A car is on fire in front of a building.
A hot time in the old town tonight: A Waymo on Feb. 10 meandered into a Chinatown Lunar New Year celebration and was assailed by vandals. Photo by Alex Cisneros

Whatever your thoughts about Mayor London Breed — and the results of a recent Chronicle poll indicate that few San Franciscans have happy thoughts — one must admit that she has a difficult job. It’s tough enough to lead the real San Francisco, let alone the largely imaginary version that exists as an avatar for liberal misrule and a stand-in for whatever larger societal issue outside observers wish to project.  

Earlier this month, a pack of hooligans vandalized and burned a Waymo driverless car that — inexplicably — meandered into the midst of a fireworks-saturated Chinatown block during a Lunar New Year fête. And the world’s attention was piqued: My relatives, who not only reside in Australia, but in such a comically remote corner of it that they must drive 400 miles each way to buy groceries, saw stories online about this incident: “Odd what turns up on the news here.” 

It is! And that’s why it’s hard to be mayor of this city: Not only do we have a hollowed-out downtown office district increasingly resembling a mid-season Oakland A’s game but, in this city, a handful of jagoffs with spray cans and firecrackers can garner widespread coverage and be recast as emblematic of some deeper, darker movement

And, to boot, this makes the news in Bedourie

Same as it ever was: A decade ago, a handful of jagoffs flipped over four Smart Cars in San Francisco and, briefly, spurred a flurry of national and international news stories. This spate of opportunistic vandalism was recast as, somehow, indicative of a larger, more meaningful — and more sinister — development.

This city has an image problem. So does its mayor. She set forth to tackle both of them via an op-ed printed earlier this month in the San Francisco Standard.

And, in a real feat, she may have only made things worse.  

The smoldering remains of the Waymo waylaid by Lunar New Year revelers. Photo by Clara Jeffery

Did we say Breed’s showing in the Chronicle mayoral poll was bad? Because it’s bad. Real bad. Like, time to kneel and pray with Henry Kissinger bad

Granted, November is a long way off, and the mayoral field may not yet be set — and, if a progressive candidate jumps in, who knows, Breed could grab some of those elusive No. 2 and No. 3 votes. But, again, these numbers are just flat-out bad. A full 71 percent of city voters disapprove of the mayor’s performance. That includes 67 percent of white voters, 69 percent of Black voters and 80 percent of Asian voters. 

New Coke was better received than this. The mayor’s re-election bid is, itself, increasingly, resembling a burning car.  

Breed’s Feb. 16 op-ed couldn’t, on its own, solve her many problems. But she chose a tack that — unfortunately — appears doomed to fail: The mayor wrote that, despite what you’ve seen on TV and read in the papers, the condition in San Francisco is, by and large, not so bad. 

As we’ve written before, this is true: Breed’s statistics are accurate. But waving around statistics in the face of an onslaught of visceral and emotional negative coverage didn’t work so well for ousted District Attorney Chesa Boudin, and it doesn’t figure to work so well here. The mayor, in fact, cavalierly fanned the flames that immolated Boudin, and that fire is now nipping at her own heels. 

So, that’s a problem. But it’s that’s hardly the biggest problem with the mayor’s op-ed. Because, while you probably didn’t read it, do you know who did? Firefighters. And, by and large, they were not pleased.

The mayor, they noted, didn’t merely state that lighting cars on fire doesn’t fly in my town! That would’ve probably sufficed, but Breed also blew an egregious kiss to Waymo, writing that “we are a city that is home to exciting, emerging technologies, like autonomous vehicles, that are changing the world. After all, we have led in transportation innovation before — 150 years ago, the cable car was invented here.” 

Breed concluded by noting that she “will be meeting with the leaders of Waymo to talk about this incident and assure them we will continue to work with them on how to make autonomous vehicles a part of our city with safety as our top priority.” 

Waymo Cruise San Francisco Fire Department Police
‘No! You stay!’ a San Francisco police officer bellows at a misbehaving Waymo vehicle. The car nearly rolled over the fire hose being used to douse an explosion and fire in the Sunset District on Feb. 9.

The city’s firefighters, you may recall, have thoughts about this. They have been shouting from the rooftops, for many months, that driverless cars have been dangerously breaching emergency scenes and impeding first responders. They have amassed scores of incident reports regarding these incursions. For the firefighters, this is a make-it-or-break-it issue. 

Make-it-or-break-it is a key term here because, for a San Francisco mayoral candidate, there is probably no greater endorsement to receive than that of the firefighters union. Everybody loves firefighters; they poll better than a cold beer on a hot summer day. And it’s not just a paper endorsement: They put a lot of money and on-the-ground effort into electing their candidates of choice. 

In 2018, the firefighters union was the popular and relatable face of a pro-Breed Independent Expenditure committee lavishly funded by the (less popular, less relatable) city tech barons and captains of industry. The firefighters were Breed’s most valuable and steadfast allies. 

Nobody foresaw robot cars owned by zillion-dollar tech companies being the match that burned this partnership, but, lo, that has happened. Breed’s message to Waymo jumped off the page for the firefighters. 

“Give me a break!” said one veteran firefighter. “She’s more concerned about some tech company than the safety of our citizens.” Adds another veteran firefighter: “She’s been a cheerleader for [robotaxis] from the beginning. This is a very big deal for us. I’m sure our members will have plenty of questions about it.” 

Union president Floyd Rollins sums it up succinctly: “That’s her opinion. We’ve been stalwart in our position.” The mayoral endorsement forum for the firefighters Local No. 798 will come sometime after the filing deadline on June 11. It would figure to be a rather combustible affair this year. 

And, if the firefighters are concerned about robotaxis, the Teamsters are obsessed with them. The ascent of driverless vehicles would be the death knell of their profession. And they, too, read the mayor’s op-ed with concern and irritation. 

Breed supported a failed 2023 Teamsters-backed state bill to mandate large autonomous vehicles have a human aboard. But that was then. The mayor is now courting the Teamsters for an endorsement in 2024, and members I spoke with were skeptical. 

“Here’s the reality,” said one. “She’s gonna have to pick a side.” 

Three Waymo self-driving cars back to back, cruising down a street in the Mission
Three Waymo self-driving cars back to back to back, cruising down a street in the Mission. Photo by Lydia Chavez. August 4, 2023.

One could argue that she already has. And it’s a position that sets her apart from much of the political leadership in this town. City Attorney (and will-he-or-won’t-he mayoral possibility) David Chiu has sued the California Public Utilities Commission over its decision to give driverless cars carte blanche to traverse San Francisco. 

Board President (and will-he-or-won’t-he mayoral possibility) Aaron Peskin has openly engaged in “legislative guerilla warfare” against robotaxis, and all 10 of his Board colleagues signed onto his resolution explicitly spelling this out. Peskin attends meetings with the City Attorney, the firefighters and others in which the city works with state legislators like Assemblyman Matt Haney and Assemblyman Phil Ting to demand more transparency from autonomous vehicle companies. 

Supervisor Connie Chan has introduced a resolution that will be heard today in committee, supporting a state senate bill that would give cities more control in regulating driverless vehicles. It is hard to foresee anything other than all 11 supes eventually signing onto this resolution. 

Last week, the California Public Utilities Commission sided with San Mateo’s County Attorney, who complained that Waymo had failed to engage with county officials before a proposed southward expansion. The CPUC suspended the company’s proposal to move into San Mateo and Los Angeles counties for up to 120 days.   

This prompted an ebullient response from San Mateo County Supervisor David Canepa. “Tech companies want to win, win, win, win, win. Winning is getting into the market as fast as they can. If that means there are accidents? Hey, they’ll deal with the consequences later,” he told Mission Local. “We say no.” 

When asked about Mayor Breed’s stance, Canepa says he supports her, and supports her re-election — but doesn’t support her on this issue. 

“We can’t kiss tech’s ass all the time,” he says. “The only way we make tech better is if we’re all in the decision-making process. We can’t only kiss tech’s ass.” 

This seems like sound advice. There are consequences for kissing something that’s on fire. 

Remembrance of things past:

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

Join the Conversation


  1. As a career cab driver, I took offense at Mayor Breed’s comments praising emerging technologies and supporting Waymo and other AV companies.

    Although I do not oppose technology, I do oppose Waymo, and Uber & Lyft, providing taxi services in San Francisco without paying into the “Medallion System” cab drivers had to since 2010.

    Mayor Breed conveniently forgets that her predecessors at Room 200 — Mayor Newsom and Mayor Lee — brought forward and carried out a “Medallion Sales Program” charging cab drivers $250,000 for the privilege of driving a taxi.

    Because of City Hall’s unconditional support of Uber & Lyft, medallions lost value, the “Program” failed, adversely affecting the entire taxi industry and trapping medallion buyers with unpayable loans.

    Who cares about the cabbies!!??

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    1. I still take cabs and swear by the YoTaxi and Flywheel apps. Two obvious benefits: the drivers don’t need to listen to a GPS robot voice to direct them and we get to ride in the red-carpet lanes that Uber and civilian drivers can’t.

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  2. If removing “robotaxis” from the streets seems more important than doing anything substantive to prevent or prosecute people from setting them on fire is your move, then we’re all doomed.

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  3. Ah yes, yet again “Big Tech” is being used as a red herring and/or scapegoat for this city’s impenetrable taste for complacency and haphazard distractedness. I agree that if an emerging technology is wreaking havoc it should be regulated or removed, but (so far as it seems) the reporting has made it pretty clear that AVs are not causing any incredible compromise to public safety or the efficacy of the fire department (who seem to be more concerned with their huge ass trucks being able to climb over curbs than the safety of cyclists and pedestrians). If anything, we San Franciscans need fewer organizations telling our political leaders to “pick a side” and we need more nuanced debate on issues that affect the average San Franciscans. Call it a gaff, a tone-def statement, or a pragmatic apology to this city’s largest industry; it amazes me that the firefighters union et all seem more concerned with the soapbox or being recognized than the violence, crime, and genuine safety concerns of their constituents.

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  4. First the obligatory statement that I do not endorse destroying robotaxis. I do endorse destroying their privilege to run all over San Francisco or any other city and treat us as guinea pigs for their profit seeking experiments. Robotaxis are a combination of 2 major technologies: automobiles (transportation technology) and computers (communication tech). Autos in significant numbers have been around for about 120 years. For the first 50 years, they were seen as boon with few costs but now we see that they have wreak environmental and social havoc. And yes, this includes electric ones. Computers have been around in significant numbers for about 40 years and in the last decade we have seen them cost us on “social” media and cost us environmentally with the problems of the minerals needed to produce them and the disposal after their planned obsolescence renders them useless. Unregulated and unwanted surveillance is another problem, one which Waymo’s owning corporation Google/Alphabet has been guilty of doing. And so now we have these 2 problematic technologies (autos in transportation and computers in communication) being COMBINED and traveling around with little or no regulation.
    Waymo is owned by Google/Alphabet and their robotaxis run on Google’s AI. Recently Google’s AI portrayed Asian and Black people as World War II German soldiers, women as Popes, said misgendering Caitlin Jenner was probably worse than nuclear war and didn’t know if Hitler was worse than Elon Musk.
    So that’s the same “intelligence” that’s driving SUVs around San Francisco.

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    1. Howard,

      I think the firefighters are anti-tech and I was one and no fire company is going to be deterred by a vehicle stopped in the middle of a street, manned or driverless.

      Thanks for your shot of 3 Waymos directly under my windows in the Carlins Vets building.

      I had been wondering if it was the same vehicle going around the block.


      These vehicles aren’t practical is the truth I’ve learned from watching the development of Musk’s FSD (full self driving) which is in its 12th iteration now and almost got him killed in a demonstration ride he had the balls to show to the Public a few months back.

      Musk is coming from a completely different angle and wants a car that can go driverless in the outbacks of Siberia and he already has 4 million of them on the road awaiting a tech update.

      That thing twirling atop a Waymo costs over a quarter million.

      And, it only knows SF neighborhoods.

      Y’all watching tech with awe like me ?

      Elon says he’s going to stop selling cars in 10 years and just lease them and each vehicle will be on the road 6 times more hours and you can have a new one at your door in minutes like the slave driven Ubers and the first one will bring (in Ten Years) your rented Jeeves style robot whose intelligence you can dial daily as appropriate and can unstop your toilet or service your jet or give you a colonoscopy.

      I’m drifting here …

      Bottom line is that (knock on wood) none of these vehicles has had a serious accident thru their own fault.

      Ever scraped a garage door or tapped a bumper ?

      If so, you can’t say the same.

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  5. When it comes to supporting hardworking firefighters who are concerned about public safety, and pedestrians and bicyclists who have loudly complained about near misses with self-driving vehicles, or supporting wealthy investors and their latest wealth-growing scheme that was imposed upon us San Franciscans without our consent, a scheme that has an objective to take money out of the pockets of middle-class working people, such as taxi drivers and Uber/Lyft “giggers,” and moves that money into the bank accounts of the already filthy-stinking rich investors, Breed will choose always choose investors.

    Why? Because they are the only group that still supports her, and they’ve been pretty successful in outspending any other group in elections to ensure that they get their way. The lesson that Breed is going to learn is that this group of investors are unable to disagree in a civil manner and will turn against her for the silliest reason.

    That nobody in SF city government has asked State lawmakers to introduce a bill to enable self-driving cars to be ticketed for violations of the law in California is just one example of the disdain the mayor and others have for San Franciscans. I note that Arizona passed a law in 2018 to allow police to ticket registered owners of self-driving vehicles.

    As far as our city’s reputation, if the mayor and her staff would stop with the nonsense of trying to make San Francisco into a “world class” city, because we already are and it is a ridiculous objective, and instead focus upon making San Francisco better for those of us who live and pay taxes here, she may actually gain some support.

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    1. An entertaining presentation of the perspectives in play. Best news writing I’ve seen in a long while. Thanks.

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  6. Only in San Francisco. Robotaxis are bad, but no one blinks if a bunch of hoods vandalize, arson and film it. Absolutely no respect for our city.

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  7. Selling out to tech happened long ago…tax credits to Twitter (hey, isn’t the mid-market area revitalized?) was the shark. Short term it brought the tech locusts who pushed out folks without the casino-like salaries.
    Well, the party is over, and the cleanup begins. Unfortunately, politicians just want to throw the next party to get reelected, not clean up things.

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    1. How do you figure SF sold out to tech companies when this city spends more than any other in the US on vagrancy, and addiction while simultaneously shoveling heaps into nonsensical partnerships and go-no-where sports teams?

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    1. Niners,

      A. Philip Randolph ain’t what he used to be.

      Oft times, smart political opportunists simply overwhelm the top echelons of respected organizations and use the groups ‘sheeps clothing’ to completely redirect the mission of those enterprises.

      Or, you can simply ‘rent’ the name and its positive aspects.

      Last election cycle we had the SFPOA making donations to political candidates and issues with money not from their membership.

      Frankly, very little irritates me more than this False Flag thing.

      While respect for the cops in this town has pretty much tanked for good reasons, firefighters still have a good reputation.

      Because firefighters still do the work they were hired to do.

      Just like in 1849, when something catches fire they go put out the fire.

      Our SFPD cops are so political that they stop arresting the bad guys on order from their union who hates a new DA.

      Firefighters may be as conservative and bigoted as the cops (note Engine #36 still trailing a giant American Flag which will certainly be in the way when they ‘pull a skid’ on a serious fireground) …

      but, they are able to separate the job from the politics.

      Ain’t your handle copyrighted ?


      go Niners !


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  8. Could our city’s crime be down, because we stopped bothering reporting it or expecting restitution ages ago? A city in recovery is a convenient narrative for the ruling class to sell, sell, sell… what is left of a city (and society) mostly picked over.

    As is the narrative currently pushing Artificial Intelligence (AI), a technology only the ruling class would fully embrace in a society sans real democracy. Will their be a “later” to deal with its consequences?

    I recently wondered what had become of Luke Thomas, an admirable journalist who became a naturalized citizen after 9/11. He made some very prescient comments in an interview years ago about the direction San Francisco politics was headed: increasingly conservative.

    See: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=nSm0IiQLHHA&pp=ygUuTHVrZSBUaG9tYXMsIFNGIE9ubGluZSBGb2cgQ2l0eSBKb3VybmFsIEVkaXRvcg%3D%3D

    The novelist Anne Lamott’s father Kenneth Lamott, from his vantage in the Bay Area, was more precise about the future of our state in his 1963 book, Anti-California: Report from Our First Parafascist State.

    “[W]ar is literally the health of the state,” he declared; we are governed by charismatic buffoons so “clownish it is hard to take them seriously as politicians… but who are not reluctant to use their tremendous powers.”

    Like Nixon, or Reagan, they are cultivated by Wall Street and a ruling class that wants nothing to stand in the way of their obscene and destructive profits.

    If anything the ruling class believes now is that Democrats and demagogues need not foil their plans for plunder. Thus we get a Newsom waiting in the wings, a Trump too easy to love or hate, and well-healed interest groups and union bureaucrats incentivized to keep us from “looking behind the curtain.”

    Waymo is a distraction. So too was the Teamster’s “historic” contract last year. The pitiful improvements it promised mean nothing to all the UPS workers who are now losing their jobs to warehouse consolidation, robots, and AI.

    A week ago, a chagrined security guard at a drug store I often visit told me the shelves were bare because a team of six had hit them the day prior. Yawn. Let’s talk “come back.” (That’s all I see lately on search engine news for San Francisco.)

    Soccer stadium on Market Street anyone?

    I can’t really blame the mayor for all the problems in our city. She was just a fresh face in a long line of clever and obedient politicians. She helped save lives at the onset of COVID. Oh. Let’s talk “come back.”

    Or: let’s discuss capitalism.

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  9. “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

    ― Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks

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