companies, expecting them to go away. When you're up against something that big, "awareness" itself becomes a futile exercise. Traditional forms of protest seem quaint. They're symbolic victories that stray from practical solutions; a means to purge anxieties about change that's inevitable.


And yet, tambourine-banging and sign-waving and picketing are probably the most unassailable traditions that exist, in the seen-it-all Bay Area. Our museums display pictures of flower children alongside dug-out Ohlone canoes; Mark Kitchell's Berkeley in the Sixties documentary is required viewing for many high school social studies classes. We protest as an end, rather than a means, because we don't want to see our deepest tradition derailed — even by tech. Especially by tech.

That's particularly true in Oakland, a city that's long absorbed San Francisco's runoff, without its boom.

Activist crusades have shaped the last five decades in Oakland in much the same way that dot-com bubbles helped redraw the contours of San Francisco. The East Bay city still holds its gun-toting Black Panthers as a point of pride, and to this day, activists squabble over whether DeFremery Park, at 16th and Adeline streets, should be rechristened to honor the slain Panther Lil' Bobby Hutton, who was shot while trying to ambush Oakland police in 1968. When members of the Occupy movement set up camp outside City Hall in 2011, they renamed the land "Oscar Grant Plaza" to honor the unarmed 22-year-old who was shot by a BART cop at Fruitvale Station two years earlier. It's officially named after the Japanese civil rights leader Frank Ogawa.

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15 comments
guest
guest

Ms. Swan, seems to think all housing is inherently good, and opposition to it is “conservative.” But burdening community after community with nothing but high-end housing and condos that price out ordinary workers is not a benefit. The fix will be simple to see, just hard to enact in a system designed to benefit developers, who have no incentive to build the housing we need, i.e. honestly affordable housing for low-paid working people, unless politicians force them to by hooking rents to the minimum wage, rent control, etc. Housing should not be a “whatever the market can bear” system unless people really enjoy seeing their neighbors living under the overpass. Sincerely, Carol Denney

marilyn123
marilyn123

This reminds me of how journalists covered Occupy. They had this really, overly literal refrain of, 'But what do you want!? ' that totally missed the point. Protests speak complex truths that can't be spoken. Occupy spoke the truth of Wall St sequestration of resources and all of the sudden we were talking about CEO salaries, tax breaks and income inequality. As such occupy gave Obama the platform to beat Romney. The tech bus protest and anti-eviction movement doesn't neatly distill down into a simple news story or review of activism that can be read in the time it takes to eat a burrito. Which is exactly the kind of snarky, nit picky reductionist degeneration into literalness this article represents. Protests, like earthquakes, are small surface expressions of much greater truths and forces in our society that often elude the perceptive capacities of  journalists, who then get their undies in a wad about 'well, what's this really about,'  when they themselves are just too simple and literal minded to understand. Protests give people hope and community both in the present, and in the future, as people look back on past actions. Patholigizing people who see the potential of protest, who refuse to bury their head in the sand, or dismiss the messiness of the mess we're in as 'anxiety over change' isn't worthy of the printed word, or the higher human reasoning. Corporate Shuttle Roadkill


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yh9m61-QRcY

Jean Jeanie
Jean Jeanie

James A. Hudkins where do the myriad protestors go who are born and raised in SF and the bay Area?

Tony Gallen
Tony Gallen

That man in the window on the bus needs a good assbeating.

mrericsir
mrericsir topcommenter

Only in San Francisco would people protest that local companies are paying their employees too well.

Andrea Cwynar
Andrea Cwynar

I'm so sick of hearing about the tech buses and all the problems they cause in regards to the cost of living. As a small business owner in Sf for 14 years, I would say the bigger problem is this city and its officials who make the policies in regards to how and who pays for what in this town. My business pays out the nose in taxes, and when those are paid, SF makes a new policy that causes me to pay more taxes....so never able to get ahead. SF promotes itself as a small business town, but yet it starves us and gives no type of incentive what so ever. And then the city doesn't even charge the big corps to use the Muni stops? Who is the problem here in the cost of living? Protesters should think this over a little more.....They see a big shiny bus and start pointing fingers, but the cost of living has always been high in this town....yes its getting worse, but is it really the companies or the lack of smart infrastructure down at city hall?

John Davison
John Davison

@dallas isn't democracy the process of a larger group outvoting a smaller group... is that bad ?

James A. Hudkins
James A. Hudkins

The Tech buses could help their cause of they were nicer about it. I recently saw 2 of them, one on Market and another on Park Presidio just stop in traffic and block a lane. I had to drive around. It was rude. In each place there were frontage areas and supermarkets they could compensate to use their parking lot. I approve of the Tech people building the economy and improving neighborhoods by their presence, but they should not be rude about it. The protestors should examine their own lives and perhaps return to where they come from. They don't own San Francisco just because they moved here.

meatsack
meatsack

One wonders about people like Erin McElroy. they wonder around saving the locals from themselves.  An outsider that recently moved into the Mission that complains that outsiders are moving into the Mission.


There is just so much interesting about her savior status.  A while liberal Foucault and Derrida fan who takes part in street theater as a local with a fake Google bus union employee who lives in the East bay.


According to the Bay Guardian.

"

In the video, a union organizer who hopped off the bus shouts down Erin McElroy, staging an argument with a protester who also heads the eviction mapping project. "How long have you lived in this city?" McElroy asked him. He shouted back "Why don't you go to a city that can afford it? This is a city for the right people who can afford it. You can't afford it? You can leave. I'm sorry, get a better job."

"


I guess that avant-garde, cutting edge, postmodern protest is the art here, the art of being OK to be a gentrifier while complaining about gentrification.  Their own gentrification of the area is OK because they took the right classes and spout the right platitudes.  People like Erin are here to help the masses because the masses don't have your sophistication to know the only wrong answer is not agreeing with the opinions of the person at the front of the class, now the Erin's are at the front of the class.  The properly educated leading the charge for the dumb masses, the middle class vanguard socialists directing from above the peasant revolution.


This is the new protest it seems.


I look forward to her further career in SF, the short years we may have left of them anyways.

mblaircheney
mblaircheney topcommenter

A major point is being missed here, just today... it was announced that WhatsApp, based in Mountain View, Ca…. sold to Facebook for $19,000,000,000.00


The company employs 55 people - that translates into $380,000,000.00 per person—$1.00 a day to use San Francisco's official bus stops for their silk lined carriages… to some that may seem fair… not!


This money... $380,000,000.00 a worker... in the hands of mostly a few young white guys, will be part of the engine that dismantles and displaces these largely minority neighborhoods.


85 people in the World own 50% of it's assets… take notice… see how it's done.


This transfer of wealth for rendering an arguably useless... as in "we can all live without it"... service. These people are not tending hospital emergency rooms, entering burning buildings to save lives or standing in the front lines of our military risking all for the endless war etc. etc. No cure for cancer is in the works, no Pulitzer Prize novel is being written… poverty and hunger remains, unless they decide to donate their booty… don't hold your breath. 


A false value has been placed on WhatsApp, funny, by another falsely valued company Facebook. Reminds me… many CEO's pay is determined by other CEO that oversee a board that determines the CEO's value… then they swap seats the next week to render the other fellows CEO pay based on the rising CEO pay average.


The game is rigged, the transfer of wealth is real, the distortion to our society... is not creeping in... it is 'All In!'


Dutifully announced by multi $1,000,000.00 News 'Talking Heads' reading a teleprompter while texting their money manager to get in on the next IPO.


This imbalance will not last, voters will finally wake up and take it all back… it has happened before.


Protestors have something that even the obscenely, undeserved rich have… one vote per person.



cindyman
cindyman

And don't forget Google is a member of  ALEC, code for American Legislative Exchange Council.   A stealth organization of conservative legislators (both sides of the aisle) and mega corporations that make-up rules/laws that favor their interest at the expense of Everyone Else!

mistyjulane
mistyjulane

Right people, i think the word is wealthy

 
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