Stand-up Guys

by cunningcrowbooks

Published in Medium 2014

Blessings upon the soul who shot the stand-off between the local Mission District boys and the techies, then later fed it into the internet for all the world to see. The Chronicle ran a front page article immediately after the video went viral. It was cleverly headlined, “Turf War,” but was subtitled something like, “More evidence of the lack of soccer fields in the city.”

These tags implied that the lack of fields was the cause of the incident and at the same time its prime significance. I don’t think so. The lack of enough space to please everybody is a part of what makes a city a city. Consider that San Francisco is blessed with more open space than most US cities of its size, and yet there’s endless contention by a multitude of factions.

No. I think the significant factor in that confrontation is the piece of paper you see the techies waving under the noses of the young Latino players. That permit gave the techies an exclusive right to the field – in their minds. An indisputable right. They paid for it, you see! They paid good plastic money for it over the internet and that gave them precedence over anyone who hadn’t, even though those who hadn’t were simply acting within a very long neighborhood tradition. In short, it gave them the right to order everyone else the hell off.

Money, then, acted or attempted to act like a sort of fence around what was in effect a small slice of the Commons – those certain places and resources historically associated with the British Isles, that for centuries had been left open for the free use of everyone in a community for hunting, grazing, and subsistence farming. But by the 17th Century the newly-rich began to buy these lands from the royal landlords who needed the money to fight their endless wars. The new owners fenced off the lands to graze their own sheep to acquire cheap wool for their factories. They forced millions of the rural poor who had depended on accessible lands to flood into big city slums, or to migrate out of desperation to the new, dangerous colonies of North America.

If this sounds familiar that may be because this fencing-off, this enclosure (read, privatization) of previously public land and resources has destroyed small-scale farming and ancient ways of life all over today’s world. It has forced newly landless people into the slums of Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Calcutta, Jakarta, and the big Chinese cities, just for example. Indigenous people in Latin America, Africa, the Philippines, India, and Western China are involved in shooting wars with soldiers, police, and hired thugs to protect traditionally open land from the bulldozer, the chain-saw, the oil-drill, the fence. And maybe we’ll have to add Canadian First Nations and US Native Americans to the list if the Keystone Pipeline just happens to get approved after the next election.

Privatization, enclosure, whatever you want to call it, appears to lie at the very heart of the economic school of thought we call, rather quaintly in my opinion, “neoliberalism.” This neoliberalism, as you know, has been sweeping the globe since the 1970’s, working hard to kill off laws that regulate trade, investment, labor, industrial operations, consumer affairs, and natural resource extraction. It encourages the lowering of taxes for rich individuals and corporations, while stepping on everyone else. It seeks wherever it can to sell public goods, that is, the Commons – which in our times of course include such resources as public education, the airwaves, the internet, the national parks – to private interests. Its devotees are found in corporate boardrooms, in governments, in the courts, the media, the universities.

It sanctifies money.

Some say it is destroying the world, or least this little thing we call democracy.

So what does all this have to do with a few kids and a few techies on a soccer-field in the Mission?

A credit-card, a website click, and the resultant piece of paper built a fence with which the technical gentlemen attempted to surround the field, if only for two or three hours. With them inside, of course, and the “indigenous” boys outside, though play on that field had been determined for generations by the neighborhood custom of seven-on-seven, seven people challenging the players on the field, the winners to take possession of it until the next seven challengers arrive.

But the techies had waved the magic wand of money, you see, and fully expected the annoying obstacles of community, tradition, and a few peasants to fall away as so often happened in history when the fence-builders showed up.

But money didn’t work this time. Nor did a piece of paper issued by a government obsessed by money, as most governments are. The boys said they had been fenced out before and decided they’d had enough of it. So, no. They weren’t going anywhere, permit or no permit.

So? you might think. So what? But see what happened after these boys said No and the world got to witness them saying it, thanks to an alert witness with a smart-phone. The CEO of a big-time tech company, the kind of person lionized ad nauseam around here lately, apologized to the Mission community for the boorish behavior of his employees, an apparently gracious gesture. Also a quick PR sidestep, considering that his employees wore company shirts while throwing their weight around. One of them actually said to the boys, “Who cares about the neighborhood?”

And San Francisco’s Recreation and Parks Department, accused at times of a tendency toward enclosure, privatization, high-handedness, unseemly coziness with big money, and other sins connected with neo-liberalism, announced it would no longer issue exclusive permits for that soccer-field. From now on seven-on-seven would prevail there. Evidently there still is something like too much bad publicity, even for city agencies.

This just might be remarkable in a city characterized to me once by a San Jose supervisor as a place run by “an impenetrable machine.”

A day or two after the video went viral I attended a demonstration on the steps of SF City Hall. The Service Employees Union organized it. Supervisor Campos attended and spoke to us about the sanctity of community and the high-handedness of government.

Then the Mission boys themselves, who turned out to be High School Juniors, got up behind the mike, one-by-one, and told their tales of resistance. A couple of them were articulate. A couple of others mumbled and stuttered. All were wildly cheered.

They made me happy.

I thought, See? These kids are the future, or at least a part of it. They stood up and spoke up and got the machine, impenetrable or not, to swerve and back off. They got that grit from their families and they got it from their schools and they got it from their streets and they got it from each other.

They encouraged me and I really need that these days.