“I know people are frustrated about gentrification happening in the city, but the reality is, we live in a free market society,” Keller wrote, saying that he arrived in San Francisco only three years ago. “The wealthy working people have earned their right to live in the city. They went out, got an education, work hard, and earned it. I shouldn’t have to worry about being accosted. I shouldn’t have to see the pain, struggle, and despair of homeless people to and from my way to work every day.”
Keller’s comments drew sharp rebukes, especially within San Francisco, where tech workers have been blamed for skyrocketing rents and gentrification. On social media, a flood of critics accused Keller of arrogance and insensitivity, not to mention ignoring his own industry’s reputed role in the city’s homelessness crisis.
The Guardian called Keller a “tech bro” whose letter demonstrated a “total lack of sympathy for the plight of those in difficult circumstances, focusing instead on the discomfort of the ‘wealthy.'”
And in a particularly blistering rebuttal, a woman who sarcastically identified herself as one of Keller’s “servants in San Francisco” told him that if he didn’t like the city, he should leave.
“You writing an open letter assuming you know anything about your community is a crock of [expletive] because your community is one of self-important techies and ping-pong gathering friends who like wine bars and love to have everything handed to them with a disposable waste of a garnish and a cloth napkin,” Edna Miroslava Raia wrote on Medium.
With his open letter, Keller had turned himself into the face of San Francisco’s raging gentrification debate.
Indeed, like a character from the sitcom “Silicon Valley,” Keller seems to embody the social and economic issues now consuming this former hippy hangout-turned-haute hipster enclave.
Founded a start-up that few outside San Francisco have ever heard of?
Check. According to the website of Commando.io, his start-up offers users “a simpler way to manage servers online,” or something.
Worships the tech bros that made it big?
Check. Keller posted photos online of his handwritten notes from “Startup School” in 2013, complete with uplifting entrepreneurial quotes.
“Business to be my life’s work,” Keller wrote, quoting Evernote founder Phil Libin. Founders must be decisive leaders, Keller scribbled, quoting another Silicon Valley heavyweight.
Keller’s previous blog posts are largely what you’d expect from a tech bro: a nerd-out about electronic cars and the laws of robotics; anger toward Chinese hackers; joy at a “shower epiphany” that enabled him to solve a vexing business problem.
And then — in a “shower epiphany” he is likely to regret — came his Monday post, “Open letter to SF Mayor Ed Lee and Greg Suhr (police chief).”
“I am writing today, to voice my concern and outrage over the increasing homeless and drug problem that the city is faced with,” begins the missive, which, in true Silicon Valley style, is published on Keller’s personal website (where articles are rated not by likes or reads but by “kudos”).
“Every day, on my way to, and from work, I see people sprawled across the sidewalk, tent cities, human feces, and the faces of addiction,” Keller continues. “The city is becoming a shanty town… Worst of all, it is unsafe.”
He then describes his supposedly woeful holiday weekend, which began to turn sour when a “homeless drunken man” leaned against his parents’ car. The weekend worsened further when a “high person” began “yelling about cocaine” and trying to pull down his pants just as Keller and his parents were leaving Tadich Grill, a 165-year-old restaurant that specializes in Australian lobster tail and “seafood cioppino with garlic bread.”
What apparently pushed Keller over the edge, however, was when he and his girlfriend had paid close to $20 each for tickets to a movie at the Kabuki Theater (including an “amenity fee” for not showing “annoying television ads before the movies”) only to have their experience interrupted yet again.
“About two hours into the film, a man stumbled in the front door,” Keller writes. “He proceeded to walk into the theater, down the aisle to the front, wobbled toward the emergency door, opened it, and then took his shirt off and laid down. He then came back into the theater shielding his eyes from the running projector. My girlfriend was terrified and myself and many people ran out of the theater.
“What are you going to do to address this problem?” Keller then asks the mayor and police chief, before taking it upon himself to speak for all his fellow tech bros. “The residents of this amazing city no longer feel safe.”
After comparing San Francisco’s streets to a stock market, where “the wealthy working people have earned their right to live in the city,” Keller begins to grapple out loud with the question of why Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” hasn’t already swept the homeless to somewhere else, out of sight.
“I want my parents when they come visit to have a great experience, and enjoy this special place,” he writes, before warning — in bold type — that “there is going to be a revolution” if the city doesn’t act soon.
“People on both sides are frustrated, and you can sense the anger,” he writes. “The city needs to tackle this problem head on, it can no longer ignore it and let people do whatever they want in the city. I don’t have a magic solution.
“It is a very difficult and complex situation,” Keller adds in what is perhaps his only incontestable sentence, before then appearing to approve of how the city swept the homeless out of sight for the Super Bowl and suggesting it do so permanently.
“But somehow during Super Bowl, almost all of the homeless and riff raff seem to up and vanish,” he writes. “I’m willing to bet that was not a coincidence. Money and political pressure can make change. So it is time to start making progress, or we as citizens will make a change in leadership and elect new officials who can.”
Keller’s open letter unleashed a torrent of online abuse. Many people mocked him for treating the city like a programming glitch that could be quickly solved.
“Justin Keller thinks life comes with customer support,” read a response circulating on twitter.
“For those just tuning in, [Keller] thinks that it’s gross that he has to look at the poors when he goes to work,” tweeted another local.
Many locals, like Miroslava Raia, told Keller to get out — often in much harsher terms.
“If you know Justin Keller … please call him riffraff and kick him out of town,” tweeted San Franciscan Eric Munsing.
Even his fellow tech bros eventually turned on him.
. @johnny5sf bro, when you write famously idiotic comments on homelessness, you justify the vilification of tech in sf. hope u were trolling— Evan Stites-Clayton (@the_esc) February 18, 2016
.@johnny5sf as an SF native and an engineer in tech,i'm disgusted. the only "riff raff" in your open letter is the ignorance u wrote it with— ELEMENT (@ElementTheCity) February 18, 2016
The abuse got so bad that other Justin Kellers had to take to Twitter to point out that they were not to blame for the open letter.
He did have at least one supporter.
By Wednesday, when the Internet was reaching peak outrage, Keller took to Twitter to respond.
He also added a footnote to his open letter: “I want to apologize for using the term riff raff. It was insensitive and counterproductive.”
At the end of the day, however, Keller’s open-letter debacle might have been avoided if he had just heeded the advice of his Silicon Valley heroes.
“Be accountable,” Keller had written down during Startup School, quoting Watsi founder Chase Adam. “Be clear, assertive and thoughtful.”
Perhaps the best quote — the “shower epiphany” that slipped away from Keller — also came from Adam.
“Find something to work on that you care about more than yourself.”
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