Photo: Activists and Community Members take over a discussion hosting Self Help Graphics & Art at the Blanton Art Museum
By David Martinez
Last night, activists with the revolutionary organization Defend Our Hoodz (DOH), university students, and community members took over a discussion panel held at the Blanton Art Museum on the University of Texas campus to uphold a boycott called against Self Help Graphics & Art, a Los Angeles-based arts non-profit aligned with gentrification interests in the East side neighborhood of Boyle Heights in Los Angeles. Self Help includes many real estate interests in its leadership, and also works with LA councilman Jose Huizar, currently under investigation for corruption by the FBI.
The panel, titled “Without Borders: Self Help Graphics and the State of Latinx Art,” included academic Gilberto Cárdenas, who is on Self-Help’s council of governors. The activists gave militant speeches, chanted, and facilitated audience discussion that prevented the hosts from regaining control. With the event unable to proceed as planned, after about 45 minutes the museum called it off.
The event began with activists immediately moving to the front of the auditorium with a banner reading “Defend Riverside, Run Out The Sellouts” as the host approached the mic. One activist began to read a prepared statement that spoke of Self-Help’s ties to gentrification and the boycott called against them by Defend Boyle Heights (DBH), a revolutionary organization leading the struggle against gentrification in the Chicano and immigrant neighborhood of Boyle Heights. Defend Our Hoodz and Defend Boyle Heights consider themselves sister organizations with deep unity.
The statement identified Alfred Fraijo, Jr., a real estate investor in Self Help’s leadership, as a key force behind evictions in Boyle Heights. Directly addressing one of the panelists, the activist asked in reference to Fraijo, “Hey, Dr. Cardenas, have you ever told that vendido [sellout], who you sit in leadership with, to stop evicting working people?”
The statement tied together the bourgeois interests behind the Blanton Art museum, such as its funding from oil money, and highlighted Austin’s own struggle against arts institutions aligned with gentrification, in particular the boycott against the Riverside Arts District, a project of Austin Creative Alliance in collaboration with Presidium Group, the developers behind the Domain On Riverside.
In open discussion with the audience, activists spoke of their struggle to defend their homes in East Riverside against the luxury project that will displace 4,000 people and how the developers intentionally created the Arts District as a way to make use of an empty lot at 1600 Pleasant Valley Dr. and raise the profile of the area. The strategy of promoting art in areas targeted for gentrification, in order to attract investment and appeal to the petty-bourgeoisie and bourgeoisie, is a process sometimes referred to as “artwashing.”
The Riverside Arts District faced militant pickets in Fall 2018, and was only able to hold two weekends of poorly attended events before eventually shutting down the following Spring, allegedly due to a lack of permits. But Riverside residents claimed its closure as a clear victory in the struggle against gentrification in the area.
Some audience members at the museum, particular older looking Chicanos, appeared to scoff at the young people bravely speaking up. When UT police entered about halfway through the event, one woman was overheard saying, “This is what [the protesters] want, for the police to be called.”
When this was mentioned to one of the protesters, who herself has taken an arrest in the anti-gentrification struggle, she said it was infuriating to imply they want cops at their actions, and that “when class enemies sic the pigs on us, it shows they’re afraid of us.” While she said arrests are never a goal, they are prepared for the reality, and, “just because the cops show their ugly faces doesn’t mean we’ll back down.”
The boycott against Self Help has been in place for three years, when it was first called by Boyle Heights residents for Self Help’s collaboration with Hopscotch, a so-called “Urban Opera” that sold $100 tickets to wealthy gentry who would be driven around in limos to watch theater carried out in historic and cultural landmarks throughout working-class neighborhoods. Hopscotch was eventually confronted and run out by revolutionary activists and high schoolers blaring marching band instruments during an opera performance.
The boycott in Boyle Heights is also enforced against well-funded art galleries that began to populate the nearby warehouse district. Defend Boyle Heights has led combative protests against them, and one by one, they have shut many down, with a total of eight galleries now closed in response to the community’s organized rebellion. The activists in Austin repeatedly asked Self Help’s representatives if they supported the gallery boycott, but received no response, just as they have evaded the question in LA.
DOH members called on the audience at the Blanton to show solidarity with the working class of Boyle Heights and Austin by joining the protesters at the front of the auditorium. A handful of audience members took up the call, taking over the holding of the banner and enthusiastically joining chants such as, “Artists Pick a Side, Solidarity or Shame, Run Out the Sellouts, From Austin to LA!”
Among those who didn’t join, some nodded approvingly to the protesters statements, while others expressed outright derision. An audience member who joined the protest referred to the those who were offended as valuing “civility more than listening to people fighting back.”
Another audience member who spontaneously joined the action lives in Quad East, one of the apartments targeted for demolition, and was excited to see people fighting back against her displacement. She told activists, “My tuition is covered, but I have to take out loans just to pay for housing and even now where I’m living is gonna get demolished.” She said she tried looking at nearby complexes, “but they’re just so expensive.”
The youth have taken up the housing struggle in Riverside with energy, but people of any age can be receptive to revolution. But for some of the older Chicanos present, they long ago gave up a revolutionary outlook for a seat at the table of the ruling class. While the people and organizations who are welcomed into ruling class circles, such as Self Help Graphics, may have achieved isolated class ascension, it comes at the expense of the broader working class and the oppressed nations. In particular, Self Help’s leaders benefit from the prestige and history of the Chicano liberation movement, while turning that history into little more than empty words and symbols.
The brave activists and young people who brought struggle to Self Help and challenged the complacency and cynicism of the petty bourgeois artists and socialites in attendance are part of the people leading the next wave of revolution. They are the true inheritors of the revolutionary spirit of the oppressed nations and the proletariat, and will not be deterred from their path by calls to pacify themselves and hang up their principles on a museum wall.