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The Activist's Handbook Winning Social Change in the 21st Century

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1

Don't Respond, Strategize

In a previous era, social change activists were guided by the immortal words of Mary "Mother" Jones: "Don't mourn, organize." These words, spoken following the murder of a union activist, emphasized the value of proactive responses to critical events. Although American activists today face less risk of being killed, they still must heed Mother Jones's command. A political environment hostile to progressive change has succeeded in putting many social change activists on the defensive, and the need for proactive planning-what I like to call tactical activism-has never been clearer.

Unfortunately, proactive strategies and tactics for change all too frequently are sacrificed in the rush to respond to the opposition's agenda. Of course, activists must organize and rally to defeat specific attacks directed against their constituencies; if a proposed freeway will level your neighborhood, preventing the freeway's construction is the sole possible strategy. I am speaking, however, of the far more common scenario where the opposition pushes a particular proposal or project that will impact a constituency without threatening its existence. In these cases, it is critical that a defensive response also lays the groundwork for achieving the long-term goal.

The best way to understand tactical activism is to view it in practice. The Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco, where I have worked since 1980, is a virtual laboratory demonstrating both the benefits of tactical activism and the consequences of its absence. The Tenderloin won historic victories using proactive strategies in response to luxury tourist developments threatening its future, but had less success in responding defensively to crime. This chapter also discusses how the Occupy movement used proactive activism to reshape the national debate about inequality, and how activists played into their opponents hands by allowing homelessness to be reframed from a socially caused housing problem to a problem of individual behavior.

The Tenderloin: Tactical Activism at Work

The Tenderloin in San Francisco lies between City Hall and the posh downtown shopping and theater district of Union Square. Once a thriving area of bars, restaurants, and theaters, the Tenderloin gave birth to the city's gay and lesbian movement and was long home to thousands of merchant seamen and blue-collar workers living in the neighborhood's nearly one hundred residential hotels. When I arrived in the Tenderloin in 1980, it was often described as San Francisco's "seedy" district-a not entirely inaccurate depiction. For at least the prior decade, the Tenderloin had more than its share of prostitution, public drunkenness, and crime. It was notorious for its abundance of peep shows, porno movie houses, and nude-dancing venues; the high profile of these businesses and their flashing lights and lurid signs fostered the neighborhood's unsavory reputation.

The Tenderloin's location in the heart of a major U.S. city distinguishes it from other economically depressed neighborhoods. Many people who spend their entire lives in Los Angeles or New York City never have cause to go to Skid Row or the South Bronx; Bay Area residents can easily avoid the high-crime area of East Oakland. However, most San Franciscans are likely to pass through the Tenderloin at some point-to visit one of the city's major theaters or the Asian Art Museum, to see a friend staying at the Hilton Hotel or Hotel Monaco (both located in the Tenderloin), conduct business at nearby City Hall, or to reach any number of other destinations. San Franciscans have firsthand experience with the Tenderloin that is highly unusual for low-income neighborhoods.

The thirty-five blocks at the core of the neighborhood constitute one of the most heterogeneous areas in the United States, if not the world. The Tenderloin's 20,000 residents include large numbers of senior citizens, who are primarily Caucasian; immigrant families from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos; a significant but less visible number of Latino families; perhaps San Francisco's largest concentration of single African American men, and a smaller number of African American families; one of the largest populations of gays outside the city's Castro district; and a significant number of East Indian families, who own or manage most of the neighborhood's residential hotels. The Tenderloin's broad ethnic, religious, and lifestyle diversity has held steady as the rest of San Francisco has become more racially segregated over the past decades.

With government offices and cultural facilities in the Civic Center to the west, the city's leading transit hub on Market Street to the south, the American Conservatory and Curran Theaters to the north, and Union Square (one of the most profitable shopping districts in the United States) to the east, in the late 1970s the neighborhood's economic revival was said to be just around the corner. This widespread belief in the imminent gentrification of the Tenderloin profoundly shaped its future. During that time, Tenderloin land values rose to levels more appropriate to the posh lower Nob Hill area than to a community beset with unemployment, crime, and a decrepit housing stock. Real estate speculators began buying up Tenderloin apartment buildings, and developers began unveiling plans for new luxury tourist hotels and condominium towers.

Further impetus for the belief in imminent gentrification came from the arrival in the late 1970s of thousands of refugees, first from Vietnam, then from Cambodia and Laos. The Tenderloin was chosen for refugee resettlement because its high apartment-vacancy rate made it the only area of the city that could accommodate thousands of newly arrived families. The refugees' arrival fostered optimism about the Tenderloin's future in three significant ways. First, the refugees filled long-standing apartment vacancies and thus raised neighborhood property values and brought instant profits to Tenderloin landowners. Second, many in the first wave of refugees left Vietnam with capital, which they proceeded to invest in new, Asian-oriented businesses in the Tenderloin. These businesses, primarily street-level markets and restaurants, gave the neighborhood a new sense of vitality and drove up the value of ground-floor commercial space.

Third, and perhaps most significant, those eager for gentrification expected Southeast Asian immigrant families to replace the Tenderloin's long-standing population of seniors, merchant seamen, other low-income working people, and disabled persons. The families, it was thought, would transform the neighborhood into a Southeast Asian version of San Francisco's popular Chinatown.

My introduction to the Tenderloin came through Hastings Law School, another significant player in the Tenderloin development scene. In 1979, when I was twenty-three, I enrolled as a student at Hastings, a public institution connected to the University of California. During the 1970s, Hastings had expanded its "campus" by vacating tenants from some adjacent residential hotels. Until 2006, its relationship to the low-income residents of the Tenderloin was based on the perspective of territorial imperative, one shared by urban academic institutions such as Columbia and the University of Chicago. Hastings was aptly described during its expansion phase as the law school that "ate the Tenderloin."

I became involved in trying to help Tenderloin residents soon after starting at Hastings. My personal concern was tenants' rights, an interest developed when I lived in Berkeley while attending the University of California. On February 1, 1980, I joined fellow law students in opening a center to help Tenderloin tenants prevent evictions and assert their rights. Our center, called the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, started with a budget of $50, and our all-volunteer staff was housed in a small room at Glide Memorial Church, in the heart of the neighborhood.

When we opened the Clinic, the Tenderloin did not appear to be on the verge of an economic boom. Some thriving Asian markets had opened, and nonprofit housing corporations had begun to acquire and rehabilitate some buildings, but the dominant impression was of an economically depressed community whose residents desperately needed various forms of help. The inhabitants of the Tenderloin, unaware of the agenda of those predicting upscale development, would have laughed at anyone proclaiming that neighborhood prosperity was just around the corner. How quickly everyone's perspective would change in the months ahead!

Almost immediately, I found myself plunged into what remains my best experience of how tactical activism can transform a defensive battle into a springboard toward accomplishing a significant goal. In June 1980 I was invited to a meeting at the offices of the North of Market Planning Coalition (NOMPC). NOMPC initially comprised agencies serving the Tenderloin population. In 1979, however, it obtained enough staff through the federal VISTA program (the domestic incarnation of the Peace Corps) to transform itself into a true citizen-based organization. The VISTA organizers were like me: recent college graduates from middle-class backgrounds excited about trying to help Tenderloin residents. The convener of the June 1980 meeting, Richard Livingston, had secured the VISTA money for NOMPC with the vision of getting neighborhood residents involved in planning the community's future.

Livingston revealed that three of the most powerful hospitality chains in the world-Holiday Inn, Ramada, and Hilton-had launched plans to build three luxury tourist hotels in the neighborhood. The three towers would reach thirty-two, twenty-seven, and twenty-five stories, respectively, containing more than 2,200 new tourist rooms. The news outraged us; the encroachment of these big-money corporations would surely drive up property values, leading to further development and gentrification and, ultimately, the obliteration of the neighborhood. Fighting construction of the hotels, however, presented mammoth difficulties. None of the hotels would directly displace current residents, so the projects could not be attacked on this ground, and zoning laws allowed for the development of the proposed luxury high-rise hotels, which removed a potential legal barrier.

The situation seemed hopeless. The Tenderloin's residents were entirely unorganized, NOMPC's newly hired VISTA organizers were energetic but inexperienced, and our opponents were multinational hotel corporations in a city where the tourist industry set all the rules. How could we succeed in preserving and enhancing the Tenderloin as an affordable residential community for the elderly, poor, and disabled in the face of this three-pronged attack? The answer lay in tactical activism.

Prior to the threat of the hotels, NOMPC's central goal for the Tenderloin was to win its acceptance as an actual neighborhood worthy of assistance from the city. The lack of participation by Tenderloin residents and agency staff in the city's political life had led to a consensus, accepted even by progressive activists, that a viable neighborhood entity north of Market Street did not exist. The hotel fight gave NOMPC the opportunity to educate the rest of the city about the state of affairs in the Tenderloin. As the Coalition organized residents to fight the hotels, the overall strategy became clear: first, to establish that the Tenderloin was a residential neighborhood and, second, to insist that, as such, it was entitled to the same zoning protections for its residents as other San Francisco neighborhoods. If NOMPC could force City Hall and the hotel developers to accept the first premise, the second premise-and NOMPC's strategic goal-would follow.

The attempt to rezone the neighborhood in response to the hotel development threat was certainly not inevitable; it was the result of carefully considered tactical activism. Instead of using the hotel fight as a springboard for change, the organization could have made the usual anti-development protests, then sat back and awaited the next development project in the neighborhood. The organizational identity could have been that of a fighter of David-and-Goliath battles pitting powerless citizens against greedy developers. Livingston, NOMPC organizer Sara Colm, and other Tenderloin organizers understood, however, that development projects are rarely stopped and are at best mitigated. This is particularly true where development opponents are primarily low-income people and where the local political leadership-as is true for most cities, large and small-is beholden to developers and real estate interests.

The organizers foresaw that a succession of fights against specific development projects would destroy the residential character of the neighborhood they wished to strengthen. A rezoning of the community, in contrast, would prevent all future development projects without directly attacking the financial interests of any particular developer. A proactive battle for neighborhood rezoning was thus both the most effective and the most politically practical strategy. "No hotels" was not a solution to the neighborhood's problem-rezoning was.

In concert with the local chapter of the Gray Panthers, many of whose senior activist members lived in the Tenderloin, NOMPC unified residents by forming the Luxury Hotel Task Force. The Task Force became the vehicle of resident opposition to the hotels, but it had a greater and more strategic importance as a visible manifestation that the Tenderloin was a true residential neighborhood. Although most Task Force members had lived in the Tenderloin for years, they were invisible to the city's political forces. Suddenly, hotel developers and their attorneys, elected officials, and San Francisco Planning Department staff were confronted with a group of residents from a neighborhood whose existence they had never before recognized. The Tenderloin residents' unified expression of concern over the hotels' possible impact on their lives permanently changed the political calculus of the neighborhood. Once the developers' representatives and city officials encountered the Task Force, NOMPC's strategic goal of establishing the Tenderloin as a recognizable residential neighborhood was achieved.

The battle against the hotels was short and intense. After learning of the proposal in June, we held two large community meetings in July. More than 250 people attended the meetings, a turnout unprecedented in Tenderloin history. The formal approval process for the hotels began with a Planning Commission hearing on November 6, at which more than 100 residents testified against the project. Final commission approval came on January 29, 1981, in a hearing that began in the afternoon and ended early the next morning.

The projects clearly had been placed on the fast track for approval; the city was in the midst of "Manhattanization," a building boom during which virtually no high-rise development project was disapproved. This made the accomplishments of the Luxury Hotel Task Force that much more astounding. As a result of residents' complaints that the hotels would have a "significant adverse environmental impact" on rents, air quality, and traffic in the Tenderloin, the commission imposed several conditions to mitigate these effects. The hotels had to contribute an amount equal to fifty cents per hotel room for twenty years for low-cost housing development (about $320,000 per hotel per year). Additionally, each hotel had to pay $200,000 for community service projects, sponsor a $4 million grant for the acquisition and renovation of four low-cost residential hotels (474 units total), and act in good faith to give priority in employment to Tenderloin residents.

Such "mitigation measures" are now commonplace conditions of development approval in U.S. cities, but they were unprecedented in January 1981. In the view of local media and business leaders, that a group of elderly, disabled, and low-income residents had won historic concessions from three major international hotel chains in a pro-development political climate was an ominous precedent. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Abe Mellinkoff weighed in strongly against "the squeeze" in two consecutive columns following the Planning Commission vote. Referring to the mitigations as a "shakedown" undertaken by "bank robbers," Mellinkoff urged the business establishment to publicly protest this "rip-off of fellow capitalists." As Mellinkoff saw it, Luxury Hotel Task Force members were "crusaders" and "eager soldiers" whom City Hall had allowed to prevail in "a war against corporations." Clearly, NOMPC's strategy had worked. The hotel fight had made the Tenderloin a neighborhood to be reckoned with.

The decision to use this defensive battle to achieve a critical goal resulted entirely from continual discussions of strategy and tactics among the thirty to forty residents who regularly attended Luxury Hotel Task Force meetings. A good example of the group's extensive tactical debates arose when the Hilton Hotel offered to provide lunch at a meeting to discuss its project. Gray Panther organizer Jim Shoch, whose tactical insights were critical to the Task Force's success, made sure that every facet of the Hilton offer was analyzed for its implications. Some Task Force members felt that lunch should be refused so the Hilton couldn't "buy us off." The majority wanted to take advantage of a high-quality lunch, recognizing it as a vast improvement over their normal fare. Ultimately, the group went to the lunch but gave no quarter to the Hilton in the meeting that followed.

These time-consuming and often frustrating internal discussions enabled residents to understand that they did not have to accomplish the impossible (i.e., prevent approval of the towers) to score a victory. Without this understanding, the city's ultimate approval of the hotels could have been psychologically and emotionally devastating. Instead, the Planning Commission's approval did not diminish residents' feelings that they had achieved a great triumph in their own lives and in the neighborhood's history.

With city officials having recognized the Tenderloin as a viable neighborhood, the Task Force turned to the second half of NOMPC's agenda: establishing the Tenderloin's right to residential rezoning. In 1981, San Francisco residents could initiate the rezoning process by circulating petitions in the neighborhood in question. NOMPC began its rezoning campaign immediately after the city's approval of the luxury hotels. The rezoning proposal affected sixty-seven square blocks overall, with the strictest downzoning proposed for the thirty-five-square-block heart of the Tenderloin.

In this central area, the new zoning prohibited new tourist hotels, prevented commercial use above the second floor, and imposed eight- to thirteen-story height restrictions. The strategy succeeded largely because of its timing: on the heels of the Planning Commission's approval of the hotel towers, even the pro-growth local political leadership felt the neighborhood should not be required to accept additional commercial high-rise development. But the city's sense of obligation to residents of a low-income community might quickly evaporate in the face of a new high-rise development proposal; quick action was necessary to prevent new projects from emerging as threats.

The wisdom of the strategy was confirmed in 1983, prior to the city's approval of the rezoning. A one-million-square-foot development that included hotels, restaurants, and shops was proposed for the heart of the Tenderloin. The project, "Union Square West," effectively would have destroyed the affordable residential character of a major portion of the neighborhood. Clearly, Union Square West conflicted with the fundamental premise of the rezoning proposal; the project included three towers ranging between seventeen and thirty stories, a 450-room tourist hotel, and 370 condominium units. Would the pro-growth Planning Commission turn its back on the neighborhood and support the project? In the absence of the rezoning campaign, and despite the "obligation" incurred to the community after approval of the luxury hotels, San Francisco's Planning Commission undoubtedly would have authorized the project. The tactical activism of NOMPC, however, preempted the mammoth proposal. When Union Square West went for approval on June 9, 1983, the ardently pro-growth Planning Commission chairman strongly chastised the developer. The rezoning process had gone too far for the city to change its mind. A project that would otherwise have been approved was soundly defeated.

The Tenderloin rezoning proposal was signed into law on March 28, 1985. Its passage culminated nearly five years of strategic planning that had involved hundreds of low-income people in ongoing tactical discussions. The rezoning helped enabled the Tenderloin to avoid the gentrification that occurred in virtually every other central-city neighborhood across the nation in the following three decades. Today, thirty-one blocks of the still-low-income neighborhood constitute the nationally recognized Uptown Tenderloin Historic District, listed on t