Are white hipsters hijacking an anti-gentrification fight in Los Angeles?

As the Latino neighbourhood of Boyle Heights combats soaring property prices, some condemn outsiders involvement but others welcome their input

The Los Angeles neighbourhood of Boyle Heights has become a landmark battleground in the movement against gentrification, a contest widely seen as pitting working-class Latino activists against an influx of white-owned galleries.

The tactics rallies, threats, boycotts, confrontations, smashed windows, graffiti saying fuck white art are controversial and effective: one gallery has fled, others are nervous and have cancelled or moved events.

Chris Kraus, the film-maker and author of I Love Dick, recently cancelled a planned reading of her latest book at the 356 Mission gallery after activists threatened to disrupt the event.

A climate of harassment and online trolling made the event untenable, Hedi El Kholti, managing editor of Krauss publisher Semiotext(e), said. Bullying and intimidation are opposed to the very values of the work we publish.

Anti-gentrification activists in the United States and Europe have studied Boyle Heights, a cradle of the Chicano movement, as a potential model.

There is, however, an overlooked twist: some of the most radical members of the Boyle Heights resistance are white artists, most of whom do not appear to live in the neighborhood. Some of those appear to be using the banner of defending Boyle Heights to attack former friends and colleagues in LAs arts community. Others have also targeted Latino artists and not-for-profit organisations from Boyle Heights, accusing them of being shills for invading capitalists.

These largely unreported battle lines skew the conventional anti-gentrification narrative and shine a light on a handful of mostly white artists and others perceived to be outsiders who have transferred political and allegedly personal agendas to local anti-gentrification groups.

You have white guys telling a brown guy from the projects what to do in the community he grew up in, said Joel Garcia, director of programs at Self Help Graphics and Art, a visual art space which promotes Latino and Chicano artists but has been accused of collaboration with the galleries.

Irene Pea, who helped run a community garden, said outsiders infiltrated and took over her project. They falsely claimed, she said, that grant money from the University of Southern California would lead to evictions. Who are they? And why do they think that its their right to come into Boyle Heights and attack people and organisations that are serving the community?

Steven Almazan, a former outreach chair of the Boyle Heights neighborhood council, said outsiders were vocal in a campaign against a hipster cafe which has twice been vandalised. I found it kind of strange to hear people not from the neighbourhood speaking for the people of Boyle Heights.

However, the sense of urgency over gentrification families are being evicted; others are facing big rent hikes muffles local criticism of some activists who have limited connections to the area, but are nonetheless seen as energetic and savvy.

A lot of them have contradictions that we know about but [we] chose not to say anything, said Rudy Espinoza, executive director of the Leadership for Urban Renewal Network, a not-for-profit group that also found itself in the activists crosshairs. The reason, Espinoza said, was to avoid division and not undermine their effectiveness in raising awareness about the housing crisis.

Boyle Heights is a hardscrabble, overwhelmingly Latino community which sits across the Los Angeles river from the lofts and skyscrapers of downtown. Surging property prices have displaced Latino communities across east LA, prompting fear that Boyle Heights is next, with the arrival of about a dozen galleries potentially acting as a bridgehead for developers to swoop in. Mariachi musicians are already being priced out of homes around Mariachi Plaza.

Almost all stakeholders agree gentrification poses a threat to existing residents, especially renters.

The tactics and perceived motives of some activists, however, have raised the question of who speaks for Boyle Heights.

A racist critique

An exhibit at the Self Help Graphics & Art space in Boyle Heights, LA. Photograph: Rory Carroll for the Guardian

Angel Luna, a Latino activist who is from Boyle Heights, rejected any suggestion that outsiders had hijacked the resistance. Thats a racist critique because it makes invisible the labour of people like myself. To assume were controlled by a group of white people is racist and offensive.

The struggle was based on class, not race, he said, and Defend Boyle Heights, a coalition of radical groups, benefited from wide membership, including people not necessarily from the area: The gentrifiers and alt-right agents are afraid of a diverse movement building. Asked if some white artists brought their own baggage to the resistance, Luna said: Thats a fair way to put it. But Im afraid of feeding this racist idea that white people are at the centre of this movement.

Several prominent protesters have or had personal ties to targeted gallery owners and artists.

Kean OBrien, an artist who taught a course called Decolonization and Deconstruction at California State University, Long Beach, was a close friend of Jules Gimbrone and Barnett Cohen, who founded Pssst, a not-for-profit gallery. The friendship soured and OBrien joined a campaign against the gallery.

Those were my colleagues and friends who were making these big mistakes and causing displacement, OBrien said via email. It is very unfortunate that I lost my friendships with Jules and Barnett however, I stand proudly in the position I have taken on artwashing and will continue to challenge my colleagues, graduate school professors and friends as they participate in displacing people from their homes with their art careers. Our art careers are not worth more than peoples rights to housing.

Gimbrone and Cohen closed Pssst in February, citing constant attacks and highly personal harassment, without identifying the sources. Gimbrone declined an interview request, saying only that he was still processing all that happened.

Several artists and gallery owners, speaking anonymously, cited other cases of former friends and colleagues who now picketed their exhibitions and assailed them on social media. Its all so weirdly interconnected. Most are people who have struggled in their own art career. Its about take-downs, said one.

Guadalupe Rosales, a successful Latina artist with roots in Boyle Heights who exhibited at Pssst, had her car vandalised. Trolls also criticised her on social media.

Rosales declined to comment on who targeted her, saying only in a joint statement with Matt Wolf, the director of a documentary about her, that the situation in Boyle Heights was much more nuanced and complex than the community versus the galleries.

Gallery sources provided evidence of individuals who sought their patronage before turning against them via anonymous accounts on Instagram and other platforms. The Guardian put the allegations to two alleged trolls. One declined to respond, the other denied wrongdoing. The Guardian could not verify their role in online campaigns so is not naming them.

An anonymous Facebook page, Defend Boyle Heights from Defend Boyle Heights, has highlighted the role of Ultra-red, a small arts collective that advocates cultural and political struggle.

Its people who are looking for a pressure point to bring about revolutionary change, said the Facebook poster, speaking on condition of anonymity, citing fear of retribution. He said he had attended Defend Boyle Heights meetings to help combat gentrification but recoiled at the influence of the Ultra-red quartet.

It was a reference to Elizabeth Blaney, Dont Rhine and Walt Senterfitt, who are white, and Leonardo Vilchis, who is of Mexican heritage. The four are also prominent in Union de Vecinos, the LA Tenants Union and Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement (Bhaad), groups which form part of Defend Boyle Heights.

Elizabeth Blaney, co-founder of Union de Vecinos, a community group in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles Photograph: Rory Carroll for the Guardian

Rhine, a faculty co-chair at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, does not live in Boyle Heights. Senterfitt, an Aids researcher with a PhD from Yale, recently moved to Boyle Heights. Blaney and Vilchis have been active in Boyle Heights for decades.

The four give lectures and talks about gentrification, most recently at a Museum of Contemporary Art panel in June, which billed them as defenders of the public housing community.

Of the four, only Blaney was available for interview. She said the threat to Boyle Heights justified robust tactics. Peoples basic need for shelter is being taken from them. Thats an act of violence. Its a struggle of survival and self-defence. All different kinds of strategy are open. Im not condoning smashing windows but I understand where its coming from.

There is no suggestion Blaney or other members of Ultra-red are behind the vandalism.

Blaney played down the role of white activists. Its racist to imply that Latino members of the community cant think for themselves and are brainwashed by a group of white people. Its ludicrous and insulting to all theyre doing. She said all those targeted by Defend Boyle Heights were gentrifiers or enablers.

Garcia, of Self Help Graphics and Art, denied that and accused the group of making false claims to boost its leaders profile and legitimacy.

Our existence here threatens their validity to being social practice artists. We embody community arts practice. These artists are trying to usurp that. Attacking Self Help Graphics legitimises them it has everything to do with their professional positioning.

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Marissa SafontAre white hipsters hijacking an anti-gentrification fight in Los Angeles?

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