When Emanuel “Manny” Yekutiel opened his events space and wine bar in San Francisco last December, he didn’t expect his self-named business, Manny’s, to become an example of how not to launch a successful startup in Silicon Valley.
Located on the ground-floor of a low-income housing complex, on one of the busiest intersections in San Francisco’s Mission District, the website of Manny’s explains its reason for existing: to be a place that serves tapas with a side “of learning, of conversation, of organizing and of social change.”
However, activists with roots in the neighborhood — who have protested outside Manny’s every Wednesday night since it opened its doors — believe its mission is just a way of dressing up the ugly truth around the politics of the place. In their eyes, it’s a business that further gentrifies a neighborhood where evictions and homelessness are increasing, with an owner who supports Zionism — the nationalist movement in Israel that props up the occupation of Palestine.
In the progressive Bay Area, activists have a term for the feel-good, liberal marketing behind Manny’s: “woke-washing,” which they define as an attempt to paint a liberal face on a business that supports right-wing political views.
Woke-washing is in the same vein as greenwashing and pinkwashing, two other varieties of public relations campaigns that whitewash dark realities about the businesses they promote. (Greenwashing uses eco-friendly marketing to achieve this, while pinkwashing uses an LGBT-friendly appearance.)
Jemma lives several blocks away from Manny’s in San Francisco’s Mission District — a neighborhood often dubbed “ground zero” by the mainstream media, when it talks about the issue of housing inequality. She requested her last name not be used because she works for the government, which is continuously threatening free speech — and specifically targeting those who support the boycott, divestment and sanctions, or BDS, movement against Israel. Jemma says the portraits of black people displayed prominently on the walls of Manny’s are an attempt to make the place seem “woke,” but it’s just a facade. “It’s the equivalent of liberal blackface,” she said. The gentrification leads to increased police violence in a once majority-Latinx neighborhood.
Jemma is a regular organizer with queer direct action groups concerned with the ousting of black and low-income people from the Bay Area, such as the Lucy Parsons Project and Gay Shame. She says that at its base, the boycott of Manny’s appeals to a basic human desire: No one wants to feel like they’re being taken advantage of.
Confronting woke-washing also presents an opportunity for truly progressive organizations that sometimes silo themselves into narrower issues to organize together. The diverse list of groups that have joined the boycott includes Mothers on the March, which gathers at San Francisco police and sheriffs’ headquarters to express outrage, mourn, and bring attention to local youths killed by law enforcement officers; the Palestine liberation-focused Palestinian Youth Movement; Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism; the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network; the Latinx-led Black and Brown Social Club and the Brown Berets; and the Oakland chapter of the anti-prison industrial complex group Critical Resistance, whose co-founder Angela Davis was recently in the news for having a civil rights honor rescinded due to her anti-Zionist activism. (It was soon re-awarded.)
All of these groups agree on the importance of intersectionality in movements: Oppression is oppression, no matter where it happens in the world. The boycott has so far led several speakers to cancel planned events at Manny’s, including labor organizer Ai-jen Poo of the Domestic Workers Alliance and the hip hop and politics radio show host Davey D.
Why focus on Manny’s? To locals on the left, the venue’s “social justice”-messaging represents an insidious form of “faux-gressivism” that skirts, and sometimes makes worse, current political flashpoints. Gentrification, for starters, intensifies homelessness and police killings. And the extraordinary ties between the United States and Israel form a messy knot, involving billions in military aid each year, and American police traveling to Israel for training.
A January job posting on Craigslist described Yekutiel’s belief “in investing in our people and our culture.” After a social media call-out by Gay Shame, the job’s terms — specifically, a minimum-wage salary with fewer hours than would legally compel the company to offer health insurance — were deleted. A low-income housing nonprofit is the landlord of Manny’s, which offered Yekutiel below-market rate rent because of the wine bar’s supposed social justice mission.
At the same time, many of Manny’s speakers don’t particularly bring to mind social justice — such as tech billionaire and influencer Sam Altman — whose defense of sexists and hypocrisy around free speech have helped to cement Silicon Valley’s toxic culture — or a staffer from the Burning Man arts festival, which can cost $1,000-$5,000 to attend. This has led many activists to believe that the community has less to gain from hearing these speakers than the speakers have to benefit from an association with a progressive-seeming event venue like Manny’s.
“It’s basically a place for techies to feel good about themselves while black and brown people are dying in the streets,” Jemma said.
Cecilia Chung, a policy director for the Transgender Law Center, who sits on Manny’s nonprofit-style advisory board, said, “I think everyone is entitled to their own opinion.” Later, after crossing the picket line to speak at an event about the LGBT movement, Chung didn’t waver, saying, “What makes San Francisco beautiful is all the different points of view.”
Activists also point out how Yekutiel previously worked in public relations for the tech industry-funded charity FWD.us, which became infamous in left circles for funding advertisements with a right-wing — anti-immigrant and pro-oil — agenda. Before that, he worked as a fellow sponsored by the Israel lobby firm A Wider Bridge, a pinkwashing group whose right-wing funding was recently laid out in a February 2019 report by independent scholar Stephanie Skora, with support from the National Lawyers’ Guild, the Chicago chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace and the Canada-based Independent Jewish Voices.
Yekutiel has not helped his cause by gaslighting activists and silencing people who have been hit the hardest by problems like unaffordable housing. In an op-ed for the San Francisco Chronicle, he dubbed activists like Jemma “the alt-left,” effectively equating nonviolent protesters with the white supremacist clashes that have literally killed anti-racist activists.
Teacher Margot Goldstein and lawyer Rachel Lederman have spent several decades in the Mission. In a published response to Yekutiel’s op-ed, they described the extent of Yekutiel’s Zionist, anti-Arab racism. In particular, they rejected Yekutiel’s description of Israel as “a feisty liberal democracy in a despotic neighborhood; the ecological rescue of a once barren land.”
“The boycott of Manny’s is supported by the Mission [District]’s social justice community,” Goldstein and Lederman wrote in the Chronicle, “because both gentrification and Zionism require and result in the forced displacement of long-standing communities from their homes for the sake of profit and indigenous peoples from their land for the sake of power.”
As the protests approach month five, there is a widening coalition — including labor activists, students and hunger strikers who protested killer cops outside the police station a block from Manny’s — that believes a combination of leadership from people who are directly affected, persistent direct action and more BDS-inspired guest cancellations can beat the false liberal marketing of woke-washing.
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