The District 6 City Council race has taken a particularly ugly turn in recent weeks. That peaked in a Saturday November 21 altercation in northwest Austin after a Jimmy Flannigan campaign volunteer event at an Anderson Mill park. For the record, it was a volunteer work day, held outside under a picnic pavilion roof, where volunteers did campaign tasks as they normally would inside a campaign headquarters.
As Flannigan got into his car to leave, he was verbally accosted by the leader of the motorcycle group Wind Therapy Freedom Riders (WTFRs), Luis Rodriguez. Other members of the group were clustered nearby. Flannigan videoed the incident from inside his car. As the video begins, Rodriguez is standing in front of Flannigan’s open door, blocking the door from closing. Flannigan asks what he wants and Rodriguez replies, “I’m asking you, why are you calling us racists?”
Flannigan responds, “Why are you up in my face and touching my car. I’m sorry sir, you don’t have the right to do this.” Rodriguez continues to ask why Flannigan is calling his group racist, and begins adding in profanities.
Flannigan doesn’t answer the question, but instead says, “You are blocking my personal property and now I am asking you to leave.” Flannigan made that point several times during the three minute plus altercation. Rodriguez kept repeating his question intermixed with taunting Flannigan and a lot of cursing. Flannigan repeatedly asked Rodriguez his name, but Rodriguez refused and said Flannigan knew who he was.
During the entire confrontation a Flannigan aide, Jacob Aronowitz, stood between Rodriguez and Flannigan and tried to get him to leave. Rodriguez was not wearing a mask. Aronowitz was. At least four times Rodriguez pushed his face near Aronowitz’s and shouted at him. At one point, Flannigan told Rodriguez, “I will file charges if you start touching people.”
After almost three minutes of this, Rodriguez either began moving away or Aronowitz managed to maneuver him away. Right around this time someone evidently threatened to call the police. That is not audible on the recording, but Rodriguez responded to someone not in view, saying “I don’t give a f*^#. You talking about the cops he defunded? Ooooooh.”
Rodriguez vowed to be back at the volunteer event the next Saturday and “at every public event you hold,” then moved away from Flannigan’s car.
How About We Not Do This In Austin
There is a backstory as to why Rodriguez was angry and why he felt that Flannigan had called him racist. I will report on that in a moment. First I want to state with total clarity, that there is no justifiable reason for the way Flannigan was accosted in this incident. There is absolutely no place for this type of behavior in Austin politics.
Flannigan evidently chose not to press charges, but nonetheless, this incident is something that the Austin Police should take very seriously. First of all the police certainly know that they have to protect all citizens, even if a particular citizen voted to cut their budget — contrary to what Rodriguez implied with his retort, “You talking about the cops he defunded, oooh.”
Second, this is just not something we should let get started in Austin politics. Political violence is a growing threat around the nation and any specter of it in Austin needs to be dealt with quickly. We have a very vibrant and spirited local democracy here. We often engage in fierce, tough debates. But, those are verbal debates and political contests, not the harassing and intimidating behavior Flannigan and Aronowitz experienced — and can be seen in the video.
Here at the Independent, I have been critical of Flannigan and will be again. For instance, I disagree strongly with him on the Land Development Code (LDC) and believe his position is unjust to central city homeowners. Also, Flannigan himself has been called a bully. The publisher of the Austin Chronicle once described Flannigan as “perpetually angry” on the dais. More recently, in endorsing Flannigan, the Chronicle wrote, “Flannigan’s brash, sometimes antagonistic approach on the dais can cross the line into bullying without him always realizing it.”
None of that, however, justifies the types of actions taken in the November 21 incident. All the policy and procedural disagreements I discuss above were entirely verbal and no one’s ability to leave the scene was blocked. We cannot let physical altercation or intimidation become a tactic in any way in Austin politics. It has to be stopped and rejected immediately.
Just in case anyone wonders, I will call out any similar action on the left. For example I think the social justice protestors who went to Council Member Kathie Tovo’s house earlier this year were out of line. I also disagree with an incident where I saw a protestor downtown harassing people who were eating in a sidewalk cafe downtown. That is no way to win people to your cause and it is just not a decent way to treat other people who are just going about their business.
Now, the back story. This is largely taken from other press and online accounts, particularly from some solid reporting by Austin Sanders and Brant Bingamon in the Austin Chronicle, Shannon Ryan at Fox7 (who snapped the picture), and Alyssa Goard at KXAN. This all got started November 1 with a pro-police rally. Wind Therapy Freedom Riders was a lead sponsor of the event. Flannigan’s opponent Mackenzie Kelly attended, along with other conservative candidates including then District 4 candidate Louis Herrin III. Also attending, or at least merging with the rally were people dressed, as Goard describes it, in “black and yellow Fred Perry polo shirts, which ADL (Anti-Defamation League) notes are frequently worn by Proud Boys.” The ADL describes the Proud Boys “ideology” as follows: “Misogynistic, Islamophobic, transphobic and anti-immigration. Some members espouse white supremacist and anti-Semitic ideologies and/or engage with white supremacist groups.” Additionally, the Southern Poverty Law Center also designates the Proud Boys as a “hate group.”
Kelly was photographed posing outside City Hall with 30 to 40 people including some of the WTFRs, the other candidates and some APD officers in the back. Also on the edge of the picture were three people dressed in the previously described Proud Boys gear. Some of them are making a white power sign, what used to be the OK sign before it was appropriated by right wing groups, along with Hawaiian shirts.
After Ryan of Fox7 inquired to Chief Brian Manley about on duty officers appearing to pose with Proud Boys, APD said it would investigate. Goard reported that members of WTFR told her that the pro-police rally coincided with a Recall Adler rally and that some people from the groups merged together. They added that the Proud Boys photo bombed the group picture. Likewise, Luis Rodriguez told the Chronicle that the Proud Boys were not invited to the WTFRs’ rally and that he was not aware at the time that they had gotten into the picture. Mackenzie Kelly also said she did not know the Proud Boys were in the photo. Rodriguez told the Chronicle that he confronted one of the Proud Boys at a restaurant later for using the white power sign.
Rodriguez also issued a statement quoted by Fox7 saying, “The Wind Therapy Freedom Riders gathered earlier today in support of the men and women of the Austin Police Department and to advocate for needed public safety funding. During the course of that rally, we posed for a group photo with several officers at which time, members of the ‘Proud Boys’ organization jumped into the picture unbeknownst to us. These individuals were not invited to participate in the event nor do they reflect the values of the Wind Therapy Freedom Riders.”
Rodriguez’ versions of the photo are plausible because there are 30 to 40 people in the picture and the alleged Proud Boys are off to one side. In fact, although Kelly and the Proud Boys are on the same end of the photo, they are far enough apart that when the pro-Flannigan PAC Austinites for Equity used the picture in an attack ad, they broke it into two separate photos with arrows pointing to Kelly in one and the Proud Boys in the other. The flyer read, “Birds of a Feather Flock Together. City Council Candidate Mackenzie Kelly poses for a photo while Proud Boys flash white supremacist handsigns.”
Flannigan also referred to the photo in a campaign flyer, saying that Kelly, “stands with Trump and white nationalists.” Someone holds a Trump flag in the photo.
It was these campaign tactics that angered Rodriguez, and he took Flannigan’s rhetoric as an accusation of racism — although the attack ads were referring to the Proud Boys and not the WTFRs. Rodriguez told the Chronicle, “Calling somebody a racist, when I’m nowhere near a racist, that’s second only to being called a pedophile.”
In an earlier Chronicle article Rodriguez asked, “Have we missed the part where I’m Hispanic?”
So Rodriguez arguably had a legitimate beef. There were a number of options open to him at this point, such as: continuing to give his side in the media; holding his own press conference; asking to meet with Flannigan; signing up to speak at the Council; writing a letter to the Statesman or Chronicle; or holding a protest against Flannigan. Those are all peaceful and lawful methods of pushing back.
Instead he ended up in the parking lot of an Anderson Mill park blocking the car door of an elected City Council Member from closing, and thus blocking him from leaving.
For his part, Rodriguez defended his actions to the Chronicle, but did allow that perhaps he “could have been a little calmer” in the incident with Flannigan. He also did not show up at Flannigan’s next event as he had vowed, hopefully signifying a cooling of passions.
The View from the Kelly Campaign
The Independent has already noted that we believe this conduct is unacceptable and cannot be allowed in Austin politics, or American politics. What does Flannigan’s challenger Mackenzie Kelly think though?
The Independent contacted Kelly and her campaign for comment on the incident. We asked Kelly “how you feel about this sort of aggressive and borderline violent tactic,” and added, “please feel free to let me know if you disagree with how I just characterized the incident).” We also provided Kelly a summary of what we understood as the background leading up to the incident, along with a list of questions designed to give her, or her campaign, opportunities to contest specific areas of the account. They chose not to answer any of the questions, including the one asking how she felt about the tactic of aggressively confronting Flannigan.
The Kelly campaign instead sent a statement they had issued earlier. It read:
“The endless name-calling for short-term political gain must stop. Since I entered this race in May I have dealt with vile, baseless attacks almost daily, including threats regarding my well-being.”
“To me, Council service is about people, not political agendas. Right now I see a bunch of angry men shouting back and forth — but this is not some game.”
“We are here to keep our streets safe and bring our community together, not sow the seeds of division in order to win an election.”
The Kelly campaign also sent some social media postings intended to give their side of the issue. That included a posting from Flannigan aide Aronowitz in which he described Kelly’s policy on the homeless as “textbook Fascist,” because “Hitler ordered that vagrants and Roma people (known by the pejorative ‘gypsy’) be rounded up incarcerated, and Kelly employs exactly the same logic.” Harsh words indeed, but spoken online, not with Kelly, or anyone else, being blocked from closing their car door and driving away from anywhere.
Kelly’s staff also provided social media postings in which someone they maintain is a Flannigan supporter says they would not mind seeing her (Kelly) dead. The Independent though was unable to verify the source of the post or whether they are a Flannigan supporter. Consequently we did not quote from the post, but include it in order to point out that, if true, this is also totally unacceptable in Austin politics, or in any political discourse. It is also an example of how all sides in our country right now need to try to remain calm and nonviolent.
On the photo with the Proud Boys it is possible that Kelly did not realize they were in the picture. Far right connections for Kelly, however, keep popping up. For example, Austin Sanders reports in a new Austin Chronicle story that a videographer who is a “contributor” to Alex Jones run InfoWars offered to make a free video for Kelly’s campaign, and she accepted. The video is on her website. Kelly campaign manager Andy Hogue is quoted telling the Chronicle, “If I would have known about it I would have said something. Kelly’s running her campaign, she’s really the one calling the shots here.” Sanders writes that Hogue went on to say, “This is just someone who works at Infowars who does freelance video on the side who offered us a video for free.” Sanders also reports that Hogue said the video is one of the most-watched on the website and will remain there.
Also, in March Take Back Austin, a group headed by Kelly, tweeted a a message from Roger Stone, the infamous Republican dirty trickster and convicted, now pardoned (sentence commuted), felon. Stone posted a videotaped pep talk to those in Austin trying to recall the Mayor and Council. Among other things he said, “do not falter in your task.” Stone did say he loves Austin and that “no place on the face of the Earth has better food or better beer.”
On another front, Kelly evidently supports mask wearing. On other Take Back Austin tweets she hawks red Recall Adler masks. So, if Kelly wins, it might be a little awkward serving with people she wants to recall.
Ultimately it will be up to the voters of District 6 to sort through all of this, and many other factors, before making a decision and peacefully casting their votes. And, that’s the way it ought to be done; peacefully.
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