Mayhem in the Mission District
Wednesday night, before the San Francisco Giants had even won their third World Series in five years, people were already chanting, “Fuck the Police!” This sentiment would carry itself through the entire night. As the evening wore on, massive crowds spilled into the streets, clashing with police, vandalizing their vehicles, and throwing fireworks inside the windows of broken cruisers. Vanguard Properties, the target of numerous anti-gentrification protests, was hit with massive vandalism and a brick was thrown through its windows, knocking down a poster calling for people to vote against a recent anti-gentrification initiative. A large group of rioters also targeted a startup building on Mission Street, chanting, “Techies!” while hurling bottles at windows. At one point, a Google bus – seen as a symbol of the Bay Area’s hyper-gentrification – was attacked with bottles, as was a condo development, Vida, which was under construction and caught on fire after a crowd tore down fences and began attacking it. Graffiti artists wrote tags around the city, decrying techies, yuppies, and police. Graffiti also honored the memory of Alex Nieto, a Latino security guard that was shot and killed off-duty by San Francisco police while eating a burrito on a hillside this year, as well as the names of other people killed by law enforcement, such as Mike Brown of Ferguson, MO.
During the entire night in the Mission, police faced down a mobile crowd that continuously pelted them with bottles and lit fires in intersections while creating makeshift barricades with dumpsters and newspaper boxes. The local blog, The Bold Italic commented on the crowds greatly outnumbering the police:
Someone started ghost riding their Oldsmobile, then the cops came, then the shit hit the fan. The first round of SFPD officers was so pitifully outnumbered that they just turned around and left, as one caught a beer bottle straight to the helmet. Someone lit a Royals effigy on fire and people started piling anything flammable on top of it. The few people explaining to photographers that, “These people don’t represent our neighborhood” were vastly outnumbered by the ones chanting, “Lets go ri-ot!”
By the time I got into the Mission district, things had already been going for some time. On Mission Street, people were throwing bottles at a vacant cell phone store, busting out the windows. The crowd was massive and, for the most part, very intoxicated. Most were decked in Giants gear, and many appeared to be in their early to mid-20s. The crowd was also very diverse. Those driving cars seemed happy and not scared to be in the middle of the mob, with many drivers honking their horns, blasting music, and passengers hanging out of the windows.
After about ten minutes of taking in the spectacle, the police line that was up half a block moved in, and pushed the crowd in several directions. I could tell that almost everyone in the crowd was new to large scale police encounters, as they were quick to run whenever the police made an advance. Soon, the police declared with paternal authority through a loudspeaker: “Party’s over folks, please clear the streets. Watch out for the glass.” When the police took an intersection, they held the street, allowing firefighters to come in and put out fires, and kept people from walking back in the other direction. In so doing, they faced a barrage of bottles and trash from the crowd. After being pushed from the first intersection, I headed up to another group of people standing several blocks away. The scene was very much the same, but as police advanced on a new crowd of people, rioters dragged out newspaper boxes and dumpsters and lit them on fire. Graffiti artists quickly went to work and tagged everything before it was lit aflame.
As police advanced again, people began chanting Alex Nieto’s name. “Mike Brown! Oscar Grant,” screamed a young Latino man no older than 18, and soon the crowd picked up the chant. Over the next hour, police and rioters played a repeated game of taking intersections, starting fires, and then throwing bottles at police when they arrived. By around 1:00 am, the streets had been cleared and police began sweeps of the area on motorcycles and on foot.
In a repeat of two years ago, the media brushed aside the vengeful aspect of the riot, portraying it simply as fans getting out of control with their fun. Blogs like The Bold Italic shamed the working-class and especially Latino residents (who have always been pushed away from engaging in militant struggle) for participating in the riot, claiming that “The Giants Won and the Mission Lost.” Few addressed the fact that police, condos, and other symbols of gentrification were attacked throughout the city. In the past, media outlets demonized anarchists that attacked police substations after police shootings, or vandalized businesses associated with gentrification. But this time around, the finger-pointing and blame-game of who is behind the anti-police and anti-gentrification violence was absent. It seems that nobody wants to admit the scale of the disorder.
In a further effort to downplay the political nature of the events, the mainstream press was quick to highlight the occasional fights that broke out amongst the rioters, as well as two shootings that occurred that night (one by a stray bullet in the Mission and other seemingly unconnected to the riot). But what I witnessed was a bizarre mix of communal togetherness, targeted political anger, and nihilistic rage. I watched one rioter tell another person driving their car in the middle of the mob that their lights were off. Other people threw empty bottles into the air only to watch them crash into the street, nearly hitting fellow rioters. Overall, the crowd seemed together, people shared alcohol and smokes, watched out for each other, and moved together when the police advanced. Fights broke out mainly when people dragging garbage cans and dumpsters into the streets to form barricades clashed with people who tried to stop them from lighting fires.
What happened Wednesday night blurred the lines of sports and political riot. Several friends expressed how much the streets felt like being at a militant demonstration in Europe. The police stayed back and only went towards the mob when they were sure that they could move people away from the burning trash barricades. When they did reach the crowd, people reacted by attacking the police. While several people pointed out that the large amount of white people and college students in the crowd probably deterred the police from being heavy handed – the size and intensity meant that if police came down heavily on the crowd they risked entire blocks exploding even more.
In the past several years, San Francisco has seen one of the heaviest waves of gentrification in the U.S. Thousands of people have been pushed out of the city as average rents rose by the thousands. Formerly working-class neighborhoods have changed almost overnight as tech capital washes the city and changes it to meet its needs. During this period, the police have come down hard on political demonstrations, raided squats at gunpoint, and savagely beaten and killed young men of color in the Mission District. The chants of demonstrators this January rings true, “Cops and condos go hand in hand!” What happened in San Francisco on Wednesday night wasn’t just a riot – it was revenge.