Barroom backchannel

Can tech workers and progressive activists cooperate in the fight against displacement? Maybe, but don't tell their bosses.


Amid the political turmoil in the city around evictions of longtime San Franciscans, tech workers and progressive political activists are beginning to come together to brainstorm ways to address displacement.

Tech workers have started to attend meetings meant to spark conversation between the two opposing groups, hosted by local restaurant Casa Sanchez. Those interviewed by hyperlocal website Mission Local described the dinners as "heavy and charged," with blame for the housing crisis pointing to all sides.

Last week, Tech Workers Against Displacement Happy Hour was the latest opportunity for the two communities to come together and talk. But can tech workers become effective partners in the search for solutions to the affordable housing crisis? The happy hour was promising, but it exposed some of the obstacles.

The happy hour was partially organized by a politician running for office (Sup. David Campos, who is now running for the California Assembly), but was mostly the brainchild of two unlikely allies: SEIU labor representative Gus Feldman and Rolla Selbak, an employee at a multinational tech giant that she asked us not to name.

And therein lies one of the challenges: Will the well-paid tech workers be willing to rise up and challenge the corporate and capitalist interests that have overheated the local economy and fed the displacement crisis, the very forces that have allowed them to afford skyrocketing local rents?



Virgil's Sea Room was an apt choice for the happy hour. Five months ago and just a few blocks away on 24th Street, hundreds marched in the "Our Mission No Eviction" protest, where 71-year-old Mission muralist Rene Yanez told a tale of an artistic, vibrant Mission District in danger of losing its Latino population and its character.

The night was a mostly positive exercise in bridge-building, though it started under a blanket of tension. Activists spoke of the housing crisis at a microphone to an audience of nearly 200 tech workers and activists. Sparks flew and some left early, unhappy with what they called "activist lecturing."

But as the empty beer cans grew in number, many tech workers came up to the microphone, and even more still mingled with the housing activists in the crowd. Riders of corporate buses figuratively (and maybe literally) clinked glasses with Erin McElroy, one of the leaders in the Heart of the City protests that have blockaded Google buses.

Yet most tech workers didn't want to come out of the closet and identify with this nascent movement. Seeing a reporter with a notepad in hand, they shrank away. Those that did speak identified themselves in hushed tones accompanied by furtive glances. One man who identified himself as a tech worker laid down some rockin' slam poetry at the microphone. When we told him we tweeted his performance, the tall, broad-shouldered techie flew into a panic.

"Please, please, please, you have to delete it. They can't know I was here," he told the Guardian, with panic in his eyes and sweat dripping down his forehead. He wasn't alone in his worry.