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How Not to Fight Against Gentrification -- And How to Fight Instead
A Critical Examination of an Easily Forgotten Event...
Gentrification is a process where a working class, low-income neighborhood is colonized by the affluent and transformed into a bourgeois area. The 'embourgeosification' of a formerly proletarian quarter often begins when authentically impoverished low-income artists and bohemians move in. Minimum-toil-culture types are drawn to a low-income area by cheap rents, and are also often animated by an authentic antipathy for the larger homogenous corporatized society around us. Their marginal presence is followed by a proliferation of artsy enterprises: high-end galleries, shops, bars and restaurants drawing mainstream prosperous types to shop and consume in an area once thought to be too dark, dirty and (usually) non-white for upper middle class tastes. The gentry come to shop and party, and end up moving in, driving up the cost of rental housing, annexing affordable housing altogether, helping to drive hardcore wage slaves and the poor out of their homes and remaking an area in the image of the gentry's grasping, conspicuously consuming, conformist selves.
Gentrification is all about private property and the primacy of property rights over human needs in a market society. Vandalism of the property of wealthy invaders is an organic automatic response to the threat of dispossession gentrification brings. But sometimes a brick through a window is only a brick in a window. In fact, in most cases a broken window is just a broken window, a mere expression of atomized powerless rage. Context is everything.
A one-night-only mass vandalism spree that occurred in April 2012 in San Francisco's rapidly gentrifying Mission District shows how a successful episode of mass property destruction can in fact be a complete failure in terms of authentic subversive social struggle.
On the night of Monday, April 30th, 2012, a rally associated with the Occupy movement was held in the Mission District's Dolores Park. As the rally ended, a march departed from the park and headed down 18th street, which is now a hyper-gentrified corridor of expensive restaurants and stores. Marchers vandalized a number of highly appropriate targets and eventually turned onto a particularly loathsome stretch of Valencia Street. Valencia is ground zero in the negative class transformation of the formerly working class Mission and on Valencia high-end eateries and stores were paint-bombed and had their windows broken. Expensive cars were also trashed. The Mission District police station was paint-bombed and some of its windows were broken as well. According to the capitalist news media, more than 30 stores and restaurants were vandalized. Only one person was arrested, and this person was quickly released.
This event was an excellent first step.
Unfortunately there was no second step:
The people who did the April 30th action made no subsequent effort to communicate their reasons for indulging in mass vandalism, thus robbing their efforts of all credibility. Evidently they said nothing because they had nothing to say. Their mass vandalism spree could have been a foot in the door for a larger message against the gentrification of the Mission in particular and against capitalist society in general, but nothing more was heard from them. With this lapse into a characteristic complacency and silence, in their passivity and juvenile ineptitude the wannabe insurrectionary vandals handed a huge propaganda victory to both the Mission's bourgeois invaders and to the corporate news media, who were able to portray the event as an exercise in adolescent nihilism.
This silence of the lambs also left an opening for the event to be denounced by obnoxious liberalish elements in the local Occupy movement, who were given center stage by the mute vandals to decry the vandalism in any way they choose. In fact, people I spoke with at random, both around the neighborhood and at Occupy Oakland events at Oscar Grant Plaza surmised that the police themselves were behind the April 30th vandalism action. This seems absurd, but the silence of the vandals and their abject social ineptitude led to this.
In an anti-gentrification fight, time is of the essence in all things. In a larger sense, public high-profile anti-gentrification actions need to begin before the transformation of an area has become irreversible. And in an action like April 30th, 2012, the larger objectives that motivated the action's authors -- if indeed they had any motivations beyond providing themselves with entertainment -- have to be communicated while the event is still fresh in people's minds. This would have meant some kind of transparently clear public statement within a few days of April 30th. No such statement was forthcoming.
This vandalism spree did not lead to any new resistance. Forms that public collective resistance could now take two years later include:
1. Rowdy demos on Valencia Street during the dinner hour on Friday and Saturday nights to disrupt the pleasures of the table for the bourgies,
2. and big public neighborhood meetings,
3. and sustained picket lines outside of the business offices and home addresses of egregious gentrifiers, akin to what's been happening with the excellent anti-Google bus actions --
-- all of these in combination would be best. In this context, a campaign of vandalism targeting high-end vehicles, restaurants and other unmistakable symbols of bourgeois colonization can have a direct relevance to the larger problem that the April 30th 2012 action lacked.
Barely a month after the April 30th vandalism spree, the event was already forgotten, and not perceived as a credible threat to the galloping gentrification of one of San Francisco's last remaining working class areas. The vandalism spree was not a expression of a commitment to the working class integrity of the Mission, much less to any more widespread working class-based resistance to capitalism.
In a period of relative social peace, authentic revolutionary extremist action is all about communication. It is about communication to the exclusion of all else. If an action or event fails to communicate, then it has failed completely -- and it doesn't matter how much fun it was for the people doing it. Subjectively radical individuals have to try to communicate an uncompromising subversive message, on as wide a scale as possible, of direct relevance to the mundane everyday life concerns of mainstream working people. And this is usually best done as capitalist society itself generates opportunities for it. By this measure the April 30th 2012 Mission District vandalism event was an abject failure. To some degree, it even represented a brief 'colonization' of a real world problem by the 100% American/consumer society/all-entertainment-all-the-time ethos of the Black Bloc.
Black Bloc tactics are solely for the fleeting entertainment of the people who take part in them. They communicate nothing to the world at large. They lead nowhere. They offer nothing to build on. Mainstream working people aren't going to adopt Black Bloc tactics, or join the Black Bloc at protest ghetto events. The lack of credibility and commitment and failure of imagination seen in the April 30th 2012 Mission District vandalism spree is a symptom of the fact that a society gets the dissidents that it deserves. A society that proclaims that being entertained is the highest possible form of human aspiration gets a brand of ersatz radicalism that loyally mirrors this.