Contested Territory

Fallout continues after Eastside businesses tagged with racist stickers

Stickers placed on Eastside businesses
Stickers placed on Eastside businesses (Source: Dawnna Dukes)

Sometime in the early morning hours of Wednesday, March 18, some person or persons tagged several East Austin businesses with what appeared to be official stickers declaring that the shops were "exclusively for WHITE PEOPLE," and claiming sponsorship by a nonexistent city of Austin "Contemporary Partition and Restoration Program." The signs also supposedly established a limit of "a maximum of 5 colored customers," with the added proviso, "colored BOH [back of house] staff accepted."

At first, it was unclear who might have placed the stickers. Over the next couple of days, local defense attorney Adam Reposa (aka the "DWI King") posted YouTube videos indirectly claiming the action, describing them as anti-racist protests against gentrification, and denouncing anyone who didn't immediately understand his intentions as "stupid," in incoherent rants that went on to advise viewers not to "give a fuck" and to "apply the technology."

Initially, a few people had indeed read the stickers literally – a Facebook post posted by a passerby deploring racism and the city's supposed sponsorship quickly went viral, and state Rep. Dawnna Dukes followed with a post saying her office was investigating and that officials had informed her that the city was not involved. (At that time, she identified only one store: the Rare Trends clothing store on East 12th.) Dukes added that if the store could not adequately explain the source of the stickers, "They need to be put out of business." Within hours, Dukes had followed with several posts saying the businesses involved had in fact been the victims of a vicious prank: "Each and every business that was tagged with a sticker is victim to an act of hatred." But her initial post remained online, and as the story quickly broke nationally, many media outlets – notably the Huffington Post – made no such distinctions, even headlining without qualification Dukes' incomplete statement: "They need to be put out of business."

In addition to Rare Trends, other businesses tagged with the stickers included El Chile restaurant, El Chilito Tacos y Cafe, Windmill Bicycles, Sugar Mama's Bake­shop, and Counter Cafe.

Caroline Gray, director of sales and marketing for Rare Trends, said the staff hadn't noticed the sticker (placed on a display window) at first, and was only made aware of it by phoned-in complaints – it was taken down and later given to police. On its own Facebook page, Rare Trends posted: "We were victims of an outrageous vandalism act occurring in many East Austin businesses. Rare Trends does not or will never discriminate against any person regardless of their age, ethnicity, or religious beliefs."

Similar statements were posted by other businesses, notably Sugar Mama's: "It is the beauty and diversity of Austin that has been the cornerstone to our success in this incredible city. We have sought a staff that represents inclusion and we serve two unique neighborhoods that have been shaped and characterized by their distinctive communities."

A day or two later, owners and employees of the businesses – while deploring the stickers – told the Chronicle that most of their customers had been supportive. In particular, Sarah Goeth of Windmill Bicycles said that among the well-wishers was District 1 City Council Member Ora Houston, who stopped by the shop to say she is glad Windmill is a neighbor. "She was wonderful," Goeth said. "Beyond that, we'd just like the whole thing to die down."

The owners of Sugar Mama's reacted more strongly, considering the stickers a direct insult to their multi-racial staff and customers. Co-owner Olivia Guerra O'Neal (whose family is also multiracial) posted to Instagram that she considered the stickers a "hate crime." She says she received many supportive responses, but also some angry reactions and a few threats.

And because of the Dukes post and the consequent national news coverage, Rare Trends was receiving hostile calls and social media posts throughout Wednesday and Thurs­day, and owner Paola Ortiz Moore was extremely disappointed with her state rep. "How can a State Repre­sentative go to Facebook and rant and slander a business in her community, before checking the facts?" Ortiz Moore posted. "We design for women, ALL women, that's what we love doing. Instead today we have been putting out a fire that wasn't caused by us." She asked Dukes for a retraction and public apology, but Dukes told the Chronicle that she had only "posted a hypothetical," said Ortiz Moore was overreacting, and pointed to her several subsequent posts defending all the businesses.

After Ortiz Moore and Dukes' staff exchanged several phone calls – including at least some discussion of potential legal action – Dukes took her Facebook page private, posting that Ortiz Moore's distortions of her intentions were making it impossible to move forward. Ortiz Moore told the Chronicle that Dukes was refusing to acknowledge the damage that her initial post was doing to Ortiz Moore's business and reputation, even putting her staff at risk. Dukes responded that Ortiz Moore seemed unaware of the history of "whites only" rhetoric in U.S. history, and that Dukes' initial response – like that of several African-American residents – had been outrage at the calling up of that racist history. As of earlier this week, the disagreement had not been resolved.

Meanwhile, Reposa had initially posted a video ("The Primary Application") of himself at home in his underwear, denouncing the initial reaction to the stickers (insisting they represented a "trenchant analysis" of gentrification and racism), calling Dukes "dumb" and "stupid," and urging viewers to "apply the technology" and "go into the darkness and not give a fuck." When that video went unnoticed, he posted another – this one called "Why I did it" – of himself, shirtless, in front of Sugar Mama's at night, dismissing the angry reactions of the businesses and employees as ignorant, and reiterating, "I don't give a fuck, look at me." Judging from subsequent online and media reaction, many did.

Reposa was accompanied by whoever was shooting the videos, and no other claimant to the stickers has come forward. A spokesman for the city of Austin said the police are investigating to determine if criminal mischief or other charges might be applicable.

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