How long do embers glow? From the International Hotel to Black Lives Matter

I begin my Zoom call with Jeanette Gandionco Lazam by asking her how she’s doing. She sighs deeply and tells me that as a lifelong activist in her septuagenarian years, she is tired. I tell her that she is the perfect age to run for president. She laughs politely.

I am interviewing Lazam because I think she can help me predict the trajectory of the Black Lives Matter movement in light of another struggle on American soil, one in which she was an active organizer — the battle to save San Francisco’s International Hotel. The I-Hotel was a residential building that primarily housed retired Pilipinx immigrant workers at the border of Chinatown and Manilatown. It was home to Lazam and her father.

I found myself thinking a lot about the I-Hotel when the litany of slain Black Americans — Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd — first heralded the return of the Black Lives Matter movement to the national consciousness and my Twitter feed. The two struggles were motivated by similar themes, including structural racism, grassroots organization and people of color demanding the radical privilege of being seen as people. What I want is for Lazam to reassure me that Black Lives Matter — that today’s progressive movement, more broadly — will triumph where the anti-eviction efforts could not.

Protests erupted at the intersection of Jackson and Kearny streets for nine years beginning in 1968 when residents received the first of several eviction notices. The immigrants were being removed as part of the city’s sweeping redevelopment plans. The elderly tenants took to the streets. Estella Habal, professor emeritus at San Jose State University, tells me that the anti-eviction protests expanded from a community struggle to a massive social movement that drew activists from seemingly unrelated corners of the city: Students from San Francisco State University and UC Berkeley picketed alongside them. They were joined by a pan-Asian coalition of Pilipinx, Chinese and Japanese folks. White activists and Black activists (including the Black Panthers) unified with middle-class and working-class activists. Labor unions, religious leaders, anti-imperialist organizations and LGBTQ+ liberation groups all lent their hands, according to Habal. And yet, this broad coalition of people was not enough. I ask Lazam why the efforts to save the International Hotel failed.

What I want is for Lazam to reassure me that Black Lives Matter — that today’s progressive movement, more broadly — will triumph where the anti-eviction efforts could not.

“We lost our leverage within local city government,” Lazam explains. She tells me that for a while, mayor George Moscone had backed the protesters, even going so far as to try to declare eminent domain to grant the hotel nonprofit status. But over time, city officials buckled under pressure. “We didn’t have leverage anymore, and they needed to kill this initiative of the International Hotel being converted to low-income housing because it was too threatening. It stood to put a real dent to the redevelopment plan of San Francisco overall, and the powers that be were not willing to let that happen.” Lazam tells me that she is convinced that, had the efforts to save the I-Hotel been successful, it would have inspired other communities facing removal to resist.

For the residents of the I-Hotel, the building — desperately in need of repairs, according to Lazam — represented more than just a place to live. Their very home was a bastion against the demolition of the thriving Manilatown. It was a community, like the barangay neighborhood clusters back in the Philippines. But like Manifest Destiny in miniature, city officials and what Lazam calls “the international bourgeoisie” came to clear away the urban blight.

“We were dispensable,” Habal tells me. “Our community was dispensable, like the way they redeveloped the Black community in San Francisco. They were dispensable, disposable.” The residents of the International Hotel were not the first people of color to be displaced during the Manhattanization of the city. Twelve thousand largely Black and Asian American residents had already been evicted from the Western Addition and Fillmore District. Four thousand more were removed from SoMa.