AUSTIN: Protests Defy City Approval of Domain on Riverside

Photo: Protesters face off with Austin Police preventing them from entering City Hall Chambers.

By Walter Villareal, with contributions from Anita Lara and Sam Hunt

Last Thursday, the Austin City Council voted to pass its third and final reading of the Domain on Riverside, paving the way for developer Presidium Group to build the massive luxury project that has faced a year and half of struggle as it has made its way through the city’s rezoning process. The now-approved development will begin its slow march to displace thousands of workers, students, immigrants, and refugees in the East Riverside area, the last neighborhood in Central Austin with a predominantly working-class character.

“If it comes to me standing in front of a bulldozer, I’ll do it. People can only handle so much,” said Defend Our Hoodz member Ellis, standing outside of Austin City Hall Thursday night.

For five hours, members of revolutionary organization Defend Our Hoodz-Defiende El Barrio (DOH), joined by nearly a hundred community members, rallied and marched around City Hall, facing off with police who blocked them going inside the chambers, while chanting slogans such as, “The city’s process is a sham, we fight back when they steal our land!” and “Council, Developers, Cops, Enemies of the people!”

Protesters led by Defend Our Hoodz rally outside of City Hall the night of the final vote

Having been forced out of city hall in previous votes, protesters of the Domain on Riverside adapted their tactics by using large flood lights to pierce through the closed blinds of the chambers. The police presence included nearly 50 bike cops who blocked off the perimeter but could not prevent the scores of protesters from being seen and heard.

At one point during the meeting, reporters for the bourgeois media laughed because the disruption was so loud that nobody could follow what was going on. Mayor Steve Adler asked multiple times for council members and speakers to lean into the mic saying, “We are hearing from folks at home that the closer to the mic we can be, the better off we are…I’m sorry I can’t hear,” he said. Council member Natasha Harper Madison spoke forcefully into the mic and said, “I can be loud too.”

Throughout the proceeding, Adler and District 3 Council Member Sabino ‘Pio’ Renteria, whose district contains the project, were visibly slumped in their chairs and appeared to be withdrawn from the public comment period. Renteria was repeatedly asked by community members to look them in the eye as they spoke.

Outside, the police treated any community member as an enemy who expressed the slightest sympathy or association with the protesters rejecting the process inside. A mother and child were barred from entry until someone from inside came in to get them. A reporter with The Daily Texan, UT Austin’s student newspaper, was also barred entry until protesters argued with the police to let her in.

The combative rally outside led by DOH was a direct rejection of the city’s process. Their numbers continued to swell throughout the night and their successful mobilization of students, one of the key populations who will be displaced by the project, was readily apparent in the youth who joined the militant protest.

A woman who swatted at protester's signs and shook the police's hands.
A woman who swatted at protester’s signs and shook the police’s hands.

The vast majority of passersby stopped to share words of support when they learned the reason for the raucous demonstration outside city hall, but one wealthily dressed woman approached and tried to swat away a protester’s sign. She was immediately surrounded by protesters who chanted “class enemy” and heckled her to get out. She scurried to the line of police and began to shake each of their hands, seeking a police escort to move away safely.

Speaking to how the project will impact the working class, a protester standing in solidarity with DOH said, “they’re going to be moved away from Austin, away from a lot of the places where they work. But we still work in Austin. We still clean people’s offices, we still cook people’s food in restaurants in Austin but now we’re being forced outside.”

Back inside the chambers, almost every community member who signed up to participate in the city’s allotted time for speakers expressed their opposition to the project. One woman, Lourdes Kaman, came to oppose the project in the name of her late husband, a construction worker who died while working on The Edison condominiums, another luxury apartment complex in East Riverside owned by Presidium Group.

Visibly shaken, Kaman shared how the developers dealt with her following her husband’s death. “When they met with me they were very disrespectful to me. They were not even looking at me in the eye they were looking at their cell phones…I am a widow and now [my daughter] is fatherless and we are still fighting for the same thing, justice…Do you know what it is to have companies building luxury apartments and then coming to you like nothing happened?”

Directly addressing District 5 Council Member Ann Kitchen, Kaman said, “You guys don’t care about anything, you talk about compassion, Ms. Kitchen, about homelessness, do you know what you are doing to all those families? You are going to have families living on the street. Is that what you want? There is nothing left to say.”

The death of Kaman’s husband while building a luxury condominium, and the approval of the Domain on Riverside that will drive further displacement and disruption of the community, show how capitalist exploitation is built on the lives and exploitation of the working class.

The council was ultimately unmoved by community testimonies, and the rezoning passed 6 to 3, with one abstention, and one council member off the dais. The votes in favor came from Mayor Steve Alder, District 3 Council Member ‘Pio’ Renteria, District 1 Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison, District 6 Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, District District 5 Council Member Ann Kitchen, and District 8 Council Member Paige Ellis.

The “no” votes were District 4 Council Member Greg Casar, District 2 Council Member Delia Garza, and District 7 Council Member Leslie Pool. District 9 Council Member Kathie Tovo was not present for the vote.

The one abstention was an intentional attempt by District 10 council member Alison Alter to chide DOH for employing, “unacceptable intimidation tactics… going far beyond appropriate civic discourse or dissent.” This stunt was her backwards way of attempting to show that she would rather not vote than admit DOH had any influence on her possibly voting against the project. Her empty gesture proved that DOH’s militancy was unavoidable, which manifested the anger of the working class into rebellious protests at every step of the process.

While Alter’s twisted logic shows her liberal fear of working class resistance, the council who voted ‘yes’ justified their final vote thanks to a last-minute deal worked out between the Presidium Group and Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO), a non-profit that purports to address the homelessness crisis in Austin. The deal claims it will house 100 homeless individuals for the next five years in the complexes awaiting demolition.

DOH will continue to organize and fight back against gentrification as sell-out politicians will undoubtedly highlight the few crumbs that developers are throwing them as progress. Their meaningless deals do nothing to stop the capitalism’s destruction of working class neighborhoods and the displacement of the people.

Even as the crowd learned of the vote in favor to rezone, DOH and its revolutionaries expressed optimism and made calls for the people in attendance not to stop fighting and get even more organized.

“We’ve been fighting this for over a year and a half and we’ve been delaying this decision… Even if it passes and they ‘re-zone it,’ we’re still going to keep fighting and resisting,” a DOH member said. “We’re not going to stop and just let them displace thousands of low-income people and working-class residents in Austin.”

The outcome of the rezoning battle offers a preview for the next chapter of the fight for Riverside. Under the leadership of DOH, the community has grown more united despite the increase in city repression, with a total of 24 arrested since the rezoning process started. On the contrary, the divisions among the developers and city politicians have become more exposed. Their weak links, sustained by bribery, have been tested by the relentless resistance of the people of East Riverside.

As talk of plans moves to actual construction, the anti-gentrification movement will become more creative and fierce and their opponents more exposed as the call to defend Riverside rings louder.