Alex Tom and Shaw San Liu — the executive director and lead organizer for the Chinese Progressive Association, which celebrates its 40th anniversary on Aug. 4 — have laid the groundwork for a progressive resurgence in San Francisco by organizing Chinese immigrants and actively building close and mutually supportive relationships with working-class allies throughout the city.
The two have been involved in just about every recent effort to counter the pro-corporate neoliberalism that has come to dominate City Hall these days. They have seized space with Occupy San Francisco and they have supported labor unions and helped to create the Progressive Workers Alliance. They have fought foreclosures and pushed for affordable housing reforms, and they have protected vulnerable immigrant workers from wage theft by unscrupulous employers.
"Shaw San and Alex are incredibly talented organizers and movement builders who are managing to do the nearly impossible," said N'Tanya Lee, who worked closely with the pair as the director of Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth. "They have built an authentic base of working-class Chinese immigrants who are interested in fighting for change in their community, and are creating a grassroots organization at the forefront of building multi-racial alliances to combat the divide-and-conquer strategies that are confronting us."
Liu, who joined CPA six years ago, said she's always inspired to see the old photographs on the walls of CPA's office, and to read the history of CPA's organizing and advocacy on behalf of working people. She said the organization has always understood the need to forge alliances with labor unions and other progressive interests.
"The organization itself has been, since its inception, playing a critical role in bridging the needs of Chinese interests with other communities," Liu said. "I've always seen my role as bridge building."
Today — with stagnant real wages, a deteriorating social safety net, and growing power by corporations that enjoy unprecedented political clout thanks to Citizens United and other court rulings — the need to organize people across cultural lines is more important than ever, even if that begins by addressing the individual needs of each community.
"Always at our core, it's about empowering our folks to be able to voice their own struggles and visions," Liu said.
Working to build that capacity within the Chinese immigrant community is hard and important work, Liu said, but it's equally important to connect with the struggles of working class people from other communities, uniting to effectively counter the political dominance of employers and property owners.
Lui framed the struggle as: "How do we build unity and not have that be lip service?"
Tom and Liu have demonstrated that they know how to do just that, despite the diversity of sometimes-conflicting interests on the left and in a working class squeezed by recession and feelings of economic uncertainty.
"The issue that will unify people is good jobs that are accessible to everyone," Liu said.
Yet she also said that working class organizing is needed to counter the simplistic "jobs" rhetoric coming from City Hall, which politicians are using to advocate for tax cuts to big corporations.
"More and more, it exposes itself as a total lie," Liu said of the argument that the city should be facilitating private sector job creation with business tax cuts. "So much points to the fact that the US economic system doesn't benefit everyone ... When we talk about jobs, we talk about what kinds of jobs we want and for whom."
Ross Rhodes and Stardust, like all of the people involved in Occupy Bernal, are neighbors. But until Stardust helped found the group — a local take on Occupy focused on stopping unjust foreclosures and evictions — they didn’t know each other.
Now they do, and if it wasn’t for Occupy Bernal, Rhodes is sure he would no longer have the house that his parents bought in 1964.
A former college football star, Rhodes injured his knees and back playing. He lives on disability payments, volunteering at the 100 Percent College Prep Club, and bringing home-cooked meals to seniors in his area. He also coached kids in the Junior 49ers program until it became too hard on his injuries.
Stardust, an ESL teacher and oboe player in the Bay Area Rainbow Symphony and the SF Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band, has been working for LGBT rights, women’s rights, and online civil rights for years. When Occupy took off, he gravitated toward the neighborhood fights against foreclosures.
Like people all over the US, Rhodes and his wife were fooled several years ago by a pick-a-payment loan plan. At the time, World Savings was peddling the deals through neighborhoods, promising potential borrowers that they could send their kids to college, buy a car, take vacations — and modify their loans after a year.
But when Rhodes started to apply for loan modifications, he was denied. He kept receiving letters asking for more information, often the same information he had already given — a common story that led to part of the Homeowners Bill of Rights that will guarantee a single point of contact from the bank. He was stumped when he was told he needed more income — the bank said it wouldn’t accept payments that were more than 30 percent of a borrower's income, and Rhodes was getting a fixed disability check.
He found another income source as a homecare provider, but after all the time that the bank wouldn’t accept his payments, Rhodes was marked as someone who wasn’t making payments, and was tracked for foreclosure.
Meanwhile, Occupy Bernal was working on more than 100 similar cases in its neighborhood. The organizers hadn’t quite convinced Mayor Ed Lee to help at that point, but Rep. Pelosi's staffers were on their side, getting banks to prioritize the cases of those working with Occupy Bernal. They worked with other community groups like Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) to do physical occupations of homes. But for those who had received a notice of default and a notice of sale — two steps in the foreclosure process that precede the auction of a property — Stardust was there with another tactic.
He spearheaded Occupy the Auctions. He shows up at City Hall at 1:30 every day and tries to disrupt foreclosure auctions. He’s been there continuously since April 27, 2012, and has stopped dozens of home sales. When fighting the eviction of a neighbor, he is sometimes backed by more than 100 people. But many days it’s just Stardust.
Now, Rhodes is in a loan modification process. Rather than conflicting and confusing machine-generated paper work, he gets regular calls about the status of his modification from a point person in Wells Fargo’s executive complaint office. He testified in Sacramento in favor of the Homeowners Bill of Rights, which passed July 2. He’s also become an Occupy Bernal organizer on top of his other volunteer pursuits.
Stardust battles mega-banks and the city's wealthiest in his work. But he says the biggest challenge is helping people to get over the shame they feel when they realize they are facing foreclosure. "It's not their fault," he says. "It's the system."
In the summer of 2011, at the behest of the Ethics Commission, the Board of Supervisors put on the ballot a measure that would have loosened some of the rules for campaign consultant reporting, and would have allowed further changes in the city’s landmark ethics laws without a vote of the people. It had unanimous support on the board — and frankly, technical changes in campaign laws are not the kind of sexy stuff that gets the public angry.
But a small group, led in part by five former ethics commissioners, took on the task of defeating the measure. The activists also took on the challenge of defeating Prop. E, which would have allowed the supervisors to amend future measures passed by the voters.
Despite being outspent by tens of thousands of dollars, Friends of Ethics — a small grassroots operation — prevailed. Both measures were defeated (32 percent to 67 percent in the case of Prop. E, the worst loss of all the local measures on the ballot).
The group is great at forming coalitions: in the case of the No on E and F campaign, Friends of Ethics reached out to some 30 organizations that formally joined in opposing the measures after hearing presentations.
The members of FOE are a fractious group of organizers and shit-disturbers who don’t always get along or agree on other issues. But they’ve come together to do something nobody else does: make protecting and expanding political reform laws a front-line priority.
And the battle goes on. Not long after the November 2011 election, Supervisor Scott Wiener introduced legislation that would have led to less disclosure of political contributions before an election, and would have made it easier to conceal who was making contributions and paying for campaign mailers. The Wiener bill would weaken campaign contribution limit, giving the wealthiest donors greater power in elections.
When the amendments were heard at a well-attended Rules Committee in June (with plenty of public comment from Friends of Ethics), the supervisors sent the amendments back to the Ethics Commission to be rewritten.
The next step for the Friends of Ethics is to work with interested supervisors to push for changes to the city’s campaign laws that will actually benefit the public, such as increased transparency in election contributions and expanded campaign restrictions for those receiving contracts and other benefits from the city.
In an era defined by the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United case and a nationwide assault on fair elections, it’s critical work.
Friends of Ethics can be reached at email@example.com
When Adbusters magazine called for people to show up on September 17, 2011, in New York City to protest the way Wall Street was holding the country hostage, no one could have predicted what would emerge.
It was the start of a movement, and San Francisco heeded the call. About 100 people gathered in the city's Financial District. They started camping. And the effort exploded.
In the first few weeks, camps sprung up across the country. In Chicago and Los Angeles, in Bethel, Alaska and Tuscaloosa, Alabama, people were drawn together. But, unlike most protests, they stayed together. Night after night.
Along the way, a certain prevailing narrative from outside observers never quite got it right. First the camps were dismissed as nothing but bratty college students and hippies. Then they were called dirty and filled with homeless people. (Occupy challenged the whole idea of a monolithic homeless population. Once they had a home in the Occupy tent cities, homeless people were just — shocker — people.)
By December, when most of the campers had been kicked out, the narrative shifted. Occupy was resting, hibernating, many declared. Some snickered at the fair-weather activists who would only come out in the sunshine.
But in the Bay Area, at least, that hibernation story was simply false. On December 12, Occupy Oakland brought out thousands for its second port shutdown, in solidarity with port workers. On January 20, downtown banks were forced to close for the day and people in the streets celebrated Occupy San Francisco’s shutdown of the financial district. A week later, 400 were arrested when thousands tried to turn a vacant Oakland building into a community center. This was no hibernation.
Actions in some way inspired or fueled by Occupy have continued into the spring and summer. On March 1, Occupy, with a focus on student debt and accessible education, formed the 99 Mile March. Dozens marched from the Bay Area to Sacramento to join thousands of students and supporters in calling for an end to cuts to education; hundreds then occupied the Capitol building. On April 22, Occupy, with a focus on food justice, formed the Gill Tract Occupy the Farm action. Hundreds took a UC Berkeley-stewarded tract of land slated for a baseball diamond and a Whole Foods and planted it, turning it into a farm with rows of crops, a kids space, and a permaculture garden. On June 15, Occupy formed the Lakeview sit-in and Peoples School for Public Education, which taught day camp to children and refused to leave a beloved Oakland elementary school, one of five slated for closure.
Police eventually won the many-months battle with most Occupy groups in the Bay Area. The camps are mostly gone, though a tenacious group keeps its 24-hour protest in front of the Federal Reserve.
But because of Occupy — and its accompanying burst in resistance, creativity, and the belief that we really can, and must, come together to do something — dozens of Bay Area residents remain in homes that were facing foreclosure. Hundreds of people who felt forgotten and abandoned have found community. Thousands have been inspired to start their own projects and work with others.
When Adbusters called Occupy Wall Street to action, it was under the banner of “democracy not corporatocracy.” That ain’t an easy project. But it has already made the world a better and more hopeful place.