By Davey D Cook
Over the past few days, I’ve been noticing a number of folks understandably upset because of the vicious, callous unempathetic comments they’ve been seeing in their feeds bashing the #Moms4Housing
Many are wondering how and why so many people who are seemingly on or close to the societal, economic and political margins, came out riding hard for a multi-million corporation with a sordid, distasteful reputation? Why were so many people protecting a company that for the most part has not been friendly and altruistic to Black folks, especially those facing gentrification?
The answer is simple… What we saw is a shining example of what is often dubbed ‘Manufactured Dissent’. Some people call it ‘social engineering’. What folks were dealing with was a top tier well-funded operation that specializes in crisis management.
What transpired was very similar to the way we’ve seen certain albums and movies get hyped up in the entertainment arena… It’s made to seem like its organic, but in reality, the hype is the result of a well-financed stealth marketing campaign.
In the music/entertainment industry, in order to launch a successful campaign, you needed on hand well-placed media sources, reporters, deejays, etc. who would carry the message and give it legitimacy. In the music industry, deejays are often paid to play certain records. In the news industry, there are definitely news directors who are compliant and will carry water for a PR firm with whom they have strong ties with or got paid from.
A successful PR campaign requires key tastemakers and neighborhood shot callers on board and in the pocket who, for a small fee, would give the message ‘street’, social, and even political credibility. Lastly, in the age of social media, a small dedicated ‘army’ of online advocates who would flood influential websites, Facebook, IG, and the feeds of other social media platforms using multiple burner accounts.
It was no coincidence that suddenly many people saw an uptick in comments coming from people who were not on their friend list or had one or two people in common.
When you checked their accounts, they were set to private, had generic or blurry photos, and infrequent activity on their own page. They certainly had not ever posted on your page before, but here they were suddenly flooding your timeline expressing hostility toward the moms, but hadn’t posted a damn thing on their page in the past year or once every few months. In the minds of many, there is no doubt what we were seeing were folks connected to an online army that was pretty much brought and paid for. To be honest, there weren’t a lot of folks, but they posted so much and with such hostility, that they created the illusion that there were many when in actuality there weren’t.
Some of us in the music industry worked for places where we flooded radio stations or record stores to push for an artist and create hype. The same thing was being applied here but with greater sophistication. There are multi-million dollar companies and PR firms that specialize in this online manipulation
For folks who think this is far-fetched, I would encourage you to watch a documentary called ‘Generation Like.’ It came out 4 or 5 years ago. Here it shows you how companies manipulated opinions around popular movies and records at the time. There is no doubt tactics highlighted in this documentary have greatly advanced and greatly refined.
With respect to the manufactured dissent directed against the Moms4Housing, we saw a number of tactics deployed. First, several talking points were crafted that strategically shifted attention away from the issue of homelessness and its rapid increase in the Bay Area. Attention was shifted away from the role of big corporations played in mass displacement and gentrification going down in many of our communities. Attention was shifted away from the role key elected officials played in this ongoing homeless crisis and their policies or lack thereof. Attention was shifted away from developer-friendly politicians who have worked with, greenlit, and have supported real estate speculators and their corporations.
Instead, attention was shifted solely on the four Black mothers who were labeled ‘squatters,’ ‘thieves,’ ‘immoral,’ and ‘irresponsible’. Anger, frustration, and angst that many were feeling around housing and this ongoing homeless crisis was directed at the mothers. They became the boogeymen and not the aforementioned entities, conditions, and institutions. That was by design. One that was brought and handsomely paid for.
In order to manufacture dissent, there was an online campaign that led to us seeing our social media feeds flooded with people telling us stories that had similar themes…
1) These women are stealing, shame on them.. How dare they? They are breaking the law. A number of posts took a religious tone and quoted Biblical scripture admonishing the women for stealing.
2) These women are lazy, freeloaders. ‘I worked. I saved my money.. I brought my own place.. why can’t they do the same’?
There was an added variation to this ‘pull yourselves up the bootstrap’ theme which basically lambasted the women and the Black community for not getting together, pooling their money and buying or renting their own home.
There was a resurrected victim-blaming narrative that said: “The Black community sold their grandma’s home during the crack era (20–25 years ago) and now we’re mad that people are buying up the community.”
That narrative was frequently conflated with the actions of the moms, which suggested they were adults during the crack era, they sold their grandma’s home or they were on crack. Again this was by design.
3) Anyone showing support for the mothers was usually met with a response that said something along the lines: “Why don’t you give me your address so I can come to live in your home?” or “How would u like it if I came and moved into your home and didn’t leave?”
This crafted narrative served two purposes: First, it eclipsed the meticulous and strategic steps the mothers took when identifying the house to move in.
The mothers noted in almost every press conference that part of what they were doing was a protest and engaging in an act of civil disobedience. They sought out a home that was owned by a speculating corporation that had hundreds of abandoned properties.
They wanted to bring attention to the insidious role speculating companies played in this homeless crisis. They would buy up distressed or foreclosed homes, keep them off the market until the neighborhood change, then they would go in fix them up and sell them to affluent clients.
This was not about them simply showing up at someone’s doorstep who could barely make ends meet and take their home. It wasn’t about them taking the vacation home or investment property of local residents.
The second thing this manufactured narrative did was it took Wedgewood, the multi-Million dollar company who has been sued over 300 times in California alone because of their predatory practices of evicting folks, and morphed them into a poor, struggling homeowner who was being robbed and taken advantage of by these immoral mothers.
In fact, when you look at many of the posts that were initially pushing these arguments, the words “property” and “properties” were replaced with the word “homeowner.” The crazy thing is while Wedgewood was depicted as the “homeowner” hardly anyone knew what this homeowner’s name or what this homeowner looked like?
FYI, former banker Greg L. Geiser is the CEO and his company has a 22-person management team and advisory board. Not one Black person in the bunch. I would also encourage people to read this article about the company so many were supposedly eager to defend.
Moving our attention away from corporations and systemic conditions to the individual was the game plan. Wedgewood, the house flipping property corporation, was now depicted as a beleaguered, struggling homeowner. This is very similar to the way big multi-billion agricultural corporations (Agri-Bus) that are traded on the stock market with thousands of employees, and who own patents on seeds and Indigenous harvesting and planting techniques, are depicted as struggling, rugged individuals who own the family farm, are barely getting by.
It’s similar to the way Big Pharma and medical multi-billion dollar conglomerates who will take your home and completely bankrupt you if you get sick and can’t pay their bills, which are often in the hundreds of thousands, are depicted as the elderly kind-hearted family doctor who makes house calls.
There were attempts to float several other points. Some carried more weight than others but generally, they didn’t garner as much traction as the ones noted earlier. These minor narratives went along these lines:
1) How could these mothers subject their kids to such harm.. These moms are putting their kids in harm’s way. There was always some holier than thou righteous individual who showed up on the feed to talk about how they raised their kids as a single parent and would never squat in someone’s house.. (Again note the language used the narrative referenced).
The interesting thing about kids is that there are lots of kids in many of the encampments or who are sleeping in cars. In the past, folks would say if I have to lie, steal, and cheat to make sure my kids have food in their stomach and roof overhead, then I will do it. With respect to the Moms4Housing, them doing that is met with anger…How Sway?
2) Where are the fathers? Why are these women are single? If the dads were in the picture they would not be homeless.
It was narrative which was designed to suggest these women were problematic and could not keep a man or they were immoral and irresponsible by having kids with no man around. It was designed to make one conclude that women without a man don’t deserve shelter or that a man would never ‘squat’ in an abandoned home.
What was eclipsed were the actual heartbreaking stories told by these women that didn’t fit this trope including the fact that one father had a chronic illness and died less than a month ago. His dead body was discovered by one of the kids.
3) Why don’t these women pool their money and buy or rent a place and not steal? (The women had the help of land trust that offered to buy the house for 500k)
4) the new owners want to give this place to a non-profit that will train ‘at risk’ youth on how to renovate homes…These evil mothers are taking away opportunities from poor Black kids who need to learn how to renovate homes.
This narrative died quickly once it was realized the non-profit they held up had no history or license in Oakland or Alameda county and was not doing this refurbishing work in other places.
There were probably a few other arguments tossed in the mix., But basically in manufacturing dissent, these crafted talking points would be repeated over and over again until they would be picked up by others, seen as truth and then passed along and repeated.
The other key to manufacturing dissent against the Moms4Housing was to find the right persona, face or voice to legitimize and give credibility to these crafted narratives. We’ll take that up on another post, but in the meantime, folks may wanna read up on Sam Singer, the PR firm hired by Wedgewood. Please take some time to watch the documentary, “Generation Like.” It’ll be eye-opening and give you a better understanding of what went down.
Davey D is a nationally-recognized journalist, adjunct professor, Hip Hop historian, radio programmer, producer, deejay, speaker and commentator. His is host of the syndicated Hard Knock Radio show on KPFA. He was recently honored by the Bay Area Black Journalists Association.