Activists say that San Francisco should focus less on the big NFL game and more on income inequality, rising rents, and horrific police violence.
The Super Bowl is being played this year in Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California, but the excess and glitz that always surrounds the NFL championship game is located some miles north, in San Francisco. That's where you can find "Super Bowl City"—a section of town that has been transformed, with the help of taxpayer money, into a free-to-the-public NFL-themed attraction.
For some San Franciscans, the city's full-throated embrace of the big game and the festivities that come with it highlight everything that's wrong with the town's priorities. San Francisco's problems, according to many activists and critics, include glaring income inequality, police-perpetuated violence, a tech industry tone-deaf to the needs of the city it operates in, housing costs so high not even the middle class can afford a place to live, and a government that seems more concerned with courting big business and throwing parties than with alleviating the pain many San Franciscans face on a daily basis.
How, say critics of Super Bowl City, can San Francisco grapple with these issues while at the same time hosting an event that includes such things as a $12,000 dinner for billionaire NFL owners paid for by taxpayers? And this frustration has been manifested in a series of protests that serve as a counterpoint to the shiny, capitalistic excess of Super Bowl week.
For more on the conflict over the Super Bowl in San Francisco, read the VICE Sports series An Imperfect Host.
On Wednesday night, hundreds took to the streets near Super Bowl City and set up a tent camp to highlight the disparity between what tourists see when they come to San Francisco and the life of actual San Franciscans.
"You have mass displacement, you have homeless people being pushed from one neighborhood from another—it's just not humane," Miguel Carrera, the housing justice organizer for the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco, told me over the phone. "And the mayor is spending millions to throw a party."
Santa Clara is being reimbursed for the costs it incurs from the Super Bowl, but San Francisco officials did not sign a contract with the NFL that would guarantee its own reimbursement, and will likely be on the hook for $4 million in expenses.
That $4 million might not be much when compared to the entire city budget of some $9 billion, but activists say it's indicative of the corporate-friendly attitude San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee has embraced. He's become semi-notorious in the city for giving tax breaks and real estate deals to tech companies totaling $34 million according to city numbers. (Some say the city's estimates are low—by giving breaks on payroll taxes to Twitter, for example, one union estimated that the company did not have to pay the city $100 million.) Lee has also come under fire for insensitive remarks that sound even more damning when taken slightly out of context—over the summer, when he was asked about the homeless people sleeping on the future site of Super Bowl City, he said, "They are going to have to leave."
The city has cleared the homeless off the street, relocating some to shelters; Lee also promised that 500 new apartments for the homeless would be built before the Super Bowl but it's not clear how many were actually completed. (City officials did not respond to request for comment for this story.)
Cassie Siegel, a 31-year-old with two kids who has been homeless since 2009, told VICE she and her friends have been harassed by the police more often than usual in the run up to the Super Bowl.
"Yesterday the police just drove up onto the sidewalk and started yelling at us to scatter," Siegel said. "We were in a public park but they acted like they were doing a SWAT raid."
Siegel said police harassment is always an issue in San Francisco, but the Super Bowl has exacerbated it.
"It's even worse now, and all for a Super Bowl," she said. "And it's not even in our city."
It's no secret that San Francisco is facing a homelessness crisis, but many working- and middle-class people are also feeling lost amid the city's changes.
"There's the displacement, there's the police shootings, there's the loss of so any things that make San Francisco feel like it does," Andy Blue, a longtime housing activist said. "We're watching the transformation of a the city, and meanwhile the mayor and the people in power aren't addressing our issues at all and yet they're rolling out the red carpet for corporate parties."
The median price for a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco is $3,500, and while that's down from a peak of $3,670, there's evidence gentrification in the Bay Area is spreading: The cost of a one-bedroom in neighboring Oakland rose by 19 percent in just a year, to $2,190.
Rising costs of living have contributed to a lack of diversity: The city's black population has dwindled from 13.4 percent in the 1970s to less than 6 percent today.
Gentrification is of course widespread these days, from New York to Houston to Los Angeles to Portland, but San Francisco activists say the city's economic woes have been compounded by a mayoral administration that seems unconcerned with appeasing its constituents. That tension was further inflamed two months ago when Mario Woods, a 26-year-old black man, was shot by several police officers over and over again supposedly for carrying a knife in what activists described as a "death by firing squad." While Mayor Lee has promised an investigation into the shooting, activists say it highlighted the growing gap between the image the city is presenting of itself and the anger brewing under the surface.
"Eyes around the world are on San Francisco because of the Super Bowl," said Stuart Schuffman, a local activist who goes by Broke-Ass Stuart and who ran for mayor against Lee last year. "And we're more concerned with hiding our problems than fixing them.
Schuffman pointed to last year's election results as proof than San Franciscans are ready for change: Though Lee ran the only campaign backed by significant money and establishment politicians, he only won 55 percent of the vote. Schuffman got nearly 10 percent, and another unlikely candidate, an artist named Francisco Herrera, got 15 percent.
There won't be another mayoral election for another few years, but activists say they can at least use the Super Bowl as a way to draw attention to the fact so many of its residents are ready for something new.
"It's an opportunity for San Franciscans to tell the world we want to be a working families city again," Herrera said. "We want people to know we will not be Dubai, we will not be Manhattan, we will not be what the mayor wants to create."
But after the cameras brought by the big game retreat, will San Francisco's activists be able to keep attention on their causes?
"Usually protests are just regular activists and college students, but this time has been different," said Etecia Brown, a native San Franciscan and activist. "It's beautiful to see these new faces. The Super Bowl has been a galvanizing moment."
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