Flinging the R-Word

Angry Crowd Calls Council and Enviros Racists

Everyone agrees on at least one thing: Last week's council meeting was the most inflammatory display of community venom in recent memory. After being cut short on April 24, the Eric Mitchell-sponsored public hearing on the Central City Entertainment Center (CCEC) rolled back into council chambers this week like a tornado, ripping apart everything in its path. Dead center in the scopes Thursday evening was the environmental community and its de facto leader, Daryl Slusher, who, apparently, are responsible for everything from poverty in East Austin to the recent rains.

The CCEC is slated for construction on Rosewood Avenue in the heart of one of East Austin's most blighted and crime-ridden neighborhoods. As planned, it will house a bowling alley, movie theater, food court, and skating rink -- all facilities which cannot now be found anywhere east of the highway. By all accounts the project promises to be a money pit for the city, sucking federal funding away from other worthy projects for decades to come. Ideally, such entertainment-oriented development should be privately financed, as it would be anywhere else in the city, but no developer in his or her right mind is going to plop a $9 million fun house in the middle of a troubled neighborhood. Nobody but the city, that is.

"We're not doing this as an investment to make money. It's an investment to improve a community," points out Gus Garcia, who acknowledges that at best, the CCEC will pay for its own operations, though it will never be able to pay off its own debt. Not only does the project promise to be a financial lemon, but it has also been delayed years while awaiting federal funding, contract negotiations, and action from city staff. In other words, beyond voting to approve it, the city council has had very little control over the project's progress. Not that anyone was piping up during the meeting to point that fact out. "The council is not at fault, but if you had said that last Thursday you wouldn't have made it to the door," says Garcia.

Opening the hearing was that most illustrious of civil servants, Dorothy Turner, Mitchell's right fist in the campaign of rumor and innuendo against his current opponent in the Place 6 race, Willie Lewis. Rather than address the entertainment center issue, which was supposed to be the subject of the hearing, Turner launched headlong into electioneering, blasting the Lewis campaign commercial that consultant Dean Rindy and other progressives engineered during the last week before the May 3 election. "The most blatant racist thing I've seen in a long time is this ad those white boys put together. On the one side [Mitchell] is a lazy black man and on the other side he's a poverty pimp," screeched Turner. The ad pointed out Mitchell's documented absences from the dais, and then noted his presence for a vote on a city contract that benefited his insurance company. Like at least half of the speakers that night, Turner failed to mention the CCEC at all, and unabashedly belted out campaign sloganeering to the dozens of applauding people wearing "Let's Reelect Eric Mitchell" t-shirts in the crowd.

Turner definitely hit a nerve, though, with an audience who had already been primed for fury after being pushed off the agenda at the April 24 meeting. At that meeting, in what in hindsight could only be described as a blunder, Councilmember Slusher pushed forward a scheduled Save Our Springs (S.O.S.) presentation on Barton Creek's water quality. That decision meant that while an hour-long film on the Springs droned on, dozens of primarily African American Eastside residents who had rearranged their schedules in order to make the meeting were forced to sit and wait, only to eventually get pushed off the schedule altogether. The message the hopping mad crowd gleaned from that experience, and which they've always suspected, is that city leaders prioritize water above people -- especially above Eastside people of color. The dumb S.O.S. filmstrip move only added fuel to the anti-Lewis fire, since it's that candidate who is favored by the evil environmental empire. "We don't want anybody picking our black leader. Right off the top we know these environmental groups have put somebody up there who won't do anything for East Austin," grumbled Michael Loftis.

"The recent council voted to help the salamander, but what about dying black children?" asked local Nation of Islam leader Cedric Muhammed, who said he came on behalf of the Rev. Louis Farrakhan. "The day after Bruce Todd swept us under the carpet [April 24], it rained like cats and dogs. If you keep playing with us, God is going to see," Muhammed predicted ominously. (For the record, it did rain buckets last Friday.)

"My child is more than a bird, more than a salamander, and more than a spring," screamed Jennifer Muhammed at the councilmembers, who looked like they were trying to astrally project out of the meeting by that point.

Then, with Turner's incessant "jump on it, jump on it" egging on the crowd, the meeting took an ugly turn as speakers began to lay into Slusher personally. "I know you don't care, you've made that very clear," shouted Robert Hardman only two feet away from Slusher's face. "How do you sleep, morally, with yourself?"

Finally, Garcia broke in, asking the speaker to address the entire council. That edict did not stop the Rev. Frank Garrett from rolling in, strategically as the last speaker, to vilify everyone in his sights. "I want to be on the ghetto end, not the racist end," he said, strolling past the podium in front of Slusher in favor of the Mitchell-side microphone. Garrett then began picking off the white councilmembers like the sitting ducks that they were. After baiting Beverly Griffith and Jackie Goodman, he went in for the kill. "Daryl, you're hopeless and we're coming after you," Garrett said. "You have smiled and you have lied and you have used the most desperate tactics to go out and replace a Nat Turner with an Uncle Tom."

Slusher responds that he has had nothing to do with the Lewis campaign, and Lewis himself says that no one recruited him to run to represent the part of town in which he lives. Slusher says that it's the opposition he has voiced to the CCEC which has made him a target, but that he won't change his sober, numbers-crunching tactics. For one thing, he says he is not worried about his support base in East Austin just yet. He points out that he overwhelmingly carried East Austin in the 1996 election, and seems to have faith that logic will prevail over frenzied sentiment. "I just don't think we have had an honest dialogue about the Entertainment Center. Since before I was on council it's been `Do this or you're racist.' But it's going to take away from other programs -- job training, drug programs, housing programs. Is this what we want to be doing with our limited federal funds?" asks Slusher. "I guess it is an unpopular position in a lot of quarters, but I ask questions about everything. I think that's my job."

Garcia observes that the environmentalists of Austin have had a historical conflict with minorities in general. "It should be a natural alliance, but it's not," he notes. Even East Austin residents who support Slusher and S.O.S. agree that environmental concerns are not a priority in East Austin. "There are things over here in East Austin that people just consider to be more basic," says Slusher supporter Portia Watson, a former Austin Revitalization Authority board member who has lived in East Austin all her life. Watson blames Councilmember Mitchell for the current anti-environmentalist climate. "There's never been this kind of antagonism until Eric Mitchell. He started it and he's nursed it, because if he gets people stirred up they can't see that nothing's gotten done over here," Watson says.

According to Watson, Slusher is actually the most proactive councilmember when it comes to East Austin's issues. She complains that after trying to schedule a meeting for months with Mitchell on public safety along 11th and 12th streets, it was Slusher who finally convened a neighborhood discussion on the need for community policing, and followed it up by sponsoring the March 27 hearing in East Austin on public safety. With the election heating up, Mitchell took up the banner of public safety and community policing in East Austin as his own, but you wouldn't know it to look at his voting record. Not only did he vote against the public hearing in March, but he and co-sponsor Ronney Reynolds voted against their own proposal for community policing at this week's meeting, because of changes made by Slusher. Mitchell wanted the city manager to fund the program by any means necessary, including raiding the budgets of other city departments, but Slusher ensured that the money would have to come solely from the police.

What does Mitchell have to say about Watson's comments? Phone calls to his office by the Chronicle garnered the standard non-response.

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