Why Are Redditors and a Cyber Bully Trying to Take Over San Francisco's Sierra Club?
Can you #GamerGate a nonprofit? One San Francisco pro-development group intends to find out.
Photo via Flickr user Michele Ursino
Every day it seems like the housing situation in the Bay Area becomes more and more fucked. Approximately 100,000 people moved to the region between the summers of 2013 and 2014, according to data from the US Census Bureau. Meanwhile, San Francisco only has 55,000 units of new housing (i.e., apartments, condos, and single-family houses) in its construction pipeline, with many of the largest developments expected to take over a decade to complete.
As the tech boom lures tens of thousands to the region, workers are finding that the industry's notoriously lavish salaries aren't enough to make market rate housing affordable. Rents have gotten so high that local publications have openly wondered whether commuting by air from Las Vegas makes more economic sense than trying to rent in the Bay Area. In response to the housing crisis, a loud army of activists, journalists, community leaders, politicians, and trolls has emerged to accuse each other of spurring the outrageous upsurge in regional housing costs.
But not everyone is content to merely debate the issue. The San Francisco Bay Area Renters' Federation (SFBARF), a pro-development political action committee, is attempting a new strategy: Find a powerful progressive organization, pack its ranks with sympathizers—heavily recruited off Reddit—then use this new voting bloc to take that organization over, and leverage its platform and influence to convince voters to change the city's housing policy.
The organization is putting this strategy into action with the local Sierra Club chapter. Sonja Trauss, the founder of SFBARF, told VICE that her group has already recruited 210 supporters to join the venerable environmental advocacy group, whose executive committee elections begin today and run through December 18. The effort has received praise from local newspaper columnist Robyn Purchia and Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman.
This is not the first time outsiders have tried to hijack the Sierra Club: in 2004, reports surfaced that anti-immigration activists had engaged in a decades-long attempt to stage a hostile takeover of the organization's national branch that would have allowed hate groups to advance their views without seeming racist. And even if SFBARF fails to take over the club, the campaign could serve as a blueprint for how real estate and other monied interests can seize control of influential liberal groups with open elections.
Over the course of reporting on SFBARF's efforts to take over the San Francisco city branch of the Sierra Club, VICE uncovered evidence that Donald Dewsnup, the SFBARF member spearheading the campaign, has a track record of using shady activism tactics in his attempts to make the San Francisco housing market more amenable to development, including providing multiple false addresses to the Department of Elections to gain access to a neighborhood organization he wished to influence. VICE also learned that Dewsnup has been banned from the neighborhood-oriented social network Nextdoor for making online threats so severe that they led users of the service to file a restraining order against him.
The Sierra Club Becomes a Target
Before we get into all that, though, it's important to understand why anyone would want to take over a local Sierra Club chapter at all. In recent years, the San Francisco city chapter of the Sierra Club has come to represent the interests of a variety of local progressive causes such as the solar energy initiative CleanPowerSF and the county's 2010 vehicle registration fee increase. Though protecting the environment is the national organization's chief concern, this often manifests itself locally in different public policy stances. This includes a commitment to supporting what a Bay Area Sierra Club spokesperson termed "transit-oriented housing," referring to housing built near public transportation with the intention of reducing the number of cars on the road.
In 2013, as part of a broad coalition of organizations, the San Francisco Sierra Club backed an effort to block a proposed 134-unit, 136-foot-tall condo project at 8 Washington, a parking lot steps away from the city's waterfront Ferry Building. The groups argued that the project, which would have sold bayside units for an estimated $5 million, would create a "wall on the waterfront," and kick off a wave of development that could transform the San Francisco shoreline into Miami Beach. Although the city's Board of Supervisors had previously approved the project, two separate initiatives made it on to the citywide ballot in 2013, allowing voters to determine the outcome of the project.
The campaign against the development was run by Jon Golinger, an environmental attorney and longtime activist living on nearby Telegraph Hill. When voters handily rejected the project, Golinger credited the Sierra Club (of which he's a longtime member) with helping sway voters against the project.
SFBARF has repeatedly used the Club's opposition to this project as evidence that the local chapter has gone rogue. That's not hyperbole: SFBARF founder Sonja Trauss literally referred to it as a "rogue chapter" when I spoke with her recently. She feels that anti-housing activists have taken over the Club's Executive Committee and have turned the Sierra Club into a NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) organization. "If nobody is paying attention," Trauss told me, "any old asshole can take over the board, and that's kinda what happened here."
The irony of her statement, of course, is that her organization is trying to do the same thing, but sway the Sierra Club in the opposite direction.
The Beginnings of SFBARF
For nearly two years, the San Francisco Bay Area Renters' Federation has had a singular message: build more housing, and build it now. It's a mantra that plays well with libertarian-minded Redditors (the San Francisco subreddit boasts over 48,000 subscribers) and with the scores of downtown strivers moving into the region, compelled by the booming tech industry.
Trauss, a former math teacher from Philadelphia who now lives in Oakland, started SFBARF in early 2014 as an email listserv she ran as a passion project. It has since grown into a burgeoning political operation, converting cash and outspoken support from the likes of Yelp's Stoppelman and Y Combinator partner Garry Tan into widespread credibility in the tech scene. The group has become a regular feature on the San Francisco subreddit, where users have praised Trauss and her "important activism." And Mike Schiraldi, a former Reddit employee and administrator, once referred to as "the face of our company" by a Reddit colleague, is an active member of SFBARF who promotes the club online and off.
In March of this year, Dewsnup joined the ranks of SFBARF, becoming what Trauss described in an email to VICE as "an enthusiastic and active member of our group." It was Dewsnup's idea, Trauss claimed, to infiltrate the Sierra Club. Though she admitted no one in the organization knows where Dewsnup actually lives, Trauss wrote it off, saying she "hadn't pried too much into Donald's private life." She characterized him as an "eccentric," but one who's "absolutely dedicated to the local causes he believes in."
Dewsnup's been a full-time housing activist ever since he joined SFBARF. He's been in the Bay Area since 2012, when he moved from Seattle in what he told VICE was an attempt to revive his ailing real estate career. He joined the San Francisco Association of Realtors, and became involved in the group's government affairs committee. Still, relocating did little to help his career. Speaking to me over the phone, he said he has failed to close a single real estate deal in his time as an agent in San Francisco.
In July of this year, Dewsnup, along with a few other SFBARF members including Schiraldi, attended the Sierra Club's San Francisco chapter Conservation Committee meeting after learning that the committee had previously adopted a resolution opposing height-limit increases on two projects that would have cast shadows on a public park.
In an email to VICE, Schiraldi claimed that though SFBARF members "had hoped to start a dialogue, the reaction of the existing members was distrusting and harsh."
"At one point, I got called an 'anti-environmentalist,' which I found really hurtful," he added.
In a September call-to-arms post on Reddit, Schiraldi wrote that Becky Evans, the chairwoman of the Sierra Club chapter's executive committee, had characterized SFBARF's members as "developers of high-rise condos for the rich." He continued, "I'm not trying to paint her as too much of a villain here, but if this is her view of anyone who supports more housing, it explains a lot."
But the primary goal of the post was recruitment, as evidenced in the title: "The SF chapter of the Sierra Club helps pass anti-housing laws that increase sprawl, carbon emissions, and the destruction of the wilderness. With the help of about *10* more redditors, we can fix this."
Schiraldi originally proposed packing the Sierra Club's conservation committee with pro-development Redditors. But SFBARF quickly realized that it would be easier to form a coalition of five real estate industry sympathizers (including Dewsnup) to run as a candidate slate in the club's executive committee election, which began November 18 and runs through December 18. Their expressed interest is in ousting the old guard and flipping the script on the Sierra Club's selective approach to construction. It only costs individuals $15 to join the Sierra Club and, according to the club's bylaws, any member can vote in chapter elections. Moreover, voting can be done online by new members who ultimately know very little about the candidates they are casting their ballot for.
"The Sierra Club has a homeowner's association feel to it with these elderly white folks," said Dewsnup, who is 48, when I asked about the contentious relationship between SFBARF and the Sierra Club.
SFBARF, utilizing Schiraldi's influence on Reddit, amassed a voting bloc of 210 pro-development activists to help Dewsnup's slate sweep the Sierra Club's chapter election. Those numbers pose a significant challenge to the club: In an October post on SFBARF's Google group, Trauss predicted that of the San Francisco city chapter's roughly 3,000 members, only 390 of them would end up voting in the election, meaning SFBARF would have a significant voting bloc come election time.
The Sierra Club's low bar for voting ultimately has provided SFBARF with their opportunity. Schiraldi and other members have heavily promoted the campaign on Reddit, with one such post classifying SFBARF's insurgent attack on the Sierra Club as "a civil war over whether housing people in cities is good or bad for the environment." It also allowed Dewsnup to amass significant support while receiving little scrutiny.
In an interview, Evans, the local Sierra Club chairwoman, repeatedly refused to discuss the new Sierra Club members or their motivations. Of Dewsnup, she only remarked that he has been "a quiet participant" in the meetings.
Dewsnup Skirts the Law
The Sierra Club isn't the first organization Dewsnup has attempted to infiltrate. And he has often resorted to unsavory tactics in his dogged activism on behalf of pro-development causes.
In late 2014, Dewsnup attempted to gain membership to the Telegraph Hill Dwellers, a 61-year-old neighborhood association, in what he told me was a ploy to get closer to Golinger, a prominent member. However, according to records filed with the San Francisco Department of Elections and the California Bureau of Real Estate, Dewsnup has registered paperwork at three different false addresses in the San Francisco neighborhood of Telegraph Hill in what Dewsnup told me was an attempt to establish a record of residency in the neighborhood.
Dewsnup's real estate license is listed at an address on Telegraph Hill's Filbert Street, which, according to the city assessor's property database, does not exist. He also registered to vote at a separate address down the street. Then, according to San Francisco's Department of Elections voter registration database, on October 9 of this year, Dewsnup re-registered to vote by mail at a third address on Filbert Street. Property owners at the two legitimate addresses on Filbert confirmed that Dewsnup has never lived at their properties.
After reviewing court documents, VICE discovered a fourth address for Dewsnup in the city's Castro neighborhood. Dewsnup later confirmed that is his true residence. When confronted with evidence that he provided false addresses, Dewsnup said it had been necessary to join the Telegraph Hill Dwellers, which he characterized as an obstructionist organization. "I had to give [Telegraph Hill Dwellers] an address on the hill, and that is how I was able to join that group," he told VICE in a phone interview.
"I have not broken any laws," Dewsnup said. "I did give a false address, but I have not broken any laws—I made sure of that."
However, on October 11—two days after re-registering to vote by mail—Dewsnup tweeted a photo of a filled-in mail ballot for a controversial city supervisor's race in San Francisco's third district, which includes Telegraph Hill (Dewsnup's home in the Castro is in a different district). The photo showed a vote cast for Julie Christensen, a mayoral appointee that was endorsed by SFBARF and who Dewsnup has campaigned for aggressively online. According to the California Department of Elections, knowingly registering to vote at a false address is considered perjury in the state.
When asked about the tweet, Dewsnup claimed he never voted and instead downloaded the photograph online, but could not recall where from. VICE was unable to locate a copy of the photograph elsewhere online.
Accusations of Harassment
Over the past two years, Dewsnup has risen to relative infamy within multiple neighborhood groups on Nextdoor, a community forum that restricts participation based on residence. Multiple users of the site have accused Dewsnup of taking his activism on the platform too far, with his alleged transgressions ranging from threadjacking and trolling to outright harassment.
One neighborhood activist lamented on the site in October of last year that "Dewsnup's posts are at times bordering on defamation of people he disagrees with, and he seems to knowingly post mistruths and wild exaggerations." This past August, Dewsnup was suspended from the site for allegedly threatening another user via direct message.
When I asked him to clarify the terms of his ban, Dewsnup forwarded me an email thread from Nextdoor's director of neighborhood operations, Gordon Strause, which revealed that Dewsnup had been suspended for initiating conflict "by posting a personally abusive message directed at [another poster] in the main feed simply because you disagreed with [them]."
"In addition," the email continued, "you followed that public message directed at him with a private message that could be reasonably interpreted as a threat."
Strause also expressed shock that Dewsnup had been trolling on Nextdoor for so long (emphasis added):
I was shocked to see that you had been muted by more than 80 of your neighbors. That is a staggeringly high number, making you one of the top ten most muted members in the entire Nextdoor system. And it's worth noting that all other members in our system with more than 50 mutes have been suspended, many of them permanently. Mute counts that high are a clear signal that you are posting in a way that makes the Nextdoor experience worse for your neighbors. Suspension is actually something that should have happened to your account automatically a long time ago. There was evidently a bug in our system that caused this not to happen.
Neither representatives for Nextdoor nor Strause responded to multiple requests to verify these emails.
Some Nextdoor users still claimed to have been intimidated by Dewsnup even after his August ban. According to documents filed with the San Francisco County Superior Court, a Nextdoor user applied for a restraining order against Dewsnup, writing, "He [sent] me an email threatening to come to my home. He showed up at an organization I've worked for last week. I am in fear of my safety!"
The alleged victim's name is being withheld at their request, but an attorney for Litquake, the organization the person volunteered for, confirmed to VICE that Dewsnup showed up to the group's office unannounced and threatened to go after their funding. Dewsnup denies this, and says he was invited to the office.
Also in August, Larry Bush, a longtime political operative and publisher of CitiReport who has been called "one of the [city's] most influential political players" by SF Weekly, filed an affidavit to the restraining order request. The affidavit claimed that Dewsnup "engaged in virtual bullying toward me [Bush] and virtual stalking, based only on the fact that my views did not echo his. At times he would post that I was 'old' and should get out of the way for younger people to have more control of the city."
Bush also detailed another incident, in which he and Dewsnup had disagreed about a ballot measure aimed at curbing housing speculation in a discussion on Nextdoor. Following the dispute, Bush claims he "came home to find my house's exterior had been vandalized with campaign signs covering much of the front of my home and even in the trees [outside]." The endorsements on the posters matched Dewsnup's position on the issue and the affidavit claimed the same signs had been found outside of Dewsnup's home.
"I have believed that [Dewsnup] was the person who did vandalize my home in order to harass and embarrass me," Bush concluded in the court filing.
When I asked Dewsnup for comment about this, he denied that he was responsible, writing in an email, "Larry Bush has accused me of a lot of outlandish things that are simply not true." Dewsnup went on to defend his actions on Nextdoor, saying it was necessary to "stop the misinformation" about the initiative, which Dewsnup did not support.
When I suggested Dewsnup's shady past and aggressive actions might be harming SBARF's reputation, Trauss stood by Dewsnup.
"I can tell from Twitter that Donald is pretty aggressive online," Trauss wrote in an email. "I try to discourage my members from wasting too much time arguing on the internet, but some people enjoy it. As a volunteer with SFBARF, I know Donald to be very sweet, active, thoughtful and sincerely dedicated to a cause we both believe in."
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Trauss, for her part, characterized the Sierra Club takeover as one of the "most popular things SFBARF has ever done." She continued, "People are pouring out of the woodwork to enthusiastically support this project. Donald wasn't the only one, it turns out, to be frustrated with the direction the Sierra Club has taken."
In fact, the campaign is popular despite Dewsnup, as evidenced by support from people like Stoppelman, a tech leader whose wealth has been estimated to be upwards of $220 million, who has called for an end to the Sierra Club's current position on housing and reportedly donated $10,000 to SFBARF. Through the campaign, SFBARF can demonstrate to its development activist allies that they don't just have to appease their detractors to get projects approved—they can infiltrate and eviscerate them.
In San Francisco, this tactic provides SFBARF with a new avenue to fight proxy battles over housing. And while many Bay Area progressives may oppose SFBARF on principle, it's not clear how many of the group's opponents care enough about the local Sierra Club to go through the trouble of joining just to protect it from the threat of a hostile takeover.
It's these concerns that led Dewsnup to believe the local Sierra Club is having "a nervous breakdown" over SFBARF's insurgence. But Becky Evans, the club chair, seems resigned to watch it all play out.
"We hope that people who want to manage a group in the club will know enough about the organization to participate at a good level," Evans told me over the phone. "And if Mr. Dewsnup thinks he's qualified, then that's his right and he can run. Whether or not he wins is up to what the voters of the chapter have to say."
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