AN ETHNOGRAPHIC VIGNETTE: THE BOMB SCARE AND ABANDONMENT
Around 1pm on Friday July 26, 2013, access to the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge and consequent Treasure Island entry and exit privileges were revoked due to a bomb threat. On the opposite coast of the island, Elizabeth and I walked along the pathway that hugs the waterfront perimeter as she explained the reasons why, in the face of clear toxicity, Treasure Island residents believe it is worth fighting to make the island safe for human habitation.
Through this conversation I began to recognize the island’s positive qualities: social solidarity among the community, affordable Bay Area housing, and the provocative beauty inherent in oceanfront views corralled by two prominent bridges and the pulsing San Francisco skyline. Elizabeth described the neighborhood as a “ghetto with beachfront views,” as we rounded the northeastern corner that revealed dilapidated, uninhabited barracks identical to the one she calls home. We spotted two red rescue helicopters hovering over the water and speculated the reason for their presence. We walked through high winds alongside choppy waters in retreat to the house; upon our return the phone was ringing. Elizabeth’s neighbor called to say the bridge was closed, and for an unknown reason no one could enter or leave the island. Elizabeth hung up the phone and asked, “Do you want to go for a bike ride?”
By the time we arrived at Clipper Cove beneath the Bay Bridge, a handful of people had gathered to view the cluster of helicopters circling Yerba Buena Island, which connects the bridge to Treasure Island. We approached two women: one, a worker for an island winery, one a resident. I asked them what was happening on the bridge, to which they replied, “There is a bomb threat. No one can get on or off the island.” I felt a pang of dread as I looked back at the empty bridge. The only road off the island was barricaded by police officers perched outside their sideways-parked patrol cars. It wasn’t the idea of a bomb exploding that gave me a sense of doom; it was the claustrophobic reality of becoming stranded on this small, 0.901 square mile island. In this moment, in some small way, I was given empathy for the feeling of abandonment Treasure Island residents experience because their health and safety concerns are muted.
The structure of the island is one of quarantine that imposes specific psychological ramifications. “I’m glad you are here to see what we deal with,” Elizabeth said. “There’s no ferry system, and there’s no way to get off the island in an emergency. How can you feel empowered as a community when you’re at the mercy of public officials?” There is a small pier off the west side of the island that was once used to ferry members of the Navy to and from San Francisco. Now it is fenced off, forgotten, and falling apart, like many of the people and remaining structures on this island.
This period of quarantine executed by the “people in charge,” was a microcosm of the internal colonization of Treasure Island residents, whom are regularly forced to confront health and safety threats alone. Although Treasure Island residents are not members of the armed service, their bodies seem to be treated as though they are disposable. Through this event, it became evident that the city of San Francisco was neither prepared to inform Treasure Island residents about the shutdown of their neighborhood as it was unfolding, nor equipped to ensure and respond to their safety in this temporary emergency. This isolated incident is part of the broader concern that the U.S. Navy, the TIDA, the EPA, the Department of Toxic Substances Control, and the city of San Francisco lack transparency and urgency in addressing the larger, ongoing risks this remediation project poses to the livelihoods of American citizens.