Nature’s General Strike

We are all flooded with countless articles and essays to read these days about the Covid-19. I start to write this somewhat reluctantly, because what really can I say that is so different than the millions of words already coursing through the internet? But I’m a blogger, albeit a pretty infrequent one, and I do have an unorthodox way of seeing the world around me. So here I am.

The view from Bernal Heights on one of the many incredibly clear sunsets we’ve had lately.

I’m also grieving the devastation that is underway. Much as I’ve hoped for the end of the world as we know it, mass sickness and death is horrifying. My mother died five months ago, too, so this brings those feelings to the surface every day as well. And then I have the odd experience of being a person who has repeatedly publicly said we should all just stop! Stop doing all this stupid work, most of which is destroying the planet and making us miserable. Once we stop, I proposed, we should figure out what work IS worth doing, and then get on with it… like reorganizing our plumbing systems so we stop using fresh drinking water for waste removal. Like deconstructing buildings in known flood zones and managing our retreat from the shorelines where the ocean and bay will soon rise to unknown levels. Like depaving huge swaths of the urban environment in favor of radical expansion of local food production… Like returning 50% of the lands of the earth to nature’s control, giving other species a chance to rejuvenate and reestablish themselves as part of the web of life, etc. etc.

Soon after my March 11 birthday (and the release of my new book Hidden San Francisco) passed, the severity of the pandemic started to become clearer to me. I admit I was a bit frustrated before then, thinking it puzzling that so many people were getting so freaked out by what was still a fairly low number (then) of infections and deaths. After all, we treat as normal the slaughter of nearly 40,000 people annually on the roads of the U.S. by car collisions, a toll that I have been describing forever as a bizarre social decision to trade “convenience” for mass murder. We’re also living through a decades-long rising crescendo of cancer deaths that we largely attribute to individual bad luck and/or lifestyle choices, rather than the systematic poisoning of our environment by identifiable corporate and individual criminals. And the United States is the largest purveyor of arms and militarized terror the world over, killing directly or indirectly tens of thousands every year in the name of (our) peace and prosperity. The list goes on from there… But as I said, just a few weeks back the numbers on the virus were uncertain, and I was carrying on a usual.

Our last daily newspaper, March 17, 2020.

As San Francisco declared a shelter-in-place order, and businesses shut down all around us (though grocery stores have remained open and well stocked after the first frenzy of panic shopping), and the scope of the global shutdown started to become clear, I suddenly realized that this is it! I’d been expecting and anticipating that our fragile daily lives would suddenly break and collapse eventually. What would cause it? A financial collapse like 2008? An earthquake? A Chernobyl-style nuclear accident? No, it is the pandemic. When in modern times have we seen the entire planet shut itself down over a period of a few weeks? Everyone who thinks we are going back to normal after a month or two hasn’t thought it through.

How many people were already at the edge before this started? Something like 40-50% of U.S. households reported that they couldn’t sustain an unexpected $500 medical or other expense. How many people were already working in precarious, part-time and low-paid jobs, mostly in the much-vaunted service sector? The March 28 SF Chronicle reports that somewhere around 30,000 restaurants have closed in California, a large percentage of which will never reopen. That must be at least 100,000 people who are now permanently unemployed. And that’s just one sector. All convention businesses are closed down. Tourism is shut down. Hotels are empty. Entertainment is closed down, no sports, no concerts, no museums. A happy side effect of all this is that AirBnB is collapsing, but all the people that have built their precarious financial lives on the steady income they could get by renting rooms to tourists are shit out of luck. And this is all just in San Francisco. Extrapolated across the country and all the world, and what we are living through is truly unprecedented.

Waiting in line in six-foot increments, outside Rainbow Grocery.
The line wrapped all the way around to 14th Street at one point.
This is the Trader Joe’s line in Castro Valley on March 27… they’ve adopted the same system.
Lots of boarded up places in the neighborhood.
West of Pecos and Puerto Alegre both boarded up quickly.
Continue reading Nature’s General Strike

Abolition Unfinished

…the demands of abolition exceed a simple respite from antiblack racism. Abolition is the unreasonable, irreverent wilderness that exceeds and undermines any infrastructural attempt to “develop” its lands, even in the service of revolution. Abolition is not a pathway—it is the end of paths and the end of worlds, a roadblock barring passage to the destination-cum-mirage of late liberal democracy.

—Savannah Shange, Progressive Dystopia: Abolition, Antiblackness, and Schooling in San Francisco

Dependence on cotton stretched far beyond North American shores. A world greedy for a slice of the whipping-machine’s super-profits had financed the occupation of the continent, and the forced migration of enslaved African Americans to the southwestern cotton fields helped to make the modern world economy possible. The steadily increasing productivity of hands on the cotton frontier kept cheap raw materials flowing to the world’s newest and most important industry, the cotton textile factories of Britain, Western Europe, and the North… Slavery’s expansion was the driving force in US history between the framing of the Constitution and the beginning of the Civil War.

—Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism

As W.E.B. Dubois first argued in 1935, and white historians have finally fully conceded, by deserting their enslavers by the hundreds of thousands, by slowing and stopping work by the millions, and by joining Union forces to directly fight against Confederate armies, enslaved men and women forced the upcountry southern whites and the Union armies fighting to defeat the Confederacy militarily into helping them wage a war to destroy slavery. And in their world-historical success, they nipped an emerging slave-powered white-supremacist industrial war machine in the bud.

—Jeremy Zallen, American Lucifers: The Dark History of Artificial Light 1750-1865

These patterns of economic exploitation were evidence that it was not just racial hatred that maintained the segregation of African Americans in their urban enclaves. A political economy had emerged and was structured around the captive African American market…. [described by social theorist Noliwe Rooks as “segrenomics”]…

—Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership

These days, I’m an old white guy, nearing 63 years old. But outward appearances, not surprisingly, don’t tell the whole story. As a child I grew up in or adjacent to Black Urban America. Born in Brooklyn, I grew up in Chicago’s Hyde Park from age 2-10, and then North Oakland from 1967-74, during the peak of the Black Panthers whose headquarters was less than a mile from my home. When I arrived in San Francisco at the beginning of 1978 I found a place on Cole just off Haight Street (Haight Street was at the time about 50% boarded up and abandoned). Page Street, a half block away, was nearly 100% African American from Golden Gate Park all the way to Market Street. The “lower Haight” was still the Fillmore, and was overwhelmingly a black neighborhood. But in a few short years, the black population was disappearing around me, and by the time I left the Haight for the Mission in 1987, gentrification had fully transformed the upper Haight, and was well on the way to transforming the southern Fillmore into the “lower Haight” and later “NOPA” and other real estate tags.

Seeing the recent film “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” was incredibly moving. It’s a gorgeously filmed movie full of exquisite shots, and right from the start you realize that the filmmakers are fully engaged in the moment. A soapbox “preacher” is standing at a chain link fence in swirling smoke denouncing the toxic waste buried in the Hunters Point shipyard properties slated for development (and already wreaking havoc with the health of the remaining black population of the area). As the story unfolds, a distinctly black San Francisco sensibility quickly emerges, playfully bouncing between a greek chorus of rappers and the more artsy intellectualism of the main characters. I sighed repeatedly, feeling the aching absence of these lovely people in my everyday life. How can it be that Black San Francisco, once nearly 100,000 people, has shrunk so far that a film like this could be made and the title’s irony is overwhelmed by the reality it describes? A grassroots group in Bayview briefly appeared a couple of years ago under the moniker of the “Last 3%,” though it didn’t survive long. The upcoming census will tell the obvious tale of ethnic cleansing that has disproportionately evicted black and brown San Franciscans over the past two generations.

Black Panthers and supporters across from San Francisco’s City Hall, c. 1968.

None of this can be a surprise. The deep structural racism of U.S. society, while briefly obscured by Obama’s election, has resurfaced as Trumpism, and it looks like it’ll take a violent struggle to finally rid ourselves of it. Abolition began with the mass general strike of enslaved people during the Civil War, made some important legal gains in the constitutional amendments (13, 14, and 15) that passed during Reconstruction, but suffered decades of regression and defeat between the 1870s and the 1950s. The Jim Crow era, the full implantation of white supremacy not just in the South but throughout the U.S., even in San Francisco, kept African Americans in economic and social bondage enforced by police and vagrancy laws, debt and finance, and disenfranchisement. When the Civil Rights movement erupted and the legal apparatus of official discrimination began to crumble, other means were used to maintain the historic inequalities that are one of the bedrocks of the American way of life (these barbaric inequalities themselves are built on the genocide and mass theft of lands from indigenous peoples that comprise the other indispensable foundation of the United States).

Black folks in San Francisco began to coalesce around the language of “Frisco natives” and “Gentrification is Colonization” as displacement tightened its grip around The City. Of course, Frisco indigeneity is palimpsestic, only legible when hastily scribbled over three centuries of Muwekma Ohlone genocide… just because Black indigeneity flummoxes what we know about Indianness and blackness, it does not collapse the distinction between them. The politics of belonging in The City are a set of volleys between and across the inherited categories of settler, savage, and slave, Frisco native and out-of-towner, here and there, then and now. (p. 112) … I write in collusion with [my student] Tarika’s ethnographic refusal [to participate in my interviews]—following her no without trying to transform it into a yes. Her manifestation as a Black Matrix straight outta Sunnydale brings us back to the utility of indigenous political theory in The City, where Frisca indigeneity is a new foil for the old dispossessed twins, the Ohlone and the Negro. (p. 120) (Shange, Progressive Dystopia)

Some recent fiction got me started on a new jag of study. The novel American War by Omar El Akkad is a brilliant speculative work about the Second American Civil War breaking out in 2074. The story mostly takes place in the long years after the war has stalemated, and the characters live in refugee camps along the front lines at the northern border of the “Free Southern States” of Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia (Florida is by 2075 entirely under water except for a few islands; South Carolina is entirely quarantined and off limits due to the detonation of a deadly biological weapon during the war). The United States has shrunk, literally due to massive sea level rise, and politically due to the establishment of a “Mexican Protectorate” covering most of the original territory of Mexico seized during the Mexican-American War of 1846-48. Eastern Texas is one of the hottest battle zones of the grinding, ongoing war. This novel has an incredible plot line and I won’t spoil it here. Suffice to say that it is well worth a read. Friends who I have recommended this to have told me they find it too depressing or slow in the early part and I concede that it will take an effort to get fully into it… but you won’t regret it! Our current polarization and neo-tribal divide, themselves reminiscent of the Civil War period, are revealed in their full misery 50 years hence.

Continue reading Abolition Unfinished

Voting as Harm Reduction

Call white voters bigots or don’t. But in good times and in bad, in peacetime and in war, in sunshine or in shadow, white America votes for those candidates it believes are most likely to keep people of color “in their place”—either outside the country altogether, or in the most servile and subordinate condition possible within it.

—Kevin Baker, “Losing My Religion,” Easy Chair column, Harper’s Magazine, March 2020

I am finally sitting down to write a new blog post at the end of February 2020. My new book Hidden San Francisco just came out, and I just hosted yesterday the inaugural Twilight “City Front” Bay Cruise too. I hang out with my almost 3-year-old granddaughter twice a week, and Shaping San Francisco continues to chug along, underfunded but sustained by our commitment; the reward is that it is interesting and engaging most of the time.

I often feel a palpable nausea when I wake up to another day of life in the U.S. And I don’t have much to complain about personally. My personal situation is very comfortable thanks to my land trust apartment and its relatively eviction-proof low rent, and my low cost of living thanks to not owning an automobile, and paying the minimum for a high-deductible health insurance. I can proudly say that I’ve made it from 23 to 63 years old without having to have a regular 40-hour+ job (in fact, I’ve not had any “real jobs” all that time beyond self-employed small business gigs and the occasional college class to teach). I’ve enjoyed a remarkably free life, intellectually and socially, and I continue to enjoy the fruits of that freedom every day. A lack of financial hardship of course has been a blessing throughout, not because I ever got rich or had a lot of money, but because I was able to save some of my limited income (and the small payout I got from the only time I owned property) by keeping my overhead as low as possible. Lucky me. But the world around me, in San Francisco, in California, in the United States, and certainly across the planet, is going to hell. And there is nothing on the horizon that gives me much hope that we can halt this disaster and turn towards a liberatory abundance rooted in our common wealth.

Taken during our inaugural Twilight “City Front” Bay Cruise on February 28, 2020.

The bizarre ritual of American politics is fully underway, and it’s difficult to discuss politics or political issues without it devolving into a comparative popularity contest of the various candidates. My own long-time antipathy for electoral politics and especially presidential politics, makes this spectacular ritual all the more repellent. But like everyone, I too succumb to the daily reporting on the horse race, much the same as I follow a baseball pennant race, or the NBA regular season. But in the case of presidential politics it’s hard not to try to interpret the polls and primary votes as having some larger political meaning, if only because so much of the U.S. population that chooses to pay attention to politics invests nearly all its energies into this narrow and symbolic “choice.” The half that tunes out is mostly tuned out of any sense of politics or historical agency. In any case, there is a shortage of broad grassroots organizing going on outside of the “electoral imperative.”

Like most people with a critical mind and a heart, I have been a bit traumatized by Trumpism, especially its blatant white supremacist ideology. On one hand, I saw the turn to xenophobic nationalism and racist trolling as more of the same that we endured in the 1980s under the equally dim-witted TV president Reagan. But this is decades later, and the revanchist efforts to restore American primacy launched by the ruling class in the mid-1970s through the embrace of the marketizing, privatizing neoliberal attack on the social and the public has largely run its course. We’re left with a profoundly atomized and fearful population. The bonds of solidarity and mutual aid, probably strongest among the poorest and most oppressed communities, have largely been destroyed among working- and middle-class people. Most seem to accept the prevailing sense that There Is No Alternative, and that you’re on your own. Instead of Freedom = Slavery we get Kleptocracy = Meritocracy, and for some bizarre reason an awful lot of people actually believe it (it may be one of Trump’s most useful qualities, his willingness to openly and brazenly flaunt the norms that keeps the corruption buried, most recently in his flurry of pardons for white-collar criminals who were convicted of all the things he’s been doing all along). The bigger public secret remains War = Peace, which masks the insane expansion of the U.S. military budget, and the pointless murders, slaughters, and lost wars that should have long ago discredited the Pentagon and its apologists.

We are on course to fill the world’s oceans with more plastic (in terms of sheer weight) than life. In the face of this ecocidal absurdity, private investors in major oil companies are expanding plastic production by over 40% in the near future. The United States claims to be the best of all possible societies, even when things are deteriorating all around us in such dramatic fashion—from the collapse of daily news sources to the brutal unhousing of ever more of our neighbors, the rapacious destruction of the limited environmental protections we managed to develop since the 1970s, the abandonment of public lands and public resources to venal profiteers, etc. etc.

A surprisingly large number of people continue to believe in their underlying well-being, especially if they own a house. Somehow the decades-long inflation of property values is expected to continue forever, and the long-term disconnection between income and the cost of shelter is to be ignored. For the 40% of the population that cannot handle a $500 emergency due to lack of savings or resources, property values offer no hope, and for most of the bottom half of the population, endlessly rising housing prices and rents only exacerbate an already untenable situation.

Thought about in this way, maybe Bernie Sanders has a chance. But even if he were to win, and somehow bulldoze the inevitable obstruction in Congress (where millionaire Nancy Pelosi and her plutocrat allies will be among the most intransigent), the idea that jobs and economic growth are in themselves a good thing will go unchallenged. A Green New Deal may finally begin to direct our daily productive lives towards some of the real transformations that are already decades too late. But it also threatens to complicate even further urgent attempts to break with the growth paradigm that drives capitalist accumulation and ensures that we will eventually go headfirst into the abyss.

So I’m happy to see Sanders doing better than anyone else in the current campaign. Some friends on the left are certain his candidacy is doomed to repeat the McGovern 1972 catastrophe, and they may be right. It’s hard to imagine enough young voters turning out to swamp the gerontocracy and its millions of elderly white supremacist voters. Though they do conveniently keep dying, there are deep currents running through whole swaths of the country that are too easily tapped by demagoguery and open appeals to whiteness, America First, and other ideological ghosts that have chased us all through the 240 years of U.S. history.

If this election turns on anything, I think it is a generational opportunity to repudiate for once (and let’s hope, for all) the persistent white racism that has had its last gasp of self-congratulatory power while firmly planting its head into its collective ass during the Trump era. Surely there must be a substantial majority who are sick of the backward-looking, reactionary, incredibly dumb people who are running the show, Trump only being the figurehead for a brazen strata of comfortable criminals. Their criminality takes all the usual forms—stealing public resources and money, exploiting millions of people while brutalizing others, destroying common wealth in pursuit of their own profits, and irretrievably destroying a potentially abundant future that should belong to everyone on earth. So sure, vote the bums out. But voting is not enough, not nearly enough.