Officially, it never mattered whether Antonio Buehler was qualified to hold a seat on the city’s Public Safety Commission – just that he didn’t live inside the town.
The controversial police accountability activist – who, along with the other members of the Peaceful Streets Project, an organization he co-founded, has spent the past three-and-a-half years embroiled in a very public standoff with the Austin Police Department and those he believes to be blind supporters of the force – learned at the beginning of this Thursday’s City Council meeting that his current residence would preclude him from serving on the city commission. Council voted five to three (Mayor Steve Adler, CMs Ora Houston, Delia Garza, Pio Renteria, and Ann Kitchen against; CMs Greg Casar, Don Zimmerman, and Ellen Troxclair for; CM Leslie Pool and MPT Kathie Tovo abstaining; CM Sheri Gallo absent) against extending Buehler a residential waiver, which ultimately meant that those on the dais would not need to consider his nomination on the merits.
Zimmerman announced his selection of Buehler on April 30, which gave the 37-year-old’s supporters and detractors plenty to debate over that weekend. By this Thursday, when Council met to consider eligibility for certain waivers, the Austin Police Association had prepared 10 minutes of multimedia testimony lobbying against the longtime thorn in their side.
The presentation put Buehler (and the 11 who spoke in support of him) on the defensive immediately, and ended up hijacking the morning’s discussion. Buehler declared each of APA President Ken Casaday’s statements and accusations to be “dishonest, disingenuous, lacking serious context, or an outright lie,” and retreated into counterattack. He asked if Austinites actually wanted people “who aren’t going to question the Austin Police Department” and accused the commission – which had no say in regard to his appointment – of being unconcerned with police accountability. Buehler’s supporters alternated between slinging mud at APD and speaking to his qualifications, expressing a few sentiments in between that suggested Buehler’s harsh words and actions in response to police brutality and APD activity are undermining the power of his actual points.
Buehler would have been better served wheeling in a projector and re-airing the five-minute testimony he gave in support of police body cameras at an April 28 meeting of the Public Safety Committee (see “Body Cameras for Police, but When?” April 28). There, he spoke eloquently and with tact about the need for the implementation of body camera technology to drive actual change with regard to police accountability, and laid out four reasonable, well-considered safeguards to ensure that body cameras have potentially negative consequences. His past issues with APD were just that – the past, a reference point for progress – and he spoke not as a man nursing a vendetta against the cops in the years since his first arrest, but as one who spent that time researching, learning, and considering all the problems that might arise with police officers in the field having one more tool which which to control the narrative.
Instead, on Thursday, his past actions – including his fondness for calling cops pigs and his reportedly inadvertent publication of one officer's home address on social media – ended up getting in the way. Even Adler admitted as much. “I think that Mr. Buehler is an important voice in this community,” he said. “I think that the positions he takes are voices and sentiments that need to be heard and discussed, and they need a place in the commerce of our ideas and discussions. I don’t think that’s the same question we’re being asked to consider that today. The question being asked today is whether or not that person makes for an appropriate nominee to a board or commission. I see those two functions as being not always in concert with one another. Someone who’s being appointed to a board or commission should not only come with views and ideas but also be able to demonstrate a pattern of conduct that is conducive to being a constructive participant on a volunteer board with other volunteers from the community.” Adler concluded that Buehler had a “pattern of prior conduct” that marked him unqualified for the position, and moved to deny allowing him a waiver. The actual question – whether his residence just outside the city limits should preclude him from being eligible for a committee – was only briefly considered through the 70-minute discussion. Casar, who had said that he would prefer to grant the waiver and have a full discussion of Buehler's qualifications, told the Chronicle that talking about Buehler's credentials "would have been a clearer vote for the public."
Speaking Friday, Buehler told the Chronicle that “didn’t lose any sleep” over the denial, that he was “never fixated on being on the commission.” “When it was floated, I thought it would be a good opportunity for me to add some serious questions,” he said. He conceded that it’s unlikely he and the APA will ever sit down at the table and be agreeable, and believes that the decision to not grant him a waiver only “reaffirms the point that we’ve been trying to drive home: These cops are unaccountable, and the politicians are fine with that.”
Not everybody is, however, and Buehler’s absence on the Public Safety Commission moving forward will speak volumes to their plight. Through various means, Buehler has become a significant ringleader for an Austin population that feels abused, threatened, otherwise neglected by local police, and his confident personality and willingness to confront any authority he believes has crossed him (or his supporters) has given a voice to those previously rendered voiceless. The most common refrain from Buehler’s 11 advocates at Council last Thursday wasn’t that he was the ideal, perfect choice, but that they believed his voice was important even if they didn’t always agree with the way he chose to say it.
“The amount of rage and frustration; when you’re dealing with people like the police, I get his anger,” said Isla Waters, a victim of a SWAT raid five years ago in Nashville who’s since moved to Austin, and who lobbied in support of Buehler’s nomination. “I get his frustration. I get the name calling and the language. But it’s not serving him well. I can only say that because my brother told me the same thing.
“I so get where he’s coming from, but I hope he can have a revelation like I did. All the good he has the ability to do is getting muddled.”
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