Next week, a 1-year-old startup that I’m part of — San Francisco Vision, founded by writer David Talbot and others — will host a panel discussion styled, “What the Hell Just Happened: Post Election Therapy.” There will be lamentation for the national disaster and for local electoral losses. I’m hoping our January event will be “What the Hell Can We Do About It: An Action Plan for San Francisco.”
All progressive cities need a local battle plan for the Age of Trump, soon to come crashing down on us.
Like all but two of the top 25 U.S. cities, San Francisco is an all-Democratic town run by an entrenched urban machine. Recently, Democratic mayors vowed to fight to remain sanctuary cities. We can expect the “sanctuary” model to soon include not just immigrant rights but all the values and shared social reality achieved in urban centers over the last half century.
So, Democratic San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, Chicago, Boston, New York and Washington D.C. will be fine? We can draw up our moats, defend our values and wait out the barbarians from flyover country? No. The fight will be inside the citadel, as well, fought in the shadows with knives. And when the outside assault gets tough, there will be those inside who want to surrender.
Like in many progressive cities, the GOP is a laughing stock in San Francisco. Lacking an opposition party, two warring S.F. Democratic gangs have developed: the Progressives — representing the East Side, most renters, political activists, nonprofits, communities of color, many LGBTQs, the poor and working class, artists, left-of-center unions and People Power — and the Moderates — representing the West Side, most homeowners, some LGBTQs, landlords, real estate developers, tourism, small businesspeople, construction unions, the tech industry and Money Power.
I suspect this is a common paradigm.
In a 50-year seesaw, the Moderates have won the important battles about money, but the Progressives long since triumphed in the culture, values and identity wars. Until recently, most fights focused on development with Moderates professing progressive values while retaining real power. Our two Democratic gangs divided at a bright line between Hillary Clinton (Moderates) and Bernie Sanders (Progressives) during the primaries.
Post election, with a strong common interest against Donald Trump, the gangs held a City Hall unity presser. But what happens if the federal dough disappears? At what point do the Moderates start a hue and cry for “fiscal realism” and “working cooperatively” with the Trump administration?
San Francisco gets $478 million in direct federal money and $915 million from the state, some of it federal pass-throughs. We expect to get $1.1 billion in federal money for our Central Subway. Our huge Transbay Terminal project depends on the partially federally funded high-speed rail link that was to be the capstone. If Obamacare, Medicare or Medicaid is rescinded, what happens?
Beyond federal dollars, what happens in the next serious economic downturn? Many signs point to our tech bubble bursting. Will Moderates and Progressives continue to sing “Kumbaya” as our $9 billion city budget is slashed? And what if the feds get really nasty and attempt to arrest city officials not cooperating with ICE or federal drug laws?
These local issues are thorny, but San Francisco will muddle through. We are a fortunate municipality, insulated by fantastic wealth, by our social, cultural and political power, and by our long history as a Pacific Rim Empire City. But there will be blood, and without a strong response, the suffering will be concentrated where it has always been, on the backs of the poor, the black and brown, the misfits and marginals, the renters, the artists, the low-wage unionized and the working classes.
As Progressives, we can do more than muddle through while shedding blood, losing constituents to displacement gentrification and seeing vital social services evaporate for those who remain. Trump is a catastrophe but also an opportunity. Progressives can — and must — prevail in the fight inside the citadel with the Moderates. But how? Here are a few preliminary suggestions:
Local vision: A new world is possible, but we need a “radical imagination” both sweeping and practical, both universal and intensely localized. The Moderates have no vision except endless growth and personal advancement. We must ask, “What would San Francisco look like if it were the city of our dreams? And what are the 2-, 5-, 10- and 20-year plans to get there?” A local vision must be collective, but large and small parts will be developed by individuals and in small groups where creative minds are most free. And we must move quickly. Time is not on our side.
Grassroots: Across the Bay, Chevron operates one of the biggest, most profitable refineries on the west coast in Richmond, long a company town. Over several election cycles, the Richmond Progressive Alliance — founded by Greens but chartered as a coalition including Democrats and Independents — organized and finally gained the mayor’s office and a majority on the council. This November, the RPA won a rent-control ordinance against real estate interests and defeated Chevron candidates against millions of corporate dollars with a highly organized and motivated grass roots. The RPA model is exportable, if customized for the realities of San Francisco.
Leaders: I was on the front lines as the leaderless Occupy SF failed; Black Lives Matter is “leaderful.” We must balance leadership with collectivism and balance elders and experts with the energy and idealism of newcomers of all ages. Much of what passes for “wisdom” and “expertise” is reaction, fossilized past practice. Some molds must break to bring new ideas and new people into the fold.
Outreach: George Monbiot argues that we should emulate evangelical Christians. Evangelicals are determined, have simple and immutable principles, shower “enemies” with love and build welcoming social spaces. We can do the same in San Francisco. Many “techies in the trenches” are apathetic, but a sizable number can and will embrace a vision that includes them. West Side homeowners can be won to the cause of neighborhood control of development. Our tourism and hospitality industry can be shown that destroying San Francisco’s unique weirdness isn’t a sound business proposition. Outreach must reach out past our comfort zone.
Money: The Moderates inside the citadel have vast treasuries. We can’t fight Money Power from abject poverty. We will never have more than our opponents, but we must have enough. That means coming to terms with personal and collective dysfunctions about cabbage, boodle, scratch. Money is not the root of evil; the love of money is. We can cultivate neutrality — neither love nor hate — and within our networks honor those who deal with “filthy lucre” rather than sh—ing on them.
Outside and inside action: The power of the people is expressed collectively, as a mass, often through street action. But the levers of power are inside, behind closed doors, in our opponent’s hands. We are outside; they are inside. We are cold, hungry and pissed off. They are warm, fat, smug and, hopefully, a little nervous. Many of us have internalized outsider status and won’t fight for power. We’re good at noisy demos, but we march in circles. We need Progressives inside the control rooms of City Hall. It’s not magic. Without real power, the better world remains a fantasy.
Class and identity politics: We have been at the forefront of the identity wars in San Francisco, each of us now proud of our distinctions. But along the way, we fractured into narrow slices and lost focus on the shared reality of class. With countless examples of the failure of identity-only politics — our gay supervisor attacking the homeless; our black ex-Mayor a fixer for the Money Power — it’s time to return to economic realities. A similar oppression exists around each axis, and we do better fighting them together.
Nonviolence: The state has a monopoly on violence. In San Francisco, our police force has been shown to have depraved indifference for the lives of black and brown and, to some unknowable extent, to be larded through with toxic racism and homophobia. Our response to the organized violence of the state must remain flowers in gun barrels. Otherwise, we risk the lives and freedom of our most vulnerable allies and risk repression that can rapidly crush dissent.
Alienation: Competitive individualism is the core ideology of capitalism. According to capital, human beings are “selfish” and “materialistic,” and life is “solitary, brutish and short.” We are Progressives because we stubbornly refuse this, believing another world is possible. Within our organizations and networks are many who have been profoundly damaged by the existing social reality — and if we’re honest, we admit we are damaged also. Our movements must be healing places where a cooperative-communal reality flourishes. That requires a conscious effort to break through the isolation that separates us from each other.
Will: Ultimately, we need to fight hard, fight long and fight as if our lives depended on it, as they do. We will lose battles, lose friends and, to be completely realistic, we may lose the fight entirely. We are part of a struggle that may end brutally, violently, in solitary desperation or in deadly tyranny and ultimate apocalypse. All the more reason to steel our will, burn the ships behind us and focus on the future.
San Francisco is uniquely positioned to help create the other, possible world. And each progressive bastion must do its part. Onward!
David Carlos Salaverry is one of the founders of San Franciscans for Police Accountability.