The first salvo in the great tech-bus wars was fired on a crisp Friday morning in December. News from the front was, of course, live-tweeted.
The correspondent in this case was Craig Frost, a Google employee whose charter bus ambled toward a busy intersection at Seventh and Adeline streets in Oakland around 8:30 a.m., only to be blocked by a man in a trucker hat, and a woman in sunglasses. They unfurled a banner. It read "Fuck Off Google."
Frost tweeted the next sequence of events as other protesters gathered around the bus. Someone hurled a blunt object — either a rock or a sparkplug, Frost thought — and shattered one of the vehicle's side windows. When protesters dispersed, they left behind stray paper fliers with a typed-out manifesto.
"In case you're wondering why this is happening, we'll be extremely clear," the piece began. "The people outside your Google bus serve you coffee, watch your kids, have sex with you for money, make you food, and are being driven out of their neighborhoods."
The tech charter buses — big, sleek, equipped with Wi-Fi and upholstered seating — have come to signify the Bay Area's nouveau riche, many of whom travel 30 or 40 miles each way to their jobs in Silicon Valley. By enabling that commute, the buses allow tech employees to live in San Francisco, Oakland, or Berkeley, where they raise the median income, ratchet up local real estate prices, and transform working-class neighborhoods into chi-chi retail corridors. In the process, they have displaced long-time residents and helped transform the urban environment through a concatenation of circumstances that no single Google employee could control.
"You are not innocent victims," the flier went on. "Without you, the housing prices would not be rising, and we would not be facing eviction and foreclosure."
Frost explained, in a series of tweets, that he'd moved to the Bay Area from Los Angeles to be closer to his in-laws, and that he drives a full hour to Oakland to catch the bus to Mountain View, for a job he started in January. "I can't afford to live closer," he tweeted, woefully, to the metro journalists who began following his feed for protest updates. "...When my lease is up I may try to move closer. It's not about me you know. My wife has a job close to where we are now."
Frost's tweets — captured, screen-grabbed, and reprinted in numerous media blogs that day — portrayed a guy who'd stepped onto a battlefield, when he was just trying to get to work. He and his Google co-workers had become accomplices to all the land-grabbing, real estate speculation, and deepening income divisions that plague the Bay Area even as it's been enriched by the tech boom. Their bus had become a totem in a tumultuous class war. And now, that war had become violent. Sort of.
It turned out that several atomized groups had staged bus blockades throughout San Francisco and Oakland that Friday. Protesters representing Eviction Free San Francisco obstructed an Apple shuttle at 24th and Valencia streets, waving cardboard "Evicted" signs in the shape of Google navigation points, and a banner with the slogan "Get Off the Bus; Join Us." A different group blocked off a Google bus as it pulled into the MacArthur BART station, its front window bearing a tell-tale "Bus to MTV [Mountain View]" sign. Clad in North Face windbreakers and skinny jeans, the protesters looked nearly indistinguishable from their tech counterparts inside.
These protests don't have quite the tectonic force of, say, the 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala. Unlike the civil rights movement, which aimed to repeal Jim Crow laws, or the gay rights movement, which aimed to abolish DOMA, the tech bus backlash doesn't have a distinct endgame. Tech employees don't have marching orders to displace ordinary residents; there isn't a single, malevolent Silicon Valley bogeyman who is trying to strip San Francisco of its essential character.
Yet on one level at least, the bus protests have been massively successful. In two months, they've garnered national media attention, despite having lean production values and a small pool of organizers. They've used a repository of symbols to create a powerful visual tableau: that of the scrappy proletariat standing in front of big, insular tech. They've enabled San Franciscans to wield an old style of protest against a new, ascendant economy. They transmit a provocative message, even if the goal is illusory.
Any human can stand in the way of a bus, after all. But he can't stop the engine of progress behind it.
"Look, I can pay my rent — can you pay your rent?" he demanded, waving an arm hysterically at a protest organizer named Erin McElroy. "Well then you know what?" he continued, "Why don't you go to a city where you can afford it — you know? 'Cause this is a city for the right people who can afford it. If you can't afford it, it's time for you to leave."
He delivered the last lines in the staccato cadence of an entitled techie — or a caricature of one. McElroy recoiled. Like the other protesters, she wore a neon utility vest and held what looked like a big traffic sign, with the slogan "Warning: Illegal Use of Public Infrastructure." San Francisco Bay Guardian reporter Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez captured the incident on video and posted it to the Internet that morning; by noon, it had gotten enough clicks to crash the newspaper's web page. Commentators were driven into apoplectic fits, calling the Google Bus Guy a Social Darwinist, a rapacious gentrifier, and an idiot. One wag created the fake "Google Bus Guy" Twitter account. His interests: "Timely commuting, Ayn Rand, large search algorithm corporations."