Are SF Billionaires Waging War on Working People?

by on November 27, 2023

Photo shows Garry Tan and Michael Moritz
Garry Tan and Michael Moritz

Promoting Public Safety Benefits the Working-Class

“Seeing progressive policies succeed in San Francisco, the billionaire class is now waging a war against working people.”—Dean Preston, Truthout

Are politically active millionaires and billionaires like Garry Tan and Michael Moritz trying to turn San Francisco into an elite enclave like Palo Alto or Woodside? Is their support for public safety designed to displace the city’s long dwindling working-class? Or is the D5 Supervisor and his allies trying to redefine “working class” so that it excludes the working people who back crackdowns on drug activities?

Let’s break these arguments down.

Preston’s Claim

Preston sees Chesa Boudin’s recall, increased police budgets, the ramping up the war on drugs, and launching a campaign to arrest people for drug use as part of a billionaires’ strategy to rid San Francisco of its working-class. Preston claims billionaires “shut down the sole overdose prevention site in our city without a replacement. Since it was shut down, drug use on United Nations Plaza and around the site has gotten much worse, and San Francisco’s overdose fatalities have surged.”

It’s stunning how opponents of the Boudin recall still attribute his defeat to a right-wing cabal and “billionaires.” Politically active billionaires did support the recall. So did the city’s largest working-class neighborhood (the Tenderloin). So did voters across the city.

Who primarily opposed the recall? Those living in gentrified neighborhoods. People who do not have to confront drug dealers outside their homes.

The Linkage Center was a multi-million dollar failure. Few secured treatment. Drug use on most of UN Plaza has since been dramatically reduced. The crowds of drug users occupying the McAllister and 7th Street portion of UN Plaza at night are not “working-class.” That term is customarily understood to include people who have legal jobs paid at below-middle-class income levels. That’s not the group using and selling drugs on 7th and McAllister.

Virtually all of the working-class people I know in the Tenderloin want drug dealers arrested and users and tents removed from sidewalks. Many work in the hospitality industry and do not feel safe returning home from work late at night.

Why do so many “progressives” strongly oppose enforcement measures necessary for working-class families to feel safe in their neighborhood? (See my May 2023 story, “Why Do SF Progressives Defend Open Air Drug Markets?“) It’s not “progressive” to accept a lower standard of public safety for working people.

 What Do Billionaires Want?

The wealthy political advocates Preston is writing about aren’t hiding their agenda. It’s overwhelmingly about public safety. Boudin’s recall and the election of DA Brooke Jenkins over the Preston-backed John Hamasaki show San Francisco voters are aligned with the billionaires on public safety.

The city’s wealthy activists also favor allowing 8th graders to take Algebra, reducing the power of commissions, and potentially adding how San Francisco elects its Board of Supervisors. People disagree on these positions—for example, I see commissions as enhancing government performance and expanding democracy rather than hindering it–but their agenda is not what threatens the working class.

Drug Markets Displace the Working Class

What’s threatens San Francisco’s working-class? Open air drug markets. The Tenderloin has long been the city’s most affordable neighborhood for working people. Yet people are desperate to leave their below market rent apartments in the Tenderloin because they don’t feel safe outside. Many feel trapped in their homes,  particularly those with young children.

Progressives should make improving safety for the Tenderloin’s working-class and low-income residents a top priority. But Preston and his allies oppose crackdowns on drug activities. They believe drug users should have the “freedom” to shoot up on sidewalks without facing arrest or displacement. Instead, its been billionaires like Michael Moritz who have spent heavily pushing the city to close drug markets.

I was surprised to hear from TogetherSF Action a year ago that they wanted to focus on closing open air drug markets. Why, I thought, would Michael Moritz, the political moderate who primarily funds the group, care about Tenderloin drug dealing?

But as my chapter in The Activist’s Handbook discusses, winning progressive change often requires rounding up a coalition of the “unusual suspects.” People and groups you may disagree with on many issues but with whom you share a specific goal. My book highlights a coalition by Puerto Rican Catholics and Satmar Hasidic Jews who were longtime adversaries in Brooklyn. They won an historic victory that stopped the Brooklyn Navy Yard from being taken over by a waste incinerator.

If Moritz wanted to use his wealth to help close open air drug markets and protect working-class people in the Tenderloin and SOMA, that was fine by me. He eventually funded a hard-hitting citywide advertising campaign against open air drug markets that gave the crisis national attention.

How To Destroy SF’s Working-Class

If billionaires really wanted to destroy San Francisco’s working-class, what would they do? They would start by trying to eliminate rent control. They would also try to repeal the city’s Residential Hotel Anti-Conversion Ordinance (HCO).

But I haven’t seen a single comment by Tan, Moritiz or other wealthy activists targeting the city’s two essential laws protecting the city’s working-class. And if anyone tried to repeal these laws voters would reject this.

San Francisco has steadily lost working-class residents for over forty years due to its lack of affordability. Many working-class people qualify for the inclusionary housing units in for-profit developments. These are the projects whose construction Preston and other progressives frequently oppose.

Rent control protects longterm working-class residents but those seeking to move to the city cannot afford current market rates. That’s why I wrote a book urging San Francisco to couple its strict tenant protections with building a lot more housing. Increasing supply expands opportunities for the non-rich to live in San Francisco.

The Tenderloin had multiple shootings last Saturday  morning and night . Five bullets hit Allstar Donuts at Golden Gate and Hyde. One bullet hit the new UC Law School SF building across the street. One person died.

Where is the outcry from the district supervisor over the city subjecting working-class and low-income Tenderloin residents to such unsafe conditions? I haven’t heard a peep.

You can’t claim to care most about the city’s working-class without prioritizing crackdowns on open air drug activities.

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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