We are hosting a guest article about local anti-gentrification struggles in Southeast Austin. This joint statement from Serve the People – Austin, Defend Our Hoodz, and Revolutionary Student Front highlights the role of salaried activists in administrating poverty and displacement on behalf of the ruling class. We extend our solidarity and revolutionary support to their fight. Please get involved with these struggles and oppose revisionism and class traitors of all kinds who wish to profit off the people!
Dump Sell-Out Organizers: Dare to Win Against the Gentrifiers!
Tomorrow, the anti-CodeNEXT group Community not Commodities is hosting a panel entitled “Real Solutions for Austin’s Gentrification Crisis.” Many who are under attack by greedy developers are desperate for real solutions, and they may hope to find some from these prominent activists, non-profit leaders, and so-called progressive developers.
For people who actually want to defend their homes, however, there will be nothing to gain from these pretentious panelists, who are what we call reformists. They have made a name for themselves in opposing some gentrifying projects, but they have consistently watered down their defiance and compromised with those who have invaded our hoods, ripped our families apart, and displaced so many. As professional organizers, their jobs depend on having a seat at the negotiating table alongside the developers and city officials, and they have demonstrated that they will do whatever it takes to keep those seats, even if it means selling out the communities they supposedly want to protect.
Susana Almanza, the head of nonprofit PODER and president of the Montopolis Neighborhood Contact Team, is the unofficial guest of honor at tomorrow’s panel. Anyone wanting to get paid for activism in Austin must pay respects to this self-anointed Queen of the eastside. She commands such a level of authority among the organized left in this city that reformists—that is, activists ambitious to make a career selling out—are afraid to criticize her for fear of being banished from her circles.
We have no desire to make money off of our activism, and so we have no problem calling Almanza what she is: a vendida, a sell-out. When the historic site of the Montopolis Negro School was at risk of being demolished, Almanza stated at a city commission meeting that she would defend the unoccupied building with her “war weapons.” Her followers applauded this fiery bravado at the time, but we wonder where she hid these war weapons when the communities of Cactus Rose and Thrasher Lane were under siege by developers? In both of these cases, she worked against community organizing, squashed resistance, and pushed the terms offered by developers. We frankly do not care what Almanza did decades ago. What is important to know for anyone seeking help from her or her friends is her shameful track record of the past two years.
The Cactus Rose mobile home park had begun organizing in 2015 to protest the plans of parasite developer company Oden Hughes to turn their 30-year-old neighborhood into luxury apartments. The community association president Saúl Madero was a talented organizer who had done a great job of alerting his neighbors to the impending danger and inspiring them to fight. However, when Susana Almanza got involved, she deposed Madero and kicked out the legal aide that had come to assist the tenants. The community association had written a statement demanding that they wanted to stay together, but Almanza scrapped it in favor of her own plan of brokering relocation pay-offs. She excluded any dissenting tenant or outside ally from meetings, and shut down those who wanted to rebel against the developers by chastising them with the threat of eviction. In the end, tenants received a few thousand dollars and had to move out. Some had been living there for decades. Others had to sell their homes that they had worked on for years because they were too old to move. Madero had to sell his home and was forced to move his family into a storage unit.
Few of those outside these communities criticized Almanza for this clear-cut case of doing the developer’s dirty work for them, and many were bold enough to claim that she helped them. That’s what the people of Thrasher Lane Mobile Home Park had heard when they were rallying to defend themselves against another parasite developer. In March of 2017, their landlord threatened to evict them all in 30 days. One of the tenants had heard that Almanza had helped Cactus Rose.
Some of the tenants, including Carolina Sanchez, wanted to fight the landlord’s plans and felt like what was happening was unjust. Rather than supporting the tenants’ resistance or even engaging in a dialogue with them, Almanza instead invited a representative of the Thrasher Lane property owner to participate in the community meetings. By doing so, she effectively sabotaged any hopes the community had of mounting an opposition to the threat of displacement. Sanchez said that Almanza was in a rush to close the deal rather than determine what the community wanted.
As she did with Cactus Rose, Almanza bargained a few thousand dollars for each of the tenants, and they were all kicked out. Some became homeless after. Others have been forced to move to RV campgrounds, where tenant protection laws are practically non-existent. All have struggled to survive after their lives were uprooted, in part thanks to Almanza’s scheming.
These are the “real solutions” Almanza has to offer people endangered by gentrifiers. Tomorrow’s panel predictably identifies gentrification as an abstract crisis, as opposed to yet another form of violence that the capitalist class unleashes on the working class. Neither Almanza nor her allies want to frame gentrification as a war between the capitalist class and everyone else, because they would expose themselves as siding with the enemies of the people. Almanza does not believe this is a war the working class can win, so if you’re expecting her to fight for you, you may be disappointed when she immediately starts hammering out the terms of surrender. If you disagree with her, expect retaliation. As the examples above show, there is no working with Almanza, there is only working for or against her.
It may sound like an exaggeration to call gentrification a war, but a quick look at the recent history of Austin illustrates the savagery and carnage that has been unleashed on the working class. In 2009, parasites Grayco Partners promised the city to help pay the relocation assistance for the hundreds of tenants at Shoreline apartments, but then turned around and kicked them all out without paying many a dime. In 2015, parasites Cypress Real Estate Advisors tortured the residents of Lakeview apartments into moving out by turning off their utilities and ignoring maintenance requests. Cypress was also behind the redevelopment of Thrasher Lane. Also that year, predators F&F Real Estate Ventures demolished the Jumpolin pinata store without warning to make room for a SXSW show. In a revealing interview, F&F owner Jordan French referred to the Mexican-American family who owns Jumpolin as “cockroaches.” These are only a few examples in a long history of developers backstabbing, degrading, and brutalizing our hoods.
If this is war, why do we listen to fools like Almanza who tell us to respect our enemies? These parasite developers do not deserve to be heard out or appeased. They are nothing like us. Michael Whellan, the lawyer representing the parasitic would-be Ballpark developers, could not even remember what the minimum wage was when asked by a community member at a recent meeting. They exist in a different world than us and are so money-crazy that they do not even see us as human beings. They only see the millions of dollars they could make with the land under our feet.
These professional organizers say they represent the people, but the reality is that the work they do is always a service to the developers. Ultimately, their allegiance is to their careers. After Almanza lost a city council runoff election to her brother Pio Renteria in 2014, she donated $10,000 of the money she had raised in her campaign to her non-profit PODER. At the time, she was PODER’s only paid staff person. She eventually had to return the $10,000 after local publication The Austin Bulldog exposed her attempt at embezzlement.
Surely others besides us recognize Almanza as a two-faced traitor. All you have to do is go to city hall, where you can catch her being buddy-buddy with agents like Whellan, sharing jokes and exchanging pleasantries. It is not just Almanza, either. Anyone who chooses to fight gentrification by following the rules of the people responsible for the violence will always get caught up in the sell-out game. Play nice with the developers long enough and they will start to look like friends, friends who will smile and shake hands with you even as they use you to pursue their money-making agenda. Whether she admits it or not, Almanza has been used like a tool by developers—a weapon they use to deceive and defraud people—and anyone who subscribes to her brand of politics will be used in the same way.
If Almanza and her allies are such obvious pawns in the developer’s sick game, than why does she continue to pull weight? Because the alternative is scary. If we understand gentrification for what it is, a war, we have to accept the real danger that comes with fighting in a war.
Right now, the gang of greedy investment capitalists who own the properties of the North, South, West, and East Ballpark complexes have filed a rezoning application with the city that, if approved, would allow them to replace the current affordable apartments with a luxury paradise for the well-off. Tenants can expect no real support from the city, who incentivized this redevelopment when city council passed the East Riverside Corridor Plan. The policy is part of the city’s larger strategy to accommodate the tech workers flooding in to work at the new Oracle headquarters as well as to converge the frontlines of gentrification south of the river with those happening along Cesar Chavez on the northside.
Ballpark property management recently sent out a misleading notice to residents advising them that this project would not happen for years and that it was nothing to worry about for now. In fact, the application is currently under staff review at the city, and if it is cleared by them it will likely go to the planning commission before the end of the year and then to city council shortly after that. Make no mistake: it will not take years to decide the fate of the Ballpark apartments. The battle will be won or lost over the coming months.
It is a terrifying prospect to have on your doorstep. Even as we have just begun to start organizing with the tenants, we have already seen the viciousness of our enemies. At our first march through Ballpark, the property owners hired additional security and also had several pigs in squad cars. When one tenant was knocking on neighbors’ doors to inform them about what is happening, property manager Logan Stansell-you-out called the pigs on him.
As frightening as this may seem, a wise man once said it is good to be attacked by the enemy, because that means that they are scared. The redevelopment of Ballpark is by no means a done deal. The rezoning process is a long and delicate process, with many opportunities for it to go wrong. In the case of Thrasher Lane’s redevelopment, all it took was one city commissioner hearing about what had happened to the former tenants to reject the rezoning application. By no means should we count on something like that happening at Ballpark, but the point is the developers can’t count on things going their way either.
With the few direct actions and organizing we have already done with Ballpark tenants, we have struck fear in the hearts of the developers. They know that if enough of Ballpark’s large population got together, chances are their profit-driven pipe dream would disintegrate. We do not anticipate they will go down without a fight, because for them millions of dollars are on the line.
As much as the developers have to lose, the Ballpark residents stand to lose even more. If we do not organize and act soon, people will be expelled from their homes, their children will be torn from their schools, and their lives will be irreversibly damaged. We cannot and will not let that happen.
We are reassured by the success of principled community organizing around the country. In Pittsburgh, STP organizers rallied the community against parasite John Costello, forcing him to back off his threats to evict a tenant. In Kansas City, STP organizers put pressure on parasite Paul Truong for his abuses of a tenant to the point that he offered a thousand dollars to get them to stop (they didn’t). In Los Angeles, STP organizers have worked with the Defend Boyle Heights coalition to militantly combat gentrification in their area, leading recently to the closure of gentrifying art gallery 356 Mission. It is possible to win against gentrification, but we must really believe it is possible to win if the people unite and fight back militantly—and then dare to make it happen.
The Ballpark residents shouldn’t have to fight on their own, either. The bitter reality is that Ballpark is only the most immediate step of a long-term strategy to completely destroy all of Riverside as we know it, greedily devouring its many neighborhoods for profit. If Ballpark goes, not only would it mean the loss of hundreds of affordable apartments, but it would also ramp up property values, propelling the cycle of gentrification. The developers would move on to the next target and the next, until tens of thousands of people if not more have been forcibly run out. Nor would they stop even if they conquered all of Riverside. The end of Ballpark would be a blow to the entire working class of Austin.
We call on all tenants of Ballpark and Town Lake, and the people of Riverside and all other communities threatened by developers to have the courage to fight back. For too long our class has succumbed to the violence and exploitation of developers and the city, but we have the numbers and the strength to make them obey us. In this war, we cannot take the path of reformists like Almanza, which corrupts well-meaning activists and turns them into puppets. The working class must forge a new path on our own terms, where we call the shots and the developers beg us for mercy.
We are resolved and disciplined in our march down this path of militant resistance—this path that can win—and more join our ranks every day. And anyone who thinks they can block or derail us—Whellan, Almanza, or whoever—better stay the hell out of our way.
Serve the People – Austin
Defend Our Hoodz/Defiende El Barrio – Austin
Revolutionary Student Front – Austin