Photo: Protesters outside the home of Michael Whellan, lawyer for the Presidium Group, the developers pushing the project at 4700 E Riverside Dr, also known as the “Domain on Riverside”
By David Martinez
Austin City Council may take a final vote on Thursday for the “Domain On Riverside” luxury development, after months of delays and facing a fierce people’s struggle against the project. The vote has been postponed multiple times as the council has wavered on their willingness to go against the community’s militant resistance to the project, which will displace thousands of people and reshape the working class neighborhood of East Riverside.
On Tuesday night, revolutionary organization Defend Our Hoodz (DOH) and Riverside residents took their resistance to homes of those attempting to displace them, and protested in the wealthy hills of West Austin, where the lawyer representing the Presidium Group, Michael Whellan, lives. Whellan has been the development’s primary representative throughout the rezoning process, who gained infamy at the very first community meeting for the project when he was asked, “Do you know what the minimum wage is?” to which he answered, “No, I don’t.”
Protesters assembled in front of Whellan’s home, chanting “Michael Whellan, Capitalist Snake, We Resist When You Displace,” as one of Whellan’s irritated neighbors threatened protesters and called the police. The same neighbor swatted at the signs of protesters who were standing in the street, but was pulled back by his neighbors who recognized that the protesters were ready to defend themselves.
Whellan, who remained inside through the protest, was seen peeking through his windows with his wife. He eventually turned off the lights after protesters told him, “We see you!” and chanted, “Developer Lawyer, Sits on His Ass, Leeching off the Working Class!” One Riverside resident on a megaphone told Whellan and his neighbors how they should be glad they only have one loud night of chanting while her neighborhood was facing total displacement.
When police arrived, they attempted to grab the megaphone out of the hand of a protester, which was wrested back away from the police’s control by another community member. Austin police have shown they throw out their own supposed protocol when dealing with the revolutionary movement in Austin, failing to give any warning to cut sound or disperse prior to engaging in direct physical assault. Democratic rights have been revoked for those protesting against the project, with 20 arrests occurring at city-held meetings over the course of the struggle.
Whellan is not the only person associated with the project who has faced protesters at his home. District 3 Council Member Sabino “Pio” Renteria, has also been the target of the community’s anger, who protested his house in late September. Protesters confronted Renteria as he arrived home from city hall, and both he and his wife yelled and made obscene gestures at the protesters throughout the action.
In a council work session on Tuesday, Renteria signaled another possible vote postponement, when he said there’s, “a lot more work to do” on the project, implying he will work with the developers to come up with minimal concessions to make the Domain On Riverside palatable to the liberal City Council. He suggested postponing the vote until October 31.
As each vote at City Council has approached, the streets of East Riverside and apartment complexes have become saturated with graffiti and flyers opposed to the project. The people’s art has been so effective that the apartment owners recently sent out an email asking residents to snitch on anyone who they see putting up information or art against the project.
“Today I met with Austin Police Department to further build a case against the unknown who are vandalizing our property,” wrote apartment manager Alissiana Davis, in an email sent to Quad West residents. “In the event you should see anything, we strongly urge you to come forth with insight accordingly. We are offering a reward to anyone you can help us stop this issue moving forward.” [emphasis theirs]
This collaboration with the Austin Police Department shows that the apartment management is more concerned with protecting the property of millionaires than serving their residents. The flyers and art on the complex inform the community of the potential demolition of their homes, which throughout the struggle, management and owners have downplayed and only informed residents when outside organizing forced their hand.
Earlier this month, new revelations regarding the scope of the project have shown developers will not stop with only demolishing the apartments, but will also tear down a nearby shopping center popular with the working class and immigrant residents of the area. Recently published drawings show that the Parke Green shopping center at the intersection of Pleasant Valley and Riverside could potentially be part of the project, something not publicly revealed by the developers until shared by Incendiary.
The shopping center’s demolition at the primary intersection of the neighborhood would accelerate the already devastating impact the Domain on Riverside will have on making the area unaffordable and inaccessible to its current residents.
Developers have tried to frame the residents of The Quad (East, South, and West), Town Lake, and Ballpark apartments as primarily consisting of students who can easily move (which is itself a false idea), but this narrative has been challenged by the fact that the apartments are essential housing options for mostly African refugees.
While Council Member Renteria is now trying to slow down the vote, he previously has been part of the faction of council trying to push the project through. After the protest at his home, he ranted against DOH, claiming, “they do more harm to East Austin.” In a true act of harming the people, Renteria has taken $17,000 in campaign donations from the interests behind the luxury project and has spent his council years backing massive developments in East Austin.
While the city’s rezoning process has been the target of protest, the ultimate source of the Domain On Riverside and gentrification generally is the capitalist system. That system puts private property and profits over the public good, and places the power to make these decisions in the hands of wealthy business interests and their lackeys in City Hall. While Austin’s liberal city council will fake concern over gentrification, they will only propose solutions that make meaningless dents in the profits of the developers and investors who actually determine what is built in the city.
As the struggle against the project has shown, the people do not have to accept their bribes or token concessions, or observe their false decorum that is enforced at the heel of the police’s boot. It is right to rebel against capitalism-imperialism in its final stages, whether in the streets of the community or on the doorsteps of bourgeois henchmen. DOH will rally again at City Hall on Thursday, starting at 6:30 PM, to demonstrate to the enemies of the people that they only breed greater resistance when they attack the masses.