It was billed as a Happy Hour for Tech Workers Against Displacement, but Tuesday night at Virgil’s Sea Room wasn’t all happy. Part political rally, part tense meeting, the organizers and many of the more than 100 participants took the first step in getting tech workers involved in the efforts to fight displacement and stop evictions.
“Tonight is about bringing people together that have been falsely divided,” said Rolla Selbak, who works at Apple, but put together the event with labor organizer Gustave Feldman, independent of her employer. “We can come together collectively to figure out how to make this city affordable to everyone.”
During a presentation from Fred Sherburn-Zimmer about the work of the Housing Rights Committee, a tech employee frustrated at the one-sided nature of the event up to that point, interrupted the speech and blurted out: “I thought this was supposed to be a dialogue…I’m a representative of tech and this isn’t doing anything.”
An irritated crowd promptly quieted the tech worker and urged Sherburn-Zimmer to continue.
“Don’t get too offended when people are critiquing your boss,” Sherburn-Zimmer said in response. “If you want an end to displacement come do the work…You could help us with fundraising, you could come to rallies, or rebuild our website.”
In addition to the Housing Rights Committee, representatives from activist groups POWER, the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, Just Cause/Causa Justa, as well as Supervisor and State Assembly candidate David Campos all spoke.
The aim of these presentations was to demonstrate how those interested could get involved in organizing against displacement, with organizers asking for donations and attendance at rallies — including one at 24th Street BART Plaza today at noon. However, some in the crowded bar found the speeches counter-productive with their polarizing rhetoric.
During a presentation from Alicia Garza of POWER in which she called displacement “deliberate and dangerous” and suggested that the new Third Street Rail had unfavorable consequences for Bayview residents, Jaime Ross, a resident of Bernal Heights since the early 1980s, expressed audible disapproval. She said she thought the presentations were unnecessarily “preachy and lopsided.”
“It doesn’t open up anything,” Ross said before leaving midway through the night. “Things are happening in this city that [tech employees] can help with…All the hostility is getting in the way of things working.”
Like Engage SF’s inaugural dinner earlier this month, the effort hoped to get groups often viewed as polarized into conversation with each other. However, unlike the earlier event, this meeting had an overtly political agenda to address the issue of displacement and evictions.
Organizer Selbak met Feldman at the citywide tenants convention and organized the event in part because of her dismay that so few tech workers were in attendance.
“This city is no longer in the realm of affordability…We have a fundamental question of who we are as a city,” said Supervisor Campos to the crowd, underlying the significance of the evening. “That’s why it’s important to have this dialogue, it’s too easy to dehumanize each other.”
The significance of the conversation around tech and community was not lost on the press; journalists from at least five other Bay Area outlets wound their way through the crowd for quotes.
After the hour of organized speeches, of which Feldman admitted to the crowd that maybe they should have limited speakers’ time to five minutes as opposed to 10, the group was encouraged to come to the microphone to share their thoughts about solutions to bridge the gap between tech and the community and ways to address the housing crisis.
Speakers’ thoughts ranged in topics from gentrification, displacement, gang violence, and the effect of shuttle buses on the environment. A man who arrived to the Mission in the first tech boom in the 1990s shared a poem called “DotCom” criticizing the mechanization of our lives as wrought by Silicon Valley.
At least one housing activists stepped outside to Virgil’s back patio with a visibly upset attendant for a heated political discussion.
As the evening wore on, more tech workers stepped up to the microphone to share their feelings about the housing crisis. Brent Welch, Australian immigrant and CEO of the company SwitchCam, said he’s worried people aren’t thinking enough about long term solutions to the housing crisis.
“We need to figure out how to get enough long term housing for everyone,” Welch said. “There’s so much demand, we need to build more.”
In response to this, Campos stepped up to the microphone once more, saying: “It’s not just about building more, it’s about building more affordable housing.”
Several tech employees said that it was important that they weren’t immune to the threat of evictions either. Many had been priced out of longtime homes; others had been evicted. Some expressed shame and sadness about their industry’s effect on working-class neighborhoods.
Despite the sometimes emotional nature of the discussion, those in attendance seemed to feel the evening was a step in the right direction. Standing at the back of the room during the open comment section of the evening, Supervisor Campos expressed optimism about the night.
“I think just having a dialogue is important,” Campos said. “I think people are being really honest and constructive.”
After the hour or more of open comment officially closed and the microphone stowed away, organizers encouraged the crowd to stay and mingle. As Virgil’s bar staff got to work pouring drinks and R. Kelly’s “Remix to Ignition” blasted over the sound system, the majority of those in attendance were not deterred by the already long evening and stayed for the better part of an hour to continue the discussion.
“I thought it was fantastic. I saw fantastic dialogue between folks in tech and activists,” Selbak said. “All of us are concerned with this issue. We’re all San Franciscans.”
Others felt uncertain about the night’s effectiveness.
“The thing I’m noticing is how much potential there is to form alliances,” said Alicia Garza of POWER. “My concern is maybe we’re talking past each other. The real issue is not if tech workers feel isolated or unwelcome, communities of color have been feeling that forever… It’s important to really know each other and our roles in this to move forward.”
For one Google employee and Just Cause, the night formed an unlikely alliance — the employee carried a stuffed donation envelope for the nonprofit and was looking for the organization’s representatives as the crowd thinned.