Before Donald Trump’s election, Laurence Berland viewed political protest as a sort of curiosity. He was in a good place to see it: San Francisco’s Mission District, once an immigrant enclave in the country’s heartland of radicalism that is increasingly populated by people like him — successful tech workers driving up rents while enjoying a daily commute to Silicon Valley on luxury motor coaches.
Berland regarded the activism of his adopted city with a mix of empathy and bemusement, checking out Occupy Wall Street demonstrations and protests against the gentrification of his own neighborhood. But now there is less distance between him and activists on the street.
On a recent day Berland stood with about 100 others — from software engineers like himself to those who work in tech company cafeterias — outside a downtown museum for a rally against President Trump. A clipboard-carrying organizer approached Berland to ask if he wanted to join a network of grassroots activists, but Berland waved him away. He had already signed up.
In the place that fought against the Vietnam War and for gay rights and, more recently, has been roiled by dissent over the technology industry’s impact on economic inequality, an unlikely alliance has formed in the left’s resistance against Trump. Old-school, anti-capitalist activists and new-school, free-enterprise techies are pushing aside their differences to take on a common foe.
For years, these two strands of liberal America have been at each other’s throats. There’ve been protests against evictions of those who can’t afford the Bay Area’s ever-soaring rents. And think back, not so long ago, to the raucous rallies to block those fancy buses shuttling tech workers from city neighborhoods to the Silicon Valley campus of Google, where Berland once worked.
Cat Brooks, a Black Lives Matter activist in Oakland, has seen the toll the tech industry has taken on some. Her daughter’s elementary school teacher just moved to a distant suburb after her rent skyrocketed, and Brooks thinks more tech money must find its way into local communities. She nevertheless welcomes the infusion of new energy to the protest arena.
“It’s not about the business of we were here first,” she said. “We’re about the business of how can we support? Division at this time is not helpful.”
The tech industry opposition started when Trump imposed his initial travel ban on immigrants and refugees from seven majority Muslim nations. The industry prides itself on its openness to immigrants, who comprise about one-quarter of the U.S. technology and science workforce and include the founders of iconic institutions.
Nearly 100 tech companies, including Google, Facebook and Uber, filed a court brief urging suspension of the ban, while Google co-founder Sergey Brin, a Russian immigrant, joined protests at San Francisco International Airport. That was followed by an unprecedented companywide walkout at Google and now, on March 14, nationwide rallies are planned for a “Tech Stands Up” day of protest.
“People in Silicon Valley, it’s really hard to get them excited about things that aren’t technical,” said Anita Rosen, a technology project manager who has started an activist group in the Valley suburb of Mountain View. “But everything that Trump says is the opposite of what we believe. He hates technology. He hates foreigners.”
Kai-Ping Yee moved to the Bay Area from Canada in 1998, earned his PhD at the University of California, Berkeley, and landed a job as a software engineer in Google’s philanthropic unit in 2007. Now he works at a startup to help immigrants send cash home. After the election he helped create an online pledge, signed by thousands of technology workers, against building databases for any potential Muslim registries or to aid deportations of immigrants. Yee is a Canadian citizen, though he is a legal permanent resident of this country, and he’s been shocked at having to think about a contingency plan should life in the U.S. become impossible.
“People whose pedigree is knocking on doors and calling representatives and waving signs are getting together with people who design apps,” Yee said. “People are working with people who do really, really different things because they realize it’s an emergency.”
Some aren’t so sure about sharing the streets because they don’t think they share the same goals.
Franki Velez, an Iraq War veteran on disability, stood outside an Oakland rental office recently with other longtime activists and renters fighting eviction. There was not a technology worker in sight, and she worried that they are missing the point anyway. They want to change, but preserve, a system that’s benefited them, she said, while protesters like her want to tear the system down and start from scratch.
“They don’t understand it’s a colonial system that’s never meant to be reformed,” she said.
Still, while their approaches can be strikingly different, Velez’s causes are increasingly being adopted by people not like her.
Velez’s group marched to a Wells Fargo branch to hand over a demand that the bank stop investing in the Dakota Access Pipeline. Two hours later, in the comfortable Silicon Valley suburb of Campbell, biotech executive Michael Clark drew cheers after telling a gathering of anti-Trump activists that he’d closed his Wells Fargo account to protest the pipeline.
Clark grew up in New Hampshire and then in Silicon Valley, when his mother took a job at Apple in the 1990s. He always considered himself a political independent, a moderate. But Trump’s election horrified him and, with a friend who runs a gourmet chocolate shop, he founded a chapter of the national liberal group “Indivisible” in Campbell.
“The country has moved so much to the right that puts me in the middle with people I wouldn’t have previously been aligned with,” Clark said. “It’s interesting that someone like me is on the same side as a lot of socialists.”