On December 4th 2018 I chained myself to a chair in the San José city council chamber with seven other community members before a vote to sell public lands to Google for a downtown campus. The act, which got us all arrested, is something I chose to participate in because the representative democracy in San José has proven time and again that it only belongs to the powerful and privileged. The supposed caretakers of democracy, the city council, have a vision for the city but have gone to great lengths to exclude people like me from the cultivation of that future while working closely with corporations and other private interests. We weren’t appealing to these people for a seat at the table, but instead looking to move dinner to our house altogether. The proposed Google campus will do nothing for us, except ensure that we will not be here to see the new San José.
Much has been said about who gets the jobs if Google builds in San José and how we can work with them to ensure that locals are the ones in the halls and cafes at the new campus. However in 2017, Google's workforce is 56% White, 35% Asian, 4% two or more races, 4% Hispanic or Latinx, 2% Black and less than 1% American Indian or Alaskan Native, and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. But even being successful at hiring local would only make us the ones who displace our neighbors and gentrify our communities; because the ruthless nature of the tech economy and corporate development demands a price and it is the poor and unprivileged who will pay it. Brown gentrification and inequality are no better than any other flavor.
"And though they eventually voted unanimously to sell away San José’s future, the story was no longer about what Mayor Sam Liccardo thinks, but that there are people willing to scratch and claw against this project."
So on the night of the vote I snuck a 6ft steel chain into city hall under my coat and locked my San José-born-and-bred self down to my seat in hopes that it would give Google and council members something to think about. And though they eventually voted unanimously to sell away San José’s future, the story was no longer about what Mayor Sam Liccardo thinks, but that there are people willing to scratch and claw against this project. Once I was locked in, time seemed to crawl, though the room seemed to instantaneously swap people with police once the chains were discovered. In the hours before the meeting, word filtered out that a surprise policy against large bags and purses would be enforced, and that there had been a meeting of security personnel including the mayor’s personal bodyguard and SJPD. This raised expectations for a tighter security situation, but I didn’t expect so many cops to fill the chamber and, where were they hiding during the meeting?
For close to an hour, eight of us held the council chamber hostage with our bodies and chants against Google and the council who we knew had made their decision to sell us out. For my trouble, a cop by the name of Dunnett called me stupid and promised me a trip to jail. He was right about the last part. I did go to county in the back of a paddy wagon with zip ties cutting-off circulation to my hands. As I was escorted out of the chamber to my transport, I was inspired by the many people lining the street to support us. It made me feel safer and definitely intimidated the police.
The hours after city hall were much slower. After spending close to 30 minutes sitting in the wagon parked in the basement of what we gathered was county jail through the small windows on the back doors, I realized I was going to stay a while. We had exposed the exclusionary nature of the proposed Google project and embarrassed some powerful people in the process. It felt like an obvious retaliation. It was my first time in jail for anything other than a visit to a family member, and I was able to stay with the other 3 male participants throughout, so my biggest concern became the unknown regarding the women arrestees. I found out later that they were actually just on the other side of the processing area in the dungeons of county where we couldn’t see them. Being unable to get updates from the vote made the situation less tolerable. We all knew the score, but there was hope that we had somehow forced a cancellation of proceedings.
Following two cell transfers, mug shots and fingerprints we were one-by-one led to our room for the night. A small cell with three phones, two benches, a toilet, no toilet paper, and a sink was the setting where I broke a three-day hunger strike with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The scent of the toilet dominated nasal passages, and the benches might as well have been slabs of rock. It relegated sleeping to short naps interrupted by readjustments to alleviate pain from some region of my body. At around 3:00am a guard called our names and we were led single-file through a maze of halls and doors and finally up in an elevator to another holding area where I got my wallet and phone back. At roughly 3:30am it was out into the cold December morning and a rush to find out what had happened, and where the rest of our people were. The women were released close to an hour later and had been slapped with double the bail amount as my group.
"The crushing pressure to survive in the most expensive region in the world is antagonistic to democracy all by itself, and the city of San José along with Google have capitalized on this for over a year to manufacture consent and support for their agenda."
The news from city hall was as uplifting as it was disturbing. The vote went as expected, but the council took the repression of opposition to new heights by barring the public from the chamber. City council proceeded to have their discussion about the vote in an empty chamber while residents were only allowed to watch from another room. Spontaneous protests by community members erupted all around the building in response to the council direction. This in particular, underscored what has evaded the eye of media telling the story of Google-San José: People have much to say against the direction the city is headed and either aren’t given the platform to articulate it, or simply do not have the privilege of time to be present. The crushing pressure to survive in the most expensive region in the world is antagonistic to democracy all by itself, and the city of San José along with Google have capitalized on this for over a year to manufacture consent and support for their agenda.
The work ahead of the community will be to organize itself in a way that provides ample opportunities for all to struggle in ways accessible and suitable for them. It is clear that there is an appetite for action, and with it San José’s identity might avoid capture by Google. Instead, we might join Kreuzberg, Berlin residents, who recently forced Google to cancel plans to take over their neighborhood, and show a new way forward for communities in the crosshairs of private speculation. We need sustainable community based solutions, and clearly must initiate them ourselves.
Collage by VME Art/e
Photos by Xanh Tran
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