Activists calling themselves the Counterforce on Tuesday made Google engineer and Berkeley resident Anthony Levandowski the focus of their protests against what they say are the Mountain View company’s evil surveillance techniques.
At around 7 a.m. a group of activists say they went to the street where Google employee Anthony Levandowski lives in Berkeley to stage a demonstration outside his home. According to the activists, they rang Levandowski’s doorbell, then stood outside the house for about 45 minutes holding a banner that read “Google’s Future Stops Here.” They then watched Levandowski leave his home.
The anonymous protesters then placed flyers under the windshields of cars in the neighborhood. The fliers include a photo of Levandowski’s home and a lengthy statement that describes the Google staffer as bringing evil into the world. The headline reads: “Anthony Levandowski is building an unconscionable world of surveillance, control and automation. He is also your neighbor.”
Thirty-three-year old UC Berkeley alum Levandowski lives with his fiancée and two young children in the Elmwood neighborhood. According to a November 2013 profile in the New Yorker, he is an engineer at Google X, the company’s “semi-secret” lab for experimental technology. He has been a key player in the development of Google Street View and Google’s self-driving cars.
Shortly after 8 a.m. the activists were at Ashby BART station where they tried to block one of Google’s employee shuttle buses from leaving for the company’s headquarters in Mountain View.
Berkeley Police were alerted at 8:18 a.m. of the protest by Google security personnel, according to police spokeswoman Officer Jennifer Coats. Google reported approximately 10 protestors blocking a bus in the 3100 block of Adeline Street, Coats told Berkeleyside. “As officers arrived on scene a small group was in the roadway blocking the bus. At the same time a BART police officer had arrived and communicated with the group and asked them to leave the roadway. The group left the roadway, no further police action was required,” she said.
Over the past few months activists have been staging protests and blocking the path of many Google employee shuttle buses in San Francisco and Oakland. They have targeted the luxury buses because they say they symbolize gentrification and elitism. The activists claim high-paid tech employees are squeezing out the middle and working classes from the city.
On Tuesday, San Francisco’s Municipal Railway Agency board voted to impose fees and restrictions on the private use of public bus stops. The new $1 a day per stop will cost private bus companies — which run routes for Google and other Silicon Valley employers — about $100,000 a year, according to the paper. Last week UC Berkeley released a study on the impact of the shuttle buses on commutes and home location choices.
The Berkeley campaign focuses on surveillance and threats to privacy, according to the flyer distributed around the neighborhood. The Counterforce flyer enumerates many of Google’s projects, describes a promotional video for its self-driving car, and cites the company’s motto: “Don’t be evil.” It also details Levandowski’s involvement in a mixed-use housing development called Garden Village planned for Dwight Way near downtown Berkeley. Levandowski owns the property the project will be built on.
The flyer describes Levandowski as descending the steps of his home (described elsewhere by the group as “pompous” and a “palace”) wearing Google Glass, carrying a baby and holding a tablet with his free arm. The photograph of the Google engineer’s home includes a clearly visible house number and was sourced from Google Street View. Berkeleyside is not naming the street on which Levandowski lives.
The flyer concludes: “Have courage. Find others who feel the same way and block a tech bus. Steal from the techies you babysit for. Take down surveillance cameras. Go hard: The time is now.”
Levandowski has not returned emails from Berkeleyside asking for comment.
A neighbor of Levandowski’s, who wishes to remain anonymous, said she found one of the flyers on her car Tuesday morning. After reading it, she walked up the street and removed many of the flyers from neighbors’ cars. She said she did not believe any neighbor should be treated to what she described as “vigilante justice.” “The fact that the writer did not identify him or herself warranted my anonymous countermeasure,” she said.
Alerted to the activists’ action by Berkeleyside, Councilman Gordon Wozniak, who represents the district where Levandowski has his home, said such a protest could lead to dangerous consequences. “It’s one thing to protest against a corporation by demonstrating beside a bus, but going after an individual at his home is a bad escalation,” he said. “Homes are supposed to be a safe place. This would be scary [for the homeowner].” Wozniak said he would consult with Berkeley’s city manager and chief of police on the matter.
Local lawyer Tom Miller said the protest was likely not illegal. There is a fine balance between the right to privacy and the right of freedom of speech, he said: “Lines need to be drawn.” But, he said, if the activists were on public property and were not advocating violence they were probably not breaking the law. Miller said the protest and written statement is “very much in the Berkeley tradition of questioning important issues about society.”
“Opposing what is happening in our society regarding surveillance and identifying people who are involved in creating these things is perfectly legitimate, as long as you’re not saying anything untruthful,” he said.