AUSTIN: City Staff Calls Police to Repress Anti-Gentrification Activists at Public Meeting, Several Arrested

By Mike Talavera

The City of Austin exposed itself as an enemy of the people on Wednesday night when city staff called the police immediately in response to Riverside community members led by revolutionary organization Defend Our Hoodz – Defiende El Barrio (DOH) showing up to a city meeting to protest the latest move by developers to gentrify the East Riverside area. Seven protesters were arrested.

In a statement shared to their social media, DOH said that city staff called the cops, “rather than hear the justified anger of people tired of developers getting unchallenged platforms to push luxury projects that displace us. The City of Austin protects developers but arrests community members opposed to them.”

Presidium Group, the developers who applied for a rezoning application a year ago to flip the Ballpark, Town Lake, and Quad apartments in southeast Austin, have now submitted a proposal to extend Lakeshore Blvd from its intersection with Pleasant Valley Rd and through Roy G. Guerrero Park. As part of its review of the proposal, the city’s Planning and Zoning department scheduled a community input meeting at the George Washington Carver Museum at 1165 Angelina St, on the other side of Austin from Riverside area.

It did not take long for the city to show that it was not interested in community input as soon as several dozen activists and supporters descended on the stage of the auditorium with banners that read, “No Domain on Riverside! ¡Únete a la Lucha!” and “Combat Gentrification! No Surrender in Our Hoodz!” City staffer Jerry Rusthoven threatened that if the meeting could not be conducted in a “civil manner” that he would call the police. Minutes later, he returned to the microphone to say that “we have people on the way to take care of this.”

In most of its zoning cases, the city funnels community resistance against a project into this “civil” discourse, where people are forced to respect and hear out the developers who have been mercilessly and relentlessly gentrifying East Austin for decades. When a revolutionary organization like DOH takes a stand and refuses to engage in dialogue with the enemies of Riverside, the foundation of this “civil” process is revealed: police repression.

Despite the announcement that the police had been called, the protesters held their ground at the front of the auditorium. A few museum security guards attempted to move the protesters out when one young woman said, “I’m a Riverside resident! You’re going to tell me I can’t be here to stand up for my community?” Her defiance was met with applause and cheers from the crowd.

The lawyer of Presidium Group, Michael Whellan (who previously has had rubber snakes thrown at him by protesters), sat in the front row of the auditorium and was singled out by activists who started the chant, “Michael Whellan go home!” The crowd enthusiastically joined in.

At one point, reformist activists Susana Almanza and Daniel Llanes joined DOH in shouting down the city and developers. DOH has criticized Almanza in the past for her role in the displacement of Cactus Rose and Thrasher Lane Mobile home parks, a position which has seen her and her NGO circles seek to discredit DOH at many points. Wednesday night, they appeared to follow the lead of DOH and participate in the militant tactics that have been successful in the fight against the Domain On Riverside.

Pigs

About 20 minutes after they were called, several police officers entered through the side entrance of the auditorium and did not waste much time before putting people in handcuffs. As the police attempted to move protesters away from the stage, several held their ground and were then arrested. The crowd was decidedly against the police intervention, with audience members booing and chanting, “Let them go!”

Some audience members got up and left the auditorium with DOH as they went outside to where those arrested were being detained. The crowd berated the cops, chanting, “Condos and Cops off our blocks!” In response, the police proceeded to arrest a few more protesters. Contrary to other media reports of there not being violence, the police incapacitating community members for speaking out is violence, just as the gentrification those people are fighting against is the ruling class violently displacing the oppressed masses. Additionally, one woman was ganged up on by several police officers and screamed as they wrestled her to the ground.

As more squad cars showed up, the crowd slowly moved back to the sidewalk and then made its way to the front of the museum where activists gave speeches detailing the history of the struggle against Presidium Group. Speakers described the shady backgrounds of Presidium executives like David Wallace, the successful efforts of DOH to indefinitely postpone Presidium’s rezoning application, and the victory against the Presidium-funded artwashing scheme called the Riverside Arts District.

Inside the auditorium, city staffer Scott Grantham, whose office has been ambushed by DOH in the past to highlight the city’s collaboration with developers, tried to move the meeting forward. “This is the process. And again, some of y’all are very familiar with this, but for some folks this might be the first time they’re encountering this.”

The process may have been familiar to some, but the violent enforcement of the process had disturbed the whole crowd, and nothing Grantham said could undo the city’s use of the police to quell dissent. Audience members who had remained inside told Incendiary that city staffers and Whellan were visibly “rattled” and appeared “scared” for the remainder of the meeting. Sources said that those on stage did not provide any meaningful answers to questions from the audience and that the air of rebellion breathed into the room by DOH continued to linger.

After the meeting concluded, Rusthoven, Grantham, and other city staffers exited the side of the building and walked up the sidewalk towards their cars. The DOH protest at the front of the building, which was still going strong, spotted them and crossed the street to intercept them. As the staffers hurriedly climbed into one car, the DOH crowd surrounded the vehicle, yelling at the representatives of the city which had so clearly chosen the side of the developers against the community. Rusthoven stepped out and waved over the police who were standing idly at the entrance of the museum. The crowd was forced to move to the sidewalk as the city staffers drove away, their shameful stance against Riverside once again guarded by police.

Masses

The escalation of violence by the city in its accommodation of Presidium Group’s plans was met with an escalation of resistance by the people. The overt display of police force against those fighting against gentrification enraged and agitated those in attendance as well as those watching live through social media. The more the city cracks down on resistance, the more it reveals its function as a servant of the ruling class and turns people away from its sham “civil” process. With each person arrested, a dozen more join the fight, and the anti-gentrification movement grows.

Incendiary salutes the bravery of the activists and supporters who took a stand against their oppressors, and we ask our readers to please donate to the legal fund for those arrested.