by Daryl Slusher
Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has faced additional challenges to those confronting other American mayors during the protests resulting from the police killing of George Floyd. As we all have seen that death took place with the police officer, hands casually in his pockets, holding his knee on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes, while Floyd pleaded that he could not breathe and eventually went limp and died.
Mayor Bowser has not only had to deal with the protests resulting from Floyd’s death and some looting, but also with the current President of the United States, Donald J. Trump — a president described this way yesterday by the conservative husband of one of his top advisors: “morally deficient, scripturally ignorant, payer-off-of-porn-stars. . . lacking in humanity. . . a soulless man with a broken mind. . . and ignoring the distinction between peaceful, aggrieved citizens and the relatively few lawbreakers among them.”
Among other things too numerous to mention here, Trump has singled out Mayor Bowser and the D.C. Police force for seemingly random criticism in tweets even as the D.C. officers helped provide security for the White House grounds while the President retreated to his bunker — or as he says, visited the bunker for an “inspection.” Much more ominous than tweets, Trump has brought military forces and federal officers from a multitude of agencies into Washington to deal with civilian protestors. Bowser has had to deal with all that and much more. Trump did back down on invoking the Insurrection Act.
Bowser came up with a brilliant tactical response, particularly beautiful in its simplicity. On Friday she sent crews to paint huge yellow letters spelling Black Lives Matter on 16th Street where it leads directly to the White House. If you haven’t seen it then Google it because it is definitely worth a look
Thinking about this brought to my mind the similarity of the slogan to the one used by striking Memphis sanitation workers, or garbage collectors, in 1968 — that is 52 years ago. Their slogan was “I Am A Man.” Martin Luther King was in Memphis to support those workers when he was assassinated in April 1968. The fact that the sanitation workers felt the need to assert that they were actually men in 1968 — or remind whites that they were — spoke huge volumes about the deep roots of racial prejudice in our country.
The United States has made very significant progress on race since then, but the fact that now there has to be a major movement asserting that “Black Lives Matter” shows that we still have a very long way to go, and that includes Austin. It’s also been extremely telling how controversial this slogan has been since it was introduced around seven years ago. For instance some whites retorted with the slogan “All Lives Matter.” During the 2016 elections politicians were often asked to choose between the slogan Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter. Well, of course all lives matter, but the point is that the situation in the country, in particular the repeated unnecessary killings of black men by police, brings into question whether black lives matter to all Americans as much as white lives do. It also seems that here in the United States we have difficulty in looking at anything in other than binary terms. Another current example is the mask versus no mask situation. That’s a related, but different topic so we’ll leave it at that for now.
Meanwhile Here in Austin
Meanwhile, let’s look at our local situation. Before doing that I’m going to take the liberty of establishing my record and standing on this subject. Although I was often pigeon holed as just an environmentalist, I began my years in politics, in 1981, working with Mexican American neighborhood and social justice groups in East Austin. I deliberately chose to do that because I felt the best way to real progress in the United States was organizing across racial lines. I still believe that today. One of the big issues at the time was police brutality. I saw and felt first hand how the police acted differently in East Austin than I had observed in other parts of town. I mean specifically in how they treated the black and brown residents of East Austin as compared to white people in other parts of town.
I also saw that the people of East Austin had little recourse when they felt they were mistreated by police. Given all that, when I took office as a City Council Member in 1996 I was determined to get a Civilian Police Review Board . Working with other Councll Members, and the Mayor and City Management that did in fact happen, the first in Texas. Most of the work leading to that went on in private labor negotiations with the Austin Police Association, the police union, and did not get a lot of publicity at the time — at least not on how it was created. To be exact City Management did the negotiations at the direction of Council.
We established a Citizens Review Panel and an indpendent Police Monitor — independent meaning that the Monitor reported directly to the City Manager. Neither was anywhere near as strong as I would have liked, but they were breakthroughs and did provide more scrutiny on police than existed before. They also established a clearer way for citizens to file complaints if they felt they had been mistreated by Austin Police. One fundamental reason that we didn’t get stronger powers for the board or monitor was restrictions in state law. Many of those were put there in previous years through the power of police unions. (For a look at how this has happened around the country see this oped from the Washington Post.) While that is a fact, I also want to acknowledge here that during the negotiations of my time on the Council, there was also visionary leadership at the police union in the form of its then leader Mike Sheffield.
At the same time, and as part of the negotiations, we made Austin police the highest paid in the state of Texas, at least at the time. I strongly supported that as well. In my view the police have very hard jobs and deserve to be well paid. They truly put their lives at risk every day when they go to work. They have to deal with the worst elements of society. We also put too many responsibilities on the police. By that I mean they have to deal with the fallout from many political, social and medical issues that we as a society fail to address. I also know that the department has improved dramatically since the early 1980s when I first began working with folks from East Austin. So I have for years been a strong supporter of the police and particularly of the Austin Police Department. I know that there are many good cops on the Austin force.
Nonetheless, there are clearly bad cops on the force as we found out, in just one example, when the beloved teacher Breaion King was jerked violently from her car after being pulled over for slightly exceeding the speed limit, and thrown to the ground. Then, handcuffed in the backseat on the way to jail, she coolly engaged in a dialogue with a different officer who shared that he thinks black people have “violent tendencies.” The officer who pulled King from the car was reprimanded, then fired two years later after using excessive force on another suspect.
For one thing we need a whole lot more of what the rapper Ice Cube identified way back in 1991 in his song “Good Cop Bad Cop” (and has repeated in interviews since); the good cops need to turn in the bad cops.
In the recent protests, some have criticized Austin police for coming out in riot gear and shields. I personally can understand the shields when some people are throwing rocks at them. What I simply cannot see the justification for, however, is firing “less-lethal” rounds at protestors, especially from the freeway ramp adjacent to the police station — although rounds fired from the ground appear to have done plenty of damage as well. Firing from the freeway ramp in particular though puts Austin police in the position of snipers and I just don’t see any justification for it. For one example, a 16-year-old protestor hit in the head by a bean bag round reportedly has brain damage and his brother told the Council that he will have a permanent scar on his forehead for the rest of his life.
Chief Brian Manley has been very remorseful about the injuries the “less lethal” rounds caused. That is a good thing and I believe he is very sincere about it. That does not explain, however, why this was allowed to occur in the first place.
The photo at the top is by Jana Birchum who also took this week’s cover photo on the Austin Chronicle. More of her pictures from the protests can be acccessed here.
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