The invisibility of the crisis in San Francisco right now is reminiscent of that of the AIDS epidemic. To quote from Vito Russo, a founder of the AIDS activist group ACT UP, film historian, and rabble rouser, it’s “like living through a war which is happening only for those people who happen to be in the trenches.” He lived in this city when it was a haven for political radicals, queer people, artists, and immigrants, when it was America’s great city of sanctuary.
“You look around and you discover that you’ve lost more of your friends, but nobody else notices,” he said. “It isn’t happening to them.”
People are not dying, but they’re disappearing every day, from all over the city. The tech industry’s great economic boom is driving a housing crisis, with no-fault evictions increasing 175% since last year. The city doesn’t keep track of how many people live in these apartments, but the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project estimates up to 3580 residents were no-fault evicted in 2013.
I came to San Francisco like generations of people before me because I wanted to find the freedom to live out my ideals. And to practice the dharma—no other city has so many teachers and centers. It’s a great place to find the teachings of the Buddha. The tech industry, Google and Facebook and their peers, have adopted the culture of this place.
Just like the gentrification of a neighborhood where new, wealthy people displace people who have lived there longer, the dharma is undergoing a process of gentrification in San Francisco today. Lost is the bigger picture of the teachings that asks us to consider our interdependence and to move beyond self-help and addressing only our own suffering. The dharma directs us to feel the suffering of others.
The pace of displacement in the city’s Mission District makes whole sections of the neighborhood unrecognizable to people who lived there just a year before. With great respect for Sharon Salzberg, Konda Mason, and Shinzen Young, who taught this year at Wisdom 2.0, I ask the following question about the dharma on display at this conference: To whom is it recognizable?
While members of Eviction Free San Francisco held a banner across the stage, I handed out leaflets to the more than 500 attendees that read, “Thank you for your practice. We invite you to consider the truth behind Google and the tech industry’s impact on San Francisco.”
At a conference like this, our action—a banner and a chant of “San Francisco Not for Sale” on a bullhorn—is only meaningful in the context of the larger movement to keep families in their homes, to save the city and the diversity we love, and to repeal the state law that allows for no-fault evictions, which create conditions for speculators and evictors to run wild for profits. We want to preserve an economically diverse city that works for all of us, not just the tech industry.
When I zipped up that banner in a bag to sneak it into the conference, I thought about the ways this action could contribute to a larger conversation among people of conscience about how to stop this crisis of economic inequality. But like our Mission District neighbors, the activists and the message of Eviction Free San Francisco were disappeared without a word, censored from the livestream of the event. As we were marched out of the hall by angry conference staff, the Google presentation carried on, asking the audience to “check in with their body” about the conflict. No one addressed the issues we were raising, not then or later on in the conference. It was a case study in spiritual bypassing.
It’s almost too easy to point this out at Wisdom 2.0. Most of the workshops offer lifestyle and consumer choices that are meant to help people heal from the harm, emptiness, and unsustainability associated with living under capitalism, but it does so without offering an analysis of where this disconnection comes from. The conference presents an evolution in consciousness of the wealthiest among us as the antidote to suffering rather than the redistribution of wealth and power.
We disrupted Wisdom 2.0 to make visible the struggle of eviction and gentrification that we and our neighbors are facing. The invitation still stands for the organizers, presenters, and attendees of this conference, as well as our new neighbors who work for the companies that put it on, to recognize our demands and engage with these social issues.
Before Google’s talk on corporate mindfulness at Wisdom 2.0, I sat there in my chair, a participant in a centering practice alongside other conference attendees. I felt connected. We were only different from them because we were preparing ourselves to take the stage as uninvited guests in order to ask the question that most needs asking in San Francisco right now: Who is included and who is excluded from this community?
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