If we keep doing this to every developer in the city, perhaps we can slow — or even reverse — the tide of gentrification.
Protests are often aimed at systems that can’t listen or people who won’t listen. It was hard not to get protest fatigue this year, as each month brought another march billed as a Nationwide Mobilization That Would Change Everything. After marching on everything from science to tax returns to tar sands, it seems most of our efforts came and went without making much of a lasting impression. If a riot is the language of the unheard, a protest often feels like talking amongst yourselves.
Rather than sitting at home in wearied cynicism, however, perhaps we should simply reconsider who exactly we’re protesting. Governments, corporations, and societal systems only move when pushed hard and consistently enough to make change inevitable: a few scattered marches, large as they may be, are hardly as convincing as profit, lobbyists, and institutional inertia.
But what about your town’s mini-Trump, the dude who’s making people miserable with his greed and callousness? Yeah, that guy’s life can be made seriously more difficult through a little targeted protesting.
In Los Angeles, we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to people who deserve such an honor as to be singled out for individual protest. One such honoree is Frank “BJ” Turner.
BJ recently bought an apartment complex in Mariachi Plaza, a part of gentrification-holdout Boyle Heights, that houses many actual mariachis. Upon securing the property’s deed, he set about jacking up the tenants’ rents. Families overnight saw their rental bills shoot up from $1,020 to $1,825, an increase of almost 80 percent. Turner and his management company hoped that by charging these outlandish rates, the tenants would remove themselves from the building. Once cleared of the Latinx families and mariachis who have made Boyle Heights their home for generations, the building could be turned into an enclave of white, creative class tenants lured by the charm of the development’s deeply ironic proposed name — Mariachi Crossing.
Boyle Heights stands as one of the last remaining working class Latinx neighborhoods in what was once a city full of them. Its residents are determined not to give up any more ground. And so, with the Los Angeles Tenants Union and Union de Vecinos, the tenants of Mariachi Plaza have been fighting back against BJ Turner, presenting a unified front of rent strikes, protests, and media campaigns.
BJ Turner lives in a tony westside neighborhood, far from Boyle Heights. He has never met the people he is working to displace, and never would have to — except that the tenants have come to him. They have chartered buses to bring Boyle Heights to Rancho Park, protesting right outside his home. In the past, BJ has gotten wind of these plans and booked a hotel room to avoid the crowd. So on Tuesday, members of the Democratic Socialists of America — Los Angeles and Ground Game decided to pay a surprise visit to ensure he couldn’t look away.
We arrived after the sun had set, and assembled on the sidewalk and patch of public land in front of BJ’s house. Immediately, it was clear this protest was different from the many that have taken the streets of late. Instead of chanting vaguely to the media in the hope that someone powerful might overhear, we directed our words to BJ himself, who was inside his home peeking out from behind his blackout curtains.
“Housing is a human right, not just for the rich and white!” we chanted, first at his front door, and then walking around the block. A middle aged white couple came out of their home and sputtered at our words, saying they thought the idea of housing being a human right was absurd. Houses on their block are currently going for $1–2 million, but if they bought their home even in 2000, they probably paid about $200,000.
Circling the block, we let BJ’s neighbors know about the predatory real estate developer next door. Since ours is an era of almost unprecedented isolation, we didn’t assume they knew their neighbor’s name or face. So we handed out flyers with his image and told them his name, urging them to get to know this neighbor who was enjoying their neighborhood as he destroyed someone else’s. Much like charity, activism can start at home.
Some of the Mariachi Plaza tenants came to bring us spiced hot cocoa and pan dulce. If you’ve been thinking about getting involved with this fight, please consider the food that could be in your activist future.
We set up four tents on the public strip of land just beyond BJ’s property, but the LAPD soon sent four officers in two SUVs, as BJ had called to complain about the menace we were now posing to society. They told us we weren’t allowed to camp there, but when we countered by asking what city code they were citing exactly, they had to call back to the station, their bluff called. It turned out there was no such code, and we were free to spend the night. We considered how differently the interaction would have gone had we appeared to be camping out of necessity rather than protest, and if we hadn’t had a lawyer present who felt confident to challenge the cops’ proclamations.
We split up amongst the tents, bundled for warmth. As we tried and failed to fall asleep on the cold, hard ground, we considered the over 60,000 people in LA County for whom sleeping outside is their everyday reality — finding a place where cops won’t arrest them, and no one will harass or hurt them, trying to sleep despite the noise and lights that are constants in LA, and breathing in the smog of the hidden corners of the city, under freeway overpasses and on city sidewalks. With affordable housing at a critical low, the longtime residents of Mariachi Plaza might very well find themselves in a similar situation. We hope that our one night of camping might help prevent them from enduring years of it.
The City has to a large degree given up on solving homelessness (and Mayor Garcetti has admitted as much in a recent radio appearance), and after a legal settlement it has been forced to allow a short window, between 9 pm and 6 am, when the homeless can pitch tents without the threat of state-sanctioned theft and violence. Camping ourselves, we had to follow these restrictions too. And so, after a mostly sleepless night, we awake to 5:50 am alarms to take down our tents, aware that the police had informed BJ of this rule and that he might be waking up as early as we were to sic them on us should we leave them up a minute too long.
We started out the day quietly passing out flyers to BJ’s early bird neighbors. One man said he used to own a property in Culver City, and would never do what BJ was doing in increasing the rents by so much so quickly. Another neighbor told us she had never met BJ, but now that she heard what he was doing, she would be sure to get to know him and let him know her disapproval. A third told us she had read about this case, but hadn’t known its perpetrator was on her block until we showed up. We hope that by informing his neighbors of his actions, they might now pressure him in ways the tenants, whose social graces don’t matter to him one way or another, cannot. After all, unlike the residents of Boyle Heights, these are the people he has to see, or at least drive by, everyday.
We don’t know how BJ Turner’s moral compass aligns. But whatever his values, it must at least leave an impression when people are so mad at you they’d take the trouble to come across town, stand outside your house, and shout specifically at you, then sleep outside and start it up again at six in the morning. Even if he doesn’t care, perhaps his children will ask him to explain why people are so upset with him. And even if they are placated with whatever Gordon Gekko platitudes he picked up at business school, perhaps his neighbors will start to pester him, alongside the tenants. Eventually, perhaps the constant protests and camp outs and angry neighbors will make evicting all these people from their homes just too much of a nuisance to be worth the quick buck. And if we keep doing this to every developer in the city, perhaps we can slow — or even reverse — the tide of gentrification.