On Monday night, one tech awards show became a coalition’s latest reason to rally.
Nearly 50 protesters gathered in front of San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall, signs in hand, hooting and hollering to protest the Crunchies, a tech awards ceremony hosted by industry sites Gigaom, VentureBeat, and TechCrunch. While startups inside the event received award statues for categories like, “Best E-Commerce Application” (won by Wanelo) and “Best Design” (FiftyThree), around 50 protesters outside threw an alternate awards show, dubbed “The Crappies,” on Van Ness Avenue. Faux recipients were gifted toilet plungers and toilet brushes — to “clean out the crappies” — for winning “Best Tax Evader of the Year” (Twitter for getting city tax breaks) or “Best CEO of the Year” (Marissa Mayer for allegedly doing little to help “people at the bottom”).
“They’re going to be celebrating the happiest and best in the tech sector, but we’re celebrating the worst and the impact the tech sector has had on San Francisco,” says Kung Feng, the protest’s lead organizer. It’s five hours before the Crunchies begin, and Feng is quietly peeling a tangerine in his office, a work space slightly larger than a walk-in closet nestled in a building bordering the city’s rough-and-tumble Tenderloin neighborhood. He flashes a quick smile, revealing a gold tooth.
After living in San Francisco for a decade, Feng moved to Oakland in 2011, partly to be closer to his partner, a tenant rights organizer, but also because of rising rents. But even Oakland now, once viewed as an affordable alternative to San Francisco, is becoming less and less of a bargain. According to Feng, his landlord recently attempted to increase her rent by $200. His reasoning? There are people willing to pay more — a lot more.
To Bay Area residents who don’t work in tech, the ever-escalating Bay Area rental market is just one symptom of an industry that has directly and indirectly created a battle of haves and have-nots, of high-salaried workers and millionaire entrepreneurs vs. lower-middle income and poorer residents.
“I think tech is fine — it’s an industry like any other,” explains Feng. “But what we’re talking about is the kind of unequal treatment and exceptions the tech industry is given.'” He points to Twitter (TWTR) as the most egregious example of unfair treatment. Why should the publicly traded tech company receive a tax break — one estimated as high as $56 million by one back-of-the-envelope estimate — for setting up shop in the city’s mid-Market Street area when some residents are financially clinging to remain in the city?
Like Google (GOOG) buses before it, the Crunchies became an industry lightning rod, yet another highly visible indicator of a booming, boundless industry. Because while entrepreneurs walked off-stage proudly clasping their awards, protesters like Feng will be taking down signage and riding the bus, hoping their voices were heard.