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Boyle Heights Activists Say Gentrification Is The Real Hate Crime

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Tensions between local activists and a burgeoning art gallery scene have roiled the predominantly Mexican-American, working class neighborhood of Boyle Heights for some time. Now, the LAPD is treating three recent acts of vandalism against galleries as "possible hate crimes," reports the L.A. Times.

The acts of vandalism in question, according to the Eastsider, reportedly include the words "Fuck White Art" spray-painted on the Nicodim Gallery. CBS LA reports that "187" (the penal code for murder) was also spray-painted above the tag.

“We don’t know who actually did [the vandalism], but because it actually made a reference to anti-white art or anti-white, it’s basically saying that it’s a hate crime based on that,” Det. John Parra of the LAPD’s Hollenbeck station told the Times.

Gallery owners and arriviste artists see Boyle Heights, with its relatively low rents and industrial areas along the Los Angeles River, as fertile ground for the city's expanding art scene; activists see those same galleries as a fundamental threat to their neighborhoods and way of life. For longtime members of the culturally rich and tight-knit community of Boyle Heights, the threat of displacement looms as violently as any act of vandalism.

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"The galleries are playing a huge role in our neighborhood, we see them jumping the river, moving right next to public housing, threatening our rents," Leonardo Vilchis, a longtime organizer and founder of Boyle Heights community group Union de Vecinos, told LAist in July.

The recent vandalism is far from the first action targeted against the growing gallery scene. In the past, community activists have staged protests outside of openings, served galleries with "eviction" notices, and attempted to shut down a performance of the mobile opera "Hopscotch."

“They’ve been having protests here for the past year or more. None of the galleries want to get involved,” said Mihai Nicodim, the owner of the Nicodim Gallery told CBS LA.

According to the L.A. Times, the Hollenbeck Station held a meeting with gallery owners last week "to try to get an understanding of the problem and come up with a plan, including attempting to open a dialogue with the activist group Defend Boyle Heights, which has been a driving force of opposition to the galleries."

Nancy Meza, a member of Defend Boyle Heights, told LAist that, as of yet, the station had only reached out to them "through the L.A. Times." We reached out to the Hollenbeck Station for comment but haven't yet been able to speak with anyone about the situation.

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"We see this as a bogus investigation, especially for it to be labeled a hate crime," Meza said.

"It's kind of ludicrous. Our community has gone through so much, in terms of dealing with actual, structural racism and hate as immigrant communities. Having that incident painted as a hate crime is really unnerving, considering the realities that our community has had to deal with," Meza said, adding that conversation in the neighborhood yesterday included questions about why freeway-based environmental justice issues in the community weren't also viewed as "hate crimes."

"We see this as a scare tactic to diminish anti-gentrification organizing," Meza said, calling it an attempt to "silence the community and scare us into not taking further action."

An activist involved with the Backyard Brigade (another of the several groups in a loose network of collectives fighting arts-based gentrification in the area) told LAist that some community members see the LAPD's hate crime accusations as particularly grating because in their view, the LAPD is as quick to target their community as they are to cater to the galleries. Meza also cited longstanding tensions between the Hollenbeck Station and the community it serves, particularly after the death of Jesse Romero.

"Gentrification," the Backyard Brigade activist told LAist, "is the real hate crime." This is a sentiment echoed by others in the community, particularly Defend Boyle Heights, which is perhaps the most well-known of the local activist groups.

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In a statement issued Thursday night, Defend Boyle Heights called gentrification "the truest, highest form of hate crime." They also distanced themselves from the vandalism, writing that although "the police, as the armed wing of the state, and the media, as its mouthpiece, will be quick to pin these acts of vandalism on Defend Boyle Heights, it is absolutely not the case."

"We don’t know who tagged up these galleries, but we we certainly don’t condemn it," they wrote.

Obviously, the galleries in question are only actors in a much larger, more macro tide of neighborhood change but, according to Meza, "we definitely don't see them as an innocent actor, as much as they may see themselves that way."

BHAAAD (Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement), an umbrella coalition that includes several of the activist groups mentioned above, will be holding a press conference Saturday morning at 10 a.m. on the corner of Anderson and 6th Street in Boyle Heights.

Related: Boyle Heights Activists Take Aim At Art Galleries In Fight Against Gentrification