Category Archives: gentrification

A Naked Child Murdered in the Street

Last week a naked child was murdered in the street by a police officer in Austin, Texas. His name was David Joseph. There was public outcry – as there always is. The mayor promised justice and accountability. The police union defended the officer. One news outlet aired a report about how dangerous naked people can be. Now we are expected to wait, either for justice, or until this happens again.

Hyperlinks aside, conjecture; what does justice mean in this instance, and how does this incident affect this all-too-common drama? Conjecture aside; a naked child was murdered in the street. Let that sink in for a moment.

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Injustice is embedded in Austin’s Past, Present and… 

David Joseph was murdered in the street – a Black child of 17, in a city with the fastest shrinking Black population of any major city in the country. In Austin, the powers that be: the city council, planning department, police department and economic elite, have created a city where, by the numbers, Black people are not welcome. Furthermore, the city shows Black people they are not welcome when police murder their children, and the inflicting officers are never brought to justice.

NCMS1There is no shortage of interlocking elements to this story. However, it is unlikely that the policy makers or media will focus on issues that may bring justice or healing. This is deeper than an officer making a mistake – it illustrates the contemporary political movement Black Lives Matter. While BLM has brought police brutality towards People of Color to new heights of national media attention – we are still too often left without empowering solutions at the local level. It is important to be clear on exactly how and why this happened, so that we can determine a remedy. Perhaps the unique political and cultural history of our city can shed some light on this national epidemic .

Austinites have organized for justice and police accountability for decades – recently groups have unified in addressing Joseph’s murder: the NAACP, Austin Justice Coalition, Black Lives Matter, Peaceful Streets Project, People’s Task Force and Undoing Racism Austin. There is room for this organizing to grow in numbers, visibility, policy and strategy; however, there is also a strong cultural current working against it – Institutional Racism.

Cultural Legacies Die Hard

Similar to how White American culture was created on the falsehood that Black people are dependent upon and subservient to White people, in order to justify slavery; in the contemporary era, mass incarceration and police killings are justified through a cultural production of Black men as dangerous and criminal. Like all forms of racism, this is perpetuated at institutional, cultural and personal levels.

The Police Union President, Ken Casaday, has been vocal in justifying the shooting of David Joseph, asserting, “Just because someone is naked and in the street does not mean that they are not a danger to someone. I would tell you they are an extreme danger,” and “A person’s naked, running around the street, can kill you. They can take your gun, take your taser because they have an unhuman strength.” [Grammar errors in the original.]  Casaday alleges that naked people are even more dangerous than clothed people, assuming that they must be on drugs, which also cause violent behavior and give them superhuman abilities. This logic will be used in the officer’s defense, in order to establish their good judgment in using lethal force. That is all that will be asked of them.

NCMS2Our racist criminal justice system has upheld this rule each time the police murder someone in this city, and the narrative of the superhuman, violent naked black man is already being pumped out on the local news as a steady source of propaganda to cover the injustice of this murder. Casaday, through KVUE (the local ABC news affiliate) and KXAN (the local NBC affiliate), has now released a video of a naked Black man assaulting a police officer. Notice that this is not a video of David Joseph, but a completely different person in a completely different circumstance.

APD used this tactic in 2009, when the community sought justice for the police murder of Nathanial Sanders, another Black youth. The police released a video of the altercation, showing a Black man lunging at a police officer and being shot. However, the man lunging forward was Sir Smith, a different man who was also shot at the scene, but not fatally. Sanders, who never exited the vehicle, was shot in the back of the head through the window. This video was used as public evidence to defend an officer with a violent record  – justice was never served.

The image of the naked Black man alongside structural violence is a deep structuring element of American Society. The auction block and the lynching – violent practices of White Americans subjugating African Americans, was dependent on the dehumanization of the naked Black male body. Considering policy for police to video record all interactions through dash or body cameras has implications here. The police will have no shortage of justification for any of their actions if they simply substitute one Black body for the next. The media is already happily serving up this historic legacy of collective punishment and dehumanization of Black men.

As long as we allow the spread of dehumanizing propaganda, no amount of trainings, policies or cameras will mend this racist legacy. Overcoming the inherited violence enacted by both the police union and the news affiliate will be a cultural movement that refuses to yield the message that Black Lives Matter. Perhaps a good place for accountability to begin will be to ask KVUE and KXAN to not air such propaganda in the future (their contacts are here KVUE KXAN).

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Right Wing Status Quo

As anyone savvy enough to navigate the comments section of online discussions will notice, Right Wing racists have had no shame in blaming David Joseph for his own death; thereby meeting the public exactly where they’re at. The police union has never committed to hold their officers accountable, even though to do so would, in fact, preserve the integrity of APD, and make the job of officers less dangerous. The police should strive for trust, not fear, from the public. A partial explanation to this utter lack of humility may be found in the Police Lives Matter marches, which in Texas have vastly outnumbered Black Lives Matter rallies.

A recent example from Austin demonstrates how police are currently valued in our society. Brandon Daniel shot and killed police officer Jamie Padron in 2012. A struggle turned deadly when Daniel was caught shoplifting $57 worth of goods from Wal-Mart. Despite the clear lack of premeditation or likelihood to recommit, last week Daniel was sentenced to death. The precedent is simple – cop killers will be executed by the state. That is to say, police lives matter more than regular peoples lives. Furthermore, the fallen officer has since had an elementary school named after him. The system in multiple ways is upholding the reality that police lives matter a great deal – that is already the norm.

NCMS3The Police Lives Matter movement did not simply spring up as a reaction to Black Lives Matter, but is part of a long history of Right Wing nationalism in America. For many, the police represent the status quo and order, and their infallibility is a retrenchment of Right Wing nationalism, that refuses critique.

Police Lives Matter serves as a public demonstration of allegiance to the historic dominance and political power of White America. The wealth and power of the ruling class of Austin, and the USA, was built and maintained through the exploitative subjugation of People of Color. Atrocities that should fill history books, perpetrated by the ancestors of those in power, are replaced by an imaginary history that passes for the truth. The ancestors of White America are National heroes who cannot be criticized; the Constitution is presented as a sacred document that cannot be criticized; the long history of violent displacement and human dispossession cannot be criticized – and so, unsure of history and the current predicament, people do not understand our issues and cannot resolve our problems. While Police Lives Matter seems like a misguided farce, it is actually entrenched in a larger institutional fiction.

Conversely, a vocal fringe within the movement for police accountability called All Cops Are Bastards (ACAB) intersects seamlessly with police brutality defenders. ACAB calls for the abolition of the police, and squeezes insult to every police officer in the world into a 4-letter acronym. Unlike their Right Wing counterparts, their message is sorely distant from popular opinion and subverts meaningful movement towards justice.

The assertion that anyone against police brutality is anti-cop is utterly juvenile, but ACAB plays into this narrative with disturbing ease. Most ACAB members are White and consider themselves anti-racist. However, they essentially follow the dominant narrative of a societal division with the police and order on one side, and People of Color and disorder on the other. This is likely why there is overlap with some of these activists and the extreme Right.

NCMS4The reality is that not all cops are bastards; the criminal justice system is racist – and these are two vastly different statements. Furthermore, the racist structures of society are much deeper than the police; they are the courts, media, schools, tax system and many other facets of government and civil society. The idea that the crux of justice and injustice is bound within the violent encounter, only perpetuates the hostile cultural climate where police are at odds with Black communities. Instead, we must realize that all communities, including African Americans, Police, and even Black cops, are damaged when we do not have simple mechanisms for justice and accountability.

The truth is that this country was built by Black people for White people, who dehumanized them in order to justify their violence while maintaining their value system. Our current system continues with the value system and the dehumanization in tact. Police discriminatory extermination of Black youth serves to maintain the stratification of society. It is through this lens in which all cops are seen as bastards by the dispossessed – they are agents of death and inequity. However, the police are mere pieces of a much larger system, which remains hidden when people focus on only the police.

Towards Justice and Healing

Last Thursday, Mayor Adler addressed the community and spoke of justice and accountability. Many may be skeptical because we have heard these words before many times, and we have never seen justice in this city. How much accountability will we see if people do not admit their own history or address the whole system?

 In order to move forward, this community must establish a common set of values and adhere to them. To expect respect, we must show it. To expect justice, we must administer it. To achieve accountability, we must build it, one stone at a time.

In this instance accountability and justice should mean an independent investigation, an indictment of criminal charges against the officer, an altering of policies that shield officers from justice, compensation for the child’s family, a renegotiation of the police union contract with community stakeholders at the table and accountability in mind, increased support for mental health facilities and first responders without guns, and resources for building community networks of neighbors who do not call the police on troubled youngsters.

Austin has yet to commit to preserving the historic communities of the East Side, neither Black or Chicano. Justice is in development policy, too. It is in refusing to see Joseph’s murder as an isolated incident.

Activists are now committed to hold both City Hall and APD accountable. The community deserves justice.  We put people first. The collective we form will be one of unity for all peoples, and will reject White Supremacy enforced by the dominant society. The police are only a problem because the system they protect is a problem. A society based in equity and justice is the answer to police violence. Let’s build it!

austin10n-4-web

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Stickers and their Discontents

10410953_10203604925216333_5073732925099061044_nSome excellent social commentary was made during SXSW this year, something that I would have loved to see years ago. Someone put stickers on East Austin business replete with the COA logo that said, “Exclusively for white people. Maximum of 5 colored customers, colored BOH (Back of House) staff accepted.”

The satire clearly linked the historic institutional racism of Austin with the ongoing consumer-led gentrification and displacement on the East Side. This has stirred discourse in the city, but to a level, which falls short of what we are capable of. All the reaction from the media has been laughable. There is a disturbing collective feign of ignorance floating around about the intention and meaning of the art. Let’s not kid ourselves – it is a pretty straightforward message about race and gentrification.

Main points aside – here are some considerations of Stickergate before it fades into the unfashionable fortune of having happened last week:

  1. The flash issue obscures gentrification.

 There is a lot of gentrification happening in the city and it is partially fueled by SXSW. It would be great to see people take more responsibility in mitigating the negative effects that tourism and consumer-based economies have on historic neighborhoods. I would love the same engagement on revitalizing the East Side and holding exploitative City and capitalist practices accountable as I do from people reacting to relatively innocuous art.

The same week, for example, a beautiful and historic mural on East Cesar Chavez was nonchalantly painted over by a foreign artist. The Lotteria mural is culturally significant to Cesar Chavez as a Mexican neighborhood, but as the makeup of businesses is changing, our culture is being erased. This was not covered on the news, and that layer of paint doesn’t peel off quite so easily. Neither does the displacement of thousands of people from their neighborhoods across the country. Another example is the demolition of Piñatas Jumpolín (see Dale Dale Dale postmarked 2/23/15) – a far worse act in terms of destruction and insensitivity, but one that was defended and as specifically “not racist” by many.

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  1. People missed the satire.

 Sadly, many people thought the stickers were made by White supremacists and to be taken literally. Geesh! I don’t know what to say. That would be like reacting the Right Wing ravings of Stephen Colbert. Austin Mayor Steve Adler called the act “appalling” and “offensive”. This comes from a mayor who made no public comment of the demolition of Jumpolín or the destruction of the Loteria mural. It seems like making White people uncomfortable is a greater sin than destroying the culture and heritage of historic Communities of Color (which is exactly the point of the stickers, so maybe Adler is really in cahoots with the artist and is just laying the satire on extra thick).

Others mistook the stickers to be aimed at garnering ire toward the businesses and the city by framing them as overtly white supremacist. This was not an attack on the businesses or the city or the people associated with them. That some civil rights leaders took it there was an unfortunate diversion. The point was to imply that the City of Austin is racist as an institution, and businesses cater to specific class groups that follow racially segregated norms.   There, that’s not so bad, is it?

  1. People misused the concepts of racism and hate-speech.

 People were really offended by the stickers and called them racist. One business owner called it “ hate-speech”. This messaging was also consistently and conveniently accompanied by a message of confusion – “why would they do it?” If you do not experience gentrification as a painful reality resulting in the displacement of your community or understand the racist history and current structure of our city, than you might not understand the point here. However, your ignorance does give you the authority to claim the status of a victim. Regardless of who owns or runs the targeted businesses – they are profiting from a system that is rooted in exploitation. That does not mean we hate you. Please stop pretending that pointing out social reality is hatred because it makes you feel guilty. Racism is real and the stickers probably reflect a painfully accurate depiction of who patronizes these businesses.

I was so flabbergasted by the conviction of the business owner’s whine that I thought about staging a boycott of their business – just because they so distastefully inserted their own self-serving grievance. Instead I decided to write this. You can thank me later (with free cupcakes  – kidding!)

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  1. The weak response from POC community leaders is inconsistent with the political history (and I’m not sure why).

Instead of Black leaders seizing the opportunity to bring attention to the plight of their communities and the legacies that have been mostly forgotten, Councilwoman Ora Houston, NAACP chairman Nelson Linder and Representative Dawna Dukes all responded with White protectionism. Completely out of touch, missing the satire and feigning ignorance of meaning and intention, the cadre of Austin’s old guard Black activist seemed to parrot the naiveté of the city’s rookie mayor. How disappointing that even when the door is blown open, these leaders failed to simply walk through it.

Each of these three community leaders has been vocal on segregation, racism, gentrification and fair business practices. How could they have possibly missed the satire and the political opportunity to respond? Why when the clueless enactors of gentrification ask “but why?” do our POC officials not have such a simple answer? This makes the need for disruptive art/activism so important.

  1. Back of House comment should not be overlooked

 How many Austin businesses have POC working in the kitchen and all White, or white-passing, servers up front?

If you answered “probably most of them”, you are absolutely probably right.

Racism is inequitable outcomes where there shouldn’t be. Mexicans are not naturally just better at washing dishes and Whites better at serving because they have fine breeding – no one really thinks that. No one really thinks they are racist either – but take a look in any restaurant in town and it is plain as day – real, live racism! I’m sure there are no business policies or city mandates for BOH/FOH racial segregation. The point is that there doesn’t need to be. Let that soak in before reacting.

 

  1. It is pretty funny

 

“Uh, Earth to Brint, I was making a joke, okay?”

With all the horribly racist violence against People of Color, the cultural and historic racism in East Austin, the racist outcomes of profit-driven exploitation and gentrification and everything else POC deal with, can we have a simple joke? The stickers peeled right off.

The fact a few little stickers are such a problem for people is harsh. Lighten up. This is a long haul and there is a lot of real work to be done to heal, undo racism and stop gentrification. Don’t fall too hard.

It’s just a sticker – It’s not like somebody destroyed the neighborhood where you grew up.

Thanks to Native East Austinites Andrea Melendez & Estrella de Leon for your strength and inspiration for this response.

Some links:

Video of alleged artist

kxan news story

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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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