After stopping a Google bus while dressed as a clown earlier that week — and before teaching queer/trans yoga at CounterPulse that night — Erin McElroy sat down at Cafe La Boheme in San Francisco’s Mission district and ordered a black coffee.
As a member of the tight-knit and underground Heart of the City collective, which blocks tech-industry commuter shuttles on a somewhat regular basis, McElroy plans and executes some of the most elaborate and playful protests involving tech corporations and their transportation system.
She and her comrades were the ones who drove a fake tech shuttle in San Francisco’s Gay Pride Parade last year, calling themselves Get Out (Gentrification Eviction Technologies). They were the ones who dressed as city workers and handed out “unpaid bills” to tech-shuttle drivers who were using public bus stops for free. And, recently, that was them in spandex clown costumes doing handstands in front of a Google commuter bus.
“Heart of the City is small — I don’t want to say exclusive — but it’s a serious group of activists putting together these iconic moments,” said McElroy, 31, who wore a waxed jean jacket and had one-inch gauges through each ear. “There’s a lot of attention to the image, and to creating the right meme that goes viral.”
The group’s demonstrations have had a significant impact — and brought international attention — almost immediately. Ultimately, McElroy and her cohort are not against the tech shuttles themselves: Their goal is to draw attention to the discrepancy between those private shuttles and the city’s own dilapidated public bus system, in the hope that more tax money be directed to city infrastructure.
“We’ve, for better or worse, created tech guilt. Now what do we do with that?” McElroy said. San Francisco is soon going to start charging tech shuttles to use public bus stops ($1 a stop, starting this July). “I’ve never been part of a direct action that had that fast of an impact on policy.”
For McElroy, the joy in the demonstrations is about the art. She thinks of her protests as “satirical” plays. Her collective rehearses extensively before each one. And though she said she doesn’t have a particular artist in mind when she and her cooperative plan the performances, she does feel like she’s part of a San Francisco tradition of artistic activism.
It runs in the family.
“My mom’s a modern dancer, so I feel like I’m carrying the family tradition,” she said. “And I wouldn’t be able to jump up and down with a megaphone if it weren’t for yoga.”
McElroy, who has an art degree from Hampshire College, grew up moving around the U.S. (New Mexico, Delaware, North Carolina), and has been involved in activism since she was a teenager. At 18, she went to Seattle to protest globalization and the World Trade Organization. In the early 2000s, she did tree-sits in the Mattole sanctuary forest with Earth First. After 9/11, she started doing anti-war protests. She moved to San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood in 2006 to work on “environmental racism” issues and “queer and trans art” projects. She started organizing against the tech buses last year.
But she hasn’t been able to blend her dance with her activism until now.
“It’s been amazing to finally bring these two parts of myself together.”
Today, McElroy lives on the south side of Bernal Hill with four roommates, and pays rent through caretaking and babysitting. Despite the attention her art collective has gained, she has said they’re being careful about growing the membership too quickly.
“I feel like we’ve been playing fastball for real, and we’re expanding now,” McElroy said. “But we don’t just bring in anyone to Heart of the City. There’s vetting. There’s a lot of trust. You need to know how people operate in a stressful situation — like when buses get rerouted.”
Does she consider herself an anarchist?
“Of course I consider myself an anarchist, an anticapitalist. It’s not really something we talk about that much, because so many of us do.”
So, left of Democrat? No pro-Obamas?
McElroy said there won’t be any actions in the next couple weeks, and that the activists need to step back for “visioning.” She wants the “quick stabs” at tech companies to now become broader and even more iconic protests.
“It’s fun to wear a spandex suit and do headstands in front of a bus,” she said. “But we’re going to start thinking of larger images. For me, of course, the solution eventually is ending capitalism. But what are some things we can do in between?”
Will there be more costumes and choreography?