The YIMBY Guide to Bullying and Its Results: SB 827 Goes Down in Committee

TACTLESS IN SF--Editor’s Note:On Tuesday, April 17, SB 827 died in the California State Senate Transportation and Housing Committee by a 7-4 vote.

Senator Nancy Skinner (Berkeley) and Senator Scott Wiener (San Francisco), the bill’s sponsors, provided two of only four votes in favor. 

The reported drafter of the bill was YIMBY leader Brian Hanlon. 

At the hearing, committee Chair Senator Beall acknowledged the civil rights work of former Los Angeles City Councilmember Robert Farrell, who spoke in opposition, and who was one of the signers of the Black Community Clergy and Labor Alliance. Beall told Farrell that he and Wiener would now be coming to Los Angeles to address the concerns of the Black community -- now that the committee has voted against SB827. 

For insight into the effect of their tactics, see this report on YIMBY disruption of a recent San Francisco demonstration of tenant activists: 

It’s okay to bully people, as long as they are white; it’s especially okay if they’re white property-owners. These appear to be the lessons that local YIMBYs have drawn from the criticism they received for disrupting the anti-SB 827 rally on the steps of San Francisco City Hall on April 3. 

Tim Redmond described the scene: 

“The [anti-SB 827] coalition brought some 60 people to the event, with Sup. Aaron Peskin, Sup. Jane Kim, and former Mayor Art Agnos among the speakers. Also represented were leaders of community organizations from the Mission, Chinatown, Cow Hollow and Excelsior, the Sierra Club, the local chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, and tenants’ rights groups.  

“Things quickly devolved into cacophony, as the outnumbered YIMBYs chanted over every speaker who took the podium. In the merciful pauses between chants, speakers could be heard decrying the projected impacts of the bill. 

“I want to announce that we have the votes!” said Supervisor Peskin early in the proceedings. Yet chants continued unabated.”  

The Yimbys did more than chant. According to SF Examiner reporter Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez, District 6 Supervisor candidate and BARF founder Sonja Trauss “moved into the crowd and shook her protest sign in the face of an elderly Chinese man, and, in turn, was allegedly shoved by a white woman from the anti-SB 827 crowd.  

Video shows sheriff’s deputies escorting Trauss out of the crowd -- perhaps not an ideal Kodak moment for her campaign.”  

“’She made physical contact,’” Gen Fujioka, policy director for the Chinatown Community Development Center, told Mission Local reporter Michael Toren. “’I don’t think she was intentionally hitting anybody. But she literally crossed a line that the deputies were trying to keep between the two groups.”  

Fitzgerald Rodriguez also reported that a “77-year-old member of a group of Chinese community members was so disturbed by the YIMBY shouting that she later fainted and was ferried by ambulance to Chinese Hospital.  

“’Our members were intimidated by YIMBY. They felt threatened,’ said Wing Hoo Leung, president of the Chinatown-based Community Tenants Association, who spoke at the rally. 

“He said that he has never encountered a counter-rally so vitriolic in 10 years of organizing. Sometimes, counter-rallies are held across the street from an event, or an hour later, but not directly in the faces of community members trying to speak their truth.  

“‘I think the YIMBY have no heart,’ Leung said.  

YIMBYs reprimand YIMBYs (sort of) 

YIMBYs and their allies saw a different lack: a failure of tactical shrewdness. On April 3, Irish public policy researcher Peter Gowan tweeted: 

“…for the yimbys who follow me – THIS should be your reaction to seeing a counter protest of mostly white people shout ‘read the bill’ at a crowd of elderly people of colour who are scared of displacement and gentrification. i respect your arguments, but that rally was a disgrace.”  

By “THIS,” Gowan was referring to the following tweet from #sharethecities: “If a pro-housing rally in Seattle ever ends up being against a group of poor elder immigrants I'm going to really have to rethink what I’m supporting here.”  

In another April 3 tweet, Gowan advised: “do not aggressively counter protest tenant organisations even if you disagree with them. it’s a terrible, terrible look, especially if they’re mostly people of colour and your group is mostly white.”  

“The YIMBY delegation,” wrote Redmond, “was overwhelmingly composed of young white men shouting over diverse speakers at the podium.” 

Tailored chanting  

In an April 4 tweet, YIMBY Action Executive Director Laura Clark justified shouting down wealthy homeowners and city supervisors opposed to the bill. “I don’t think protesting a rally called by a sitting Supervisor who is also a landlord is punching down,” Clark wrote, referencing Aaron Peskin, who led the successful post-rally effort to get the Board of Supervisors to oppose SB 827. 

Fellow YIMBY Alfred Twu, who’s running for the District 8 seat of the Berkeley City Council, tweeted back: 

“I agree: nothing wrong with planning to protest a landlord Supervisor. But when that landlord Supervisor shows up with a group of low income people and your protest team has a higher median income, it helps to adapt and change the approach.”  

That elicited a scintilla of doubt from Clark, who replied:  

“Since there was no way to do income verification at the event, and half of the anti-SB827 folks w’ere [sic] Calvin Welch, Now [sic] Valley Charmers, Telegraph Hill Dwellers, etc, I don’t think you’re being fair. Should we have not chanted during that guys speech? Maybe...”  

The reference to “that guys speech” presumably meant Wing Hoo Leung’s presentation. By the end of the day, Clark had decided that chanting over him was a mistake, while she continued to defend jeering “wealthy homeowners,” as indicated in a letter that she tweeted under the YIMBY Action logo but that does not appear on the organization’s website. Like Clark’s other equivocal apology, this one is worth reading in full: 

“TKI want to apologize for the counter protest we held yesterday in support of SB827. YIMBYs were there to show that there is not unified opposition to this bill, but we should have done so in a more respectful manner.  

“In previous anti-SB827 actions, YIMBYs have come out against wealthy homeowners defending ‘neighborhood character’ and exclusionary zoning. That was part of the crowd there on Tuesday, and we began by reacting against them and chanting over speakers from clubs like the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods and against city supervisors opposed to the bill.  

“Then other speakers sought to address their fears of displacement. While we think SB827 will help curb the displacement currently happening in San Francisco and across California, we should have allowed those speakers to voice their opinions. Their fears are legitimate, part of a history where market and government actions in urban planning have actively harmed communities through segregation, disinvestment, redevelopment, and more. 

“It was beyond insensitive to chant over speakers from Chinatown, the Mission, the Western Addition, and the Excelsio -- all minority neighborhoods facing gentrification and displacement first-hand. 

“SB827 has provoked controversy around the state. YIMBYs were there to show that there is not unified opposition to this bill, but we should have done so in a more respectful manner, and for that I’m sorry.  

“We did not anticipate the composition of the rally. We should have been respectful to these concerns and tailored our chanting accordingly. For our failure to do that, I apologize wholeheartedly. 

‘’We should have done better. And we will do better in the future. 

“Sincerely,

 

“Laura Clark, Executive Director”

 

YIMBY sophistry and political thuggery 

Clark’s letter is disturbing, for two related reasons: its sophistry and its political thuggery. 

On the sophistry front: the term “counter protest” evokes a demonstration against opponents. The steps of San Francisco City Hall are very wide; the YIMBYs could easily have stood at one end holding their signs. Instead, they encroached on the anti-SB 827 rally. That’s protest degraded into censorship, an authoritarian approach to politics that’s unacceptable to people who consider themselves democrats with a small “d.”  

As for political thuggery: Clark rationalizes chanting that’s “tailored” to drown out targets that she and her comrades deem illegitimate: wealthy homeowners, landlords, and elected officials who oppose the YIMBY agenda. What chutzpah. What authorizes the YIMBYs to decide who’s politically legitimate and illegitimate? As stated by a petition asking SB 827 author Scott Wiener “to denounce YIMBY disruptive practices”: 

“It is not enough, as YIMBY spokespeople have assured, to change their future disruptive actions to not interrupt speakers if they are “low income people of color.” The YIMBY organization needs to cease silencing critique by and all people.”  

Correct. The democratic way is to engage all comers who are willing to take part in a political fight, which is to say, that fight that eschews violence of whatever sort. Discursively speaking, censorship is violence. 

Contrary to Clark’s bewildering claim that “there is not unified opposition to the bill,” the diverse groups who protested SB 827 on SF City Hall steps stood and stand together. As former LA City Councilmember and County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky has observed, “This bill has accomplished one thing: It has united tenants’ rights organizations with small business and homeowners, all of whom are rising up against this broad-brush approach.” 

To my knowledge, Wiener himself has never participated in a vigorous head-on debate about SB 827. Guest appearances on KQED’s Forum or at town halls hosted by himself or his acolytes don’t count. He has repeatedly refused to defend his bill at a community meeting in South Central Los Angeles, a brush-off that’s earned him the denunciation of LA’s Black Community Clergy and Labor Alliance. Similarly, SB 827 co-author Nancy Skinner failed to show up at a March meeting of the Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club at which she was supposed to face her constituents’ questions about the legislation. 

In shunning debate, the YIMBYs are only following Wiener’s and Skinner’s deplorable lead.

 

(Zelda Bronstein, a journalist and a former chair of the Berkeley Planning Commission, writes about politics and culture in the Bay Area and beyond. She is an occasional contributor to CityWatch. This piece appeared originally in The Berkeley Daily Planet.)  Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.