Photo: Photo By Tamir Kalifa For The Washington Post
AUSTIN, Texas – Steve Arawn remembers the moment he no longer recognized Austin, the city he has called home for nearly two decades.
The 43-year-old volunteer medic was on a grassy embankment rushing to the aid of an injured protester in downtown Austin. Perched atop an elevated highway to his left, police officers were unleashing a volley of bean bag rounds into the crowd of demonstrators surrounding him.
Despite wearing a brightly colored vest adorned with red medical crosses, Arawn was shot in the wrist and thigh, making him one of hundreds of people injured by police weaponry during two days of protests across downtown Austin last weekend.
“The level of brutality was shocking,” an astonished Arawn said a day later, his wrist bandaged and his leg marked by a dark red and purple bruise. “I just couldn’t believe something like this was happening in Austin.”
The people’s republic of Austin is reeling. As protests against police brutality have swept the nation in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis, the laid-back liberal oasis in Central Texas has witnessed some of the most acute violence in the country – a development that shocked many residents, as well as the city’s liberal leadership. At a six-hour-long emergency city council meeting to review police protocols Thursday night, hundreds of Austinites berated city leaders and called for the police chief’s ouster. An editorial in the Austin American-Statesman said the police response “compounded the outrage and pain that brought protesters to the streets to begin with.” Reached by phone, Austin Mayor Steve Adler, a Democrat, said videos of the violence made him “incredibly uncomfortable.”
“It didn’t seem right,” he added.
But the shock did not extend to the east side of Interstate 35, a concrete rampart that has for decades sliced this community in half, both physically and culturally. In traditionally black and Hispanic neighborhoods on the city’s east side, residents said the only thing surprising about police turning their weapons on the public is that anyone is still surprised when it occurs.
“The idea that this is a progressive city is just a liberal fantasy,” said Nelson Linder, president of the Austin NAACP.
Like the pandemic that has spread unevenly across the United States, protests over Floyd’s death have exposed fault lines and frailties that have festered beneath the surface of cities nationwide.
Austin police pledged this week to stop firing bean bag projectiles into large crowds after several black and Hispanic protesters were badly injured. A 16-year-old Hispanic teenager struck in the head and a 20-year-old black man, Justin Howell, was nearly killed by “less-lethal” ammunition. Relatives of Howell, a Texas State University student, say doctors have told them he has a fractured skull and brain damage.
In another instance, police shot a pregnant black woman with an “impact munition” that left her screaming for her baby, a harrowing scene that circulated widely on social media, unleashing fury across town.
At nightly protests outside police headquarters, demonstrators have begun holding signs calling for city leaders to “Defund the Police.”
During a public address Monday, Austin Police Chief Brian Manley looked pained and held back tears as he said that the incidents had left him “crushed.” But for many Austinites, the chief’s comments were little more than performative penance, a disingenuous exercise in deflecting blame.
“I’m sad and heartbroken,” said Eugene Sepulveda, a prominent Austin philanthropist and entrepreneur and a senior adviser to Adler, the mayor. “I have been in touch with our hired officials and elected officials expressing very loudly that this is not the Austin we know and love.”
The appall reflects the sense of exceptionalism built into the fabric of Austin’s psyche. Like a blue life raft in a sea of Texas red, the taco-obsessed, music-festival-embracing city long ago fashioned itself as a bohemian refuge for musicians, poets, intellectuals and slackers. Even now, nearly a half century past its hippie heyday, many Austinites consider their city more livable, beautiful and liberal than most places in America. Each afternoon, the city’s blue-green waterways and parks fill with carefree crowds of young white people, basking in the sun, throwing flying discs and floating on paddle boards.
“Austin is a really cool place for people that are not aware of the injustices occurring in the world,” said Chas Moore, founder of the Austin Justice Coalition. “I tell people all the time, Austin is white people’s Atlanta. It’s where a white person can come and fit right in and go anywhere and see themselves.”
In the traditionally black and Hispanic neighborhoods on the city’s east side, residents describe a different reality. Only a month ago, local activists noted, Austin police shot and killed unarmed 42-year-old Mike Ramos. At protests across the city, some black Austinites say they’re regularly the victims of police brutality.
“I’ve lived here my whole life, and the first time I saw a cop kill someone innocent I was in elementary school,” said Anthony Evans, 25, referring to the death of 18-year-old Daniel Rocha in 2005. “It was traumatizing, and we can’t take these things anymore.”
Rocha’s death resulted in a $1 million settlement, among more than $8 million in settlements the city doled out for wrongful shooting deaths involving Austin police between 2005 and 2017, according to CBS Austin.
Even Austin protesters have been accused of racial ignorance in recent days, after the only black-owned business on East Sixth Street – the heart of the city’s downtown entertainment district – was looted.
“People talk about black lives matter and investing in the black community, and then they go out and harm the only black business owner in the area,” Moore said. “How does that make any sense?”
Adler, the mayor, maintains that the city has made significant strides in recent years. Among them: raising the minimum wage for city employees to $15 an hour and embracing the Green New Deal espoused by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. The city created an Equity Office to evaluate the impact city policies have on vulnerable populations. In 2018, the city council voted to make Austin the state’s first “freedom city,” a designation tied to a set of policies that keep police from inquiring about someone’s immigration status and decriminalize petty offenses that ensnare disproportionate numbers of minorities in the criminal justice pipeline.
“We’ve been having a constant conversation for years about the things that are not working well and we’ve been able to get a lot of things done,” Adler said.
But Linder, the NAACP president, who moved to the state capital from southern Georgia in 1980, said Austin has long suffered from the same racist attitudes that defined life in the Deep South – though less overt ones. The dissonance between perception and reality, he said, helps to explain the bewilderment white Austinites feel when they’re forced to confront police violence.
“In Austin, folks pretend they’re liberal, but they’ve never dealt with these racial issues before,” Linder said. “This city is very inexperienced in dealing with conflicts between black people and white people, police and minorities. And if there’s any confrontation they’re not prepared for it.”
Linder’s office is located in a traditionally black neighborhood that has been losing residents for decades, most of them forced out by skyrocketing housing prices that have accompanied the city’s transformation from a lazy college town and live-music mecca to an overpriced, traffic-clogged technopolis known as “Silicon Hills.” Though they are separated by only a few miles, there is a 10-year difference in life expectancy between the city’s wealthy west side and poorer east side. In 2015, the Martin Prosperity Institute revealed that Austin has the highest level of economic segregation of any large metro area in the nation.
In downtown Austin, Russell Bangor, a 36-year-old white protester, said he felt that the city’s economic disparities influenced whether police targeted demonstrators with high-velocity weapons during recent protests.
“I think a lot of police will automatically assume when they aim at a black person that they fall within a lower economic class and don’t have resources,” Bangor said. “A white person, we get the benefit of the doubt. They think we might be property owners or someone worth caring about.”
In response, some white demonstrators began silently standing in front of black and Hispanic protesters when they were engaging with police, turning their bodies into shields.
“As a white person we are here to listen and use our bodies to protect and shield black and Hispanic people,” said Danielle Reichman, 33. “I’ve seen more white people deciding to use their privilege like that.”
Despite initiatives such as decriminalizing minor offenses, Adler said he was under no illusions about the festering racial issues inside the Austin Police Department. Last year, city manager Spencer Cronk launched an investigation into the department after allegations surfaced that an assistant chief repeatedly referred to President Barack Obama and a longtime black city councilwoman using the n-word.
Though a final report found no evidence of the alleged offenses in text messages, the findings led some city council members to call for a radical shift in the department’s culture. City leaders decided to delay the start of the department’s newest cadet class to make changes to curriculum related to race, mental health and de-escalation tactics.
The idea, Adler said, was to create a curriculum that ensured officers would behave more like “community protectors” than “warriors.”
That conversation was ongoing, Adler said, when Floyd was killed and Austin police – like departments all across the country – found themselves in riot gear, facing off with thousands of angry protesters.
“I think this is still a pretty magical place, a city of innovators and early-adopters that on so many levels each day is doing things right,” Adler said. “I look at our city and think we are a progressive place, but like the other cities around the country this moment has revealed we have a long way to go.”