Left Turn Only for San Francisco

How do we break free of the daily trauma and stupidity of contemporary politics? How do we go beyond the arduous defensive struggles that keep so many preoccupied with police violence, racist abuses, toxic masculinity, and the grinding poverty that is slowly consuming more and more of our neighbors?

Fairness has all but vanished. And the rent is too damn high! At the end of the day we are all working to pay the banks.

Dignity escapes us. We feel forced to look away, step over, and avoid the human beings who we should be helping, defending, and nurturing. The tidal wave of poverty and dispossession oppresses ALL of us. The fear of falling stalks our lives.

Self-governance is a myth. Our government has been seized by billionaires and corporate functionaries, nationally and locally.

Debt ensnares us. Credit has replaced wage increases, binding us with its coercive power. Student debt has now surpassed $1 trillion and WILL NEVER BE PAID. Without credit, doors close to our well-being now and in the future.

The planet is being destroyed. The climate crisis inexorably presses in on us. Heatwaves, catastrophic fires, floods, and hurricanes are all more frequent and more extreme. Glaciers are melting, species are being wiped out in record numbers. The government response? An all-out war on what’s left of natural systems, repealing environmental laws and aggressively pushing oil and coal use.

We are permanently at war. The attack on nature goes hand in hand with the attack on humans. The U.S. wastes over $1 trillion a year on military and secret services, funding bases in over 170 countries, carrying out air and ground attacks in an unknown number of undeclared wars in Asia and Africa. 17 years in Afghanistan and 15 in Iraq? Resources are being squandered on barbaric mayhem, mass murder, and endless war. It is an insult to our humanity and our intelligence—stoking irrational fears of immigrants, refugees, other countries, and other peoples bolsters the madness. Stop glorifying soldiers and the military. Abolish the national anthem (a pro-slavery song)! Abolish ICE! Demilitarize local police, abolish SWAT teams. Repeal the Police Officers Bill of Rights in California. Close military bases around the world; shrink the standing military to less than 20,000.

Reject your daily dose of trauma. The reality TV host masquerading as a politician understands little about this world, but he is quite expert at the manipulative power of constant attack. When someone attacks, abuses, insults, and threatens, we all throw up our arms, literally or figuratively, and seek to defend ourselves. But maybe the daily provocations designed to make us jump on command should be ignored? Resist the daily outrage over the hateful buffoon. Remember that things have been going off the rails for a long time.

Rethink ineffective tactics. There is an endless treadmill of rushing from demonstration to protest to campaign, while imploring others to join in. But those tactics don’t work. It’s incredibly difficult to develop a deeper strategic approach.

Our time is compressed. We are forced to sell too much of it to pay our bills, but as soon as we are free, we have so much to do. Most people have another purpose to their lives—musicians or artists, political activists, mentors, parents, or gardeners. Passionate hours “working” at what we care about make us feel fully alive. In our work lives we only survive thanks to the countless small acts of solidarity and mutual aid that create extended breaks, late arrivals and early departures, that claw back a bit of the time we otherwise are forced to sell.

Together we produce an incredible common wealth. We make the world around us in all its complexity and abundance, much of which goes unmeasured by the modern economy. We all contribute to the wealth that only a few are actually taking due to archaic relations of property and profit. In our online lives of clicking, liking, sharing, and posting, we are contributing (we hope) not only to Facebook or Twitter or Google’s profits (as they mine and sell our attention and engagement), but importantly we build networks of affinity, circles of friendship and trust, and webs of possibility. When we befriend our neighbors, co-workers, and people we meet in our everyday lives, unmeasured affinities grow and deepen, producing our real common wealth.

[There is] an emerging post-capitalist alternative which simultaneously transforms civil society, the market and the state forms. Civil society becomes productive, since citizens and inhabitants are commoners contributing to shared resources. The market forms become non- or post-capitalist, transformed to be compatible with the logic of the commons. The accumulation of capital is transformed into the accumulation of the commons. Public authorities become enablers of the personal and social autonomy necessary to be able to contribute to the commons.
—“Re-imagining the left through an ecology of the commons: towards a post-capitalist commons transition
by Michel Bauwens & Jose Ramos in Global Discourse July 12, 2018

The best defense is a good offense. Outside of elections, beyond the imaginations of politicians and worshippers of market and military rationality, another agenda is slowly percolating at the base of society. Building networks of cooperation to protest, to produce, to invent, and to nurture, all undergird a radical agenda that exceeds the possibilities of our so-called representative democracy. How can we push the people who claim to represent us to build the infrastructure that would allow a new life to really emerge?

Lower the cost of everyday life for everyone. Basic utilities that are part of everyday modern life should be provided at low or no cost by the city. As more things are provided for less money, the pressure on San Franciscans to work will diminish. San Franciscans will be free to invent, create, and enrich their own lives as well as the rest of us. Together we can do much more than any of us can do alone. People who have been forced into deep poverty and life on the streets are often creative, talented, kind people, with untapped skills and resourcefulness. Rather than being criminalized and scapegoated, why not invite them to create humane and flourishing solutions to our unequal society? Another population works at what are increasingly referred to as “bullshit jobs,” shuffling papers, feigning corporate efficiency, managing the endless details of other people’s property and money, while taking home little for themselves. What if all that wasted time and energy were unleashed to address the vital reorganization of urban life on a healthy ecological foundation? Our long-term goal should be a culture that requires much less work and produces a much richer life. But to get there will take a serious effort.

For starters, why in an era of global warming and increasing droughts have we not yet embarked on a crash program to reorganize our use of precious fresh drinking water?

Stop shitting in drinking water! Replumb the city. Every single apartment, house, office and school in the city should be replumbed to put gray water into daily use. We must stop using precious fresh drinking water for waste removal. California is at the edge of a drought zone—it’s only a matter of time before a years-long drought grips our region. We should be reorganizing our infrastructure NOW to radically reduce our use of fresh clean drinking water and to increase our use of water once used, i.e. gray water. This will take years, and many hours of skilled labor. Simultaneously build smaller decentralized sewage treatment facilities cascading up watersheds to relieve pressure on centralized, flood-prone facilities built decades ago at sea level.

Daylight creeks—restore wetlands. Oceans are rising fast, existing shorelines will soon be inundated. Think permaculturally about building and unbuilding the city. Remove structures from natural wetlands and culverted creeks, sites bound to collapse in a major earthquake (as they have in previous ones). Prepare for coastal flooding and subway inundation. At least waterproof underground stations and tunnels!

Restore aquaculture to the Bay! Once upon a time the bay teemed with huge salmon and sturgeon, while whales, porpoises, seals, and other water-dwelling mammals thrived too. Huge shellmounds attest to the rich and diverse food sources that fed the humans who lived here for thousands of years. Clams, oysters, mussels, fish should all be cultivated and harvested in bay waters. Other aquaponic technologies should be developed alongside a restored bay to expand local food production.

Declare a Housing Emergency! The market is broken. Stop building luxury condominiums and start building low-cost housing! If private investors won’t do it, use parcel taxes to finance a massive investment fund to buy land and build new elegant, long-lasting apartment buildings to provide homes to every San Francisco who wants or needs one at rents far below today’s “market rate,” which is simply an insult to all of us. Organize a city investigation into the occupancy and use of all apartments and homes. Those that are owned as investments and are standing empty should be heavily taxed: if empty for one year, 25% of the purchase price is owed the city; if empty for 2 years, another 50% of the purchase price is owed the city. If still empty after these taxes have been assessed, the city must use eminent domain to seize the unused property.

Establish and use a public bank to deposit the billions San Francisco currently puts into commercial banks. Add to that the burgeoning public taxes on cannabis sales. Use the interest on public deposits to underwrite public financing of a city-wide land trust to remove properties from the market in perpetuity and stabilize the cost of housing. Finance tenants to buy their buildings as limited equity co-ops and incentivize landlords to sell to the City Land Trust well below market prices with tax breaks, lifetime rent-free tenancies, and other benefits.

Free Medical Care! San Francisco is overrun with state-of-the-art hospitals and medical facilities. We are home to one of the premier biomedical research institutes in the country, and the medical industry is one of the top employers in the City. Share the abundance with all San Franciscans.

Establish Free Public Tool Libraries and Tinkerers’ Workshops. Create an infrastructure for invention and play and astonishing results will ensue. Use the enormous piles of refuse as raw material for repurposing and reprocessing into new inventions, new technologies, new toys. Bring kids together with engineers, transform education with creative, practical projects that mentor the technologically inventive thinkers of the future.

Free the Internet! City-owned fiber optic cable is already in the ground. Provide free broadband connections to all, supplemented by the SFLAN point-to-point network, and free public wifi in all parks and plazas.

Seize the electrical system and send PG&E packing! They’ve illegally ripped off San Francisco for 100 years—take their assets in San Francisco without compensation, and begin providing much lower cost electricity to all, finally complying with the 1913 Raker Act. Continue to solarize across the city’s roofs, while adding wind and tidal power as deemed necessary.


Make MUNI Free! Municipalize the private shuttle buses clogging our streets, reorganize them into one system serving all Silicon Valley destinations and open them to anyone to use. Turn private luxury shuttles into public buses! All bus and streetcar lines should be free to all passengers.

Impose congestion pricing on most of San Francisco, use revenue from car drivers to fund free MUNI. Nothing is worsening the quality of life in San Francisco as dramatically as the ever-increasing glut of private cars—the recent arrival of 30,000+ additional cars per day on the streets of the city via Uber and Lyft represents a public policy breakdown of the first order. Congestion pricing will drive large numbers of those suburban drivers back where they came from.

Dump Ford and Jump and all the private bike services and replace them with a fleet of city-owned bicycles, free to use by anyone with a library card. A network of public bike repair facilities around the city will keep the fleet in good operating order while also allowing mechanical skills to be widely shared.

One Lane for Food! With congestion pricing and the “natural” fall of car traffic, we can narrow the streets, widen sidewalks, and dig up a lane on every wide street and turn it into long linear neighborhood farms. Plant orchards and food gardens all over the city and seek 50% of fresh fruit and vegetables from city-based farms by 2025. Open community kitchens and have harvest festivals in every neighborhood.

Open wildlife corridors that crisscross the city. Parks, greenways, and ped-and-bike paths that don’t cross motorized throughways improve our quality of life, but also make possible and reasonable cohabitation with other species in the urban environment.

Restore daily newspapers! Publicly fund multiple news-papers as well as our robust neighborhood newspapers. Ensure ideological diversity is well represented in order to foster critical thinking and investigative journalism to closely monitor all public and private enterprises and to keep the population well-informed.

Recognize the Department of Memory! San Francisco has an abundance of community history groups, community newspapers, historical projects and historians, almost all of whom are working as volunteers or on extremely limited budgets. Recognize the importance of history to a robust public life—as important as any other public utility—and provide support for the many points of view being produced in our local history community. A new History or Humanities Commission could emulate the Arts Commission in providing annual grants to support this vital grassroots work.

Abolish all outdoor advertising. Turn the billboards and walls over to our many artists. Continue to supports artists and neighborhood arts groups through the Arts Commission.

These ideas, far from complete and open to expansion in so many directions, are all meant to expand San Francisco’s Common Wealth.

They are designed to provide dignified participation in meaningfully producing a good life for all to each and every person here, especially those currently left out and castigated.

Justice and fairness demands that everyone contributes, pulls their own weight, adds their own creativity and untapped talents to our common wealth.

Together we really could make a beautiful life.

Why shouldn’t we?


Summer Fog

June 30 2018 march of apx. 25,000 from Dolores Park to Civic Center, part of a wave of nationwide protests against the incredibly cruel family separation policy.

It’s summer in San Francisco, which comes with free air conditioning (whether you want it or not!). The rest of the Bay Area and most of California, and in fact a great deal of the world seems to be suffering sweltering, record-breaking heat. Here, hot air meets the cold ocean and we reliably get cooling fog, or as it’s known locally “Karl the Fog.”

Then there’s the other fog. The fog of lies and insults that passes for presidential communications these days. But that’s not worth thinking about, except to note that it is traumatizing for millions of people, and the daily repetition is producing a society numb or trembling with post-traumatic stress disorder. The unbearable cruelty of separating small children from their parents at the border has put us all in the position of being forced to watch torture carried out in our name. I just saw a piece on The Intercept where they found a 4-year-old and her 15-month-old sister still separated from their parents. It’s just so horrifying. While there have been some spirited protests and occupations at ICE offices, the story was mostly buried after the fake retreat by the administration. Overall the trumpian strategy works at throwing people on the defensive. Before they can get their bearings and actively resist, the attack shifts again, the assault comes from a new direction. Many people just grow more exhausted and demoralized—exactly as planned!

on Dolores Street, June 30

I don’t think there’s any real agenda driving this madness beyond personal enrichment and the insatiable lust for attention of one of history’s most childish and needy narcissists to ever gain executive power. But it doesn’t do us much good to spend time analyzing him, trying to find a crack in the fragile edifice of this immeasurably shallow, stupid, and casually cruel sociopath. Clearly the people in the administration have an aggressive agenda to attack anything associated with ecological sanity, seize resources and public assets, and destroy whomever stands in their way. I keep track of the ongoing descent into barbaric chaos mostly online and on late night comedy, but have abandoned my former attentiveness to the “news.” I know it’s very bad out there as the kleptocrats, militarists, racists, and assholes are riding high. I think they will get their comeuppance eventually, but I also know that such thoughts could be nothing more than a revenge fantasy based in an exaggerated sense of karma and ultimate justice. Time will tell I suppose.

Ice Caps Yes, ICE No! June 15, quickie demo at ICE offices on Sansome Street.

March to Civic Center, June 30

June 15 at ICE doors.


Instead of wringing my hands, or betting on a blue-female wave saving us in the midterms, I’ve been doing a lot of reading and thinking and writing. I’ve got a new book on local history coming out next spring. We’ve been putting together our Fall schedule for Shaping San Francisco’s Talks and Tours. And I’m on the board of the San Francisco Community Land Trust (also my “landlord”) and helping to work through some essential organizational dynamics. And of course I’m out walking a lot, so if you’re on the streets of San Francisco and see me strolling by, say “hi!”

And I’ve popped out to a variety of demonstrations that have been erupting regularly on local streets. On May 31, I joined with a variety of comrades to blockade over a dozen tech shuttle buses at 24th and Valencia, using the suddenly ubiquitous e-scooters to build small barricades. The e-scooters themselves were widely reviled as they cluttered our streets (since removed) and are a sickening kind of get-rich-quick e-waste with a projected lifespan of only 3 months, depending on low-paid gig workers to collect, recharge, and reallocate them to the streets each morning. Yuck! On June 15 I made my way downtown on a quick call to join with a few dozen folks in front of the ICE offices here. There’d been a lockdown/blockade there a couple of months earlier, and an occupation closed its driveways for about a week over the July 4 week before the police rousted it. June 30 tens of thousands joined nationwide protests, marching from Dolores Park to the Civic Center, following the usual big marches during the Gay Pride weekend June 22-24.

May 31 blockade of 24th and Valencia, using the e-scooter junk to continue local protests against tech displacement and evictions.

Folks from San Jose and Berlin joined in…

Continue reading Summer Fog

Marshalling History Against a Martial Culture: Guns, War, and Memory

Sweatshirt for the Ethnic Studies College at San Francisco State University, created in the wake of the 1968 student/faculty strike.

After the most recent mass shooting in Florida, the sudden emergence of articulate teenagers demanding gun control laws has been inspiring. It is impossible not to also notice that their platform has been amplified by widespread media coverage in a way that the protests against day-to-day violence perpetrated by police in San Francisco and the rest of the cities of the U.S. is not. This past Thursday, thousands of angry protesters blocked the Interstate and then the local sports arena in Sacramento after police murdered an unarmed young African American father in his grandmother’s backyard. An egregious mistake, clearly, but one all too easily normalized in the police state we live in. Only a couple of weeks ago a 19-year-old Latino was killed in a hail of bullets poured into the trunk of a car where he was hiding—just a few blocks from my home—fearing that if apprehended he might be deported to a Mexico he never knew (he was part of an undocumented family).

While the bodies pile up around the country thanks to out-of-control police, crazed white men with too many guns, and the everyday mayhem imposed by a fraying society that leaves so many isolated and desperate, it’s easy to overlook the elephant in the room. The United States is a huge war machine. As Andrew Bacevich aptly laid it out in a recent open letter to the New York Times, we’re practically two decades into a war with no name, no apparent strategic goal, and no acknowledgment of its actual cost ($7 trillion and counting). It spreads across multiple countries (mostly in the greater Middle East, but increasingly popping up in Africa and other parts of Asia too) and has already led to devastating destruction in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Afghanistan, and with the appointment of war criminal and madman John Bolton as new National Security Advisor more war, not less, is squarely on the agenda.

On March 14 students walked out from schools across San Francisco and the country…. these are Horace Mann students with families and faculty…

With all due respect and enthusiasm for the teenage campaign for gun control, we aren’t going to reproduce the Australian experience, where a mass shooting led to the massive disarming of the society along with strict legal limits on guns. Background checks, waiting periods, etc. won’t disarm the country. The 2nd Amendment itself must be repealed before any meaningful disarmament can take place. The 3% of the country that owns 50%+ of the guns isn’t going to give up their arms without using them first. The deep psychological commitment to arms has historical roots that were briefly brought to the surface during the spate of Confederate monument removals. The white racists in this society built those monuments to rewrite the history of the Civil War. Though they lost the war and don’t completely control the historical narrative, they’ve had remarkable success during a century of ongoing racist domination and plunder. The use of weapons by private citizens in this age-old racist order is one of its central characteristics.

Writing in her most recent book Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment (City Lights Books: San Francisco, 2018), Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz dismisses the empty debate between the NRA and its opponents over the true meaning of the 2nd Amendment. She agrees that the 2nd Amendment guarantees a personal right to arms, but wants to recover the history of the time in which such a right would be declared:

Any assessment of gun violence and the Second Amendment in the United States is incomplete or skewed without dealing with what the guns were for, and, given what they were for, what that means about their popularity and proliferation today. The United States created its armed forces and police to carry out a genocidal policy against Native peoples, seize Native land, and control African Americans, which continues to this day in other forms, including police shooting unarmed Black men and incarcerating a large percentage of them. In the process, the United States has invented enemies and spent hoards of wealth to erect the largest military force in history, including a vast network of hundreds of military bases in more than seventy countries and territories around the globe. (p. 194)

Our culture is obsessed with spectacular violence, from video games to popular movies. Sports events open with the tedious national anthem, often adding in salutes to honor “our Armed Forces” as though the murderous violence they carry out in far-off countries was somehow noble or ethical. Few Americans even bother to think about what it might be like to be aerially bombarded, even when they stand and watch flyovers of the Blue Angels and other military aircraft during organized festivals of pro-military propaganda like Fleet Week here in the SF Bay Area, or national holidays like Memorial Day or the Fourth of July. But as Roxanne asks in her book, why is there such a deep commitment to this martial culture, why do Americans identify so much with militarism and armed violence? To answer this we have to go deep into the national history, unpacking the myths of the frontier and the false idea of an inevitable spread of civilization against more primitive cultures.

February 28 2014 blockade of ICE offices in downtown San Francisco after raids around northern California.

Lockdown blockade, Feb. 28, 2018

Continue reading Marshalling History Against a Martial Culture: Guns, War, and Memory