Protesting Google


“We’re not blocking traffic, we are traffic.” The refrain, of the bicycle activist movement Critical Mass, comes from a (potentially apocryphal) story about one of their eponymous monthly street rides. As the story goes, the flotilla of dozens of bicycles—a “Critical Mass”—careen down a main thoroughfare of a major American city. They are confronted by police, who warn that they are “blocking traffic.” A cyclist responds by pointing out the aforementioned simple facts of “traffic”’s constitution, and to an ethos is born a catchphrase: “We are traffic.”

The Google buses are a symbol of much broader structural issues of parasitic development and privatization of public infrastructure that are plaguing San Francisco and, in various forms, much of the United States.

On Dec. 9, a group of protesters demonstrated that they are, in fact, traffic, by blocking the progression of a Google employee shuttle in the Mission district of San Francisco, the city and neighborhood at the still-beating heart of the Critical Mass movement, and the place where it was born over two decades ago. Brandishing signs decrying a “Two-tier system” and “Public $$$$, Private gains,” the protesters demanded that Google be fined for its use of public infrastructure—which the protestors estimate would yield over $1 billion in new public money.

But the protest was about more than buses. The buses are a disruptive flashpoint and a symbol of much broader structural issues of parasitic development and privatization of public infrastructure that are plaguing San Francisco and, in various forms, much of the United States.

The infeasible demand of a billion-dollar fine seems to have worked, opening up enough space to talk about the more fundamental structural issues. The protest has stirred sympathetic and broad coverage. Even the normally anodyne CNN successfully relayed the anger the protesters channeled.

The response among its direct audience, San Francisco technology workers, has been more mixed. As someone who used to be a San Francisco-dwelling, peninsula-commuting tech worker, and counting among my friends a large portion who still live and work in that community—and because, despite that social inclination, my sympathies are with the activists—I thought it would be helpful to categorize the main types of responses I’ve heard, and address them here.

It’s about the buses, but it’s not
The first concern asks for the protestors to provide a workable alternative to the buses. Tech workers assert that if they did not take these buses, they would simply drive, which would further tax an overburdened highway system.

This response misses the mark. The protest, while sited at the buses, was not at heart about the buses themselves. Instead, the real message is that tech workers are not sufficiently exposed to the infrastructure and inequality crisis developing below them, outside of their bubble. The buses are both a symbol of that distance but also a very real vessel of it—tech workers are literally sealed off from the concerns that others face. It allows them to be far more indifferent to the issues behind, for instance, the recent strikes by workers on the Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART). When highly influential constituencies are unaffected by crises of public infrastructure, the political choice to pursue austerity becomes that much more tenable.

The point, then, was not to linearly connect action and result—not to show displeasure with the buses in order to replace them with better public transit. The activists are demonstrating that they, at the moment, do not even have the force to make such demands of power. Instead, the point of the action was to disrupt the lives of the people who have been insulated from the crumbling infrastructure. By making the crisis visible, they may bring together a coalition that do have the power, in the aggregate, to make such systemic changes.

This protest was about galvanizing people towards actions much more broad, and effective, than simply eschewing the buses. And it seems to be working: Beyond the mainstream media response, I can personally identify several friends, mainly new transplants to the Bay Area, who are now newly aware of not only transit issues, but also how speculators are abusing the law to evict renters—and who have shown new sympathy and new understanding of the BART strikers.

To the extent that this understanding feeds further activism, the protest will have been successful. However, if the process calcifies at stereotypical Bay Area self-congratulatory awareness, then it will have failed.

Tech workers are not the enemy … yet
The second type of complaint has to do how the protest characterized tech workers. At one point, an activist masquerading as a Google employee appeared to step off of the bus and launch into a tirade against the protesters, assailing them to “get a better job” or “move to a city they can afford”, echoing recent online rants by particularly insensitive tech workers.

The responses to this part of the protest have, somewhat understandably, been the most vitriolic: no one likes being personally mocked, and the pain is particularly acute to the self-image of a Bay Area community that feels itself to be socially conscious. Some tech workers have accused the protesters of creating an “us versus them” divide.

There is, I think, an extremely important general lesson to be found, here: If you feel a protest movement is creating an “us” versus “them” divide, you were most likely already on the wrong side of that divide. It is remarkable to me that some tech workers could believe that they are not living in a deeply divided city, but, if they do, then the bubble of gentrification and employee shuttles appears to be working exactly as the activists fear. This was especially highlighted by tech workers’ avalanche of dismissive or condescending online responses to the BART strikes. Whether or not individuals think that those responses—or the protest’s satirization of them—are representative of tech workers, it is clear that they are shaping the public image of the tech community.

The divide exists, and it is real, but by and large only one side feels the effects. For many, the incredible rise in cost of living is not merely an inconvenience in their choice of neighborhood or availability of transit, but instead a wholesale disruption to their way of life. Expecting them to bear the burden in silence is insult to injury.

An opportunity, not an indictment
The hopeful takeaway is that this divide is not a fait accompli. The goal of these actions is not to scare the tech workers away. It’s about increasing their awareness, galvanizing them into engaging, shake them from their bubble. Importantly, this is a show of good faith, a belief that tech workers could rise to the challenge.

Some are aware of this goal, but have dismissed their need to act. They say that the tech community was already aware of these issues, and that private infrastructure tends to move faster than, and is often incorporated into, public infrastructure (for instance, private toll roads and subway systems preceded their public counterparts). But neither awareness nor an historicized sense of the inevitability of progress are enough to counteract the very real forces of privatization that seek to undermine public services. Nor can they comfort people who live every day in a growing crisis of which the tech community is a constituent vanguard. The goal of civil disobedience is to distribute crisis, to make it more visible, more widely felt. The key to building more equitable solutions begins with the understanding that we are, all of us, traffic.

Aaron Bornstein is an independent writer living in New York City.