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A Google Bus Protester Looks Back on a Good Year

Where do you go when "tactical vomit" and "MUNI nudists" have already been checked off?

Nellie Bowles

It was a good year for Fred Sherburn-Zimmer, one of the leaders in a movement whose simple and singular tactic — blocking a Google bus — galvanized an international outcry over inequality and evictions.

Because of the actions of her group, the Ellis Act — which landlords invoke to evict tenants and sell their buildings — became a household phrase in San Francisco. Where mild landlord-reform legislation had struggled to get passed before, suddenly the activists’ more radical legislation was getting traction.

Google employees would shield their eyes so they wouldn’t be seen boarding their luxury corporate shuttles, what with local and international press suddenly staked out at various bus stops around the city. The cover of New York magazine was a stunt to show a naked couple stepping aboard one of the gleaming white vehicles. At tenants’ meetings that normally had 60 attendees, suddenly 600 were showing up. And the collective of protesters staged ever-more-elaborate dances and bus interventions, at one point climbing atop a Yahoo bus and vomiting down its windshield.

 The New York magazine Google bus shot
The New York magazine Google bus shot
Nathanael Turner /New York Magazine

And then it stopped. Fizzled. The press moved on, as it does with every story of the moment, and the buses kept chugging along, now paying only a nominal fee to use public bus stops (or skirting them altogether and just stopping in the middle of the street).

I called up Sherburn-Zimmer this week to check in and find out where the movement was going. She told me that if 2014 was the year Google bus protesters donned stilts and clown costumes to dance in front of corporate commuter shuttles, 2015 will be the year of more targeted actions against individual landlords, lawyers and real estate agents.

“Last December and January, we did our first bus blockades, and were really successful beyond our wildest, wildest dreams,” Sherburn-Zimmer said. “It was a huge year. The number of people in the streets grew. The press changed. Our ability to win changed.”

Using the bus as a lightning rod just made sense, she said.

“It was just this roving symbol, this thing that would go into your neighborhood, block your bus stop, and drop off a whole bunch of workers,” Sherburn-Zimmer said.

https://twitter.com/ellenhuet/status/451029382811750400/photo/1

“Now we’re going to be focusing on individuals, and calling people out by name.”

Thanks to the flashy protests, evicted tenants started organizing. Some of the most vocal people in any of this year’s anti-income-inequality marches have been the tenants, a lot of them seniors. At a demonstration a few months ago, I watched as an older woman — who was walking along beside the protesters on the sidewalk — spotted a Google bus coming down the street and just stepped out right in front of it.

 Anti-eviction organizer Fred Sherburn-Zimmer at Borderlands Cafe in San Francisco’s Mission District
Anti-eviction organizer Fred Sherburn-Zimmer at Borderlands Cafe in San Francisco’s Mission District
Nellie Bowles

But the activists have discovered that the most effective way to stop evictions may be to target individual landlords by name, with placards and websites calling out individuals seen as bad actors.

“Bus-blocking was a tactic in a bigger strategy. We’re alternating tactics,” Sherburn-Zimmer said. “We’ve shifted. I’m not saying we’ll never do a bus blockade.”

A few weeks ago, protesting Google lawyer Jack Halprin, who is evicting his tenants, the demonstrators did actually block a bus again.

“It was the bus he was going to catch,” Sherburn-Zimmer said. “Then he showed up, and we followed him back to his house.”

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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