This San Francisco Standard story is so deliciously ironic that I have to talk about it. It represents so much that’s wrong with journalism in the US today, and so much that’s wrong with our political discussions.
I’m picking on the Standard only because the writer almost got it right; the first two paragraphs of the story should have told the tale:
At a White House press conference on Monday, a reporter raised her hand and asked National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan a question about the APEC summit being held in San Francisco this week, where President Joe Biden will meet Chinese President Xi Jinping and a host of other world leaders.
“San Francisco has cleaned up their streets ahead of President Biden and President Xi’s meeting,” the reporter said. “They’ve moved homeless to other parts of the city, cleared tent cities and trash off the street. Is the president embarrassed that an American city needs to go through a total makeover to be presentable for his out-of-town guests?”
But then that question disappeared, and we got the same narrative that we have seen in story after story, in almost every publication in the country, about the APEC conference in San Francisco.
There’s nothing that appears inaccurate about the Standard piece, which had at least two headlines since it was first posted. The first headline talked about what comes next after the conference ends; will homeless people move back into Soma? The later version asks what the city did to clean the streets.
In fact, David Sjostedt reports that the city has, at the direction of the Mayor’s Office, cleared homeless encampments from areas near where the APEC delegates will meet, as well as major roads like Van Ness, where they might be driven.
Sjostedt interviewed unhoused people:
As of Monday, the encampments had not returned. Daniel Rivera, another homeless man, said the people living along Van Ness had scattered across the city. He said the city told him and other homeless people to “clean up” due to APEC.
“It’s like getting dressed up for a party,” Rivera said.
Many weren’t pleased the city asked them to move. For some, past experiences with the city, particularly during encampment clearings, have left them distrustful of government services.
“This is a category five hurricane hitting your spot, and you’re left with nothing,” said Nobel Mitchell, an unhoused man.
Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, noted the issues homeless people face don’t disappear even if those people have been moved out of the public’s line of sight.
“There’s a lot of money coming into this conference, and none of that is being set aside for unhoused people who are being displaced,” Friedenbach said. “They’re just moving people around.”
All of that is fair and good.
Here’s the issue:
Joe Biden, should indeed be embarrassed that a US city has to do this before an international conference. But not because San Francisco has been too tolerant toward homeless people and hasn’t arrested enough people for drug use.
APEC is part and parcel of a neoliberal agenda that has dominated US economic policy since the 1980s. It’s about free markets and free trade (for goods and money) without free movement for people.
I don’t know how many times I have to say this: There were no homeless people when I arrived in San Francisco in 1981. Homelessness is the direct result of the economic inequality that became increasingly severe in the United States after the election of Ronald Reagan, who brought what were once denounced as fringe economics into mainstream public policy.
Back then, people called it “trickle-down” economics, the idea that cutting taxes for the rich, reducing regulations on big business, and encouraging free trade would so stimulate the economy that everyone, even the poor, would ultimately benefit.
That hasn’t happened. We have more than 40 years of hard, cold economic data that shows that what we now call neoliberalism has failed.
I will quote from none other than The New York Times, which was one of neoliberalism and free trade’s biggest supporters:
[It] has suddenly seemed as if almost everything we thought we knew about the world economy was wrong. … The economic conventions that policymakers had relied on since the Berlin Wall fell more than 30 years ago — the unfailing superiority of open markets, liberalized trade and maximum efficiency — look to be running off the rails.
The poor are way worse all, off over the globe. The international political situation is more unstable than it’s been in decades.
In San Francisco, more than 7,500 people don’t have a place to live. To pretend that’s not a problem, and to show off the city, Mayor London Breed is pushing them out of the area where APEC participants are meeting—to discuss further moves toward economic inequality and global disaster.
Let us be very clear here: The problem that the mayor is trying to solve was created by the same political philosophy that drives the event she is so happily hosting.
This is what protesters are trying to say. I wish the local news media would make the connection.