Activists in the Black Lives Matter movement, Mission community organizers and newcomers, many of whom were tech workers, met Wednesday night to discuss ways to confront racial inequality that included collecting data, investing in communities and questioning the diversity within the rank-and-file of tech workers.
“What sparked this for me was seeing the number of Facebook posts [following last week’s shootings],” said filmmaker and tech worker Michael Morgenstern, one of the organizers of the meeting held at Gray Area, an art and technology event space at 2665 Mission St. “We wanted to help galvanize people and turn that energy, right now, into long term action and education.”
Several of those in attendance with tech backgrounds suggested online or data approaches to inequality, but organizers wanted them to focus instead on investing in the communities in which they live, interpersonal relationships and direct confrontations in their workplaces.
“I was thinking about building a directory where you can see how judges have ruled in the past,” said software developer Jason Cater, aiming to tackle what he said is the disproportionate sentencing of black people in the justice system.
“Reforms to policing are great, but racism in the justice system cannot be overlooked. There needs to be a concerted place to give you information on how to vote,” said Cater, adding that tech should be viewed as a tool helpful in advancing the movement, rather than harming it.
Lindsey Gordon, a former tech worker and entrepreneur, said that she was shocked by the graphic video footage that captured the December 2 shooting of Bayview resident Mario Woods by police officers who said the man was wielding a knife at them, although that narrative has been disputed.
After witnessing a “racist incident” first hand over the July 4 weekend, Gordon said she had come to the meeting to find out about planned Black Lives Matter actions and how to get involved.
“I’ve educated myself on the issue and feel ready to participate in larger actions,” said Gordon.
The meeting was an effort to provide context and resources for those concerned with a series of incidents in which police officers shot and killed black men that have made national headlines in recent weeks.
But community activists who addressed the some 200 people that filled the venue’s auditorium immediately made clear that “showing up” for racial justice “goes beyond protests, meetings, and Facebook posts” declaring commitment to the struggle of protecting – and improving – the lives of Black and disadvantaged communities.
“Who would switch places with Black people right now?” Asked community activist and former Mission supervisorial candidate Edwin Lindo – his question was met with silence. “That’s how bad it is. We don’t even want to switch places with this group of people, because they are being terrorized in this country.”
Lindo described the current racial tensions felt nationally and locally as a “house on fire,” and braced the audience for an “uncomfortable conversation” that would challenge white community members wishing to support the movement to “put it all on the line.”
“We don’t need allies. We need co-conspirators for justice,” said Lindo. “We need you to say ‘I will fight and protect black lives, even if means getting arrested.’”
The activists leading the discussion stressed that protesting and claiming support for the movement by “coming to the streets” is just one avenue to address racism, and that a continual effort is required by the white community to permanently improve the conditions of people of color.
“I don’t want you guys getting to feel too good about being here right now,” said Christina “Krea” Gomez, a San Francisco native and community organizer. “You’ve come here and that’s awesome. But this is not the work.”
The work, said Gomez, comes in the form of supporting local businesses and schools, and by investing back into the communities that have been uprooted by the city’s affordability crisis. Understanding and supporting the immediate needs of vulnerable communities, said Gomez, is the crux of this type of community organizing.
“One of the things that’s missing [here] is that community organizing is about being connected most to the issue that you are fighting for,” she said. “You have to choose to support pulling people out of the burning house when you run.”
Gomez urged attendees – many of whom identified as newcomers to the city – to examine their own roles in furthering the economic gaps that she said has contributed to racial bias and unrest in many of the city’s rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods.
“This is about [figuring out] where your continued existence fits in San Francisco, as residents who just got on the scene, who’ve been here less than 10 years,” said Gomez. “It’s about black lives, brown lives that no longer exists in the city because you took their place. How are you going to honor that life?”
Many of those who attended were grappling with that very question, and said they wanted to be part of the solution.
During a question and answer session with the activists, one attendee wanted to know what he could do once the meeting concluded.
“Go home and talk to people,” said Gomez. “Talk to your neighbors. Find out who’s been there the longest. Listen to what their issues are. Find out who is being evicted and how you can help them.”
Shaun Haines, a representative of the San Francisco chapter of Black Lives Matter, said that a longterm solution to racism is to support black communities in their “economic self-determination.”
A 20-year veteran of IT operations, Haines said that he gets “more job opportunities outside of the Bay Area, even out of California.”
Attendee Charmaine Shuford recently moved to San Francisco from the East Coast and said she shared a similar experience. Despite having a master’s degree, Shuford, who is black, said she has had difficulties finding a job in the city.
“Employers are telling me that they can’t train me, or that I’m not the right fit,” said Shuford. “Part of me feels that it’s because of my skin color.”
Haines urged the tech workers in the audience to confront their employers about a lack of diversity in their workplaces.
“Ask them, ‘where are all our people of color? Where are the people who have lived in San Francisco longer than myself and why aren’t they working here?” he said.