Yesterday I was sitting outside the Austin Convention Center eating some macaroni and cheese when I heard the sounds of a protest.
Strangely (for me), my initial reaction was mild annoyance. Usually I love a good protest, but just a few minutes before I’d witnessed a few dozen SXSW badgeholders march past while chanting about sheep and dreams. It wasn’t real activism, but actually a promotional event for a movie premiering at the film festival.
So when I heard another group of marchers, I assumed it was more corporate faux-grassroots astro turf.
Then, as the small but enthusiastic group drew nearer, I realized it was the genuine article. Defend Our Hoodz – Defiende El Barrio, a local group struggling against gentrification and inequality in east side Austin, organized the march.
One of their major targets is the Blue Cat Cafe, a coffee shop where you can play with and adopt stray cats, which opened last year on Cesar Chavez. The owners built their cafe on the same lot as Jumpolin, a family-owned business that was abruptly demolished to make room for development that would attract hipsters and SXSW business, and the site of the former piñata store is now the Blue Cat’s patio and parking lot.
Since then, there’s been a community boycott of the real estate firm responsible, F&F Real Estate Ventures, and any associated businesses in the space. We’ve successfully gotten many other companies and groups to cancel their events at the Cat Cafe, too, after community outreach efforts were rudely rebuffed by the owners.
The activists had brought a piñata shaped like a mixed-use condominium with a huge dollar sign on top, and they asked people to take turns whacking it with a rainbow stick. A young black girl walked up and started going wild on it, smacking it until it exploded into a shower of glitter, plastic eggs, and Mexican candies. The optics were great, so they just let her have at it.
“SXSW! Enjoy these exotic Mexican candies while you colonize our city!” declared one protester on the bullhorn.
While enjoying the spectacle, I noticed a pair of women watching and filming, and one was wearing a Blue Cat t-shirt. At first, I thought it was a funny coincidence — the cafe is hosting some SXSW events (unless we get all the artists to cancel), so it seemed possible she was just a customer. But, watching her more, her bitter, nasty expression made it clear to me she had a more personal connection.
“Are you associated with the cafe?” I asked.
“I’m the owner,” Rebecca Gray said.
Well, it was on after that. Things got pretty heated between her and I. I asked her if she felt comfortable owning a buiness built on the ruins of a family’s livelihood, and that didn’t endear me to her at all. Her friend filmed us while alternately scowling and smirking. I guess it helps to have backup when you’re following a protest around that’s in your honor.
About that though — first Rebecca insisted that the protesters had been following her, then almost immediately changed her tune to say she’d just coincidentally walked up on the protest while handing out fliers. She didn’t seem clear on which was the real story, but it was clear to everyone else that she was the one following the protesters, and she seemed frankly obsessed with them — which isn’t surprising, since their goal is to force her to move or go out of business.
The lies kept coming after that. She’s totally innocent and just loves cats, and a life-long east side resident so how could she possibly be gentrifying. Oh and she’s saved just SO MANY cat lives.
“So cats are more important than humans?”
That definitely rubbed her the wrong way.
It went on like that for a while, and frankly, Rebecca, you came across as deeply pathetic, especially when you tried to claim demolishing a family business is legal and normal when the business owners are suspected of selling stolen goods — a persistent rumor Rebecca likes to spread to justify her gentrification while she simultaneously denies she’s responsible for that same gentrification. Not only that, but her business partner at the cafe is now operating another business with Jordan French, one of the owners of F&F — something else she tried to insist had nothing to do with her.
USA Today’s Jon Swartz actually covered the protest, commenting that the activists “struck a far harsher tone than the anti-robot rally that occurred in the same spot a year ago.”
I guess that’s because people are losing their homes right now, while the robot menace is still in our future.
My favorite moment was when a spectator walked up to me and told me I shouldn’t be so loud, because I wasn’t effectively getting my message across. At first, she seemed quite sympathetic to Rebecca — until she found out who she was.
“Wait, you’re the ones who built on Jumpolin?” she asked, with a look of horror on her face.
Happily, I caught both their priceless expressions on camera:
Rebecca, everyone in Austin loves cats, but no one wants to go to your cafe while it’s built on top of Jumpolin. Just move your fucking business, OK?
Otherwise, we’re driving you out, and what happens to all those cats then?
CORRECTION: A few details in this article have been updated, including the proper name of F&F Real Estate Ventures. Additionally, the original version of this article implied that the Blue Cat Cafe is literally built where Jumpolin was, while it actually shares the same lot and uses the Jumpolin site as a patio and for parking and food cart vending. I regret the error.
Protesting Gentrification & Blue Cat Cafe At #SXSW by Kit O’Connell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.