The message was clear: “Fuck White Art.” Those were the words anonymously spray-painted on the roll-up gate of Nicodim Gallery in Boyle Heights this past October, a sign of the growing tension between galleries and anti-gentrification activists in this predominantly Latino neighborhood. What is not so clear is whether or not this graffiti, along with two other recent acts of vandalism, should be labeled as hate crimes. The LAPD certainly thinks so, and announced recently that they will be treating it as such, potentially turning what would most likely be considered a misdemeanor into a felony — which also suggests they think the culprit is non-white, though there is no evidence as to the identity of the vandal.
In response to this announcement, the Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement (BHAAAD) organized a press conference for the morning of November 5 on the steps of Nicodim Gallery. Whereas at previous events, the coalition had highlighted the voices of people of color, this time most of the speakers were white, presumably to counteract the narrative that the “hate crime” was a symptom of anti-white sentiment.
“As someone who is white, who has been living in this community for 22 years, I have never experienced any anti-white sentiment,” said Elizabeth Blaney, co-executive director of neighborhood advocacy organization Union de Vecinos. “I believe this is just another way for the galleries to refuse to accept responsibility for what they are doing to this community, for the displacement they are causing.”
She reiterated the activists’ demand that all galleries leave, and to let residents decide what kinds of businesses should open in their neighborhood. “My neighbors are asking for laundromats … my neighbors are asking for childcare facilities and places for the senior population,” she said. “I’m not going to ask for some organic cafe, or a dog park, or a 24-hour fitness. Those things may be really nice, but that’s not what my neighbors are asking for. My neighbors are not asking for a gallery. They have never asked for a gallery, so I’m not going to ask for a gallery.”
Several speakers framed the hate crime charge as a deliberate attempt to criminalize their anti-gentrification actions. “Calling the police for damage and disruption from a protest or a street art graffiti tag is enacting the racist police state, and is a racist, violent act against a community of mostly people of color. Jesse Romero was killed by these same police for tagging,” said Kean O’Brien, a white, transgender artist and activist, referencing the 14-year-old boy who was shot and killed by police in Boyle Heights last August as he fled from police who had received a call about graffiti. Police say the youth fired a gun at them, while some witnesses say a gun went off after the boy threw his to the ground.
“The real question is which side are you on?” asked Walt Senterfitt, a 72-year-old queer, white resident of Boyle Heights. “We know what side the LAPD is on, and we know what the charges of anti-white racism and vandalism represents and what it leads to: a criminalization of our youth, of our community, a targeting and picking off of people of color, and of everybody who refuses and who rebels and who resists.”
Hamid Khan of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition made the protestors’ demands quite clear: “We demand LAPD drop the charges, not against an individual, against a whole community,” he stated. “We should all be insulted. We should all take it personally.”
This all begs the question: Why did the LAPD decide to treat this as a hate crime in the first place? The gallery’s owner, Mihai Nicodim, denies ever calling the police regarding this act of vandalism or previous incidents, including one where gallery goers had potatoes thrown at them. The Hollenbeck Police Station did not return Hyperallergic’s calls, however police did invite representatives from several galleries to an October meeting, according to an anonymous source who was in attendance. At this meeting, Police Chief Rick Stabile allegedly announced plans to set up surveillance cameras in the area, as well as his intention to investigate this act of vandalism as a hate crime. Members of BHAAAD, Defend Boyle Heights, or other anti-gentrification groups were not present.
According to Daria Roithmayr, a professor at USC’s Gould School of Law, it may be hard to make the hate crime charge stick. “Hate crime statutes have to be applied to activities that are directed at particular people because of the people’s race/disability/gender, etc.,” she told Hyperallergic when reached by phone. “It’s not an easy conclusion that the hate crimes statute would apply to graffiti on an art gallery where the graffiti refers to the art. It’s not clear if it’s art that’s produced by white artists, or consumed by white patrons — none of that’s clear.”
The BHAAAD press conference ran smoothly, until a worker from the gallery showed up shortly before it was set to open. Riding up on her motorcycle, she stopped directly in front of the press conference, inches from protestors, before attempting to walk up the stairs. Amidst cries of “gentrifier!,” she was physically blocked by protestors, who eventually let her through and allowed her to open the gallery’s doors.
The serene mood inside the gallery seemed far removed from the cries of injustice that had taken place just a few feet outside. Somewhat ironically, the gallery owner related his own history of activism when asked about his opinion of the protests. “I was not born into money. When I was their age, I had my protests back in Romania,” Nicodim said, recounting how he jumped into the Danube at 27 to escape repression in the former Communist country. He wound up homeless in New York, before moving to LA, where he learned English at Fairfax High. “When people start to dictate who can live in which neighborhood, that’s when it’s dangerous,” he said. “That is what I fled.”
Nicodim told Hyperallergic that he felt the protestors were misrepresenting the situation, painting the gallery owners as faceless corporations when most of them were in reality small business owners. “I built this space from scratch with no developers. I still rent this building, owned by Mr. Chang,” he said. “If he can’t rent to small businesses, a corporation will buy the whole block. 5,000 condos or five galleries, which is more dangerous?”
For at least an hour after the press conference, the protestors regrouped across the street, discussing their upcoming actions. Although the gallery was now open, they made no attempt to enter, making clear that their interest lay not in dialogue with the gallery, but in forcing it to leave.
The day before the press conference, Defend Boyle Heights posted a picture of Nicodim’s vandalized roll-up gate on their Instagram, with the caption: “Unknown artist, Boyle Heights, CA, ‘Fuck White Art’ (2016), Graffiti on Metal Door.” This sly social media recontextualization recalls an earlier piece of activist art, ASCO’s “Spray Paint LACMA” (1972). In response to a LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) curator’s statement that Chicano’s made graffiti not art, thereby explaining their absence from the museum’s galleries, the Chicano collective spray-painted their names on the museum’s entrance, “thus making the world’s largest work of Chicano art in the affluent and white mid-Wilshire area of the city.” The crucial difference between these two actions is that ASCO was demanding to be let into the institution, whereas the current wave of Boyle Heights activists want no part of it.