The protest encampment surrounding City Hall is a virtually perfect metaphor for the homeless issue in Austin — if not for the whole state of City governance. The encampment got started the Monday after the May 1 election in which Prop B was approved. Prop B overturned the Council’s June 2019 repeal of the City’s camping ban.
The Austin American-Statesman captured the beginning of the encampment in a photo essay, explaining, “About a dozen advocates set up several tents at City Hall to protest the reinstatement of the camping ban.” The photos show earnest young advocates erecting their tents on Monday May 3. These were not people experiencing homeless, but advocates for the homeless launching a protest against voters’ reinstatement of the camping ban.
It seems worth noting, however, that the protestors pitched their tents at the place where the leadership has been the most friendly to their cause, the home of the political body that actually took their advice and adopted it as public policy — and suffered politically for it.
Meanwhile, during the weeks that the protestors have besieged City Hall, a little more than 10 blocks to the north, the Texas House and then the Texas Senate passed a statewide public camping ban and sent the bill to the Governor.
Also, soon after the advocates pitched their tents, people who are actually homeless joined the protest at City Hall. At least some of them expressed hope that being part of this group might help them get off the street. The encampment also attracted some of the hardest elements among those experiencing homelessness. That included a woman who told KXAN on camera, “You know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna fight back. If I gotta kill a cop before they kill me, you know damn well I’m gonna kill a cop.” (The Austin Police Department (APD) has not discussed any use of violence to clear protestors.)
Video of the woman saying this led off a report last week by KXAN’s Jacqulyn Powell. Powell also reported that campers have established an armed security force with appointed guards sporting bullet proof vests, walkie talkies and armed with big knifes or machetes. The same person who threatened to kill a cop confirmed to Powell that the protestors had established their own security. Powell’s report showed video and stills of a man circling the area on a bicycle while wearing a bullet proof vest, with a large knife on his belt and carrying a walkie talkie. Powell added that while she was talking to a woman outside her tent, a different man who “calls himself security came up to us with a machete and asked the woman if she wanted me there or if he needed to make me leave.”
The story also featured footage of at least one camper screaming at Council Member Mackenzie Kelly (a Prop B supporter), with others following along, as Kelly walked toward the entrance to City Hall — escorted by City security guards. Kelly told KXAN it was the third time she had been harassed in that way.
So let’s review our theme of the City Hall encampment as metaphor for the last two years of City homeless policy. A sincere, if poorly aimed, attempt to advocate for the homeless quickly turned into both a public safety danger and a public relations nightmare — with those who originated the situation totally losing control.
Also consistent with the overall arc of City homeless policy, the scene at Austin City Hall provided more ammunition for Republicans to paint Austin as a leftist hell scape created by its progressive, Democratic elected leaders. It’s the kind of stuff Republicans usually have to make up, or at least wildly exaggerate; but not this time, not here in Austin right now.
Completing our metaphorical theme, after Powell finished her report, a KXAN anchor helpfully added that the Texas Legislature in 2017 made it legal to publicly carry “bowie knives, swords and machetes,” throwing out an earlier law that limited publicly displayed knives to five and a half inches. Do metaphors get any more perfect than that?
The Emergence of Mackenzie Kelly.
One Republican who is coming out ahead politically in this saga is rookie Council Member Mackenzie Kelly. The same day that the KXAN story aired, May 25, Kelly posted a video on Twitter in which a group of hecklers screams insults at her in the City Hall parking garage while she offers to talk to them. It is difficult to tell from the video, but Kelly says at least three people were involved.
The video begins with Kelly in the parking garage and the campers/protestors up a slight incline behind the traffic arm at the garage exit onto LaVaca. Talking over heckling, Kelly offers, “I think that you have valid concerns. I’d be happy to speak with you.” When she gets no reply Kelly adds, “I get that you’re mad. Do you want to talk?”
“Get out of here you fu^*&$g b*t!% (FB). Get the F out of here you FB” comes back the yelled reply.
“This is where I work,” replies Kelly. “Do you want to talk?”
At one point Kelly moves toward the hecklers. She asks, “Seriously, help me understand. I’d be happy to listen. . . Help me figure out what I don’t understand.”
This sets off a bit of silence, but then, “Get out of here you FB. You’re the enemy. You’re the enemy. . . Mackenzie Kelly, enemy of the people. You FB.”
Kelly persists. The male voice, which often cannot be heard over the angrier heckler, asks, “Do you understand our pain?”
Kelly then turns toward him, “Do you want to talk to me?”
They are then both drowned out by the woman shouting, “You FB. Shut up B, you’re the F-g enemy. . . Get out of here, you FB.”
This goes on for a little over two minutes, at least the part on video, with Kelly standing there like Jesus turning the other cheek.
OK, comparing her to Jesus is going too far, but Kelly — while conservative and Republican — is not turning out to be the crazed, right wing simpleton she was sometimes portrayed as during her campaign, and afterward. Instead she has grabbed some of that vast political middle ground that we have discussed here before — in this particular instance, everything to the right of not threatening to kill cops and supporting free, open, un-harassed access to City Hall.
With the other Council Members still working from home, and also likely reluctant to comment, Kelly has carved out this issue all to herself.
The KXAN report also featured an interview with Kelly in her City Hall office. In the interview Kelly explained her position on the encampment/protest, “Common sense would say that it is a public health and safety risk and it needs to be shut down,” she said. However, “I’ve been told by the City Manager’s Office and APD that this is a protest and a free speech zone and so as such they are not moving these individuals right now.” KXAN added, and Kelly confirmed in another interview, that City Management is planning to let the protest/encampment continue until August 8. (The Independent contacted the City Manager and Interim Police Chief with questions about the encampment, but did not hear back before press time.)
Kelly also discussed a social media post from Interim Police Chief Joseph Chacon, responding to her post showing a protestor screaming obscenities at her. Chacon encouraged Kelly to file a police report so APD could follow up. Kelly told KXAN she wasn’t going to do that, “Honestly, I don’t want more work for the officers. What’s going to happen? Some detective is going to have to be assigned to the case and it’s not going to be prosecuted by the County Attorney’s Office, ultimately?” Here Kelly skillfully reminds people about the policies of new County Attorney Delia Garza and (without saying so) dares Garza to say she’s wrong. Garza and Council Member Greg Casar were the two most vocal Council Members in favor of repealing the camping ban in 2019.
In other interviews and posts, Kelly also reported, “They have not only harassed me, but I have had city staff come into my office over the last several days thanking me for speaking out about it because they’re experiencing the same thing.” In one interview after the KXAN story, Kelly said that “at this point,” she believed that it was not actually homeless people harassing her but instead “the housed” who are camping there in protest. Also, according to at least one media report, some of the campers have made it known that the hecklers and the woman who threatened to kill a cop do not speak for everyone there. During a visit Tuesday to the City Hall area by the Independent, the area was fairly quiet with no sign of armed guards. Kelly confirmed that the area has been quieter the last few days and said she has not seen her main heckler.
Kelly told the Independent via email that she was “never able to have a conversation with” the hecklers that evening, but did get to have a “a cordial discussion” the next morning with “one of the men experiencing homelessness.” According to Kelly he had been told false information, that she had “voted in favor of sending all homeless to jail.” She told him that was not the case and discussed the process the City is putting in place.
Meanwhile, Kelly, while critical of City Management for letting the City Hall encampment remain in place, publicly supported the City Manager’s phased approach of clearing encampments Citywide. She did so even as fellow Republican, and Prop B leader, Matt Mackowiak harshly criticized the City for not moving faster. In a video posted on social media Kelly told citizens, “We owe it to all involved, housed and unhoused, to utilize solutions that maintain dignity for everyone. Many of you are upset, but know that this phased approach will provide those experiencing homelessness with the respect and compassion that they deserve.” She added, “Austin has experienced a lot of division over the last few years. This is our opportunity to come together as a community and help those that need it the most.”
Kelly has also worked in coalition with some of her Democratic colleagues in developing items for the Council agenda, including funding a new police cadet class.
Somewhere in there, Kelly also took time to “scoot (her term)” up to the Capitol. She had herself filmed zipping down Congress Avenue on a scooter, then posted it on Twitter. It’s as if Kelly watched the skillful utilization of social media by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (AOC) in her rise to power, and took notes. Whatever the case, if local progressives continue to insist on defining Kelly through their perceived caricatures, they do so at their own political peril. Look out.
National Fox News also got in on the fray, with reporter Lawrence Jones interviewing local citizens in front of City Hall. Among other things, the interviews provided a little more counter evidence to the frequent claims of advocates that opposition to the Council’s homelessness policies is all about “white comfort.”
One Hispanic woman, her hand resting lovingly on her son’s head, said, “The City of Austin lets them do whatever they want.”
Another young Hispanic woman, with her family standing next to her, added, “We as a people and as citizens are left to fend for ourselves.”
These remarks were similar to those of speakers at the recent Council meeting where a Council majority approved a new police cadet class. During that meeting at least three speakers from different parts of town, unprompted, praised Kelly for supporting public safety.
I know a lot of folks will say that Kelly’s utilization of social media and traditional media is just playing to the cameras and milking the situation to her advantage— for instance inviting screaming protestors to talk to her. That may well be, but even if that is the case, Kelly’s media strategy is a lot more effective than that of the screaming protestors or the activists who originated the City Hall encampment/protest.
Photo at top by Adela Mancías
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