'Techsploitation' Demonstrators Blocked Google and Apple Buses With Scooters

Activists in San Francisco used scooters and tech buses to protest the industry’s presence in the city.

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May 31 2018, 7:31pm

Image: Sarah Emerson

Several tech buses, ones headed for Google and Apple campuses, were blockaded Thursday morning by demonstrators protesting the “techsploitation” of San Francisco.

A group of activists stacked piles of electric scooters—a rent-by-the-minute ridesharing trend popularized by three startups—in the middle of an intersection in the Mission neighborhood. To many San Francisco residents, the ubiquitous scooters symbolize the tech industry’s disruptive presence in their city. One organizer told me the scooters were collected this morning, but said they couldn’t share more.

“Fucking scooters all over our city,” a Coalition on Homelessness representative said. “They’re more willing to sweep people off our streets than an electric scooter.”

Image: Ashwin Rodrigues

Demonstrators hailed from human rights and housing justice organizations, but many local citizens showed up in solidarity as well. Also present were anti-displacement activists from Bizim Kiez, a German initiative fighting Google’s new Berlin campus, and Serve the People San Jose, which has opposed Google’s expansion there.

“[We’re] fighting against Big Tech coming into our city, causing displacement, exploiting every aspect of life,” Chirag Bhakta, who was born and raised in San Francisco, told me. “What are they giving us? Buses and drones we can’t use? Taking my privacy? They should ask us what we want.”

Many of today’s demonstrators said that scooters have more rights than marginalized people, such as those experiencing homelessness, in the city. “[The homeless] don’t get a chance to be here, but scooters show up without any repercussion,” Bhakta added.

In 2017, there were 7,499 homeless in San Francisco, and 1,363 were unaccompanied youth, according to a city census which may not be a comprehensive estimate. Whether the tech sector is responsible is the subject of an ongoing, many-sided debate.

Image: Sarah Emerson

Ever since transportation startups—Bird, Spin, and Lime—launched in San Francisco, sidewalks have been covered in scooters. Proponents say they’re a public benefit, but others claim they’re a nuisance, and that resources should instead go toward enhancing public transportation. Bird is reportedly valued at $1 billion.

Some anti-scooter vigilantes have expressed their discontent by creatively vandalizing the vehicles. The city recently ordered all scooters off the street by June 4, and is requiring these companies to apply for permits. Activists claim that codifying their use will only encourage more exploitation and privatization of San Francisco’s resources.

Image: Ashwin Rodrigues

“I don’t know why we’re being identified with scooters,” a Google employee who exited one of the buses told me. “[People inside the bus] are pretty pissed off and irritated,” he said before jogging away.

The double-decker buses ferry employees from San Francisco to Google, Apple, and other campuses in Mountain View. But the private vehicles use public (MUNI) bus stops, and some citizens say they’re disruptive, polluting, and are increasing already-exorbitant housing prices. “Google buses” have come to represent gentrification—“gentriFUCKED,” as one of the demonstrators put it—in San Francisco, and the tech industry’s privileged status throughout the Bay Area.

Earlier this year, several buses were shot with a pellet gun along Interstate Highway 280, damaging the vehicles’ windows.

Image: Sarah Emerson

At one point this morning, a Google employee got off the bus and began calmly removing scooters from the blockade, which a demonstrator would then put back. The Google worker eventually gave up and left.

“I think this is a poignant visual representation of the state of things,” an Apple employee, who decided to work at a cafe instead of waiting to make it through the blockade, told me. “This seems extremely necessary, [and is] making me think of my job in a way that I wouldn’t have before,” he said.

“Although,” he added, “one woman in a Tyvek suit is wearing Allbirds [a venture-funded shoe startup], which seems like a misguided fashion choice.”

Another Apple employee (who also decided to work remotely that day) said the demonstration felt “a little misguided.”

“I grew up in Chinatown, and can’t afford to live in the city,” he added. “People in tech are people too. I don’t know if shouting at buses is the answer.”

All three tech employees didn’t want to tell me their names.

The event remained peaceful, and drew a constant crowd of generally-supportive onlookers. It ended with a group chant: “We are unstoppable, another world is possible.”

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