Long time East Austin activist Paul Hernandez passed away September 24. He was 74. Hernandez had been ill for several years and not as active as he once was. So, many Austin residents may not realize who he is. In fact I have yet to see a local media report on his death. Paul Hernandez, however, was a major figure in Austin politics.

A founder of the local Brown Berets and the group’s leader during much of the 1970s and 1980s, Hernandez led fights against police brutality and against the boat races on Town Lake in East Austin. Hernandez was also instrumental both in organizing East Austin neighborhood groups and in forming alliances with ones that already existed.

Paul, known as Pablo by many of his closest allies in East Austin, also saw gentrification coming a long time ago. He spent much of his life trying to stave it off.

Hernandez was unrelenting on all his issues, but was particularly committed to ending police brutality. More than once, he literally put his body on the line and was beaten savagely by Austin police. He was beaten up badly at a protest against the boat races in the 1970s. The worst beating, however, happened at the February 1983 Klan march where Hernandez and others counter demonstrated as members of the Klan marched to the Capital. That beating was caught on camera by a Houston news crew from the top of an adjacent parking garage.

Beaten repeatedly over the head with billy clubs, Hernandez sustained a severe concussion, fractured ribs, a fractured wrist (he tried to ward off blows by holding his hands and wrists over his head), and a gash to his head which required eight stitches.

Unlike a lot of videotaped beatings by police nowadays, this one resulted in charges being filed: against Hernandez and two others who were also beaten by police. The other two beaten by police in the same altercation were Maria Limon and Adela Mancias (Mancias is content and copy editor of this publication and wife of the author).

Prosecuted by then County Attorney Margaret Moore, Hernandez was found guilty of resisting arrest. Limon and Mancias were acquitted.

Hernandez returned from his injuries to fully resume his activism.

Hernandez was more a revolutionary than an activist. He spoke in a stirring, revolutionary style and was very talented at getting media coverage of his causes and of himself. He was regularly quoted in the American-Statesman from the 1970s on into at least the 1990s and local television news regularly covered protests and other events that he led.

Citizens pour into Austin Mayor's office to protest police strangling of Gril Couch 1979
Citizens pour into Austin Mayor Carole McClellan’s office to protest the police strangling of Gril Couch in 1979. Paul Hernandez sits on the couch addressing the Mayor, whose back is to the camera. Photo by Alan Pogue.

Like many revolutionaries, and activists, Hernandez was more at home in the resistance than in a governing coalition. He was unyieldinng in his convictions and his rhetoric. For example, he was sometimes at least as harsh a critic of Mexican American elected officials as he was of anyone else.

Hernandez did once seek office. In 1984 he ran for a state representative seat vacated when Gonzalo Barrientos ran for, and won, a Texas State Senate seat. Hernandez surprised many by finishing a close third. He then surprised even more people by endorsing white candidate Brad Wiewel in the runoff against then up and coming Lena Guerrero. Guerrero won the seat. She passed away in 2008.

Hernandez suffered from debilitating illnesses in his later years, but he never abandoned his activism or his fierce committment to East Austin. He departs like he lived, as a major figure in Austin history and politics.


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