Dog-Whistle Politics in San Francisco


View of ballpark during Game 4 of the NLCS, Giants vs. Cardinals.

View of ballpark during Game 4 of the NLCS, Giants vs. Cardinals.

What a strange day Tuesday was! The 48-year-old San Francisco Bay Guardian announced it was ceasing publication. Hardly a big surprise given how it has shrunken to a pale shadow of what it was 20 years ago, and earlier. But still, after it was absorbed into the SF Examiner + SF Weekly “empire” it seemed like it might be sustainable. I thought the editorial content got deeper and better during the past year even if the paper remained a skinny little thing. I was never a huge fan of the SFBG, but there’s no denying that it was often the only place to read about various political developments at City Hall, in the Bay Area, and even in California. For example, they published the top ten Censored Stories each year, which I never see anywhere else.

I know a lot of folks are lamenting the demise of the Bay Guardian as though some crucial institution of “progressive” San Francisco has fallen. But I always thought of the Bay Guardian as the political voice of small business. They fought tenaciously against their own typesetters who wanted to unionize back in the 1980s, claiming the unions were doing the bidding of the big newspaper monopoly (SF Chronicle + SF Examiner, and their Joint Operating Agreement). I certainly don’t doubt that the newspaper unions in that era were in a cozy relationship with the big newspaper duopoly, but the exploitative relations suffered by Bay Guardian typesetters, and freelancer writers, photographers, and illustrators, too, were reason enough to support their getting organized.

Speaking of organization, San Francisco did lose a giant of local political organizing Tuesday too, in the sudden demise of Ted Gullickson. Ted has been the guy who kept the San Francisco Tenants’ Union going for the past few decades. He was dogged and indomitable and though I was not really friends with him, I always appreciated seeing him rolling around on his bicycle, knowing that he was a key reason why we have strong rent control. He will definitely be missed.

From Ferguson to San Francisco, justice for Mike Brown and Alex Nieto... great demonstration outside the playoff games at the Giants ballpark on Wednesday and Thursday.

From Ferguson to San Francisco, justice for Mike Brown and Alex Nieto… great demonstration outside the playoff games at the Giants ballpark on Wednesday and Thursday.

Graffiti on the ground in the City.

Graffiti on the ground in the City.

San Francisco is melting away. Everyone who has been here for a long time can feel it, and these twin losses really bring it home to many of us. For the steady slide into a dark, pecuniary, and reactionary future, we’ll have more evidence after the coming November election. Whatever happens with local candidates for Board of Supervisors probably won’t alter anything much. The contest between centrist David Chiu and leftier David Campos for the Ammiano state legislature seat is a tight one, and I hope Campos prevails. He’s a vastly preferable candidate, honest, smart, and very capable. I’ll always remember fondly the public hearing a couple of years ago where he ripped the police department for claiming they needed the poverty-punishing “Sit-Lie” ordinance to clear the sidewalks of bad behavior when they already had a half dozen laws they weren’t enforcing. David Chiu on the other hand has proven to be a vacillating worm with no principles and an abject willingness to prostrate himself before the wealthy and influential. His latest disaster is the legalization of AirBnB rentals without recovering the $25 million in back taxes they just blew off paying. Campos attempted to amend the bill before passage to collect those taxes (for a city with a permanent fiscal crisis) but the conservatives on the Board voted it down 6-5. So much for a progressive Board!

There’s a lot to dislike on the November ballot in terms of propositions. Governor Jerry Brown and big agribusiness and other interests have placed a bond initiative on the state ballot (Prop 1) to raise $7.5 billion for water “improvements.” Some of the money will go to water recycling, gray water development, and other worthy projects. It claims it will ensure water supplies, but as a UC Davis study showed, surface water allocations have exceeded available water supplies (irrespective of the drought, which only makes it worse) by around 300 million acre-feet, the equivalent of 2.5 Lake Tahoe’s! In this bond there is apx. $2.5 billion for more surface water storage which translates into more dams in a state that has already dammed nearly every river and many more than once. More dams will NOT create more water! It will only lead to more evaporation and more riparian corridor destruction. So let’s hope this Prop 1 is defeated.

It's getting no coverage, but the megacity Sao Paulo in Brazil is about to hit the news when it has severe water rationing... their largest reservoir, which supplies more than half the water to the city of over 20 million, is down to 4% of capacity due to the worst drought in recorded history there.

It’s getting no coverage, but the megacity Sao Paulo in Brazil is about to hit the news when it introduces severe water rationing… their largest reservoir, which supplies more than half the water to the city of over 20 million, is down to 4% of capacity due to the worst drought in recorded history there.

Locally, our San Francisco ballot has a couple of litmus tests for our ever-more reactionary population. The one that gets my goat the most is Prop L, which is luckily a non-binding advisory proclamation that has the gall to call itself “Restore Transportation Balance”!!

Where shall we put more cars? We're already at 10,000 cars per square mile, more than twice Los Angeles or Houston!

Where shall we put more cars? We’re already at 10,000 cars per square mile, more than twice Los Angeles or Houston!

More than half of San Francisco is covered in asphalt. These ubiquitous roads are primarily and overwhelmingly dedicated to the housing and movement of private automobiles. The bizarre idea that there is an imbalance in transportation priorities that discriminates against cars and car owners is completely and obviously insane. Just spend a few minutes on any street in the city and find out how long you can be on foot or on a bicycle before you have to move out of the way for a motorist or someone who thinks they should be able to park their car where you are standing or walking or cycling. I’d love to “restore transportation balance” to what it was before 1920 when the horse-drawn vehicle, the cable car, the electric streetcar, and pedestrians all had more or less equal rights to the roads along with the early automobiles. Cars were expected to accommodate these other forms of transit, but in the following decades nearly all other uses were systematically discriminated against in favor of private car ownership.

The streets of the city were widened at the expense of sidewalks. Jaywalking was invented as a new crime to be regulated. And vast public expenditures were made to build roads, parking facilities, and highways, culminating in the frenzy of freeway building during the Interstate Highway period of the 1950s-1980s (a program thankfully stopped in its tracks by San Franciscans who organized to block most of the freeway plans meant to crisscross the city).

Of course it’s not hard to understand where this whiney politics is coming from. The people behind this are like small children throwing a tantrum. If they had their way, they would have us restart the freeway building program of decades ago, put up parking garages along every major shopping corridor, and eliminate bike lanes (as inadequate as they are, they are a slight improvement over nothing for most cyclists). As Jason Henderson ably pointed out in his Streetfight column in the Bay Guardian of two weeks ago:

“When you consider the backers of Prop L, it’s mainly well-to-do motorists with a conservative ideology about the car. These are the very same people who have opposed bicycle lanes on Polk, Masonic, Oak, and Fell streets and throughout the city… In the 1950s, when the love affair with the car was on the rise, San Francisco had about 5,000 motor vehicles per square mile…. [though environmental activists] fended off most freeways, they failed to really take on the car. So by 1970, despite the freeway revolts and commitment to BART, automobile density rose to over 6,000 cars per square mile.”

By 1990, it was up almost 7,000 per square mile, and now it is nearing 10,000 motor vehicles per square mile (by comparison, Los Angeles is less than 4,000 and Houston, Texas is less than 2,000 per square mile).

The folks trying to force us backwards into a car-dependent and car-centric transit policy are simply idiots. If they really want the freedom to drive and park they should be in favor of robust bike facilities and fantastic, widely accessible, free public transportation because then many MORE people would stop driving and they really could have open roads and ample parking for themselves!

Iain Boal wrote an essay called “A City of Idiots” in the anthology The Political Edge (City Lights Foundation: 2004) that I edited and described what idiot means:

“Idiot” derives from the Greek word meaning “private person,” that is, someone barred or absent from the public life of the city. “Private,” likewise, is etymologically kin to “deprivation,” though any memory of why that might be—namely, that privacy was a prideful abstention from a life in common—is long gone.           —The Devil’s Glossary

Day and night, our urban space is completely dominated by automobiles already. "Restoring Balance" can only mean far less space for cars and much more for pedestrians, bicyclists, and public transit.

Day and night, our urban space is completely dominated by automobiles already. “Restoring Balance” can only mean far less space for cars and much more for pedestrians, bicyclists, and public transit.

This is a photoshopped image of I-405, but it makes the point!

This is a photoshopped image of I-405, but it makes the point!

The political fight over transportation and the use of our streets has been going on for more than a century at this point. It’s not shocking that this particular front in the Culture War just won’t go away. The neoliberal insistence on private everything and its related hostility to all things public puts any of us committed to a more congenial, social, shared, and cooperative life into deep opposition to their logic. The battle between narrow self-interest and private life versus a generous embrace of a shared cooperative life will be with us for a long time to come. But there is something here that goes deeper than that in my opinion.

In the U.S. there’s a long history of “dog-whistle” politics. This means a politician will say something coded to his or her constituency that is not overtly racist or sexist, but will communicate to the population that they are part of a certain system of values, whether white supremacist, or patriarchal, or anti-gay, or what have you. (“Family values” is a fairly obvious version of this kind of political communication). In particular, “dog-whistling” is meant to appeal to people who simultaneously hold an exaggerated sense of entitlement, and  a delusional sense of being aggrieved. The aforementioned white supremacist mentality is a perfect example, where a predominantly racist society that benefits whites over people of color in all sorts of deep structural ways has nevertheless produced a very vocal minority of deeply resentful white racists who are convinced that their previous status (as slave-owners, we might assume) has been so eroded that they are now oppressed!

I think this pro-car Proposition L is San Francisco’s version of dog-whistle politics. The siren song of a dying culture, the dog whistle is going out to all the people who think they should be able to live out the unreality of television advertisements where cars are always by themselves on open roads, where you can drive your car and park it in front of any establishment you may be visiting, and where everything is arranged to meet your personal convenience. These folks have their heads firmly buried in the (tar)sand and refuse to see that the days of the American Way of Life based on private cars, heavy use of cheap fossil fuels, and sprawling highways and suburbs are coming to an end.

The San Francisco dog whistle is a pro-car song that unites strange bedfellows, but they share that weird combination of entitlement and certainty that they are being victimized. So we can find working class people (often of color) who insist they have to have a car and that they should have easy access and free parking wherever they go precisely because they aren’t rich (never admitting that a pillar of their relative poverty is car-dependence!). Supposedly “progressive” SEIU Local 1021 (I’m ashamed to say I voted yes for their representation at SFAI) has publicly and inexplicably endorsed Prop. L! Merchants on lower 24th Street have bitterly opposed parklets being installed on the absurd grounds that their patrons have been displaced to the suburbs and can only come to shop at their stores if they can reliably drive in and park on 24th Street! And of course we have all the old money rich (like those who built themselves the garage under the De Young Museum and then never fulfilled the legal obligation to ban cars from the concourse that was part of the law they paid to pass allowing the garage to be built!) who can’t possibly soil themselves by riding public transit or walking through the streets. And the new money arrivistes who are completely oblivious (or disdainful) to San Francisco and its long-time residents, each and every one another Sean Parker who thinks they “earned” their wealth and privilege. From the arrogant self-regard of their narcissistic, overworked lives they seem to think they should be able to drive up to the door of anywhere they want to go and have a valet parking service park their car close at hand.

Prop L is giving these disparate characters across the class divide a pathetic point of unity: their commitment to the private car as a symbol of their culture and “independence” and freedom, even if car ownership is one of the heaviest ball-and-chains foisted on people, what with debt, crashes, medical and repair bills, insurance, gas and highway taxes, and the whole panoply of costs and headaches. Ultimately the Prop L campaign is a dog-whistle to those who think that they are entitled to a society that continuously subsidizes their anti-social behavior, their plunder of the natural environment, and their aggressive refusal to accept responsibility for the effects of their private behavior on the public realm.

The coming election also features a local dispute over the western end of Golden Gate Park, where the Recreation and Park Department seeks to install massive artificial turf fields with stadium lighting until 10 pm in an area that was originally sand dunes. Over the years the bumpy, unreliable sandy soccer fields haven’t been heavily used because it’s cold, foggy, and windy out there. The plans have been approved by a bunch of government bureaucracies but local ecological activists, especially the native plant people and the bird people, have put up a spirited campaign to derail their plans. Proposition H gives the voters the chance to reverse the plans and keep the western end of Golden Gate Park a more naturalistic environment (and stay within the master plan of the park), still open to use as recreational ball fields, but without the toxic artificial turf that squashes all natural life, nor the massively bright stadium lighting that interferes with bird life and nighttime in the neighborhood. In response to the successful petition drive for Prop H the Rec and Park Department put on the ballot (with support from the Board of Supervisors) a “poison pill” initiative that if it gets more votes than H will supercede it. Using the disingenuous slogan “Let Kids Play” the Prop I campaign would amend the Park Code to give the privatizing director Phil Ginsburg of Rec & Park a free hand to install more artificial turf fields on parks all over the City if it can be shown that such “improvements” would double use of the facilities. It’s a kind of carte blanche for the further privatization.

Interestingly, perhaps because of this conflict on the ballot, the Rec & Park Department killed off a private reservation system they had put in place on the Mission Playground after locals caught some “tech bros” on camera evicting local kids from the field. As the articulate kids explained to the “tech bros,” the soccer game there is always a pickup game that anyone, including them, can play in. 7 on 7, when new players show up, they have the next game by custom. The “tech bros” waved around their permit, which they’d arranged through an intermediate company that allows them to use an app to make the reservation (in exchange for a profit on the service of course). The kids refused to leave and this morning they held a demonstration at City Hall preceding a Rec & Park Commission meeting. At the meeting they killed the reservation system for that field on weekday evenings, exactly what the kids and many locals who have enjoyed playing there over the years, demanded. Here’s the video that galvanized the neighborhood and got policy changed after the meeting on Thursday:

Getting outside our parochial local concerns, as compelling as they are for us who are trying to carry on with our lives here, the saga of the Kurds in Kobane fending off the lunatics of ISIS has been inspiring. The story got a lot more compelling as we learned more about the politics of the Kurds in that northern Syria area, apparently having become anarcho-municipalists a la Murray Bookchin during the past few years, and the military defense was led by women, and many of the fiercest fighters were women too. And according to this self-congratulatory analyst, the IS fighters are basically good at self-promotion, and not so good at actually fighting (his piece is well worth reading in any case… not the analysis you get anywhere else, that’s for sure!).  I also recommend checking out the remarkable war diary that Newsweek of all places published!

On we go!

So remember to vote early and often! and No on Prop 1, No on Prop L, Yes on Prop H, No on Prop I, Yes on Prop G (anti-speculation tax, much needed), and Yes on Prop E (tax those sugary sodas)…

During the wild celebration last night in the Mission (after the Giants won their way into the World Series for the 3rd time in 5 years), this guy was protesting amidst the fun...

During the wild celebration last night in the Mission (after the Giants won their way into the World Series for the 3rd time in 5 years), this guy was protesting amidst the fun…

The low-riders came out in numbers, and the streets were filled with wild celebration for hours...

The low-riders came out in numbers, and the streets were filled with wild celebration for hours…


1 comment to Dog-Whistle Politics in San Francisco

  • The surprising for me in watching this is that literally 3 hours earlier I was trying to explain to someone why I don’t use Dropbox or any icloud. What came to mind was this:

    There are two kinds of people in the world.* There are people who are basically in it for themselves and those who are in it for the public interest. There is a sort of continental divide between them, and at first you can’t tell which side you are on because you’re in the slow-moving waters of a meadow at that watershed boundary. And it doesn’t matter, all that matters is it’s a stream where you can swim around.

    In the world of cloud backups and storage, you only know which kind of person you’re dealing with when the pressure comes. It can come from investors, law enforcement, hackers, you name it. And just as with streams now tumbling away from the continental divide, once you know which way you’re going, it’s too late to turn back. You are committed.

    When the pressure comes, the public-interest people will defend you. They will resist their own employees’ urges to peep into your affairs, they won’t sell your data, and they won’t give up your location to law enforcement, even if it means shutting down a company or personally going to jail. Think about the people behind Lavabit, Truecrypt, or Monkeybrains, or a trustworthy person like James Risen or Laura Poitras. Some at least make a show of resisting, like the people at Twitter. Others have a very different instinct — buckle and give you up. Think Apple, Google, Microsoft. This stuff matters, even if you are law-abiding and not being stalked. Who do you think now has the database of photos and personal data from Friendster? What are they doing with them? Think of the worst possible thing, and you are probably still an order of evil magnitude away from the sinister uses that the current owner has devised. That person, after all, has all day to think about it, year after year: How can I make some money off this?

    And that’s my sense of both Dropbox. It’s not that they are evil or provide bad services, just that I have had the sense from the start that they are fundamentally in it for themselves, and not for the betterment of the world or their customers.

    The privacy aspects of Dropbox always struck me as suspect. The company was founded by frat bros whose reaction to public-interest questions in early interviews struck me as dismissive. That was enough of a red flag for me. Now we hear Snowden calling them “actively hostile to privacy.” Well, sorry to those of you in the other stream! Your data is with Dropbox, you can’t get it back, and if they can’t yet see everything you have there, they will one day be able to.

    I’m not saying anyone can insulate himself entirely against these annoying, self-interested companies and people while continuing to live in the real world. There is no moral place to buy fossil fuels, or semiconductors, or just about any other capital-intensive product. But we can think twice before contributing to their success.

    For my part, not contributing to Dropbox has been an obvious
    choice. I just don’t trust them with my data.

    Go figure that they have the same in-it-for-me attitude toward relations with their neighbors. Is this a surprise?

    -Steven, writing from Montreal, which actively subsidizes video game and special effects companies

    * There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who don’t. I’m in the latter group.

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