By Steven T. Jones
DECEMBER 17, 2015 — San Francisco is a divided city, and that political division is playing out in dramatic fashion within the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition these days. One of the city’s largest and most effective political advocacy organizations is essentially deciding whether it wants to challenge the powers-that-be — or join them.
In many ways, this fight is a microcosm of the larger one roiling the city, in which the rich and powerful, in close partnership with neoliberal politicians and organizations (with a dose of tech-sponsored libertarianism), are rapidly changing the landscape of the city (both physical and sociopolitical) as many longtime residents and the progressive movement try to fight back or just hang on.
Dueling slates of candidates — endorsed by the rival factions Save SF Bike vs. Love SFBC — are fighting for control of the nonprofit organization’s Board of Directors in perhaps the most hotly contested election in its 40-year history. Executive Director Noah Budnick also just suddenly resigned after just eight months on the job, making this an even more pivotal moment.
The current fight began earlier this year when the SFBC tried to change its bylaws to eliminate member elections of the board. The move was badly handled by Budnick and other SFBC leaders, which presented the change as solely about protecting member privacy after a previous candidate for the board asserted his right to contact SFBC members about his platform.
Budnick and the board said the only way to solve the problem was to convert the organization’s structure from member-based to having a self-selected board. For many, it was just the latest example the SFBC seeking to professionalize itself at the expense of its grassroots base and seeming more concerned with catering to wealthy benefactors than average cyclists seeking to band together to amplify their voices in the political process.
So disaffected members formed Save SF Bike to challenge the move, first by campaigning against the proposition when it went to a vote of the members, then by challenging the validity of that vote after discovering the SFBC illegally failed to notify all of its members of the pending vote. Rather than fighting it out in court, the SFBC board nullified that bylaw vote, and here we are facing a pivotal new board election.
Two of the SFBC’s most well-known former staffers, Executive Director Leah Shahum and Program Director Andy Thornley, lead the slate of candidates endorsed by the current board and/or a new group calling itself Love SFBC. That group basically argues that things are going great at SFBC and it just needs to continue to professionalize its operations, while Save SF Bike argues that the organization needs to be revitalized and diversified to return to its core mission of grassroots advocacy.
On a more basic level, although some on both sides might resist these labels, this is a battle between neoliberalism or progressivism. That is, do you play nice with developers and city officials to meet the needs of cyclists (ie neoliberalism)? Or do you organize cyclists and other allies to demand an equitable share of the city’s transportation spending and infrastructure (ie progressivism)?
“Do you work from the inside out or the outside in?” was how Jeremy Pollock, a progressive running on the Save SF Bike slate who also works as a board aide for Supervisor John Avalos, cast the split. He said there is merit to both sides, and the SFBC has alternated between those roles at different times. But in recent years, it has been siding with the neoliberals who have come to dominate City Hall: “They’ve gone too far in that direction.”
The Bike Coalition has always had one foot in each camp. Just calling for the city to dedicate space for cycling was once a radical ask, but the organization always kept its distance from the Critical Mass crowd that directly asserted cyclists’ right to the road. SFBC would sometimes use sharp rhetoric to criticize City Hall when the cops or mayor disregarded the safety or needs of cyclists, but it never really aligned itself with the city’s progressive movement despite what many saw as their shared interests.
For example, much to the chagrin of affordable housing groups, the SFBC would sometimes cut deals with developers over bike lanes or parking in projects rather than presenting a unified front in asking for a wider range of concessions from capital. Neoliberal politicians like Supervisor Scott Wiener were able exploit that split and often pit transportation against affordable housing, helping weaken a progressive movement that cares about both.
Longtime SFBC Board member Amandeep Jawa (who is not up for reelection this time) agrees that the organization has often been torn between those outside-in and inside-out poles, usually siding with the latter. And he told me that as a progressive, he’s often been disappointed that the organization has refused to side with the progressive movement.
“I’m to the left of the Bike Coalition’s politics,” Jawa told me, noting that he’s the only board member to be a longtime supporter of and participant in Critical Mass. “I’ve been an advocate of more marching into the streets.”
But he also credited Shahum with using an inclusive strategy to grow the membership to almost 13,000 at its peak a few years ago, improve its fundraising, and increase its power and influence at City Hall. And Jawa said he believes a leftward shift would hurt the organization and the cause of cycling in city: “If we did that version of the Bike Coalition, it would be kick ass and 500 members.”
Jawa likened the dichotomy to that of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X during the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s. “I don’t want to burn down the one in the hopes that we get the other,” he said.
His analogy, which he brought up a few times in our conversation, is an interesting one that we discussed at length, and I think there’s a telling error that he makes in his logic. Most people who use the Martin-Malcolm argument use to explain why the movement was so successful at passing the Civil Right Act, Voting Rights Act, and getting federal intervention to desegregate the South.
That is, it took militants like Malcolm X who were willing to fight the power by any means necessary before the white power structure would be willing to cut a deal with King and his nonviolent resistance movement. Jawa believes Martin is enough and that trying to bring a little more Malcolm into the Bike Coalition could hurt its influence.
But the SFBC’s influence has already been waning. Its membership now hovers around 10,000, and city leaders have defied SFBC demands on Polk Street, police reform, and other projects. Pollock and the reformers (which include two grassroots activists who have been honored with SFBC Golden Wheel Awards in recent years) say it needs to aggressively recruit a new generation of young, multicultural recruits and lure back members who have resigned in recent years out of frustration with the organization’s direction.
“We’ve heard from a lot of people that the Bike Coalition has gotten away from direct member control and it’s become too professionalized,” Pollock said.
I’ve closely covered the Bike Coalition’s evolution since I started working for the San Francisco Bay Guardian in 2003, writing sympathetically about the cyclist community ever since. I’m friends with Jawa, Pollock, Shahum, Thornley, and many others on both sides of this divide. I also interviewed with Shahum and Budnick for the SFBC’s communications director position last spring, but I withdrew my candidacy after getting another job and before a decision was made.
So I feel like I’ve got some insights into the situation there, despite my personal progressive bias. And I think the current SFBC leadership has fallen into a groupthink pattern that has blinded them to outside concerns. Jawa, Budnick, and others involved have gotten very defensive when I’ve been critical of the argument that the bylaw vote was solely about privacy concerns. Even though Jawa and other board members have admitted to me that the rollout of that vote was “totally mishandled” (his words) from a communications standpoint, they insist that the privacy issue was primary and that the organization would lose too many members if board candidates could contact members.
I don’t doubt that they believe this, but they also don’t seem to understand that others saw it differently, and that to them the move to suspend member elections of board members was part of a pattern of increasing top-down control of a member-based organization, and its refusal to support a progressive movement that was under attack. Even Save SF Bike’s solution to the privacy issue — giving members the right to protect their contact info by opting out of participating in board elections — was dismissed by Jawa as somehow insufficient (he’d rather remove voting rights but create some kind of mechanism for a no-confidence vote by members if SFBC goes astray).
My friend Jason Henderson is an urban geography professor at San Francisco State University and he wrote a great book called “Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco.” Its basic premise is that how we get around and our assumptions about government’s role in facilitating transportation is inherently political, whether we want to see it that way or not. And that the city’s main three ideological factions (progressive, neoliberal, and conservative) create shifting alliances that determine how the city regulates and funds various forms of transportation, from bike lanes to Muni lines to parking spaces. So ideology matters, whether or not we believe it does.
Neoliberals like to see themselves as practical and post-ideological, often claiming to not even understand what neoliberal means or why the label might apply to them. But neoliberalism — which celebrates capitalism and sees government’s role as simply trying to incentivize and cajole it into meeting the community’s needs — has come to dominate San Francisco City Hall in the last eight years. Progressives who believe in government regulation and social and economic equity have been cast to the margins, with the help of massive campaign expenditures by the wealthy.
What does that have to do with bikes? Well, I suppose we’ll see. But the wealthy and entitled tend to marginalize the role of bicycles in everyday transportation, preferring unfettered automobility facilitated by the government and often treating cyclists like children. Mayor Ed Lee has already promised to veto legislation by Avalos to implement the “Idaho stop,” asking police to refrain from ticketing cyclists who don’t come to a full stop at empty intersections.
“I’m not willing to trade away public safety for convenience,” Lee said, ignoring the fact that the overwhelming majority of cyclists already ride this way everyday with a minimum of problems for any road user. Not exactly a sign of the great influence that SFBC — which supports the measure — has at City Hall.
Certainly, both of the rival board slates want to see more bike lanes in the city and greater protections for cyclists’ interests — they just seem to have different ideas about how to reach those goals, and how the organization should be run along the way.
Budnick’s sudden resignation only adds to the potentially transformative nature of this election, because the new board’s first order of business will be to hire his replacement (BTW, Budnick hasn’t said publicly why he resigned or answered my inquiries on the subject. Two board members denied to me that Budnick was asked to resign, and the furthest Jawa would go in explaining it to me was to say, “All jobs are kind of about fit, right?” explaining that the right fit is a two-way street).
How this election will fit with the political conflicts that have been roiling San Francisco is still an open question, one that we may have the answer to as 2015 draws to a close. Online voting is open to SFBC board members and continues through Dec. 30.
Steven T. Jones is former editor of the SF Bay Guardian. A version of this piece appeared on Byline.