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“Ugh . . .”

That was one Googler’s response to Mission Local’s questions about the tech bus protests in San Francisco — and that’s the Googler apparently in charge of handling media inquiries.

The email underscores a larger trend: as some of the world’s largest tech companies have been thrown into a maelstrom of class warfare, broken bus windows and rowdy protests in San Francisco, they have responded with a deafening — some foes would say defiant — silence. One “employee” who spoke out at the first protest turned out to be a hoax. On the days of the December protests, Google offered a tepid statement to the press (“We certainly don’t want to cause any inconvenience to Bay Area residents”) and Apple didn’t return the New York Times’ message.

Google email_edited3

The email from the Google Press Team in response to Mission Local’s questions about the tech bus protests in San Francisco.

Several rank-and-file employees told Mission Local they have been told to send any press inquiries to the companies’ spokespeople, who have been sluggish to respond. Google’s spokesperson wouldn’t go on the record with Mission Local about how they intend to respond — if at all — to the attacks, Facebook has not responded to Mission Local’s multiple emails in recent days, and a spokesperson for Apple replied with this: “Apple is committed to providing safe and environmentally friendly commuting options that benefit our employees as well as the communities where they live. We have been working with the mayor’s office on ways to improve commuter bus policies in San Francisco and we strongly support the new rules he is proposing.”

“The tech companies don’t want to get further embroiled in this issue,” says Sam Singer, a San Francisco-based public relations expert who has represented everyone from Chevron to scandal-stricken politicians. “Therefore they are laying low from a communications standpoint. I’m not sure that’s the right strategy.”

Tech titans showed up in front of cameras on Monday at a press conference with city officials to announce a program that would allow buses shuttling their employees to legally use Muni stops. Yet the two representatives who spoke during the conference focused on the nuts and bolts of the commuter buses: the amount of car trips eliminated from the road since shuttles began (Genentech representative, Carla Boragno, estimated 5 million) and working towards the “shared goal of efficient transportation around the Bay Area,” as Google’s Veronica Bell put it.

They largely skipped over the larger topics at the heart of the recent tech bus protests — displacement and gentrification, leaving the political angle to the government officials in the room. Mayor Lee remarked, “The commuter shuttles have been a benefit, though they are symbolic of other things people are unhappy about.” Supervisor Scott Wiener sternly said the tech buses have been unfairly politicized, and workers demonized. It was not until after the formal press conference that Boragno from Genentech told The Wall Street Journal  she found the protests “curious.”

Singer says the companies are missing out on an opportunity to engage with the public and help develop solutions to topics driving the recent protests. “They need to be engaging with news reporters, community members, and their own employees in discussing the issues being raised in San Francisco and the alleged impact of technology on San Francisco’s economy and housing stock,” he says.

While one Google employee said the company does discuss internally its impact on San Francisco — including discussions on possibly setting up an office in Oakland — there have been few on-the-record and for-attribution cracks in the public silence.

At the first bus protest on December 9, a handful of commuters tweeted candid reactions, such as “You think I LIKE commuting to Mountain View? This protest is dumb.” At the second bus blockade on December 20, one apparent Googler tweeted pictures of protesters holding a profane sign at a West Oakland BART station, and a window allegedly smashed by a protester. Meanwhile, one apparent Apple employee at 24th and Valencia that morning hesitantly spoke to Mission Local, saying he identified with the complaints of the activists.

Yet those have been the exceptions to the rule. Since the companies haven’t come out to say stop bullying them or advance their own narrative, politicians like Mayor Lee and the business lobbying group Bay Area Council have.

Rufus Jeffris, spokesperson for the Bay Area Council, says there’s been no formal agreement that the group would speak for the tech companies or shuttles. Silence may be the best policy for the companies themselves, he said.

“Oftentimes, these protests are not meant to have a productive conversation — it’s about raising their individual agenda, and that’s not going to be helpful in our position,” Jeffris said. “Sometimes silence is the right and better response, rather than getting into an argument that’s not going anywhere. The Bay Area Council and these companies feel their energy is better focused on coming up with a solution, rather than screaming in the streets.”

Yet the non-reaction has also allowed the anti-tech voices to define the debate, Singer says, fueling perceptions of the workers as everything from indifferent elitists hiding behind the bus’s tinted windows to “alien overlords” in prominent essays and  “techie scum” in Oakland graffiti.

“I feel you on trying to get our perspective, but since we are connected to a larger entity, it’s hard to represent ourselves,” one tech commuter told Mission Local. “Anything we say would be projected onto the company.” (Two ex-Google employees have told Mission Local that any leak to the press is an offense likely to end in termination.)

Muzzling employees is typical of large companies, Singer says, but it also places an extra burden on them: many times they’d like to participate in these citywide discussions, but can’t out of allegiance to their employers.

That’s what Mission Local found when approaching nearly two dozen tech commuters waiting at a Mission District stop last week, who seemed to have clammed up even more than when a reporter approached them in December. “We’re told to always check before saying anything,” one said. Yet when offered anonymity, some shared views that were anything but apathetic.

Some agreed there was a housing crisis — but mostly blamed faulty policy and landlords.

  • “There is a real valid crisis going on right now. It’s going to become a monoculture the way it’s going. It’s less and less an appealing place to live. There’s not enough housing. That’s a sad disappointing fact. It’s 30 years of policy.”

  • “A city that criticizes success is going to get itself into trouble. But there is a valid thing that the success is not shared. Getting success shared more broadly — that’s a legitimate question.”

  • “Nobody really means any ill will towards each other. It’s just that the younger tech people live here because it’s cooler to be in the city, and with them they bring a little bit of money, and the landlords want to take a part of it.”

Some said there would still be an affordability crisis, tech buses or not:

  • “Even if you get all of the Google, Apple and Facebook shuttles out of here, there are still a ton of start-ups and money being made in the city.”

One even had begrudging respect for the activists protesting their buses.

  • “The people who protest are obviously a part of Mission culture and what makes the Mission so cool. And if that half of the Mission moves out, even the tech people wouldn’t want to live here. It’s so ironic.”

But mostly the commuters turned us away in a hail of “no comments.” They no longer need a public relations flak shushing them on site as Jillian Stefanki, a PR rep from Facebook, did during the BART strike last fall as Mission Local interviewed employees waiting for their bus.

Additional reporting from Lauren Smiley.

** The original email to press@google.com was sent at 11:55 a.m. PST, which is not reflected in the forwarded response of press@google.com. The forwarded response must reflect a different time zone.

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Original email sent to press@google.com