Category Archives: environmentalism

Dale, dale, dale, no pierdas el tino!

Dale, Dale, Dale, No pierdas el tino!

Violence begets violence. The reaction is not always a defensive response, but often is a continuation of the original act. The victim becomes targeted anew when others see weakness and smell blood. So is the case with the latest round of displacement in East Austin. The demolition of the piñata store, Jumpolín, without a proper eviction having taken place, was a more visceral and visible act of violence than we are used to in Loston. The cantinas flipped on East 6th went quietly, and with hearty support from a new class of young bar-hoppers who were naïve to the history and politics of where they came to party. The violence was covered easily in a public relations veneer that utilized all the tricks in a colonizers toolkit: privilege, money, racism and a brutal lack of justice.   But the demolition of Jumpolín came like a storm. No one is denying the injustice of the act or the missteps taken. However, people seem to be having trouble responding to this injustice. Since the demolition there have been flare-ups in the activist community that infect our open wound. The proper response will come from understanding why and how this violence happened, understanding that it happens all the time, and admitting that we have a lot of work to do to keep it from happening in the future.

The Act

The Lejarazu family operated a piñata store on East Cesar Chavez Street since 2007. The location and function of the business tied it to the cultural territory of Latinos in Austin, who had been forcibly moved to this area of town in the early 20th Century, where they fought for recognition and built a robust community.

Since the 1990’s there has been massive turnover of Latino owned businesses by property and land developers, resulting in the ongoing displacement of this community. This capitalist development is not only legal; it is foundational to our society. This does not mean that it is just or good, but in most cases it is certainly legal.

IMG_4260Last Fall, a young adventure capitalist duo, French and Fisher of F&F Real Estate Ventures, bought the property where Jumpolín is located and immediately began harassing the Lejarazu family. Then on February 12th they illegally demolished the building, full of piñatas, personal items including medical records and other merchandise. The demolition had multiple legal violations: there had been no final notice for eviction, the lease was still valid until 2017, and a lack of an asbestos permit endangered the community. The Lejarazu family business was displaced, but opened a week later further east on Cesar Chávez, with community support. The vacant lot was announced to be used to host an event during SXSW, a permit that been applied for in December. The Latino community was left violated through their symbol of festivity trampled by that of their colonizers.

 

The Reaction

The media is given a hook into the already trendy social topic of gentrification with a clearly identifiable cultural aspect and a particularly violent display of capitalism. The story is reported and paid attention to because of this framing (most displacements do not make the news.) People get pissed. People see injustice. Some see it linked to the injustice they experience as recipients and feel pain. Others recognize the injustice that they usually experience as perpetrators, and seek an immediate distancing from the act.

The perpetrators, French in particular, go on the offense and seek to tarnish the reputation of the Lejarazu family,Jumpoline3  and the community at large. Using explicitly racist language, he refers to the displaced tenants as cockroaches. As a piece of offensive slang, a roach is emblematic of a community that is both filthy and rapidly procreating, both stereotypes of Latinos in the US. Even more problematic is the way that the term has been used in association with extermination in racially motivated genocides, including Nazi Germany. People get more pissed. The institutional racism embedded within the ongoing politics of gentrification is obscured by the hate-speech.

Facebook goes crazy. People have lots of ideas about things. People talk past each other. People have no real format to discuss their emotions or the situation and therefore use the Internet, which cannot translate emotion and intention. There are various events assembled around the issue by different people with different and complex connections to gentrification. People get even more pissed.

  The Lejarazu family contacts People in Defense of the Earth and her Resources PODER, a long time environmental justice organization, to help them organize for justice. They hold a press conference with the intention of building a response from the community and justice for the family.

The Context

The context for the demolition of Jumpolín is gentrification. It is important to differentiate gentrification from revitalization, where development is built to serve an existing community. Gentrification specifically refers to development that intends to displace current residents to make way for new wealthier ones.   The driver is capitalism, but the effect is often racism. Class is raced in America; that is to say that our society has historically privileged some groups and oppressed others based on an imagined difference. Pointing out racial inequity is not racist. It is not being against White people; it is being against racism.

Gentrification is an example of how capitalism and race work in tandem. When a developer flips a house, the new occupant needs no intention of displacing people to add to a larger pattern of displacement. Even before they move in, a change in architecture can signify a change in resident. In East Austin, there has been a preponderance of modernist architecture, which, apart from being big and expensive, explicitly symbolizes change. To the existing residents, the change symbolizes Whiteness even before the new tenants arrive. When we look at the pattern of displacement in East Austin, we find these feelings to precisely resemble the pattern. People of Color are displaced, while White people move in, and as more and more White people move in, the public services increase.   No one has to hate anyone, or have any bad feelings. However, the outcome is racist because it recreates structural inequality along racial lines.

Many gentrifiers move to an area because it is diverse or hip. Many feel the cultural significance of the area is a positive addition to their lives. Many, too, feel sad when their neighbors get displaced. Some gentrifiers seek to distance themselves from the history and culture of the place, the longstanding community or their own privilege. This detachment tends to exacerbate gentrification and the racial and cultural aspects of it. To those who have ignored their complicity with gentrification, the Jumpolín demolition will be an opportunity to oppose displacement while still shirking responsibility.

Those who benefit at the top are the investors, the banks and the developers who gain money while removed from the political fray. Those who lose are the people displaced. But there is something deeper that is lost too. The cultural territory that exists in communities rooted in family connections, cultural traditions, and a genuine connection to land, is the opposite of the capitalist ideology. The value of the collective community is shunned in favor of the highest bidder.

The Response

 The proper response to violence is healing. This process is a long-term rebuilding of cultural ties to each other and our land. More immediately, there are people who need help, and there are people who need to be held accountable. These processes will likely be driven from within the connections among the victims and their existing network, and the violators and theirs. I doubt that all the land speculators will get together to hold French and Fisher accountable, but I am glad that the Latino community is already stepping up to help the Lejarazu family.

There is no reason to think that the Lejarazu family will become community activists or spokespeople because they have befallen injustice. That is up to them. I see no reason to focus on them as individuals for these ends. However, jumpoline2the people that are like them, Spanish speaking and working-class, have often been politically silenced in Austin. If we focus only on the violent nature of The Act, we will miss the context it took place in. No isolated protests or actions will make much of a difference for the larger context of gentrification. If we recognize the pattern of injustice that the act is embedded within, we may begin to shift our city. This is what I see as the proper response.

The positive response will be to invest in the livelihoods of the working people of this city who are being displaced. Where is the workforce housing and transportation? How are we gearing the development of our city for those who wash dishes, cook food, care for the elderly and teach children? Centering our economy on only upper-class residents, is not only unjust, it is foolish.

 On the other side, we must eliminate the structures of injustice that create these openings for displacement. These will not go away in a day. This will be a long-term process of altering our society towards justice. First thing first – places where people have cultural territories should be privileged over people who have the money to buy them.

we are not roaches

 The self-proclaimed venture capitalists are criminals, and should be treated as such. But it is not just in their mistakes that they are problematic. F&F has had a troubling history of using dishonesty to make money without providing any real services or goods to anyone. They are parasitic on society (to borrow from their gross bug category of name-calling, they are leeches). For those who simply make money by having money, gentrification is a great business. House-flippers are bike thieves times a million. However, this accepted practice in Austin is treated as absolutely necessary to the economic survival of us all.

 The dominant narrative is that unless there is a yuppie condo going up every day, the Austin economy will collapse.   In reality, the poor and working people’s economy has been collapsing precisely because of this development trend. If it stops, the elite venture capitalists economy would collapse, and that would be awesome. Resist the influx of capitalist development from the outside and invest in community revitalization from the ground up.

 This brings us to SXSW, which has a long history of displacing people and also of rejecting the Latino community. Explicitly not a Latino music event, SXSW has encroached on the East Side for years, disrupting neighborhoods through a month long burst of music, street noise, garbage and letting hipsters pee all over the place. This too has been defended in all of our names. Besides a handful of taco truck owners, how many working-class Spanish speakers are benefitting from SXSW? Let us recognize this history and hold the system accountable, beginning with a refusal to allow a party in the empty lot left by this tragedy.

 

The Distraction

The issue of race and racism has been stressed in the case of Jumpolín. I have already given example for the underlying racism within gentrification. Some people have accused activists of racism for pointing it out, and I’m sure this piece will receive similar scrutiny. Whether you can see it or not, society is divided. Susana Almanza is called a “racist” with the same spirit in which Cesar Chavez and MLK were called racists – it is not only with misunderstanding, but also with fear. I have seen more anger from gentrifiers than from the displaced; could this be the lashing out of an internal displacement that runs yet deeper?

 To suggest that White people behave with an unearned sense of entitlement may sound racist to people who have learned not to associate behavior with race. However, White Privilege is real and well documented. Privilege is an jumpoline1affliction that is associated with groups in power – Men and rich people tend to display this regardless of race. For White identified people to recognize this, and work through it, is a long and personal process. I hope that anti-racists within the White community can hold each other accountable with compassion.

 I urge people to not simply conflate Whiteness with privilege. While it is useful to use Critical Race Theory to understand race and power, it is useless to call out “White Privilege” as an act in and of itself. This can lead to missing the opportunity to respond to the behavior by focusing on the racial identity of the agent. Let’s focus on behaviors instead of people. Undesirable behavior can change. People only change when they alter behavior, and their race is unlikely to change regardless of anything.

 Racism is simply too important of a framework to be tossed around on Facebook without proper context. Healing within the community will fare much better. I think we can be more careful and nuanced with our words and actions.

 It is important to recognize that the Latino community is not as united as it should be, and this is due to racism as well. Just as White privilege affects people internally, so racial oppression affects People of Color from the inside. We can and should work together to support those who are most negatively affected in our own communities. We also need to make alliances with anti-racist people of all stripes. We need to understand how gentrification has affected our communities, Black and Brown, and stop it in its tracks. This will take accountability and leadership in our community as well. I know we are up for it.

 As we move to respond to the violence in our city, I plea for patience and for understanding. Please give people the benefit of the doubt. Please recognize the history of gentrification and its connection to racism. Please recognize the organizing that people have been doing against gentrification for decades. Please treat each other with respect. Please have a sense of compassion and humor. This is our humanity. This is our healing.

Dr. Tane Ward

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Filed under anti-racist, austin, decolonial, environmentalism, gentrification, politics, racism, Social Justice

Decolonizing Environmentalism: Step One

ClimateChangeMarch-09_0Last week the most diverse and cosmopolitan city in the world hosted the first step in decolonizing environmentalism. The People’s Climate March in New York City saw Four Hundred Thousand people and hundreds of thousands more marched around the world. Various frontline communities – indigenous peoples, the urban and rural poor and simply those most affected by climate change – led the march, demonstrating that people are beginning to understand Global Climate Disruption as an issue of environmental justice.

Climate justice is social justice. Those most affected by global climate disruption are those least likely to have caused it, and those most likely to have caused it are those most likely to avoid its negative effects. This is the same equation that describes environmental injustice as a whole. Pollution and displacement affect impoverished communities and people of color disproportionately throughout the world, while the industry causing pollution and displacement benefit people in the elite urban cores that are dependent on resources extracted elsewhere.

There is a historical connection between political inequality and environmental destruction, from the conquest of Native America by Europeans to the contemporary extraction of natural resources in the Third World. Human cultures have always built relationships with territory, but colonialism is an exploitative economic and cultural system that subverts peoples’ connections to territory through displacement, land and resource theft, and subversion of native culture. The modern worldview justifies colonial domination of lands and peoples through the classification of all things within a hierarchy. Colonial society perpetuates hierarchies of “modern” people over “savages”, humans over animals and “man” over “nature”. Present day resource extraction follows this same logic, as peoples in the Third World seldom have political power over their land and resources, which are exploited to serve the expansion of global capitalism. Resistance to colonialism is best expressed by indigenous peoples who maintain cultural territory through a productive and non-exploitative connection to their ancestral lands.

Historically, the groups that have been given the power to decide who lives where and what resources to use have done so for their own benefit. Settler colonial society is founded on the idea that white settlers enact power and control over land. On the other hand, people of color have been acculturated to receive precisely the opposite message – they have been historically denied the political power to decide what happens on their cultural territory. Whether through displacement, slavery, genocide, land theft or xenophobia, non-whites throughout the world have been denied political or legal power over their land and resources.

As beneficiaries of colonialism, western environmentalists have been acculturated to believe they have dominion over nature. Environmentalism is rooted in a colonial logic because it suggests that the natural world is separate from the social and political world and needs to be protected. Decolonizing environmentalism rejects the colonial concept of “nature” and instead focuses on peoples’ relationships with their cultural territories. The inability for mainstream environmental politics to reach beyond a certain demographic has, in the past, reflected the imbalance of power established through colonialism.

It is easy to see injustice within global capitalism; and the anger levied at Wall Street and imperialism is well warranted. However, it can be hard to grasp the implications of challenging “the system” as a whole. A prominent narrative on the rise insists that global capitalism is incapable of providing justice or sustainability and is causing irreversible harm to the world. If we immediately jump to “Stop Global Warming”, or “end industrial capitalism” we miss the intermittent steps of establishing what it looks like to “not cause global warming”. Energy consumption in the US continues to rise as it has done for fifty years. The economic system that we comply with in our daily lives is exploitative to peoples and lands all over the world, whether we wish to admit it or not. Gasoline, coal, cheap electronics – your car, your lights, your cell-phone, and your computer – is all produced through colonial exploitation of lands and peoples.

One key problem with the traditional environmental movement is that it seeks solutions from the very demographic that is most complicit with causing and benefiting from exploitation and environmental degradation. Whether expressed as ideologically anti-capitalist or anti-global warming, those who assume the power to decide what happens to the world and what is best for the global society remains with settler-colonial, capitalist society. However, if we look to sites of resistance to global capitalism, we are likely to find people defending their cultural territories from exploitation, who offer real alternatives to environmental destruction. It is precisely these communities who have emerged to steer the environmental movement in a new and exciting direction.

Privileging indigenous and other frontline communities is the first step in moving towards justice and against global climate disruption. Communities that maintain their existence without exploiting other peoples and lands should be the standard for our conception of environmentalism. Indigenous struggles for land and resources throughout the Third and Fourth worlds challenges how all peoples connect to land. Framing capitalism as “unjust” and global warming as “devastating” can render action to the abstract plane of the “global”, when attainable solutions to these problems thrive at the local level. Justice and cultural territory are precisely the answers that environmentalists have been seeking.

Decolonizing environmentalism does not mean diversifying the existing movement. Decolonization is a process whereby the movement eschews its colonial roots and is remade from the ground up by those with the most at stake. The history of the world is diverse. Peoples are diverse. Land is diverse. The problem, however, is universal. Separating people from land, in order to control land and people is colonial, unjust, destructive, and divisive. Colonial exploitation must go, but so must the treatment of land as an object, the treatment of others as inferior, and the arrogance implied through a settler-colonial led solution. Decolonization is a diverse process too. It means something different for those who maintain ancestral territory, those who have been removed from their homelands and those who do not even understand what territory means. For some, the immediate response will be an empowered resurgence of their cultural values. For others it will be a slow process of learning. For still others, it will mean a sacrifice of their exploitative lifestyle. The next step for all of us will be to establish whether or not we are ready to teach, learn and act. The first step has been taken.

Dr. Tane Ward

10/02/2014

To learn about other decolonial environmental movements, check out these links:

http://www.ourpowercampaign.org

http://uprose.org

http://www.shieldthepeople.org

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