On a recent Friday afternoon, the Blue Cat Café, in East Austin, hummed pleasantly with activity. Patrons lounged on couches or sat pecking away at their MacBooks as half a dozen cats roamed freely over and around them. A server went from table to table with an iPad, taking orders for whimsically named vegan dishes like Alley Cat Tacos and BBQ Briscat. Apart from the cats and the feline-themed decor, the cafe seemed like just another shabby-chic hipster hangout. Anyone willing to pay a $5 “kitty cover” could come inside, order a coffee, and play with the adoptable cats.
The cozy atmosphere made it easy to forget that the cafe is ground zero for an intense public debate over gentrification, a flash point for long-standing tensions between the majority-Hispanic neighborhood and wealthier, whiter developers. It’s a conflict that has now expanded beyond the neighborhood, becoming yet another skirmish in the national battle between the alt-right and the radical left. All over a cat cafe.
It started February 12, 2015, when F&F Real Estate Ventures bulldozed the Jumpolin piñata and party-supply store on East Cesar Chavez Street. Jumpolin’s owners, Monica and Sergio Lejarazu, arrived that morning to find the store flattened, their merchandise, computers, and business records crushed under the rubble. F&F claimed it had sent several eviction notices to the Lejarazus after assorted lease violations and nonpayment of rent. In a February 2015 interview with the Austin American-Statesman, the Lejarazus said they had not been notified of the building’s demolition.
Longtime residents of the area were outraged. For decades, the neighborhood surrounding Jumpolin had been under siege by developers attracted to the below-market prices and proximity to downtown Austin. The overnight destruction of a beloved piñata store—part of a cluster of party-supply stores along East Cesar Chavez—seemed to crystallize neighborhood anger about the influx of hipster bars and luxury apartment buildings. A coalition of community groups, including People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources and the Austin chapters of the NAACP and the League of United Latin American Citizens, called for a boycott of F&F Real Estate’s properties. The Lejarazus sued the firm for unlawful demolition. Meanwhile, Jordan French and Darius Fisher, the owners of F&F, began looking for a new tenant.
Rebecca Gray was in the market. She’d dreamed of opening a “cat cafe” since hearing about two businesses—one in Montreal, one in Oakland—where patrons could sip cappuccinos and nosh on snacks in the company of resident felines. Gray, then 31, quit her job at an Austin start-up and got to work. She had a name—the Blue Cat Café, after her cat Max, a Russian blue—and $62,533 from a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. Now she needed a space. With her business partner, Jacques Casimir, she looked all over Austin before settling on a former mechanic’s garage sitting toward the back of a seven-thousand-square-foot lot on East Cesar Chavez. Within 48 hours of visiting the property in July 2015, they had handed over the deposit and signed a five-year lease. The front of the lot, where Jumpolin once stood, would become cafe parking.
Just how much Gray knew about the neighborhood’s antipathy to her new landlord depends on whom you ask. Gray says she knew French owned Jumpolin’s property, but was not aware that the neighborhood held him responsible for the store’s demolition. She claims that she believed the Lejarazus and F&F had reached a settlement (they hadn’t), and that she was unaware of a community boycott. Several East Austin community leaders dispute that, saying they reached out to Gray and Casimir to inform them of the boycott and to discourage them from signing the lease.
The cafe celebrated its grand opening on October 17, 2015. The first patrons to arrive, many of them Kickstarter donors, were greeted by a line of protesters carrying signs (“Hey hipster, don’t be a pussy!”) and chanting slogans (“Pet your cat, sip your tea, on the ruins of Jumpolin”). The community, it seemed, was making good on its promise to boycott, and they wanted everyone to know it. When, two months later, the Lejarazus reached an undisclosed settlement with F&F over the demolition of Jumpolin and began scouting new locations for their store, Gray breathed a sigh of relief. The protesters, she thought, would now leave her alone.
But neighborhood activists remained determined to carry on the boycott. Several of them, including veteran East Austin organizer Bertha Delgado, formed a group, Defend Our Hoodz—Defiende El Barrio. In February 2016, Defend Our Hoodz launched a Facebook page that would be moderated by Chris Ledesma, a young Chicano activist. The group used social media to organize increasingly vitriolic protests outside the cat cafe. More than once, employees called the police to keep demonstrators off the property. Video from July 2016 shows a gathering of sign-carrying protesters lining the sidewalk outside the cafe. “To all you white people, you look really f—ing comfortable right now because you’ve got a small army of pigs to protect you,” a man yells into a bullhorn. “How does it feel to need an army of pigs to protect you from the f—ing neighborhood? Get out!”
On the morning of October 21, 2016, a few days after the cafe’s one-year anniversary, Gray arrived at work to find the locks superglued shut and “F— You Gentrified Scum” spray-painted in red on one of the exterior walls. Later that day, about a dozen protesters from Defend Our Hoodz arrived, many wearing red bandannas to hide their faces. Diane Ontiveros, who lives next door to the Blue Cat Café, witnessed a confrontation between Gray and the demonstrators. “They were trying to walk her off her property so they could get a hold of her, but I ran over and pulled her by her hand back this way,” she says. “One gentleman told me that I would pay for that.” The 57-year-old Ontiveros says she found a dead cat in her front yard the following day. (A spokesperson for Defend Our Hoodz denies responsibility for the graffiti, the vandalism, and the dead cat, attributing the acts to “people in the neighborhood.”)
“The boycott, we didn’t see it as something symbolic. If somebody crosses the picket line, they are accountable.”
Days later, Gray was interviewed by a reporter for InfoWars, the far-right, conspiracy-obsessed media organization founded by Austin radio show host Alex Jones. Thanks to the resulting story, the Blue Cat Café suddenly became a cause célèbre for the alt-right. Donations from around the world began pouring in to the cafe’s GoFundMe page, which had been created by Gray’s sister after the vandalism. “I hope these protesters die a slow horrible death,” one donor, who had chipped in $500, wrote on the page. “Those violent THUGS are disgusting RACIST vile human beings,” offered another. The GoFundMe campaign raised over $15,000, which Gray used for vandalism-related repairs and the installation of security cameras around the cafe. (Gray says she didn’t know what InfoWars was when she granted the interview. She says that not all of the donations were from Jones’s supporters, and since GoFundMe does not allow recipients to accept money on a selective basis, she was “happy to take away money from people with hate.”)
Defend Our Hoodz viewed Gray’s InfoWars interview and willingness to take money from Jones’s followers as confirmation of their worst suspicions. “It just kind of solidified our argument, which is that gentrification rests on white supremacy,” the group’s spokesperson, who requested anonymity, says. “They don’t like that there’s this group that is consistently calling it out and is led by brown and non-white folks. They see that as a threat.”
Around the time of the vandalism, Delgado began to distance herself from Defend Our Hoodz. “They were cursing, shouting out bad names,” she says. “That’s not the type of protesting that I was ever used to, and I’ve been protesting all my life . . . They were ripping signs off my neighbors’ property, kicking things. That was unacceptable. The people that Chris [Ledesma] started to bring around the group were not people who were from the neighborhood, and that started to scare me.” (Ledesma declined repeated interview requests.) One day Delgado logged in to the group’s Facebook page to discover that her administrator privileges had been revoked. She had been ousted from the group.
Gray’s brother Paul, an Austin security guard and Iraq War veteran, became curious about the protests at his sister’s cafe. Over lunch with their mother, Rebecca mentioned that the protesters could get out of hand, and Paul offered to come by, observe, and ask them to clear the property if need be. She accepted. “He’s in security, he’s gone to war,” she says, describing her thought process. “He knows how to manage crowds when they get out of hand. That’s what he does for a living.”
In June 2017, Defend Our Hoodz members learned that Comedy Central was planning to film the pilot episode of a new show called Power Couple at the Blue Cat Café and announced a demonstration to disrupt the shoot. But when the protesters showed up at the cafe, they learned that the shoot had been called off. Instead they were confronted by Paul and three of his friends. A video shows a tense standoff between the four men, one brandishing a baton, and a group of protesters in bandannas and balaclavas. It’s unclear who struck the first blow, but in the ensuing melee—which was not captured on video—one of Paul’s friends was hit in the head and began bleeding, according to the police report. Police officers called to the scene used a stun gun to subdue a protester, and two demonstrators were charged with aggravated assault and evading arrest.
Soon after the clash, Defend Our Hoodz found an interview Paul had given to the alt-right podcast Exodus Americanus a week before the incident. Identifying himself as a “far-right militant,” Paul described how his sister, a “sweet . . . beautiful young white lady,” had been menaced by Mexicans and communists. “They hate her simply because she’s white,” he told the hosts, before inviting listeners to come to Austin to help defend the cat cafe. Rebecca claims that she rarely sees her brother and was unaware of his far-right connections. “I’m just so mad that he wasn’t honest about what his agenda was,” she says. (Paul could not be reached for comment.) Defend Our Hoodz posted a link to the interview on Facebook. “It has never been clearer,” the post reads. “Blue Cat Cafe, on the ruins of Jumpolin, is a safe space for nazis and white supremacists.”
To cope with the ongoing protests, Gray stepped back from full-time management of the cafe and began seeing a therapist. She says she was diagnosed with PTSD. “They want to drive me insane and mentally cause so much stress in my life that I lose it,” she says. Still, she refuses to accede to the protesters’ demand that she close the cafe. “I put every dollar I had into this. It’s not like packing up an apartment and moving away.”
Although cat cafes have popped up around the world, they are particularly popular in Japan, where many apartments do not allow tenants to have pets.
When pickets and bullhorns failed to drive the Blue Cat Café out of East Austin, anti-gentrification sympathizers set out to destroy the business’s online reputation by spamming Yelp, Facebook, and Google with negative reviews. “Avoid this place unless you want to donate to their racist cause,” read one post on Yelp. “Smells terrible, the food is garbage, and the owner’s brother is a nazi,” wrote another commenter on Google. Reviewers claimed to have seen depressed cats, diarrheic kittens, and worm-infested water bowls. (There is no evidence that these claims are true.) Hoping to cut off the cafe’s source of cats, which were provided by a network of shelters, Defend Our Hoodz encouraged its supporters to file complaints of animal abuse with the Austin Humane Society. The tactic worked: in October, the Humane Society announced that it was ending its two-year-long partnership with the cafe, though it did not endorse any of the allegations of abuse. “We are truly saddened by the current neighborhood conflict,” a statement from the Humane Society reads. “The conflict has nothing to do with AHS and is not good for animal welfare in an animal-loving city.” Other animal shelters in the greater Austin area have continued to lend cats to the cafe; Gray declined to reveal their names, fearing that they too will be targeted.
Defend Our Hoodz sees the Humane Society’s decision as a major victory in its campaign against gentrification, proof that its brand of aggressive protest works. “The boycott, we didn’t see it as something symbolic,” the Defend Our Hoodz spokesperson says. “If somebody crosses the picket line, they are accountable.” Just after Halloween the group posted a photo on Facebook of a dimly lit street overlaid with the words “Make Gentrifiers Afraid Again.” “Halloween is over but that doesn’t mean gentrifiers can’t be scared the other 364 days a year,” the post read.
Although it continues to organize protests against the Blue Cat Café, Defend Our Hoodz is also looking beyond Austin. On Facebook it frequently supports anti-gentrification struggles in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York and has made common cause with radical anti-capitalist organizations across the country, such as the Red Guards, a self-described “Marxist-Leninist-Maoist collective.” Delgado says that Ledesma hijacked the group for his own purposes. “There’s no people from the barrio in it anymore,” she says. The Defend Our Hoodz spokesperson says some East Austinites remain in the group but admits many live elsewhere: “We never claimed to be from East Austin. Defend Our Hoodz—I mean, that’s plural. My community is Austin. My community is the Chicano community. My community is who I choose to side with and who chooses to side with me.”
On February 10, Defend Our Hoodz organized a picket line outside the Blue Cat Café to mark the third anniversary of the demolition of Jumpolin, which found another home on East Cesar Chavez in July. More than a dozen protesters set fire to a piñata of a man wearing a Make America Great Again cap, a Nazi armband, and a shirt emblazoned with the image of a cat.
And yet many Blue Cat Café customers, unless they encounter demonstrators outside, are likely unaware of the controversy that has engulfed the property for the past three years. Gray, who claims she’s “nonpolitical,” believes she’s simply been caught in the crossfire of an ideological struggle beyond her ken. She admits it was a mistake to sign the lease with F&F, a mistake to give an interview to InfoWars, a mistake to accept her brother’s offer to come to the cafe. But she still insists she’s not leaving her space in East Austin.
After all, as she puts it, “I’m just here for the cats.”