Last Night's "Tech Against Displacement" Happy Hour Was a Classic Bait-and-Switch

Ian Eck | February 26, 2014 | Story Tech World

There's one thing you need to know about last night's "Tech Against Displacement" event in the Mission: It was not organized by tech. It was, to put it politely, a clever bit of wordplay to call it "Tech Against Displacement." For instead of members of the tech community reaching out to solve San Francisco's affordability and eviction problems, the people who showed up were largely the standard array of activists who've been hectoring techies about the woes that they've visited on the city.

It was only when the activists ceded the mic to actual techies in the later half of the event that some progress was made: Instead of talking at your tech neighbors, how about, you know, talking to them?

I showed up at the Mission bar Virgil's Sea Room early, grabbed a $2 Tecate, and surveyed the room with event co-organizer Rolla Selback, an Apple employee, and her friend Fred Sherburn-Zimmer of the Housing Rights Committee. It was standing room only. “If this event were put together by 50 nurses upset about displacement or a bunch of janitors no press would show," said Sherburn-Zimmer. "Put the word tech in there, and the journalists come running.” I only walked.

Nonetheless, within a few minutes of arrival, I was approached by a photographer and multiple journalists looking to talk to real-life techies. (I guess I give off a vibe.) Thankfully the room soon filled up with non-journalists, but early on it became clear that the crowd would be mostly populated by the usual array of activists from groups like POWER, Causa Justa :: Just Cause, and the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project. The only city official in attendance was Supervisor David Campos, who both opened and closed the panel. It appeared that the handful of techies in the room were supposed to be there to listen, not discuss.

In endless seeming 10-minute blocks, speaker after speaker gave anecdotes about evicted elderly artists and Ellis Act statistics. It wasn't that they were wrong, it was that they only seemed to be interested in talking—not listening to the other side. This lopsidedness soon rankled some in the crowd. During a presentation from Sherburn-Zimmer, one frustrated techie in the audience interrupted: “I thought this was supposed to be a dialogue. I’m a representative of tech, and this isn’t doing anything.”

The crowd tensed. A few people told the techie to shut up and let her finish. Sherburn-Zimmer looked shaken and meekly suggested that the techies “come to rallies, help with fundraising, rebuild our website.” I felt bad for her. Thankfully, co-organizer Gus Feldman stepped in and explained that the open mic would begin the second hour, at which point anyone could voice their concerns. Feldman later admitted that giving ten minutes to each of the opening speakers may have been too much.

Only when the event switched to an open mic format did things get a bit more interesting. The disgruntled tech worker who had interrupted before displayed defensive skepticism by claiming that techies needed more specific suggestions on how to help the city other than “build a website.” Sherburn-Zimmer suggested that he “help fundraise for non-profit groups at ground zero.”

Another, less abrasive tech worker, Brett Welch, who moved from Australia as CEO of the company SwitchCam, addressed Supervisor Campos directly when he argued that the city needed long-term solutions to housing. “There’s so much demand. We need to build more.” Campos responded, “It’s not just about building more, it’s about building more affordable housing.” Campos, it should be noted, was careful not to tread on tech.

In fact, if there was anyone demonizing the tech industry, it was the tech workers themselves. One said that he “hated what he’d done to this city.” Another claimed that after a nerdy childhood spent being the target of bullies, the conflict in San Francisco felt particularly hurtful. Perhaps the most entertaining content of the night was provided by one techie’s poem, “Dot Com” which closed with the line (Paraphrased, unfortunately), “We’re not what we say. We are what we do. And all we’re doing is sitting in chairs looking at news feeds of other people sitting in chairs.”

When I tried to speak with the techie poet later, he shied away from giving any personal information. Instead, he spun off into a rant about the writing of Philip K. Dick—how his drug-infused mind deliberately picked unlike archetypes and crossed them with each other, creating a variety of meanings. Not a bad metaphor for the Tech Against Displacement Happy Hour, actually.

Was there anything productive that came out of last night's meeting? At the very least, a captive (if small) audience of techies heard the case directly from the activists. And the anti-gentrification folks did get to hear the angst of the techies as well. After the panel broke up, the big theme of conversation that I heard revolved around this: It's harder to hate your neighbors when you actually have met them.

Selbak took a stab at that point: “Tonight is about bringing people together who have been falsely divided. We can come together collectively to figure out how to make this city affordable to everyone.” Easy to say, hard to do. But perhaps this was one half-drunken step in the right direction.

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