By Mike Talavera
Last Saturday, picketers descended on the opening event of the Riverside Arts District in southeast Austin, Texas, causing a disruption that culminated in a brawl with one protester being arrested.
The big tent art exhibition hosted by nonprofits Almost Real Things and Pump Project was held across the street from the Ballpark, Quad, and Town Lake apartments currently under threat of being redeveloped.
Presidium Group, the developers behind the Arts District, have been plotting with other developers and city officials to overhaul the Riverside student and working class housing complexes and turn them into a mixed-use retail and luxury living district, comparable to the Domain project in northwest Austin.
Anti-gentrification organization Defend Our Hoodz (DOH), who has been organizing the tenants of Ballpark, Quad, and Town Lake to defend themselves against the upzoning, called for a picket of the Arts District, which they deemed an “art-washing” scheme by the developers.
“Greedy developers are using the incoming ‘Riverside (Sell-out) Arts District,’ as a strategy to capitalize on artists’ cultural cred, in order to make the area welcoming for mostly white and wealthy gentrifiers,” the group said in a Facebook post.
Saturday morning, a group of picketers led by DOH went undercover to infiltrate the exhibition. The protesters interrogated the featured artists, who had already been contacted by DOH asking them to honor the boycott of the District.
A police officer stalked the event, monitoring the conversations of the artists and protesters. When asked why a cop was present, a manager of the event said that there had been rumors that DOH was going to vandalize the showcased artwork.
After 15 minutes of operating undercover, protesters threw pamphlets all over the exhibition and then exited chanting, “Fuck your art! Fuck your tent! Hipsters trying to raise my rent!” and “Gentry get the fuck out!”
The protesters continued the picket on the sidewalk, holding signs and a banner which read, “Defend Riverside! Run out the Sellouts!”
Not long after, Larry Sunderland, co-founder of gentrifying nonprofit Friends of Riverside ATX, began walking out of the exhibition towards the grocery store down the street. The protesters knew Sunderland from previous encounters where he sided with developers, and so they followed him and shamed him for his endorsement of the Arts District.
According to multiple eye witness accounts, Sunderland pulled down on a megaphone a protester was using and attempted to punch them. The protesters defended themselves and a skirmish ensued, eventually broken up by the cop on the scene.
Friends of Riverside ATX regularly advocates for the Austin Police Department (APD), having promoted an APD “pop-up community event” on Riverside on November 7, a few days earlier. Sunderland leveraged this relationship to sic the police officer on one of the protesters, who was promptly arrested. More cops arrived, and the protesters directed their chants against the “pigs,” the enforcers of gentrification.
Later that evening, protesters returned to boycott the event in greater numbers. Women were primarily the ones giving speeches over the megaphone. “[The Arts District] is just one step in a long plan to displace long-term and working class residents,” one speaker said. “They’re hiding behind art [as a way] to gentrify.”
Before the event in response to DOH propaganda, Almost Real Things sent a letter to the featured artists with falsehoods about the developer’s plans.
“We’ve heard concerns about the property developer’s long-term goals, and while they don’t have a fully fleshed-out plan, we’re excited to have a voice to guide them,” the letter said. “There will not be luxury condos, there will not be a ‘Domain on Riverside,’ and any redevelopment efforts are slated to include right to return policies.”
At the protest, a Town Lake tenant directly contradicted these false claims. “I’ve got the letter on my door telling me that they’re trying to displace us! They’re doing this for Oracle!” the woman yelled, referencing the software megafirm that located its office nearby earlier this year. “You’re sipping on your drinks and you’re enjoying your art, at what expense? At the expense of people’s lives!”
“Presidium is using you!” another protester yelled at a scab entering the event. “They’re trying to use your art to make this project acceptable when it’s not!”
“I live across the street from this stupid ass shit that’s going to raise my rent, that’s going to make my life shittier,” a woman from Ballpark shouted. “You’re the liberals that are ruining my life, that are ruining my community, because you motherfuckers think that you can have this space too, that you can kick us out, but bitch you can’t! Try again honey!”
One white man wearing an indigenous-style poncho was stopped before entering the event by a protester who asked him to honor the boycott. “Did you vote? Cause this is better than voting. This is actual action. You can stop something,” she said.
One of the artists at the event, a white woman, came out to the fence to film protesters on her phone. “You don’t know me, you don’t know where I’m from!” she said, “I grew up in the slums.”
“Then why are you pushing other people into the slums then?” a protester retorted.
One attendee cared more about his car then what the protesters were saying, taking time to move it away from the fence out of fear that the picketers would vandalize it.
While many gentrifiers crossed the picket line, there were a few groups who turned away after listening to the protesters. The crowd applauded and cheered as these people honored of the boycott.
This protest is the first of its kind in Austin as far as its direct confrontation of art-washing nonprofits, but DOH is following the tried-and-true tactics of Defend Boyle Heights in Los Angeles who have successfully kicked out several art galleries from their own neighborhood.
The Arts District will be hosting East Austin Studio Tours at the same location next Saturday, November 17. Despite taking an arrest this past weekend, DOH is resolved to continue their boycott of the Arts District until it dissolves and the art-washing plan of the developers is undermined.
Incendiary asks our readers to donate to the arrested comrade here – https://www.fundedjustice.com/71QKse?ref=sh_27U7Mc_ab_8xUrvOeNHSW8xUrvOeNHSW