SAN FRANCISCO: Like huge lumbering beasts, the luxury buses shuffle down Valencia Street.
One by one, they stop in front of a hipster coffee shop. Bearded young techies swipe their IDs as they board, clutching cups of premium coffee. One fellow carries his dirty laundry. No one talks. The buses take off for the campuses of Google, Apple, Facebook, Yahoo and eBay.
It seems like a mundane commuting scene. But it is not. A security guard hovers. There might be trouble.
Even as the tech companies extend their global reach and jostle to own the future, their hometown is turning from admiration to anger. The buses, which illegally use city stops, have become an unlikely rallying point. First, people were priced out of their homes, activists say; now they are being pushed off the streets.
Demonstrators regularly block the shuttles. Last week, a group of activists stalked a Google engineer at his East Bay house, urging the masses to “Fight evil. Join the revolution.” A prominent venture capitalist struck back, comparing the tech elite with persecuted Jews in Nazi Germany.
“We’ve never seen anything remotely like this before,” said Gary Kamiya, author of “San Francisco, Cool Gray City of Love.” “Techies used to seem endearing geeks, who made money and cute little products but couldn’t get the girls. Now they’re the lord and masters.”
If the Bay Area is planning to relive the 1960s, it is still only the dawn of the decade. The protesters are relatively few, fragmented and uncertain in their tactics. The activists in San Francisco seem a bit more mainstream, while those in the East Bay are more inclined to escalate their protest – when they stopped a Google bus in December, a window got smashed.
The group that stalked Anthony Levandowski, an engineer at Google X, the company’s clandestine research laboratory, calls itself the Counter force, after a Thomas Pynchon novel. About a dozen members, all dressed in black, gathered outside the Berkeley house where Levandowski lives with his partner and two young children.
They unfurled a banner and handed out fliers detailing the engineer’s work on Google’s driverless car technology, Street View and Google Maps. The flier read: “Anthony Levandowski is building an unconscionable world of surveillance, control and automation. He is also your neighbor.”
Google, whose famous motto is “Don’t be evil,” declined to comment.
Several of Levandowski’s neighbors, who preferred not to give their names, said the protesters decamped after about half an hour and city police closely monitored the block for a day afterward. One neighbor speculated that the protesters were associated with the Occupy Wall Street movement.
“It felt like regular old Berkeley behavior, to tell you the truth,” another said.
In many ways, it was.
Levandowski’s house used to be a part of a small informal commune in the late 1960s. Tom Hayden, a founding member of the radical group Students for a Democratic Society, lived there.
Conditions are ripe for another large-scale protest movement, Hayden said in an interview.
“These days you have a very large, frustrated younger population watching the middle class disappear before their eyes just as they prepare to go into it,” he said. “A rising, serious hostility against Google and companies like Google is inevitable, part of a class struggle around the means of producing information.”
If something has started, the outcome still depends on what the protesters do and how the companies react.
“It’s like one snowflake after another landing on a mountain,” said Paul Saffo, managing director at Discern Analytics. “If conditions are just right, there’s an avalanche.”
Saffo, a longtime tech futurist, said the Bay Area had been sliding toward an “Occupy Silicon Valley” situation for several years.
“The tech companies are going to discover they are going to have to become better citizens,” he said, pointing out that the sheen of corporate coolness is already wearing off. Google, for instance, is reportedly paying an unnamed midlevel engineer $5 million a year. “Google is not doing this because they are generous. They are doing it because that’s what it takes to prevent him from going anywhere else.”
The Counterforce leaflet, which included a photograph of Levandowski’s Arts and Crafts house taken from Google Street View, urges the masses to throw off their chains, or at least their Google Glass, and “join the revolution.”
Silicon Valley has come full circle. It used to be where rebels and dropouts went. One young man from the East Coast with a Harvard MBA, Tom Perkins, was treated with such suspicion at Hewlett-Packard in 1957 that he was put to work in the machine shop, running a lathe. You couldn’t get any lower.
Perkins clawed his way up to being one of the founding financiers of the valley, funding Tandem, a leading computer maker, and Genentech, which employs 12,000 people. The firm he co-founded, Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers, is still one of the leading venture capital shops, a backer of Google and Amazon.
In a letter to The Wall Street Journal last week, Perkins asserted that the shadow of the Third Reich was falling over the Bay Area. He said that he was worried about another Kristallnacht, where rampaging Nazis went after Jews, looting and killing. The 1 percent – Jews in Germany, the tech elite here – were at risk from the crowds.
Perkins, who retired from Kleiner Perkins in 1986, told Bloomberg TV that he regretted the Nazi comparison, but stuck by his point.
“We have to be careful that we don’t demonize anybody and that we certainly don’t demonize the most creative part of our society,” he said.
What is at issue, however, is not Silicon Valley’s creativity but its wealth, and the sense of entitlement that brings. The tech companies’ position on the buses is this: We’re not driving our own cars, jamming the roads and polluting the air. We spend our money here in San Francisco, keeping high-end waiters and baristas and boutiques salespeople gainfully employed. Be grateful.
The protesters, and increasingly the community, respond: If we parked at a bus stop for just a moment, we would get a $279 ticket. Tech buses do it with impunity. And how do you spend your money in San Francisco if you spend all day 30 miles away?
During a three-hour meeting at City Hall, angry residents complained that even a low-income San Franciscan has to pay $2 to board a city bus while the city planned to charge tech shuttles just $1 per stop per day, regardless of how many workers got on or off.
“These companies should pay a handsome sum of money to the city, not just $1,” said a retired social worker, Herbert Weiner, 75. “They are filthy rich.”
City officials said the amount they could charge such shuttles was limited by state law to cost recovery and that charging a steeper fee would require a citywide vote.
Private shuttles provide service for about 18,000 riders a day, the city says, a total that includes some non-tech firms. Valencia Street, which is rapidly shedding its low-income immigrant-Spanish roots to become a wonderland of boutiques selling organic ice cream, $12 “limited edition” chocolate bars and $5 cups of Karinga coffee from Kenya, provides a front-row stage for the conflict.
Many of the buses are unidentified, bearing only notations like “main campus – Ridgeview,” which means Apple. Facebook’s buses are the most lavish, the kind rock stars take to their gigs. Their wireless password: “n0traffic.”
Residents say the tension in the neighborhood is palpable. Matteo Bittanti, an art teacher, often sees pedestrians make a vulgar gesture toward the buses. He understands the feeling. “They look like an occupying force,” he said, “like big, white, pristine tanks rolling down the street.”