Photo: Austin Monitor’s Trivia Night with council members, on left, being confronted by activists.
Editors Note: This article has been amended to better represent events that occurred at Austin Monitor trivia night, including a militant confrontation between a community member and Council Member Pio Renteria.
By Robert Madrone, with contributions from Serena Ayers
This week, anti-gentrification activists and community members confronted Austin City Council members in two separate actions. Protesting the approval of the Domain On Riverside luxury project, these actions demonstrated that the will and anger of the community have not subsided since council took a final vote in late October.
The confrontations took place at the home of District 10 Council Member Alison Alter, and at a “Trivia Night” organized by local bourgeois media outlets and a policy think tank.
The trivia night was held on Wednesday at the North Door, a venue in a gentrified area of East Austin. The Austin Monitor, a bourgeois media outlet catering to Austin’s political elites, advertised the event as being a trivia night of “council vs. audience.” Public radio station KUT and Glasshouse Policy were also listed as co-hosts.
Panelists, including Council Members Pio Renteria and Jimmy Flannigan, sat at a table on stage awaiting trivia questions, but as the event began anti-gentrification activists from revolutionary organization Defend Our Hoodz (DOH) stepped up to the mic and began to ask their own trivia questions about the council members and the struggle against the Domain on Riverside. One community member questioned, “How much money did Pio Renteria take from the interests behind the Domain on Riverside? Answer: $17,000”
This enraged Renteria, who showed his middle finger and spewed insults. In response, the community member approached, and reached across to knock a cup of beer off the table.
Renteria sprung up from his chair as if to fight. The community member held his ground and event staff moved to intervene. As they walked out, the community member tossed a chair off the stage as well, showing proletarian militancy in the face of bourgeois politicians.
The event proceeded as planned for a short time with mocking commentary from the hosts, until a second set of activists stepped up to the mic for another round of questions, and asked, “What developer shill lawyer claims to be in favor of affordable housing but doesn’t even know the minimum wage? Hint: he’s in the audience tonight.”
The lawyer in question was Michael Whellan, who represented the Presidium Group developers throughout the rezoning case. His presence was a clear indication that the Austin politicians and media finds the time to socialize when they aren’t pretending to be opponents in city hall chambers. Liz Pagano, the editor-in-chief for the Austin Monitor, was seen sharing drinks and laughing with Whellan as protesters on stage called out his name.
The remaining activists were shuffled out of the event, but stayed outside agitating and heckling the class enemies as they left, including Whellan and Renteria, who biked away quickly. Passersby and venue staff stopped to learn more about the struggle and the reasons for carrying out the action, expressing their general support. One audience member recognized the class character of the audience at the event, telling activists, “You were up against a tough crowd in there. This area’s heavily gentrified.”
On Tuesday, the night before, DOH and community members confronted District 10 council member Alison Alter at her home in West Austin. Alter abstained from voting on the final reading of the “Domain on Riverside” rezoning application in a pointed attempt to scold the militant resistance against the project.
While previously voting “no,” she refused to vote the final time to “send a message” to DOH for what she considered, “unacceptable intimidation tactics that go far beyond the limits of civic discourse or dissent.” She also accused the organization of throwing eggs at the house of fellow city council member Pio Rentería, an act for which DOH has denied responsibility and accusers have provided no proof that it ever occurred.
In a condescending speech at the final vote, Alter villainized DOH as trying to “scare people out of voting a certain way.”
At the house protest, a member of DOH addressed Alter’s comment directly, speaking over a megaphone, ”You misrepresent us when you say we want to change your vote- we’ve never said we wanted to do that. We said we were going to fight against gentrification and we haven’t let up that fight.”
Protesters chanted for about fifteen minutes in front of Alter’s West Austin residence before police showed up and pushed them onto the sidewalk. Some of her wealthy neighbors tried to guilt the protesters for supposedly keeping their children awake on a school night. Community members told them to think of all the kids who live in the affected complexes who would lose their homes due to the actions of Alter and Austin City Council.
Alter’s husband and University of Texas history professor Jeremi Suri arrived home during the middle of the protest – nearly hitting two protesters with his vehicle. He exited the car and demanded that APD arrest all of the protesters. When police told him they couldn’t do that, he began arguing and threatening to fight people.
In response to an activist saying that Suri had a home to go to that wasn’t at risk of redevelopment, Suri began unbuckling his belt in what appeared to be an attempt to expose himself to the crowd and was restrained by a police officer before he could carry out a lewd act.
After an hour of chanting and speeches, the contingent left Alter’s home with a promise to see her again soon. On their way out, one neighbor thanked DOH members for their work.
In both incidents, Defend Our Hoodz and community members exposed the true nature of Austin’s politicians and its ruling class, who lash out wildly with no demonstration of “civic” discourse when confronted with the real consequences of their actions. In city hall chambers, where the police will more readily obey their orders, the city government has carried out mass arrests for the simple acts of speaking up and holding signs during meetings, arresting 23 over the course of the struggle.
Freedom of speech is a democratic right that has been taken from those fighting for Riverside, simply because they refused to speak in terms palatable to the bourgeois order, which is why the Austinites fed up with the capitalist exploitation of their neighborhoods have continued to confront class enemies outside city hall, affording no peace to the politicians who serve the capitalist-imperialist system.