While San Francisco may seem to have lost its radical edge, grassroots activists who filled the Second Annual Howard Zinn Book Fair to capacity on Sunday offered proof that they still exist.
“The value of people coming together under one banner is ultimately in saying that we are not problems to be fixed—but that we ourselves are solutions,” said Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, a national organization working for the validity of Black life, who spoke at the conference held at the City College of San Francisco’s Mission campus at 1125 Valencia St.
Garza was among a diverse roster of authors, activists, journalists and community leaders who came together to discuss strategies for addressing social and political injustices. The day of readings and workshops paid tribute to historian Howard Zinn, whose work surrounding issues of race, class, war and radical critique of American history have shaped public consciousness and paved the way for contemporary resistance movements.
The event’s keynote panel discussion highlighted a civil rights movement rooted in the Bay Area that united protestors around the world to rally behind the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Aiming to expose police violence against black men, Garza said that the movement encompasses other struggles, such as immigration, human rights, and the privatization of education and public resources.
“It is absolutely necessary to build alignment between movements that have the most potential to open up new opportunities,” said Garza.
In a question-and-answer format, Garza and Dr. Clayborne Carson, a Stanford University historian, discussed current and past civil rights movements and their effectiveness in creating a more humane and compassionate society in the future.
“From what we have seen in this century, no one can tell me that activism is dead, “ said Carson. “It takes innovation from young people who recognize that there is a problem in the present, and that it is something that is curable.”
This sentiment was echoed throughout the day, as hundreds of participants swept in and out of the halls of the college, stopping at booths to purchase books, meet the authors and community members, as well as to exchange ideas.
“The book fair is a place where the left of the Bay Area can cohere and learn from all of our different struggles— there’s not really another venue like that anymore,” said Matt Bello, a San Francisco educator. “I’m really inspired by the growth of San Francisco’s housing movement and the great work that City College activists and other have been doing. Coming here, it’s clear that activism is not dead.”
Earlier in the day, Bello sat in on a panel discussion called “Hidden Histories of Chinatown and the Tenderloin,” led by progressive journalist and author David Talbot, that examined grassroots activism in the context of housing rights and gentrification in the city.
“We have to understand San Francisco’s history as we try to find our way forward through these very challenging times,” said Talbot, who was joined by attorney and author Randy Shaw and community activist Gordon Chin.
Bello said that hearing the community activists’ experiences was formative. “These men are institutions in the city— we can learn so much from the struggles they’ve been involved in.”
For both Shaw and Chin, longtime organizers in the Tenderloin and in Chinatown, respectively— a “deep care and commitment” to their communities turned into a life of activism that helped change city laws and retain cultural and economic diversity in these neighborhoods. Both avoided becoming “upscale” and remained largely resilient to the displacement and gentrification, said Shaw.
Sharing insights from his book, “The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime, and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco,” Shaw explained that in the 80s, community resistance to large chain hotels helped keep the Tenderloin affordable and diverse.
“For the last 20 years, activism has been driven by Tenderloin SRO residents,” he said. “There are a lot of negative stereotypes about SRO tenants— but they are the leading force in fighting crime and improving the neighborhood.”
Chin, who authored “Building Community Chinatown Style,” said a lot of issues depicted in his book resonate in the present. “We are faced with the worst housing crisis and displacement crisis that we have seen in the last half century— there are lessons to be learned from the past.”
Some of these lessons stem from past victories. Chin explained the role of Chinatown’s family associations in keeping property in the hands of the people that live there.
“For Chinatown, relationships are critical. Everyone knows everyone and their families,” said Chin. “The indigenous owners have an intrinsic value in keeping their buildings and not going the way of tech.”
Chin explained that 20-25 percent of family associations own Chinatown’s buildings and fought to keep them designated as mixed-use developments, which proved crucial in the neighborhood’s preservation.
Both agreed that finding commonalities and alignments in movements is key in moving forward politically and socially.
“It is time to develop commonality strategies across the city,” said Chin. “We need to form alliances to push policies that preempt that divide-and-rule lawmaking of City Hall.”