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Eviction activist champions The City through poetry

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Tony Robles speaks to protesters during a candlelight vigil outside of the Twitter headquarters in SoMa on Monday. PHOTO BY EVAN DUCHARME
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On Guard column header Joe

San Francisco’s whole culture may soon be evicted, yet, I often struggle to articulate how that feels. Luckily, poet and activist Tony Robles’ new book expresses the turmoil of an ever-changing San Francisco through poetry.

“Cool Don’t Live Here No More: A Letter to San Francisco” is a poem collection that captures the feelings of my fellow S.F. natives (and yes, I also mean you longtime San Franciscans) who often feel as if The City’s soul is slipping away beneath our feet.

Robles didn’t just complain, he put his boots to the ground to stop evictions of countless tenants. Activism informs his art.

“As a writer and a poet, your job is to see the different bits of light,” he said. “Even in a fleeting moment.”

One of those moments came in a major victory for Benito Santiago, an elderly Filipino and San Francisco native, who protested his eviction last year from his Duboce Avenue home. Through many anti-eviction rallies, Santiago often beat his signature drums. Though many doubt direct action accomplishes anything, in late 2014 political pressure resulted in Santiago’s landlord rescinding his eviction. His home was then purchased by the San Francisco Community Land Trust, which reduced his chance of eviction to nearly zero.

Santiago’s cries, and his drums, carried the day.

I wrote about (and attended) many of these rallies. But Robles captured the moments beyond the limitations of staid journalism in his poem “Benito’s Drum.”

Do you hear that sound?

The sound of skin from

Benito’s drum is the sound

of resistance to eviction

The skin of Benito’s drum

is the skin of

Mission Abuelitas

Fillmore black elders

South of Market Filipino veteranos

and lolos and lolas and children

and Chinatown elders carrying

their lives in plastic bags

The poem continues, but I wouldn’t want to give away the store. Suffice
to say, if you’ve got connections to
San Francisco, Robles’ poetry will connect to you.

Robles is a native San Franciscan. His work springs from that perspective. He’s lived in La Mission and the Sunset, and for a time went to George Washington High School. As the board president of the Manila Heritage Foundation, he’s advocated for the rights of seniors.

Robles said his poetry drew inspiration from his uncle Al Robles, an activist who famously fought for seniors facing eviction from the International Hotel in the 1970s.

His uncle knew much of housing injustice, having watched the razing of the Fillmore district. “My family was one of the last on the block, which remained until the very end,” Robles said.

Much like the Mission now, Fillmore homes were leveled for high-rises. The black community there is now a shadow of itself, Robles noted.

He wasn’t interested in talking about his poetry for too long. He quickly swung the conversation back to the eviction of a woman named Theresa Flandrich, an advocate for Seniors Disability Action.

The heartlessness of The City’s many evictions isn’t lost on Robles. “In a lot of ways San Francisco isn’t a city anymore,” he said. “It’s an app, more than a city.”

If you want to fight evictions alongside Robles, visit bit.ly/TheresaEviction to help fight for Flandrich’s home. And if you want to read Robles’ poetry, visit The Green Arcade bookstore on Market and Gough and pick up a copy.

Bring your drums.

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each Tuesday. Email him at joe@sfexaminer.com.

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