When three Los Angeles friends soft-launched their coffee shop earlier this month, they expected maybe five customers. Instead, they encountered more than a dozen angry anti-gentrification protestors demanding they leave the neighborhood for good.
“They tripped our customers that came in,” said John Schwartz, one of the co-founders of Weird Wave Coffee Brewery. “They banged on our glass. They screamed into the room. They threw stuff at me when I tried to remove some stickers they put up on the window. It was a picture of a guy in a ski mask beating up another guy … They tried to incite fights by getting in people’s face and saying ‘f*ck you, I’m going to beat you up, I’m going to kill you,’ trying to get someone to punch them first.”
Weird Wave Coffee’s owners say the protests in the poor, heavily Mexican LA neighborhood of Boyle Heights have also had an overtly anti-white focus—one they find odd, given that Mario Chavarria, one of the co-founders, was born in El Salvador. Civil war raging, his parents sent him to the United States as a refugee when he was 10, having him live with his 20-year-old brother.
“I’m Hispanic,” Chavarria said. “I grew up in the barrio. I don’t know why this is a big deal.”
The owners said several of their customers have asked to exit through the back door, afraid to come face to face with the protestors. One of their regulars covered his face with a bag, nervous about the demonstrators recognizing him, they said.
The intense controversy surrounding Weird Wave is part of a larger phenomenon, where small businesses find themselves exposed to unexpected risk as America grapples with the culture wars. Just last month, the two white owners of Kooks Burrito, a Portland food cart, shuttered their business amid allegations of cultural appropriation and massive uproar.
Chavarria and his partners looked at properties across the city before deciding on the Boyle Heights location; it was in their price range, not far from downtown Los Angeles, and unlike other neighborhoods they’d considered, it wasn’t already saturated with competing coffee shops.
But Boyle Heights has also been the epicenter of anti-gentrification activism. Another series of protests, similar to the ones targeting Weird Wave, drove an art gallery called PSST out of business there in February; its owners said they’d been unrelentingly harassed in person and trolled online.
Leonardo Vilchis, co-founder of the nonprofit Union de Vecinos (Union of Neighbors), said he’s helped lead the protests because he’s concerned that art galleries, coffee shops and breweries catering to affluent outsiders and hipsters will drive up rents, ultimately forcing longtime residents out of Boyle Heights.
Union de Vecinos, a nonprofit, started in 1996 in opposition to the demolition of the Pico Aliso public-housing projects. According to its financial disclosures, the organization also focuses on “environmental justice, the right to housing, and the right to safe and healthy neighborhoods,” with a special focus on Boyle Heights. Enlisting community organizers and volunteers, the group has fought gentrification in Boyle Heights.
“We’re very concerned about how this wave is coming,” Vilchis said. “People have been displaced out of the city, and they’re losing all their neighborhoods and relationships and support they’ve built by decades living in this neighborhood.”
Union de Vecinos has partnered with three other local groups, which together form Defend Boyle Heights. Vilchis said the goal is, unequivocally, to shut down Weird Wave Coffee.
Vilchis said that he, personally, hasn’t witnessed any threats, vandalism or physical attacks by protestors. “People get frustrated,” he added. We did hear that tempers go up. But as an intention or a plan for us or anyone, trying to say we’re going to trip or hurt people or anything—that’s not what we’re trying to do in any way, shape or form. … There’s lots of different individuals coming to this thing, so we can’t be held responsible for what they’re doing.”
Even so, the tone of the anti-gentrification protests in Boyle Heights has been notably militant.
One poster, recently put up in the neighborhood, warned that “Boyle Heights is not safe for hipster trash.” It depicted a skull wearing hipster glasses, framed in the crosshairs of a gun. (Vilchis said Union de Vecinos did not create that poster or put it up.)
Another flyer, handed out at the Weird Wave protests, warned passersby in Spanish: “To break the boycott against this space by crossing the picket lines is an act of aggression and alignment with the racial destruction of Boyle Heights as a Latinx, working-class community. If you have the choice: choose the side of the people of Boyle Heights.”
Weird Wave says the protestors have yelled “f*ck white coffee” and held up signs saying they make “Amerikkanos.” Other flyers have used a play on words, referring to Weird Wave as “white wave” or “foreign wave.”
“It’s straight up racism, reverse-racism, against me and my friends,” Chavarria, the owner from El Salvador, said. “They’re calling me vendido, which is like sell-out. … [My partners] feel these people are totally against them because they’re white. That’s very disheartening to hear someone say that.”
A serial entrepreneur, 47-year-old Chavarria owns a logistics company and manages his own property. Schwartz, a video-game developer, and their third partner, Jackson Defa, a writer, moved into one of Chavarria’s apartment buildings, and the trio hit it off, bonding in part over their common love of coffee. Chavarria invested the money, and Defa and Schwartz will handle Weird Wave’s day-to-day operations.
That’s been a stressful job in the past few weeks.
Vilchis said the protestors’ umbrage isn’t about race. “There are brown people, people of color, who are taking advantage of the situation, and there are white people taking advantage of the situation. … The bottom line is, what is the impact on the most poor?”
Weird Wave has also engaged in “discriminatory and bad messaging about the local people,” Vilchis said.
For instance, on Instagram, the coffee shop referred to residents as “yokels,” a word some of its opponents interpreted as a put-down. Weird Wave also directed drivers to park in the “shady alley” behind the restaurant.
Chavarria describes these as “rookie mistakes” by inexperienced business owners still learning the proper uses of social media. The parking lot comment was true, if less than tactful, he said. “It looks a little run-down, dirty and out of place—but it wasn’t meant to be derogatory,” he explained.
Weird Wave points out how they’ve tried to work with the community to build their coffee shop. They buy their pastries from Homeboy Industries, which works to rehabilitate gang members. They also let graffiti artists from the neighborhood paint a mural on the side of their building.
However well-intentioned, the graffiti mural upset some Boyle Heights residents. That’s because in 2016, police shot and killed a 14-year-old boy named Jesse Romero; the cops had caught him spraying “gang-style graffiti,” and when they pursued him, Romero fired a gun at them, the Los Angeles Police Department said. With that history in mind, some Boyle Heights residents saw the Weird Wave graffiti as an expression of white privilege, Vilchis said.
Weird Wave’s owners all said they’ve been shocked by the vehement opposition to their new café, adding that it’s also drawn attention to the shop, drawn supporters and boosted business overall. On social media, the local reaction has been mixed, varying from outrage at Weird Wave’s opening to support for its owners.
“I’m a dude trying to make a coffee shop, and to have people opposed to that without giving me a fair chance is wrong,” Schwartz said. “I feel bad for other businesses who’ve gone through the same thing. … Everybody’s allowed to express themselves however they want to as long as it doesn’t break the law or become violent. But to pick on a small business for trying to build their dream is pretty cruel and wrong, and if you judge someone before you meet them, that’s also wrong in my mind.”
Vilchis summarized the protestors’ response to Weird Wave. “[The coffee shop] says this is all about the free market,” he said. “For us, it’s about freedom of speech. … They need to be in the market of [both] ideas and goods, and the people will decide. They have a right to open their business. We have a right to question the right to their existence.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum.