Cities today have a choice between becoming active forces for social change or quietly acquiescing to the whims of global capital. Our own city, San Francisco, stands at a particular crossroads, torn between the progressive ideals of its people and the power of its wealthy, entrenched, corporate elite.
But how do we as individuals help push our cities in one direction or another? When we survey the landscape in San Francisco, we see little opportunity for ordinary people to meaningfully change the city’s politics. Here, career politicians jostle for power, Democratic clubs squabble in obscure feuds, and a parasitic class of consultants and insiders hover, siphoning campaign donations while advising their paymasters-of-the-day how to optimize their social media and pose as the true face of the “Resistance.” This old politics of scratching backs and shaking hands offers ordinary people nothing.
San Francisco deserves better than this stagnant status quo. In our search for examples of how cities can move beyond the same old same old politics, we were heartened to learn of the recent municipalist movements in Spain and elsewhere, where, in multiple cities, coalitions of ordinary people were able to take control of their local governments and take back power from political elites. We believe such a movement is exactly what San Francisco needs and, to learn more, we, along with other members of our DSA chapter, attended the Fearless Cities summit in Barcelona, Spain, to hear from those who have blazed this path: the people’s movement Barcelona en Comú (BComú). BComú, though only formed in early 2014, now holds control of the city government of Barcelona, the second-largest city in Spain. The Fearless Cities summit was the culmination of two years of organizing to educate activists around the world on how to take control over local governments and to win back power in their cities, as BComú had done in May 2015.
The roots of BComú’s success reach back to the global financial collapse of 2008. Following the collapse, Spain fell into a deep recession. Within several years, the unemployment rate skyrocketed to over 20%, with youth unemployment nearing 45%. A housing, debt, and eviction crisis destabilized cities, and a corrupt government dominated by the centrist parties PSOE and PP instituted harsh austerity measures. Activists responded with mass protests and other community-building work, such as the 15-M movement that occupied public spaces across Spain in May 2011, but these measures by themselves ultimately failed to shake the centrist elite’s hold on power.
By 2014, left-wing activists were ready to build on their organizing work and try another tactic. In Barcelona, local activists formed BComú (originally known as Guanyem Barcelona, or “Let’s Win Barcelona”), not as a political party, but as a coalition of leftist political groups solidified into a social movement by their unified vision for the future of the city. These groups put forth a shared, consistent platform, the goals of which included providing direct democracy to the people, protecting human rights, and, critically, combatting austerity politics. BComú created new channels for people’s voices to be heard — primarily through the use of assemblies and online platforms — and these, along with a unifying, public code of ethics for the coalition, allowed the people of Barcelona to build a more transparent, democratic, and responsive form of local government.
At the same time, on a national level, the grassroots movement led to the formation of a new political party called Podemos (“We Can”), which first sought to place leftist candidates in the European Parliament during the May 2014 elections. While Podemos obtained only 8% of the vote and five seats in the European Parliament during those elections, this initial activity set the stage for greater achievements. During Spain’s municipal elections in May 2015, Podemos supported select leftist candidates, including Ada Colau, a member of BComú. Colau was not a career politician, but was a housing activist who helped form the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages (PAH) in 2009, after the global financial crisis caused mass foreclosures and evictions. Using people power, PAH led direct-action campaigns against mortgage lenders in attempts to stop evictions, campaigns that included such tactics as the physical occupation of banks. BComú and other Podemos-backed municipal candidates saw success in the 2015 elections, with eight Spanish cities uprooting their established parties and replacing them with people-backed leftist candidates, including Colau, who now sits as Barcelona’s first female mayor. Podemos went on to win over 20% of the vote in the national elections of December 2015, less than two years after its formation, becoming the third-largest party in Spain and nearly as large as the previously dominant center-left PSOE.
Where San Francisco Stands
The success of the ordinary people of Podemos and BComú, who continue to win victories despite opposition from ruling elites, is a direct result of the people’s fearlessness and relentless hard work in the face of investor speculation and government oppression. For the people of Spain, this fearlessness took the form of standing up against inequality and austerity even when success seemed impossible. Being fearless meant refusing to back down, even when threatened, because the people knew that the status quo was just as dangerous. Across Spain, activists in cities coalesced into fearless coalitions fueled by a shared anger at the economic devastation of the recession and the pilfering of Spain’s wealth by global capital. But what about cities that are not experiencing such systemic crises? Can a similar movement emerge in San Francisco, where unemployment is low, median incomes are high, and much of the population and political leadership already identifies as progressive?
Many people view San Francisco as a bastion of progressivism. And on many fronts, the city’s past and current policies do show a certain fearlessness in an oppressive world. San Francisco is the city that elected Harvey Milk to the Board of Supervisors. San Francisco is a sanctuary city, protecting its undocumented citizens by not cooperating with or using its resources to aide ICE. And San Francisco has the Healthy SF program, which, unlike Medi-Cal or Covered California, offers guarantees access to health care for all adult residents, regardless of their immigration or employment status.
We are grateful to live in a city with policies like these, but their existence doesn’t mean that San Francisco is fearless. These policies have become the window dressing that San Francisco uses to advertise itself as a progressive haven while, in the shadows, our activism has become complacent in the face of skin-deep progressivism, which has allowed the beating heart of the city to be hollowed out and replaced with moderate, corporate-friendly policies. Would a truly fearless city vote to support Proposition Q, making it illegal for homeless residents to live on city streets? Would a fearless city go soft on speculators and housing commodifiers like AirBnb, so that thousands of units sit vacant even as rents continue to rise and price out the working- and middle-class community? Would a fearless city sit back and accept the idea of legal immunity for police officers, standing idle while SFPD kills our brothers and sisters? San Francisco may put on a good show, but it is far from a fearless city.
Nothing to Lose But Our Fear
We can learn from other cities’ examples. In New York City, regulators have imposed fines on illegal short-term rentals, demonstrating the fearlessness necessary to oppose those who stand to profit from the commodification of housing. In Jackson, Mississippi, organizers with Cooperation Jackson have once again taken power despite facing high municipal debt levels and a hostile state government. And we can look to a multitude of cities in Spain where municipalist movements have taken power — Castelldefels, Madrid, and Zaragoza — overturning the corporate political establishment by proposing a comprehensive vision for the people’s city.
A fearless San Francisco must arise from the struggle and organizing of its working class. As housing prices rise, service workers and the middle class are pushed out of the city, often commuting long distances to jobs that remain here. As of 2014, 330,000 people commuted to San Francisco every day for work, an increase of 100,000 from 2006. A viable leftist movement in San Francisco will be based not only on the worker power of those still in San Francisco, but on a regional alliance with movements in places like Vallejo, Richmond, and Concord. Such a movement can coalesce to challenge the regionwide capitalist dynamic that has turned the city into a playground for the rich while the suburbs have become commuter housing for the service workers who make the playground possible. Together, we must demand better, free public transit, and a regional minimum wage.
A fearless San Francisco will be bold enough to imagine policies that seem impossible. We assert that the right amount of required affordable housing is 100%, no less, and that our Right to the City requires the total decommodification of housing. We demand that San Francisco’s entire homeless population be housed as soon as possible. If necessary, we should seize all of the vacant investment properties in the city to do it. We demand not only that the SFPD not be issued tasers; the SFPD should be disarmed. Twenty-six police homicides in the last decade is a horrific record of violence.
A fearless San Francisco will be a city that has the confidence and clarity of vision to stand up to these institutions, to the police, to housing developers, to investors, and say, this is our city, and we will make it into a paradise for ourselves, for our families and communities. Until the city is controlled by those who live here and not by those who move their money here, it will continue to be in thrall to global capital, a playground for the 1%. Ultimately, a fearless San Francisco is one that is for the people, by the people.
How will we do it? By employing the methods that have been employed around the world in places like Barcelona and Jackson, Mississippi. We will form people’s assemblies to hold elected leaders accountable to an organized body of citizens. We will run candidates whose power depends on their being of the community, not on donors like Ron Conway or the purse strings of the Democratic Party. We will apply the same political strategy that is being used by the left all around the world: tell a bold, simple story about how government can work for the people, if only it is controlled by the people.
Jennifer Bolen and Jack Coughlin are members of the San Francisco chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.