Million Man Mayhem

A Day Of Atonement Turns Into Protest

illustration by Doug Potter

If former Councilmember Eric Mitchell had his way, he would still be controlling the council dais. That's not to say he would necessarily be having more fun, or celebrating greater success in rallying his loyal constituents than he is from the private sector. But if last Thursday's council meeting is any indication, Mitchell has not quite had his fill of city politics.

Just after three o'clock, as Mayor Kirk Watson was preparing to recess the meeting, Mitchell and his entourage blew into chambers. Cutting Watson off just as the mayor was calling a recess, Mitchell stormed up to the microphone. "Before the city council leaves the dais," he began, taking the entire chamber by surprise. "The only reason I'm showing my face is because these kids asked me to," said Mitchell, referring to a dozen prepubescent visitors to chambers from the city-funded East Side Story after-school program. However, East Side Story leader Larry Jackson later explained that the group was in chambers to ask for help with finding transportation for the group. They unwittingly made a fine backdrop for Mitchell's purposes.

Mitchell was surrounded by his usual backers: Reverend Frank Garrett and city employee Dorothy Turner were there along with Mitchell's Nation of Islam pals and two dozen loud and angry supporters. The entire crew was fresh from the National Day of Atonement observance on the steps of the state Capitol, where Nation of Islam leader Malik Zulu Shabazz was set to speak. The day was meant to be a peaceful call for reflection on the anniversary of 1995's Million Man March on Washington, D.C.; however, Shabazz and Co. were furious that, due to what Shabazz described as suspicious airline delays, he had arrived in Austin too late to speak. Shabazz stood quietly behind Mitchell, while the former councilmember called for action to be taken on one of his pet projects, the Central City Entertainment Center (CCEC).

Just before losing his council seat to Lewis in May, Mitchell treated the then-council to not one, but two similarly enraged displays over the construction of the CCEC at 1156 Hargrave. The proposed center, which has been on the city's drawing board since Mitchell's predecessor Dr. Charles Urdy proposed it five years ago, would bring a city-run movie theatre, skating rink, bowling alley and food court to an impoverished central East Austin neighborhood which enjoys little in the way of private investment into entertainment. Critics say that the $8 million center, as its design stands now, will be little more than a money-losing city-operated cinema with scant benefits to the public. Supporters are quick to point out the need for such businesses in the area as a deterrent to high rates of crime. Although the opening date -- December 1998 -- has not changed, the wheels of federal funding have turned slowly, constantly rankling Mitchell. In the latest of a string of delays, bid packages for the building's exterior came in $1.5 million over budget and the entire building -- interior and exterior -- will soon go out for a rebid. If the new bids also come in over budget, Assistant City Manager Marcia Conner, who oversees the project, says it is unlikely the city will go through the slow process of finding additional federal funds. "At that point, I don't know what option we would have except to eliminate some potential venues [i.e., the cinema or skating rink]," she says.

Angry about the delays and pumped with atonement, Mitchell showed up knowing that the CCEC was on Thursday's agenda, although the precise subject of his ire was a little fuzzy. The council had already taken action on two items regarding the Central City Entertainment Center that day, but they were matters of small consequence. One was a proposal from the CCEC Advisory board to rename the center "Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex." Councilmember Willie Lewis pointed out that the proposal had not been approved by the Parks and Recreation board, which oversees the project, and the item was delayed until it meets with parks board approval. The other item, which was set for a "time certain" of 2:30pm and had already passed with unanimous council approval, was an ordinance reserving a seat in perpetuity for the late board member Juan Cotera, who was murdered in June. Considering that everything from the building's design to its cost is currently up in the air, the items can hardly be seen as slowing down the process of construction. Nevertheless, Mitchell was furious.

"Councilmember Mitchell," interrupted Watson, attempting to negotiate. "No, I'm just Eric now," Mitchell shot back. The mayor already looked exasperated and several councilmembers were out of their seats and headed to the back room, trying to snub Mitchell out of chambers. "This was set for a time certain and we didn't have anybody signed up to speak on this item," Watson said. Mitchell was not to be daunted by mere rules or cold shoulders, however. "If anyone knows the process, I do," he said. "We are here, you are here, this is now, and they are wanting to address this issue."

Mitchell wanted Watson to agree to hear N.O.O.K., a rap artist who has spoken to council several times on the need for the CCEC. And for a minute, it looked like Watson was about to give in, but Mitchell wasn't to be appeased.

"We'd like to have an opportunity to speak if it takes five minutes, if it takes ten minutes, if it takes fifteen minutes," said Mitchell, insisting that the mayor could do whatever he pleased. "I have sat here and listened to the rules change minute by minute," Mitchell shouted.

The mayor looked almost whipped. "How long do we need and what can we do?" he asked Mitchell, but the answer came from the audience. "Till we get what we demand!" screamed one of Mitchell's followers. "I think it's called civil disobedience," Mitchell offered slyly. The mayor, who did not seem to want a civics lesson, shrugged his shoulders and recessed the meeting.

What came next was definitely not pretty. "This is something y'all promised to do five years ago," said the always cool-headed N.O.O.K. into the microphone opposite Mitchell.

The councilmembers had already cleared off the dais, but the angry crowd was only emboldened by their absence. Lewis exited last to calls of "sellout" from the crowd. "Go in the back with the rest of Uncle Toms!" said one protester.

"We done compromised for 500 years, shit!" said another.

By this time the chambers was in utter chaos. News reporters with notepads and microphones were pushing through clumps of yelling protesters, gleaning juicy soundbites. A woman named Robin Harven began a chant of "We want to speak, now!" and then, out came Lewis again to speak to the protesters.

Immediately, Lewis was surrounded. One man, James Brown, was spitting mad, calling Lewis every name in the book and clearly trying to incite a physical confrontation before one of the Nation of Islam leaders bee-lined across the room to break it up. All the while, Shabazz stood calmly off to the side of the insanity, still kvetching over his flight's delay. "It seemed very unusual and suspicious to me," he said.

"You're a sad excuse for a black man," Turner's stepson Michael Lofton said to Lewis, just as the councilmember was deciding to give in to his aide's attempts to pull him out of chambers. Apparently, Lewis was already running late for a flight to El Paso for a fact-finding mission on community policing.

Thus ended round one, and several of the protesters along with Shabazz left the chambers. After shaking hands with Shabazz, Brown explained his motivations for challenging Lewis. "Mr. Lewis need to learn to rectify himself. He need to stand up for his own people. He's against everything that Eric Mitchell is trying to start for us. Mr. Mitchell is my king and he's my real role model," Brown explained.

Later, Lewis said the epithets didn't bother him much. "I was around when it was legal for white people to call you names and there was nothing you could do about it," he said. "It's not that I'm immune to it, but you just consider the source and go on."

Outside, Councilmember Bill Spelman tugged on what looked to be a much-needed cigarette and explained that the mayor and Councilmembers Beverly Griffith and Daryl Slusher were holed up in back-room negotiations with Garrett. (Watson later clarified, "It wasn't a negotiation, it was an explanation that it [the CCEC] was going to be on the agenda in two weeks.") Watson emerged from the session with Garrett to announce the rescheduling to the still-dissatisfied crowd.

"You know what I'd like to see in two weeks? I'd like to see some bulldozers down there laying a foundation," shouted Brown. The mayor exited without rebuttal and the crowd began to mill around, looking ready to disperse.

Then Garrett decided to call his forces into a private meeting, and at his beckoning, they all followed him out of the chambers' back doors. When Garrett found this reporter following close on his heels, he demanded privacy. "We will bring our wrath down upon you!" Garrett threatened, ordering a large woman to block access to his impromptu meeting, which was held where two doors allow a closed space in a hallway.

Glass panels in the doors allowed this reporter to catch a glimpse of Lofton covering the security cameras and to witness the entrance of the conspicuously absent Jennifer Muhammad onto the scene. Muhammad is the council-appointed co-chair of the CCEC Advisory board and is always the first in line to speak when the issue is raised. It is not hard to imagine why a council-appointed representative would want to stay above the fray of such a protest, but behind closed doors it looked to be another story. According to Turner, it was Muhammad who began circulating talk about the CCEC's delays during the atonement rally. Muhammad, Mitchell, and Garrett refused to comment for this story.

"I can tell you, the bottom line is they don't plan to build it," said Mitchell to the loosely assembled group as some members began covering the door glass with Million Man March T-shirts. After approximately 15 minutes, City Manager Jesus Garza arrived, unaware that the group had holed up in the building. After knocking politely, he simply opened the door. "Oh, here's my city manager!" came the immediate and over-polite exclamation from Turner, who works under Garza in the city's parks and rec department.

Finally, the protesters did begin to break up, leaving a choice few discussing the afternoon on the sidewalk in front of chambers. "We're tired of being pushed to the back," N.O.O.K. explained. "They've got the money and they've got the connections to get it built. Now let's get it built. What other alternative do we have but to come down here and demand to be heard? Until they deal with us equally, they're gonna have a lot to deal with spiritually."

Never at a loss for words, Turner was busy grousing with her sidekick Velma Roberts about the need for the center. "Black people want to be with black people, just like you all wanna be with you all people," she said. When it was pointed out that the center will be for all area residents, many of whom are Hispanic and Anglo, Turner didn't balk. "[African Americans] come over to [East Austin] to find someone to relate to," she replied.

There was at least one East Austinite celebrating a victory that day: Community activist Ron Davis of the East Austin Strategy Team, which has been working for the reconstruction of an Eastside branch of Austin Community College for eight years. Just after the angry protesters exited chambers, Davis -- who challenged Mitchell in the 1994 election and is on the outs with Mitchell's followers -- cleared the final hurdle to start construction on the college by securing a rezoning of the land at the Thursday meeting.

"There are several people that are here that worked with me on that project," said Davis, mentioning Turner and Roberts. Nevertheless, while dozens of Eastside residents went home angry at the slow progress of the entertainment center, Davis celebrated his victory on the Eastside educational facility alone.

This Week in Council: More annexation fireworks when Circle C and Davenport Ranch come up for discussion, plus a hearing on annexation for current Austin residents. SCIP II and SB1704 are also back on the agenda this week.

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