Calmly, purposefully and with the spirit of political theater, acrobats led by an activist posing as a “GMuni Director” and wearing faux-Google Glasses, distributed GMuni passes to others who tried but failed to board the Google bus at 24th and Valencia streets.
“This is a pilot program to see if we can use our custom bus service to provide free rides to all the people of San Francisco,” said the activist dressed as the GMuni director who called herself Judy Card.
The action, organized by the collective Heart of the City, was the opening act on a day when the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) will vote on the plan to allow the shuttles to use Muni stops for $1 a stop.
“This is a fun way to illustrate the problem of these private companies using public land for free, at the same time displacing and disrupting the community,” said Sara Shortt, executive director of the Housing Rights Committee. “Some people get their free buses, meanwhile low-income people have to deal with Muni, with crowding and delays—where’s the equity in that?”
As the GMuni director spoke into a megaphone about the satirical shuttle program, protesters asked questions like, “Will there be yoga on the bus?” and “Is the coffee going to be gourmet or regular?” (Answers from the GMuni Director: “Not yet,” and “Of course, it’s all Blue Bottle”).
For organizers of the event, the recent philanthropic donations from Google of $6.8 million to the program Free Muni for Youth doesn’t do enough to close the gap of what they see as a widening disparity between public and private services.
“While we appreciate private philanthropy, it’s not the same as public investment,” said Amanda Ream, one of the protest’s organizers, who said she felt that Google and other companies should pay penalty fines for their unauthorized use of public bus stops. “We want strong public infrastructure… Muni is in debt and there’s going to be a fare hike because of it.”
While the tone of the action was meant to be light-hearted in the spirit of April Fool’s day, the morning’s event, which at one point included a stilt-walking, glittery surveillance droid- type character, was punctuated by moments of serious tension.
When several demonstrators tried to enter the bus holding up their fake GMuni cards shouting to be let on, the bus driver shouted back saying, “Get off this bus, it is a private shuttle, I cannot let you on.”
Robert Irminger, one of the demonstrators who attempted to get on the shuttle, said he was pushed off with an inappropriate amount of force. “I tried to enter the bus and the driver forceably pushed my me off… I work in transportation, and you can ask people to leave but you can’t do that.” Irminger said he attempted to file a complaint with a police officer on-scene but the officer left before he could do so.
Following police officers’ intervention to get demonstrators off the bus, Jonathan Bonato spoke into the microphone to bring up the recent shooting death of Alejandro Nieto and a growing neighborhood distrust of the police.
“This sargeant’s team killed my friend Alejandro Nieto,” Bonatl said. “Now they’re supporting Google.”
Prior to the protest, tech employees waited for their shuttles as rain and hail briefly fell from the sky. Although some waiting in line made it clear they had been told not to talk to the press, most of those employees approached spoke about the situation, but declined to give their names or where they worked. All but one visiting employee from Australia were aware that a protest would descend on one of the buses soon.
“I understand how they have become a symbol of the disparity but it’s a hard case to make that the buses aren’t good for the environment,” said one woman waiting for her ride to work. When asked if this was a topic of conversation at the office, she said simply: “we’re really very busy at work.”
Another employee at one of the stops, who spoke slowly and carefully, pausing between each thought said, “It is a very difficult issue, but in most places the buses would be looked on as a good thing.” He says he understood the housing issue. “San Francisco is a set size,” he said, “and so it is difficult to add enough housing.”
Several of the tech employees who talked to Mission Local said they could understand why the protesters were upset.
“Everyone on the buses has a huge amount of sympathy for what’s going on and there is a lot of frustration,” said one woman in reference to the housing prices and the tension this has created between tech and longterm residents. She said she has worked in Tokyo and London, where there was great public transportation and she misses that and wished San Francisco had the same. But now, that is not the case. “I don’t know how I would get to work without the buses,” she said.
Dozens of employees in the double-decker bus headed to Mountain View had to wait a little longer to get to work this morning. After 20 minutes of the carnivalesque demonstration, several police officers arrived on scene to herd protesters out of the street and onto the sidewalk.
As the buses pulled away from the curb and down 24th Street, one protester spoke into the microphone, hinting at additional action later today. “See you at City Hall,” she said.
The SFMTA will be voting on the pilot program for tech shuttles in Room 400 of City Hall at 1 p.m.