A Groovy Kind of Love
City, Community Reach Accord on Race Issue
And you thought brokering peace between the developers and the environmentalists was a neat trick. For an encore, Mayor Kirk Watson is undertaking nothing less than the pursuit of racial reconciliation in Austin. It would take a city government on a serious winning streak to pull off a deal like the recent Cedar Avenue agreement, and this mayor and council certainly seem to have that going for them. The rancor that characterized last year's bruising annexation fights seems as far from the council these days as the East is from the West. In fact, things have been so cozy lately that a new observer at city hall might just begin to believe that in Austin, there is no good objective that can't be accomplished through a little creativity and a lot of teamwork. The "Initiative Designed to Promote Community Reconciliation," as it was billed on the council agenda, has two major objectives: More accountability for the Austin Police Department, and investment in the youth of Central East Austin. Intended to prevent the return of a lawsuit alleging that police used excessive force in responding to an altercation at a 1995 Valentine's Day party on Cedar Avenue, the agreement saw most of the plaintiffs in the original case (in which U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks ordered a retrial because his bailiff had used racial slurs in front of jurors) drop their suit after a marathon of negotiations with the city. The lawsuit, however, may live on: Two of the original plaintiffs dropped out of the negotiations with the city before the agreement was signed; their case is proceeding to trial and may be heard as soon as September.
The holdouts notwithstanding, most of the community affected by the Cedar Avenue incident, including the Austin Police Department, turned out Thursday to support the agreement, and the council's efforts to resolve the matter. The crowd that filled council chambers, and spilled out onto Second Street, seemed to be all about harmony, with hand-shaking and back-slapping aplenty among parties who have previously shared less friendly, if not less familiar, forms of contact. An added constituency was there to share their joy: The accord was witnessed by a hundred or so greenspace-saving types (who, by the way, bore a strong resemblance to the Save Triangle Park crowd that had assembled in the same spot just weeks before) who had come down to support the inclusion in the September bond package of $45 million for destination parks and greenways. And as the destination parks issue has been framed largely as a movement toward equity in the parks system for the Eastside, which the city has notoriously underfunded in its attempts to buy up environmentally sensitive land to the south and west, there was a groovy synergy happening between the two groups and their goals.
"We were looking for some way to turn a negative into a positive," said Councilmember Daryl Slusher. "The city had already won the trial, and we were confident that we would win again and the police were not at fault. But everyone would like to avoid a second trial." In lieu of any settlement they might or might not have received from a new trial, the plaintiffs accepted a contribution from the city to their community and their peers, in the form of funding for the First Step Community Project. City officials said the project is unique among Texas and, as far as they know, American cities. Maybe that's because goals on the magnitude of racial reconciliation are rarely undertaken by cities - such issues normally fall under the purview of national politicians. Indeed, his speech after the agreement's signing found Watson at his most Clintonesque. He spoke of lessons learned and personal transformations, praised the influence of the clergy in the process, and issued a general call for "repentance and renewal." Such renewal and repentance are sure to be prominent on the agenda in early December, when the city will host Ploughshares International, an organization with experience in helping cities achieve racial reconciliation, in an effort to help the healing process along.
Is this latest high point in the ongoing city-hall-love-fest too good to be true? Will its impact fade, like that of so many CNN-broadcasted Town Hall meetings on race? The answer to these questions, as is often the case, is maybe. On one hand, the agreement represents a real commitment by city leadership to addressing the city's toughest problems - issues bigger even than how to attract urban infill to the desired development zone. After all, though he is himself a lawyer and skilled mediator, Watson could easily have let the legal system handle this complex, and politically loaded, issue. And he could not have pulled off the accord without the rest of the city's leadership, among whom he spread credit for the accord liberally (especially to Slusher, who came up with the idea for funding student scholarships).
The details of the plan suggest that it's really meant to bring change. First, it institutes two objective measures that could increase police accountability to, and therefore credibility with, a mistrustful community: A pilot program will install video cameras in 30 APD patrol cars by January 1, and an annual reporting program will provide a catalog and demographic breakdown of complaints made against police officers. Then there's the First Step Community Project, in which a board, including state employee/media consultant Roxanne Evans, the Rev. George Clark, and the Rev. Joseph Parker, will administer a combination of grants, counseling and therapy, job training, and scholarships for Eastside youth affected by crime and other traumatic events. The scholarship portion of the program will be modeled on the state's Texas Tomorrow Scholarship Fund, in which business and nonprofit groups purchase prepaid college tuition scholarships for students meeting an established set of standards. The council will fund the project in the amount of $410,000 this year and $300,000 the next; future funding will be at the discretion of future councils.
Even with two-year funding, widespread goodwill, and a name like the Initiative Designed to Promote Community Reconciliation, however, the council's latest endeavor faces a hard road ahead. Things tend to be more complicated in the farther corners of the city than they are in the epicenter of good will that our City Council chambers has become. And the First Step agreement is structured such that it will not be funded after next year, except by the benevolence of future councils, businesses, or philanthropists.
But even if the initiatives established by the agreement fail, the dividends it has already produced for the community are real. The best examples of its success are the young plaintiffs in the case, who have been transformed by a chance event into neighborhood activists and seasoned negotiators. Though it was a little disconcerting to see the kids after the meeting, hemmed in by a tight ellipse of handlers and media microphones, they conducted themselves with the maturity and gravity of people who had learned a lot in a short period of time. In praising the plaintiffs and their conduct during the negotiations, Watson said the youths gained more from the process than just an end to the Cedar Avenue ordeal: "They've learned they can be part of something bigger than themselves," Watson said. "That's something some people never learn."
This Week in Council: This week's work session and council meeting have been canceled, as the council gears up for an all-day work session Wednesday, August 5 to both hammer out the city budget, and assemble the final roster for the September bond election.